Not sure exactly why I’m posting this. I know this: I was on Eden’s website checking latenight dates and I clicked the link to read this speech for the thousandth time. Take a minute of your time to read it.
By Bill Plaschke
Thank you very much. It’s great to be here. I am in awe of all you high school journalists out there. In fact, I aspire to be like all of you high school journalists out there.
Listen to one of my recent e-mails:
‘’Dear Bill, I have come to the following conclusion regarding your critical column about the Los Angeles Lakers. You write like a sixth grader.’’
Of course, when I get ripped like I always write back to the nasty reader.
Folks, my job is just like yours. I’ve got a principal censoring me. He’s called an editor. I’ve got an adviser hassling me. That’s my mom. And yes, about once a week, I totally panic and lose my mind and slap a bunch of silly stuff down on the page just to get it off to the printer in time. It’s called a Dodger column.
The point is, we’re basically in the same business, one of the toughest businesses in the world, but one the coolest business in the world, a business that still makes millions of dollars and reaches zillion of people, no matter what Wall Street says.
We’re in the business of touch. We touch our world like nobody else can, right? You write a story and after it appears in your paper, you walk down the halls and this person you barely know, from the jock clique, walks up to you and says, “hey, you made me think.” And then this person from the skater clique comes up and says, “hey, you made me laugh.” And it happens again, and again, and soon you realize you’ve used your words to touch people, and is there anything neater?
We’re in the business of change. The bathrooms next to the gym never have toilet paper, never, and you check it out and talk to students and write about it and the story appears on the front page and – wham – suddenly there is toilet paper. The school has done it, but really, you’ve done it, your words have changed it, and is there anything cooler?
Finally, we’re in the business of miracles. You have a crazy idea, you talk to a few crazy people, you crazily type the thing into your laptop at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday night while eating Captain Crunch and clicking on YouTube, you push a button and send all this nuttiness to the school paper … and two days later, your classmates and teachers are holding it, really holding in their hands, in blackand white, reading it, laughing about it, talking about it, being moved by it, calling your “nuttiness” the voice of reason.
Everybody talks about the wonders of the Internet but, let’s face it, a newspaper is a daily miracle. You make those miracles. And you can be that miracle. I’m that miracle. I mean, I’m a freaking miracle.
Growing up in Louisville, Ky, I went from a tiny Catholic grade school to this giant public high school called Ballard. My parents weren’t rich, I didn’t know anybody, and I stuttered. My first three months, every day I would run home after school and sleep for two hours, I was so scared and depressed.
I was sure of only two things in the entire world. I loved to write, and I loved sports. But what good was that? I didn’t figure it out until one day at a basketball game, I noticed everyone in the stands chanting for the worst guy on the team to play. His name was Earl. ‘’We Want Earl!’’ Well, Earl was one of my first friends, one of the only people at school who would talk to me. I thought, this is fascinating, people cheering for the worst guy on the team, what was that like?
So I asked him. And then I wrote a story about it and turned it into the school newspaper.
And here came that miracle. Two days later, people were holding the paper and pointing at me as I walked the halls. Teachers were patting my back. Even the jocks were suddenly talking to me. And I realized, this was not because of my background or athletic skill or coolness. Hell, I couldn’t even talk without stuttering, remember? This was all because of my words. I thought, I can have this much effect on my world with just words? Wow.
My words brought me through another tough situation, at my college, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. It was, at the time, a small school with few facilities. I went there because we had just moved to Illinois and it was cheap. I lived in a church basement. I had no money, no connections, I had only my words.
We had no gym at school, no football team and a basketball team that played in a local high school. Besides soccer, we didn’t really have any big-time sports. So I didn’t write about games. I wrote about people. The school’s only competitive pool player, doing his homework in smoky taverns. The school’s long distance runner, trying to qualify for a marathon by running through cow pastures. I didn’t write stars, because we had no stars. I wrote humans. That’s how I learned of the simple power in their stories. That’s why I still do that today.
Being an unconventional writer from a school not known for sports, I had little shot at the sportswriter job market. After my junior year I applied for 50 summer internships. I got 49 consecutive rejection letters. Then came the miracle. I received a positive letter from a place in Muskegon Michigan called the Muskegon Chronicle. The editor called me. “After a couple of beers, this stuff reads pretty good,’’ he said. I was hired.
