My favourite Dave Perkins story was in a place both of us would rather forget, to be honest: the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, as we were going in via the press entrance one Saturday afternoon to cover the 100-metres final. On the other side of the fence waiting for the general gates to open, and not liking it one bit, was famed trial lawyer Johnny Cochran.
“This has to be the only place in America you can’t talk yourself into,” Perkins cracked, earning a smile from Cochran that, if it was paying at his hourly rate, would’ve made us both rich.
Perkins is good at that kind of thing, and remains part of the Canadian sports conversation as a guest voice on Sportsnet’s Prime Time Sports. But as his Fun and Games: My 40 Years Writing Sports demonstrates, there’s no substitute for reading the man.
In his spot in the Toronto Star, Perkins had as fine and comfortable a voice as you’d find in all of journalism, and after six years out of the full-time ink-stained wretch business, Fun and Games is every bit the delightful read you’d expect. The ECW Press book out this month is something of a love letter to a pre-digital media era gone forever, a collection of yarns expertly told by a guy who, as he often said of others, “made the alphabet behave.” After a bit of heart trouble that’s since been taken care of, I caught up with him just ahead of a trip to Italy he was taking with his wife Debbie to spend all the royalty money.
Q: So why do a book?
Perkins: It was because my rehab was going badly. Seriously, last summer I had no outlet - my cardiologist didn’t want me to play golf, and I was just kind of sitting around looking at the four walls going what am I gonna do? People had asked me for a long time to do something, but I was never interested, and I never thought people would be interested. Two days later I got a call from a guy offering it again. So one thing led to another. I always had the stories floating around in my head. I was telling them at golf tournaments, standing around bars yakking and I’d tell them to people in the business. A lot of people told me to put ‘em in a book. I never paid them any mind until I had nothing else to do.
Q: Remember Plimpton’s small-ball theory of sports writing? Does it apply to your own writing, and likes? You did a lot of golf and baseball.
Perkins: And racing, too. But it’s got such a limited shelf life, racing. It’s sometimes hard to explain racing stories because people just don’t understand it like they used to. But everybody understands baseball and golf. I spent a lot of time covering golf -- 58 majors, that’s a hell of a lot, and Presidents Cups and Ryder Cups. The best thing I liked about golf was there were no night games. You could live like a human being, have a decent dinner. You weren’t eating stale popcorn at 11 o’clock at night waiting for some extra-innings game to end. Golf and baseball, you had time. So much of baseball was sitting around and telling stories at 4 in the afternoon, when you do that clubhouse pass, what I used to call ‘the arrest check.’ That’s when you hear good stories and you trade a few.
Q: Do you have a favourite among them?
Perkins: It depends on the crowd. If push comes to shove my favourite would be some of the boxing stuff from Las Vegas - the night that Jim Morris told Arnold Schwarzenegger to f*** off was just priceless.
Q: How many stories didn’t make the cut?
Perkins: A few. My triggers are when I see people. So I’ll see someone and it’ll be oh yeah, I forgot that one. I’m sure there would be a lot more. But they only wanted 100,000 words.
Q: Did you ever jump in a cab and say “follow that car!”?
Perkins: I actually did. It was after Ben Johnson got busted for steroids in Seoul, and I was in Boston covering the Blue Jays and got a phone call from the office saying Ben was on a non-stop flight from Seoul to New York Kennedy. Those were the days of $29 shuttles, and they said get down there and meet the plane. So I cab it out to Logan, get the shuttle to LaGuardia, and take a cab to Kennedy. Ben’s plane’s coming in about 3:30 and there were hundreds of media there, so the cops start chasing everybody out of the reception area around 3. I went into a gift shop that sold shirts and hid in the change room. So I ended up the only guy in this whole area and Ben gets off the plane and I charge out of this gift shop and tap him on the shoulder - “Ben, are you innocent?” And he looked at me with those big yellow eyes and mumbled “mother*****” or something like that. Ben’s people had a limo for him right outside because he was flying home to Toronto from LaGuardia. The cops had him surrounded and we’re all shouting questions as he meets his limo and gets in and takes off. I’m with Ken Faught, the Star photog guy who met me there, and we jumped into a cab and say “follow that car!” We looked at each other and I’m like, “I can’t believe we just said that.” We told the cab driver what was happening and he was right into it, so he’s going 80 miles an hour up the Van Wyck Expressway, pulling up alongside and we’re hanging out the window shouting questions and taking photos. And Ben’s of course ignoring us. We get to LaGuardia and the same thing happened, he was parceled off into a lounge. So I just said oh well, went over and got the $29 shuttle back to Boston, and got into Fenway before the first pitch.
Q: Stories like that, maybe you do another one.
Perkins: No, I didn’t care for the process. For 40 years you write something and the next day it thumps on the doorstep and you read it and grunt a couple of times and move on, work on today’s thing. The fact of writing something in October, and then you don’t hear another word until July when you get a bunch of proofs handed to you … I’m a little better when it’s fresh in my mind and three days later it’s wrapping fish.
Q: So nothing about smoking dope with Frank Zappa?
Perkins: No. I guess I could have gone there, but that wasn’t really writing sports. That was at Ryerson when I was in my second year, writing about music for the Eyeopener, and ended up in the Three Small Rooms hotel with Frank. Had a couple spliffs and next thing you know he was playing his album. I always remember Frank saying he liked my shoes. I was trying to take them off and give them to him. Frank was great, but let’s just say we didn’t operate on the same plane. I was a big Captain Beefheart fan, and he and Frank were good buddies, I think they went to high school together. So he told me a couple Beefheart stories that I’ve long since forgotten. I’m only going back 45 years now.
Q: Was there a particular sports figure you dealt with that you found the most interesting, or that you looked forward to talking to?
Perkins: I never thought of it that way, but I did have three wow moments. One was when I was sneaking a smoke in Oakland Coliseum in the alcove outside the A’s clubhouse and there’s Joe DiMaggio sitting on a trunk, sneaking a smoke. So we stood there sneaking smokes for 10 minutes or so, and I’m thinking this is pretty good, I’m with Marilyn Monroe’s ex-husband here. There was no ‘oh Joe, you’re the greatest’. Just two people talking. He asked a few questions about Toronto, and we talked about that. I mentioned that I’d eaten at his restaurant - we just had a nice kind of visit. The second time was at a fight and Sidney Poitier was there. Sidney was my favourite actor, and we’re just yakking back and forth, I guess I was being kind of a pain in the ass to him, but that was a thrill. And the first time I got in the business was that story I wrote in the book about going to New York, and sitting there with Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra, and Red Smith was sitting at the far end of the table. I’m 19 years old, saying absolutely nothing, and then Whitey Ford asks me if I knew Sam Shopsowitz. I said no, but I ate his corned beef. This was pretty good stuff for a dumb kid from Midland.
Fun and Games: My 40 Years Writing Sports is out this month from ECW Press. Order it here.