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Eras of memories

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published May 27, 2024 5:00 am

Quite a coincidence that within four days, I received two books for review, both from familiar bylines—those of veteran sportswriters.

First up was Cheers and Tears: Views from the Press Box and Other Stories by Lito A. Tacujan, who retired as Sports section editor of this paper in 2019, after decades-long service. He reminded me that half a century ago, in the early ’70s, he had taken over my job in ABS-CBN’s Sports department then headed by the iconic Ric Tierro.

That’s how super seniors often mark time, I suppose, in terms of exits and entries—the way celebrated athletes often go by eras when they test greatness. That was also where Lito had first earned his sportswriting spurs, as I did. The five decades since then had seen him embark on a journeyman’s career, quickly moving on from the Manila Chronicle to The Journal, as former PSC chair Philip Juico recalls in this book, and of how when he himself joined The Philippine STAR, Lito had already been Sports editor since 1987.

The guy his junior deskmen favored to give the monicker “Sir Taco J.” found a home in this paper, where he served for 32 years.

The eight chapters in this collection are: Personal Best; Boxing; Golf; Basketball; Sporting Life; People, Places, Passions; Vignettes; and Epilogue. 

Muhammad Ali, before this third fight against Joe Frazier 

For his personal selection from among countless reports he had filed since the ’70s, one quickly notes that his favorite subject remains the Thrilla in Manila, going by his Foreword and the first photograph of an athlete that fills up a page: Muhammad Ali. Most sports lovers among our successive generations, starting with The Silent One to the Boomers, would agree with the choice.

Highlights from the highly anticipated Pacquiao-Mayweather fight.

On the other side of the coin, the objective sportswriter calls it as it is, as Lito does in assessing the Pacquiao-Mayweather disappointment in his “Postscript to a Megafight (May 2, 2025)”: “Five years in the making, billed as the Fight of the Century, the richest, the biggest, star-studded and all it offered in 12 rounds were sporadic skirmishes on the ropes and in the corners. It was wanting in pure white-knuckle action and drama and consumed itself from the enormous hype between two of the top fighters in the world today.”

STAR Sports columnist Joaquin Henson a.k.a. “The Dean” weighs in: “He was at ringside when Onyok Velasco took the silver medal in lightweight boxing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and in the stands when Lydia de Vega struck gold at the New Delhi Asian Games in 1982. There was a stirring passion in whatever he wrote and when reporting on achievements that brought honor to the country, and a feeling of pride.”

PDI former news editor Jun Engracia sums it up: “He did not just cover sports. He did so in style, in language that showed his love for his craft and his drive for excellence in the profession.”

The second book was Spectator Gems by Al J. Mendoza, good old friend from the good old days when our sons schooled at JASMS in QC, and one had to set up a FEN-TV antenna on the roof to catch Clark Field’s NBA coverage. It took me some time to get on my roof, so on some early mornings I’d drive over to the Mendozas’ place to catch glimpses of MJ’s greatness while also being treated to breakfast.

Many decades later, I had to vacate my seat at the MTRCB, while Al came along with a new group. Still wish I could say he replaced me, one-on-one, the way Pacquiao had the sudden good fortune of subbing for a fight in Vegas when he first turned heads with a KO. But it wasn’t that way.

Al started as a sportswriter for Bulletin Today in 1974, where his “Spectator” column first appeared. He brought it with him to PDI in August 1986, where it would last for two decades. Meanwhile, Al earned Palanca prizes for fiction in Filipino, before he settled for judging.

Al’s book is edited by Joseph A. Dumuk and published by UP Press. The selected pieces are all from Al’s PDI columns from 1986 to 2000.

“He produced three times a week without fail, as his buddy Ding Marcelo recalls, “even as he reported on a whole spectrum of events, from the Asian Games to the Olympics, from the Tour of Luzon to the PAL Interclub, from the Palarong Pambansa to the Philippine basketball Association.”

Chess grandmaster Eugene Torre 

Among the superstars he’s become more than familiar with, he became closest to chess grandmaster Eugene Torre and hardcourt idol Robert “Sonny” Jaworski, the “Big J.” Both had shared the triumphs of long years with him.

Al is succinct about his friendship with Torre. “Eugene and I never say goodbye. We just embrace. Next a handshake. Then go-home time.”

For this collection, the sections are led by Basketball (with the most number of pieces at 18), followed by Golf, Boxing, Athletics and Other Sports, Issues and Controversies, Personalities, and Etcetera.

The last ends with the piece titled “Dream” (of September 16, 2000). Al reminisces on the three weeks he spent in Sydney, sharing a small room at the Media Village with photographer Ernie Sarmiento. The experience is memorable in many small ways.

Snapshot of the Sydney Olympics, capturing the essence of the media village, venues, and the lively atmosphere.

“At the gate of the main entrance, a guard diligently checks your Olympic badge and then says thank you after he is through looking at you from head to foot.

“… I have never seen so many sports journalists in my life.

“… Some 10,500 athletes from 200-plus nations. Me and my colleagues? We’re almost 20,000. And counting.

“… I retreated to the bar, bought a glass of Lindeman wine—make that red—and, stepping outside, I sat on a wooden chair at the rotunda. … A group of American television cameramen… soon joined me. Two of them had a pitcher of beer each, the other two held two glasses each. I raised my glass to them and said, ‘To the Sydney Olympics.’

“‘To the Sydney Olympics,’ they said.

“Silently, I told myself, ‘Welcome to the Sydney Olympics, Alfonso.’

“The dream is here.”

Several days later, Al swapped pins with a giggling Venus Williams minutes after she won the women’s single Olympic tennis gold.

Sports is ever a fervent dream, all right, highlighting heroism but also the failures that have been the stepping stones, all part of the continuing excellence that is most savored in a competitive world—when physical gifts need to be powered by the supreme will of the spirit. Thanks to sports journalism, it is all chiseled into eras of memory.