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The Best American Sports Writing (Best American Sports Writing)by Glenn Stout
One of the strange things about people who write for a living is their tendency to dismiss the subjects most important to people who dont write for a living. Even as sports has taken up a position at the center of American life it remains peripheral to American literary life. The literary world treats books and articles about political events with utmost seriousness — even as a fantastically large number of Americans, to judge from their talent for avoiding the polls on election day, dont have the faintest idea what all the fuss is about. Books and articles about sports, and the ideas underpinning sports, remain on the bottom shelf, alongside the self-help books and celebrity memoirs. And yet sports is the one thing Americans can be relied upon to feel passionately about. There may be Americans glued to C-Span, but their numbers are overwhelmed by ESPNs addicts. There may be political leaders who inspire loyalty, but there arent any — so far as I know — who cause grown men and women to paint their faces and tattoo their chests and howl like werewolves. For every little boy or girl who wants to grow up to be a member of Congress there are, oh, about one million who intend to become major league baseball players or professional basketball players or ice skaters or gymnasts. Americans deadly seriousness about the games they play is probably not a good sign for their democracy, but it is unquestionably a sign. You cant govern what people care about. And what people care about is the writers path to their inner lives.
The chance to help to rectify this imbalance between what people care about and what good writers write about has been one of the pleasures of being asked to make the final selections for this years edition of Best American Sports Writing. Here we dignify the work of writers who happen to have tackled material that is, in one way or another, related to sports. They wont be winning any literary prizes, but their work is important. They arent merely writing about sports. Theyre describing who we are.
I should confess up front that this is a collection of stories with no very good theory to unify it. Ive just picked out the twenty-seven magazine and newspaper and Internet articles that I found the most interesting, of the seventy-five or so thrust upon me by the man who actually edited this volume, the shockingly diligent Glenn Stout. (Glenn apparently has read every article about sports ever written in America.) Several writers are represented here more than once: they are not blood relations of mine. So far as I know, Ive never met any of the writers whose work Ive selected. Literarily, the pieces dont have much in common with each other. Some are among the most finely written things on any topic; others are distinguished less by the quality of their prose than by the beauty of the story they tell. They range from elaborate narratives to simple opinion pieces, and they illustrate, among other things, how many different species of writing can be herded into literatures null set: nonfiction.” Their subject matter is also all over the place: basketball, baseball, football, arena football, golf, boxing, pool, scuba diving, poker, cheerleading, cycling, poaching, softball, rodeo, track, wrestling.
Still, taken as a whole, I think these stories add up to a bit more than the sum of their parts. For a start, they suggest certain trends in American sporting life. The most striking of these is the rapid eliding of the distinction between sports and competition. In a free market economy, premised on competition, that distinction is always under siege. The American businessman has drawn for decades on sports metaphors to enliven his work and make him feel more interesting — and less sedentary — than he is. Now it seems that anyone with a hobby that involves mostly a lot of farting around seeks to infuse his activity with the dynamism of an actual athletic event in which people sweat and suffer. Poker on ESPN should have been treated as an early warning signal. Poker players used to be guys avoiding their wives. Now, apparently, they are professional athletes.
As a nation, we seem to be replacing actual movement with the idea of movement. We treat our most fattening activities as intense calorie- burning exercise. Among the side effects of this trend is to make it possible for the aged, the infirm, and the obese to experience, as competitors, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. We may be a nation of fat people, but were still all players! (We arent alone in this desire; anyone who has watched Englishmen compete” at darts knows that there is no limit to what might be considered an athletic event if the audience is willing to go along with the ruse.) In a nod to the trend, this collection includes pieces about not only poker but also fishhhhhing, scuba diving, and cheerleading. I remain unsold on the idea that poker belongs in the same category as, say, heavyweight boxing. My unthinking prejudice against cheerleading, however, was changed by Pamela Colloffs delightful piece on the subject. Like a lot of the writers in this book, Colloff takes on a far bigger subject than she pretends. Her ostensible target is a Texas cheerleading camp and the response of serious cheerleaders everywhere to attempts by the Texas legislature to ban sexually suggestive sideline dance routines. But her lovely piece is also about people striving and setting higher standards than their audiences for themselves. If, as Colloff tells us, more than half of the deaths and disabling injuries that have occurred in American high school sports in the past twenty-two years have been suffered by cheerleaders, cheerleading is either a sport or an act of insanity.
