As summer ends, I can't think of one in recent memory in which I felt more adrift, lacking crucial guidance in matters so vital to millions of American (especially male) psyches.
Political news? Stock tips? Golf?
No, this season's shortcomings were because of the absence of two vital resources -- giants in their journalistic fields -- who have long been respected for their punditry, research and expertise in two of summer's greatest pastimes: baseball and film.
Peter Gammons, ESPN's "Diamond Notes" expert, and Roger Ebert, the nation's most popular movie critic, have endured serious health problems this season. Gammons had a brain aneurysm June 27 on Cape Cod, and was hospitalized until July 17. He has not returned to work, missing his first pennant race as a reporter in over three decades.
Ebert suffered a severe setback in his ongoing cancer battle in June also, when he had surgery on his salivary gland June 16. His reviews have been missing since the beginning of July, and he was unable to assess summer blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, World Trade Center, and Snakes on a Plane for his devotees.
These two journalists have mastered their beats since the 1960s, and their innovations have made them special. Gammons entered the writer's wing at the Baseball Hall of Fame last year, thanks to his tireless efforts talking to everybody in the business, respecting them all, and spilling out everything he learned. He knew about the deals that teams discussed, lending hope to fans that somehow their general managers might grab that slugger before the trading deadline that would put their team in the World Series. That was an especially big deal when Gammons belonged to the Boston Globe and the Red Sox were his readers' passion.
The nature of sports reporting -- especially baseball -- with discussions of possible trades, managerial changes, and free agency signings, lends itself to allegations of rumor and gossip. But Gammons -- so humble, so trustworthy, and so authoritative -- never had to defend himself against such charges (Carl Everett notwithstanding) because of the widespread respect he earned from those involved with the game, from clubhouse attendants to the commissioner. You knew that his pioneering notebook-style columns were filled with credible data and developments, whether or not a trade deal came to fruition.
Unfortunately for Red Sox fans like myself, Gammons's talents were twice taken away from the Globe by Sports Illustrated for two separate stints in the 1970s and 1980s, until ESPN got him in 1988. His personable demeanor and his insatiable appetite for facts could not keep him contained in New England, but it's also much because of him that Boston fans are recognized in many quarters as the most knowledgeable devotees of the game.
Just as many depend on Gammons's insights for their near-nightly dose of baseball nourishment, so also have many sought out Ebert for guidance for their annual summertime film choices. All movies are promoted, and most trailers are alluring, but for discriminating filmgoers the last 25-30 years, Ebert has been the arbiter over whether they set foot in the theater, waited for video, or skipped it altogether.
Why? Was it because he tapped out his critiques from the Midwest, for the Chicago Sun-Times, drawing him into a warmer relationship with audiences, unlike the elitists who pontificated from Los Angeles and New York? Was it his pairing with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel (who died of cancer in 1999), first on PBS's Sneak Previews in 1975, which created their dueling dynamic and further fostered passionate film debate among the more homespun viewing public?
The answers are yes, but as with Gammons, Ebert's success is attributable to personality, passion, and archival knowledge. He always came off a bit more levelheaded than Siskel. And in a simple innovation that became legend, obscuring the 4-star rating system used by so many movie critics, Siskel and Ebert created (on a subsequent show, At the Movies) the "Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down" evaluation method, and really, who needs anything more when you want film advice? Now the first quote that serious filmgoers look for in movie ad promotions is the "Thumbs Up!" that speaks volumes for Ebert's enduring stature among critics.
Now Gammons is reportedly on the road to recovery, and was spotted in the owner's box during the most recent (and disastrous) Red Sox-Yankees series at Fenway Park. The postseason may be too much to hope for, but perhaps he'll be prodding agents and GMs in an Orlando hotel lobby at the Winter Baseball Meetings this December.
Ebert's recuperation has apparently been somewhat bumpier. Let's hope he's back at work in time for the holiday releases like Flags of our Fathers and Apocalypto.
The summer's lacked direction without them. Get well soon, Peter and Roger -- your work is never out of season, and we need you back this winter.
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