The following column is dedicated to the sports writing legend Rick Reilly, who retired from sports writing at the beginning of June after more than 30 years in the business. His final column was published on June 10. I hope you read this Mr. Reilly.
Rick Reilly and I have never met.
We probably don’t share much in common.
But I do believe we share a bond.
Not a bond for pissing people off, hitting the hard deadline, or eating fast food after a long night at the football game.
No. The bond I believe we share goes much deeper.
It’s a passion.
A passion for storytelling. A passion for exercising our intellectual and sports curiosity. A passion for giving a voice to those who otherwise could not speak.
Sports writing has many dog days; days where the work overshadows the glory and days of endless voicemails and cold coffee.
But that’s what drives us.
It’s what keeps us hungry and always in pursuit of the next great story. Where you see hopelessness, we see promise. Where you see darkness, we see light.
Sports Illustrated has been with me at every major turning point in my life. When I moved to a new house, graduated from high school and started a new job, SI has always been at my side.
So has Rick Reilly.
Rick Reilly has never been one to hold back his true feelings about anything. If he likes you, he’ll tell you. If he loves you, he’ll cherish you. If he dislikes you, he’ll criticize you. If he hates you, just don’t read his column.
Being a columnist is probably the most hated, criticized, loathed, and scorned profession other than the Presidency and the starting quarterback position of the Dallas Cowboys (sorry Tony Romo).
When you’re hot, you’re the man.
When you’re cold, you’re the most wanted man (and we’re not talking like it’s The Bachelor either).
Being good at it means that more times than not, you’re the most wanted man.
If you truly love the profession, which few men and women do, you embrace it and surpass it.
When Reilly was in his prime, circa his 1996 column on Greg Norman’s historic tank at the Masters (pre LeBron era), the most wanted man was so good that the only way his readers could scorn him was through email, and even that was a stretch.
No Facebook. No Twitter. Definitely no Instagram.
Reilly, who over his career has been awarded the National Sportswriter’s Award 11 times, was the preeminent sports columnist in America for over a decade.
When the weekly issue of Sports Illustrated hit my desk, the first thing I did was flip to the back page to see what was on Reilly’s mind.
During his incredible run of success, he was the sports writers’ version of Tom Brady combined with Magic Johnson. He was versatile, clutch, dependable, and always intriguing.
He knew how to make you laugh, cry, scream, or even throw a chair. But most importantly, he knew how to keep you reading.
Although his last few years in the business were far from his best, Reilly stayed true to himself. He told stories, ones that mattered at least.
There’s been a lot of criticism thrown Reilly’s way because he was never able to keep up with the “new age sports writers” such as Bill Simmons and Nate Silver.
Even though Reilly was never fully able to embrace and utilize the new wave of media and grasp the new age of Internet sports writing, he was still a miracle worker with a pen, typewriter, computer, or any form of communication (at least in my eyes).
I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t know much about this business and I still have much to learn, but there is something I do know for sure.
In sports, and in life in general it seems, we try to quantify a person’s value, worth or greatness by a number or a stat. Even though the sports world lives and breathes by the numbers, they don’t mean everything.
In my very very short tenure in this business, I have come across many different types of young sports writers.
I’ve read the works of many talented aspiring sports journalists, writers who are far superior to myself. Yet, I find one common denominator in almost everyone’s writing.
With this new wave of sports writing, it seems that young journalists (myself included) are too caught up in the stats and the numbers.
Yes, in order to determine how good a baseball player is or is not requires you to know their on-base percentage, wins above replacement, and on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). Yes, in order to determine how good a basketball player is it helps to understand the meaning of true shooting percentage and efficiently ratings.
But it’s not everything.
In the final seconds of Game 7 in the NBA Finals or in the final two minutes of the Super Bowl, none of that matters.
With sites like Grantland and FiveThirtyEight, we have been given tools to do incredible things as sports writers. We can now show dimensions and aspects of sports that were never imaginable to us long ago in the print era.
But yet, this tool has wiped away what I believe, and what I know Rick Reilly believes, to be the essence of sports writing: the people, and the beautiful stories they give us.
In baseball, sabermetrics is a mathematical tool used to determine the true value of a player.
Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane made it famous by being the first GM to implement this method of thinking into the game of baseball. I’m assuming you’ve probably read the book or seen the movie Moneyball.
Although sabermetrics can predict with almost absolute certainty a player’s batting average and on-base percentage over the course of a season, there is one major flaw in the system.
In one game, in one inning, in one at-bat, in one pitch, anything can happen. The stats mean nothing.
Rick Reilly could describe that moment better than any other sports journalist I have ever come across.
That is the beauty of sports, and Rick Reilly embraced that moment like no other.
As I begin my new job next week at a major newspaper, I will do everything in my power to keep this in the back of my mind as I journey into the ever-changing world of sports.
You can’t describe a person by a number (unless you’re comparing LeBron James to Michael Jordan, sorry dude). You can’t quantify a player by how many home runs they hit during the season. And you certainly can’t determine a player’s value based on their wins above replacement.
Rick Reilly will be dearly missed in the sports world. My hope is that as we continue to progress towards this new era of sports journalism, we don’t forget where we came from and who we truly are. We write about the people, not the numbers.
Rick Reilly is a Godfather to sports journalism, and I will continue to stand on his shoulders and look up to him as I pursuit my dream of becoming a sports journalist.
Reilly, like the true legends, went out while he was still at the top of his game. Maybe not while he was at the peak, but like Tim Duncan, still better than the rest of his competition.
Rest easy champ. You deserve it.