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Larry Bird and Shaughnessy in 1984 (Boston Globe via Getty)

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Dan Shaughnessy Roots for Himself

Boston’s inveterate hater sports columnist is officially a Hall of Famer, and thriving in the age of the internet

When you go to Fenway Park with Dan Shaughnessy, the first thing you notice is that he acts like he has a right to be there. It’s distinct from having the right to tweak Red Sox management or to wonder what’s wrong with David Price. That’s power we all assume. No, Shaughnessy acts like he has the right to literally stand on that field, surrounded by players he has feuded with and execs who wish he was off tormenting the Krafts.

That’s old media power. Power carried over from the golden age of newspapers. I didn’t catch a game with the Boston Globe columnist to romanticize such power. But I wanted to see what it was like before it disappears forever.

A couple of weeks ago, Shaughnessy was standing maybe 10 feet outside the Red Sox dugout, peering in at David Ortiz.

How’s your relationship with Papi? I asked.

"It’s frosty," Shaughnessy said tonelessly.

Three years ago, Shaughnessy and Ortiz had a confrontation. Ortiz was having a late-career power surge. Shaughnessy said it made him a PED suspect. Shaughnessyologists agree the resulting column was a vintage item. Meaning, it was utterly fearless, revanchist in its outlook, and it began with a quote from Pete Townshend.

Ortiz was apoplectic; he said he wanted to "kill" Shaughnessy. But like a lot of Shaughnessy’s critics, he settled for a lighter sentence: He waited until a Boston team won a big game and then threw it in the columnist’s face. "Where’s Dan Shaughnessy?!" Ortiz yelled after Game 5 of the 2013 World Series. As Shaughnessy put it: "He called me out."

On July 23, Shaughnessy received the J.G. Taylor Spink Award. That means his name — if not his bust — appears in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Once the capstone of a long career, lately the Spink ceremony has become a kind of funeral for the newspaper trade. Last year’s winner, Tom Gage of Detroit, learned he’d won the Spink Award in December. By the time Gage got to Cooperstown in July, he’d lost his job — twice.

Though Shaughnessy’s critics claim to ignore him, he retains his ability to offend. The former Globe writer Peter Gammons told me: "I still have Red Sox owners asking me, ‘How can you abide what Shaughnessy wrote?’ I say it’s not my job to critique it. I want to stay out of the middle of this. You’re going to be hit by traffic if you stand in the middle of the street."

The Globe columnist Bob Ryan talks like he writes: exuberantly and at length. In person, the caustic language of Shaughnessy’s column gives way to a milder tone. He speaks very softly. I had to ask him to repeat himself a few times as the theme from Cheers played over the loudspeaker. At 63, the famous Shaughnessy hair that Ortiz called a "red Jheri curl" has gone gray.

We were standing in front of the dugout, talking about Ortiz’s call-out. That night, Shaughnessy was in the press box in St. Louis writing his column. But he vowed to address the matter when the series moved back to Boston. "I knew I had to show up here the next day," he said, pointing at the dugout steps in front of us.

"It was freezing," Shaughnessy said. "It was dark. No one else knows it but me, but I was waiting on the top step when he came out of the dugout. I said, ‘David, are you looking for me?’

"He said, ‘No.’

"I said, ‘OK.’"

And that was that. No higher truth about PEDs in baseball or journalistic responsibility was revealed. What Shaughnessy was doing was performing an old-media rite — he was claiming turf he knew was his. "You just stand your ground," he said. "It’s not personal."

Shaughnessy and I left the field, climbed into the stands, and walked down one of the aisles along the third-base line. There, the most remarkable thing happened. Every Red Sox fan in the nearest row seemed to rise at once to acknowledge Shaughnessy as he passed.

"All positive tonight," one told him. "All positive."

"Always!" Shaughnessy replied.

A second fan didn’t speak as Shaughnessy walked by but stuck his thumb out sideways. It was the kind of gesture you make when you’re playing it cool in front of a celebrity, or pointing out a leper.

