Cal bear to columnist: An interview with San Francisco Chronicle’s Bruce Jenkins

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Bruce Jenkins, a proud UC Berkeley alumnus and former sports editor for The Daily Californian, currently writes for the San Francisco Chronicle. Jenkins has covered more than 25 World Series and 19 Wimbledons, among many other major sports events, including the World Cup, the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, the major golf championships, Mavericks surfing and the Olympics. He has been nominated twice by the Chronicle for a Pulitzer Prize and was named one of the nation’s top 10 columnists in the Associated Press Sports Editors awards. Today, Jenkins continues to write “all day, every day,” retirement far from appealing.

Having graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in journalistic studies in 1971, Jenkins was a student during a very rich, tumultuous part of the campus’s history. Jenkins believes the atmosphere of UC Berkeley’s campus in the late ’60s made for a riveting experience.

“It was just a real eye-opener, in terms of being right at the pulse of so much change that was going on in the country. It got a little difficult at times, you know, with the National Guard and tear gas being tossed at people and all kinds of tumult,” Jenkins said. “Here I am on the fifth floor of Eshleman Hall with all kinds of hell breaking loose down below me, and I’m writing a water polo story! I’m thinking, ‘Is this really what I should be doing?’ ”

Though much of the athletic department back then saw the movement as disruptive, the line between sports and politics has certainly blurred since.

“The Black Lives Matter movement has become front and center in sports. In terms of my writing, I’ve always kept politics out of it, mostly because I don’t really feel qualified to all the sudden have a political bent to my columns,” Jenkins said. “Where it really comes in now is we’re all waiting to see what sports are going to be able to be played and under what circumstances, and it’s pretty evident that our country lags behind noticeably in trying to get the coronavirus under control.”

Jenkins noted one example of this sports-politics dynamic at play in the Canadian government’s decision to prevent the Toronto Blue Jays from playing home games during the MLB’s shortened season.

“They don’t want to be like us; they don’t want to be like the U.S.,” Jenkins said. “You just can’t keep the political end out of (sports) because we watch all these other countries getting things under control, getting their leagues started. They’re playing with no fans, but they are playing.”

Over the past few months, Jenkins has had the chance to speak to both players and broadcasters about their thoughts on the return of sports as the number of coronavirus cases continues to grow.

“A number of athletes have decided they don’t want to do it, whether out of fear for their families — they’ve got a newborn or kids on the way, their wife is at risk, or their grandfather — or themselves. It’s a wide range of emotions that people have,” Jenkins said. “There’s just a lot of trepidation to it.”

Even though Jenkins is as eager as any fan is to sit through a live sporting event again, he remains wary of plans to resume seasons, no matter how airtight professional leagues have made them seem.

“I don’t want my stance as a journalist to be negative every time I sit down at the keyboard, but I wrote a column a week or two ago saying that I can’t imagine the (MLB) season being completed,” Jenkins said. “(The broadcasters are) excited about getting back into their job. I’m trying to balance my natural skepticism about the longevity of this thing against my normal enthusiasm for sports.”

With the uncertainty of the feasibility of the seasons ahead rounding out a long, sportsless quarantine, sports professionals and fans alike are used to daydreaming at this point. Should he wake up and the coronavirus be a thing of the past, Jenkins explained that tennis might be his event of choice.

“If everything was completely normal, I’d be tempted to say tennis because it’s not an everyday thing — I mean, it is for the tennis people — but if you really cover tennis, you cover the majors. That means you go to London, Paris, Melbourne and New York every year,” Jenkins said. “In terms of lifestyle, it would be very hard to beat that.”

But having covered Cal baseball for three of his four years at UC Berkeley as “Mr. Baseball for all eight people in the stands at Evans Diamond” and having written hundreds of pieces on the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics, it’s baseball that gets the nod.

“The rest of the time, there’s not a whole lot of interest in tennis, so I don’t think I’d be captivated to do that all year round. My answer would be baseball, I think, mostly because it happens every day, February spring training through the World Series,” Jenkins said. “I did that for about 10 years, nonstop all year round, and never got tired of it.”

In addition to his experiences covering baseball at UC Berkeley, Jenkins recounted his trip to West Point to cover a Cal vs. Army game, as well as other travel within the then Pac-8, going up to the University of Washington and Oregon. Equally exciting for Jenkins was writing about gymnastics and water polo.

“Going into Harmon Gym and watching the Cal gymnastics team — they were just phenomenal performances, really good crowds. Water polo, same thing. Cal vs. Stanford water polo game — you’re looking at legends, Olympians, guys who are known worldwide,” Jenkins said. “They’d go to the NCAA tournament. Each of those teams won the whole thing at one point.”

When he wasn’t writing about sports, Jenkins played a lot of basketball and enjoyed nightly whiffle ball games.

“We had a court down below the apartment where I stayed most of the time there, just playing two-on-two, three-on-three, free-throw contests, stuff like that,” Jenkins said. “We’d play nightly whiffle ball games with the guys on the Cal baseball team. You know they’re whipping that thing in there about as fast as you’d ever want to see it. We were playing at night out on the street having a great time. It was all very informal.”

Like so many of us sports lovers, Jenkins has been watching reruns and sports movies in place of live sports, “Breaking Away” and “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” among some of his recommendations not mentioned in his recent column.

Jenkins, whose professional career and pastimes revolve around sports, has lived through tumultuous times during which sports took a back seat before. While many impatiently wait for their own favorite pastimes to return, Jenkins trusts that sports will weather the looming storm regardless of when it passes.

“You don’t want to be a total couch potato, but you’re not really going out to restaurants or movies — what else are you really doing?” Jenkins said. “I would say to people, watching sports is going to be pretty unsatisfying, certainly not what it once was for quite a while — who knows how many years. But, you know, keep the faith, and realize when it does come back, it’s going to be pretty fantastic.”

Allie Coyne writes for Bear Bytes. Contact her at [email protected].