April 27, 2007

Taking You On the Last Ultimate Trip

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In this business, sports writers occupy a low rung in the journalism hierarchy. We are slightly above entertainment writers, slightly below science writers and generally ignored when issues of substance are to be considered.
We are the pesky interrogators the administration warns our athletes about. We are the nerds at the hockey games wearing a suit and tie, refusing to show support for our team. We are the sociopaths who memorize baseball statistics but are oblivious to politics and law. If the discussion does not involve sports, we are generally awkward and unpleasant.
We have been accused of despoiling the very games we cover. Increased media attention means inflated egos and salary hikes. A constant spotlight encourages inflammatory conduct and controversial sound bites. Writers discuss drug abusers, not role models. Broadcasters focus on felons, not sportsmanship.
Our detractors insist that sports are merely a distraction from real life. It’s less stressful to follow a home run race than to engage Iraq and Darfur. March Madness bracketology is easier to comprehend than gang violence and human trafficking. There is no poverty in sports, no AIDS and no taxes. To them, sports are just an escape — a shallow, meaningless escape.
When I was in middle school, my family was struggling with a custody battle that had been drawn out since my parents’ divorce. Constant appearances in custody courts were taking their toll on my brother, my sister and me. It was a deeply emotional and difficult period.
My younger brother, however, seemed to always be in good spirits. I wondered how he could possibly keep such a positive demeanor throughout the madness. While I felt troubled and angry, he was relaxed and upbeat.
So I asked him, where are you obtaining your strength from? How are you getting through all of this?
It’s simple, he said. I leave it all on the ice.
My brother and I had played ice hockey since we were three years old. He credits himself with introducing me to the sport — a dubious claim at best — and we played in Southern California leagues until he left for prep school. I stayed in the sunshine, advancing to a high level until my career — such as it was — was cut short by injury.
The best writing, as they say, is done by writers who know what they’re writing about. I knew about sports.
I knew what a two-line pass was, how to break double coverage and how to defend a crossface.
I knew why coach Ford was wary of the Princeton lineup. I knew why coach Schafer had his players on stationary bikes after pre-season games. Although I didn’t know what a ‘libero’ was, I did know why ex-volleyball coach Christie Roes worried about her athletes balancing class and practice.
And from every athlete, coach and fan that I had ever played with, against or covered, I learned what my brother had first taught me.
Sports are bigger than the games and bigger than the stories. They’re bigger than the tabloids and records. Sports are an extension of humanity, and to appreciate them is fundamentally human. Even if it’s only to escape.
I would not be writing this if not for the contributions of countless individuals. With deep respect and condolences for those I absent-mindedly omit, my thanks go out to the following people in no particular order:
To Ms. Evans and Mr. Speidel, my high school teachers who encouraged me to write: thank you for igniting the passion I carry on today.
To Coach Roes: Thank you for giving me the courage to be an investigative sports journalist as a freshman writer. Your standard of courtesy and professionalism is one all current Cornell athletics personnel should aspire to.
To Alfie Koetter and Devin Harrigan: Your early encouragement of my work helped me rationalize my time spent covering women’s swimming. Your support motivated me to pursue this downward spiral into the newspaper — a good thing.
To the legend of Nate Brown: As the man behind the curtain, thank you for your belief in a young, undeveloped rookie writer.
To Katy Bishop: Your smile and grudging willingness to correct the frequent design errors of the Sports Department was a light in an otherwise dark newsroom. Thanks for staying past deadline to fix my carry pages.
To Alex Linhardt: Your dry wit and constant scorn for the Atlantic allowed me to think that a California kid could survive on the upper-crust East Coast. Thanks for keeping it legit.
To Alex Ip: Although my sworn enemy as a Giants fan — Bonds breaking the record? You cannot be serious — you gave me the chance to write sports for The Sun. You presented me with one challenge after the next and did not accept no for an answer. I would never have discovered my full potential without your guidance.
To Matt Janiga: Your commitment to the Sun as an assistant sports editor demonstrated to me what it meant to be a part of a truly student-operated publication. I will never know how only three of you managed the Sports Department for a year. Today’s editors are soft.
To Adam Sinovsky: No one made the Photo Department — or the Sports Department — cooler. You are a gem.
To Per Ostman: Harold Baines? Your arguments are as weak as your prose. You are also a demigod.
To Freda Ready and Erica Stein: Aside from my own sister, never had I met two women who were both so eloquent and persuasive in their work and demeanor. Freda, thank you for commanding a newsroom the way it was meant to be and for withstanding the intellectual drainage of Beefy on a nightly basis -— to my perpetual entertainment. Erica, you are simply one of the most outstanding writers I have ever had the privilege of working with.
