Week of May 1, 2020

50th Anniversary of Hunter S. Thompson’s Kentucky Derby story and the birth of Gonzo 

To a fat whack of our generation, Hunter S. Thompson is the guy Johnny Depp portrays in a movie. Thompson was a very real guy, and – in a way – he invented the style of journalism that is the grandfather of blogs everywhere. Don’t let the drugs, then guns, and the celebrities fool you; Thompson is a literary giant when it comes to journalism. By accident or otherwise, and his story about the Kentucky Derby was the beginning of ‘gonzo’ as we’ve come to know it.  

If you were looking for a story on the actual race, well this ain’t it, boys and girls. Thos ain’t about the results; this is a story about everything surrounding the race, which is to say everything that actually matters at a sporting event. 

Per Bill Shea: 

A sample: “… the clubhouse bars on Derby Day are a very special kind of scene. Along with the politicians, society belles and local captains of commerce, every half-mad dingbat who ever had any pretensions to anything at all within five hundred miles of Louisville will show up there to get strutting drunk and slap a lot of backs and generally make himself obvious.”

Later, Thompson on how the style came to be: 

“It was one of those horrible deadline scrambles and I ran out of time. I was desperate. Ralph Steadman had done the illustrations, the cover was printed and there was this horrible hole in the magazine. I was convinced I was finished, I’d blown my mind, couldn’t work. So finally I just started jerking pages out of my notebook and numbering them and sending them to the printer. I was sure it was the last article I was ever going to do for anybody,” Thompson said. “Then when it came out, there were massive numbers of letters, phone calls, congratulations, people calling it a ‘great breakthrough in journalism.’ And I thought, ‘Holy shit, if I can write like this and get away with it, why should I keep trying to write like the New York Times?’ It was like falling down an elevator shaft and landing in a pool full of mermaids.”

And that’s what the profile became: An indictment of sports celebrity endorsement culture, blending whatever insight Thompson could glean from this young French cipher with his own observations. The reader gets a feel for Thompson’s frustrations in trying to interview, report and write a traditional narrative feature profile.

As it pertains to Thompson, the man. I mean, how in the actual hell did he become the voice of a counterculture, pretenders and otherwise: 

Other than a few classes, the auto-didactic Thompson didn’t attend college. A short stint in jail at the end of high school led to a brief Air Force enlistment, where he ended up as sports editor of a base newspaper in Florida. He taught himself newspaper journalism’s basics from library books.

“When he was stuck in the Air Force and miserable that they weren’t going to make him a pilot, he gravitated to the newspaper job. This would be as close as he could be to being a civilian and still be in the military,” McKeen said. “He learned the jargon from a book.”

Thompson also moonlighted as a civilian sports columnist and a pro wrestling promoter while writing for the Air Force (which included an expose on current or future NFL stars such as Bart Starr getting preferential treatment while on military service teams).

After that, he held a series of jobs at small newspapers, ending up in Puerto Rico to write about bowling alleys at one point, where he started a novel that wouldn’t be published for almost 40 years. Thompson spent about a year in South America writing about local politics and culture for the since-defunct National Observer, a gig that earned him praise within the industry and a wider audience.

And, if you really want a treat, then go ahead and read Thompson’s original Derby story here. – PAL 

Source: “An Inside Look at How Sports Shaped Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘Gonzo’ Journalism”, Bill Shea, The Athletic (04/29/20)

TOB: I read Thompson’s original Kentucky Derby when Grantland (RIP!) published it in full back in 2013. I can’t wait to read it again.


What It’s Like: Caddieing a PGA Tour Event

I could do that! There aren’t many roles in professional sports that us regulars watch and can honestly think, I could do that, but caddieing a professional golf tournament seems like it would be near the top of the list. And what an odd role. Part navigator, part assistant. A one-man entourage. Guitar tech of the sports world. Such a strange way to make a life. 

I could do that. Maybe. Daniel Rapaport did it, and his story is a great Saturday AM read and a fun break from the 24/7 pandemic news cycle. Rapaport met PGA Tour player Matthew Fitzgerald in 2013. They were both freshmen at Northwestern. Rapaport was hoping he’d claim a spot on the golf team as a walk-on. Fitzgerald, U.S. Amatuer champ, left school after one semester to prepare for The Masters. Since then, Rapaport earned his stripes as a sportswriter while Fitzgerald slowly made his way up the various tours until earning his PGA card in 2018. They grew closer, especially when Fitzgerald would crash at Rapaport’s parent’s place in L.A. when he was in the area for tournaments. 

Rapaport had floated the idea of caddieing long ago, and – after a couple near misses – he got his chance at the legendary Pebble Beach Pro Am. That’s when this story starts to get really interesting. The amount of data that each player and caddie have to process in each shot is pretty incredible. Let’s just say the scorecard clipped to your cart and the books these dudes get aren’t very similar. The practice rounds (which sound like absolute heaven on a golf course) weren’t just for ‘Fitzy’ – Rapaport needed some reps, too. 

