Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sports, for me, is a companion; Ivan Lendl; Working on new book – reader suggestions on it are welcome

The other night while I was watching the Cubs—minus Lou Piniella—maul the Nationals—minus Stephen Strasburg—my wife walked in, glanced at the television set and said to me: “Is there ever a day in your life where you say to yourself, ‘I just don’t want anything to do with sports?’

The question was semi-rhetorical but I got the point. Here’s the answer: No. Some might call it an addiction. Others might point out—correctly—that I need to track sports on a daily basis because of my job. But that’s really not it. In fact, in my 20s when I didn’t cover sports, I probably went to more games and watched more games than I do now. (Children are a factor in that too).

Sports, for me and I suspect many others, is a companion. On almost any day, regardless of the time of year, no matter what else might be going on in your life, sports is there. Sometimes just checking scores can provide escape from either the dullness of everyday life or the pressures of everyday life. As I’ve written before, I still vividly remember how happy I was to be able to watch Mets-Brewers highlights on the day of my heart surgery (even though the Mets lost) in part because I was alive to watch them but in part because they were a reminder that there were going to be games to watch during my recovery period at home.

I needed to know that. So perhaps I am addicted.

If so, there can be worse addictions. I don’t gamble on sports; never have and never wanted to. I get emotional about sports but not so much about who wins and who loses but who has a story worth telling. I guess in that sense, given what I do, I am different than a lot of people. That’s not to say I don’t care at all about ‘my,’ teams anymore. I still roll my eyes at the mediocrity of the Mets (not to mention their doctors) and, as history has proven, I can get wound up about Navy football. Army football too, as a matter of fact.

More often though, it is about individuals. That’s why I laugh when others in my business claim to be ‘objective.’ I make no such claims. Those posters who rip me every time I criticize Tiger Woods are right about one thing: I don’t like him. What they’re wrong about is when they speculate that it has something to do with him not talking to me (he doesn’t talk to anyone one-on-one except on TV to promote himself in some way or if he’s being paid—as Golf Digest does—for the time). Tiger has a perfect right not to speak to me. I was the first guy to criticize his dad publicly and he took that personally. As I’ve told him, I get that. What I don’t like about him is the way he treats people—whether it is kids seeking autographs; my colleagues asking reasonable questions or anyone NOT doing something FOR him. (That’s an Earl lesson by the way, do nothing for free).

That said, I almost gagged yesterday when a gossip columnist from The New York Post asked him TWICE if he still loved Elin. First of all, the question is irrelevant. Second, when he clearly ducked it (legitimately) the first time why the hell ask it a second time?

He started out this morning in his first round—first guy on the tee at 7:10 am because of his FedEx Cup ranking—by birdieing four of his first seven holes. That will start the, ‘Tiger’s back,’ stories again. He might very well win this week. Heck, he might even win the FedEx Cup. But it will still be a lost year in his mind because he didn’t win a major.

Anyway, back to individuals I’ve liked and disliked. Tonight, I’m having dinner with Ivan Lendl, who I covered extensively when I was The Washington Post’s tennis writer and when I wrote, ‘Hard Courts,’ back in 1991. I’m starting research on a book that will be keyed to the 25th anniversary of ‘A Season on the Brink,’ and I’m going back to talk to a lot of the people I’ve met along the way who I found either interesting or fun or challenging. The number one test for me in deciding who to track down is simple: How many times have people said to me, ‘so what became of ------.’ (If anyone has ideas or suggestions I’d love to hear them).

That means Chris Spitler, the unofficial hero of, ‘The Last Amateurs,’ will be in the book and so will quite a few players from ‘A Civil War,’—among, I hope, many others.

Lendl certainly qualifies. We had a very combustible relationship. I was very hard on him at times. He had a tendency to lose from ahead in big matches early in his career—particularly against John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. He turned that around completely when he came from two sets down against McEnroe in The French Open final in 1984 (McEnroe got into a fracas with the umpire in the third set and let it get to him) to win. From that point on he became a great competitor in big matches.

