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"The Comeback Kid" by Alan Swyer


For the first time in his adult years – not that he often thought of himself as an adult, or made much of an effort to behave like one – Mickey Rose spent an entire week pondering the meaning of life.


It wasn't that he had suddenly become a philosopher, or had embraced some form of Eastern spirituality. The ability to sit around his apartment and do nothing but think owed to an unexpected change in circumstances: After nearly two decades of relevance in the world of sportswriting, Mickey was suddenly unemployed.


For far too long, Mickey was finally recognizing, he had been under the illusion that barring a serious car accident or some catastrophic disease, his path was more or less set. Like many of his heroes, he had entered the newspaper world as an intern, covering high school football, basketball, and baseball, plus an occasional county or state soccer or softball tournament. After a year of dues-paying, he was promoted to full-time sportswriter, with a focus on professional baseball – the Dodgers and Angels – and basketball – the Lakers and Clippers. Thirteen years later, when two people with seniority left the paper within the span of six weeks – Tim Dooley, the sports editor because of a debilitating stroke; B.J. Riley, the provocateur who wrote a three-times-a-week column, because of a salary dispute -- Mickey made the leap to columnist. His expectation (or at least hope) was that like the icons he revered – Ring Lardner, Jim Murray, Larry Merchant, Dan Shaughnessy – his punditry would continue until he ran out of words, died, or found some new challenge.


All that changed during the lead-up to an event that had long been a source of joy: the annual baseball All-Star Game. In contrast to the World Series, where the focus was solely on winning, All-Star weekend was baseball as fun, with the main event sharing time with the Home Run Derby, the Futures Game, and even Celebrity Softball.


For sports lifers, it was the perfect opportunity to hang out with colleagues from other cities and papers, catching up on each other's lives and trading tales, as well as providing insights and anecdotes that might find their way into future columns.


Mickey's delight at being in the center of things came to an abrupt halt when he got a call from his paper's former columnist, B.J. Riley. “Get ready for a shit storm!” Riley warned.


“What's that mean?” asked Mickey.


“That new sports editor –“


“Linda Molina –”


“She's trying to turn the Sports Section into happy news.”


Riley's warning cast a pall over the joy Mickey was anticipating.


Though he should have realized that the world he knew was changing when the New York Times bought the Athletic, then reduced its daily coverage of sports, Mickey assumed – or hoped – that would remain an East Coast anomaly. In Los Angeles, where the Dodgers and Lakers engendered a religious fervor, where UCLA basketball and USC football were obsessions, and where the Clippers, Chargers, Galaxy, and the LA Football Club had passionate fans, such a cataclysm seemed unimaginable. There was no way, Mickey thought, diehards would be willing to start their day with coffee and iPhones instead of old-fashioned newsprint.


That's why he kept a framed quote from former Chief Justice Earl Warren above his desk:


I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people's accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man's failures.


“Try to view this as an opportunity,” Linda Molina began when she and Mickey met face-to-face. “Won't it be fun to re-imagine the Sports section as a human interest magazine?”


“Really want me to answer that?” asked Mickey.


“Absolutely.”


“Sounds as much fun as elective root canal.”


“You don't think human interest stories will expand our readership?”


“Give me what you call human interest.”


“A piece on a Dodger's kids,” replied Linda. “Or a Laker's puppies. Or somebody on the


Rams' family vacation.”


Mickey grimaced. “Are you aware of the devotion of Dodgers fans? Or Lakers fans? Or

UCLA basketball and SC football?”


“What're you trying to tell me?” asked Linda.


“All the papers in driveways I see on my early morning jogs?”


“What about them?”


“After a week without box scores, half'll be canceled.”


Linda frowned. “Will you at least give it a try?”


“Have you read my contract?”


“Why?”


“Three columns a week.”


Linda took a deep breath while eyeing Mickey. “There's also a clause about insubordination.”


“Meaning?”


“You're with me, or I call legal.”


“Start dialing,” said Mickey, heading for the door.


Though Mickey was enraged, the initial target of his ire wasn't Linda Molina. It was the powers-that-be, either for giving her a mandate or for accepting her brainstorm.


By the end of the second day, it was himself that Mickey was starting to blame. In the year or so before the pandemic, when The Athletic, The Ringer, and ESPN were poaching columnists from the newspaper world, Mickey was one of the first writers approached. Always a team player, he immediately went to see his editor.


“I know it's tempting,” Ernie Ryan, who replaced Tim Dooley, said to him. “But what about loyalty? Here you're dealing with a known commodity, plus you've got me on your side.”


“And if something happens to you?”


Dooley sighed. “Like a piano landing on my head?”


