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My annual confusion at Buster Olney’s annual telling of his Deion Sanders story

Feb 10, 2013, 12:00 PM EDT

Deion Sanders

Every year, when pitchers and catchers report, Buster Olney leads off a column with a re-telling of his story about the time he thought Deion Sanders wanted to beat him up.  It’s over at ESPN today, but it’s an Insider thing. For those of you who aren’t insiders, here’s the gist:

  • Olney was a rookie reporter covering minor league baseball in Nashville. Deion Sanders was the bonus baby/superstar for the Columbus Clippers;
  • Olney did a feature on Sanders who, at the time, was the flashiest, money-loving, me-first player around. Olney says it was “harsh — probably too harsh.” But he never says he got anything wrong in it either.  What’s more, he gave Sanders a chance to comment before the story ran. Sanders blew Olney off in the clubhouse without a word;
  • The next day Olney gets a message that Sanders wants to talk to him and “he’s pissed.” Olney tells the messenger that if Sanders wants to see him, he knows where to find him. Sanders never comes.  Later that day he gets an autographed baseball from Sanders with the message “Keep writing like that your whole life and you’ll always be a loser.”

As a story, it’s a good one. Though I’ve never been a Deion Sanders fan, I’ve always found him to be an interesting subject of study and I like hearing about young reporters learning the ropes.

But Olney always tells it as something more than a story. More like a life lesson. The tone and several comments in it seem to say “oh man, I was young and foolish and boy have I grown up and learned my lesson since then.”  He ends it by saying “Words to live by.”

I read this story every year and every year I’m at a loss to understand what the real lesson of this story is. I’ve never seen Olney’s column about Sanders — it’s from a defunct paper in the 80s — but I’m struggling to get what lessons young Olney was supposed to be learning.

OK, it was harsh. Nowhere, however, does Olney suggest he got his facts wrong. Or even that it was unfair (harsh is not the same thing as unfair, no matter what some people would have you believe). Sanders, the older among you will remember, was quite a character back in those days. If anyone was owed some criticism it was a young Deion Sanders. And Olney gave Sanders the opportunity to give his side before the story ran. To rebut the quotes from Olney’s other sources painting Sanders in a bad light. So it doesn’t seem like there’s a lesson about the actual process of reporting. Maybe someone who is a trained reporter can tell me if I’m missing it, but it seems like he dotted what needed to be dotted and crossed what needed to be crossed.

So, tone: Maybe it’s not a story Olney would write in the same way today, but Olney is quite capable of being critical when he wants to be. And I’ve never seen any suggestion from him that he thinks a story about a player’s persona or deportment is off limits. Certainly a lot of things get written about players’ attitudes by established journalists now, so it’s not like Olney learned some important lesson about that either. At least not one with universal application as his overall tone suggests.

There is an element to Olney having to steel himself when he heard that Sanders was angry. He wondered if Sanders was going to beat him up and what he’d do about it if he tried. He made the decision not to run to Sanders’ locker with his tail between his legs when Sanders summoned him, and that bravery played well with the people who witnessed it.  Is the lesson to not be afraid to stand up to the rich and famous people he covers? Possibly. But then why all the apparent self-flagellation earlier? Worth noting that Olney, who hails from a family of Vermont-farmers, has almost zero apparent ego as a writer and never pounds his chest, so it’s hard to feature this as a “I learned to be a big man” kind of thing that you might expect from a lot of the smaller men who cover baseball for a living.

I dunno. I really don’t know what the lesson here was supposed to be. To me it sounds like Olney, in 1989, wrote a tough but ultimately fair story and offended someone who probably needed some offending back then. Maybe I’m just missing something, but I miss it every year.

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