Growing up with Sports Illustrated in the late '90s, I'd never begin reading an issue front to back, or for that matter, back to front. Instead I'd open it up to about a third of the way through, after Faces in the Crowd, before the features, and turn to Steve Rushin's "Air & Space" column. There, I'd encounter a weekly dose of subtle wordplay (the title of the column itself took me about two years to catch on to) and bemused insight into the world of sports that presaged the tone, if not the snark, of many sports blogs in its focus on fun and a fan's perspective.
"As hard as it is to jump off a bullet train, jumping back on is much harder."
The 45-year-old Rushinwho also contributed long-form reporting to the magazine, including its longest-ever storyleft SI in 2007, to spend time with his family and pursue other interests, such as writing his first novel, The Pint Man. He's since returned with occasional stories and a weekly online column, and regularly contributes to a number of other publications.Gelf caught up with Rushin to ask him about his contribution to the collection, Damn Yankees: Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World's Most Loved (and Hated) Team. In the following interview, which was conducted via email and has been edited for length and clarity, Rushin shares his thoughts about departed Yankees, leaving SI, and his marriage to former WNBA superstar Rebecca Lobo.
Gelf Magazine: Your contribution to Damn Yankees, "Yankee Mortals," explores the final resting place of some Yankee legends. Is death and the Yankees something that has fascinated you for a while? Why did you decide to focus on it?
Steve Rushin: I grew up in Minnesota as a Twins fan but I was traumatized, as a 12-year-old, by Thurman Munson's death. I was on vacation with my family in Washington, D.C. The news came over the TV in our room at a Holiday Inn in suburban Virginia. I remember finding it difficult to believe that a baseball star in the prime of his life could die. At the time, I hadn't personally known anyone who had died, though the deaths of Elvis and the Pope had also affected me. Those were three consecutive August deaths'77, '78 and '79and they stayed with me. In hindsight, they were a set of invincibles: Elvis, the Pope, and the captain of the New York Yankees. That Munson had died in a plane crash was particularly frightening. We had to fly home from Washington a few days later, a prospect I didn't welcome.
Gelf Magazine: What is the brand of stoicism"manly humor," you call itthat you've found some Yankees share in death?
Steve Rushin: It's baseball clubhouse culture. You deflect pain and minimize injuries. So Lou Gehrig describes his ALS as a "bad break." Babe Ruth says of his cancer, "The termites have got me," which is heartbreaking and funny and poignant all at once. Baseball playerslike other members of large familiesoften show their affection by busting one another's chops. Conveying Ruth to his grave, pallbearer Joe Dugan says, "I'd give $100 for an ice-cold cold beer," to which teammate Waite Hoyt replies, "So would the Babe." A perfect sendoff, in a locker-room kind of way: Ruth remains gently needled into eternity.
Gelf Magazine: You identified Frankie Crosetti, the franchise's all-time leader in errors, as a candidate for greatest-ever Yankee. Care to defend that choice?
Steve Rushin: I wouldn't defend it under oath, except to say that he is by one measure the superlative Yankee, having worn the uniform for 37 seasons and 23 World Series.
Gelf Magazine: Like many kids of a certain era (before Wikipedia, I suppose), I too once thought the Yankee legends were buried in Monument Park. Is it weird for a ballpark to have an area that resembles a cemetery? Or is that just the Yankee way?
Steve Rushin: This brings me back to Elvis, disinterred from his original plot and buried in his backyard at Graceland. Resting for all eternity in your own backyard isn't for everyone, but then Elvis and Babe Ruth aren't everyone. Quite the contrary. They're singular giants, the opposite of "everyone." As a kid, it seemed natural to me (and to countless others) that the great Yankees would be buried at Yankee Stadium. Who wouldn't want to be? I'm not entirely convinced, as an adult, that it's a bad or undignified idea.