"Shaughnessy," a third fan whispered.

We were almost to the tunnel when a fourth fan, unveiling one of the most unrepentant Boston accents I’ve ever heard, exclaimed, "He’s a ra-por-tah!"

When did Shaughnessy become Shaughnessy? If you had to pinpoint a year, you’d probably pick 1982, when he was named the Celtics beat writer for the Globe. "I always told him that if he got 50 percent of his stories right, that was pretty good for him," said Larry Bird. It wasn’t good enough for Shaughnessy — not nearly good enough. He wanted to dominate the beat. The Celtics gave him two nicknames: "Scoop" and "Shank."

To that point, Shaughnessy’s worldview was largely unformed. He’d just spent five seasons covering baseball for papers in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. It was an ethereal time. As a young baseball player, Shaughnessy dreamed he’d become Brooks Robinson. Now, he was hanging out at Robinson’s locker. Bob Ryan told me, "It’s the one time he came close to exuberance. Nothing’s measured up for him, I don’t think."

When the Washington Star folded, Shaughnessy took a job at the Globe, the paper he’d read as a boy in Groton, Massachusetts. It was there he chose a different, rockier path. Asked the reason, Shaughnessy simply said, "Because I was doing a beat in Boston." He was competing against writers he grew up reading and covering teams he grew up worshipping. As the former Globe columnist Mike Barnicle had it, Shaughnessy started out as a product of Boston cynicism who would become one of its chief interpreters.

"All that rooting for the teams, it was gone," Shaughnessy told me. He pointed to the Red Sox fans filing into Fenway. "That’s their job — it’s not my job."

Shaughnessy’s nonpartisanship is portrayed (by him) as a stand against the "fanboys" of the internet: Bill Simmons, Barstool’s David Portnoy, etc. But in 1982, Shaughnessy was actually breaking with Ryan, the guy he was replacing on the beat.

Ryan was an apologetic Celtics fan who owned season tickets while he was covering the team. "I wanted to be loved," Ryan said. "I wanted to be respected. There are times you have to go negative — it’s part of the job. But that’s not my raison d’être."

Shaughnessy was the opposite. "I was really insistent on being a tough guy then," he said. "Just not getting swallowed up. Not being a fan. I think I didn’t enjoy those four years for the beauty of what was happening in front of me on a daily basis as much as I wish I had. There wasn’t a lot of stop-and-smell-the-roses."

Larry Bird and Shaughnessy in 1984 (Boston Globe via Getty)
Larry Bird and Shaughnessy in 1984 (Boston Globe via Getty)

During the ’85 Eastern Conference finals, Shaughnessy noticed that Bird had taped his middle and index fingers on his right hand — his shooting hand. Bird claimed he’d hurt his index finger playing basketball. Shaughnessy suggested he’d have trouble shooting with taped fingers.

Bird replied, "I could wrap my whole hand up and make more shots than you."

They decided to have a free throw shooting contest. Bird would tape all five fingers on his right hand. Shaughnessy would shoot normally. They would take 100 shots for five bucks a shot.

"Hell," Bird told me, "I wasn’t sure if I could do it." But as soon as Shaughnessy accepted the bet, he felt as if Bird were a pool-hall hustler who’d done this before — and he was the mark.

Shaughnessy shot first. In the first round, he made six of 10 free throws. Bird also made six of 10. Bird was ahead by one shot after the second round — not too bad. But then Bird got comfortable with the tape job. In the third round, Bird made nine of 10. In the fourth round, he was perfect. "I’m choking," Shaughnessy told me. "I’m seeing five-dollar bills flying through the air!"

He wound up losing $160 — no small change for a newspaperman in 1985. The next night, at the old Garden, he gave Bird his winnings. Bird slipped the money into his sock, where Shaughnessy suspects it remained for the rest of the evening. Later, Bird treated his girlfriend (now wife) Dinah to a fancy dinner. They didn’t spend all the money, and Dinah asked Bird if he would return the balance to Shaughnessy. When Bird relayed the comment to Shaughnessy the next day, he said, "Can you imagine her saying something like that?"

