The Best American Sports Writing 2004by Richard Ben Cramer
Since its inception in 1915, the Best American series has become the premier annual showcase for the country’s finest short fiction and nonfiction. For each volume, a series editor reads pieces from hundreds of periodicals, then selects between fifty and a hundred outstanding works. That selection is pared down to twenty or so very best pieces by a guest… See more details below
Since its inception in 1915, the Best American series has become the premier annual showcase for the country’s finest short fiction and nonfiction. For each volume, a series editor reads pieces from hundreds of periodicals, then selects between fifty and a hundred outstanding works. That selection is pared down to twenty or so very best pieces by a guest editor who is widely recognized as a leading writer in his or her field. This unique system has helped make the Best American series the most respected and most popular of its kind.
“Cracker-jack writing from some of the country’s best-known sports journalists.” Publishers Weekly
With Richard Ben Cramer at the helm, this year’s selections embrace the world of sports in all its drama, humanity, and excitement, from swimming the Arctic Ocean to high school football. Today’s foremost journalists shed light on Mia Hamm, Amare Stoudemire, and on sports’ underbelly as a professional baseball team scalps its own tickets and as women single-mindedly pursue million-dollar athletes. We witness the World Taxidermy Championships, the final days of the Michael Jordan Wizards, and much more.
Read an Excerpt
At last, in my mid-ﬁfties, I have the answer to a question I used to mull as a boy: what is the one thing I would need to abide on a desert island? I thought about this not well but often, and with a calisthenic seriousnesspart of my program for misspending my youth. I don’t mean this was obsessivelet’s be clear about thatit was just a game.
See, you had to imagine how you would get to the island with the one thinghow, for instance, you would swim ashore with dry matches when your whole ship was scuttled in the watery deep . . .
though magic was permitted: it could be an endless supply of dry matches. The problem was, if you went for something useful, like ﬁre, then you had an endless supply of boredomand a future in an asylum should you be rescued. So sometimes I’d struggle ashore with the corpus of Roman literature (magically restored in its complete variety), which guaranteed my sanity and a post-rescue future as the world’s unchallenged Latin savant. Then again, I couldn’t boil water . . .
So too often, alas, I’d have to cheat: the real question was the two things you’d need . . . At that point I’d have to start over of courseto reimagine how I’d swim ashore with the matches and all of Roman literature. (No! Even better! I swim with the matches, see, but the island used to be a Roman islandthe literature is squirreled away there. They sent out the emperor’s whole library when the Visigoths were beating at the gates!)
Okay, maybe it was a tad obsessive.
But that doesn’t matter now. Now I have the answer. One great thingand our island a paradise! . . . It is the satellite dish with the sports-pack subscription. I know, I knowthere’s a little problem about the electricity. If you must get technical, there’s a shortage of desert islands these days, too. But it’s the why, not the wherewithal, I mean to discuss here.
After all, what’s the one thing needful at our new beach place once we’ve mastered, you know, the beginner’s stuff: shelter, ﬁre, desalination, and the ﬁner points of cuisine (the coconut goulash, the coconut soufﬂé). What we need is a sure and ample connection to our fellow beings, to the human condition, to the drama (could I say meaning?) of life.
I don’t mean to rewrite Genesisto suggest that God worked for six days so Detroiters could root on the Red Wings. (Though it’s tempting: how else to explain the peculiarly hurlable physiognomy of the octopus?) And I won’t sell the snake oil that sports is lifeor the best part of life, or life writ small, or life lived large, or life as it should be (if life had rules). Forget that hooey. It’s only sports.
But I do contend that, on any given day, sports will offer us storiesthe most human storiesin richer supply, and more reliably, than any other branch of endeavor. Stories are how we understand our lives. And if you break down the elements in stories from the sporting life, it reads like the to-do list from a screenwriting seminar. In sports we have heroesattractive individuals with exemplary talents. By their grace, dedication, courage, and the luck of the draw, they have a chance to achieve, not just for themselves but for something largerfor their families or fans, their team, their town or the nation, or history. They must contend, against long odds and serial difﬁcultiestheir own human tendency to weakness or error and the villainy of rivalsto the end of the game, the tournament, or the season, where we have for our story clear winners and losers. Or they contend through a career, which we may see in its birth, its growth and prime, its downslope and demisea small death for our delectation. But in this regard sports is much better than the rest of human existence; in sports we have stories from the afterlife.
In fact, in this collection we present a selection of treats from the afterlife or its near environsfrom a scandal uncovered by the great turf writer William Nack about our equine athletes in hell to Joe Posnanski’s visit with Tony Pena at the ball ﬁelds of his youth, which is a glimpse of a man who went to heaven. Bill Plaschke (does this guy ever write anything bad?) makes us witness to the moment when an ex-Dodger learns he’s gone to heaven. There is also Paul Solotaroff’s empathetic portrait of Mickey Mantle’s sons, who are trapped in the afterlife of an afterlife. And there’s a sweet sharp line drive of a piece by Joan Ryan, who freeze-frames Andres Galarraga gleefully stealing time until his judgment day.
