Special on Baltimore's Deford shows writer's better than most


August 19, 2005|By RAY FRAGER

LIKE JUST ABOUT everyone else in this business, I've always held Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford in the highest regard. However, after viewing You Write Better Than You Play: The Best of Frank Deford, which debuts tonight at 8 on ESPN Classic, I admire him all the more.

During the 90-minute program, highlighting his career and some of his best stories, there is this comment from Chris Evert, recalling when he once was writing a piece on her: "At one point, I tried to pick him up." (Evert says she was unsuccessful.)

The documentary has a heavy Baltimore flavor, given that this is Deford's hometown. He's photographed at Pimlico and seen in a black-and-white photo playing basketball for Gilman. Deford recalls the boyhood thrill of joining the grounds crew for Orioles games, sitting in the dugout near the players and getting a buck for each time he had to help roll out the tarp.

"When I was growing up in Baltimore," he says, "Baltimore was always looked down upon" before the arrival of the Colts and major league Orioles.

The program recounts how his idea to write about a budding Princeton basketball star named Bill Bradley started his star rising at SI and moves on through the compelling stories of boxer Billy Conn and tennis star Jimmy Connors.

Most poignantly, the show tells about the writer's daughter, Alex, who died at 8 of cystic fibrosis. Deford talks about how Alex was always rooting on the females in athletic endeavors and how she took an interest in the great filly Ruffian, who broke down in a match race and had to be euthanized. Ruffian is buried near the finish line at Belmont Park, and though Alex wanted to visit the grave, Deford never got around to taking her, something he says he still regrets.

The documentary gets its title from the assessment Princeton's basketball coach gave Deford when he was practicing with the team and then writing about it for the school paper. How fortunate for sports fans everywhere that Deford wasn't a better player.

If you were a woman sportscaster, the Carolyn Hughes story probably would make you smack yourself in the forehead and say, "Oy!" (or perhaps some other, less ethnic exclamation of dismay).

Hughes used to be part of Fox SportsNet West's coverage of the Los Angeles Dodgers - then she became a story.

She reportedly began an affair with Dodgers pitcher Derek Lowe while she covered the team. Hughes and Lowe have split from their spouses, and Hughes has been split from her Dodgers duties.

The beautiful sideline disaster of Lisa Guerrero on Monday Night Football is one thing, but hooking up with a baseball player is another.

"I was so disappointed," Comcast SportsNet's Sage Steele said. "It should not reflect [on women covering sports], but it does.

"It's a no-brainer for me. You lose your credibility. You don't date the people you cover."

Though the Hughes-Lowe affair wasn't the first time a woman and man connected in the course of their work, they aren't a couple of account executives sneaking off into a hotel room while on a business trip to Des Moines. Athletes and sportscasters are in the public eye.

"Maybe I shouldn't feel this way, but I feel we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard as women," Steele said.

So, along those lines, when Steele is working a locker room and waiting on a player, she won't simply look around for him, as a male sportscaster would. Sometimes, she'll stand there and face the floor, waiting for her cameraman to tell her when the subject has appeared.

But something like the Hughes-Lowe story doesn't enhance her credibility.

"Players don't like it when we stereotype them, so they shouldn't stereotype us," Steele said.

Not that some network executives help matters.

"A lot of women aren't hired for the right reasons - they're beautiful, and that's about it," she said.

However, Steele, who has been in television for 10 years, said she is treated with respect these days by players and fans.

And maybe she learned a lesson about being on guard early in her career, when she was a news reporter. Steele recalled she was out covering a story when a man on site started trying to pick her up. The man was a policeman. And the site was at a murder scene.

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