We battled often. When George Bush (the first) was pushing as Vice President to waive the five-year waiting period for citizenship so Lendl could play Davis Cup for the U.S. I was very much against it and said (wrote) so. Lendl saw it as a shot—which it really wasn’t, I just didn’t think you pushed aside the law in the name of winning a tennis competition—and we had it out a few times.

One night, after he had won a tight match from Connors in Washington, he was asked about a third set incident in which he had slammed his racquet.

“Well,” he said. “I figure no matter what I do John Feinstein is going to rip me so why not slam my racquet?”

It was a funny line but he wasn’t being funny. Eventually, because Lendl is at heart a good guy, we talked things out, agreed to disagree and, if you read, ‘Hard Courts,’ you can tell he cooperated with me on the book. When I tracked him down (with the help of one of the blog’s regular posters, so who says doing this is a waste of time?) for this book he said: “I just have one question. If you want to write about the most interesting people you’ve met, why are you calling me?”

I look forward to catching up with him tonight. Maybe someday I’ll do the same thing with Tiger. Then again, maybe not.


A brief note to a couple of angry posters: I didn’t rip Tiger for criticizing the greens at The PGA—it was at the U.S. Open. Hard to tell those two events apart I guess. Here’s a quote from that tournament after he called the greens, ‘ridiculous,’ the first day when he failed to make a birdie: “He’s whining. He needs to stop blaming the greens for his failures and go out and play golf.”

Pretty harsh, huh? There I went, Tiger-bashing again, huh? One problem: That line came from Tiger’s good friend Notah Begay. I was sitting next to him when he said it. Yes, other players were frustrated during the week as the greens got worse in dry weather. But they all said the same thing: this is what you get with poa annua greens. That’s what Tom Watson was saying on Sunday talking about how tough they were to putt.

And to the person who posted in regard to my referencing my own mistakes: “Um, the Duke soccer players?” Um, I believe you’re talking about LACROSSE players?


Mr. X said...

Kornheiser's pretty interesting. Is he going to be in your book?

Michael said...

You talk and write about ESPN often. What do you think of another former employer, Sports Illustrated? Do you still read it?

Tony (not Kornheiser) said...


I must admit that Lendl line about you ripping him was indeed pretty funny. Anyway, any chance Knight is in the book? Has retirement calmed him down yet?

Keith said...

John, I'd be interested in knowing where any of the guys from The Last Amateurs or Q School are at. Both groups have individuals who are working their way through life as something other than professional athletes, which I think would be more interesting that many who have succeeded in sports.

Rick T said...

I loved Ivan Lendl.. felt he got a bad wrap because of Pundits like you. I admired his singular focus and his awesome 'ground game'. Not all great athletes are great personalities. You could take lessons from that seeing as your not really 'objective'.

And got Tiger Woods addiction. You write about him like 70 percent of the time now.

At this point it's all pretty redundant. How Ivan Lendl and Tiger Woods are related are kinda beyond me.

Ivan Lendl should be on anyone's top 15 Players in the last 50 years. He's a pretty good Golfer too!

Dominic Finelli said...

John I have enjoyed your comments over the years and I can trully say that you have entertained me. While I may not agree with everything the things about Tiger are true and simply comments. I have read anumber of your books with, A Good Walk Spoiled and A Civil War among my favorites. Any chance you would go back and write about the young men in A Civil War on where they are now and what turned out for them while serving our country.

John Matthew IV said...

You should tell your wife, "Hey honey, we have this nice house because of sports!"

Hustle said...

