Admiring & dissecting an artful Dodgers vs. Cubs story

I began inhaling Sports Illustrated cover-to-cover when I was 10 years old, after my dad hooked me up with a subscription for my historic double-digit birthday.

It was summer on the South Shore of Boston, my beloved Red Sox were miles ahead in the American League East, and the cover of my inaugural issue featured a photo of beleaguered Yankees manager Billy Martin and an allusion to a famous line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (“Double, double, toil and trouble”) that went over my elementary-school-aged head.

I had seen the game that was the focal point of that cover story, as Martin yanked star outfielder Reggie Jackson from Fenway Park’s right field for failing to hustle. A heated tete-a-tete ensued in the dugout, the Sox went on to win, and all was right with the world.

Between that moment of getting SI delivered to my home set back in the woods off Webster Street and my development as a writer, there is one solid, bold-fonted line.

Four decades later, this vibrant account of last night’s Cubs vs. Dodgers game at Wrigley Field reminded me of a key element that drew me to journalism: the creative joy of drawing from an abundant supply of words and phrases, coupled with the challenge and reward of picking precisely the right one for the moment.

It’s what SI did more often than most, and it’s what I would find in the sports section of the Sunday edition of the Boston Globe that I would fight over (and play hide-and-seek with) my brother Andy.

It was a stroke of Alice in Wonderland-style hyperlink-clicking fate that I happened upon Los Angeles Times writer Jorge Castillo’s story. Some of his choices that resonate with my word- and phrase-wielding and story-telling soul:

“electric boom-or-bust slugging shortstop”

This one’s got a back-to-back batch of alliteration–and even casual readers ought to get the gist that I am a sucker for alliteration, especially when it is as aptly stated as that characterization of Chicago Cubs shortstop Javy Baez.

“provoking an exasperated response”

Granted, this is a “tell, don’t show” description of Dodgers pitcher Kenta Maeda. Did he flail his arms? Tilt his head up and gaze at the encroaching darkness? Stab at the ball with a flick of his wrist when the catcher tossed it back?

Castillo doesn’t say, and that’s OK with me. Every word, every piece of punctuation is a choice, with a constellation of factors at play. Very likely, he simply wanted to employ an economy of words to move on with the story of Maeda’s rough inning. So that’s just what he did, raising the literary bar in the process.

“in a jiffy”

When’s the last time I read this phrase in a newspaper story–or any story, for that matter? Have I ever seen it? Maybe a handful of times.

A few years ago, I made a conscious decision to revive “in a jiffy” in my everyday conversational repertoire, particularly around my teen-aged kids. I like how it sounds, how it makes me feel. Digging deep, I suppose it has something to do with my own sense of nostalgia, since the phrase hearkens back to my childhood, when the phrase seemed to be more frequently uttered.

That Castillo chose to sprinkle “in a jiffy” in this game story makes it something of a gift that I choose to make personal.

“display of agility”

This refers to Baez’s latest base-running caper. And although the scene could have been depicted in innumerable ways, this phrasing gets it just right. It was, after all, a display of agility.

“His contention didn’t produce a reversal.”

Having covered the civil and criminal courts for years, this brings to mind a legal argument. In the context of this story, it was Dodgers manager Dave Roberts arguing that Baez should be ruled out for running out of the baseline.

Castillo’s choice strikes me as a bit of tongue-in-cheek whimsy. We’re talking about a game of baseball, not a life-or-death issue. But, oh, how these trifling contests in the universe’s grand scheme can be treated as so exceedingly consequential.

The story runs 16 paragraphs; the highlights I have picked out are only in the first six. If you enjoy the art of writing, or baseball, or simply have time on your hands, I exhort you to read the entire piece before the link goes stale.

Notably, and perhaps not coincidentally, much of the delightful story’s early phraseology revolves around the colorful Baez. Castillo was equal to the task of capturing and conveying the action.

One might say that, in his story-telling, he was Baez-like. My whole point, though, is that there are countless other ways to describe it. That’s the challenge–always has been–and therein lies the reward.

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A Recent Reminder on the Power of Brevity–More or Less

As of this writing, there are about 65 million pages that pop up when you type “Les Moore” into Google.

More or less? There are about 1 billion pages with that phrase.

But “less is more” really takes the cake. With that piece of pithiness, 2.95 billion (with a “B”) pages emerge.

Less really is more.

That Google-backed truth popped back into my consciousness this week when a colleague scaled back some promotional writing I’d created, from 200 words to about 30.

This witty T-shirt says it al

The other 170 will come in handy, maybe. Even if they don’t, often you must be willing to go through the process of seeing what could be, and then knowing that it could be so much more–with less.

Editor’s note: this blog post was originally 4,202 words long.

On the Menu (And In Any Communication): Vary Your Words, Advance Your Story

As my wife would readily attest, I have been editing menus for years. But it’s happened only in my head, as I have scanned my restaurant meal options.

Along the way, among other peculiarities, I have been struck by the neck-and-neck race between the properly labeled “Belgian waffles” and the rampantly used but wrong-wrong-wrong (!!) “Belgium waffles” variation.

Not that I’m that plugged in by the wayward version.

What’s on the menu? Lots of copy editing! (Illustration by Jose P. Moreno)

Anyway, Belgian-Belgium distinctions aside, here’s the biggest take-away I gained from my recent menu editing effort: the premium, fresh-baked value of offering variety in how we communicate.

(Whoops, slipped back into menu-speak there.)

On menus, it really does behoove you to come up with phrases other than “home-made” and “fresh-baked” and “served” once (or twice) in awhile.

If this principle is true for menus, then it’s likewise valid on any platform where we are communicating on any given topic. There is power in variety, as long as that variety is not for its own sake.

Choosing another word or phrase than the default-key standard should contribute something and move the story forward in some fashion. So get out the thesaurus, continually find other ways to expand your vocabulary and offer some different food for thought.

Make it fresh-baked, not half-baked.

Quality Writing: If The Term Fits, Then Use It

Writing clearly and compellingly doesn’t come easily.

Every word and every punctuation mark brings a new decision. Which word to use next? Is this really the moment to whip out the semi-colon? Should I pose a third question in this rhetorical series?

In the quarter-century since I began writing for publications (or should I simply say 25 years? since 1984?), my appreciation for–and quest to accomplish–skillful writing has steadily risen.

To compound the challenge, stories have to be written in rapid-fire fashion–even more so than in years past, since the news cycle is a relentless 24/7. When I was in a newsroom throughout the 1990s, my deadline usually was simply by the time I headed home. Now it matters if the story gets online by 2 p.m. vs. 5 p.m. vs. 8 p.m.

These musings are tendered to provide sympathetic context to a word choice in an otherwise-well written USA Today story on Powerball winner Neal Wanless in South Dakota.

Quoting from the story: “The ticket was sold at an Ampride store in Winner, S.D. — an ultra-ironically named town about 35 miles from Wanless’ home outside the small town of Mission, S.D. — late last month.”

Is it just me, or would not “ultra-fittingly” be a more apt term here than “ultra-ironically”? (Personally, I would do away with the needlessly breathless “ultra” and just go with “fittingly.”)

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