Elizabeth Cook: Mitch Albom tells sports stories his way
SALISBURY — The five people I meet in heaven — if I get there — will probably tell me I blew it by not interviewing Mitch Albom while he was in town this week.
Albom is the author of such touching and popular books as “Tuesdays with Morrie,” “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” and “The Time Keeper.” He delivered an acceptance speech nearly as poignant as those stories when the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association inducted him into its Hall of Fame Monday night.
Legendary sportswriter Red Smith once said, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.” Albom has written seven books selling 33 million copies around the world and crafted countless columns for The Detroit Free Press, said his sports editor, Gene Myers. “He bleeds every word every time.”
But Albom would say that was not his plan. He loves the lyrics of a John Lennon song: “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” Albom started out as a musician and only gradually turned to writing. By chance, his application to be a Sunday magazine writer made its way 50 feet across the newsroom to a sports editor who offered him a different job. Albom compared it to so many sports stories he has helped people tell — the missed free-throw, the second that ticked off too quickly “So much of life hangs on a tightrope,” he said.
As a result of that pivotal moment, Albom, now 55, has been a sports journalist at the Detroit Free Press since 1985.
Addressing a roomful of people in the same profession Monday night, he talked about the things he did not do — such as keep statistics at sporting events. His goal, he said, was to write so a grandmother in South Carolina would understand.
He does not always write about winners, but he has found some remarkable losers. Among them would be the young sprinter who came up lame in a race — not a rare event in the world of track. But this sprinter’s father ran out of the stands and carried him to the sidelines. A wonderful story.
Album said he went all the way to Alaska to write about a lab worker who had saved up four years of vacation so he could man a dog sled in the Iditarod — only to lose because he spent precious hours searching the freezing tundra for a missing dog. The racer told Albom he could not live with himself if he left that dog behind.
Albom does not color in the lines, as he put it. He writes pieces outside traditional sports-reporting conventions. The best of them used to elicit handwritten letters of appreciation. Now, he said, most feedback comes from unidentified Internet snipers whose words can be posted mere fractions of an inch from his own. There is a reason journalists study writing and work at their craft, he said, and sharing that space with these nameless commenters is simply not right.
The current fashionability of anger and hate is also reflected in some professional sports commentary, he said, and that’s not good. Sportswriters need to remember they have pens, not hand grenades, and should not substitute volume for validity. Trying to out-snark the other guy does nothing for readers, nor for the athletes and coaches reporters write about.
“Cradling a man’s story in your hands is a serious responsibility,” Albom said
Cradling an award-winning writer’s story in your hands is daunting, too. His well-chosen words help, but the risk of not doing him justice looms large. Albom’s graceful prose resonates around the world not because he writes about well-known celebrity-athletes, but because he senses the worth of every person — and reveals it to readers every chance he gets.
Those credentials could get a person into heaven, where I hope there is a press box.
Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.