Monday, December 14, 2009


John Updike said that life was too short for golf and crossword puzzles, but he played golf and wrote about it, and, I’d bet, worked crosswords, too. As a wordsmith, how could he not?

I used to play golf, and not badly, but stopped when the demands of a young family dictated that I no longer could disappear for the best part of a weekend day. Quitting golf was a lot easier than quitting smoking; once away from it I rarely looked back, and quickly cultivated other recreations that provided actual exercise.

I still do crosswords, though, and wouldn’t think of giving them up. Hey, I’m a wordsmith, too, and a sportswriter at that, and no group is better at synonyms—which is what most crossword answers are-- than we sportswriters. You know, the guy didn’t just pitch the ball, he also threw, heaved, hurled, chucked, tossed, flung, slung, fired, pegged or catapulted it. God forbid that we should use the same word twice in a story.

Fact is, I’m something of a crosswords snob, limiting my application to the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday puzzles in the New York Times and the one in the Wall Street Journal’s Friday Weekend section, which I save for early the next week. The Journal puzzle doesn’t quite match the Times’ offerings; my usual reaction to getting its joke is “oh, no” instead of “aha!” But it gives me something to do on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, days when the Times’ puzzles are beneath my notice.

The reason the Times is superior in this regard is Will Shortz, its crosswords’ editor. A man of all word games, Shortz took over the job in 1993 from Eugene Maleska, and quickly created something of an earthquake in Puzzlerville. Maleska’s products tended to be exercises in arcana, requiring knowledge of Mahler symphonies and the names of rivers in Finland. Shortz is hipper, frequently tapping such contemporary subjects as rap music. I’m pretty much in the dark about rap, but most of its performers’ names are mercifully short.

Shortz doesn’t write the puzzles but his hand can be seen in their clues, which differentiate difficult from easy ones. Difficulty can be added by using deep definitions of words (such as the infamous “gob” for “lot” in one Times puzzle last week), but it’s much more fun when clues are oblique, forcing the puzzler to look at things from odd angles. For instance, the answer to the recent clue “it’s well-positioned” was “oil rig,” and “athletes’ foot applications” was “knee socks.” Cute, huh?

I thought I was pretty good at the activity until I saw the movie “Wordplay” a few years ago. A documentary set at a national crosswords contest, and featuring the great Shortz himself, it introduced me to supernerds (I’m just a regular one) who could whip off a Saturday Times offering (typically the hardest) in something like seven minutes and 40 seconds. It often takes me hours to do one of those. My main strength is doggedness, not brilliance; I’ll keep staring at the darned things until they reveal their secrets. I don’t give up, never ever. Well, almost never.

Like most puzzlers, I have my own rules about what’s kosher and what isn’t in seeking solutions. I think it’s okay to look up an answer in the dictionary if I think I know it but must check its spelling, and to ask for help from someone within the reach of my voice (my wife is especially helpful with answers related to food). But it ain’t okay to phone outside experts, and definitely not to type the clue into the Google search box and hit “enter.” Yeah, I’ve done that a few times, but only in rare instances when I’ve been absolutely, positively stuck. I do it as a last resort, to scratch my curiosity itch, and take no pleasure from the solutions reached thereby.

The best puzzles are the ones where I can fill in only “s’s,” “er’s,” and “ed”s” on first scan, and have to scratch out the rest, box by box. That’s masochistic, I know, but I guess there’s that side of me. I told you I played golf, didn’t I?

ALSO: My 2010 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot arrived last week and I sent it back with eight names checked. They were holdovers Bert Blyleven, Andre Dawson, Jack Morris, Lee Smith and Alan Trammell, and ballot newcomers Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin and Edgar Martinez. Alomar and Larkin were easy picks; they were the best at their demanding positions for most of their long careers.

My choice of Martinez might raise some eyebrows because he spent most of his career as a designated hitter, and, thus, performed only half of baseball’s requirements. But the DH is a real and apparently permanent baseball role and I can see no reason to discriminate against those who fill it. No one has done it better than the ancient Mariner, a true student of the batsman’s art, who is one of only eight players ever with at least 300 home runs (309), 500 doubles (514) , a lifetime batting average of over .300 (.312), an on-base percentage of over .400 (.418) and a slugging average of more than .500 (.515). And he was a nice guy besides.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


I didn’t like Andre Agassi through most of his tennis career. I thought he was a brat who squandered his immense talent with vain display, a rebel without a clue who professed to be a free spirit while slavishly following the dictates of his corporate sponsors. In brief, I wished he’d go away.

