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MCGRATH: Former colleagues making their marks at SI

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Updated: January 25, 2014 7:43PM



The Catholic League is loaded with quality basketball teams this season, and a tough stretch against the best of them left the Leo Lions reeling, done in by their lack of size and experience.

I live and die with my Leo kids, so an 18-point spanking from a talented Loyola team last week was a bit dispiriting. I picked up the latest issue of Sports Illustrated for some relief through reading, only to find the long-form bonus piece and the back-of-the-book column devoted to Alex Rodriguez.

Hoo, boy. If there’s a story that’s no longer interesting . . .

Upon further review, the bonus piece was the work of S.L. Price and the column was by Michael Rosenberg, both former colleagues. Well worth a read.

You do this long enough, and the number of writers you can identify as former colleagues reaches triple figures. I no sooner could pick a favorite writer than I could a favorite child — all of them brought different qualities to their work — but Price is as good as anybody typing, and not just because he is a go-to guy at Sports Illustrated.

At a time when every kid with a laptop obsesses about expanding his ‘‘brand’’ and the business has been hijacked by screamers, self-promoters and suck-ups, Price is a throwback to the days when a story was the story and a writer functioned more as narrator than star. He is a writer’s writer who deliberately avoids the multimedia maelstrom, but he’ll impart more wisdom in a single paragraph than Skip Bayless delivers in a 30-minute pontification on why LeBron James is the anti-Christ.

He’s also a genuinely good guy. Total strangers wouldn’t bare their souls to him if he weren’t.

One summer, I sent him off to cover a Mike Tyson fight and several other stories that piqued our interest. Our boss was a visionary but also a stickler for budgets, and he wasn’t pleased as he surveyed the wreckage of our travel budget four months before the end of the calendar year. But he loved Price and had to agree the stories were worth whatever we spent to produce them.

The late Richard Ben Cramer and his frustrating pursuit of A-Rod is Price’s subject this time. There’s some history. Cramer, who died last year at 62, won a Pulitzer Prize for death-defying reporting from the Middle East before he was 30. His Esquire magazine profile of Ted Williams is, like Teddy Ballgame himself, a candidate for best ever, and What It Takes is a seminal dissection of U.S. politics through the prism of the 1988 presidential campaign.

Cramer was the journalist of his generation. But he found nothing of substance in Rodriguez, despite years of dogged pursuit, and died without producing the book he had been advanced a half-million dollars to deliver. The publisher is suing his estate. It’s a messy story and, in Price’s hands, fascinating.

Price was a young guy just finding his voice when Cramer’s Ted Williams piece came out in 1986, and he told me he almost quit the business because he despaired of ever writing something that good.

He comes close quite often. You’ll need a box of Kleenex to get through ‘‘What We Lost,’’ an SI story about 6-year-old Sandy Hook shooting victim Jack Pinto and his grief-stricken family. Heart of the Game evolved into a book about the surreal circumstances surrounding the death of Tulsa Drillers coach Mike Coolbaugh after he was struck in the neck by a foul line drive on a Class AA field in West Little Rock, Ark., in 2007.

No one in the parent Colorado Rockies’ clubhouse really knew Coolbaugh, but the team voted his family a full $235,000 share of playoff earnings from the team’s trip to the World Series that season. Advocacy journalism?

Rosenberg made his bones in 1998, first with an amusing revelation of how Dan Dakich ‘‘shut down’’ Michael Jordan as Indiana was upending North Carolina in MJ’s final college game in 1984. That summer, in the midst of the Sammy Sosa-Mark McGwire hysteria, we dispatched him to locate Tracy Stallard, who had served up Roger Maris’ 61st home run in 1961.

Turns out we weren’t the only ones looking for Stallard. Ex-wives, ex-business partners and at least one abandoned son asked us to pass along his whereabouts if we located him. Stallard himself called in a day later to deny everything.

Price and Rosenberg recently were joined at SI by Brian Hamilton, another former colleague. It’s nice to see the boys doing well.

Now if only Leo could win a few basketball games.



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