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Lessons from Athletics Nation

The sun has set on “son of ptbarnum.” His colleague, confidant, and successor, Dave Nelson, has learned many lessons from SoPTB’s experience, though.

A farewell salute to son of ptbarnum.
A farewell salute to son of ptbarnum.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

─E. M. (Ed) Forster

When I began this front page gig, I wasn't sure how long it would take before I was ridiculed out of the blogging business. For that reason, I retained the pseudonym, son of ptbarnum. It was a convenient, slightly farcical, cover for my insecurity. I figured as soon as my audition post, "Selig's War," appeared, I would be quickly back to my stock-trading routine, one more victim of writer's blog.

The joke was on my insecurity, however. Each week, the run of son of ptbarnum kept being extended, if not exactly by public acclaim, then by reader curiosity and indulgence. I was curious, too. I had committed to Alan Torres, the former cuppingmaster, I would produce an article once a week, but I hadn't written regularly in more than 30 years. After my audition, what could I do for an encore?

So much about writing has changed.

I was trained as a writer before there were computers, just things called Underwoods and Smith-Coronas. (The best thing about an Underwood typewriter was, it never interrupted my train of thought to update Windows.) Back then, for daily publications, story form and length were exacting, suffocating demands. You had to use "a.m." and "p.m." leads depending on what time of day, morning or afternoon, the newspaper was published. And the story had to be constructed with most of the information at the beginning so the typesetters could arbitrarily cut the story to fit the space available on the printed page. In that ironclad "reverse pyramid" format, you had to forget about story arcs, recurring themes, and even running gags.

Back then, there were professional writers, and then there were the readers. The only time the two got together was when a reader became incensed enough to write a "Letter to the Editor" which the professional editors either ignored or published long after the original story had appeared. Since printing was expensive, there were only a few publications and publishing houses, and those few reinforced a tyranny of publishing. There was also a spoils system among writers. In the newspaper business, you had to write formulaic crap for years before earning your way up to writing a 500-word column or a "think piece" as it was called.

Just think of D.L. Nelson as D.H. Lawrence without the college-lit eroticism.

That's why I stopped writing. There seemed little point in enduring the writing grind and putting up with the trite conventions of journalism when there were so many other interesting things to do: saloon management, theater production, concert promotion, teaching seminars, the stock market. I have done all of that, and more. I seem to change lines of work every eight or nine years and now, apparently, it's time to adapt again.

That's really what the change from son of ptbarnum to my real name, D.L. Nelson, signifies. Actually, I go by Dave Nelson but I could not claim that appellation in the SB Nation system because somebody already owned it. I opted for the literary-sounding "D.L. Nelson" because, a long time ago, a guy named Dave Lawrence had the same web account problem and chose to identify himself as D.H. Lawrence.

Just think of D.L. Nelson as D.H. Lawrence without the college-lit eroticism.

I'm not sure where I'm headed from here. I will continue to offer stories on Athletics Nation, just not on a weekly basis. I have several ideas but who knows? (I've never had a career path, more like a career blast pattern.) But I have learned several valuable lessons from my tenure as son of ptbarnum, and I thought you might be interested in them.

Bust your ass to be accurate or, at least, fair.

In my second piece for AN, "Christo and the Great Tarp Experiment," I made the cavalier observation that Christo was dead. One of the first readers of the story knew differently and immediately corrected me in the comments. Though embarrassed, I laughed and laughed, and here's the reason: Years ago, I produced a series of comedy concerts starring Red Skelton. He was near the end of his life but he was still working two hours of stand-up comedy every gig. We had breakfast one morning (incidentally, Red Skelton was the only star I ever met who picked up the meal check) and I asked why he still felt he had to work so hard.

"I've got to," he said. "People keep writing that I'm dead."

So, out of respect for Christo and Red, I have learned to fact-check as much as possible. I have also learned to get my classical references straight. In one story, I made a joke about Hercules cleaning out the Aegean stables. This elicited an erudite correction from a reader explaining the difference between Aegean (as in, the Aegean Sea) and Augean (after King Augeas who owned the stables Hercules flushed). Again, I laughed. Three centuries ago, one of my college professors had made the same correction on one of my term papers.

Who knows? Maybe the commenter was my old professor.

There is another aspect to this lesson. Since I first learned journalism, I have been skeptical of its ethics. Its values were based on expedience and a phony third-person impartiality. Custom and form dictated the writer had to fake not being part of the story. And journalistic style dictated that a writer owed his first loyalty to the deadline, rather than accuracy. Get the interview, publish the story before the other guy, regardless of consequences, and move on.

