The Best American Sports Writing 1999 / Edition 1

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Overview

Well established as the premier sports anthology, The Best American Sports Writing embraces the world of sports in all its drama, humanity, and excitement. This year's illustrious contributors join the ranks of such celebrated writers as George Plimpton, David Remnick, and David Halberstam. Their exceptional talent and experience continue the series' tradition of excellence, which prompted the Boston Globe to hail it as a "venerable institution".

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Nothing But the Best

Sturdy and sometimes stellar, the 1999 edition of The Best American Sports Writing series collects the cream of the current crop of sports reporting. This time around, acclaimed novelist Richard Ford steps up to oversee the annual anthology, and he delivers a solid (if occasionally quirky) effort. Where else will praise be given a sportswriter who celebrates the "dentist/porn star mustaches" of bowlers?

Ford, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sportswriter and Independence Day and a former Sport magazine journalist, veers only slightly from the winning formula that unites the yearly installments of The Best American Sports Writing. Seventeen articles make the final cut for Ford, this year's guest editor (in conjunction with series editor Glenn Stout), and he establishes certain parameters for his selections in the introduction: "I've selected the sports stories that follow with what I think of as a spirit of acceptance." He includes "no stories that fail to describe an actual sporting act. Sports writing, after all, gets boring when it strays from sports acts themselves."

Truth be told, the excellent pieces represented here truly stand head and shoulders above the more average choices. Of course, any "best of" collection will challenge and needle some readers by what is included and omitted, tastes being inherently individual. But such is also the joy of the series.

And there's no denying that the 1999 edition has some timeless material, particularly in the collection's three newspaper pieces, proving that the most powerful selections are not always the longest. Just consider Washington Post columnist Tom Boswell's sweet tribute to Cal Ripken's consecutive-game streak or Shirley Povich's final column for the Post, correcting his friend Boswell about who is the greatest home-run hitter of all time. Both are miniature masterpieces.

Povich, who died at age 92 one day before his last column ran in the Post, argues that Babe Ruth remains the ultimate standard, the feats of Mark McGwire but footnotes. George Herman Ruth "inspired such sobriquets as Sultan of Swat and the King of Clout and made the name Bambino the recognized property of only one man in the entire world." This from someone who followed firsthand most of the century's sports heroes. Boswell, meanwhile, looks at modern hero Ripken and his decision to end an amazing 16-year run without missing a game: "When you do everything right your entire career, then end your milestone streak on your own terms and in your own low-key, classy style, that's just a different kind of beauty."

The third newspaper story in the collection, "The Trophy Son," by Randall Patterson of The Houston Press, tells -- with the proper amounts of restraint and skepticism -- the tale of a high school athlete and his parents who sue the school district because the boy is benched.

This emphasis on the newspaper stories is not meant to put down the magazine pieces in The Best American Sports Writing 1999, for there are some excellent selections. Steve Friedman's "Kingpin," a profile of professional bowler Pete Weber that appeared in GQ, is as rich, atmospheric and nuanced a magazine article as one can find. His description throughout -- bowlers, he writes, commonly have "dentist/porn star mustaches" -- is dead on. "When Hell Froze Over," a sad and funny song to the defunct World Hockey League by veteran Canadian journalist Allen Abel, is the only Sports Illustrated entry this year but is deserving of its place. Michael Jordan's singular moment in his basketball career -- his shot to beat the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals -- gets its proper treatment from David Halberstam in The New Yorker. The anthology, as it is every year, as Jordan always was, is worth the price of admission.

That said, Ford appears partial to first-person accounts -- in about half the stories, the writers themselves are major characters -- and that inclination leads him to make some mundane selections. Included is a piece by playwright David Mamet on his fondness for deer hunting, a piece Ford apparently chose not on its sports writing merits but simply because Mamet wrote it. Freelance writer Melissa King looks for love while she plays pickup basketball, and creative writing teacher J. D. Dolan looks for love while he plays billiards; neither piece is particularly memorable. David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, revisits Muhammad Ali, a favorite topic in the series (and of Remnick's), but the piece comes off as cliched and boring.

