'SportsCenter' creator is highlight himself

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BRISTOL, Conn. - ESPN's SportsCenter, a genuine slice of Americana, will air its 25,000th edition Sunday, a run of success possibly reinforcing the notion that we are not a profound people. Aside from stressing our preoccupation with pleasing 18- to 34-year-old males, though, the occasion is a timely example of the many ironies in the life and influence of John A. Walsh, the man who created and shaped SportsCenter, as well as virtually every aspect of ESPN's news operation.

He is widely proclaimed a visionary in the most visual media, his editorial moves having affected competitive giants from Sports Illustrated to television cable rivals, yet his eyesight is so poor he has no driver's license. He is a man whose primary passion from childhood was sports, especially baseball, yet he never played a game of catch until invited by his young son when Walsh was almost 50. He is one of the most voracious readers extant, yet he presides over an empire at ESPN that caters to passive masses on couches, guys who - one often suspects - consider sports talk radio educational.

Perhaps it is logical that the incongruities also exist in SportsCenter, if one looks beyond the sophomoric babbling over repetitious clips of arrogant ballplayers admiring their home runs, beating their chests and hanging on basketball rims.

Sometimes there is a cultural/sociological bit: the town of Devils Lake, N.D., debating the implications of having "Satans" as a school nickname. Or something a little whimsical: The national spelling bee winner prevailing in a contest to spell the names of female tennis players. Or something a little sad: once-invulnerable Earl Campbell hobbling around like a 90-year-old man two decades after retirement from pro football.

Walsh, whose ESPN title is executive editor, loves discovering the "nugget" of unexpected detail in the mountains of rote reporting, the revealing tidbit he sometimes referred to as "the dirt." He loves to cause somebody's eyes to widen or, better yet, a jaw to drop.

"My birthday in 1979," recalled Entertainment Weekly executive editor Peter Bonventre, then the top assistant to Walsh in starting the much-acclaimed, though short-lived, Inside Sports magazine, "I'm a huge Sinatra fan, and the first thing that day, the secretary says 'Happy Birthday' and gives me a gift. A Sinatra album. Then the doorman. A Sinatra album. We go to celebrate at the Cowboy Bar - from the bartender, a Sinatra album. A couple of the regulars there, same thing. We go to eat and, from the waiter, a Sinatra album. By the end of the night, I had 55 Sinatra albums. I still don't know how he arranged it."

Here's how: Walsh's assistant at Inside Sports and future wife, the former Ellen Donato, went out and bought all 55 albums and distributed them to the cast of greeters.

Hits the ground running

According to Steve Anderson, the network's production and operations chief, first impressions at ESPN were fairly universal. "It was, 'Who is this guy?' The amount of people John knows and who know John is unbelievable."

Indeed, upon his arrival his Rolodex of numbers ranged from Catherine Deneuve to Bill Murray, Kinky Friedman to Margaux Hemingway.

ESPN's manifest destiny had begun, with Walsh's fingerprints all over each expanding move: the transformation of SportsCenter into a newscast, the creation of the Outside the Lines investigative series, the launch of ESPN News, ESPN radio, the ESPYs, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

"When he started running SportsCenter," said Washington Post sports editor George Solomon, "you had to watch it, because if you didn't, you were going to get whacked."

He was "relentless, resourceful, knowledgeable," Bonventre said. "Just a damn good journalist."

Walsh held top editing jobs at Newsday, The Washington Post and Rolling Stone. He is the fellow who hired Hunter S. Thompson, creator of what Thompson called "gonzo journalism" and author of the psychedelic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, to write a "Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl" piece for Rolling Stone. Walsh is the man who 20 years ago proposed a type of sports-awards TV show, which he later "dusted off" as the blueprint for the ESPYs. Potential host Dick Clark came to Walsh's office to discuss the plan. "Thrill of my life," Walsh said.

With Walsh, there is going to be a surprise, sooner or later. His life started that way. The first of four children, Walsh arrived in Scranton, Pa., 57 years ago with a striking genetic condition - albinism, lacking pigment in the skin, hair and eyes. He describes his parents' reaction as "What have we here?!"

He couldn't be in the sun, was forced to operate with 20/200 vision and looked so much older than everyone else, with his snow-white hair and pink skin, that he not only had to endure Santa Claus jokes, but also was asked to pay adult prices at movie theaters from the time he was 9 years old.

Then again, speaking for albinos, "our best times are in movie theaters," he said. "No outside light. And I do like being in the first seven rows."

To watch television - he daily reviews SportsCenter while riding an exercise bike at home - he stations his face within inches of the screen.

He said 1993 cataract surgery improved his vision enough that he no longer should be classified as legally blind. But his eyesight obviously limited his athletic career; he was afraid to attempt playing catch with a hardball, a judgment reinforced the one time he tried pitching batting practice to friends and was immediately struck in the face by a line drive.

He cited, as his athletic peak, playing for the intramural slow-pitch softball team composed of the University of Missouri journalism school's sports staff.

Still, it was just a few years ago that his son James returned from T-ball practice to stun Walsh with the request, "Dad, can we play catch?" Walsh wrote of the moment in a warm essay included in the coffee-table book What Baseball Means to Me, how he positioned his son against a dark background to increase his odds of seeing the ball.

"There I was, in my late 40s, learning how to play catch," Walsh wrote. "My teacher was my son, and he thought I was teaching him something about baseball."

A perfect vacation

Sports were a constant as Walsh grew up. Family vacations often included trips to Philadelphia or New York to attend major-league games. Walsh witnessed - though not as clearly as others in the ballpark - Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

A journalism career occurred to him while studying English at the University of Scranton and working on the campus yearbook, newspaper and radio station. First as a graduate assistant and then as an assistant professor, he worked as sports editor of the Missouri's journalism school-run city newspaper for four years, training aspiring sports journalists.

Now he caters to an ESPN audience that Bonventre described as, "huge but also very cultish; it's dealing with teen-aged boys and young men who ought to get a life. But John understands the audience, and he attacks the job from every conceivable angle."

John Jeansonne is a reporter for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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