As a sports-crazed child of 1980s New Jersey, I had relatively few options to extend my mania beyond the games themselves. My parents weren’t cable subscribers, so there was no ESPN, no groaning Chris Berman puns. The Internet, with its microblogs and highlight gifs, was still a full decade away. What I had were sports segments on the six o’clock news (I was partial to CBS’s Warner Wolf, whose exclamations of “swish!” during basketball recaps passed for genuine excitement) and sportstalk radio, a still-nascent medium with a decidedly blue-collar feel.
I also had newspapers. My father was a William S. Burroughs-level crossword-puzzle junkie, each morning heading to the newsstand to return with his daily fix: The Times, the Post, The Star-Ledger, and the New York Daily News. As he cast each aside following its puzzle’s completion — he never bothered to read anything beyond the crossword clues — I would scurry forth, raccoon-like, to retrieve their precious sports sections. I would then spread them out on the dining-room table with my cereal and juice to look at the pictures, scan the scores, and be debriefed on possible trades. I would read about games that I had watched just 10 or 12 hours before, amazed by the fact that someone had written a story about it, often a dramatic one, and that the account now sat before me. It was a little bit of proof that what I had seen was real.
Twenty-five years later, only scraps of that era have survived. Wolf, nearing 80, is still in broadcasting, but nightly recaps such as his have slid into obsolescence. One could say the same thing about those newspapers. Six years ago, my parents sold their house — dining-room table and all — and my father died of a heart attack two years after that. Up until the end, he still worked the daily puzzles, but he’d stopped buying newspapers, choosing instead to go online each morning and dutifully print them out.
One constant, however, was my favorite newspaper writer: the Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica. He started there in 1977, and aside from two brief jumps to rival publications, he’s been there ever since. Like anything that seems to last forever — Tom Wolfe, Bob Dylan, The Simpsons — Lupica’s longevity is comforting, even though I don’t pay as much attention to him as I once did. Technologies may disrupt, houses may change hands, death may suddenly hit, but Lupica is eternal.
Even though I had never heard him speak, when I read him as a kid, I could hear him talk to me. He was impassioned and skeptical, and he wrote in a conversational, inclusive way that made me feel welcome despite my age. I had generally experienced sports as serious adult pursuits — grim and epic battles with John Facenda narration and the occasional leavening “swish” — but there was a sort of youthful, buoyant joy to Lupica’s style. When good things happened to a New York team, his pieces took on an appealing sepia tint, as if you were already reading history. Here’s a passage from his column the day after the Yankees’ win over the Atlanta Braves in the 1996 World Series — the team’s first championship in almost 20 years:
Whether the next great New York team comes from basketball or football or hockey, we will compare that team to the Yankees of 1996. We will measure things against this October for a while…“The hardest game to win in sports is one more,” Pat Corrales, a Braves coach and an old baseball warrior, said before Game 6 last night.
The Yankees won one more game last night, one more World Series. One more game to remember, from a baseball month no one around here will soon forget. One of those forever teams.
When things went poorly in New York, he was relentless in his criticism, a self-appointed athletic ombudsman. His hit pieces — in which he railed against various team owners, steroid cheats, and sundry other villains — had a mounting, three-beers-deep quality that I later tried, unsuccessfully, to mimic as a sports columnist for my high school newspaper. Here’s a bit of a typical Lupica screed against the Knicks’ perpetual mismanagement:
The coaches come and go. The general managers come and go. They still trade off the distant past, and make us appreciate a less distant basketball past at Madison Square Garden. It took things being this bad for this long to make us appreciate just how good we had it. World’s most famous arena. Famous for what now?
Or this, amid a 2005 piece on the Yankees’ high-priced futility:
[$1] billion spent over five years. No World Series won. Two hundred million and change on the ’05 Yankees. Out in the first round. Four million in attendance, at least $50 million in the hole. There has always been the economy for the rest of baseball, and the Yankee economy. Yankee money and everybody else’s. Maybe that is finally about to change. Steinbrenner still has the deepest pockets. But guess what? He doesn’t just want that new stadium because he loves his fans. It doesn’t matter which pocket it’s coming out of, nobody wants to lose money like this.
Lupica not only made me want to become a writer; he made me want to be a persuasive and convincing one. He taught me the value of having a viewpoint and seeing it through.
I still occasionally buy the Sunday Daily News, in no small part to read Lupica’s “Shooting From the Lip” column. As has become the case with newspapers in general, this is more out of habit than need — but as habits go, sipping coffee over a Lupica article is a fairly pleasant one. His attitude and cadence haven’t changed in the past 30 years, and his columns allow me to feel, for a couple of minutes, that I’m still at my parents’ table — that my dad is back there in his easy chair, frowning at a crossword puzzle.
The illusion couldn’t last forever. During a lull in a recent Mets broadcast, the announcers mentioned “layoffs at the Daily News” in a tone usually reserved for jumbo-jet tragedies. It was well-known that the paper was in dire straits, losing roughly $20 million a year, and trying, with an unsurprising lack of success, to find a buyer for itself. As all modern newspapers must, it had been cutting staff for years. But when I went to my phone to see who the latest casualties were, I couldn’t believe my eyes: Mike Lupica would not have his contract renewed when it expired at year’s end. Others who I’d also read for years — Bill Madden and Filip Bondy among them — were being shown the door. “The News always used to be read back to front — like the Torah,” the Post quoted an observer as saying. “It looks like they gave up the franchise.”
It’s too dramatic to say that I felt gutted by the news, but it was in that territory. The Daily News without Lupica was, to me, the Lakers without Magic Johnson, the Stones without Mick Jagger. He was unquestionably its biggest star at a time when newspapers didn’t really have “stars.” He was Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success: a writer of wide influence, equally loathed and beloved. He was a holdover from an earlier era, a time when a columnist could claim celebrity — and his contract’s non-renewal represented a severing of the present from two distinct and parallel pasts: newspapers’ and my own.
And with a jarring lack of ceremony, that was apparently that. After nearly 40 years in the pages of the News, Lupica seems to be done. He hasn’t said much about his situation — a few terse and cryptic comments to the press — and the paper, on its way to bleeding out completely, has offered even less. His columns still appear, and will continue to, one assumes, until his contract does run out. All in all, a disappointing and feeble end.
It’s tempting to say that there won’t be any more like him — columnists whose opinions and craft make young readers want to become writers themselves. But that’s obviously untrue; if anything, there are more Lupicas now than ever. ESPN’s Grantland has a stable of them; so do Deadspin, SB Nation, and dozens, if not hundreds, of others. Lupica himself will likely wind up on one of these sites, carping about Eli Manning and the Knicks in his death-by-a-thousand-cuts way. But what’s also likely is that I won’t be reading him when he makes the jump. Not because I wouldn’t enjoy it or because I’ve outgrown him, but because I won’t bother to seek him out. Excised from the paper, he’ll just be one more voice rushing past in the Web’s endlessly flowing river. Rather than hurrying alongside to catch his words, I’ll let him careen on past. I’ll allow the Mike Lupica whom I read in the Daily News — like my parents’ house, my father, and probably, very soon, the News itself — to live on as its own sepia-toned memory.
Image Credit: Flickr/Elvert Barnes.