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Baffoe: Jay Mariotti Wrongly Thinks Sportswriting Is Dead Because Rick Reilly Is Leaving It

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Rick Reilly. (Getty Images)

Rick Reilly. (Getty Images)

Tim Baffoe - clean background Tim Baffoe
Tim Baffoe attended the University of Iowa before earning his de...
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By Tim Baffoe-

(CBS) Some sports writers across the country have been in mourning since the announcement Wednesday that Rick Reilly will be retiring his column in a few months. I understand the outpouring — Reilly was a wordsmith who inspired many to get into sports journalism. He was appointment reading for a long time, telling a great story (or a bad one that he managed to make interesting) with a touch of quirk and humor that separated him from the cigar-chomping fedoras of the business.

But I disagree that now is the time for Reilly eulogies. Nothing good has died here. The great writer died six years ago when he left Sports Illustrated for ESPN and a lot of money. Don’t get me wrong — I begrudge nobody for getting paid, and I don’t consider Reilly a rock-star-turned-sellout. Get your money, by all means.

Reilly, though, moved to Bristol when it was at the height of turned from The Force to The Dark Side. ESPN was all about sports entertainment, even in its so-called journalism.

The greats can’t sustain forever. Some are self-aware enough to let go if they realize they are declining. That didn’t happen with Reilly.

He became Frankenreilly’s Monster. Recycling old material and self-plagiarizing several times, among other writing sins, kept the checks coming but embittered many of the now 30-somethings like me who saw a former hero now insulting our intelligences. We mourned years ago and kept getting the corpse thrown back in our faces while our bad-joke uncles kept reading.

One those uncles is Jay Mariotti, the guy whom everybody is totally wrong about when considering him a flaming sack of medical waste. Once in a while his work oils its way to the surface of the Internet that he hates and makes money from, and Thursday he penned a nauseating “I hate media” piece for the umpteenth time disguised as a lickfest for Reilly. I read it, and it’s homeless-guy-yelling-at-a-wall bad, and I’m breaking it down just as a lesson in perhaps considering the company you keep when singing someone’s praises.

Behold:

On Rick Reilly’s final day at ESPN.com, his two March efforts were the highest-read pieces on the site.

Because volume equals quality of product.

Perfect. As he ends the most accomplished sportswriting career of his generation, he embarrasses the industry traffic whores who’ve mocked him as their cheap way of attracting eyeballs.

Hi, everybody!

A gifted paragon in an increasingly wayward, soulless, Beavis-and-Butthead profession …

A gifted paragon? That’s like when Frank Keefe publicly said to Joseph McCarthy “Ah ’tis but a dainty flower I bring you,/ Yes, ’tis but a violet, glistening with dew,/ But still in its heart there lies beauties concealed/ So in our heart our love for you lies unrevealed.” Also, Beavis and Butthead was at one time MTV’s highest-rated program. So if we’re going by the Mariotti logic of volume equaling quality …

Reilly has had to absorb cheap shots from hopeless hacks who can’t draw readers with their own dreck and rely on ripping a master to make a few nickels.

Yeah, but this kind of thing is just so darn fun to do.

What they’ll never grasp is that Reilly, to the end, was excelling by hitting every note on the sportswriting scale. His piece last week on Jim Kelly and his horrific obstacles in life, including cancer, stirred tears.

Jay Mariotti has never cried because that is a human emotion, and Jay Mariotti is not human. He is a manly centaur that abuses women.

His recent commentary on why Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox were voted immediately into baseball’s Hall of Fame — though all managed teams with stars immersed in performance-enhancing drugs — provoked widespread debate.

I honestly hadn’t heard about that piece until Mariotti mentioned it. I also doubt it provoked as much debate as Reilly’s column on the Washington football team name in which he misquoted his own father-in-law to push a really bad argument.

Reilly made you think, made you cry, made you LOL, made you get to know a subject, made you love sports and hate sports and love him and hate him.

All of those things Reilly made us do happened during his tenure at Sports Illustrated. Only that last verb was heavily ESPN-related.

Above all, he made you read him, every column.

Not exactly. I and many others stopped reading him unless he wrote something that was Deadspin-worthy, meaning dubiously done. Much of the clicking on his work was either from people who wear jorts to picnics or collateral from the website being the behemoth it is.