After another school year, I applied to 50 more summer internships. Again, I got 49 consecutive rejection letters. I was set to go work at my father’s printing plant when, coming home from class in the middle of winter, I spotted my two stoned roommates standing in their boxer shorts on a snowy balcony. “Bill, somebody, somebody called!” I’ll remember this moment forever. I yelled, “Who called?’’ They yelled back, “Oh, wow, um, we got no clue, dude.” But they had written it down. It was the St. Petersburg Times. Somebody wanted me. I was so excited, I drove down there early and missed my graduation ceremony. I was so excited, I didn’t put oil in the car and it sputtered around for the next two years.
Thus started a career that has resulted in four Columnist of the Year awards and a Pulitzer Prize nomination and man, that’s a miracle. I was a miracle. All because of my words. It was proof that words can take you place you will never imagine.
That can be you. Be that miracle. Your words can make you one. That’s why journalism is still the greatest equalizing business in the world. It doesn’t matter your color or your gender or your bank account or where you live or how you talk. If you can write, you can touch, and if you can touch, we will hire you, because that’s one thing newspapers still do better than anyone else, we can touch and be touched, the morning paper soggy from the milk and the tears.
Be the miracle.
And write the miracles.
As I said, that’s been my career, writing human miracles great and small, from the youth league umpire who worked a season while dying of cancer to the junior college basketball player who cared for his bedridden mother and a developmentally challenged brother. He had pager on the bench and would leave in middle of games when she was in distress.
That’s not Players of the Year. No All Stars. No Studs. Just humans. But that’s what we are, right? Humans. We like to read about ourselves. We like to read about what we can become. We can’t Be Like Mike, we can’t dunk, we can’t imagine it. But we can sure as heck imagine what it’s like to feel like you have to be in three places at one time, all while trying to follow your dream, like that basketball player.
I’m not the guy who likes to write about Super Bowls or Final Fours. I’m the guy who likes to write about the first Mexican American to play in a Super Bowl, I go to his border home and write about Sunday tamales with his family. And I’m the guy who writes about the former Final Four hero who is now selling cars in Las Vegas. He’s so far from his glory, he barely recognizes himself on the video.
Write the miracles. They’re rarely loud, and they’re rarely in lights, but they’re always there. I bet right now I can walk into your high school and find one and run it our paper and it would kick your butts.
I said this once to a class at USC. They all laughed. Then two days later, I wrote a story about a 5- foot-4 poor, disabled kid from East L.A. who took two busses for two hours every day to come to football practice to carry water for the football team. It turns out, the coaches fed him and the equipment guys clothed him and they all cheered for him, made him their unofficial mascot. I wrote this story about a great team reaching down to help one of society’s weaker members, and the USC writers came up to me later, all mad, and said, “Man, we just thought he was some weird kid who kept showing up.”
Every school has a “weird” kid. Find that kid. Write that kid. We can learn from that kid. Write the miracles. Look for the miracles. After a 16-year career, you know what story finally convinced the L.A. Times to make me a columnist?
A high school story that I wrote without assignment, on my own time.
I was researching a story about the NFL outlawing bandannas because they felt it glorified gangs. I called the coach of an L.A. school, Garfield High, that was located in gang territory. The coach said, “Bandannas are the least of my problems.”
I wrote down, and I hung up, but then I started thinking. If that’s the least of his problems, what else is going on there? So I needed to call him back. Now I know in today’s age of e-mail and text messaging, it’s hard for some of you to call people. Don’t lie. I bet a lot of you have set up stories through e-mail, and some of you maybe have even conducted interviews via e-mail or text?
Don’t. If you want to touch the reader, you have to transfer the touch of the subject. And you touch nobody on e-mail. They have to hear your voice. They have to see your face. So, anyway, I tried to e-mail this coach … no, seriously, I called him back and arranged to spend a week there after work every day. And the things I saw amazed me. Kids getting helmets stolen on the way to the games. Kids afraid to score touchdowns in one end zone during practice because gang members hung out there. It was a miracle they could play. I spent a week there, wrote a column about that week, it ran on the front page of the paper, generated over 1,000 e-mails, and they gave my column.
I didn’t get it writing about Tiger Woods or Barry Bonds. I got it writing about Garfield High.