Perhaps all the inclusion of these stories signifies is another move on the series' part away from showcasing the year's best sports journalism and toward becoming the only all-sports literary anthology around. The Best American Sports Writing has been moving that direction for the past few years anyway, and there's nothing wrong with that. Any potential guest editors of the series, however, would do well to read Boswell's, Povich's, and Patterson's stories in this year's edition, remember that newspaper writing can be every bit as memorable as magazine writing, and ensure that the "smaller" stories don't disappear from the anthology completely.

—Mike Sielski

From the Publisher
"Through various incarnations, several "Best of" sportswriting collections have effectively mirrored the major sporting events of much of the American century. The present series' latest volume presents some of last year's expected characters (the heroic face-off between McGuire and Sosa), but what makes this anthology so interesting is the coverage given to nonspectator and minor sports by this year's guest editor, novelist Ford. In addition to the expected baseball and football pieces, there are a number of stories on hunting and fishing and an editorial leaning toward remaking spectating when it comes to sports. The contributors include John McPhee, Adam Gopnik, David Mamet, and Jonathan Miles. In the early days of sportswriting collections, many, if not all, of the selections were drawn from daily newspapers. The changing face of journalism is evident in this collection as only three of the 17 stories came from the daily press. There is one constant, however. Shirley Povich, a Washington Post sports writer and editor who began in the 1920s, had on of his stories selected from the work of the last year of his life. With a memorable introductory essay by Ford, this anthology is recommended for sports collection in school and public libraries"—William O. Scheeren, Hempfield Area H.S. Lib., Greensburg, PA Library Journal

"Articles from The New Yorker, GQ, Sports Illustrated, Outside, Vanity Fair, The Washington Post, and other noted publications, chronicling every major (and some minor) sport, fill the pages of this very worthwhile collection. Roger Angell reports on baseball; Frank Deford investigates women's tennis; Karen Karbo spends a day with an all-female crew in pursuit of the America's Cup. The range is wide, and the writing is, as the cover says, the best." Amazon.com

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Among those profiled in this eclectic collection are a trophy hunter with a God complex, a Texas couple suing a local high school athletic director because their son failed to win a college scholarship and a squirrel-hunting immigrant who becomes the first Hmong elected to city office in Wisconsin. In short, these are not your father's sports stories. In fact, about the only throwback to traditional sports writing is the unhappy fact that, of the 17 essays chosen by novelist Ford (The Sportswriter, etc.), only one is by a woman (Melissa King on playing playground hoops), and none focuses on the current explosion in women's sports. Still, most of the writers assembled here, among them Simon Winchester of Conde Nast Traveler, Houston Press staffer Randall Patterson and Wisconsin English professor John Hildebrand, stand out not just for the captivating way they tell their stories, but for the way they avoid the trendy and overhyped subjects that tend to occupy newspaper sports sections and sports magazines. There are a few familiar topics and names--David Halberstam on Michael Jordan, Shirley Povich on recent baseball feats and David Remnick on Muhammad Ali--but for the most part, this collection offers engrossing studies of lesser-known folks whose quirks and flaws are more interesting than their athletic abilities. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The annual sports anthology enters its ninth season, once again offering articles that will please fans of sports and of general feature-writing. Guest editor Richard Ford (Women with Men, 1997; Independence Day, 1995) chooses 17 sports pieces published in 1998 that are "able to generate drama that animates and fosters good writing." Some articles are character-driven, focusing on superstars (David Halberstam writes about Michael Jordan's last game; Thomas Boswell discusses Cal Ripken ending his streak of consecutive games; David Remnick visits with Muhammad Ali) and lesser-known personalities such as college basketball coach Don Haskins and bowler Pete Weber. But what makes this anthology a special treat are pieces by renowned writers like David Mamet not normally associated with sports and articles that offer different perspectives. John Hildebrand's piece linking surviving in the woods and the Hmong war veterans' experiences in the United States is first-rate. Melissa King, the only woman writer in this collection, gives voice to female basketball players. Randall Patterson's piece about a family's obsessive belief that their son's failure to get a sports scholarship or contract stems from a conspiracy is disquieting, especially when juxtaposed with writings that revel in specific sports such as fishing (John McPhee), the junior hockey league (Guy Lawson), pool (J.D. Dolan), and hunting (Simon Winchester). On a bittersweet and appropriate note, the late, renowned sports writer Shirley Povich's last column appears in this collection. Authors' biographical notes appear at the end of the book, along with a list, selected by series editor Glenn Stout, of additional notable sports writingin 1998. In his piece about soccer, Adam Gopnik says the sport "was not meant to be enjoyed. It was meant to be experienced." That is what the writers in this anthology do: They allow readers to experience the moments of drama, poignancy, high emotion, and quiet reflection that sports can produce.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780395930564
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/29/1999
  • Series: Best American Sports Writing Series
  • Edition description: Older Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 268
  • Sales rank: 1,198,995
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Ford

