NEW ORLEANS -- For the most part, writing about sports is not that dangerous a profession. There are the inherent risks that come from a lot of airplane flights – mostly involving upper respiratory infections – but no more than any other job that requires regular travel. In more than 30 years, I’ve only been on board for two emergency landings and one wasn’t that big a deal. (The other involved foam on the runway and I could have done without that particular one.)
The rare occurrence of actual danger is usually wrong-place, wrong-time and I was reminded of that on Saturday evening in the Superdome when Anthony Davis of Kentucky determined that he should chase a loose ball during the national semifinal game even as it went out of bounds, over the raised press table and onto the stadium floor below.
Davis is a great athlete, and jumping high and landing safely is a large part of his job description. Clearing a bunch of middle-aged white guys sitting at a press table was well within his skill set and he knew that, but I wasn’t thinking that way as he ran straight in my direction. I was thinking something along the lines of, “Uh oh.”
It’s hard to get hurt at a football game unless you are standing on the sideline, and then it’s easy if you aren’t paying attention. Hockey is pretty safe to cover, too, and, aside from the occasional foul ball into the press box, the long grind of a baseball season is only dangerous to your general health.
I was threatened once in the dugout by Joe Morgan because I had written he was trying to get manager Pat Corrales fired in 1983. I wrote it because Joe Morgan was trying to get Corrales fired, a fact related to me by the members of the front office to whom Morgan was complaining. (He eventually succeeded and Corrales was fired – with the Phillies in first place – and the Phils went to the World Series that year. Morgan and I did not have an altercation in the dugout that day, but he always hated me wicked.)
As for foul balls, as press boxes have become more removed from a proximity with the actual playing field, they are more rare than before. The most spectacular foul ball I experienced came in Wrigley Field, in the old press box that hung down beneath the second deck. It was April and the glass windows (real damn glass) were in place. According to the Cubs, some physicist had calculated that it was impossible for a batted ball to go over the vertical screen behind the plate and dip quickly enough to hit the press box. That is why the windows were glass. No danger at all.
Apparently, however, whoever was in charge of selecting players for the Cubs in those years was also in charge of selecting physicists. Or perhaps the physicist had not properly calculated the amount of spin Mike Schmidt could impart on a pitched baseball with that downward chop of a swing that went through the hitting zone like a sharp axe.
Schmitty hit just such a foul ball that screamed over the backstop, took an immediate southward turn and shattered a window right next to where I was sitting. I believe it – along with a fair amount of glass shards – landed in the lap of Jayson Stark. It was pretty scary and very loud, and the players from both dugouts immediately jumped onto the playing field to determine which of their favorite writers might have been killed by the ball. (The press box was silent except for Bob Verdi of the Chicago Tribune, who observed dryly – his default mode – “It’s no problem. We’ll just send off to the Smithsonian for another window.”)
Other dangers are also inherent. There is the fact that the job often means exiting darkened stadiums and arenas hours after any sane soul has left the surroundings. A very good and funny writer for the Atlanta Constitution named Jesse Outlar was shot in the stomach outside Fulton County Stadium one night because someone thought he was carrying the gate receipts in his typewriter case, failing to also think through the fact that, in 1973, the gate receipts from an Atlanta Falcons game would not require a case that large. (The assailant’s shooting prowess wasn’t much better than his thought process and Jesse, who died last year at the age of 87, recovered fully and finally retired after 41 years at the Constitution. Along the way, Jesse also recovered his sense of humor. He wrote once that if the NBA had been running World War II, “Japan would still be in contention.”)
Still, by and large, a lot safer calling than defusing bombs or even standing at the side of the highway waving those orange flags at passing traffic.
Or at least it was until Terrence Jones of Kentucky missed a little jump shot in the lane midway through the first half against Louisville on Saturday night and the loose ball was batted around, headed for the sideline and Davis headed after it.
As you can see by the accompanying photo, brave sportswriters make a path when a 6-foot-10 basketball player is bearing down on them. Davis took advantage of the divide between myself and SI.com’s Luke Winn. He flew past, didn’t even spill a drink along the way, and then jumped down onto the floor behind us. What coach John Calipari might have been thinking as he saw the player of the year hurtling into space during the national semifinal is anyone’s guess, but Davis said he wasn’t worried.
“I thought I’d be able to stop and then when I cojuldn’t stop, I just didn’t want to hurt nobody,” he said on Sunday. “The last step I just looked for a place to land. I didn’t think about it.”
That’s why these guys can do things on a basketball court the rest of us can only imagine. I thanked him for missing us.
“No problem,” he said.
That’s good, because it sure looked like it was going to be a problem.