Gelf Magazine: Death is the great equalizerfor all men but George Steinbrenner. How does The Boss's gargantuan postmortal presence fit in with the rest of the departed Yankees?
Steve Rushin: In a way, it's exactly as it should be. Anyone happy to be known as The Boss would not let Death dissuade him from asserting his authority in the workplace. It's the same at the adjacent cemeteries in Westchester CountyKensico and Gate of Heaven. There, Ruth, Gehrig, and Billy Martin are in modest graves, while The Colonelformer Yankee owner Jacob Ruppertis in a great columned mausoleum. Not far from The Colonel is the smaller but still imposing crypt of former Red Sox owner Harry Frazee, who sold Ruth to Ruppert. Titans don't stop being titans just because they've stopped being.Gelf Magazine: Your first novel, The Pint Man, was released in 2010. Was writing fiction a big departure for you? Was it a challenge?
Steve Rushin: It was a departure and a challenge and a lot of other things. It was a chance to make it all up after 19 years of writing nothing but nonfiction. It was a chance to sustain a 75,000-word narrative after nine straight years of writing 850-word columns every week. And it was a chance to write about something other than sports after writing almost exclusively about sports for my entire adult life. Even so, writing a novelor at least this noveldidn't feel all that foreign to me. I lived in New York on and off for eight or nine years and spent a lot of time in bars there, and the book was largely set in the kind of bar I used to hang out in. So the adage "Write what you know" still applied.
Gelf Magazine: You've long been one of the most recognizable voices at Sports Illustrated. What led you to leave in 2007, and why did you come back?
Steve Rushin: I started at SI on a six-month fact-checking trial two weeks after I graduated from college. I brought one suitcase to New York. Almost 20 years later I was still working at the magazine, never having paused to catch my breath. I didn't have a passport or a credit card when I started there. I had never been out of the US, never rented a car, never bought my own plane ticket. When I left in 2007, I had been working there half my life and been everywhere two times. I'd been to the Arctic Circle twice. For golf stories. It was a dream job for which I'm eternally grateful, but I didn't want to do it exclusively for the rest of my life. So what's a good time to stop? You can stand forever on the edge of a speeding train, afraid to jump off. But I think it was the right time. My wife and I had four children in less than six yearsthey're seven, five, three, and one nowand I like watching them grow up. So I'm not back at SI full time. I write once in a while for the magazine and once a week for SI.com. As hard as it is to jump off a bullet train, jumping back on is much harder.
Gelf Magazine: How has the magazine changed during your tenure?
Steve Rushin: When I started, there was much less competition: ESPN was new-ish, the internet was a distant rumor, and we sent in our stories over a landline by placing the telephone's handset into a device that looked like a rubber brassiere. So the magazine has had to become much more responsive to that competition, and to new technology and to the hourly news cycle it has helped usher in. Part of that, I think, has required SI to focus on fewer sports and subjectsthe magazine doesn't feature yacht captains on the cover as often as it once didbut also to play to what has always been its strengths: great writing and gorgeous photography that can explore those subjects more richly on a less brutal deadline.
Gelf Magazine: You're famously married to former WNBA star Rebecca Lobo. Are your kids better writers or basketball players?
Steve Rushin: They're not quite sure what I do for a living. My five-year-old thought I spent every day in my office churning out new copies of The Pint Man, like a medieval monk. A couple of years ago, when I asked my now seven-year-old daughter what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said: "Nothing." And I said, "Everybody has to be something." And she said, "But you're not anything, Dad, and I want to be like you." Which isn't to say that they have much interest in basketball, either, with one exception: I showed them a YouTube clip of Mom playing basketball against Big Bird on Sesame Street and they thought that was pretty cool.
Gelf Magazine: I hesitate to even say this, but your Wikipedia bio is suspiciously well-crafted and colorful. Have you ever indulged in any self-editing?
Steve Rushin: I haven't. I wouldn't know how to. Does it mention my Nobel Prize in Medicine?