Sizing up ''The National'' -- Allen Barra on how the new all-sports newspaper stacks ups to publications like ''Sports Illustrated,'' and why it may have a fighting chance

Sizing up ”The National”

When Frank Deford announced that The National, the first U.S. all-sports daily paper, would start up just after the Super Bowl, the publishing world responded with the bewilderment reserved for a Christmas movie scheduled to open on December 28. But Deford may have made something rare in publishing: a smart decision. By coming out after the Super Bowl, The National ensured that it would be considered on its own merits and not carried along by Super Bowl hype. Still, the first three or four issues left readers wondering precisely what its own merits were. Was it out to compete with the daily papers’ sports sections or with such national publications as Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, and USA Today? And the only conclusion to be drawn from the early issues was that it seemed to be more national than the dailies and more homey than the nationals.

Taken from cover to cover, The National has, so far, been more mixed than a Joe Montana play selection. Several of the columns have been slack to the point of embarrassment. For instance, Scott Ostler’s first ”My Turn” column bubbled, ”Before, sports was the caboose. Starting today, it’s the whole freight train. (I know that’s corny, but my writing has been influenced by Johnny Cash.)” Ostler’s column probably could be improved by Johnny Cash. (You hear Ostler’s jokes a comin’, comin’ down the line.)

The features have been just OK — no worse than what Deford’s previous employer, Sports Illustrated, has been running. The stat boxes are no great improvement on USA Today‘s. (Some fans in the East have grumbled about the lack of late scores from the West Coast, but The National couldn’t do much worse in this respect than most New York and Boston dailies.)

As for reporting, there’s been too much of that dippy ”on one hand, but then on the other hand” coverage that occurs when a writer goes into foul territory trying to stay ”fair”: Gordon Edes let Stanford economist Roger Noll get away with saying that ”both sides [in the baseball negotiations] would be perfectly happy to get rid of arbitration,” which made you wonder whether economists should be made to submit to drug tests, since arbitration was precisely what the players union spent more than a decade striving for.

And yet, a distinctive personality does seem to be emerging in The National. What has made the paper stand out thus far is its coverage of the baseball lockout — in fact, before things are settled, The National may be responsible for making that term as well known as the word ”strike.” Mike Lupica’s first column, on Sunday, Feb. 4, turned out to be the usual half-baked stuff New York readers have already gotten a little tired of. But a couple of days later the headiness of having a national audience must have kicked in, as Lupica breathed a fire unseen in his work since his early New York Daily News columns: ”If the camps do not open in two weeks, people will call this a strike. It will not be a strike. It will be a lockout. Baseball owners, among the greediest men ever produced in this country, want the players to look like the greedy ones.” Whew. It’s doubtful that anyone has written about sports owners with more clarity or force in a national publication; next to Lupica’s column, the coverage in Sports Illustrated and USA Today, to say nothing of the TV networks, has been timid and feckless.

Lupica is not the only National staff writer to be irreverent on the big issues. Take Peter Pascarelli in the ”Fyi” column: ”Major league owners and top executives will get their chance to be told what’s going on with the labor situation at Friday’s meeting in Chicago. It’s amazing how people with $100 million investments have no idea what their negotiators are doing.” The first sentence is merely good reporting; the second has the much rarer virtue of being able to draw a logical conclusion from a fact.

Such writing does more than reach the thinking fan: It helps to create an audience of thinking fans. If The National can continue to evolve, it ought to be interesting to see the paper go after targets like the NFL owners, Don King, and drugs. For decades, the best sports columnists in local papers have attacked sports corruption with accuracy but with no more power than a slingshot. With luck, Deford soon might have an ICBM to aim the bad guys’ way.