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Unexpected surprises.

It was back in a creative writing class in college, and we had to do a paper on a visit to a museum.

"The best surprises," I began, "are those that happen unexpectedly."

It might have been my first non-sequitur in print, but I think, after 8,000 bylines that followed in The New York Times, not my last. Over the years I have been guilty--inadvertently, of course--of these leads. I daresay, so have the victims ... er, subjects, I have written about.

Often I have quoted people without realizing--until I saw it in print--that what they said looked odd or awkward or simply silly when set in black type against white newsprint.

Sometimes, I have burnished a non-grammatical quote to avoid embarrassing the speaker. But there have been times, I admit, when I took delight in a phrase's wrong turn. Still, I had my moments--unexpected surprises?--after realizing what had slipped by me.

As a young reporter, I was asked to look into how the sports world was dealing with a drought that had struck the East. I spoke to a groundskeeper at a public golf course. This is how I began my story, quoting him:

"We care for the greens the way you'd care for your aged grandmother--we roll it, aerate it, and water it."

I even made Charles Schulz, the creator of the beloved Peanuts comic strip, look bad.

Here was my idea: for a column at Christmas-time, I thought it would be nifty (okay, I learned words like thai from watching Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movies) to interview Schulz. He not only was a hockey fan, he owned his own skating rink in California.

The premise was simple--what would Snoopy give Gordie Howe, the great hockey star of the 1950s and 1960s, for Christmas?

"He'd give him an elbow," said the mischievous Schulz.

Great line, I thought.

An "elbow" in hockey parlance means a whack to the body, using the elbow.

This was before computers. Usually, I went into the office to type my story. But I had phoned Schulz from my home, and I was lacing a deadline situation. So I used the "phone room" of The Times. We had several people standing by telephones, and a reporter's story would be transcribed if he or she could not do it in person, or via wire. In phoning in a story, I always was careful to spell out the names of people, and to make a distinction between such letters as "m" or "n."

No problems here. I phoned in my story. The next morning, I picked up the paper to see what I had wrought. I was so proud of my coup.

That disappeared when I read through the piece and discovered that instead of an "elbow," Peanuts was giving Gordie Howe an "oboe." Or at least that's the way my Brooklyn accent made it sound on the phone.

I still have Schulz's little hand-written note to me. It reads, "That is the worst typo I have ever seen."

My early writing years were filled with hockey, a sport in which fighting often overshadowed the play. The general manager and coach of the New York Rangers was a feisty little guy named Emile (the Cat) Francis, who wanted to change the image of his perennial last-place team.

Thus, he was quite pleased after one game, in which his players retaliated to some bullying by the opposition.

"They certainly didn't play by the Queen of Marksberry rules," he said with a grin. That, I thought, was a wonderful blend of "Burke's Peerage" with boxing's Marquis of Queensberry Rules. I didn't let him off the hook, though, and quoted him verbatim.

I did that, too, to a fellow named Drew (Bundini) Brown. Mr. Brown was Muhammad Ali's factotum. I knew that people addressed Brown by his nickname of Bundini, whatever that meant.

So I began a conversation, "Bundini ..."

He interrupted me.

"It's `Bo-dini,'" he explained. "You pronounces it different from the way you says it."

I had more compassion for a hockey coach in the early 1970s. That was the era when all of us in the sportswriting business talked about change. A new generation of athlete was suiting up. Some actually had long hair and questioned authority.

I asked the coach: "How do you relate to this new breed? Have you had to change your style?"

"No," he said, and added, in a misspoken attempt to be hip. "They know where I'm coming at."

Well, what's a preposition between friends? I thought. "Coming from," "coming at." It winds up at the same place, doesn't it? I cleaned up his quote.

No such luck befell Wes Westrum, who managed a woebegone New York Mets team for a time in the 1960s.

His team had just squeezed by for a rare victory.

"Well," he announced with some satisfaction, "that certainly was a cliff-dweller."

Yes, we in the writing fraternity left him to hang out to dry. We quoted him exactly.

You see, we sportswriters sometimes have been burned by our own editors or unintended mistakes--so what's a little Schadenfreude between friends? And I don't mean the Bavarian soccer star.

Gerald Eskenazi Roslyn, New York

[Gerald Eskenazi has written sports for The New York Times since 1959.]
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Author:Eskenazi, Gerald
Publication:Verbatim
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
Words:876
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