I’ve never liked jock biographies, considering them a pure waste of time. The typical compliant that their authors “pull their punches” usually isn’t true because they never throw any punches to begin with. The books mostly are a way for their subjects to pick up a few dollars, pay off some non-monetary debts and prolong their times in the spotlight.

But here comes Agassi with a jockography, and you know what? I liked it. It’s a darned interesting book that appears to live up to its title of “Open.” It’s now on a (very) short list of recent-year sports books I’d recommend, along with Jane Leavy’s biog of Sandy Koufax and Tom Callahan’s marvelous “Johnny U,” about Johnny Unitas and pro football’s gritty 1950s. I feel like the fussy kid Mikey in the old cereal commercial, whose eyes were opened by an unexpected treat.

I wouldn’t be a reviewer if I had no complaints about a book. Like most of its genre, “Open” spends too much space recounting details of matches long forgotten, and doesn’t lack for self-justifying whines by its author. Prominent in the latter category is Agassi’s professed bewilderment that some people reacted negatively to the “image is everything” line he recited in a widely viewed camera ad. While it might have been true that someone put those words in his mouth, it was he who didn’t spit them out.

Those things, however, are quibbles, and “Open” is a pearl among pebbles. One very good thing about it is the work of Agassi’s co-author, J.R. Moehringer, although you have to make your way to the acknowledgments at the end of the book to learn his name. I’d never read anything by Moehringer, but will in the future. His writing brings a spontaneity to the book that makes it come alive.

Another is the undeniable fact that, for a jock, Agassi has had an interesting off-field go of it. That’s led by a tabloid-friendly social life that included dates with Barbra Streisand (he calls her a “passionate friend,” whatever that means) and marriages to the actress Brooke Shields and his now-wife Steffi Graf, who has a bigger trophy cabinet than he does.

Most of the attention the book has gained has focused on Agassi’s admission that he got high on crystal meth for a time during his career and (successfully) lied about it when the tennis tour asked him to explain a positive drug test. Several of his tennis contemporaries have demanded that he be stripped of some titles for the lapse, but that’s off-base. Agassi was stupid to try the brutally addictive stuff, but it hurts rather than enhances athletic performance and is the proper province of the police, not the sports cops.

More revealing by far is Agassi’s account of his childhood, one made no less Dickensian by the relentless sunshine of his native Las Vegas. He depicts his ex-boxer father, a captain in a Las Vegas showroom, as a domineering bully who forced him to spend his childhood on the practice courts and used him to pick up spare cash by hustling matches with unwary adults. Agassi hated tennis (or, as he wrote in several places, “hated hated” it), and stuck with it only for fear of his father’s wrath and lack of alternatives. As an eighth-grade dropout, he had few of the latter.

To be sure, no one can succeed at anything without some enthusiasm for the task, and Agassi admits to that, albeit mostly because he found losing intolerable. When he chose to exercise it his work ethic was impressive, as was his record, which includes eight Grand Slam titles. But so too was the degree of silliness to which he confesses; for instance, his multicolored mullet hairdo, long his public signature, was enhanced by a hairpiece that covered his growing baldness, and he lost his first Grand Slam final partly out of fear the rug would slip on-court and reveal his awful secret.

Mostly, the book is a description of Agassi’s journey from brat to mensch that would do credit to an early Tom Cruise movie. The transformation has been impressive: Andre today is an apparently happy, gracious husband and father of two whose charitable work—most notably his sponsorship of an academy for at-risk kids in his hometown—reflects his appreciation of the education he never had. It’s a tale worth writing, and reading.

BUSINESS NOTE: And speaking of books, those in my “For the Love of…” series make an excellent holiday gift. Titles include the Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals, Mets, Tigers, Packers, Ohio State and Georgia football, golf and Hall of Fame baseballers. You’ll love the illustrations. To see them click on the Triumph Books link on this site or go to amazon,com.