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Ask the average person if they could wire the electricity in a house or fix their car’s transmission or perform a medical procedure and you’re likely to get a resounding “no.”
Ask that same individual if they have an idea for a book. Or if they can write an engaging speech. Or a persuasive essay. You probably won’t only get a “yes,” you’re liable to get a critique of another writer and, even worse, assertions of how they could “do it better.”
That’s because everyone thinks they can write—and considering the literacy rate in this country is 99%, technically they’re correct. But while there is a surplus of people who want to express their opinions, there is a shortage of those who can do it skillfully. Now, there is even one fewer. This past weekend, after 44 years [all of them with the Boston Globe] Bob Ryan is retiring. He’ll still write 30-40 pieces for the Sunday edition each year, but his days are over as a regular columnist.
Look, it’d be disingenuous of me to say I read all of Ryan’s columns. I didn’t. Nor could I say I liked everything he wrote—I thought he could be bit of a sensationalist. But when reading something of his [whether I agreed with or not], I’d often find myself thinking, “Damn, I wish I had written that sentence,” which is the highest compliment one writer [or at least someone who thinks himself as one] can pay another writer.
And that’s why I like Ryan, because he’s a damn good at what he does. Even if what he said was crap sometimes, the way he said it was often masterful. And in a decade where high-profile journalists—driven by economic reasons and egotistical ones—fled newspapers for television gigs, Ryan remained dedicated to the craft of writing, an art that is still widely consumed but often underappreciated.
True, he was a regular of ESPN shows like Around the Horn and PTI, but opposed to guys such as Rick Reilly, Jay Mariotti, Stephen A. Smith or Skip Bayless, former writers who gave up a keyboard for a microphone to shout in [or in Reilly’s case to make trite jokes], Ryan seemed somewhat out of place on TV, and his words always flowed better in print than they did on screen [It also didn’t help he looked like Droopy Dog with rosacea on camera, though I did enjoy him on The Sports Reporters, which makes sense as that show basically featured writers reading from a prompter what they otherwise would’ve written for a paper].
Look, Ryan is hardly the only good sportswriter left [Though it’s also worth noting here that he knew more about basketball than nearly anyone else, including Bill Simmons, and unlike Simmons, he isn’t a self-aggrandizing ass about it]. His retirement doesn’t mark the symbolic end to some over-romanticized “Golden Age” of sports journalism.
But for as much attention and acclaim we give to sports, it’s at least worth doing the same for a guy who spent over four decades writing about them, particularly one who did it far better than I—or the other 99% of people who think they can write—could ever hope to.