Mickey shrugged. “Shit happens.


“What if I ask as a personal favor? Plus, I can probably use the offers to get you a raise.”

To his chagrin, Mickey yielded.


Day four of his time at home began with Mickey thinking about the world he had inhabited. Though there were late nights, deadlines, and other pressures, the key word in sports was play, not work. In baseball, basketball, football, soccer, tennis, and other sports, games were played. In the same spirit, his byline read Mickey Rose, not Michael – just as it was Red Smith, not Walter; Dan Barry, not Daniel; and Skip Bayless, not John Edward Bayless II.


Another perq was that except for games that he attended in person, Mickey could watch sporting events in his pajamas, or write columns in sweatpants and a t-shirt.


Plus his years in sports enabled him to spend time in cities across the globe at his paper's

expense, witnessing everything from the Olympics to Wimbledon to the Kentucky Derby.

Those travels yielded friends galore: other writers, hotel managers, restaurateurs, bartenders, and fans, as well as a good amount of athletes, and even some interesting women.


If there was a downside, it was the number of times Mickey woke up with no clue what city he was in. Plus the ever-present temptation to spend too many hours shooting the shit with pals in a bar in Baltimore, Atlanta, London, or wherever.


Then there was the reality that it was largely his job that undermined his marriage. Anita, his ex-, wasn't entirely wrong in thinking that work often took precedence over her. Nor was she incorrect in thinking that money was never sufficiently important to Mickey. People like Bayless, Michael Wilbon, and Tony Kornheiser added exponentially to their earnings by moving to cable TV. Others, like his New York friend Hal Byers with his series of sports biographies, or his Philadelphia buddy Jerry Wald with his Young Adult novels employing sports as a backdrop, used their bylines as tickets into publishing. But Mickey, at least as Anita saw it, never cared about either fortune or fame.


Though deluged with texts and emails – some praising his refusal to capitulate; others wondering about his well-being – Mickey was surprised by how few calls he received. Those who did ring were mainly what he once, in a column about a Mets manager whose phone seemed to ring only when his team was on a losing streak, termed “foul weather friends” who secretly delighted in others' misfortune. Real friends like Hal Byers or Jerry Wald, Mickey figured, were giving him much needed time to himself.


Tossing and turning in bed on Friday night, Mickey found himself slipping into panic mode. It took a nearly Herculean effort to sit up and accept that neither the world nor his life had ended. His bank account, though not substantial, wasn't empty. The rent on the small Echo Park apartment he found when his marriage ended wasn't extravagant. Unlike those concerned with status, he didn't have to pay upkeep on horses, a Maserati, or a yacht. Nor was he burdened by child support or a coke habit.


Taking a deep breath, Mickey listed the three key considerations for the days and weeks ahead. In case of an accident or illness, he needed medical insurance. Plus he would sooner or later require some income. Above all, there was an existential question: What in hell was he going to do with his life?


Over green tea and toast the next morning, Mickey stewed while pondering the examples that Linda Molina offered as human interest. Zealously, he began to contrast them with the columns that gave him the most satisfaction. Never content to tell readers what they themselves had seen in a game, match, or fight the night before, he considered it a duty to focus whenever possible on the human side of sports.


A personal favorite was a story about a running back who built houses for poverty-stricken people in his hometown in Alabama. Another was of a pitcher who walked away from a sizable contract to look after his kids while his wife was undergoing cancer treatment. An additional source of pride – especially because of the right-wing hate emails it generated – was the award from a feminist group for his series on the Atlanta Dream, the WNBA team that forced its owner to sell because of her attacks on Black Lives Matter. Nor was that

Mickey's only source of angry emails. He got plenty for his repeated defense of Dodger manager Dave Roberts. Even greater venom came when Mickey was a key voice in demanding that baseball move its All-Star Game out of Georgia because of a new law designed to suppress voting turnout among people of color. But at the top of the list in terms of responses – good and not-so-good – was a series about Little League parents.


Whether it was moms and dads yelling, “Run, Johnny, run!” – or coaches giving bad advice like “Keep that elbow up!” – or parents cursing out umpires and putting far too much pressure on their kids – Mickey insisted that it would be an infinitely healthier experience if kids were left to themselves.


