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The words and life of Martin Fennelly were a gift to all in Tampa Bay

John Romano | The acclaimed sports columnist for the Times and Tribune passed away on Friday at the age of 65.
 
To know former Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Times sports columnist Martin Fennelly was to love him.
To know former Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Times sports columnist Martin Fennelly was to love him. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2018) ]
Published Jan. 29|Updated Feb. 2

TAMPA — He only just passed, and yet his eulogy is decades old.

It’s in the words he wrote, the laughter he created, the life he lived.

Martin Fennelly died of a heart attack on Friday at age 65, but that’s just the final paragraph of a much longer story. A story brilliantly told day after day by Martin himself as a columnist on the pages of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Times.

It’s the story of people and ballgames and life. The things he cared about and the things he wanted to say. And if you read closely enough about the baseball players or bobsledders, you could see the laughter, genius and compassion that he inevitably carried with him throughout this world.

“He knew sports, but he wasn’t really into the X’s and O’s,” said Gainesville Sun columnist David Whitley, who worked alongside Fennelly at the Tribune. “He was great at bringing out the human element of games and the people who played them. He was also as hilarious and creative as any writer you would ever meet. If you saw a column written by Martin Fennelly, you knew it was going to be worth reading.”

He was smarter than me, and he was funnier than you. And, yet, he was completely egoless in an industry where humility is an endangered concept.

Growing up on Long Island with seven siblings, his mother wanted him to become an attorney. He applied, and was accepted, at multiple prestigious law schools, but ended up at journalism school in Missouri. We are all richer because of it.

Tampa Bay Times, Dec. 25, 2018. “Here’s a real Christmas I remember: Looking in the garage window out back and seeing my father clean and paint my wealthy cousins’ bicycles so he could give them to us Christmas morning. I never said anything to my dad. It was our secret, though he never knew it, which is how I wanted it. Christmas wasn’t about shiny and new. It was love. We had nothing. We had everything.”

He could be, to put it politely, a bit odd. Always wearing shorts, no matter the weather or the occasion. He could also be moody and aloof, but friends knew that was part of his gift. As uproariously funny as he could be in print, he was dead serious about his craft. He labored over every word. He worried if there was another call he could have made.

While sports writing has veered toward hot takes and chasing clicks, Martin was always more interested in finding stories that no one thought to tell. He wrote about Charlie Ward’s bodyguard at an Orange Bowl. He wrote about Bob Hayes’ unmarked grave when the Super Bowl came to Jacksonville. And he went to a soup kitchen in Detroit while the NFL was indulging in its usual excess down the road at the Super Bowl.

“He just thought differently from the rest of us,” said longtime Tribune writer Joey Johnston. “And the columns he loved came to him quickly. You could almost see the visceral reaction when something occurred to him. He would get this excited look in his eyes like a guy ready to hunt his prey.”

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Tampa Tribune, Feb. 4, 2006. “At the Playboy party, guests will be handed an appetizer at the front door: a lobster lollipop. At the A-list Maxim party, they’ll drink signature cocktails from Absolut Vodka, gawk at 96 Glam Rock Girls and peek at the newest Cadillac Escalade. The Super Bowl’s zip code changes annually, but it always ends up at the corner of Sodom and Gomorrah. Gluttony is Job One. The dealmakers and stars are here, All that’s left is the ceremonial throwing out of the first Hilton sister.”

Dwier Brown, right, who played John Kinsella in the 1989 release of 'Field of Dreams' talks with Tampa Bay Times sports columnist Martin Fennelly in 2019 in Clearwater.
Dwier Brown, right, who played John Kinsella in the 1989 release of 'Field of Dreams' talks with Tampa Bay Times sports columnist Martin Fennelly in 2019 in Clearwater. [ CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times ]

When she was younger, his daughter Norah once opened a hall closet and was nearly buried by the awards tumbling out. That he kept the trophies stuffed in a closet was one thing. That his daughter and son Conor knew so little about them was another. When Norah asked him about it, he reminded her of a weekend they spent at a golf resort. He was there to pick up an award, but spent most of his time playing with the kids and making sure they indulged in the buffet.

“To me, he was just dad. He always put me and my brother first,” Norah said Sunday. “I didn’t even know the other life he had outside of us. Anytime I was in his presence, it was all about me. His favorite things to do were whatever I wanted to do.”

The best stories never made it into print. Those were the stories of Martin on the road, Martin at dinner, Martin in the press box. He was a voracious reader, and could argue about history, politics, religion or movies with anyone. He used to imagine historical moments in today’s context. (Abraham Lincoln, for instance, throwing a fit when a copy editor changed “Four score and seven years ago” to the less lyrical “Eighty-seven years ago.”) When he threw out lines from The Godfather, they were from the book and not the movie.

“He was always listening to you, even when you thought he wasn’t,” said longtime co-worker Roger Mooney. “It would always amaze me that he would bring up something I said in a conversation a month later, and it was because he cared. Whether it was work or personal or bitching about something, he heard what you had to say.

“He was just fun to be around because he was so freaking funny.”

It’s been five years since Martin and his wife Siobhan were divorced, but the bond still remains. He visited her last week and left another dog-eared book behind for her to read. He was in Connecticut visiting Siobhan’s family and was out on a walk with them when his heart gave out.

“He wrote about people so well because he cared about them,” Siobhan said. “He could make you laugh and cry in one column. He didn’t just talk to people because he had a deadline to make, he talked to them because he was interested in them and where they were from and what they did and how they did it. He just cared about people a lot.”

He talked to Vince Lombardi’s son and wrote about how the legendary coach would have fared in today’s game. He wrote from the perspective of the rats who were left behind when the Bucs left their decrepit, old training site. He took a drug test during baseball’s steroid craze. He wrote about his father introducing him to the magic of Phil Rizzuto and baseball games on the radio.

Tampa Tribune, Aug. 15, 2007. It’s 36 years ago and the Yankees are on the West Coast. It’s 1 in the morning back East. My dad’s been dead eight months and I’m still crying for him. But Scooter is under my pillow, on transistor radio, talking about the game, about anything, until I fall asleep. How many friends do you get like that in life?”

We were lucky in Tampa Bay. We had a friend like that showing up in our driveway day after day.

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