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INTERVIEWING ATHLETES IS NO SPECIAL TREAT

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Great job, sportswriting. You get good seats for the best games. You get free food. You have to wear a tie about as often as you have to wake up before 10 in the morning.

Travel? It seems we're always being sent to some exotic locale to write the Great American Postcard - Hawaii, Southern California, the Florida coast.These are a few reasons it does no good to complain about late hours or lost weekends, about how it rained our whole stay in Kona, or that we spent a football season in Starkville, Miss., one night.

Our job is glamorous, and we best just shut up about it.

But the real reason we receive no sympathy is we get to talk to famous people. Ironically, this is the most overrated part of the job.

I've interviewed Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bo Jackson, Jose Canseco, Pete Rose, George Brett, Don Mattingly, Walter Payton, Joe Frazier, Jimmy Connors, Steffi Graf and many others.

But whenever someone speaks of my great good fortune - talking with professional athletes whom the average fan sees only on TV or from a distance - I want to tell them, "No, it's better to be a fan. It's better to watch from a distance, to appreciate an athlete for what he or she is: good with a racket, a glove, whatever.

"The closer you get, the more you know, the less you're apt to like them."

This isn't a blanket condemnation of athletes. Many I've interviewed, like Mattingly or Dee Dowis, the former Air Force quarterback, are good people, plain and simple; they are humble, hard-working folks like you meet every day.

A few, too, seem misunderstood, not nearly so bad as their public image. Jose Canseco, in the two times I talked with him, seemed more like a little kid - naive and mischievous - than the brash, spoiled superstar he's usually seen to be.

Bo Jackson, who can take hostages with his glare, wasn't bad, once I built up the courage to cross the locker room to attempt an interview. He cooperated without complaint.

"Some days I talk," he said. "Some days I have lockjaw."

It was my lucky day.

But many athletes simply aren't good company. (This may be because most sportswriters aren't, either, what with our meddling, baiting questions).

Many athletes don't want to be bothered. Many have nothing to say and nothing on their minds. Many can't put words to what they're doing; many don't want to.

Contempt for sportswriters is permissible - and occasionally justified - but many athletes hold that same contempt for fans. Without fans, there would be no big contracts and endorsements - facts that slip many athletes' minds shortly after they sign.

Athletes deserve some sympathy to go with the flak they're catching here. Their desire for privacy is reasonable. Their self-absorbed tendencies are understandable, too, considering that coaches, fans and media have spent years telling them they are special.

The fact is, most are special only at their specialties.

You could probably make a case that there is roughly the same ratio of "good guys" and "bad guys" in sports as in the rest of society. But I doubt it. Athletes are more pampered and highly paid, and so obsessed with their sport that they seem less well-rounded than Joe Average, who has to do for himself rather than having everything done for him.

Fans who watch athletes at games want to know more. They want to meet and mingle. It's a natural desire, but it's one that often is best not obliged.