My first order of business was figuring out how we’d calculate yardages. There’s a surprising amount of math involved. It’s not difficult math, but there’s a lot of it, and it needs to be done quickly and correctly. The process starts with the tee shot. The tour yardage book gives you a number to every sprinkler head, as well as how many yards uphill or downhill it is. But the yardage is given from the back of whatever tee the person who made the book thinks will be used, so you have to pace off how far the markers are from the back of the box. If they’re using another tee box, that’s another layer.

The more crucial calculations come with the approach shot. The book will list every sprinkler head out there, and the sprinkler heads show a number to the middle of the green. But pros aren’t concerned with this yardage. So you find the nearest sprinkler—say, in this case, it reads 140—and check the book. The book tells you that from the 140 sprinkler, it’s 124 yards to the front, and it will also list the slope. Say it’s six yards uphill—it’s playing 130 to the front edge. You then consult the daily pin sheet, which tells you how many paces on the green the flag is. Say it’s 14 paces on. Now we’re at 144 to the flag. But we’re not trying to land it at the flag. Say we want the ball to pitch four paces short. Now we’re back to 140. On to the wind. Say it’s a bit into the fan. Matt thinks it’s playing five yards more. Now we’re at our number: 145. Last calculation: a start line and a finish line. Then, finally, it’s go time. All that in less than 30 seconds.

I thought I had the hang of it all until we reached the ninth hole, an uphill par 4 that turns slightly right. Matt hit his drive in the middle of the fairway—it’s hard to overstate just how straight Fitzy hits it—and asks me, and me alone, to get the yardage. A test! I ran through the numbers quickly and confidently. I communicated to him that it was playing 158 with a hair of wind in the face, a perfect 8-iron. After he struck the approach, it was clear the ball needed to sit—quickly. Get. Down. Now.It didn’t, and it pitched on the back edge of the green, a solid 15 yards past the pin. He then gave me The Look. Every caddie knows The Look. It’s when your player stares at you piercingly, and you both know that you have just screwed up massively, and someone better just say something already. I looked back down at the pin sheet, and sure as hell, I was looking at the eighth hole, not the ninth.

Love the payoff there. The other big take-away Rapaport left with (aside from eating italian every night because, well, the boss likes italian food), was the mental exhaustion. These caddies aren’t hitting the shots, but they are living and dying on every shot. While their cut isn’t nearly as big as the players, they are winning and losing a lot of money with every shot to which they inform. 

Players always talk about how “mentally tired” they are after a tournament, but I never understood what they meant. I do now. This was the most emotionally invested I’ve been in anything since high school sports. I was nervous as hell on the first tee every morning. I lived and died with every birdie putt. I cringed as he prepared to play a tricky flop shot, and my eyes got huge as I saw an approach fly directly at the flag. I buzzed as we started making birdies, and cursed as we started making bogeys. I was the happiest guy in the world after our Saturday back-nine flourish and virtually inconsolable (just ask my girlfriend) after a bitterly disappointing Sunday.

The story is a bit fat in the front, but a fun read that leaves you with a bit more appreciation for the guy walking next to The Guy. – PAL

Source: I Caddied for a Top-25 Player in the World at a PGA Tour Event. Here’s What It Was Like”, Daniel Rapaport, Yahoo (04/27/20)

TOB: I’m sure Rapaport knows a lot more about golf than I do, but all this told me is that caddying (shouldn’t it be caddying and not caddieing?) is the easiest, most luuuuuux gig there is. It takes very little actual skill – nothing you can’t pick up in 15 minutes. And the reward? The top 50 golfers last year averaged $4.6M in winnings. Rapaport says caddies take 8% (though 10% if it’s a major) – which equates to the average full-time caddy making $368,000 and change. There are 40 weeks a year with a PGA event. I doubt most players play them all. So a caddy makes all that money for 30 or so weeks’ work. Nice gig!

Also, I could not stop laughing at how much he used “we” – “We played the first eight of the final round in even par, which had us creeping up the board on a brutally windy day..when you’re six over for the day through 12 holes, the mind wanders to what could have been done differently: We could have hit 9-iron on 9 instead of wedge, I could have said something different on 10 tee, we could have started that tee shot on 12 more right.” LOLLLLLLLL.


Jordan : Athlete :: King Arthur : Political Leader

Loved this Brian Phillips’ piece on The Last Dance. Thought I’d share it, since I’m pretty sure most of us are watching. Let’s be honest – the Rodman ep was meh, but the stories about the Pistons were so good. 

I love this story because I’d never heard the connection we have to our childhood heroes explained in this way, and as soon as I read it, I thought, Damn; that’s exactly it r

As kids, Phillips’ sister would say that she controlled MJ on the court. Emily wasn’t even a basketball fan, but nonetheless she would tell Brian, “Michael Jordan and I just have a…kind of connection.” It became a bit of a family joke, with their father praising Emily after Jordan made yet another spectacular play (sidenote: my god, the highlights of a young Jordan. I know we’ve seen them before, but his speed, power, grace remain awe-inspiring.)