As a rule in American sports writing, the less physical exertion the activity under inspection requires, the more likely the writer is to make fun of it. No one here pokes fun at boxing; every boxing piece Ive ever read treats the sport with the seriousness of a heart attack. Poaching bass from golf courses, on the other hand . . . well, there may have been a funnier and less reverent sports story written in America last year than Charlie Schroeders account of the quest for big bass in the water hazards of America, but I havent read it. As I write this I can hear the serious sports reader muttering to himself, Poaching fish from golf courses is not a sport, its a crime, and no responsible editor of a collection of Americas Best Sports Writing would treat it as such. I couldnt agree more! But I also feel that, when the criminals exhibit the competitive fanaticism of Michael Jordan, exceptions must be made. And unlike, say, playing poker, poaching bass from golf courses has the same internal logic of a real sport: the bigger the fish, the harder it is to steal. As a golf course poacher explains to Schroeder, If you find a pond with big bass in it, its usually one that has no trespassing signs around it and requires a nighttime mission. The more protected the ponds are, the bigger the fish are.” Another trend, touched on by this collection, is the intellectualization of sports. Its all getting a lot more complicated out there, on the court and the field. Or rather, just off the court and just off the field. There has been for some time now, in many American sports, a kind of informal R&D movement seeking to uncover their hidden secrets. Interestingly, the movement is manned almost entirely by outsiders. Statistical analysis is finding a new home in American sports and leading people with a gift for it to question, far more deeply than it has ever been questioned, the wisdom of insiders. Baseball, with its counterculture of geeks and nerds who analyze baseball statistics and search for new baseball knowledge, has led the way, but the other major sports arent far behind. In the past couple of decades the outsiders have acquired new tools: more accurate salary and performance data than ever before, a computer to analyze them with, and an Internet to argue with others about the analysis. The guy who makes his living as the general manager of a professional sports franchise now faces a small army of shockingly well-informed fans, many of whom suspect they could do his job better and regard him as guilty until proven innocent. Neal Pollacks piece The Cult of the General Manager” gets at this phenomenon. Michael Sokoloves defenestration of the American basketball player does too, in another way: by establishing that the journalist, if he has the nerve to try, can plausibly condescend to people three feet taller than himself.
The American sportswriter, like the American fan, is no longer content to shout his abuse from his bleacher seat. Of course there are still plenty of sportswriters who conceive of themselves mainly as shouters: their job, as they see it, is to tell the reader who to love and who to hate (though theyre usually much better at whipping up hatred than love). Open the sports pages in any major American city and you will find a columnist — hes always a columnist, never a reporter — who hasnt bothered to learn anything new in decades, hurling vitriol at others. This character has built his entire career on the theory that theres never been anything new to learn in sports — and thus exempted himself from the responsibility of ever having to learn anything. But there is something new to learn. The ever-greater body of knowledge about sports — how to build teams, how to value players, how to evaluate strategies — puts the writer who bothers to educate himself in a position to undermine entire sports franchises. He can speak directly to the owner about the incompetence of the general manager — and the owner will listen! For the poor people who actually make their living by building the teams and valuing the players, life has become a lot less cozy than it used to be. Just as the general managers around the NBA are settling in for their second cup of coffee, they pick up the New York Times magazine, flip to Sokoloves piece, and discover that this guy is actually dangerous. This scribbler . . . who probably never even played the game . . . is making me look like a fool!
