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The Reducer: Week 9, Burning Down the House

The Best Sports Section in History

Memories of being a 10th man in the heyday of the Boston Globe

Nell Scovell is a television writer/producer whose credits include NCIS, Monk, Warehouse 13, Murphy Brown, Coach, and Newhart. She was the first female to write an episode for The Simpsons (“One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”) and the second female to write for Late Night with David Letterman. She created and executive produced ABC’s hit Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, which runs in syndication. But before she was into pop culture, she was into sports culture. Thirty years later, she’s writing about that for the first time.

In September 1981, Vince Doria, editor of the Boston Globe sports page, called me up from the minors. Each year, the Globe hired four correspondents from local colleges to cover what was still called “schoolboy sports.” Out of the blue, I got the nod. Next thing you know, I’m typing into a newfangled Atex system and breathing the same air as major league sportswriters Will McDonough, Bob Ryan, Michael Madden, Lesley Visser, Peter Gammons, and Leigh Montville. I quickly learned how to swear, guzzle lousy coffee, and find towns in Massachusetts that are still not on Google maps. I also received the best journalism advice of my life.

And I ignored it.

Normally, the correspondents were selected from Northeastern University, but the one female pick had fallen out early. Determined to have a gender-diverse staff, the editors scrambled to find a replacement and came across my work. I’d been a sports writer for the Harvard Crimson since fall of my freshman year, covering an array of beats including football, women’s soccer, men’s track and field, crew, and swimming. By sophomore year, I was named associate sports editor, reporting to sports editor Jeffrey Toobin, who is now better known for his legal analysis at CNN. (In 2008, Toobin was famously busted for watching the National League playoff game on his laptop during a vice presidential debate. This revelation came as absolutely no surprise to anyone who knows him.)

I was at home in Newton, Mass.,1 getting ready to head back to school when I received the call from Doria asking me to come interview for the opening. I should have been intimidated, but thanks to the brashness of youth, this unexpected call inviting me to join the best sportswriting team in the country made total sense. It also helped that the Globe was my hometown newspaper. It was hard not to love sports growing up in Boston in the late ’60s and ’70s. Baseball had Yaz, Fisk, Rico, Luis, and the superstar rookies, Fred Lynn and Jim Rice. The Bruins had Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, and Gilles Gilbert, whose name I always enjoy saying. Less captivating were the New England Patriots — not much of a team, but that young quarterback Jim Plunkett seemed to have some talent. And towering over them all — at least in my family — were the Celtics. The happiest I’ve ever seen my dad was at The Garden, witnessing John Havlicek sink a basket from the half-court line. Not an emotional guy, I’ll never forget my father thrusting his arms skyward in tribal exuberance. It was a rare moment of pure joy.

Loving the teams meant following the teams, which meant knowing the names of all the Globe sportswriters. I felt an instant familiarity with them — like when you spot an actor from a TV show on the street in Los Angeles and think, I know them! On some level, I “knew” the writers from the postage-stamp-sized photo that accompanied their columns. When I walked into the sports department for my initial interview, it thrilled me to see Leigh Montville at his desk in the corner, his mustache now animated like a Disney teapot.

My interview with the affable Doria went well, and I was passed off to scholastic editor Larry Ames, who had the thankless task of coordinating the four correspondents. Ames was a graduate of the Lou Grant School of Journalism, gruffly barking out assignments and grimacing as he edited our copy. I don’t ever recall seeing him get up from his desk. He was like a modern-day centaur — a man from the waist up and a desk from the waist down. If he had legs, I never saw them. Still, the correspondents jumped whenever Ames told us to. On a typical week, I might write a field hockey roundup, a profile of a cross country runner, and on Saturdays in the fall, we’d each attend a high school football game. As the last to be hired, I was assigned Divisions 4 and 5 (the smallest schools), which meant driving to exotic towns like Abington and Taunton. Covering two entirely new teams each week was tricky. It meant taking a crash course in the town’s football history, learning the names — and correct spellings — of all the players, and scribbling like mad in those skinny, brown reporter’s notebooks.

