There's not much of an argument to be made that any of this was sustainable over the long haul. Hell, after all, we did fail after a year and a half. But I'm fairly sure that most of us got everything out of the paper that we came there to get. I know I did. In the fall of 1989, I was writing 600-word columns at the Herald. My heart always was in long-form narrative writing, though. It's what I cut my teeth on at the Boston Phoenix. (I once wrote 6,000 words on lobsters there.) It's what my entire generation of writers growing up wanted to do — The New Journalism, even though it wasn't really new — whether we were reading Tom Wolfe and David Halberstam and Larry L. King at Harper's, or Tim Crouse, Tim Cahill, and Hunter Thompson at Rolling Stone, or the astonishing crew that Andre Laguerre brought in and nurtured at Sports Illustrated, most definitely including our own editor, Frank Deford. These were the guys who were doing the best work, and who in any case appeared to be having almost all the fun. (When Dan Jenkins wrote about an Oklahoma game, he could make you think, well, screw Paris in the '20s — Norman, Okla., is the only place to be. While I was at The National, I finally made it to Norman. I realized that what had made Norman great was that Jenkins was there.) The National was a way to get back on that track again. I didn't care if the damned thing lasted 20 minutes. I grabbed it with both hands, and, within two months, I was flying through a snowstorm in Iowa, following Pearl Washington in his wanderings through the CBA, trying not to think too much about Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, and having the time of my life.
Not long after that, they brought us all into New York to meet one another, one of only two times the whole staff was gathered together. (The second time was the now legendary breakup party which featured, I am told, my own impromptu recitation of the 22nd Chapter of the Gospel of Luke.) I met people there I will count as friends for the rest of my life. Chris Mortensen and I discovered that we have sons born less than two minutes apart. I met David Granger, who has been my editor ever since, at one place or another. Dave Kindred and I talked about Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell — Dave talked, I listened — and, as Dave put it, where I had been all these years. (I still owe him for that.) It was a giddy, happy time of it, although none of us were really sure if there was a marketing plan or a distribution strategy, or whether they were simply going to fly over major urban centers and drop the thing from airplanes. It was the big time, or at least, it passed for it as far as I was concerned.
So I got my company laptop and my company AMEX card and my weird NORAD telephone card, and I went out on the road. There were no home games to cover at The National. I went all over Oklahoma with Abe. I drove logging roads in Louisiana, and hung with the crowd at Jack & Dan's. Peter got to go to ballgames with Bill Murray, and Johnette Howard wrote eloquently about a hockey goon gone bad. "The Main Event" became something of a staple for readers of The National, especially, I've discovered, among people who were then in journalism school, the way The New Journalism was for people my age. I still get a great kick out of that.
(A note about readers: Once, in Dublin, a cabbie drove me by the General Post Office, where in 1916 a group of mystics and poets launched the Easter Rising. "Listening to all the people who say now they went in there to fight for Ireland," the cabbie said, "you wouldn't be thinking that building held 500,000 people, would you? And how ever did we lose?" If everyone over the past 20 years who's told me they read The National faithfully was telling the truth, we never would have folded.)
There are people who believe that, if we'd just managed to hang on until the Internet devoured the world, we might have been able to make a go of it. I'm not sure about that. An all-sports daily newspaper is a fine idea for all those countries whose regular newspapers don't have sports sections. We were never able to make the whole "we're local/we're national" thing work, probably because nobody could. (You can't just parachute somebody into, say, Chicago and declare them a local sports columnist. They'd get eaten alive.) And it turns out that the answers to the questions about the marketing plan and the distribution strategy were "No," and "We'll make it up as we go along," respectively. (Launching a newspaper without a coherent idea of how you're going to promote it, or get it to people who might want to read it, is like launching a boat without a rudder or an engine or a hull, now that I think about it.) Given all of that, and given how completely different the world became when the Internet exploded, I doubt we'd have survived the intervening years or the detonation. We were what we were. Period.
The important thing though is not that The National folded. The important thing is that it existed at all, and that there were people willing to take the chance to be part of it. For good and ill, the sports media universe was just starting to explode out of the box of what would become known later as the "mainstream media." The National was a part of that, and a great number of people who worked there went on to play significant roles as the expansion of the sports media continued and accelerated. For the rest of us The National would have been a gamble worth taking if only because of the places that it took us.
One of my last trips sent me to Mexico City to write about a boxer named Jorge Paez, who'd once been a circus acrobat, and who was considered more than half-crazy even by boxing's standards, which are considerable. I booked my own flight and my own hotel. This would prove to have been a mistake. First, the airline lost my bag. And then, just as I was wandering unencumbered into my hotel room, the phone rang. It was the man who ran the sports division for Univision, the broadcast empire owned by Emilio Azcárraga, the owner of The National, and the man whose money I was at the moment spending in the Willy Loman Suite of this imitation American chain hotel in which I'd found myself. I told him where I was staying.
"No," he said, "this will not do. Please wait by the phone."
A few minutes later, he called back. "Mr. Pierce," he said, "your driver will be downstairs in 10 minutes and he will take you to your new hotel."
"Also," he continued, "Senor Azcárraga will see you at 10 tomorrow morning."
I explained then about my lost luggage and that Senor Azcárraga might well be seeing me in clothes that I'd been wearing for 48 hours.
"This will not do, either," he said.
I assume that, at some point, somebody at Aeromexico got torn a new aperture, because my bag showed up early the next morning at my new hotel — which, I should add, was altogether a step up from the "Hey, it's just like the one in Keokuk" Arms into which I had booked myself earlier. I went off to the Univision compound to meet the boss. He was tall and elegant and very interested in what we were doing with his money. Spending it wisely, I told him. As I recall, he didn't think much of Paez. He thought him undignified.
That afternoon, I went out of the city with Paez and his manager. We jounced along some back roads until we came to an orphanage, a stark, calcined place built atop the ruins of an old slaughterhouse. At one point, while Paez was entertaining the orphans, I wandered around out in back of the building. Some kids were playing baseball, running and sliding in the dry, rust-colored clay. The ball was a battered thing that at one time might have been a sock. They were using anything they could pick up as a bat — slabs of wood, a mop handle, an unidentifiable shaft of metal.
The sun was going down, orange over the broken hills. The sunset filtered through the clouds of reddish dust gave the scene the aspect of some lost Biblical place out of the Sinai that you'd walk through, howling mad with thirst, in the general direction of what looked like revelation. Another kid stepped up to hit. I noticed that, for a bat, he was using the spinal column of a cow long ago slaughtered on this ground. The dust rose around him. The pitcher delivered, and the kid swung the old cow's spine with all his might, connecting solidly, and shattering the old vertebrae in all directions. He got thrown out at first. Behind him, some other kids bent down and picked up the bones.
There has to be a place for that in the collective memory of the tribe — orphaned children, playing baseball, swinging old bones as a choked, blooded sunset falls on a small, scalded corner of the world. For a while, it was The National that provided that place. I'd be ashamed to say it wasn't worth the gamble.
Charles P. Pierce is a renowned American sportswriter and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for The Boston Globe and Esquire and is a frequent guest on NPR. This is his first piece for Grantland.