A couple of Olympics ago, I caught Christie Blatchford cheering in the pressbox.
Not a little whoop or a fist pump – all discouraged by the Sportswriter Code – but a full-on, out-of-her-seat, pogo’ing dance after a goal by Canada’s women’s soccer team.
This is not done. Not ever. It is the first rule of the trade.
Blatch saw me looking at her. She stilled, curled her shoulders and stared through me so hard I thought the back of my chair would burst into flames.
I turned around and cowered. The guy sitting beside me said, “Well, that’s you showed.”
He hadn’t even seen what I’d done. He just knew I’d done wrong.
No rules applied to Blatch. She wasn’t above them, but had progressed beyond them.
In the sports-writing trade, we say of something that is particularly cunning that it’s a “veteran move.” All of Blatch’s moves were veteran because no one had seen more, done more, been at more or written the bejesus out of more than she had.
You’d been to a bunch of Olympics? Yeah, well, Blatch had been to a bunch of wars. So if she wanted to cheer in the press box, she’d earned the right.
Blatch started out as a sports writer at The Globe and Mail in the early 1970s, part of a wave of women breaking into what had always been men’s work. A small wave – and it remains shamefully so – but a wave nonetheless.
From the off, she sounded different. Blatch had what the great ones have – her writing did not read like capital-W Writing. It rolled off the page like conversation. It had rhythm. You could almost clap out the beats.
Also, it was simple and direct. She could be wonderfully compassionate, as well as incredibly vicious. If Blatch was praising you, the sky was her target. If she was out to get you, there was no hole big enough to hide in.
Another great sports columnist once told me his professional credo: Never be afraid to be big; never be afraid to be wrong.
No one hit that standard higher or harder than Blatch. Always big. Occasionally wrong. Never afraid.
She genuinely did not care what strangers thought of her. That may not be a great quality in a kindergarten teacher, but for a newspaper columnist, it’s like a superpower.
As a sportswriter, Blatch had a tendency not to write sports. She wrote the things that happen around sports. A funny line she heard in a scrum, or something that happened in the stands or how she happened to be feeling that night.
In a 2006 Globe column, she reflected back on the job she’d only done full-time in her 20s.
Her standout memories included a) mistakenly killing a player in print during the Super Bowl b) being robbed in New York before a Muhammad Ali fight and c) a dirty-tricks campaign the Toronto Blue Jays once mounted against her after she’d offended them with flagrant femininity.
She understood that the bad things that happen to you make the best stories. She never took it personally. She trusted that you wouldn’t either.
She was also a little terrifying, as befit her status as the Toronto print media’s non-commissioned generalissimo.
Whenever in Blatch’s presence, I tended to hide behind her best friend, equally legendary Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno. Not exactly a hero move and not a stupid one, either.
But if Blatch didn’t like the way you carried yourself in her presence or – far worse – if you’d written something that seemed to be taking a rip at something she’d written, you’d hear about it.
Of course, Blatch herself would happily do such things to you. She was – and I say this with a lot of admiration – complex. You know those bits they show in the movies of a reporter screaming down a phone line at some idiot editor who’s moved a comma without asking permission? They don’t happen in real life. Except around Blatch.
What made all of this so captivating is that she did not have one big-league bone in her body. She was temperamentally inclined toward beat writers rather than fellow columnists. She liked shaggy veterans as opposed to bright, popular things. No coach, no player, no luminary of the game intimidated her. Though she be but little, she was fierce.
"I found myself writing about sports almost by accident. It was not lost on me that Blatch had created an opening for me to do that, and also inspired me to absorb sports and write in a way that was different,” Globe sports editor Shawna Richer said on Wednesday. “Sports is inherently about power and vulnerability. Men rarely wrote about the vulnerability of other men. But a woman could. She taught me that. What a gift that was.”
Blatch didn’t do a lot of sports in the prime of her career, but she made an exception for the Olympics.
She once defined covering a Games thusly: “An Olympics is that occasion, every two years, wherein the profoundly unknowledgeable and often the profoundly unfit affect expertise in such things as biathlon, skeleton and moguls and then presume to judge the performances of those who do the actual competing.”
Although neither thing applied to her, Blatch included herself. Although better and more successful than the rest of us at her job, she never preened. Although not a pack hunter, she liked being part of the gang.
Blatch was old school. She was a broad in the Lauren Bacall sense. She was tough, maudlin, brilliant, ruthless, kind, changeable. She was all the things a human can be. All of us are works in progress, but Blatch was somehow closer to being finished.
A final Blatch story, which only tangentially involves her. When I was weighing whether to take the job as The Globe’s national sports columnist, I went to one of my rabbis in the business. I gave him a long “but what about this and what about that” spiel. He sat there and let me talk myself out.
Then he held up his hand and began raising fingers.
“Dick Beddoes, Allen Abel, Christie Blatchford, Stephen Brunt,” he said. “Those are four people who have done this job before you.”
All legends, but it was the invocation of Blatch that really got hold of my imagination. The lucky among us get to follow the greats. But how many get to fly in the slipstream of a true original?