After the game, I’d scramble to find a pay phone to call Ames and give him the score so he could plan the page. If it was a big upset, I’d get an extra inch or two.2 On the drive back to the office, I’d compose the copy in my head. The deadlines were brutal. I once screeched into the Globe parking lot, threw my blue Ford into park, jumped out, and slammed the locked door just as I noticed my keys dangling from the ignition. I stared in horror for a beat, then realized I had no time to consider what an idiot I was. People needed to know if Cardinal Spellman blanked West Roxbury! I shrugged off the keys and sprinted toward the building.

Unlike writing for a college newspaper, working at the Globe was a serious business. This was never clearer than on December 23, 1981. For most people, it was the holiday season, but sportswriters don’t get holidays. They work Thanksgiving and Christmas, as well as New Year’s Day and pretty much all the others. It was the day before the day before Christmas, and I was in the office compiling stats. It was a painstaking job, but I was on break from college and happy to have the time during the week to catch up. Lost in concentration, I was jolted when I heard a chair scrape loudly across the floor. I looked up, and one row of desks over I saw Will McDonough on his feet, hunched over, one hand on his desk and the other grasping a phone receiver like he was wringing someone’s neck. His face was Santa-suit red as he screamed into the phone, “You think you can fucking get away with fucking me over like that?!”

I froze. But McDonough was just warming up. The Globe‘s star sports reporter, McDonough was a big guy with a big personality, and, no, you couldn’t fucking get away with fucking him over like that. He’d grown up in the same South Boston housing project as the savage James “Whitey” Bulger Jr., a fixture on the FBI’s Most Wanted List who was finally captured this past summer in Santa Monica about a mile from my house.3 Bulger was arraigned a month later in Boston on 19 counts of murder. In other words, you don’t mess with Southie … and New England Patriots owner Billy Sullivan had just messed with Southie big time. The previous day, Sullivan had given McDonough assurances that no decision had been made about coach Ron Erhardt’s future with the team after a dismal 2-14 season. McDonough had written a story reflecting that equivocation while the Boston Herald got the real story: Sullivan had fired Erhardt that morning. Now McDonough was letting Sullivan know how he felt about being double-crossed.

The string of obscenities McDonough unleashed was unparalleled. He used “fuck” as a noun, an adjective, a verb, and a conjunction. Scarface didn’t come out for another two years, and I’d never heard swearing like this. I thought maybe it was a reflection of my youth that I was so shocked, and I remembered that writer Michael Madden had been in the sports department that morning, too, so I contacted him via e-mail and asked about the incident. Madden e-mailed back: “Ohhh, do I remember that McDonough tirade — it was Christmas Eve, right? … I had never, never, NEVER heard anything like it … I don’t think journalism schools would have approved but it was a morning forever etched in my mind.”4

Mine, too. But it wasn’t Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve would have been poetic, and there was nothing poetic about this verbal assault. You know how sometimes when you witness a strong emotional outburst, you can’t help but giggle? There was no urge to giggle over this. It was plain scary. I’ve never heard anyone so angry in the workplace, and that includes working 24 years in the notoriously id-fueled Hollywood.

To his credit, McDonough remained professional in print. His Christmas Day response, “Life With Billy; Ron Erhardt Found, Alas, That Working For the Patriots’ Owner Can Be A No-Win Situation” is a masterful piece of reporting that takes Sullivan down by recounting the owner’s own words and actions. From that point on, McDonough (who died in 2003) never missed the opportunity to get in a dig. One of my favorites came 16 years later, when the Sullivans were forced to sell the team and McDonough observed: “Ten years ago, Bill Sullivan and his son Chuck owned the Patriots and the stadium, then known as Sullivan Stadium. They owed creditors more than $100 million, thanks to their shrewd dealings and business acumen.”

The fact that you could lace journalism with sarcasm is what attracted me to sportswriting in the first place. Humor was permitted, even encouraged. Finding that perfect twist for the lead was my favorite part of the job. Five years later, when I was the first staff writer hired at Spy magazine, I wrote an article called “Too Rich and Too Thin” which began with the observation, “In New York, there is an inverse relationship between a woman’s dress size and the size of her apartment. A size 2 gets a 14-room apartment. A size 14 gets a two-room apartment.” It’s a classic sports lede. And, in fact, the article is at heart an All-Scholastic team of skinny, rich women.

