The first Simmons column I ever read was his epic takedown of Roger Clemens, which came with the rather straightforward title “Is Clemens the Antichrist?” (Story: Here) By the third paragraph I was grinning ear-to-ear, and I read the rest of it with delight. Simmons was doing things I hadn’t realized you were allowed to do: He mashed up sports and pop culture, he cracked jokes, he wrote with passion and partisanship, and his column was equal parts about Clemens and about being a fan (and then a jilted former fan) of Clemens.
I was intrigued that Simmons had done it on his own, writing his own blog until he attracted the attention of ESPN. (Though he’d tried working up through the ranks the old-fashioned way.) I loved that he’d refused to accept that you couldn’t be a sportswriter without giving up allegiance to a team, which was what had kept me away from a profession that otherwise seemed made for me.
I’m still a Simmons fan, but as a veteran sports blogger myself, I now appreciate something more basic about what he does: He just made it up. He didn’t follow some blueprint of mixing up sports and movies and TV and what he and his pals talked about. That didn’t exist. (And hasn’t worked very well for his imitators.) He just wrote what he wanted to, and people responded to it.
Joe Posnanski is on the short list of people who could lay claim to the title of the greatest sportswriter in America. He’s also one of the finest sports bloggers — prolific, passionate, discursive and funny. So how’d he prepare for a second life as a blogger? He didn’t — he more or less made it up.
“I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and no intention of doing it for very long,” Posnanski says of his early forays into blogging. “And I think that if I’ve had any success as a blogger, those are the two reasons why.”
Posnanski says he started blogging at the beginning of 2007 in hopes of promoting “The Soul of Baseball,” his wonderful book about Negro League legend Buck O’Neil. His early posts about the book, he says, attracted no one. So he stared writing about whatever interested him. When he did that, he recalls, readership started to climb.
Posnanski wound up taking a few months off from his blog (read it at http://joeposnanski.com/JoeBlog/), but found he missed it. So he returned, this time with no book to sell — and complete freedom.
“I only promised myself one thing: I would never follow any rules,” he says. “I would write what I wanted to write, how I wanted to write, at the length I wanted to write it. I would not worry if people read it. I would not think of it as a money-making venture (except to shamelessly promote my books). I would not let it become about anything more than having fun and saying whatever goofy thought happened to be on my mind.”
Posnanski calls his blog writing “sloppier and wordier and much more of a free-flow of thoughts” than his print work. “But it’s also personal and experimental and cuts close to myself. I think once I compared it to a musician who goes to a small club after his concert and plays for two hours just for love of it. That sounds a bit more arrogant than I mean it, but I suppose that’s the best example I can offer.”
Posnanski’s advice for sportswriters coming to blogs from print-first newsrooms? Don’t get hung up on labels.
“If you don’t want to call it a blog, don’t call it a blog,” he says. “Call it a journal. Call it your daily story. Call it a sidebar and notes. … There are many more similarities between Internet and print than differences right now. Good writing is good writing, good reporting is good reporting, and this stuff stands out on the Web just like it stood out in newspapers.”
I suspect Posnanski, like Simmons, will inspire many writers to take up blogs themselves. And that’s great. But budding bloggers should also look for inspiration from another fine sportswriter.
I discovered Roger Angell’s books when I was nine or 10, and devoured them all. They were my baseball education, where I learned about Aaron and Mays and Koufax and epic seasons that had come and gone before I was born. But I also took something else from him, something I didn’t realize I’d received until years later, when I realized it was the model for what I was trying to do at Faith and Fear in Flushing.
Angell was a proto-blogger. His pennant-race chronicles were bound up with his own first-person experiences as a passionate fan of the Mets and Red Sox, and he perfected a dual perspective — simultaneously a wise, objective observer and a hopeless fan whose life was shaped by the joys and sorrows of the season.
How’d he do that? Not by following a blueprint. He did it the same way Simmons and Posnanski did: He made it up.
Angell wasn’t born to be a sportswriter. Rather, he answered the call when the New Yorker wanted to expand its sports coverage in the early 1960s. He was an amateur, and so he had no idea that what he wanted to do was considered unprofessional in the press box. “Sportswriters weren’t supposed to be fans,” he recalled in an interview a few years back. “I would write in the first person, about my own emotions, which you were not supposed to do.”
And so it is today. The Web offers new writers a chance to speak to a potentially global audience, if they can connect. And it offers an established writers a chance to do the same. What’s the best way to do that? Happily, there are as many answers as there are passionate writers in love with their craft. Write short or write long. Call what you do a blog, or a journal, or don’t call it anything at all. There aren’t any rules — just go out and make it up.
Jason Fry spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy, and is now the Web evangelist for EidosMedia, a maker of editing-and-publishing software for newspapers and other publishers. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing (www.faithandfearinflushing.com), and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom (www.reinventingthenewsroom.com). Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jason.fry, or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jasoncfry.