The popular choice for this weekend’s Press Buffet would be to talk college football. But I wasn’t put here to be popular. Or, maybe I was, and I’m letting AA down horribly. I don’t know. But, as a contrarian by nature, I am taking a different tack this week, and going all meta- on some sports columnists.

While bandying about baseball terms recently, the term pitch-count somehow became associated in my head with word-count. As a writer, word-count is a big deal to me. My editor says “give me 1,000 words on college football” and I spend some time trying to work up to that number. If it’s a rich topic that I love, sometimes I have to back it down and figure out what to cut, instead.

Word count makes sense when you’re laying out newsprint. The editor needs to know where the damn thing will fit, and how many ads he can put around it. But in the age of the internet, word count is pretty much inconsequential. It’s limited only by the writer’s stamina, because there’s plenty of space. Is that a good thing? I would still argue that economy is crucial in getting a point across, and that the reader is best served by an article of the right length, not something that takes one through an entire bathroom break, as Bill Simmons is famously able to do.

So, let’s check out some big boys and get a general word count from their columns this week, and maybe we can see if it really still matters. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to stick to the big cities of the East Coast, for now.

Here’s Mike Lupica’s latest. Yes, I know he’s a huge pain in the ass as a TV personality, but the guy is at the top of the sportswriting game. This article from the August 30th edition of the New York Daily News is a fairly standard 972 words, which is about right for a column. Perhaps I’m not yet advanced enough, but I didn’t really get why he did such a long game recap before getting into the analysis, but he did turn some nice phrases along the way:

There is no question that the Yankees are still being presented with a bill for all the bad baseball they played early.

Still, all told, I didn’t love this piece. It was all about trying to get the Yanks to breathe fire again, which probably plays well with the home crowd, but I didn’t get much more out of it.

In the same paper, I enjoyed Filip Bondy’s open letter to Andy Roddick much more. It came in at a lean 745 words. The snark in this piece was fantastic:

Hey … it’s not you, it’s us. You’ve done your best, always have. You try so hard, it hurts. You’ve grunted and smacked the ball very hard and appeared on many TV commercials, some without a shirt.

I wanted to show you William C. Rhoden’s defense of Brady Quinn from the NYT, but it was, of course, for hire. To purchase the article would have been $4.95, and I don’t want to know about Quinn that badly, even if it’s written very, very well.

Now, off to Philly, where LOOK OUT EVER’BODY, IT’S STEPHEN A.!!!! Of course, he doesn’t write in all-caps for real, so let’s give him a fair shake as a writer vs. as an ESPN shouting head. In the Inquirer, he’s comparing the Phillies to the Mets. In a whippet-lean 701 words, SAS said this:

You can’t just smell blood during this time of year; you’ve got to have a vampire’s mentality and drink it. It should be easy to do with Cole Hamels, 4-1 with a 3.12 ERA in his last seven starts before last night, acting like an ace, and closer Brett Myers finally off the disabled list.

Now, right here is an example of one of the things I hate about ESPN. This guy is a good writer. In print, he comes off as rational, witty, and insightful. But on television? Can’t damn stand the guy. Why is it the pinnacle of the sportswriting profession to end up on TV nowadays? Anyone? I wish Stephen A. would stick to what he is obviously good at – writing.

Now, that said, I love Michael Wilbon on TV as much as I do in print. Well, maybe a smidge less, since he seems to be packaged with Henny Youngman Tony Kornheiser at every turn. Regardless, he has charisma that comes through without bombast, and I love that about his TV persona. He’s probably my favorite sportswriter, period. Witness his take on Michael Vick’s future, which manages to breathe life in to a subject we’re all heartily sick of.

A mistake is when you turn the wrong way down a one-way street and plow into an oncoming car. A mistake is when you inadvertently leave the oven on and cause a fire in your house. A mistake is when you and the receiver get crossed up and the cornerback takes the ball the other way for a pick-six. Michael Vick didn’t simply commit a mistake; he willingly and arrogantly created and engaged in criminal activity for at least six years.

This is 1102 words – the longest we’ve looked at so far. But Wilbon’s prose is elegant, and I never feel like a piece is dragging on or re-treading the same ground. He manages to criticize both Vick and his detractors in the same article, with a solid argument:

Much of it is knee-jerk extremism junk, coming from both the supporters and detractors, neither restrained enough to make much sense.

The volume of the debate wouldn’t bother me much if there was as much outrage over other celebrity misbehavior. I’m sorry, but I don’t recall the anywhere near this much outrage when Lawrence Phillips was dragging a woman by the hair down the steps while at Nebraska.

I hope I live to see the day that I can write a compelling piece at least once a week.

Now, I rag on Kornheiser, and I’m aware that a lot of people like him. I just get annoyed that his columns seem to be nudging and winking at me all the time. I get it, he’s wacky. But he’s starting to remind me of Garrison Keillor, in that people now laugh out of reflex, even if something’s not that funny. Here, Tony took a five-minute break from all of his television work to give us 470 words on… himself, Wilbon, Kim Jong Il, basketball, hockey, and golf. It’s like ADD in print, and he covered all of this in under 500 words!

It’s hockey season!

And how do we know it’s hockey season? Because the Caps are playing golf. According to their Web site, superstud Alex Ovechkin got a hole-in-one at some charity tournament in Springfield, and he had never played the game before.

I’m sorry, you’ll never convince me that he’s worth reading. Maybe he once was, but I got nothing out of that, other than a semi-amusing anecdote that could have been written in two sentences in a sidebar.

Now, I’m already going on a bit long myself, so I’ll wrap up this drive down the eastern seaboard with the big names at the Miami Herald. Here’s Dan LeBatard on college football at Da U. This is 700 words, and has a lot of clever one-liners without falling off the map.

UM is not unlike its old Orange Bowl home now — sagging, weary, passed by. A little embarrassed, too. You don’t want to call Shannon a savior, but a resurrection has been requested of him by a restless town not known for its patience. Hurry, Cane.

All over the highest level of football, the NFL, you will find UM players capable of taking football games and breaking them over a knee. And they are frustrated with the program, which is coming off an uncommonly mediocre 7-6 season.

I liked this piece a lot. In the middle, it got a bit soft-focus about overcoming difficulty, but I can forgive that, and the somewhat pat ending, because the writing is concise, intelligent, and LeBatard looks at his subject from interesting angles. I especially liked this thought:

Miami has always made the coaches, not the other way around. The program and surrounding area has been so rich with blurring talent that Butch Davis and Howard Schnellenberger and Dennis Erickson and Larry Coker would never succeed anywhere else the way they did here.

That’s solid analysis with a strong sense of history. It’s so obviously true once you see it in print, but would you have thought of it yourself? This is good sportswriting.

So, I guess my main point is not really served. The shorter articles were not always the best, but short and focused was a winner. It’s hard not to occasionally mail it in when you write every day. Even as a blogger I can attest to that. But as long as you don’t start considering it to be your birthright, you’re probably going to get over the hump and be OK.

I will happily return to this subject from time to time, and if you have a favorite or non-favorite sportswriter you’d like me to examine, put it in the comments.

And, just for the record, this piece? 1,500 words. But they weren’t all mine.

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