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Sports Journalist Obits: Oates, Poole

April 30th, 2009 · 2 Comments · Motor racing, NFL, Sports Journalism

Two guys I spent a fair amount of time with in press boxes/workrooms died in the past few days.

Bob Oates, longtime pro football writer for the Los Angeles Times.

David Poole, veteran NASCAR writer for the Charlotte Observer.

Poole was something of a NASCAR legend. Oates wasn’t far behind, among NFL reporters.

I wasn’t close to either man. If we had conversations, they were brief. But when you sit in the same room for days at a time with people … when you cover the same events and compare your writing to theirs … you get a little bit of a feel for them.

First, Bob Oates.

Bob was around a long time, and good for him.  He was 93 when he died on Monday. His Los Angeles Times obituary is here. I always like to see a sports writer live to a ripe old age.

My recollection is that he was in perhaps his last season as the Los Angeles Rams beat writer, for LAT, during my first year covering the team, in 1977. He may already have moved on to the “national” NFL beat, with Ted Green taking over as the Rams guy for that paper.

But I saw Oates around a lot. The Raiders weren’t in town yet, and the Rams were a huge story here — rivaling the Dodgers, outstripping the Lakers, who were in a down period in the late 1970s. Arguably the biggest story in town, the Rams were.

Oates was not a loud or brash guy. He took himself seriously, and there was a gravitas to his bearing. It doesn’t surprise me at all that some Times people apparently called him The Professor.

He was, what, 60-something even then, in 1977, 1978, and I recall him as being much closer to coaches and management than to players, which makes sense, considering the age gap between him and the twentysomethings who suited up. My recollection, from the four years I covered the Rams home-and-road, was that Oates was likely to break the stories pertaining to the inner workings of the club … but that the guys over at the Herald-Examiner, particularly Doug Krikorian or his successor as the beat guy, Larry Allen, were more likely to get player stuff.

One lasting memory I have of Oates is at a Rams-Vikings game at the old stadium in Minnesota, in the suburb of Bloomington. It was there that I realized that a Rams public relations executive was seated right next to Bob Oates — apparently because his vision was slipping to the point that he needed someone to serve as something of a spotter.

Oates didn’t dominate his field for one good reason: The competition was too stiff. He worked in an era where there were lots of thriving newspapers, and all of them had veteran guys covering the NFL, many of them with as many years as he had. Lots of them were good. Very good. The NFL was just too big a topic for any one reporter to be considered the main man.

Oates’s most tangible achievement was seeing, in person, the first 39 Super Bowls. The LAT obit notes that only a handful of guys got to the first 39, and I wonder if any of them are still streaking. Edwin Pope, maybe? Jerry Green or Jerry Izenberg, perhaps?

(As time marches on, we’re going to start running out of people who saw all the Super Bowls at all — on TV or otherwise. I’m one of them.)

Oates was a must-read, of course, because he worked for the big paper in town and was tapped into league officials. But I confess that I sometimes found him to be a frustrating writer, particularly after a game. He had what I thought was an annoying “20-20 hindsight” approach to writing. An “inevitability after the fact” form of analysis.

He might advance a game for a week, broaching all sorts of issues, then the game would be played, and on Monday morning he would write — quite authoritatively — about how the game had pivoted on a single concept and would suggest, strongly (no, emphatically,) that everyone who knew anything about football understood that was how the game would unfold. As if were a fait accompli that only needed the formality of a game to make it all so, so obvious.

Even though he may never have written a word before the game about what he was telling us, the day after, was the key. I can remember complaining about this to other sports writers for years.

Maybe I was the only one who noticed. It certainly didn’t hinder his career, which was as long and as productive as anyone’s in the Los Angeles market.

Unlike Oates, David Poole was much closer to being recognized as The Man on his beat. NASCAR is a much smaller world, of course, and Poole had the added advantage of writing for the sport’s “hometown” newspaper, the Charlotte Observer.

I remember Poole mostly as a lot of fun in the media workroom at the track in Fontana. I believe he covered every NASCAR race run there, from 1997 forward, and in the soundtrack inside my head I can hear him cracking wise in the background.

