In my opinion, the best sportswriters have the following characteristics in common:
A true passion and love for sports.
An incredible sense of humor.
An understanding that sports is not the only thing in the world.
An interest in other things to talk about.
A high intelligence quotient.
A refusal to talk down to the readers.
An ability to keep readers involved even when they don't care about the topic.
This list is why I think that Ray Romano's character on Everybody Loves Raymond would be a horrible sportswriter. He is missing numbers 3, 4, 5, and probably 6. Skip Bayless from ESPN also is horrible because he is missing all of them. He only wants to stir up trouble. That attitude of trouble-making and arguing is sadly becoming the norm. Writers do not actually WRITE so much any more as try to make points to stir up arguments. That and get on tv.
You get to be a part of the television sports commentary scene by causing a ruckus. Usually these guys actually stink as writers. I would wager that most of the newspaper guys who have jumped to television (and vice versa) would fall in the category of "Sports Muckraker" instead of Sportswriter. ESPN is the one responsible for this. They had hours and hours to fill on their many stations, so they started bringing famous writers onto the screen. So now we have Woody Paige, Jay Mariotti, AJ Andale, Dan LeBatard, Stephen A Smith, Bayless and their ilk screaming at each other and basically trying to cause trouble instead of actually write well. It is funny, though. The best sports commentators are often the best best writers too. If you have those qualities above in your writing, you will have it in your talking too. This is my current list of best sportswriters (not necessarily in order).
Bill Simmons -- ESPN Page 2, Sports Guy World -- Not on TV now (used to write for Jimmy Kimmel)
Simmons is probably my favorite sportswriter. (You could argue his wife is the second best - her articles are hilarious.) I would rate him as a 10_10_8_9_10_9_10_10 in the eight categories. His strongest are 2 and 7. How good is he at keeping your attention when you don't care? His favorite sport is basketball (which I hate). His favorite teams are the Patriots (in my bottom NFL 10), Celtics (I only hate the Lakers more), and Red Sox (my least favorite team in any sport). He wrote several complete articles on choosing a favorite soccer team (I read all of them). The days he doesn't write actually make me upset.
Tony Kornheiser -- Washington Post -- Pardon the Interruption, Monday Night Football
I love Kornheiser. I wish he wrote more and longer. But his schedule has not allowed him to continue writing. The amazing thing about him is that he also had my favorite radio sports show and has one of my favorite tv shows (PTI). But the crazy thing is that he didn't start in sports - he used to write culture articles. And his current radio show is not always sports-themed. He's dry and droll and funny as all get out. His scores are 8_10_10_10_10_9_9_10.
Peter King -- CNNSI, Sport Illustrated -- HBO NFL show, NBC Sunday night show
King is a very rare bird. He keeps you interested in all sorts of mundane stuff - his daughters' sports efforts, he quest for good coffee. But he also has forgot more about football than most people know. One of the best pieces he ever did was a report on a sports-loving Iraqi war participant. 10_8_10_10_10_9_10_8.
The list was topped by another man until this past weekend when David Halberstam died in an auto accident in California. In MY opinion, he was the standard for sportswriting. Of course, I came up with that decision while reading a book that had nothing to do with sports. In one of my college history classes (US History 1945-Current) we had to read a book called The Fifties. This was one of seven books (yup 7) for that class alone. Now, if you have ever had a class where there are seven books to be read (and that multiplied by four classes), you know the goal is to skim and read the least possible. Well, when I hit that book about one of the most boring parts of U.S. History, I was going to be in full skim mode.
Until I started reading it. Then, I was enraptured by the style and the approach. It was amazing. I read every page and was sad when the huge work was done. The thing that was crazy was that my roommate was in a class on the History of Baseball, and he was reading a book by David Halberstam. What? The same guy who wrote this amazing book on The Fifties wrote a book on baseball? Well if you go to Amazon.com and look up Halberstam, you will see that he also has books on Michael Jordan, basketball, the Korean War (which my dad fought in), Vietnam, and American Politics. I plan on reading all of them. He was a 10 in each category.
Once I discovered ESPN Page 2, I was thrilled because Halberstam was listed as one of their writers. Unfortunately, it was not for too long because September 11 kind of drove the sports part out of him. He still wrote on sports and was on his way to do a book on quarterback Y.A. Tittle when he died. But the daily obsession with sports became something uncomfortable to Halberstam. This article was his take on the first anniversary of the attacks. It pretty much sums up Halberstam. It is weird, when I list my favorite books on places like mySpace or whatever, The Fifties usually is there. How in the world did a textbook end up on a site like that? That was the kind of impact that sportswriter had on me. Apparently, that was a common opinion. Check out this article by a very good sportswriter Jim Caple. And then, no surprise here, there is the article by the most likely successor to Halberstam - Bill Simmons. I had to laugh when I saw that when I got ready to post this.