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Cope-ing Skills

Remembering a legend

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"Mr. Potter, this is Myron Cope," the Voice on my phone was saying.

The Voice sounded like somebody running pulverized glass and gravel through a blender. And not in a good way. Not in the way Cope had sounded for the 30-odd years I'd listened to him broadcasting Steelers games. This was the fall of 2007, and Cope had been out of the booth since 2004. You could tell the guy on the phone wasn't well, almost as quickly as you could tell he was Myron Cope.

"I don't know if you know anything about my reputation --" Cope continued.

Everyone who's ever watched the Steelers with the TV volume turned down, and the radio turned up, thinks they know Cope's reputation. The sheer unlikeliness of his celebrity, his status as an "only in Pittsburgh" original, connected us to the Steelers even as the athletes themselves began drifting away to free agency. In celebrating Cope, we celebrated ourselves, and the irreducible weirdness that has always set Pittsburgh apart. Unlike so much else from Pittsburgh's heyday, he never left home. Until Feb. 27, when he died at age 79.

But on the phone, Cope was talking about his reputation as a writer. As his obituaries have noted, Cope began his career as a writer, and wanted to be remembered as one. Others, whose praise counts for more, can testify to his accomplishments, and demonstrate that his work for Sports Illustrated and other publications is among the best sports writing ever published. I can add only that he ended his career as a writer, too.

Cope was calling to see whether I was interested in a story about the Pittsburgh Pirates. He'd shopped the piece around, he said, but no one had the space to run it at its original length. Not even The New York Times.

"Oh," I said. "Well, a lot of folks come to City Paper after trying their luck with the Times. Why don't you send it over?"

The piece, which ran Oct. 17, was a satire of the Pirates' hapless management, or lack of same. It blended literary allusions to Lady Montagu with anecdotes about Angels pitcher Dean Chance. It was 6,693 words long, and Cope told me he'd already edited out "enough good material to write a book.

"But," he asked, "who wants to read a book on the Pirates?"

Not me, perhaps. But I'd have published that, too. This was, after all, Myron Freakin' Cope.

Still, we editors can't resist tinkering. At one point while editing the story, I inserted a set of ellipses, to build a bit of dramatic tension. But Cope, who was always old school, pointed out that in a newspaper, the only proper use of ellipses was to indicate where a portion of a quote had been omitted.

"Well, I was seeing this as more of a feature-type piece rather than a --" I began.

"It's not proper style!" he barked, all trace of weariness gone. This was the voice I knew from so many Vinnie Testaverde interceptions. Suddenly, I felt like a rookie playing his first pro game -- a rookie whose holding penalty had just overturned a TD-scoring kick return. I was getting denounced by the guy up in the booth, but it was a career highlight anyway.

It's not that Cope was difficult to work with. He could have responded to my edits by reminding me that he was 10 times the writer I'll ever be, but he never did. He was gracious throughout, and even sent me a poem that had been written by a friend, because he thought I'd like it.

But his generosity with his own voice meant most of all. Cope asked only a token sum for his City Paper story: He just wanted to get another word in. And for me, there was another gift: the time spent talking with him.

Shortly before the story ran, I came home one night to find the answering machine filled. The first message was from Myron Cope. So was the second. And the third. He had so much to say that the machine's timer couldn't handle it. The last message was from Cope, too.

"Your answering machine keeps cutting me off," he said. "You should think about replacing that."

Now I wish I had, just so I could have held on to a little more of that Voice. It would sometimes falter by the end of a phone call. But the silence is even harder to bear.

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