A few weeks later, the Celtics lost the NBA Finals to the Lakers. It turned out Bird hadn’t hurt his finger in practice. He’d hurt it in a bar fight. Shaughnessy got the story and found the alleged punchee, Mike Harlow. There was an understanding on the beat — when someone wrote a tough story about on-court stuff, a player might walk by him in the locker room "and say, ‘Fuck you,’ or something like that," Bird said. But printing the bar-fight story, Bird warned, would end their relationship.

Shaughnessy told his editor, Vince Doria, that they could put another writer’s byline on the story if they wanted to. Doria said the story ought to be Shaughnessy’s. It ran on July 30, 1985, the day Shaughnessy’s daughter Kate was born.

When Shaughnessy next saw Bird, at the opening practice of the ’85-’86 season, he ventured a question.

"Nope," Bird said.

Scoop was shut out.

"To this day, he says I’m lying," Bird said. "That I’m not telling the truth about it. He just won’t admit he’s wrong."

Shaughnessy survived the season by harvesting quotes from the scrums around Bird’s locker. Then, around the time of the ’86 All-Star Game, Peter Gammons left the Globe for Sports Illustrated. The baseball job was open. The sport was Scoop’s true passion. In the middle of a long West Coast swing, Shaughnessy announced, "Well, boys, when this trip’s over, I am off to baseball."

Bird took out his wallet and said, "I’ll pay your way if you go now."

In 1986, when Mookie Wilson’s grounder rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs, Dan Shaughnessy felt a familiar sensation: nothing. Here was a play so awful that it seemed — as Shaughnessy would lucratively suggest — cosmically directed. Yet as he perched in the Shea Stadium press box, Shaughnessy was unmoved. Without a pang, he put aside the feature he was writing about Dave Henderson and changed course.

Shaughnessy and I were sitting in seats on the baseline now, watching the Tampa Bay Rays take batting practice. I asked him what went through his head when Buckner missed the ball. "It’s very selfish," he said. "In the moment, it’s all about my work."

"What does this mean for my work and my travel and my book?" he continued. "What does this mean next spring, and how we’re going to have to cover these guys? It’s not about, Oh my god, the team of my youth was just denied winning the World Series. None of that. … I always say, ‘I’m rooting for myself.’"

I’m rooting for myself. It might be Shaughnessy’s coda. Three years later, he rooted on a bigger stage. A series of journalistic transactions (Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford to The National, the Globe’s Leigh Montville to SI) got Bob Ryan and Shaughnessy promoted to columnists at the Globe. They were big now. They had the whole city’s attention. When Shaughnessy walked into Channel 7 to do a TV spot, he knew everyone on the set had read what he’d written that morning.

At first glance, Ryan and Shaughnessy were similar guys. They were Irish American sports fanatics — the kind of guys who could have been newspaper battery mates in the ’50s. Their first loves were baseball and basketball, in that order. When it came time to cover the World Series and the NBA Finals, they’d sometimes flip a coin in the Globe newsroom to see who got to go. Then they’d have a "negative" coin flip to see who had to cover the Super Bowl or UFC.

Ryan, however, was all mirror neurons. When Boston cheered, he cheered more eloquently and on deadline. When Boston booed, he did the same. He never had a bad word for his pal Shaughnessy, the Globe’s bad cop, but he found him curiously detached. "Asking the hard questions is fine," Ryan said. "I just think if you’re going to be that way, you really got to go out of your way to balance it up. When you find something good, exult. I don’t think he exults too well."

Ted Williams and Shaughnessy in Florida in 1998 (Boston Globe via Getty)
Ted Williams and Shaughnessy in Florida in 1998 (Boston Globe via Getty)

Shaughnessy — as he is wont — challenged the premise. He exulted, he said. (You can see him visibly moved in a documentary about the first Red Sox title.) It was just that his exultations were often untethered to Boston’s happiness. As he ticked off the times he’d been genuinely moved, he listed Aaron Boone’s homer in ’03 and David Tyree’s helmet catch in ’08 — two moments that made Bostonians want to jump off a bridge.

