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  • Sean Smith

Charlie Brown, Sportswriter?

Yes, of course I read "Peanuts" when I was a kid.

Not so much in the daily funnies section, because my local paper didn't carry it, but I had several paperback compilations of the strips (Good Ol' Charlie Brown, Go Fly a Kite Charlie Brown, Sunday's Fun Day Charlie Brown, We're Right Behind You Charlie Brown, Charlie Brown Agonistes, etc.) on my bookshelf that I read over and over again. I will say, however, that when I got older -- late elementary school-age -- I found myself thinking sometimes, "Geez, Charles Schulz, give the kid a break, huh?"

But this isn't going to be a wide-ranging Charlie Brownalysis ("No Good Grief: Suburban Pre-teen Tyranny and Depression"), just a focus on one particular "Peanuts" strip: Linus watches a football game on TV that climaxes with a last-second touchdown, and he runs to tell Charlie Brown all about it, excitedly describing the joyous, jubilant mayhem that took place among the winning team and its fans.

In the last panel, Charlie Brown says, "How did the other team feel?"

It's classic Charlie Brown, a loser identifying with losers and being kind of a buzzkill in the process. If you think about it, though, he's actually demonstrating a good sportswriter's acumen. How did that other team feel, seeing victory snatched away at the very end? Easy enough to report the scenes of elation of the winners in the locker room, the hugging, the tears of joy, the whooping and hollering, and the various invocations of luck, the importance of good preparation and execution, family support, and a benevolent higher power. But it takes a certain amount of sensitivity, empathy and discretion to talk to the losing team.

When I covered sports at my first newspaper job I found I had to be sensitive in reporting on high school games. The rule of thumb, generally, was you talked to anyone on the winning team but on the losing team, only the coach -- it just didn't feel right to ask a 16/17-year-old kid to offer analysis or commentary on why his or her team lost.

Not that it was any great shakes for the coaches, either. One of the football teams in our coverage area made it to the championship game, where with time running down they trailed by a point but were driving to the winning score -- only to turn the ball over. A field hockey squad lost their playoff when a referee's controversial call late in the game led to the other team getting the go-ahead goal. In both instances, you could see the coach was hurting more for his players than for himself. I caught up with the field hockey coach after several of his players had come up to me (I was familiar to them because I'd covered several of their games) and complained vociferously about the referee's call; quietly, he acknowledged their disappointment and frustration as being understandable, but said the ruling had been legit.

OK, back to Charlie Brown, sportswriter. My point is, he would seem uniquely suited to write from the losing team's perspective. Maybe too uniquely suited: "So, coach, do you think losing this game is as bad as, say, never being able to place-kick a football because your jerk of a 'friend' always pulled the ball away at the last moment? Or as bad as having a nervous breakdown trying to pitch a Little League game because the girl you secretly love is sitting in the bleachers? Coach? Why are you walking away from me?"

Except that Charlie Brown never quite reached that level of bitterness; despite his pessimism and despair, he still played baseball every year and held onto the possibility, however improbable, that he might rise above his own incompetence (actually, he did -- once). So, as a sportswriter, he could channel that irrationality-of-hope stuff in his work: "Grabheart High lost its 407th consecutive game on Saturday, so there's every chance they'll snap that dubious streak next week against Behemoth Tech, whose average player size is 6-feet-4, 260 lbs. Grabheart may not be particularly skilled, athletic or mentally tough, but their players are well-liked by their parents."

As some may remember, Charlie Brown's favorite athlete, and kindred spirit, was Joe Shlabotnick, a Marv Throneberryesque yutz who, on the one hand, defied considerable odds to actually play in Major League Baseball (less than 10 percent of players who sign professional contracts actually make it that far) but never stayed around very long before being demoted to the minor leagues. Nonetheless, Charlie Brown started the official Joe Shlabotnick Fan Club and fanzine -- which folded after one issue -- so at least he got a little experience in sports hagiography.

As we've known for a long time, sportswriting can often be about more than just sports -- like, our humanity and stuff like that. And sportswriters don't always write about the heroes and great achievers in sports, either; there have been plenty of stories of athletes who squandered or lost their skills and abilities, whether through personal failings or misfortune or some messy combination of the two.

I'm not sure we ever really knew the path Joe Shlabotnick traveled to get to the pros, but as noted, he at least possessed enough raw talent to convince some MLB organization to offer him a contract. Still, he clearly didn't have what it took to stay around, certainly not from the neck up -- among other miscues, he once popped out but circled the bases anyway.

Charlie Brown could propose to write a 5,000-word -- hell, make it 10,000 -- essay, "My Search for Joe Shlabotnick," in which he tracks down his childhood idol, who perhaps is living in a trailer in the back yard of his widowed mother's home outside Pocatello, Idaho. It's important to remember that in his childhood Charlie Brown had some personal interactions, or near interactions, with Joe: like when Joe was supposed to come to a testimonial dinner for Charlie Brown but got lost, or the time when Charlie Brown bought a ticket for a sports banquet to sit at a table with Joe -- but Joe marked the wrong event, date and city on his calendar. So, Charlie Brown's essay would be all about seeking some clarity and closure, and maybe contrition from Joe, for all these disappointments.

How does it work out? Well, maybe Joe -- after being reminded of all this -- comes clean: "Face it, kid. I was a bum. I was stupid. I didn't care about nobody but me. And I didn't even care about myself all that much. Especially when I discovered I couldn't hit a big-league curveball." And at the end of his piece, Charlie Brown tries to make sense of it all: "Why did I want to find Joe Shlabotnick? What did I hope to accomplish? It wasn't to revel in his failures, or to have him atone somehow for all the emotional pain he caused me as a kid. I guess it was not so much Joe Shlabotnik I hoped to confront, but the sport of baseball itself, with all its mythology and heartbreak, and the hold it's exerted on thousands -- millions -- of little kids like me down through the years."

Of course, the minute Charlie Brown finishes the essay, his computer dies. And no, he didn't back up the file.

"AUGGGGGH!" (Cue Vince Guaraldi.)

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