He is leaving the writing game to concentrate exclusively on television. Anyone who knows Reilly knows this is ass-backwards, that his flowing prose doesn’t come across so well on TV.

We agree that he’s even less palatable on TV than in print because my loathing then becomes personified. Now next is where Mariotti and some other fanboys get it wrong.

But ESPN president John Skipper, who has a bizarre hard-on for a comparatively inane Bill Simmons and has overpromoted a glorified Boston sports fan at Reilly’s expense, is ignoring Reilly’s robust readership and turning him strictly into a talking head who will create stories for “Monday Night Football” and SportsCenter. This is a forced move, with Skipper conveniently playing to Reilly’s social-media critics — and playing to his pal Simmons, too — rather than protecting Reilly and having his back.

No, Reilly made his own bed there. Skipper and crew are tired of his worn out act and multiple blatant journalistic crimes. Nobody is bigger than Bristol, and Reilly is deservedly learning that the hard way. Also, leave it to Mariotti, an open Simmons-phobe, to go out of his way to tie the Grantland chief into this and start yelling at the kids to get off his lawn just because sportswriting, like any genre, is fluid and constantly evolving. Neither Reilly nor Mariotti are worthy of Grantland, the promising soon-to-come FiveThirtyEight section of ESPN’s website or other new media because they’re obtuse, wet farts. Simmons is indirectly responsible for the removal of Reilly, but not for the reasons Mariotti thinks.

 “Life’s 2 short 2 work full-time. Letting my column go + will just do features 4 MNC + SC. Thx 2 John Skipper 4 this!,” Reilly tweeted.

Thank John Skipper? For what, ruining sportswriting?

Because Jay Mariotti knows sportswriting, darn it, and that is why he’s doing it on a fairly remote corner of the Internet that he’s always lambasting for existing in the first place.

When I started this multi-media sports site, I wrote that the best writers are the most versatile — strike a romantic nerve, break a scandal, rip an owner, question a strategic move, profile a great athlete, rejoice after a marvelous performance or human triumph. You must do it all.

But Mariotti was never versatile. He found a niche long ago as Reilly did. The former’s was in Chicago being contrarian and getting people to buy the newspaper strictly to hate on him. I used to point out to people how smart Mariotti was for this — he was making a living getting people to willfully walk into something they knew they would hate. But all acts get old.

Reilly’s did, and the system is digesting him. Mariotti’s did (coupled with him being a truly awful person), and now he spends his days raging against the machine from his porch.

Sportswriting should be less about analytics and fandom and more about passion, debate, raw energy, feel, criticism.

There it is. Numbers scary! Fire bad! You anti-analytics folk out there who don’t understand that no sabermetric people want to take the emotion out of sports and actually put a lot of their own passion into consuming them have Mariotti on your side. Remember that.

He then goes on more “I hate everything ESPN because they just couldn’t handle my realness” crap, literally says that “no one can be bigger than those four initials” after treating Reilly as such this whole time, gets angry about intelligent people being in the business and taking away his bully credentials, questions the merits of Nate Silver, says basically that if ESPN is soon dedicating part of its website to strictly African-American content then why isn’t there a White History Month (who ever thought Mariotti could be a racist?), calls Mike Downey brilliant, remembers that he was supposed to be writing about Rick Reilly and declares — again — that sportswriting is officially dead, as exemplified because Reilly is on Twitter (as Mariotti used to be but quit because his following was too slim for his ego).

Sportswriting is far from dead in a reality that isn’t Mariotti’s. In fact it continues to only get better. The super wide medium of the Internet allows anyone a chance to be Reilly or Mariotti or Simmons or Will Leitch or Drew Magary or Dave Zirin or David Roth or any of the many great and many bad writers out there right now. It also forces everyone else to be better because the exclusivity paper kings like Mariotti used to enjoy is gone.

And he and Reilly chose not to adapt, to not get better. And the Darwinian genre has spoken.

Sportswriting is not dead. But the bad kind is dying fortunately.

You can follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe, but please don’t follow him in real life. E-mail him at tenfootmailbag@gmail.com.

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