This same thing happened a couple of years later, during the middle of the Laker playoffs, when I noticed that a Compton High School softball team was losing each game 40-0. I drove down there, discovered a field filled with dead rats and a team with no gloves or equipment, even though the boys team played on a beautiful field with all kinds of equipment. It was a miracle these girls didn’t quit.
I wrote the story, and my bosses didn’t want to run it. Bad timing, they said. Not during the Lakers playoffs, they said. It looks funny, they said.
Well, I complained so much they finally ran it…and turns out, it received as much response as all the Laker stories combined. Like I said, a miracle.
Lots of people are going to try to stop you from writing the miracle. Because nobody believes in them, right?
They’re going to want you to write about the star football quarterback … but you’re going to want to do a story on the green-haired kid who rides the unicycle every day during lunch. Turns out he’s training to join the circus… Fight for the miracle.
They’re going to want you to write about the principal of the year … but you’re going to want to write about the substitute teacher who is working only to support a son who was wounded in Iraq. Fight for the miracle.
People are going to criticize you, call you soft, rip you for not tackling bigger problems like school budget and teacher shortages.
Well, you can cover those. But do it by finding the miracles in those. Find the student mom whose one-year-old has to spend her days being watched by an 89-year-old great grandmother because the school cut daycare. Find the boozy local mechanic who is teaching shop classes in exchange for being allowed to pass out his business cards to the kids.
Be the miracle. Find the miracle. Tell the miracle.
TV can’t show it like we can show it. Radio can’t sing it like we can sing it. And the bloggers just can’t make it stick like we can make it stick.
If you wanted me to come here today and talk about your future as a blogger, you’ve got the wrong guy. Blogging is great, but blogging can be done by anyone with a computer and a couch. At the end of the day, readers still want perspective from someone who reports and interviews, readers still want a closer look from someone with access, reader still want to learn, and a newspaper will always do that best.
We’re not dying, we’re just reshaping. Much of our stuff is going on the web before it goes in the paper, and that’s fine, because the readers still know it’s us, someone they trust, someone they understand. Your future as newspaper people is still great. You can still go as far as your belief in miracles can take you.
My belief was tested one a couple of years ago when I began receiving this string of well-written e- mail critical of my Dodger columns.
It was from a woman who was obviously very smart about the team, yet when I asked her why she didn’t go to games or even be a sports writer, she gave me these weird answers.
Her name was Sarah Morris, she was 32 years old, and she said she was disabled. When I said they had wheelchair ramps in press boxes and stadiums, she said she had cerebral palsy so bad, she couldn’t move anything. When I asked how she typed these e-mail, she said she did it with her head.
When I asked WHY she wrote about the game, she said she watched every game and wrote a game story every night for a private website that only her mother could see. She said it was her only contact with the outside world.
It was all so weird. Then when I asked if I could talk to her over the phone for a possible story about this nutty fan, she said she couldn’t talk.
Right about now, I thought this was probably some 42-year-old male plumber from Hollywood just messing with me. If I was blogging, I would have written her off. If I didn’t believe in miracles, I would have stopped answering her e-mails.
But I asked her where she lived. She said she was in a small town in Texas. Then I asked her if I could visit her. She gave me directions.
So one day when I was in San Antonio with the Lakers, I threw caution to the wind and drove three hours through winding country roads to where she said she lived.
I pulled up to this rusty gate, which led to this dirt road, which ended up at this garage-like shack with broken windows. At that point, once again, I doubted the miracle. Then my eyes were briefly blinded by this shining. It was from a stack of old wheelchairs.
Then an old woman came to the screen door, asked if I was Bill Plaschke, and invited me inside. There, in this dark, garbage-packed room with rats everywhere, sat a bobbing-headed girl in front of a flickering TV and an old computer, a girl wearing a head pointer.
‘’Mr. Plaschke, this is Sarah Morris,’’ said the mother, and I started to cry.
How could I have doubted the human spirit. How could I have doubted people’s capacity to amaze. How could I have even briefly not believed in the miracle?
I wrote the story. We received several thousand e-mail and the story appeared on everything from ESPN to Good Morning America. But, more important, people started reading her stories, and MLB was so enamored by it, they hired her, and today everyone Sarah Morris today on dodgers.com.
Only in journalism can our words mean so much. Only in journalism can we use those words to change the world.
Write the miracle. Be the miracle.