By Amy Lennard Goehner
I recently got a wonderful assignment as a contributing writer for a kids’ magazine. My beat? Sports! I couldn’t wait to describe for our young readers the excitement of games where players “blasted a hard and fast sinker into the upper deck” or “slam dunked the ball after snaring the alley-oop.” But verbs like those will have to wait. For now, the verbs I’m stuck with are “postponed” and “cancelled.”
For the past six weeks (but who’s counting?), there have been no sounds of cheering emanating from ballparks. Instead, those sounds are heard every evening for two minutes beginning precisely at 7:00 p.m. when Manhattanites open their windows and fill the air with clapping, hollering, whistling, and banging pots — all to honor our front-liners. Our front-liners from healthcare workers to bus drivers to delivery cyclists to sanitation workers, the list goes on. I cheer and cry during those two minutes, and think, “Thank you, fellow New Yorkers, for letting your better angels out to pray.” (Pray loudly, of course. We’re New Yorkers, after all.)
And sometimes among all the tragic stories a happy ending appears, as it did yesterday. My husband works in communications for a large city hospital. Yesterday he spoke to a FEMA Emergency Medical Services crew deployed in Newark who had been called to help a woman who had gone into labor three months early. The preemie was born in cardiac arrest — but they were able to resuscitate him and get him to my husband’s hospital. The baby is now stable.
Even with stories like that, there is no escaping the ubiquitous sadness of these times, and that is where sports come in, and why I so miss them now. They are an escape the same way the Cary Grant-Katharine Hepburn movie we watched last night was. Sports can transport you miles away, and who wouldn’t like to be someplace far away about now?
Actually, living without and longing for sports is a condition I had first-hand experience with before the pandemic. After graduating from college in 1974, I applied to the Peace Corps. When the acceptance letter came and I learned my assigned country was to be South Korea, my reaction was, “Yay, I’m going to the tropics!” “Moron!” was the reaction from my friends, who asked if I had ever watched even one episode of “M*A*S*H”Within days I boned up on my geography — trying to raise it to a 3rd grade level — and learned that Korea was on the same latitude as Newton, Massachusetts, my second hometown, just outside Boston. Only in Boston there was heat. And air conditioning. And indoor plumbing.
Nothing tough about my first night in the Peace Corps, though. A group of 35 of us flew to Tokyo where we were put up in a plush hotel with silk bathrobes hanging on bathroom hooks. “I LOVE the Peace Corps!” I remember thinking.
Twenty-four hours later we were in Korea. I could live without silk bathrobes for two years, and no heat or indoor plumbing, but no access to Major League Baseball broadcasts? There were U.S. Army bases throughout Korea, so why couldn’t we pick up the military radio station, AFKN, which often broadcast games? If I had watched even one episode of “M*A*S*H,” I’d recall that you couldn’t walk 20 feet in Korea without bumping into a mountain, and mountains and radio signals don’t mix well.
Three hundred-plus sportless days later, I turned on my transistor radio for the hundredth time, thinking just maybe, and lo and behold, this time picked up the game on AFKN! Not just any game, it was the seventh game of the World Series! My beloved Red Sox were playing the Cincinnati Reds. The only problem was I was scheduled to judge an English speech competition in a town 45 minutes away. I had my transistor radio glued to my ear as I headed for the bus stop. The bus arrived as did the toughest decision in my life as a sports fan. In Korea, a promise is a promise. Crossing my fingers that I would not lose reception, I boarded the bus. We crossed the mountains. Pure static. I got off the bus just in time to hear Carl Yastrzemski fly out. Game over. Series over. Sox lose.
When my Peace Corps stint ended, I knew I wanted to work in sports. I moved to New York City in 1979 (I had extended my stay by working for the U.S. Army and then lived in Barcelona for a year to ease my way back to the States) and found a job that paid the rent, all the while dreaming of becoming a sports reporter. I even wrote a letter to my then-and-forever favorite sportswriter, Red Smith, for inspiration. “Dear Mr. Smith,” I wrote. “Three out of four walls in my office depress me. But that fourth wall is covered in newspaper clips that read, ‘Red Smith, Sports of the Times.’ Thank you, Mr. Smith, for filling in all of those empty spaces.” He wrote back soon after. “Dear Miss Lennard, Thank you. And I think you should do something about those other three walls.”
So I did.
I networked before that was even a verb and landed an interview at Sports Illustrated, through a friend of a friend of a friend. It was 1984 but the site of the 1988 Summer Olympics had long been announced. It was to be in Seoul, Korea. I concluded my interview with, “Oh, and I speak Korean.” I got the job.
My beats at Sports Illustrated were horse racing and boxing. My earliest boxing memories are of my Brooklyn childhood, watching Friday Night Fights with my big brother and Grandpa Abe, who lived upstairs. Years after leaving Brooklyn, Abe had a short-order joint near the 5th St. Gym in Miami, opened by Chris Dundee. I wrote about that famed place upon the death of Chris’s brother, Angelo, the iconic trainer of boxing greats, most famously Muhammad Ali.
As I wrote in the HuffPost at the time, in 2012:
I rifled through my old boxing tapes, and found an interview I’d done with Dundee during the days he trained Sugar Ray Leonard. Now if I could only find my old tape recorder. It’s probably stored somewhere next to my Betamax.
Hey, where was my tape containing the three hours I spent at Mitch “Blood” Green’s mom’s house, just me and Blood? He was a 6’5” heavyweight and I was there to talk to him about his upcoming fight with Mike Tyson. But all he wanted to talk about were issues with his girlfriend. A week later I awoke to a news report on the radio saying that the previous night, Mitch “Blood “Green had been found impersonating a gas station attendant and robbing cars until the cops showed up. Surely that must be some other “Blood,” I thought.
And where was my tape with that heavyweight whose name I am still afraid to mention, given that my meeting with him was part of an investigative mission to get the goods on a nogoodnik who was well known in the boxing business? When I arrived at the God-forsaken place the heavyweight had chosen to meet, he was flanked by two equally large men. “Where did you get my number?” Henchman No.1 asked me. I had been told explicitly NOT to reveal my source. So I humana-humanaed, Jackie Gleason style, all the while trying not to picture the New York Post headline: “Day 12: Sports Illustrated Reporter Still Missing.”
I survived the Henchmen, in retrospect a lot less scary than this pandemic. And here I am writing sports again. Oh, as Red Sox fans all know, I finally did get to hear those longed-for words, “Game over. Series over. Sox win,” though I had to wait 38 years--until 2004--to hear them.
Far more welcome today will be the words that signal we are all-- safe at home. And when we are, we will dedicate games throughout the country and bow our heads in silence to honor the heroes who made us safe. Then the sweetest two words in all of sports will once again be heard throughout the land: “Play Ball!”
I’m a third-generation Brooklynite (when Brooklyn was a place to come from, not go to) but grew up in Newton, Mass. I spent most of my career at Time Inc. as deputy chief of reporters at Sports Illustrated, senior editor at Sports Illustrated Kids, and senior arts reporter at Time. I wrote a lot about autism for Time, as my oldest son has autism. I currently freelance for AARP and the wonderful new kids’ magazine, The Week Junior. I’m in my element ghostwriting online dating profiles or shooting pool and drinking a vodka martini — while listening to Ella, Dinah or Sarah.