S.L. Price

...in his own words
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About
SNCPB

Istarted off as a history major in college. I went to the University of Connecticut for two years in my hometown of Stamford, Connecticut. I had had some great teachers there and I switched my major to English.

About This Project

In his 1973 book "No Cheering in the Press Box," author Jerome Holtzman chronicled the lives of the greatest sports journalists of his generation. Four decades later, students at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism are updating his work with a series of interviews with the best sports journalists of the last 40 years.

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This chapter was produced by Justin Fitzgerald.

About S.L. Price
HOMETOWN: Stamford, Connecticut
EDUCATION: University of North Carolina
OCCUPATION: Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated
TWITTER: @bySLPrice

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I then transferred to the University of North Carolina, and realized if I wanted to be involved in English, I was going to have to write a lot because I was a really bad writer. The sections I was originally interested in writing for at The Daily Tarheel, you didn’t have to write a lot. You could pick your spots. I knew that if I was writing sports and covering a beat I would write a lot, and I desperately needed to do that.

At North Carolina, sports are really big, so it was very exciting and fun. I loved sports growing up, but I was more interested in the idea of writing than sports. It wasn’t like I was a sports nut who just wanted to be around sports. I wanted to get better as a writer.

I was the basketball beat writer my senior year, and I covered Michael Jordan as a sophomore. He had an incredible year, really broke out as a player and became a national figure. The football team was a top five team, and the baseball team had all these future major leaguers like BJ Surhoff, Scott Bankhead and Walt Weiss. No one was paying much attention to North Carolina baseball at the time, but I got a chance to cover this incredible team. I was really lucky because I happened to be around these great athletes and it was a great place to learn and fail.

I grew up reading the New York Times because I lived in Connecticut. Once I caught fire with writing and sports writing, I was at North Carolina. Every day and certainly Sunday, The Washington Post was the newspaper down there. I was reading Kent Denlinger and Dave Kindred, who I thought was incredible. For me the Washington Post was the gold standard, and I was reading it every day.

At the same time, Inside Sports was an incredible magazine and frankly my favorite sports magazine when I decided to become a writer. They were doing these incredible deep features and Gary Smith was the guy. You’re doing things in sports that you couldn’t do in any other part of the paper. It allows you the leeway to write just about anything and they showed me that.

I graduated from North Carolina, and I hadn’t paid for anything my final semester. I was out of money, and they wouldn’t release your transcripts or give you your diploma until you pay your bills, so I went home and waited tables at a lunch joint in Stamford to pay off my bills. One day, I came home from my shift and there was a message from the Sacramento Bee asking if I wanted to cover the 49ers.

I was completely perplexed by it. I sent out resumes, but wasn’t expecting any response. Instead of jumping on it, I said I was planning on taking this cross country trip this summer, and asked if I could start in September. It was absurd. They paid the mileage for the trip.

It turns out that part of the reason they hired me is because I was covering ACC basketball and Jordan was a national figure. It was incredible to have those clips as opposed to some obscure high schooler that someone in California wouldn’t know about. People knew about North Carolina and Michael Jordan.

They made me the Kings first beat writer when they moved to Sacramento and I was 23 years old. I think I was the youngest NBA beat writer, and I was going up against another morning newspaper, the Sacramento Union, and I was scared to death every day. It was completely insane. I was covering a major league beat and was really over my head.

I was a really terrible writer at the Sacramento Bee. I spent six years trying to figure out what I was doing. I covered the Kings for two years, and then in 1987 I moved down to San Francisco and was a 49ers backup beat writer. I was also the Giants beat writer in 1987 because our beat writer got hired away and I was down there and they asked if I could fill in.

The next year I was doing backup for the 49ers and writing features. It happened to be the first golden age of San Francisco sports. The 49ers were winning Super Bowls and the A’s and the Giants were fielding incredible teams and met in the ’89 World Series. I was there for the earthquake. I was sitting in the upper deck when the stadium jumped.

