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Sports

April 17, 2016

LOVE That: The Sam Walker Story

Wall Street Journal sports editor Sam Walker, departing for a new job, helped create daily coverage made up of the unique, creative, and occasionally nutty. And he sent lots of enthusiastic emails.

Carl Bialik

Sam Walker has been the editor of the Wall Street Journal's daily sports page since its launch in March 2009. Now Walker is leaving the section this spring to become the Journal's deputy enterprise editor. The love his colleagues feel for him, or their desire to roast him publicly, is evident in their reaction when I invited them last week to participate in a Varsity Letters recalling the best of WSJ Sports under Walker: Nearly everyone—more than 15 people—agreed to speak. He brought the full weight of his writing talent to the editing job, making a section that nearly from Day One established its unique mix of scoops, humor, investigation, insight, obsessive quantification, deep analysis, the offbeat, and a notable lack of traditional game stories.

Sam Walker
"Make them spit out their coffee!"

Sam Walker

I used to write for the WSJ, including, now and then, about sports, and my favorite thing about Walker is the emails he'd send about story ideas. His enthusiasm, even for the occasionally mundane or misconceived pitch, was contagious. I lost most of the emails when I left the WSJ and my corporate email address, but dug up some that were copied to my Gmail, most of them responses to colleagues' pitches. A sampling:

TOTALLY worth the gag!

I beyond love this.

LOVE that idea

yes I LOVE that idea

Yeah, love that.

Brilliant

OMG

lezz do it.

I like it!

Man, I love that concept... wow!

Yeah, super funny.

Eight of Walker's colleagues who will speak at Varsity Letters on Monday—Pia Catton, Jonathan Clegg, Ben Cohen, Darren Everson, Geoff Foster, Matt Futterman, Jason Gay, and Tom Perrotta—responded to our questionnaire about Walker and WSJ sports, including sharing some of their favorite emails from the boss:

Gelf Magazine: What's your favorite email or verbal instruction from Sam?

Pia Catton: "Write it like it's the Gettysburg Address."

Jonathan Clegg: Probably the time he sent me to New Orleans before the Super Bowl and instructed me to find drunk fans on Bourbon Street and try to best them in a game of NFL trivia that he named "Stump the Brit."

Darren Everson: "Make them spit out their coffee!" Sam constantly said that he wanted to break stories that would cause the people we were investigating to spit out their coffee in the morning upon reading them.

Geoff Foster: When he said "Can we crash an immersive?"

Matt Futterman: TOO MANY TO CHOOSE FROM BUT IT WASN'T DEFINITELY ONE THAT WAS SENT IN ALL CAPS. WAIT, THAT'S LIKE ALL OF THEM.

Jason Gay: To be honest, I’ve never opened an email from Sam. Going in now. OK here’s one from 2009: “Guys I hate sports and all of you. I’m only doing this job because I got caught taking an extra bagel downstairs.” I guess I should have opened that one.

Tom Perrotta: About a second after I emailed him about visiting Mats Wilander, who was driving around in a Winnebago giving tennis lessons, Sam replied: "Omg. Sold!!" When you freelance for a living, that's a perfect email to get from an editor. And he once emailed me this bit of advice when I was struggling mightily with a story: "Take a breather and then dive back in." Words to live by.

Gelf Magazine: What's your favorite reaction from a reader, email or otherwise, to the WSJ's unique brand of sports coverage?

Pia Catton: California Chrome's trainer Art Sherman, age 77, said to me: "Wall Street Journal? You guys cover sports? Are you going to ask me for a stock tip?"

Jonathan Clegg: It's one I received from a soccer fan. It ended with: "How's this for an affectation: snog my arsehole you hack."
(The full version is pinned to the wall in the WSJ office.)

Ben Cohen: The best reaction to one of the absurd stories is when readers need confirmation that what they just read in The Wall Street Journal is not, in fact, from The Onion.

Darren Everson: An email from Sen. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), who said he discussed with Ben Bernanke a Count we ran about rare baseball feats.

Matt Futterman: Before the Giants-Patriots Super Bowl I did a preview story about watching the game as a beginner, intermediate, and expert viewer. I got an email from a guy who said he and his wife never watch the NFL and don't even know all the rules but he read my story and the game sounded so interesting they decided to do something they never do—watch the Super Bowl. It was a gentle reminder of the place sports holds in the minds of a lot of people who buy our paper.

Jason Gay: Someone sent me a note saying they’d wished I’d never been born. I think that was from my brother.

Tom Perrotta: We wrote a story last year about college tennis in the Big 12 conference, which had decided to let students scream and cheer in the middle of points. I went to Baylor to see it live and it was everything I had hoped it would be, maybe better. When the story ran (with video), most readers reacted as if this was the end of civilization. Rob Lowe tweeted, "This tells you all you need to know about a lot"—which means I'm not sure what, but I'm guessing it's something like, "My god we are a nation of heathens who can't even play tennis without shouting at each other." Call me crazy but I thought it was a worthy experiment (which, if I understand correctly, has since been toned down).