Phillips explores the truth in their telekinetic joke: 

My sister’s joke about moving MJ around with her mind was only a somewhat exaggerated version of how hordes of basketball fans (and non-basketball fans, and probably fruit flies, though they couldn’t buy Nikes) watched his games in the ’90s. It’s only a somewhat exaggerated version of how we watch great athletes in general—not literally guiding their movements, that is, but somehow participating, hitching an imaginary ride in their bodies. We feel a kind of sympathetic echo of their actions, as if, on some shadow-cellular level, they’re our actions, too.

That lands. I was with Puckett when he tracked Ron Gant’s deep fly in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. I jumped when he jumped, and it all mixes together to the point in which it’s difficult to separate my experience from his. The echo on a cellular level…ain’t that the truth. (And – yep – I know you Giants fans are so beyond over hearing about Puckett, Game 6. Too bad.) 

Phillips goes on to also explain the power of Jordan is the simplicity of his narrative, which is the template of the modern sports narrative (after being ‘cut’ from his high school team, he exceeds every expectation, hits ‘every’ clutch shot, and becomes a billionaire). What’s more, he represents the closest to the ideal that we’ve witnessed.

Like any competitive pursuit, sports have always trafficked in the ideal. Here’s the perfect body; sculpt it. Here’s the perfect victory; write a poem about it in Greek. For the most part, though, the ideal remains an abstract concept. People chase perfection but don’t reach it, as a rule. In America in the 1980s and ’90s, though, we decided that we were going to get to see the ideal—the real thing, the source itself, in the flesh. You could write a thesis, probably, on the historical factors that went into constructing that determination. The point is, Michael Jordan gave it to us. He came so close to actually embodying the ideal athlete—he really did hit the buzzer-beaters, he really did seem to move in a different and more beautiful way than other players, he really did seem to hang for an impossible extra beat in the air—that we were able to believe the ideal athlete existed. He was here. He was ours. He was the perfect fusion of capitalism and destiny. He was a living person, but the way we experienced him, he was a basketball player in approximately the same way as King Arthur was a political leader.

That’s some big thinking. An idea that will stick with you for a weekend. And so, as is the case with many examples of great writing, this story is a long path towards a question: is The Last Dance a refresher of the ideal or an unearthing of the humanity in Mike Jordan? – PAL 

Source: Michael Jordan the Story Versus Michael Jordan the Man”, Brian Phillips, The Ringer (04/27/20)


How One Trade Got Done

From the public standpoint, there are generally two types of blockbuster trade. The first is the long-rumored, makes so much sense trade that gets discussed for weeks or months before it finally gets done. The second is the one that shows up as breaking news, out of nowhere, on the ESPN ticker.

But either version, a trade usually doesn’t come together quickly. There is a lot of negotiation back and forth. I’ve always wondered how it happens, though I’m sure it’s always different. So I really enjoyed this story on the 2013 trade that sent James Shields from the Rays to the Royals for a package of prospects, including the then #1 rated prospect, Wil Myers. Executives from both sides go on the record, 7 years later, and it’s a really interesting read. They discuss how they valued the different players involved, the emotional investment for each, knowing when is the time to push your chips in the middle, and even the exact moment the trigger was pulled. 

Inside Moore’s suite was a dry-erase board covered in ink. Moore had written the names of Kansas City’s top prospects. He made his case to his assistants. He crossed off Myers’ name. He crossed off Odorizzi. He crossed off Montgomery and Leonard. Moore pointed to the unsullied names on the board.

“Do we still have a good system?” he asked. Heads nodded. “If we’re going to compete,” Moore said, “we have to make this deal. I don’t know about you guys. But I’m tired of losing.”

Friedman and Moore reconnected. “The tenor of the conversation changed dramatically,” Friedman said. They were speaking the same language.

The two teams left Nashville without a deal done. Moore still needed to convince his owners to take on the contracts for Shields and Davis. He wanted to escape the bubble of the Winter Meetings and reflect. He wanted to gather himself before taking the plunge.

A couple days later, Moore went to a Christmas party with Picollo and scouting director Lonnie Goldberg. During a lull in conversation, Moore made up his mind. He pulled out his phone.

“Guys, I’m just going to go do this,” he said. “I’m going to call Andrew right now.”

It’s also interesting to read, 7 years later, because I don’t think this deal gets done now. Myers was the #1 rated prospect. Now, he’s a goddamn Giants-killer, but overall he was disappointing for the Rays, and has been just ok for the Padres. But he was The Next Big Thing, and he was traded for a 31-year old pitcher, with a lot of innings on his arm, with exactly one All Star Appearance and one season in which he received Cy Young votes, and only two years of team control. He was basically Joe Blanton. Prospects are simply valued much higher now, and there is no way a guy like Shields is enough to get not only the #1 prospect, but a few other highly rated guys, too. Still, a very fun read. -TOB

Source: ‘It Was Time to Win’: Inside the Royals’ Trade for James Shields and Wade Davis,” Andy McCullough, The Athletic (04/22/2020)


Video of the Week: 


Tweet of the Week


Song of the Week: Pink Floyd – ‘Wish You Were Here’


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