To Andy Guess: Although few were certain as to the nature of your activities in your office, I always admired you for your intelligence and leadership — not to mention your quirky command of cinema history. If I were to meet you in a London pub or at a Tokyo sumo contest once every three yours or so, my life would be considerably enriched.
To Eric Finkelstein: You always had an answer for everything. Whether it was SunStyle for Al-Qaeda or the dirt on the new trustees, you were truly a man of the news. The 123rd was lucky to have you.
To Erica Temel: As sexy an executive as I have seen, you commanded respect, re-defined your job and initiated a healthy line of Greek Editors-in-Chief. Thank you for keeping things mellow around the office.
To Ali Pivoda and Amy Green: Your unmistakable smiles combined with heartfelt affection for the staff made you two the highlight of my nights at the Sun. It hasn’t been the same without you guys.
To Zach Jones, wherever he may be: I do not remember if any of our conversations had any substance, rationale or logic, but I can’t remember anyone I enjoyed talking to more. And I still can’t understand half of the words in your vocabulary.
To Michael Morisy: Few people are as dedicated to the inside story, the aura and history of the Sun and to having a great time with some drinks. You are a true professional.
To Erica Fink: Despite my status as quasi-Sun outsider at times, you always kept me in the loop and sought my advice in circumstances where I couldn’t have been less qualified to provide it. If you ever need an intern, I’m your guy.
To Pepperface, Testa and Kuhls, Baby: I couldn’t have asked for a better follow-up as ASEs. You carried the tradition of road trips, booze, spelling errors and more booze with vigor. Well done.
To the New Guys (Perlin, Bennett, Sanford and Williams): Thank you for accepting my column submissions at midnight and beyond. Keep the dream alive and always remember: What would EJ do?
To Olivia Dwyer: You did something I never dreamed could occur: trained to be sports editor under Beefy. The fact that the Department flourished under your command is a testament to both your responsibility to the paper and the obvious fact that you didn’t listen to a word Beef said. It has been a pleasure to work with you over the years.
To Carlos Maycotte: If only our border controls were tighter, or that fence was up, or there was some way to prevent you from coming into my life. But hell, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Thanks for the gossip, drinks at Rulloff’s and perspective on life. Even if you best me in trial I’ll still buy you a shot.
To Psi, Omega and Alpha: You guys are the collective man.
To Ben Notterman: Who knew there could be a decent kid underneath the prep school reprobate? Easy on the insects.
To Jonny Lieberman: Thank you for living up to what you knew you could be. Your dream girl is just around the corner.
To Russell Jones: An avid reader and Cornell Review stooge. Thank you for your over-the-top retorts.
To Brian Tsao: Before I went to Europe, I thought soccer was something only pre-teenage girls did. Thanks for opening my eyes to the truth. I revered your professional approach to both the story and the bar.
To EJ Hullverson: Wow. I still am unsure of whether I looked up to you or not, but you are a damn good time. Let’s try to avoid as many felonies as we can.
To Chris Mascaro: You brought new meaning to the idea of a relaxed workplace. Thank you for guiding me through my time with the Sun and teaching me what was truly important.
To Chi: Thanks for the support, commentary and uncensored criticism. The best writing comes from experience, and my best experiences were with you. It was necessary.
To the Eight: Andrew Collier — whiskey. Jeffrey Kauth — baseball, rats and the presidency. Will Malnati — Danceatoria. Bo Hyoung — my man. Jeffrey Bookman — radio, globetrotting and the weekend. Alex Zahn — LA, music and baked goods.
To J: You are my past, present and future. Thank you for opening your mind, speaking your mind and always being there.
To Mom: Thank you for your constant love and support, no matter what kind of trouble I found myself in. The challenges you overcame as an athlete are an inspiration to me, our family and athletes everywhere.
To Kelly: Thank you for the rational analysis, college advice and putting up with a family of sports nuts.
To Scotty: Why are you better at baseball than me? Aren’t we supposed to be related?
To Dad: You have done more for me as a writer than anyone else. Thank you.
To Owen Bochner: Without you, I would not be where I am now. You motivated me, trained me and taught me what it meant to be a journalist. When I came home in the middle of the night after finishing the paper, I knew I had done something worthwhile. Thank you for showing me that.
And finally, to all of my readers over the years: Thank you for your comments, feedback and just for taking the time to read.
“The Ultimate Trip” was a promotional moniker from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The movie chronicles the stages of human evolution, from chimpanzees to star children. The ultimate trip, of course, is life — and wherever it takes you.
Thank you.
Kyle Sheahen is a former assistant sports editor. The Ultimate Trip appeared every other week for the last four years.