Forty years and thousands of games later, Steve Kelley went to another sporting event Thursday night. He loved it. But, 40 years and millions of words later, he then had to write about it. And there's the rub. "The idea of writing newspaper stuff doesn't thrill me anymore," he says.
No one in Royal Brougham Pavilion—named for one of America's longest-serving sportswriters—knew that Kelley was writing one of his final columns. Unlike Brougham, who died on the job at age 84, Kelley thinks the thrill is gone at 63. He tells us he'll leave behind his Seattle Times column at the end of this month.
We asked him why. "Well, I got into a fight with my boss and hit him over the head with one of our Pulitzers," Kelley said.
Joke. He was just trying to pump up the story a bit, the truth being awfully prosaic. He says he simply told Executive Editor Dave Boardman that "I just kind of want to disappear. Thirty-one years here, 40 years as a sportswriter—I just want to do something else."
The repetition of sporting events had something to do with it: the loopy Groundhog Day effect of look-alike games and legions of coaches and players droning on about "execution" and "taking it one game at a time."
"I find myself at a lot more games thinking, 'I've written this story 411 times now. Isn't that enough?' " says Kelley, who came to the Times in 1982 from The Oregonian after earlier newspaper stops in Olympia, Centralia, and Pennsylvania. "It's more and more a challenge to find a different way to write it."
But also give credit to his detractors—anyone who writes for a living has them—for driving him out. "The reader comments section, it's a free-for-all," Kelley says. "The level of discourse has become so inane and nasty. And it's not just at the Times, it's ESPN, everywhere—people, anonymous people, take shots at the story, writers, each other. Whatever you've achieved in that story gets drowned out by this chorus of idiots."
Like a lot of career newspaper writers, Kelley doesn't have a lot in the bank. But his wife, who works full-time, backed his decision to semi-retire. He'll continue as a volunteer coach at Shorewood High and teaching writing to Seattle fourth graders. He also has a book and some film ideas he's working on.
His farewell column is set for January 31 or thereabouts. Kelley wrote an unintentional preview of it for The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists, recounting moments with Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, and Michael Jordan, to name a few, noting: "I'm old, and the only advantage I can see in my 60th year is that, as sports fan and sportswriter, I was lucky to have witnessed many great moments and almost all of the great modern athletes."
Yet, "If I have a choice, I won't write a farewell column," he said on Friday. A friend of his from the San Francisco Chronicle recently wrote a heartfelt good-bye and got strafed by readers, aka the idiot chorus. Kelley would likely recall similar deep sentiments, such as the memorable time that then-Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren—after hearing Kelley complain about having a bad day with his grade-school writing class—offered to drop in for a chat with them.
"Fifty kids in a circle, with Mike sitting in a big rocking chair, talking about sports and life. He was unbelievable. Of all the great events I've covered, that's the one I remember most," says Kelley. "I'd rather just walk away with that memory untarnished."