Eye On the Ball: My friend, John Feinstein


I’ve heard many times: “When you get older, if you can count your true friends on one hand, you are lucky.”

Well, I am now in my middle 70s and I know that I am more than fortunate since I can easily count my true friends on two hands. And after 50 years as the golf professional at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club, I realize that all of my true friends were kids who worked for me when they were teenagers. Although they’re grown now, we’ve developed a bond from working hard together, being honest with each other and yet having as much fun as we could while doing a good job.

One of those kids was John Feinstein. As a boy, John was always a sports nut. That love for sports translated into 33 books on the subject and John becoming a sports celebrity himself.

Today, at 58 and a sportswriter for over 35 years, he’s the best-selling sports author of all time. Last year he was inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, going in along with Bob Costas. This prestigious award is named for Curt Gowdy and is presented to members of the media whose longtime efforts have made a significant contribution to sports.

John’s books are almost all about sporting activities, such as basketball, golf, baseball, swimming, football, tennis. He’s also written a novel on basketball set on Shelter Island, called “Winter Games.”
I miss John. Until this season, he spent part of every year on the Island. When he was here, we enjoyed lunch together almost every day. I so appreciated listening to his many tales about his times with the top sports stars of our day. He loves to talk and is a master storyteller. Sadly, he is a proud bleeding heart liberal Democrat so politics was abolished from our lunch meetings a long time ago.

Interestingly, although we came from two totally different childhood environments, we always had plenty to talk about. John’s parents, Martin and Bernice, were both highly educated. Martin was the executive director of the Kennedy Center and Bernice was a Ph.D. in music history.

On my side, my father and mother quit school in the 11th grade. My dad ran a fishing pier and my mom was a seamstress in a factory.

John and I found out that backgrounds don’t matter when you’re talking sports.

Like many boys of his generation, John’s idols were Tom Seaver, Broadway Joe Namath, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Brad Park and Arthur Ashe. As an adult, John was proud that he got to know Arthur Ashe well.

He played all sports as a youngster and was standout at swimming and baseball. His golf pro at Gardiner’s Bay made him a 70s shooter with only two months a year of touching a golf club. Somehow, he never appreciated that this feat was close to a miracle. At 14 he was voted Most Improved Junior Golfer at Gardiner’s Bay CC.

His real sports recognition came from swimming. As a junior and senior in high school, he was both all-city and all-state and in his senior year he was an honorable mention All-American. After a 20-year layoff from the sport, John is now back, joining a “masters swim team” called “The Ancient Mariners.”

He seems to have picked up where he left off, involved in four national championship relays, two of which broke world records in his age group. Individually, John ranked in the top ten in the National Championships 26 times.

In 2009 doctors discovered seven blockages in his arteries, but he said he felt just fine. He asked how it was possible to have all those blockages and not even be short of breath. He loved what he was told by the doctors: “Your heart is incredibly strong because you swim and if you weren’t a swimmer, you would be dead.”

After graduating from Duke University in 1977, he spent 11 years as a sports and political reporter with the Washington Post. He has also been a regular contributor to Sports Illustrated, The National Sports Daily, ESPN, CBS Sports and Golf Digest.

In addition, John is a regular on-air commentator for a number of television and radio shows including The Golf Channel, National Public Radio, The Jim Rome Show and The Sports Junkies.

John’s first book, “A Season on the Brink,” was adapted for a film starring Brian Dennehy in the role of Bobby Knight.

Two and a half years ago, John teamed up with Bruce Murray and joined SiriusXM’s Mad Dog radio channel for the sports talk show, “Beyond the Brink.” John left that show when he was offered a three-hour morning slot of his own on CBS Sports Radio called “The John Feinstein Show.”

I closed our most recent conversation by asking him what sports offers schools and young people. He said he’s a big believer in small school sports programs that give kids a real chance to learn to compete no matter what their skill levels. He said a competitive sports program makes the school and all associated with it feel better about themselves.

When I asked him about the benefits of sports in general, his immediate reply was that I didn’t have enough space. He then said, “They are fun, they bring people together and with the right coaches, they teach life lessons, give you a sense of accomplishment and as you get older, they keep you in shape.”

In his case, John said, “What more can I say? They allowed me to stay alive.”