The Globe had many clever writers, and my favorite was the sly and wry Madden. For sure. He wasn’t as nationally well-known as Montville or Gammons, but if you grew up in Boston, you appreciated Madden’s writing every single day. He was an exceptional beat writer, covering football, college basketball, horse racing, the Red Sox — pretty much every sport except tennis (which belonged to Bud Collins). He was a gifted storyteller who didn’t need the Internet to tell him which horse came in third at the Kentucky Derby 10 years earlier. With a staggering amount of knowledge at his fingertips, Madden churned out copy like a machine, but his prose was always human.

Madden would occasionally stop by my desk to offer encouragement. One day, he threw me a piece of advice about journalism that was so smart and insightful, it has stayed with me ever since. He urged me to specialize, to pick a subject and learn more about it than anyone else. “There’ll always be better writers,” he advised me. “But if you’re the expert on a subject and that subject comes up, they’ll call you.” He smiled and went back to work.

About a week later, he followed up. He stopped by my desk and handed me a flyer for a local boxing event. He said he’d never seen a woman in the press box at boxing matches, and if I was thinking of specializing, boxing would be a good choice. He predicted the sport was about to break out, and if I started attending local fights and became fluent in the subject, I’d be well positioned for a career. Another smile, and again back to work.

I was intrigued. A young female reporting on boxing did seem like a bold and marketable choice. I stared at the flyer … considering … considering … and then I tossed it away. Tennis was the game I’d watched the most growing up,5 so the idea of becoming an expert on two guys punching each other — really, really hard — was unsettling. I rejected Madden’s advice, and then watched as history proved him absolutely correct. Boxing exploded in the second half of the decade thanks to Marvin Hagler, Leon Spinks, Evander Holyfield, Tommy “Hitman” Hearns, Mike Tyson, and, of course, promoter Don King. If I had started doing my homework in the early ’80s, I would have landed in the sweet spot for the sweet science.

But working full-time as a professional sportswriter was convincing me that I didn’t want to work full-time as a professional sportswriter. I liked finding a funny spin on a story, but more often I was generating ledes like “Walpole scored two goals in the first 12 minutes and then left it up to the defense to hold on for a 2-1 victory over Barnstable …” Ha?

Plus, the job was unrelentingly stressful, requiring high performance under extreme weather conditions. Sometimes it seemed like the only job more demanding than being an athlete was covering them. And maybe I was a little intimidated by Ames’ gruffness and McDonough’s swearing. The Globe could be a pretty cold workplace — and I’m not just talking about the coffee. (As Madden recollected, “You’d be there at one in the morning and the coffee would be from one the previous morning.”) The mood did always brighten when Lesley Visser charged into the office. She was easily the most glamorous person there and lit up the room with her big smile. Already a seven-year veteran of the sports department when I arrived, she would occasionally ask me which pro football teams I liked for various Sunday matchups. Sometimes she’d include my thoughts in her column, and I was thrilled. I’d been alerted by other correspondents that she liked to pick writers’ brains and “borrow” their ideas. But I think that’s an unfair charge that’s disproportionately leveled against women. Men in the workplace exchange opinions and information all the time over lunch and between urinals. Soliciting your colleagues’ opinions and incorporating the best ones into a column is part of the job, and Visser did it openly and well. Her long broadcasting career and countless awards attest to her talent. Soon after I left, Jackie MacMullan joined the Globe, covering the NBA with tremendous knowledge and skill, shattering that glass ceiling like Shaquille O’Neal shattering a backboard.

