Is it safe to say that Keith Olbermann’s TV career has entered a death spiral? To sum up: He hosted ESPN’s 11 p.m. SportsCenter from 1992 to 1997, which he famously dubbed “The Big Show,” but left after publicly trashing the network. Then he hosted the puckishly titled The Big Show on MSNBC from ‘97 to ‘98, but left, again after publicly trashing the network. Now, he languishes at Fox Sports, where his on-air duties have been cut back to one night a week. (He has yet to publicly trash the network.)
Yet at the same time, almost secretly, Olbermann has reinvented himself as a sportswriter. You may not have read a single one of his pieces. But guess what: He’s running laps around the guys who do it for a living. For the past three years, no sports columnist in America has gotten it better on paper than Keith Olbermann.
This isn’t a case of a talking head like Chris Mortensen descending from Mount ESPN to proffer an occasional “notes” column for the company Web site (though Keith did that for a while, too). Olbermann’s output is sporadic, but he has written sharp pieces for Contentville, the New York Times, and Baseball America, as well as a weekly column for Sports Illustrated during the ‘98 baseball season.
These days, the entire sportswriting industry is stifled by a crippling sameness—across sports, across newspapers. Part of the problem is obvious: They’re all watching the same games. And they’re listening to more and more sports radio, which guarantees that every angle will be hashed out hundreds of times before it hits the page. It stands to reason, then, that writers would often produce the same columns, reflecting the same emotions.
But in ‘98, the season SI dubbed, in particularly orgasmic fashion, “The Greatest Season Ever,” Olbermann avoided the obvious: the rote homages to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, the finger-wagging condemnation of the Marlins-to-Mets Mike Piazza trade, a paean to Cal Ripken Jr., whose consecutive games streak came to an end.
Olbermann also resisted the rah-rah boosterism that afflicts so many sportswriters. “Of course, we’re talking about baseball here,” he wrote in April that year, “a sport whose defending champion [Florida] is nothing more than a no-freezes Rotisserie team, a sport willing to sacrifice its identity for the short-term profits of interleague play. The inescapable lesson to fans born with the marvelous ability to travel backward or forward within baseball? Stand still, shut up and buy whatever memorabilia are thrown at you.”
Nor does Olbermann shy away from the occasional morbid prediction. After Cubs rookie Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters in a May outing, tying the major-league record, he wrote that “any fan worth the paper he’s printed on is rooting for Wood to become the next Nolan Ryan. But history suggests he’s more likely to become the next Gary Nolan, who struck out 206 as a 19-year-old rookie, hurt his arm the following year and would never strike out 200 again.” Wood tore an elbow ligament the following spring training and has never fully recovered.
Olbermann’s writing refers very little to the games themselves, the place where most columnists dwell. Instead, he’s more apt to dig through the appendixes of the Baseball Encyclopedia or the back pages of a sports magazine for an angle. He once built a Contentville piece around a tidbit he found in a newsletter about Japanese baseball cards. (Click here to read it.)
Likewise, there are few sportswriters in the country so well-versed in sports history or at least none quite so concerned with it. As McGwire and Sosa battled for the home run record, Olbermann wrote about Charley Jones of the Boston Red Caps, one of the first record holders, who led the National Association with nine in 1879. When Piazza was traded to his third team and columnists around the country howled that “you never trade a Hall of Famer,” Olbermann pointed out that the average HOFer played for—that’s right—three teams. And while other sports hacks were churning out homages to Jackie Robinson, Olbermann wrote about Jimmy Claxton, an African-American pitcher who sneaked into the pros almost four decades before Robinson, though he had to pose as a Native American to do it. It’s precisely this “marvelous ability to travel backward and forward” in time that elevates Olbermann over the rest of the sports pundit class (which is growing quickly to rival the political one).
Unfortunately, if Olbermann ever got a full-time job in sportswriting, he might have a hard time keeping it. (For insight on what Olbermann thinks of his colleagues, take a look at this recent Contentville article, in which he calls Dan Patrick’s ESPN: The Magazine pieces “a bi-weekly toe dip in the shallow end of the journalistic pool.”) But readers would be happy if Olbermann just got his feet wet.