He was one of the thoroughly Southern writers who traveled with the sport, who spoke with same kind of drawl that most of the drivers had. And he was a sharp-tongued guy. “Anybody remember when Jeff Burton used to be good,” he would ask of no one in particular. He loved to skewer pomposity and sanctimony and foolishness. Much of it originating on TV. I wonder if he even knew that I was laughing like mad under my breath just a few feet from where he sat. He was the comedic Greek chorus to a race. He just killed me.

I have trouble recalling his bon mots, but two themes he returned to with laugh-out-loud exasperation: The frequency with which televisions inside the often windowless media workrooms (which he called “news blackout rooms”) did not work, prompting him to note that “the only people who really need to see the race can’t see it at all.” And his annoyance when PR people at tracks didn’t do their jobs, often because equipment didn’t work or hadn’t been checked. “We’ve come to another track with a surprise race,” he would say. “Here we are and everybody at the track had a year to get ready for this and nothing works. They must not have known we were coming.”

Poole wasn’t a tall man, but he was a big one. He carried too much weight, and he worked too hard, and while his death from heart attack on Tuesday is sad and jolting, no one in the profession could have been very surprised.

NASCAR is a demanding beat. A brutal beat. The season lasts 10 months. You have to cover 38 races, if you’re doing it full-time (and Poole might have been the last full-timer, given all the recent cuts in staff and travel). That means something like 100-150 nights a year in a hotel, and 50, 60, 70 plane trips. It’s grueling. Worse than baseball, basketball or the NHL because you’re rarely home more than a few days at a time, from February into November.

And if that weren’t enough to wear down a guy, Poole since early 2007 had been handling two jobs. That is when he began a NASCAR-oriented Sirius Radio call-in show. Four hours every morning, five days a week. It ran from 7-11 a.m. ET, and when he was on the West Coast that meant getting up at 3 a.m. PT to be ready for his show, which began at 4 o’clock, Pacific.

And, remember, he was still writing full-time for his paper.

It was a punishing workload, and those who knew him wondered how long he could keep it up. I think everyone hoped he could step back from it, and slow down some.

However, some of his colleagues believe it was that second job that he found particularly satisfying, at the end of his career. The radio job.

Poole on the air seemed to become the unofficial ombudsman for NASCAR fans, many of whom feel as if the industry takes them for granted, jerks them around and generally ignores their wishes and preferences. His radio show gave those fans a forum for airing the gripes that the Sprint Cup guys ignored or downplayed or ridiculed. Poole’s popularity seemed to rocket, these past two years.

He also became something of the conscience of the sport. He apparently was deeply troubled by events at Talladega last weekend, when the race was interrupted by two dozen-care pileups and punctuated by the terrifying flight by Carl Edwards and his 99 car into the upper reaches of the catchfence. If the fence had failed, or had Edwards been a few feet higher, his car might have killed hundreds of fans. Instead, it injured seven.

A colleague said Poole was upset with the way NASCAR seemed to minimize the accidents and the risks. He said he didn’t know how much longer he could continue to cover a sport that operated in such a cavalier fashion. A sport that has sort of sighed with fake concern even as Edwards’s crash was replayed dozens, hundreds of times on every TV station in the country.

Poole’s last contribution to print journalism appeared the day he died. He said he believed racing at  Talladega was out of control, and suggested NASCAR wouldn’t do anything about it until it had a real tragedy on its hands.

The last sentence of his last column is almost eerie: “Does somebody have to die before we’ve decided we don’t have control?”

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Doug // May 2, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    Thanks for the info on Oates and Poole. I knew a lot about Oates, but had never heard of Poole. After reading some of his work and the tributes to him, it was apparent Poole was a heck of a writer and a real loss to those who follow NASCAR.

  • 2 Mike Rappaport // May 3, 2009 at 9:09 am

    Paul, I worked with David in North Carolina in 82-83 and actually shared a townhouse with him for about eight months.

    My favorite Poole bon mot had to do with our cable television, on which we had HBO (big deal back then). Every month there seemed to be one movie — usually the biggest, newest one — that was on every other day.

    The first month we were there it was Faye Dunaway in “Mommie Dearest,” so every month after that, he would ask me, “What’s our ‘Mommie Dearest’ this month?”

    I hadn’t talked to Dave since 1983, but we reconnected on Facebook this year. As a new grandparent myself, I loved the fact that he said his best friend was his little grandson Eli.

    In fact, when I heard David had died, my first thought was of Eli.

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