Still, Mickey's all-time favorite series was one he had to fight for since it wasn't deemed local or national news. What caught his attention was a pitcher seemingly destined for the Hall of Fame until one day he simply could no longer throw strikes. Trying to correct the problem, his team sent him first to an orthopedist to examine his shoulder. Then to an ophthalmologist to check his vision. Next to a sports psychologist to determine his mental health. Ultimately let go, he was signed by another team, who had him see a psychiatrist known for curing phobias and blocks. When that, too, failed, the pitcher dropped out of sight for a couple of years, then reappeared at a tryout for the sport's lowest rung – an Independent League – not as a pitcher, but as a left-handed hitting center fielder. To the astonishment of general managers, players, and fans, he quickly rose to the Majors, enabling Mickey to dub him “The Comeback Kid.”


Though he'd never given it much thought while on the job, it gave Mickey great satisfaction to know that he'd often used sports as a metaphor for the world at large. Nor did hate emails, threats, or resistance from his editor ever deter him from his convictions.

But pride didn't solve his problems – economic and otherwise.


Not wanting to seem desperate, Mickey sent off a series of “Checking in” emails – to friends, editors, and others who might be resources or potential employers.

The absence of a response was disheartening.

After waiting a week, Mickey followed with calls. Most recipients proved to be unavailable, then failed to get back to him.


Another notion popped into Mickey's head while shooting baskets at a playground. He reached out to Journalism Departments at local universities where, over the years, he had spoken on panels, as well as in individual classrooms. Once again, the silence proved deafening.


Has all the work I've done been for naught? Mickey found himself wondering. Am I consigned to hoping for work at Big Five Sporting Goods, or driving an Uber?


Those thoughts made Mickey muse about what the future might – or might not – hold. Would a wife, kids, and a family ever be part of his life? That painful question begged three others. Am I suited for a normal life? Can I ever again afford one? Have I blown the chance for anything resembling normal?


Despite the plaques on his wall for journalistic honors, plus photos of him together with Shaq, Kobe, LeBron, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Herbert, and Gretsky, Mickey found himself thinking that beyond being prematurely obsolete, he seemed to have become invisible.


The following morning, Mickey was rousted by a call from Jerry Wald. “I've been thinking,” his friend told him. “You've got a lawsuit begging to begin.” When Mickey protested that he wasn't litigious, Wald doubled-down. “Like it or not, I'm gonna find you an attorney. And if need be, spring for his fees.”


An offer of lunch from B.J. Riley got Mickey to a sports bar where the two of them used to convene with Tim Dooley. Seeing Mickey enjoy greetings from patrons and staffers, Riley smiled. “Beats sitting home alone, thinking the world has ended.”


Mickey nodded.


“It's too damn easy to start feeling like a dinosaur,” Riley continued. “Or that they're right, and we're not. Got anything in mind?”


“Besides hitting a gun shop?” Mickey joked. “Hal Byers is trying to get me to sue.”

Riley sighed. “Might make you some bucks, but there are consequences. You'll be a pariah.”


“Are there alternatives?”


“Sure!” joked Riley. “Male model. Stud. Oligarch. Plutocrat.”

Mickey chuckled.


“That's the Mickey I know. I started with a blog. That led to a podcast.”


“And?”


“Aside from making me feel alive, there are some bucks coming in. Plus, a few guest columns here and there, and even a couple of appearances on Cable TV. But gotta warn you –”


“About?”


“It means showering and shaving.”


Still confused, but somewhat more hopeful, Mickey was headed home when he got another call from Byers.


“Please tell me you're not sitting around feeling sorry for yourself,” said Hal.


“Actually, I'm driving home from a lunch with B.J.”


“Going out to lunch is one thing, but sitting with somebody for three or four months is something else.”


“Why would I be sitting with somebody for three or four months?”


“Because,” answered Hal, “you're about to become an As Told To.”


“What's that mean?”


“I pitched you to help an ex-Dodger with his memoir.”


“Why me instead of you?” asked Mickey.


“First, I'm booked for several months. Second, it'd mean leaving New York, which Harriet doesn't want to do. Plus, you know much more about the Dodgers – and LA. Best of all, it's a door-opener.”


“B-but –”


“What but?”


“I never did that kind of thing,” said Mickey.


“Which won't be a problem when you go to your second. Or third.”


“Why? Think it won't be a one-shot?”


“Because,” said Hal, “you write well, you know your shit, and you get on with ballplayers. And here's the big thing. Ready?”


“Sure.”


“There's an inexhaustible array of athletes with stories that people want to hear. You in? Or have you miraculously been offered a job running the Dodgers?”

Mickey smiled. “I'm in.”


Only once he hung up did Mickey realize that this could be his much-needed second chance. If he did it well, above and beyond escaping from his funk, plus getting some much-needed cash, he could potentially reinvent himself.


Maybe that could allow him to have something resembling a real life.


Maybe, like the ballplayer he once wrote about, he, too, could be a Comeback Kid.



Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel 'The Beard' was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.

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