Then in 1990, the Miami Herald offered me a job. I went to Miami and they immediately sent me off to cover the World Cup in Italy and the British Open. It was an incredible experience. Miami is such an intense and flamboyant news town. You really have to be a bad writer to not write something decent in Miami. There’s just so many crazy things happening.

Sports Illustrated was the easiest job offer I’ve ever gotten. Normally, the process was that somebody called you and said they were interested in you and asked for your clips. You would go and burrow through your pile of newspapers, find the stories you were the most proud of and paste them onto a piece of paper, get a copier somewhere, and send like 10 clips off. Usually they get back in touch with you after some time and you’re wondering what the heck’s going on. They call you and say they like your clips and they fly you up to interview you. Even then, newspapers didn’t have much money, so if they flew you in, usually that meant they were going to offer you a job. They wanted to see if you had six heads.

Six months before I got hired at SI, they had called and asked if I was interested in doing freelance. At the time, the Miami Herald wouldn’t let anyone write for a competing publication, so I wasn’t going to lose my job at the Herald just to freelance for Sports Illustrated, so I said no. Six months later, I got a call from an assistant managing editor who wondered if I wanted to go out and get a beer, and we decided to meet at a bar three blocks from my home. I walked over there, sat down, and he offered me a job.

That’s how I got my job at Sports Illustrated. It was so stunningly easy, I still shake my head at it.

I sort of came out of college and thought to do a great feature, you’ve got to write the story that everybody knows but put it in your own voice. I hadn’t articulated it, I just had that sense.

But because I was a beat writer, first on Sacramento State football and then on the Kings, which was the most high-profile and intense beat besides the California state government, I realized very quickly that I had to report. Forget writing pretty or writing well, I had to break stories and advance the story. That was incredibly valuable because writing a good feature is the same thing. You still have to advance the story and tell me something new.

I learned all about reporting and gathering news from that and running around during the earthquake. Baseball writers from all over the country were suddenly pressed into service as news reporters. If there’s one thing that sportswriters know better than anybody, it’s a good quote. Day after day, you cover the exact same thing and you hear the exact same clichés. When someone says a good quote, everybody knows it. You become very attuned to what a good quote is.

I can remember stories of reporters getting feedback from the city editors saying, “My god, these stories are great!”, and the sportswriters thought it was just a good quote. They’d all been trained to know what a good quote is far better than news reporters because we cover the same thing every day as beat writers.

Covering the 1990 World Cup in Italy was astonishing and probably the best event I’ve ever covered. Unlike the Olympics, which is full of events that people have no idea what it takes to do, when it comes to the World Cup, especially in Europe and South America, not only have [readers] played the sport, but they feel like they’re experts in the sport and know it better than anybody. Every single country is invested to an insane degree in the World Cup. You feel like you’re at the center of the universe.

I covered the [baseball] expansion to Miami, and my boss said I was going to get the story. I was going up against the Washington Post, the USA Today, Denver, papers in Orlando, St. Petersburg, Buffalo, all places that were a candidate for a team. I was completely scared to death, and I thought if I don’t get this story, I’m going to get fired. All that enforced in me the importance of reporting.

I was lucky that there was no internet. I was a terrible writer, and I made plenty of mistakes. I was able to work on my craft in obscurity, which was really helpful. Getting to Sports Illustrated in 1994, I was as ready as I was going to be. I had a column in a Sunday magazine called Tropic Magazine for the Miami Herald and had written a lot of features.

When I got hired by Sports Illustrated, we stayed in Miami for another six years, and I went to Cuba like seven times that decade. The Pan Am Games in Havana in 1991 was another massive event for me because it was an intersection of culture, sports, and politics. I love that combination and seeing it so vividly lived in a country on the edge was really important to me. I ended up writing my first book about that, it’s called “Pitching Around Fidel.” I wrote it based on both my trips for the Herald and SI.

