on the road at last

“Earth comprises distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death.” Sun Tzu, The Art of War

day the first.

we escaped the nefarious clutches of pierce county under a veil of darkness, shortly before 3 in the morning, after stopping in gig harbor to pawn off a forlorn blackberry pie on kenny via and mark the belated departure with a ceremonial dead guy ale.

the original plan was to depart Sept. 13 or 14, following the final examination for sun tzu, our fuel-devouring, rattletrap, 1993 toyota/winnebago warrior. it was all we could do to hit the road early thursday morning, sept. 29. after crossing the narrows into tacoma, we made a pit stop at the arco on pearl street to gas up the behemoth.

we pass a straggler on the road, trudging north on the east side of pearl. becky says, “is that john mcgrath?”

sure and begorrah! it is johnny mac, looking like an itinerant madman, head twisting on a swivel as he leans into the chilly tacoma night on the back end of his seven-mile round trip to the loose wheel tavern on 6th avenue, where he performed “mambo italiano” and “love is in the air” during wednesday night karaoke.

we hail him, a summons that must have struck him like a thunderbolt out of autumn night sky. he appraises us suspiciously, as if we were strange interlopers in the bizarrely shifting landscape of a dream state.

we insist on giving him a ride home, thankful to have him along on the bon voyage portion of the journey, and prod him about his unlikely passion for karaoke.

john mcgrath is a wonderful sports columnist, a writer whose gifts are almost anachronistic in the slapdash, prurient world of corporate journalism. he’s toiled at the atlanta journal-constitution and denver post, not to mention the lamentably short-lived national sports daily.

but right now he’s a bit of a mess, and he sees no sense in pretending otherwise.

“there’s nothing left in life for me,” he says. “everything is crashing in. it’s checkmate.”

checkmate. the fact he can assess his personal morasse in such poetic terms is reason to hope he is employing a bit of literary license, and not staring into a darkening tunnel and, in the words of townes van zandt, waiting around to die.

when i think about johnny mac, who according to his own legend gave up driving in order to keep drinking beer, i think about the famous story associated with the english writer malcolm lowry.

riding with his dad in the family’s chauffeured limo, they regularly came across a lawyer making his seven-mile walk to the ferry dock on the mersey river en route to work. the man always acknowledged the lowry clan cheerfully, but lowry’s patrician father would only sneer, dismissing the man as a drunkard who lacked self-discipline.

the young lowry, the story goes, wondered if rising with the sun each morning to make a seven-mile walk to the ferry did not present startling evidence of self-discipline. in that moment, he said, he secretly vowed to become a drunkard.

johnny mac is the most human, thoroughly enjoyable writer at the tacoma news tribune.
he might get angry, and he might take an acerbic shot at a coach or a player on occasion, but he rarely allows personal animus to overwhelm his perspective. the same cannot be said for vast majority of his peers, including the cadre of columnizing hacks who poison the sports pages of the philadelphia inquirer, my hometown newspaper.

at the end of my eight-year stint on the sports desk at the news tribune, his columns were about the only things capable of redeeming another eight 7.5-hour exercise in filling holes with all manner of pointless fodder. if he is too fond of beer, what’s it to me? i drank a half-bottle or more of $2 wine last night, so I surely am not the one to hurl stones from the dilapidated confines of my wineglass abode.


a note about alcohol and sports journalism: i’ve never shed a sense of guilt over a story i wrote in my first year in daily newspapering. it was an award-winning piece of journalism cliche: i took a broken-down ballplayer and, with the not inconsiderable help of photographs that depicted his forlorn lifestyle in appalling detail, portrayed him crudely as rising star whose life had been destroyed by drunkenness.

one photograph, which dominated the double-truck layout inside, showed him drinking a beer at a local watering hole in wenatchee, wash. i was not in the frame, but rest assured i was right there drinking beer with him. i think he even bought that beer.

while the story was well-received (with one notable exception, a longtime friend of the subject who adroitly reviewed it as “the worst journalism job ever”), i remain plagued by the sense that it was nothing more than an amateurish hatchet job.

his name was ted tappe. among other exploits, he hit a home run in his first major league at-bat. at ebbets field, in 1951, for the cinncinati reds off the dodgers’ erv palica.

i’ll never forget how he summed up the moment with self-deprecating elan: “it was a low, inside fastball. you know what they say, ‘low-ball hitter, hi-ball drinker.'”

while researching the story, he got mad at me and called me a “clodhopper.” i’m not sure what he meant, though i’ve always suspected he was right.


in a cinematic world, we might have kidnapped johnny mac and taken him south with us.

the news tribune, in its ineffable fecklessness and twisted sense of decency, no doubt would’ve forgiven such a rube waddell-esque disappearing act.

a barstool raconteur of the first order, johnny might’ve regaled us with tales of past visits to the bay area, and we could’ve explored his ancestral roots. his dad grew up in san francisco and ultimately had his ashes scattered along the embarcadero. his dad graduated from mission high school, just like, johnny mac points out, the great guitarist carlos santana.

his paternal grandmother ran a speakeasy, or “blind pig,” in daly city, just south of san francisco. in the other corner, his maternal grandmother hailed from oakland and was a temperance advocate who railed against the evils of alcohol.

johnny mac takes humorous solace in the fact that one of his grandparents ran a prohibition gin joint, saying he had “congenital” reason for his current lack of equilibrium. his blues eyes shine nonetheless with absolute merriment, along with a dose of stereotypical irish mischief. he seems quite happy to be here, and so are we.

as for karaoke? he says it’s something of a last stand against the furies circling his doorstep.

“it’s stupidly liberating,” he says. “i’ve got nothing left. it was either give up or sing. i’m singing. i feel more alive right now than i have in my whole life.”

keep singing, johnny mac, and thanks for giving us an unexpected yet satisfying sendoff.

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One Response to on the road at last

  1. Arn says:

    I had no idea Johnny Mac’s dad was San Franciscan. But I can attest to his fondness for Lefty O’Doul’s. He wrote about the place – I think in North Beach – passionately back in the early 1990s when he first joined The News Tribune and then-sports editor Greg Gibson gave him the keys to the company expense account to go write about the ultimate baseball trip. He meandered down the coast visiting minor league parks along the way – Salem Em’s is one name that sticks with me. And I think he was waxing poetic about the Oakland Oaks and San Francisco Seals while sitting on a barstool at Lefty’s. If memory serves, he might even have had to dictate this particular piece of prose when technology failed him. Fitting, no?

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