A few weeks ago, after the Red Sox won the World Series, Bill Simmons wrote a lengthy piece for Grantland in which he connected two generations of Boston sports legends - Bill Russell and David Ortiz.
At least, that’s what he tried to do.
The first half of the column recounted Simmons’ earlier visit to Russell’s house, where he interviewed the Celtics legend.
He tried to connect it to Russell’s relationship to Boston writ large, but to me, he failed. He failed, because this passage felt like the centerpiece of the story:
I stood up.
“Come here. I want to show you something,” Bill Russell said.
For better or for worse, the first part of this article seemed to be built around that point. It seemed built around Simmons showing off that he had been in Bill Russell’s house, that Bill Russell knew his name and wanted to show him something. It was showing off, bragging - and doing so not to serve a larger point, but rather just to show off.
Which is a shame, because the second half of this article - the section on Ortiz - is marvelous. It really is. It captures everything that Simmons does well. It captures what Simmons brings to the sports media marketplace of ideas. It captures what it’s like to be a Boston fan, to be a fan of these Red Sox this year and to have watched this run. The money graf:
But when Ortiz grabbed the mic on that Saturday and screamed, “THIS IS OUR FUCKIN’ CITY!!!!!,” I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of an athlete. It was perfect. Nobody knew what to say that day. How do you sum up 237 years? How do you sum up that week? How do you sum up two evil scumbags ruining the city’s most special day? How do you show the right respect and empathy for the victims while also tapping into the spirit of the city itself? David Ortiz figured it out with five words. And he’s not even from Boston. It was amazing. Maybe “Boston Strong” was born earlier that week, but no. 34 gave it an exclamation point.
That’s great writing. That’s what Simmons does so well, and that’s the promise of what he does and those who have followed him - looking at sports from a fan’s perspective, capturing what it feels like to root for these teams, to be a part of this.
It’s too bad it came after hundreds of words of showing off.
I posted this observation to Twitter the day it came out, and more than one person called me out on it. Their basic gist: What do you expect? It’s Simmons. That’s his move.
There’s some truth to that. But I think it’s a dangerous truth.
I think high expectations are generally a good thing. Whether it’s my students, people in the world, or (in this case) media members, I think it’s good to have high expectations of people. I think the minute we start lowering our expectations is the minute we start settling for substandard content. When the Richie Incognito/Martin story first broke, Richard Deistch of Sports Illustrated kept track of how the NFL pre game shows covered the story. A few readers Tweeted him, asking if he was really expecting
Expectations can be good. We should expect more, not less. One of my problems with the whole Johnny Manziel story, back when Johnny Manziel was a thing, was the notion that he was acting like an average college sophomore. He’s not an average college sophomore, he’s the leader of what’s in effect a professional franchise and he’s posed to make millions at an actual professional franchise. I think our expectations for his behavior and attitude should be higher than that of an average college sophomore.
Same in the media. Like it or not, Bill Simmons is probably the most read and most famous sports writer in the U.S. today. I get the sense this is especially true for younger writers and fans, who have grown up reading him and not realizing just how revolutionary his approach was a decade ago. To use the parlance of academia, he sets the agenda for what people think a sports writer can and should do. I don’t think it’s unfair, or wrong, to hold him to a higher standard.
Which means publicly crediting him for excellent writing, like the Ortiz section of the Boston story.
And means calling him when his writing becomes selfish braggadocio.