In 2003, I went overseas with my family. I was offered a job by the Chicago Tribune as a columnist. I loved my job at SI, but Dan McGrath, who was my sports editor at Sacramento, was now the sports editor at the Chicago Tribune. I had written columns in Miami, and this was the chance to be a lead columnist of a big city newspaper with a guy I knew as my boss, someone I knew I could depend on and help me transition into that situation which would be fraught because Chicago’s a big sports town and a very homey town. The best columnists in Chicago are the ones who grew up there and know what it’s like to be a Chicago fan as opposed to an import like me. It would have been a tough road, but having a guy work there with me would have been helpful.

When I got that job offer, I knew SI was going to ask me what I wanted, and I realized that they were treating me great and I had no complaints. That doesn’t happen very often, so I knew I better have something. They made it clear they wanted me to stay. I said why don’t you send me to Europe, I’ll write about sports from there. And they said OK.

We lived in the south of France, which is absurd. I covered European sports, French Open, Wimbledon. This was just before the Athens Olympics, when the threat of terrorism in the heart of Europe was a big story. This was the return of the Olympics to its source in Athens so I spent a lot of time there in preparation for that. I ended up writing a book about our time in Europe and that’s called “Far Afield.” It was sort of like a memoir.

I came back in 2004, and Mike Coolbaugh, a minor league first base coach was killed by a foul ball (in 2007). I wrote a long story about it for SI and then wrote a book about Mike and the guy who hit the ball. They were both minor league lifers, and I wrote about what life is like in minor league baseball through the lives of those two guys and leading up to Mike’s death. That book is called “Heart of the Game.”

In 2010, an editor at SI, Mark Mravic, asked if I’d be interested in writing a story about Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. I wrote the longest story I’ve ever written for SI. It was about 10,000 words, and I found I only scratched the surface.

There’s so many famous people from this very small steel town outside of Pittsburgh. Not just Hall of Fame football players like Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, Darrelle Revis and Ty Law, but also Pete Maravich, Pete Suder, Henry Mancini (the composer), Joe Letteri, who does visual effects and won Academy Awards for Lord of the Rings and Avatar, Madonna’s father, all these people. The Aliquippa 10 were the test case for the Wagner Act, which essentially established legality of unions in America and changed the face of American labor. All of that came out of Aliquippa.

I decided to write a biography of what I thought was a microcosm of America in the 20th century. Football’s a through-line of it, but it’s as much about labor and race and the infestation of crack cocaine and gang warfare.

Originally, I would say read everything. Don’t limit yourself to sports. Because you’re interested in sports, you’re going to read it no matter what. Read about subjects that you’re not necessarily interested in because you never know how it’s going to feed into your writing. I would argue for a liberal arts degree more than a journalism degree, because as much as I think you need to get the experience writing for a newspaper, you need to be able to draw on the knowledge from everywhere, especially to write about sports. I’ve written about sex, drugs, civic planning, architecture, zoning, race, homosexuality. You name it, I’ve written about it. You write about it all in sports and because people are going to read it and it gives you license to write about a wider range of things than any other section of the newspaper.

That would be my original thing, but I think we’re at a massive point of change in the human consumption of information. There’s always going to be writing, but I can see where print becomes a more niche exercise because I think we’re becoming more digital.

This whole joke that everyone in print laughs about nervously, pivot to video, that’s a real thing. Everyone’s trying to get on video because people think that everyone would rather consume information by watching it or hearing it than by reading it. I’m not built that way, and I certainly don’t think you can write without reading, but the powers that be in our business right now all believe that the future’s in video and visuals. That’s where the money is and they’re chasing hard after it.

I would argue that you shouldn’t simply have the ability to write. You have to have the ability to film, be on camera, and speak off the top of your head. Unfortunately, you probably have to have the ability to argue because what is valued right now is people yelling at each other and taking insanely strong and even inhuman interest in different issues.

I think that will pass, and storytelling will prevail because there’s something about stories that are important to us as human beings. But I’m not sure if print is going to be the way we consume it in 10, 20, 30 years.

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