On the subject of sports bending time, there is a strong and rueful look back with Charlie Pierce to the NFL’s worst day. Andthere’s a strange, brave essay by Rick Telander, from SI, which is written from a place so deep in the interstice between sports and time (and life in its moments) thatt I have no words to characteeeerize the storyexcept to call it one-of-a-kind and magniﬁcent.
I should confess here to some prejudice in the selection of these pieces for reprint. I tend to like stories that treat a whole life, or at least the connection between sports and the rest of life. It makes good sense to me that how a person isthe conditions of his or her larger lifeexplains, or at least illuminates, how that person plays and competes. I have to call it a prejudice, because art is never plane geometry: I used to think the author of a great book had to be a great person. (It turns out that’s not true.)
This book is rich in proﬁles that straddle sport and the rest of being.
There are great examples of life shaping athletic excellence.
The starkest is Steve Friedman’s wondrous tale of manic-depression fueling a down-and-out Scotsman to ride a bike faster than any man ever had. There are rip-snorting portraits of a camera-loving young bass ﬁsherman and the dame terrible of the WNBA. SI’s splendid Gary Smith contributes a better-than-splendid look at why Mia Hamm simply can’t think of herself. Peter de Jonge’s masterly proﬁle of Amare Stoudemire shows basketball as a life’s sense and salvation. And once you read Peter Hessler’s study of Yao Ming at home and away, you’ll wonder how the man plays basketball with a billion Chinese on his back. One of the strangest and most compelling contributions is this book’s only piece of athlete autobiography: Lynne Cox describes her swimming career and its culmination, a swim to Antarctica. The plainest language shows us how hard and cold it was. And it shows us, too, the other side of the life-and-sport coinhow a sporting dream can take over and become life.
It strikes me as wonderful what a wide swath of life these sports stories cover. Or you could call this another prejudice of minefor the wide-angle view of what is sports writing. I’m pleased that the book contains some glimpses of the underbelly of sportsin a mordant Sun-Times account of how the Cubs are scalping their own tickets, or in Lisa Olson’s sharp-eyed look at the girls who bed the big-time ballplayers. Michael Leahy’s Washington Post Magazine piece about the last days of the Michael Jordan Wizards is tight and right on the basketball, but it’s also a ﬁne political story. Carlton Stowers, from the Dallas Observer, uses six-man high school football to tell the story of a whole Texas town. When Guy Martin writes about ﬂats ﬁshing, it’s sporting for sure (because the ﬁsh mostly win), but it’s about nothing less than how guys are. And when The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean ﬁles from the far frontier of taxidermy . . . well, I’m not sure if it’s sport, but I know it’s too good to leave out of the book.
I have a couple more prejudices to explain herehappily without example. There’s no gossip. There were a few submissions that attempted to judge the Kobe Bryant rape case, based on stuff his “friends” said. They’re not in the book. And there are in this volume very few statistics. Big numbers are the punch line for writers who can’t write how it was.
When someone does write how it was, or how it is, it thrills us with the same exultation that we feel when a fellow being excels on the ﬁeld, the court, the course, or the track. It shows us the possibility of perfection, the hope that we might, through grace and grit, loose the human bonds of error and mediocrity. In fact, you couldn’t have one excellence without the other. Of course, sportswriters need great athletes to write about. But it is also true that since the ﬁrst marathon (from Marathon!), since the days of gladiators and the (Winston?) Chariot Cup, there could be no dream of athletic immortality without somebody to sing of it.
I don’t think it’s stretching things to say that the writers in this book show, in their ﬁeld, the same sort of hyper-acuity that athletic heroes show in their games. Like the athletes, most of these writers have been better at their game than their supposed peers for a long timesince they were kids. And like the men and women they chronicle, they have bent all else to their artdoing this makes everything else seem small. (They should fall to their knees and thank God there’s no one covering their personal lives.)
It’s an honor to have a part in placing their stuff between book coversfor posterity and for thousands of readers who’ll take from this collection both pleasure and inspiration . . . Come to think of it, I really should start overI mean, in my game. Since the question is really what two things you’d need on that island, you knowand the entirety of Roman literature is waiting for me in urns thereI could keep two things dry on my swim. It could be the satellite rigthe sun will show me how to point it at the equator . . . and the entire collection of Best American Sports Writing. I think it’s a winner. What do you say?
Richard Ben Cramer
Copyright © 2004 by Houghton Mifflin. Introduction copyright © 2004 by Richard Ben Cramer. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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