Gelf Magazine: Do players know the WSJ covers sports differently? Are they surprised it covers sports at all?

Darren Everson: They seem to know now. They were surprised in the beginning, but less so now.

Jason Gay: They’re into it until we make it clear we’re actually there to write about sports, and not their portfolios.

Tom Perrotta: At first, everyone in tennis was surprised we covered sports at all (and some still are, or at least rib me about it). Then they got to know us, and soon they were not the least bit surprised when I tended to ask them about stuff that was, well, peculiar. And they all ask for stock tips. A lot, and only half-jokingly. I should have started giving them out for the hell of it, just picked some companies at random.

Gelf Magazine: What's a story you wrote or edited for the WSJ that wouldn't have gotten published anywhere else?

Jonathan Clegg: Why American Soccer fans are wankers.

Ben Cohen: Every time we wasted hours and hours counting something that shouldn't have been counted: the amount of football in a football game, the number of Bill Belichick smiles at press conferences, Stephen Curry's free-throw percentage with his mouthguard in and out of his mouth, etc.
But my favorite day as a Journal sports reporter was the time I visited San Quentin State Prison to watch a game between inmates and Golden State Warriors executives, then drove to Oracle Arena for NBA Finals practices, then went to an Oakland salon for a story about NBA players getting pedicures that demanded I get one myself. Prison, basketball, and pedicures: a pretty typical Journal sports day.

Geoff Foster: Probably the story where I counted how many times Bill Belichick smiled.

Matt Futterman: The Madden send-off that drove him into retirement. Most of the sports media treated Madden as a sacred cow. Sam thought that was stupid. As usual, he was right.

Jason Gay: All of them.

Tom Perrotta: We wrote a story about Novak Djokovic's gluten-free diet and, for the art, dressed up Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as (gluten-free) steaks. I think I've said enough.

Gelf Magazine: What's the best story WSJ sports has published?

Darren Everson: Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell's Lance Armstrong revelations.

Geoff Foster: They are all equally great, except for "11 Minutes of Football," which needed some more work. If I had to pick a winner, it would have to be when Brian Costa exposed Mets PR head Jay Horowitz as a serial butt-dialer.

Matt Futterman: Reed and Vanessa's coverage of Lance and Reed's definitive Paterno story. Trying to match those stories gets me out of bed in the morning.

Jason Gay: Hard to pick one but anything by Jim Baumbach.

Tom Perrotta: My favorite WSJ Sports story was published before the WSJ had a daily sports section, in 2007. Sam wrote it: "The Man Who Shook Up Vegas." It's about Bob Stoll, known as Dr. Bob, whose gambling newsletter was costing casinos a fortune on college football games (Stoll's picks won against the point spread 63% of the time over three seasons). He was a statistics major at the University of California who rarely watched sports, because he thought his eyes would fool him. His handicapping made casino owners go crazy and they had to react to his work. It's a fascinating story that runs almost 4,000 words with many funny, smart details and not a word wasted. (Note: Sam never let me write 4,000 words about anything, and probably for good reason.)

Gelf Magazine: What's the best thing the WSJ didn't publish because a great idea just didn't come together or wasn't true?

Pia Catton: California Chrome's Triple Crown Debunks Decades of Blue-Chip Breeding Pedigrees

Jonathan Clegg: A picture of an enormous cockroach as the art to accompany a story about Sepp Blatter. (Walker was fuming about that one.)

Darren Everson: The conspiracy against redheaded athletes. This was Sam's white (red?) whale. He heard from someone once that baseball scouts downgrade redheads but we were never able to pull it together.

Geoff Foster: Let's get something straight: Every idea comes together because we usually have nothing else to run. And "wasn't true" has never stopped us before.

Matt Futterman: BASEBALL SCOUTS THINK REDHEADS ARE BAD PLAYERS. IT'S TRUE!!!!!! IT'S OUT THERE!!!!YOU GOT TO GET IT!!!! (I made a reference to this in my book—the rumor, that is. He liked that.)

Jason Gay: Sam had a hunch Michigan was going to sign Marty Schottenheimer as coach.

Tom Perrotta: Instead of "best," maybe "nuttiest?" One year, Sam got obsessed with tennis fashion. We had a U.S. Open planning meeting in the office and he wanted to have someone make a new tennis style for us—an actual designer, or maybe the idea was a competition of young designers, I can't quite remember. And we were going to ship those outfits, and a bunch of old tennis outfits and other athletic clothing, to the office, and then invite players try them on so we could publish a story and a collection of photos, maybe video too. I walked out of that meeting thinking, This is bonkers, I'd love to see it—and there's no way on Earth it will ever happen. And unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?) it didn't! [Editor's note: Among the emails Sam sent about this was one that read, "How can we do this crazy tennis outfit gag? Maybe we try to gt some avant-garde clothing designers to make sketches? I might ask the style folks from Personal Journal]

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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