"There were, as always, some complaints about the golf course—notably the greens, especially after Tiger Woods got finished whining on Thursday"...."What wasn’t better was TIGER, not the greens"...these were what YOU wrote on YOUR blog after the US Open at Pebble Beach, so why all of a sudden are you quoting "Tiger's friend"?? "His whining brings me back to Tom Watson, whose emotional final Open at Pebble is something I will remember for a long, long time"...again, YOUR words on YOUR blog so it's safe to assume that was how YOU felt...correct? I mean, you pretty much said the SAME thing on the golf channel that weekend and got challenged by one of your colleagues (can't remember his name but it wasn't John Hawkins). Look, the bottom line is Tiger was NOT the only person to complain about that course so you either criticize ALL of them or NO ONE. Tom Watson implied the EXACT same thing Tiger did about that course..he simply used different words, that's all. At least you FINALLY admitted you don't like the guy (nothing wrong with're only human). However, in the past whenever Kornheiser asked you about it, you would say Tiger was the one that didn't like you which was crap...the feeling was ALWAYS mutual. The difference is you're a sportswriter which means you shouldn't let personal differences or biases get in the way of reporting the facts. That's the main issue I have with you whenever it comes to all things Tiger...your dislike for him shows EVERY time! During the whole Pavin/Jim Gray debacle, you went on a couple of radio shows and implied that Tiger's people probably called Pavin and told him to back off etc...based on what? You didn't know this for a fact, but you kept repeating this absurd line over and over again. The issue was between Pavin and Gray. Those were the two guys that knew what was said, not Tiger. You just couldn't resist once again trying to make Tiger to be the "bad" guy.

Anonymous said...

While Kieth sounds like the commercial for the NCAA, I too want to hear more about the guys who - because of lack of top level talent or injury or choice or other factors - went on to live a more traditional life. Did they ever find that competitive juice through other means, do they still play rec ball like the rest of us, heck, did they like or regret being the subjects of a book. There are a lot of stories thru those folks, I'd guess.

Scott said...

I think it would be appropriate to finally give the Air Force Academy a fair shake. Lest we forget, as at Army and Navy, there are special folks out there as well for reasons other than football. While it is a nice context that the football team is primed for some special seasons ahead under Coach Calhoun, it might be a good complement to the Army and Navy folks you profile.

Eric said...

Interesting Take on Sports as a companion, I can relate. Interestingly, I have not watched ESPN since "The Deceision" (Yes I am from Cleveland). I did not make "A decision" to boycott ESPN, and I suspect that I will watch again when they have the best game on at that moment. My main point is that I have not missed a sports beat. Between your blog, Tony's Podcast and my newspaper, I am just as informed and entertained as ever, and while I can not prove it yet, I am pretty sure my IQ has risen a few points.

Tom Carroll St Albans School said...

John, what about Kenny Dennard and Jim Spanarkel from the 77-78 Duke team that you wrote about? I remember watching that Duke team play as a basket ball crazed teenager in New Jersey. And "Forever's Team" has always been one of my favorite sports books.

Gunnar said...

John, I expect you have run across all these people, but would love to see follow ups on the following:

Bjorn Borg (I didn't like Lendl)
Greg Norman.
Ray Lewis.
Miles Brand.
Coach K.
Ray Floyd.
Lance Armstrong.
Michael Phelps.
Steve Largent.
JC Watts.
Akeem Olwajuan.

just a few athletes that were always very interesting to me, on field and off.

Take a hard look at Jake Locker the Washington QB this college FB season, special athlete and QB and guy. All the best.

John from Indiana said...

Gonna have to spend the weekend looking over old Feinstein books as I believe I have every non-fiction offering since your winter in this state. The best stories in "A Season Inside" were about the zebras. Joe Forte, Nolan Fine, Hank Nichols were much better interviews than most of the players and coaches. I've always thought a season with those guys would have been a terrific book, rather than the few chapters devoted to them in that book. Oh, I will keep hammering away that you need to write the Dean Smith book. You have to have too much material at hand from previous books and interviews, along with a wealth of former players, assistants, and foes that could more than fill a book with "Dean stories." Get busy....

John Blough said...

I love it. The Sainted Earl makes an appearance!

pulmcrit1 said...

In your next golf book, it would be great if you could devote some chapters to Padraig Harrington, especially on how his life changed when he won the British Open and PGA in the same year, and then the British Open the following year. Also, maybe talk to some other European, Asian, Australian, and South African golfers about the challenges of playing here and at tournaments in their home countries/continents.