Mitch Albom says he might write a book about sports some day. You know, if he can manage to squeeze his day job into the down time between TV appearances and production meetings. He's got a lot on his plate.
Last week, Albom received the Red Smith Award, which is given by the Associated Press Sports Editors for "lifetime achievement." Mitch is 52. He's easily the youngest winner ever, on a list that includes names like Shirley Povich, Furman Bisher, Dave Kindred, Sam Lacy, Dick Shaap, and W.C. "I've read 'The Professional' " Heinz. And he certainly does have lifetimes worth of achievements within the APSE. While no other writer has won it more than once, Albom has claimed the group's annual column writing contest 13 times. One of those wins, legendarily, was for a column that he literally phoned in from an airplane. I guess that's meant as a compliment to Mitch, but I think it might say more about the standards of the judges.
During his acceptance speech, Albom said that he's worried about the future of sports journalism. He's concerned that cynicism (guilty!) and an emphasis on live television will overwhelm the importance of day-old words. No one is aware of those dangers more than Mitch Albom, who has been talking into television cameras for 20 years. And not always about sports.
Albom has written six original books. Two of them were about sports. (The last one of those, "Fab Five," was published 16 years ago.) "Books seem almost so unexciting," he says, "because they don't have footage." Perhaps that's why he volunteered to write the screenplays when three of his works were also turned into movies. Even his songs get adapted into films! The guy is very good at making stuff up!
Look, Mitch Albom is a great guy. He gives all of his non-writing time and a lot of his writing money to worthwhile charity. And he is a fantastic writer when he needs to be. Back when I still read the Free Press on a regular basis (think Barry Sanders Era) his page was always the only must-read. But you'll be hard pressed to find another sportswriter who more perfectly captures this Greatest Generation of celebrity sports columnists. He and Mike Lupica were the founding stars of The Sports Reporters, the show that turned local color into a national voice and made shouting your opinion more important than forming one. That makes them indirectly responsible for Around The Horn and the rise of Jay Mariotti. Now how do you feel about him?
Unlike Lupica and Rick Reilly, Albom can still occasionally churn out a moving tale. But it usually won't be about an athlete, and when it is, it won't be about his fadeaway jumper. Albom writes about people, not games. It's the peripheral characters—the little league coach, the clubhouse attendant, the sister's inspiring bout with cancer—that populate his best work, and when he can't find those characters in the sports world or his neighborhood, he makes them up. Sad, hopeful people that will lift your heart and open your wallets. He's the best at it and his success has created the model that every aspiring columnist hopes to follow: Become rich and famous.
Now Albom seems concerned that our instant access culture means that no one has the patience to write (or read) about sports anymore. But that doesn't explain why Mitch Albom hardly has the patience for it either. If the APSE or any nostalgic sportswriter is concerned about the future of their profession, they need to start by talking to Mitch Albom. He abandoned the art of lyrical game stories and statistical sidebars to write nu-religion feel-good-about-feeling-bad fiction and there's no reason that anyone else shouldn't follow him. (His most recent newspaper column is about iPhones. Go figure.)
He mastered the genre the same way he mastered the personal sports column 20 years ago—and good for him. However, if he wants to wonder why people aren't interested in crafting 4,000-word dispatches about the glories our games, he only needs to look in the mirror. That's where he'll see Oprah standing behind him.
Albom chides encroaching cynicism of sports writing world [The Salt Lake Tribune]
Gene Myers: Here's what makes Free Press columnist Mitch Albom so good [Detroit Free Press]
[Image via MitchAlbom.com]