The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan

Everybody, it’s said, loves a winner, but not Pat Jordan. This guy actually seems to adore losers. For 40 years, Jordan has been artfully chronicling the strange lives and curious characters of the sporting world for The New Yorker, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, GQ, and Playboy, among others. Now editor Alex Belth has gathered the most memorable of these portraits in The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan, which finds the writer hanging out with such seemingly sad characters as a basketball player who was “too short” for the NBA, a baseball player whose own Babe Ruthian myth implodes in a series of arrests, a basketball star who is all potential in the pros until his dream life gets cut short in a horrendous car accident, and so on.

In Jordan’s world, even winners are losers (or at least extremely odd creations). For example, the young Venus and Serena Williams showcase a bizarre kind of daddy love, kissing their father on the cheek after seemingly every practice shot and saying, “I love you, daddy.” Perhaps the best diver the world has ever known, Greg Louganis, is seen sadly trying to market himself as something other than a jock. And Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton makes one insane comment after another while showing off his strange house/bunker in the Colorado mountains (“The Russian and U.S. governments fill the air with low-frequency sound waves meant to control us”).

Whether they’re on the road to victory or defeat, it always seems that Jordan has somehow found himself in the midst of a subject’s tipping point. But it’s not happenstance. He clearly spends gobs of time with his subjects in as many different venues as possible and talks to a multitude of people — an athlete’s girlfriend or boyfriend, lawyer, parents, high school coach, the guy at the deli who fixes him the occasional sandwich — to get the fullest view possible. Jordan’s profiles pile up facts and details in such a way that you are almost overburdened with information by the story’s end. You want to turn to the person next to you — in bed, in the library, on the bus — and tell them what strange info you just picked up: Wilt Chamberlain idolizes Leonardo da Vinci; O. J. Simpson cannot?stop…talking; Tom Seaver loves to garden; Pete Rose never spent much time with his son except at All-Star Games and the World Series, when he’d get little Petey all dressed up in a miniature Reds uniform and take him out onto the stadium turf to play catch in front of the cameras.

Unfortunately, these overflowing profiles are a testament to an apparently vanished age of sports journalism, when access to the athletes they covered was a reality for reporters. The book isn’t just about Jordan’s spot-on portraiture but is also a peek into the world of the celebrity feature profile that once was, before handlers could pick specific writers to put together stories on their precious clients, before celebrities could say what a writer could and couldn’t ask about. Everything is open for Jordan.

For example, L.A. Dodgers first baseman/golden boy/wannabe politician Steve Garvey must have had no idea what he was signing on for when he offered up his wife for a Jordan profile. A baseball wife doesn’t get much notice, generally, unless her husband is about to break a record — then you may see her face for a few seconds on your TV screen, as she bites her lip and stares earnestly at her man on the field of play.

Cyndy Garvey was once one of those women. The high point of her day was going to the ballpark, she says, and watching her husband do his thing: hit his homers, flash his smile, wave to the crowd. She is tall, blonde, and pretty, another trophy for Garvey to put into his collection.

But Jordan catches her crashing out of the trophy case: “The men are gone so much of the time. It’s one of the advantages, if that’s what you want. If you don’t, you’re lonely. I’m both. And wives left alone tend to take charge. But charge of what? You think, great, I’ve got a famous husband, a big house, a career, everything, but what good is it? Go try to sleep with it. There’s always a dark moment when you want to make love to someone and there’s no one there, so you go stumbling around an empty house talking to yourself?. The off-season’s no better?.” And Garvey goes on and on, spilling secrets just as everyone seems to do with Jordan.

Only once does that filing cabinet full of detailed notes seem to tip over and squash the reader with its heft: the seemingly endless, 41-page story of American Formula One legend Phil Hill, which was excerpted in Sports Illustrated in 1976. It reads almost like three feature stories placed back to back. The character is fascinating — Hill is one of those sensitive guys who retired at the top of his game and took up a eclectic variety of hobbies — but there are redundancies between sections that end up frustrating rather than illuminating the reader.

One major thing Jordan has going for him is that he once played pro ball in the Braves system. He never made it to the majors, but he collected a $50,000 signing bonus because he had so much potential — an experience that was the basis of Jordan’s 1975 memoir, A False Spring. Having been both a surefire winner and sudden loser gives Jordan rare insight into the lives of professional athletes, the everyday preoccupation with the behavior of body and mind, the uneasiness of a career potentially careening off its path. Jordan’s ballplaying experience comes in handy when he tenderly profiles Rick Ankiel, a young hotshot for the St. Louis Cardinals who catastrophically loses command of his pitches during the 2000 postseason. And it plays a part in a section in which Belth seamlessly combines a series of profiles Jordan wrote for various publications of pitcher Tom Seaver, a Jordan contemporary who is living a life Jordan could have had if he had not, like Ankiel, lost his ability to throw strikes.

Belth ends the book perfectly, using a Q&A with Jordan himself as a window into the writing process as well as the evolution of sportswriting. It’s a little bit disconcerting to see the Wizard come out from behind his curtain, but we do get answers. Just how unhappy were the Garveys with Jordan’s story? And what does he think of the alleged steroid use by Roger Clemens, whom he follows in the book’s first feature?

The thing about Jordan is that most of his losers eventually wind up winners. That guy who was “too short” for the NBA? He goes on to become one of the most successful college coaches of all time. The guy whose NBA career ended in a car crash? He finds his love buying and racing horses. (Then again, that self-styled Babe Ruth really did end up being a loser.) And even though Jordan got cut from that Braves minor league squad all those years ago and he loves hanging out with “losers” aplenty, this man should treat himself to a victory lap now that he’s given us 40 years of vicarious joyrides. And then he should get back to writing some more.