By Michael Lewis
Sometimes we don’t give our teachers, coaches and mentors thanks or credit, or enough credit, especially when they help put us on the right path or open a door.
Unfortunately, I never had an opportunity to thank my 11th grade English teacher Mr. Dolan at W. Tresper Clarke High School in Westbury, N.Y., a man who influenced my life, although neither he nor this sports-crazed 16-year-old realized how much at the time (Mr. Dolan passed away from cancer several years after I graduated).
Some 50 years ago this month, Mr. Dolan gave his eighth-period 11th grade English class an assignment — one of four that quarter — to write about “An Artist of Our Times.” We could write about anything, so I decided to tackle sports. Yeah, I know, what a surprise!
I wrote about Pete Rose, who was just getting into his prime with the Cincinnati Reds and well before his betting problems.
My piece was first graded by a fellow student — he gave it an 80, a B or a B-, although I did not know his grade at the time. Then we passed the essays into the teacher.
A few days later – on April 15, 1969 — Mr. Dolan graded them and read them back to the class.
I should let you know something about Mr. Dolan. He was not afraid to express himself or hold back. If he didn’t like something, he would let you know it. I felt his critiques were more for The New York Times than for high school students, because they were so, well, critical. So, after ripping apart one student’s effort, he took out a couple of sheets of paper and said, “How about this crackling one?”
Then he started to read the piece.
“Number fourteen rounds first base and heads for second.”
Oh crap, it was mine. He’s going to roast me from here to Yankee Stadium, visiting Shea Stadium on the way back I thought. I slumped into my desk as my face turned beet red waiting for further embarrassment and the inevitable.
In case you were wondering, this was a 16-year-old’s effort:
An Artist of Our Times
Number fourteen rounds first base and heads for second. The player slides and just beats the throw. People have nicknamed him “Charlie Hustle,” but his real name is Pete Rose, an artist of the game of baseball.
Pete Rose caused his own excitement in a year where baseball was dull because of the dominance of the pitcher. By taking an extra base on singles, doubles and triples, he has become baseball’s most exciting player since Ty Cobb. His hustling on the base paths brought him the double title with 42. But being daring on the base paths isn’t the only thing exciting about him. Pete has taken the dullest play in the game, the walk, and turned it into an exciting one. Instead of walking to the base, Pete runs as though he’s running out a hit, causing the fans to cheer.
Even though “Mr. Hustle” doesn’t hit with power, he has become of the baseball’s better hitters if not the best. All he did was lead the major leagues in hitting with a .335 average. Winning the batting crown wasn’t too easy, for Pete had to go 5 for 5 on the last day of the season to win it. In a year where batting averages fell very low, Pete’s rose 20 points. Can anybody explain that?
The most important fact about Pete Rose is his desire to play. In a night game last summer, he fractured his left arm while making a fantastic catch. Doctors said he would have to sit the season out. Within two weeks Pete was playing again, eventually winning the batting title. Another example of his desire to play happened earlier this season in Atlanta. In a desperate move to stop a home run, teammate Alex Johnson jumped into the air to catch the ball. Instead of gloving it, Johnson deflected the ball toward the playing infield. Out of nowhere came Pete Rose to make the impossible catch.
Pete is also a team ball player. He’ll bunt or hit to the right side of the infield to advance a runner. Since becoming rookie of the year in 1963, he has shown his versatility to the team by becoming an all-star at second base, third base and all three outfield positions.
Through his hustling, hitting and team play, Pete Rose has started a new breed of ball player. Fellow players admire him and ask for advice. Even before reaching the age of 30, Rose has become the ballplayer’s ballplayer, an artist of the game.
Mr. Dolan was finally finished with those 443 words and asked the class what they thought.
The reviews were positive, and Mr. Dolan agreed.
“Nice job, Mr. Lewis,” he said.
As stunned as I was by the compliment, I was even more surprised by what was written on the paper in red ink in the upper left-hand corner:
Now, I don’t necessarily claim that I decided right then and there that I would become a writer or a sportswriter. Believe it or not, I was going to enter college as a math major — I figured I would become an accountant — because I was so good with numbers (but that’s another story for another time).
BTW, I don’t think the student who gave me an 80 turned out to be a writer or an editor. He better not have because I think he was just a wee bit too demanding for a junior in high school.
Years ago, I found the original loose leaf pages I wrote it on. After I became a writer, I decided to save it and I retyped it word-for-word, without any corrections (in those ancient, stone-age days, we did not complete our assignments via typewriters — remember those? — or by computer — it was hand written. Yes, I know; how barbaric!).
So that’s the piece that started my path as a sportswriter. Looking back at it, it reads a bit crude and there certainly are some things I would do to rework or rewrite it. But it was a start.
And oh yes, before I forget, thank you for encouragement, Mr. Dolan. I will be eternally grateful for the compliment and the push in the right direction.
Hopefully, you had or will have someone in your life to push you in the right direction without even knowing it.