And while we’re on the subject of women breaking into a traditionally male field, a lot of credit goes to Doria (who is currently ESPN’s vice president and director of news). My hire was a good example of affirmative action — a once-admirable concept that has become twisted and misunderstood. Affirmative action does not mean you include an unqualified person because of their gender or race. It means you don’t exclude a qualified person because of their gender or race. In my case, it meant the Globe actively sought out a qualified person who could bring diversity to an otherwise homogeneous group. When the first correspondent fell through, it would have been easy for the editors to say, “Well, we tried to find a female” … and then hire another male. They didn’t. And whenever I hear a TV producer say, “We’d love to have more female writers, but they’re not applying for these jobs and we just can’t find them,” my response is, “You’re not looking very hard.” Doria and his team did more than just make an effort … they made a difference.

After college, I moved away from both Boston and sports. From 1987 on, I worked mainly in television, where my sports training came in handy in obvious ways — like the two seasons I worked on Coach starring Craig T. Nelson, or my Season 6 Murphy Brown episode entitled “Ticket to Writhe,” which boasts this Internet recap: “Miles obtains sideline passes to a Redskins’ game where he plans to propose to Audrey via the scoreboard, but finds he is so wrapped up with work he didn’t even notice that she has left him. Corky thinks the passes are cursed when more bad things occur to anyone in possession of them.” EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD SPOILER ALERT: The episode ends on the sideline of a Redskins game when, as scripted: “Wham! Two huge football players careen into the sidelines, flattening both Miles and Frank. The players quickly get up and run back into the game. Frank and Miles remain on the ground.”

The training helped in less obvious ways, too. Although I prefer a writers’ room with a mix of genders, I’ve never felt self-conscious being the only female, as I was at Newhart, Letterman, The Simpsons, NCIS, The Critic, and Monk (among others). Sports talk doesn’t bore me. And in November 1993, I got major respect points from my (then) CAA agents when I tagged along for the Holyfield-Bowe rematch in Vegas. Bowe had defeated Holyfield in the first go-round, but Holyfield came back prepared — although not for The Fan Man who parachuted into the ring, briefly halting the fight. Twenty minutes later, the bout resumed, and the heavyweight title went to Holyfield in a close 12-round majority decision. Vegas felt like the center of the universe that night, and I remember thinking I should have taken Madden’s advice.

Still, I think my Globe training helped me the most during my season as consulting producer on NCIS. The co-creator and showrunner, Donald P. Bellisario, was a wildly successful and notoriously difficult boss. The mood in the office was always tense, and the day after I turned in my first script, I got a call that he wanted to speak to me in his office. His assistant’s face telegraphed a warning — it wasn’t good news. As soon as I entered his office, I got hit with Bellisario’s fury. His problem wasn’t with the script. In fact, he’d read only up to page 15. His problem, he explained while shaking the script angrily, was a line I’d given to Mark Harmon’s character, Gibbs. “You have Gibbs say, ‘I want to see the gun,'” he shouted at me. “How did you get it so wrong?” I was confused. What was wrong with that? “Don’t you know anything?” he yelled. “Gibbs would never say ‘I want to see the gun.’ No military man would. He’d say ‘weapon’ not ‘gun.’ And you should know that!”

Now, Bellisario was a large man, and his yelling should have unnerved me. But I’d witnessed Will McDonough screaming at Billy Sullivan, and this outburst wasn’t even in the same league. So when Bellisario repeated angrily, “You should know that!” I simply opened my arms in bewilderment and replied, “What made you think I would?” Whatever he expected my reaction would be — apologies, cowering, tears — he certainly did not expect the little shrugging smile that I flashed at him next. Bellisario was disarmed. “Just don’t do it again,” he warned. And I assured him I wouldn’t. And I didn’t. There were other touchy moments, but no matter how furious Bellisario got, it was never McDonough furious.

To indulge in a cliché, I left sportswriting but sportswriting never left me. And to best sum up my career at the Globe, I’d like to offer a comparison to baseball. In 2004, the Red Sox added a young pitcher from Double-A Binghamton to the roster who finished the 2004 season 0-0, with a 4.23 ERA in 22 games. His role in the team’s success was marginal at best, but he was there when the miracle happened. He had a front-row bench seat to greatness. He was part of a World Series championship team.

I am the Lenny DiNardo of sportswriters.6


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Filed Under: General topics, History, Sports

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