During the title-less years from 1987 to 2001, Shaughnessy was Boston’s perfect messenger of doom. He published The Curse of the Bambino to great acclaim — though he’ll tell you the book was as much a way to pay his mortgage as something he had to get off his chest. (I’m rooting for myself …) New York writers tended to like Shaughnessy, because his style stood out in what they regarded as the homer capital of American sportswriting. Shaughnessy was like a New York writer who’d missed his stop on the Acela.

At the turn of the century, Boston sports entered what Shaughnessy calls its High Renaissance. Boston teams won nine titles in 13 years. Terry Francona finally helped the Red Sox get over the top in 2004 and 2007. "What’s changed is the teams are winning, and he’s still Shaughnessy," said Mike Felger, who hosts a talk show on WBZ.

In happy times, Shaughnessy kept his ears peeled for discord. In 2011, the Red Sox blew a nine-game lead in September and missed the playoffs. Francona left the team in disgrace. Shaughnessy asked him to collaborate on a tell-all book.

"I had two answers: ‘No’ and ‘Not with you,’" Francona told me recently. They’d tangled one too many times. But, then, when the Globe conducted a postseason autopsy, Red Sox sources pinned some of the team’s collapse on Francona’s crumbling marriage and use of pain meds. A strange thing happened: A story in Shaughnessy’s own paper helped convince Francona that his former antagonist might be his Boswell. "He was more mad at them than me," Shaughnessy said.

As a literary collaborator, Francona sanded off Shaughnessy’s rough edges. "I told him, ‘This isn’t going to be your tone. It’s going to be my tone,’" Francona said. The manager was so respectful of his former players that he’d write about certain events only if Shaughnessy cleared it with the players first.

"The night before he turned it in, he was in Seattle doing a football game," Francona said. "I kept him up till 4 a.m. He was getting mad at me, but just the way some things were worded — I didn’t want something to come out wrong against a player." Shaughnessy himself had added the book’s pièce de résistance: interviews with Theo Epstein, whom he’d called "Young Theo," and had written a critical column about before Epstein’s temporary resignation in 2005. But Epstein, who’d left the Red Sox for the Cubs, didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history. He talked to Shaughnessy, too.

Though Boston was now a happy place, the publication of Francona: The Red Sox Years coincided with a short period of misery. The Bobby Valentine–led Red Sox posted the team’s worst record in 47 years. The same week Francona was excerpted in Sports Illustrated, the Patriots lost the AFC title game to the Ravens, creating a vacuum in the Boston sports mediasphere. The book topped out at no. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list. You could call Shaughnessy someone who roots for bad news. More to the point, he is a journalistic opportunist — one who feels nothing at all.

Last December, Bruce Allen, who writes the blog Boston Sports Media Watch, published an item called "P.S.A. — Avoiding Toxic Sports Media." In it, Allen offered what amounted to a list of suppressive persons: "people who you should absolutely, positively never read, watch or listen to." At the top of the list, of course, was Shaughnessy.

The case against Shaughnessy is familiar to any reader of Sons of Sam Horn. He pokes at soccer and sabermetrics. His unfurls a blizzard of Reagan-era cultural references. (A column last month quoted Sally Field’s Oscar speech.) Shaughnessy has his hobbyhorses. A notes column from July swiped at Deflategate, former Sox GM Ben Cherington, the "Tomato Can AFC East," and analytics, twice — and that was in the first five notes.

You find an equally loud counterargument from an older group of Boston journalists. "Someone should step up and give this guy some credit," said Stan Grossfeld, a Pulitzer Prize–winning Globe photographer. "He’s a Hall of Famer, OK? He deserves to be treated as such."