Feature writing is equal parts inspiration, perspiration, and desperation.

With AN, I have had a chance to rewrite some of those conventions. When someone is kind enough to grant me an interview, I send him (or her) the questions in advance. I want him to know what he is in for. In real life, this is known as common courtesy but there is a more practical reason to give a subject a sneak preview: it makes for a more relaxed interview.

Though it takes more time and causes more stress, I always let my interview subjects read a draft of the story before I publish. I feel it is important to share not only facts and quotes with the people most affected, but context as well. Their editorial suggestions (some are more like expressions of horror) invariably make the story better and more coherent. And, best of all, the subjects feel as if they have been treated fairly. My small contribution to World Peace.

Never underestimate the kindness of strangers.

I know what dynamic drives this website, and it isn't the kind of odd-ball features I post. Nevertheless, the readers and commenters of Athletics Nation have been most gracious in their acceptance of my offerings. Every week, I am astonished by the number of people who actually take the time to read through my post, the entire post. And then many of them take additional time to comment. Even the dissenters who feel I am full of crap actually take the time to express, in detail, exactly why I am full of crap. I am grateful for their instruction and generosity.

The kindness of strangers extends to the Athletics front office staff, too. Bob Rose and Adam Loberstein, the PR guys, indulged my out-of-the-blue enquiries and connected me to Troy Smith who helped me with my whimsical stories on "The Economics of Bobbleheads" and "Bernie Night Resurrected." Troy connected me to Heather Rajeski, Matt Shelton ("The Secrets of Dot Racing") and Jim Leahey ("The Toughest Job in Baseball"). Jim put me in touch with David Rinetti ("Mr. Showtime") who put me on to Mark Torres ("Sunday in the Parking Lot with Me"). I found Pam Pitts ("The Paper Chase") on my own but she tipped me off to Pat Fillipone and the Stockton Ports ("Joy in Mudville").

I have never been much of a networker but there may be something to the practice.

The guy had just had his life turned inside out and yet he thanked me for writing the article.

Funny thing, I never know from where the kindness might come. Last month I wrote a dopey piece called "A Stats Bumpkin Goes to WAR." I opened with a joke about never knowing what to buy my wife for her birthday. I intended the article to be lightweight comedic fare. Yet, in the comments section, a reader recounted how his wife had recently died of a brain aneurysm, leaving him alone to care for three children. He had been trying to find ways to cope and found solace in reading my material. On some profound level, my wife joke hit home. (His wife died one week shy of her birthday.) The guy had just had his life turned inside out and yet he thanked me for writing the article.

Somebody tell me how I deserve such kindness.

There is a value to community.

From AN, I learned (relearned, actually) the value of community. Many of the communities you hear about are simply political or demographic constructs. AN is the real deal, an alliance formed voluntarily by the individuals who comprise it. It is driven by their unique skills, interests, and dedication. No social scientist can categorize it; no politician can demonize it.

A big part of this community is its front page writers, and I am proud to serve among them. After I passed my audition and was granted access to the AN inner sanctum, my Outlook inbox started filling up with Google-ized email exchanges between members of the front page crew. Holy Toledo! As a reader (or lurker, as some have suggested) I never realized the amount of coordination it takes to supply game-related copy on a regular basis. Take it from me, folks, the front-page writers are a perceptive, relentless, devoted, and first-rate bunch. Seeing from the inside how they work has given me a new respect for Athletics Nation. Trying to keep up with them has been a worthy challenge.

Whatever they're getting paid, if anything, it ain't enough.

Weekly deadlines seem to come every three days.

My, how time flies when you have a deadline! Alan the Cuppingmaster warned us neophyte front page writers that 50% of the job is inspired writing. The other 50% is more difficult. You have to do it every week.

What Alan did not say is, weekly deadlines seem to come every three days.

Good writing starts with a good idea, but I had forgotten how hard it is to incubate an interesting idea. (Maybe that's why there are so few original or intriguing thoughts on the internet.) Every week I start with three or four malformed story notions and by Tuesday, two days prior to my publication deadline, I am usually clinging to one desperate hope. There is an old expression that states, writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. The lesson I have learned is, feature writing is equal parts inspiration, perspiration, and desperation.

I still have no idea how my articles get done but somehow they do. It's a wonderful mystery. Through Athletics Nations, I have learned some of the lessons necessary to be able to write again. That is no mystery; that is a damn miracle.

So, please stand by. Son of ptbarnum may have moved on with the circus, but D.L. Nelson still has a few jokes to tell.