I grew up dreaming of getting a 3,000th hit as a big-league baseball player. Because milestones matter. With that dream long expired, I’ll settle for a 500th sports column. Offered a weekly slot on the still-developing Flyer website by my colleague Jackson Baker, I posted the inaugural “From My Seat” on March 14, 2002 (it was a Thursday). My two cents on the proposed mega-fight at the Pyramid between Mike Tyson and heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. (I was dubious about the benefits to the city.) Over the nearly ten years since, I’ve taken Jackson’s valuable advice to heart. When I asked the finest politics writer in these parts the key to writing a weekly column, he offered a concise three words: “Fill the space.”
The blogosphere was still emerging from its embryonic stage in 2002. The Flyer had already established an online presence under the guidance of former editor Dennis Freeland. (My first post actually hit computer screens in October 2000, a plea for concussed Dallas Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman to retire. The future Hall of Famer obviously paid attention.) The rules for content seemed to be stretched, if there were any rules at all. (Thus a Memphis writer could post a column about an NFL quarterback in Texas.) But in terms of measuring rules and restrictions, the new online “pages” were without limit. No more space limitations to consider if a news item — or ball game — inspired. And deadlines weren’t what they were when a press crew awaited plates for applying ink to paper. A new sense of self-motivation was required to create and post content on the same day of the week, one after another.
The pre-“Seat” columns I posted under Dennis were easy. He was a sportswriter, of course, one of the finest this city will ever see. He and I liked chewing on prospects for Tiger football and basketball, possibilities of an NBA team actually arriving in Memphis, and chances that a baseball stadium could change the way an entire downtown community is viewed.
We lost Dennis on January 6, 2002. He succumbed to a monstrous brain tumor that attacked without mercy (but never took a sliver of my friend’s strength of spirit or dignity). So the very nature of sports coverage in the Flyer was a mystery, at best, two months later. I welcomed the opportunity Jackson threw my way, knowing I’d be approaching the weekly gig without my customary sounding board. It felt daunting.
I’ve learned, of course, a lesson Dennis would have clarified for me had we discussed the transition: readers are the only sounding board a writer ever needs. Not to say I don’t value the direction of current editor Bruce VanWyngarden or colleagues like Baker and John Branston, but a web column — and the comments it generates — will steer a writer’s thoughts in ways few printed letters to the editor do. For good or ill, anonymous usernames — handles — have taken the gloves off this burgeoning two-way street of journalistic discourse. It keeps a writer sharp.
“From My Seat” has afforded me opportunities I wouldn’t have explored in the space restrictions of a print-only world. I’ve interviewed fighters (Rampage Jackson and Andre Ward come to mind), driven a stock car, forecast the Kentucky Derby, and hobnobbed with Bob Costas on the field at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Needless to say, I’ve seen Redbirds baseball and Tiger basketball from angles I wouldn’t have considered in 2001. And the Flyer’s sports “pages” have only grown. Chris Herrington writes one of the best NBA blogs in the country (“Beyond the Arc”). Three years ago, I started a blog on University of Memphis sports (“Tiger Blue”). If “Seat” is ever empty on Monday morning, it’s because that week’s column fits more snugly under the “Tiger Blue” banner. Two weeks ago, Branston started his own sports-themed blog: “A Fan’s Notes.” Aside from a presidential election year, you’re unlikely to find more opinions on a wider array of topics than you will in the arena of sports.
I’ll finish column number 500 with a pair of thanks. First, to our late friend, Dennis Freeland. You’re often in mind, Dennis, when I start tapping my keyboard. The lost conversations over the last decade make me ache at times, but somehow inspire the next column. And then thanks to those of you who take a few minutes to sit with me each week. Sports may be journalism’s toy department, but damn ... it’s fun to play.