Shaughnessy’s defenders see his style as a necessary corrective to two things. It’s often said that Shaughnessy feasted on Boston’s misery. It’s rarely said that other writers exploited Boston’s overexuberance in its age of champions. Last month, after a court denied Tom Brady’s appeal in the Deflategate case, Barstool’s David Portnoy got in front of a camera and compared Roger Goodell to Hitler and Stalin. We might dismiss that as gonzo performance art. But what to make of the Herald’s much-loved Steve Buckley, who in March compared the campaign against Goodell to the campaign to ratify the 13th Amendment — a.k.a. the one that outlawed slavery?

Shaughnessy at a press conference with then–Red Sox president Larry Lucchino in 2013 (Boston Globe via Getty)
Shaughnessy at a press conference with then–Red Sox president Larry Lucchino in 2013 (Boston Globe via Getty)

It’s Boston self-aggrandizement at its most cuckoo. Clark Booth — a longtime Boston TV reporter and writer — said: "During the Vietnam War, for Peter Gammons every Red Sox road trip was a trip into the Ia Drang Valley, and every game against the Yankees was the Battle of Khe Sanh." He added of Shaughnessy, "He has a good sense of the world around him, unlike some guys in sports who think this shit’s real."

The second thing Shaughnessy is said to stand against is the strangling of the sports press. In the ’70s, Gammons played pepper with the Red Sox before games. When Shaughnessy arrived on the beat, things were less chummy but the clubhouse doors were still open. Now — particularly with the Patriots — even basic injury information is considered covert intel. "Do you want the information or not?" Shaughnessy said. "Because I don’t really give a shit who the backup tight end is. I’m not going to go down there and ask because I care. I’m doing it because I presume you care."

Every Boston sports fan is a Shaughnessyologist. On the day I visited Fenway, Shaughnessy had published a collection of stray thoughts — a "bag of notes," he called it. Mike Felger said the fun is finding the single dig that justifies the other 1,000 words. On the phone with me a few days later, Felger landed on it. As it turned out, Shaughnessy had written about David Ortiz and his late-career power surge:

"I read that," Felger said admiringly, "and I’m like, God bless."

Such snark is bound to produce a reaction. In 2002, Shaughnessy and Globe reporter John Powers went to New Orleans to cover what turned out to be the Patriots’ first Super Bowl win. "We were walking down Bourbon Street," Powers said, "and a guy in a clown suit with big shoes and rainbow hair comes up and says, ‘Shaughnessy, you suck!’ Dan was stunned. He was a freaking clown."

There is a trickle-down aspect to Shaughnessy. His column, good or bad, can provide a show’s worth of material. "He’s kind of loathsome," said Kirk Minihane, the WEEI host who’s one of his biggest critics, "but he’s necessary. He’s absolutely necessary."

Boston fans think their enmity for Shaughnessy is unique. It’s not. The way readers complain about Shaughnessy is nearly identical to the way they complained about New York’s Dick Young, Dallas’s Skip Bayless, and L.A.’s T.J. Simers. (Don’t react to him. That’s just what he wants.) The difference is that Shaughnessy still works at a newspaper. Thus, Shaughnessy-hating is imbued with the idea that he’s wielding old-media power in a new-media age. Shaughnessy’s critics ask: Why do we have to listen to this guy?

Fellow Globe columnist Christopher Gasper said: "For people around here, for years the Globe was pretty much the only way you interacted with sports, both with your teams and sports around the country. Obviously, that’s changed. I compare it to political coverage. If you follow politics, you can go to a website that has all of your opinions." Shaughnessy told me: "Everybody’s a columnist and everybody’s the same as us now."

Shaughnessy professes not to care about his online critics. "To me, it’s the bathroom wall," he said. "‘Suzy Is a Whore.’ What does Suzy do with that?" But perhaps because "Shaughnessy" has been scribbled on the wall so many times, he feels the onslaught of new media is inevitable. "It makes no sense to bay at the moon about the old days and the way we used to do it," he said. "Nobody wants to hear it."

