Having recently calculated that he’d published more than two million words, Rick Reilly has decided to do something else. For Sports Illustrated and then for ESPN, Reilly has written about all manner of athletes, fans, and sometimes matters only just barely attached to sports. His new book Tiger, Meet My Sister … And Other Things I Probably Shouldn’t Have Said collects some of his best, wittiest and most controversial columns from his time at ESPN in one collection.
Reilly joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game to discuss some of his more memorable columns and his retirement from writing.
Highlights from Bill’s Conversation with Rick Reilly
BL: I’m not sure there is any such thing as a representative Rick Reilly column, but a candidate might be “Drive Me Out to the Ballgame,” published on July 13 of last year. Tell us a little about baseball writer Hal McCoy and how you came to know him.
RR: Hal McCoy’s one of the best baseball writers in America – in fact, he’s in the writers wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame – which is crazy, because he’s almost blind. A guy he hired drives him from Dayton to Cincinnati. In his spare time, the guy is a funeral hearse driver, so they kid about each other, “You’ll still be driving me after I’m dead.” And you can sit there with [McCoy], and he’ll go, “This next guy, I know he’s gonna bunt down the third-base line.” And the guy does! And I’m like, “Hal, how’d you know that, you can’t even see the field!” And he goes, “I just know situations.”
BL: You’ve written several times about athletes or coaches who’ve lied to you or about by whom you’ve felt misled. Is Lance Armstrong is at the top of that list?
RR: He’s first, second, and third on the list. That guy lied to me for 14 years, off the record, on the record. I interviewed him at the Tour de France, and I said, “Dude, you know this masseuse, this trainer, this mechanic says you did it.” And he said, “No, I’m gonna sue these guys.” And he always would sue these guys. So like an idiot, I believed he was telling the truth. And then of course he told Oprah the complete opposite, after 14 years, and he sent me a two-word email right before he went on Oprah and it said, “Sorry, dude.” That’s not even 14 letters!
BL: Just over a year ago, you wrote a column titled “Before Jason Collins.” It concerns Glenn Burke, who played for the Dodgers during the ’70s. Tell us a little about why you felt compelled to bring him up nearly 20 years after he died.
RR: Because people were saying this was the first ever gay, male, American team sport athlete who was coming out gay. Glenn Burke tried to come out gay, and the reporters all said, “Man, I can’t write that.” Glenn Burke drove a pink Rolls Royce. He wanted to be out. In fact, Al Campanis, the general manager of the Dodgers, brought him into the office and said, “We will pay $75,000 for your wedding and your honeymoon, if you just get married.” And Glenn Burke said, “Great, I want you to meet him!” and Al said, “No, you have to marry a woman.” And of course, Glenn Burke walked out.
It got worse for him, he got traded to the Oakland A’s, and [manager] Billy Martin introduced him: “Boys, this is Glenn Burke. He’s a f—–.” It went straight downhill from there. Now, Jason Collins gets a call from the President! Glenn Burke got a boot out of the baseball world.
Bill’s Thoughts On Tiger, Meet My Sister… And Other Things I Probably Shouldn’t Have SaidIn a sense, Rick Reilly has been a sports columnist. He’s written about Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, and any number of football, baseball, basketball, and hockey players.
But perhaps at least as often as not, as anyone reading this collection of ESPN columns will discover, Reilly’s subject has been the relationship that has developed – or failed to develop – between himself and the people about whom he has written. Some of those people haven’t been athletes. They’ve been fellow writers, or broadcasters, or fans, or coaches, or parents of athletes.
Reilly’s writing tends to be personal, which is one of the reasons it has been accessible even to people who don’t care about sports. He does not easily shrug off rudeness. He acknowledges that he’s offended when athletes lie to him, or when he’s treated badly by their handlers. He celebrates simple virtues when they turn up in the complicated lives of people making millions and millions of dollars for playing games. Sometimes this is because he is surprised, but sometimes it’s just because he’s delighted.
And he never actually said to Tiger Woods, “Tiger, meet my sister.”