Finally, the reader of this collection will notice the tendency of writers to use sports as a filter for Americas great social debates. This isnt so much a trend in sports writing as its permanent condition. Whatever happens to be going on in American politics and society — a war in Iraq, a civil rights movement — inevitably plays out on American courts and ball fields. This collection includes stories about a cyclist with Parkinsons disease, a sprinter without a foot, and a wrestler without arms. None of these athletes is having quite such a tough time competing as the lady basketball coach in rural Texas suspected by the locals of being a lesbian. In sports, sexual inclination seems to be taking the place once occupied by race: Jackie Robinson is now gay. This collection includes two stories about homosexual coaches and players, another about a boxer who killed an opponent in the ring after the opponent called him queer,” and a fourth about a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds whose chief distinction, apart from his ninety- four-mile-per-hour fastball, is that he was raised by lesbians. All achieve a poignancy that they might not have achieved if they were set in an arena outside of sports; all, in a way, rise above the cultural debate on homosexuality. We Americans still expect our games to be fair; we expect that the best man or woman will be given a chance to win; we are now conditioned to be upset by discrimination on the playing field. We might be disturbed when a woman is demoted by her Wall Street employer after her coworkers discover she is a lesbian. But when that woman is a hotshot basketball coach who has inspired her girls to play their way into the Texas state championship game, were ready to march in the streets.
Sports, as literary material, offers up this wonderful opportunity: to change the terms of any debate. Walk into any intractable debate and throw a basketball into the middle of it and it becomes, for a brief moment, less intractable. Months before Brokeback Mountain introduced the notion to mainstream America that male homosexuals could be (a) manly and (b) in love in a way that was recognizable even to a straight person, Ben Paynter was dreaming up one of my favorite openings in this collection: Just because this is gay rodeo doesnt mean Shorty likes to see men acting like women. While finishing a cigarette a few moments ago, he heard two men catcalling effeminately to each other.
Shit,” he said quietly. Those are the ones who give us names.”
Thats the other thing about sports writing that I, for one, find appealing. It enables the writer to cram on to the page an awful lot of life that otherwise might be left off. Sports is the literary category that tolerates the most outrageous liberties: the writer doesnt need to be relevant. He needs only to be interesting. Once he has established that this character hes decided to describe plays or coaches some sport, he is allowed to take readers pretty much anywhere he can talk them into going. A lot of the pieces in this collection are, in this sense, literary. They pretend to be about one thing when they are in fact about another. Steve Friedman uses golf to write about his relationship with his father. L. Jon Wertheim, in a truly spectacular performance, uses arena football and Jermaine Ewell to etch a portrait of stoicism. You finish Wertheims story, which he wrote for Sports Illustrated, and you know that people are still capable of seizing control of their own experiences. No matter how they might have suffered, no matter how they might have been victimized, they can refuse to be defined by their suffering or to be cast forever as victims. If he never plays another down, Jermaine Ewell has escaped the cliché that the world would like to make of him, and the writer has too.
A lot can be done with sports by a gifted writer, and a lot of that is done right here. Id like to point the reader especially to one piece: J. R. Moehringers story about the ancient homeless softball genius, The Unnatural Natural” — the hobo Roy Hobbes.
Here he comes!” someone shouted.
At last, walking slowly toward us from the parking lot, was a man built very differently from the men gathered around me. He had none of their midwestern roundness, none of their low-slung solidity. He was tall, lean, somewhat frail, and instead of clomping along on big feet, as the others tended to do, he picked his way forward delicately, as if someone had told him to watch out for broken glass.
What Moehringer achieves writing about sports would be the envy of any writer writing on any subject.
When I finished reading through this collection, I found myself feeling a little bit better about the world around me. At any given time, it seems, there are a surprising number of writers of serious literary ability who are out there beating the bushes and scaring up moving and delightful stories — even when high literary culture has no particular interest in them. They are doing the important work of explaining us to ourselves. Whats reassuring about great sports writing is whats reassuring about great sports performances: facing opposition, and often against the odds, someone, at last, did something right.
Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2006 by Michael Lewis. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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