As the first pitch drew near, Shaughnessy and I relocated to a bar inside Fenway to have a drink and watch the game on television. Shaughnessy ordered white wine and a Diet Coke. When the national anthem played, he suggested we ought to stand. So we stood patriotically next to our barstools and faced the flat-screen TVs.

Shaughnessy has the whiff of a Luddite. In 2004, when Joe Sullivan became the Globe’s sports editor, one of his first tasks was to present Shaughnessy with a cellphone. These days, when Shaughnessy goes to Red Sox spring training in Florida, a staffer is instructed to send him copies of the Globe via FedEx so he doesn’t have to read the paper online. "The way we look at it is, if it makes him happy, it’s fine," said Sullivan. "It’s a minor expense, right?"

Shaughnessy might have followed other print throwbacks into obsolescence. But more than two years ago, he learned about internet traffic metrics. It produced a late-career power surge every bit as remarkable as Big Papi’s. Now, Shaughnessy doesn’t just push Boston fans’ buttons. He pushes them to the rhythms of the web.

Gone is the early evening deadline that Shaughnessy observed for decades. "If he’s working on something for the Wednesday paper," Sullivan explained, "it comes in by 11 a.m. on Tuesday." Globe editors drop it onto the website at lunchtime, when web traffic surges.

Indeed, on the night we hung out, Shaughnessy had a column running in the Globe the next day. He had no interest in going up to the press box and banging something out before deadline. "You get no audience on the internet," he said. "It’s better to send a bag of notes in at noon that’s out there now getting commented on and criticized."

The digital world changed not just a Globe columnist’s deadline but his very nature. Once, a columnist was a globe-trotter armed with a fat expense account. Now, shrinking budgets have turned the focus to Boston sports. The new provincialism fits Shaughnessy just fine. "I feel much more local than anything," he told me. His niece Meghann was a tennis star who played Wimbledon more than a dozen times; Shaughnessy never managed to get to England to see her. And since 2000, Shaughnessy has turned down every one of the Globe’s biennial offers to send him to the Olympics.

Even coverage within Boston has narrowed. "It used to be you could change a kid’s life by going out and doing a story on a high school quarterback in Walpole," Shaughnessy said. These days, no general columnist would abandon the Patriots to write about a Walpolean who’s already the star of his own Hudl videos.

"I don’t do as many things that might be worthy," Shaughnessy said as we watched the game. "There’s more sittin’ and yellin’ and screamin’ about the Patriots and the Red Sox. More provocative stuff, less reporting. Less nights, less games. The formula’s evolved."

It would strike some writers as a tragedy that the old Globe sports column — the playpen of Leigh Montville and Ray Fitzgerald — has morphed into something like a NESN "hit." It doesn’t bother Shaughnessy much at all. The shift plays to his strengths. He wants to write about Topic A. In an odd way, Shaughnessy is trying to dominate the new media universe even as he rejects most of its values. "He’s embraced it," said Stan Grossfeld. "We gotta embrace it. We’re dinosaurs walking the earth and we don’t want to be extinct."

Every Labor Day weekend, Boston hosts a PGA event. At the Fenway bar, Shaughnessy was already grumbling about having to take a day off from the Patriots and Red Sox for "court-mandated coverage." Joe Sullivan, the editor who would assign such a column, told me: "He doesn’t like it because he feels no one reacts to it."

Asked when he’ll decide to quit the Globe, Shaughnessy said, "It’s probably not going to come from me." He’d stick it out till old age or the big layoff got him. "When you’re not good for business, they’ll tell you," he said.

We watched the Red Sox pound Rays pitcher Chris Archer on TV for a few innings. After a time, two kids approached the bar. They stared at Shaughnessy. Perhaps they recognized the face. Or the Jheri curl. Or the demeanor of a guy who, like no one at Fenway other than John Henry, acted like he had a right to be there.

"Are you somebody famous?" one of the kids finally asked.

"No," Dan Shaughnessy said, "I’m somebody else."

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