GLENN STOUT is the author of Young Woman and the Sea and Fenway 1912 .

Biography

Richard Ford lived with his parents in Jackson, Mississippi, until he was eight years old, at which time his father suffered a near-fatal heart attack. After that, he shuttled back and forth between his parents' home in Jackson and Little Rock, Arkansas, where his maternal grandparents managed a hotel. Ford describes his childhood as happy and contented -- at least until he was 16, when his father died and the young man began to seriously think about his future.

Although he attended Michigan State University with the vague intention of going into hotel management, Ford soon switched over to literature. After graduation, he married his college sweetheart, Kristina Hensley, but was having trouble settling on a career direction. He applied for several jobs (including the police and the CIA!) and even started law school. It was only after none of these panned out that he begin to consider writing for a living. On the advice of a former teacher, he applied to graduate school and was accepted into the University of California at Irvine, where he came under the happy, unexpected tutelage of Oakley Hall and E. L. Doctorow.

He began work on his first novel, the story of two drifters whose lives intersect on a desolate island in the Mississippi River. An excerpt appeared in The Paris Review, and the book was accepted for publication. In 1976, A Piece of My Heart was released to good reviews, but Ford bristled at being pigeonholed by critics as a regional writer. "I'm a Southerner, God knows," Ford said in an interview with the literary journal Ploughshares, "but I always wanted my books to exist outside the limits of so-called Southern writing."

In the early '80s, Ford's wife (who holds a Ph.D. in urban planning) was teaching at NYU, and the couple was living in Princeton, New Jersey. Disillusioned with novel writing, Ford took a job with the glossy New York magazine Inside Sports, but in 1982 the magazine folded, leaving him unemployed again. Tentatively he returned to fiction with the glimmer of a story idea based loosely on his most recent experiences. Several years in the making, The Sportswriter introduced Frank Bascombe, a middle-aged writer from suburban New Jersey who forsakes his promising literary career to pen articles for a glossy New York magazine. Published in 1986, the novel was named one of Time magazine's five best books of the year and was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award.

Ford claims that he never intended to write a trilogy around Frank Bascombe. But, in between other literary projects (including an acclaimed 1987 short story collection, Rock Springs), he found himself inexorably drawn back into the life of his melancholic protagonist. In 1995, the superb sequel, Independence Day, won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Then, in 2006, Ford concluded the saga with The Lay of the Land, a bittersweet set piece nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Although Ford modestly maintained that the only reason he won the Pulitzer Prize was that Philip Roth had not written a novel that year, in fact his angst-ridden suburban Everyman Frank Bascombe ranks alongside Roth's Nathan Zuckerman (or, for that matter, John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom) as one of American literature's most unforgettable, richly drawn characters. For a man who stumbled into writing with very little forethought or design, Richard Ford has indeed come far.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      February 16, 1944
    2. Place of Birth:
      Jackson, Mississippi
    1. Education:
      B.A., Michigan State University, 1966; M.F.A., University of California, Irvine, 1970

Read an Excerpt

Introduction Most sports writing operates at a disadvantage - the disadvantage being that it's about sports. No matter how the culture tries to amplify it, sports (especially the spectator kind) is simply not a very serious human pursuit. Oh, yes, people make handsome livings at it - playing it, owning it, promoting it, litigating it, televising it, remembering it, even writing about it. People occasionally even die from it or have their lives markedly changed because of it (bungee jumping with a poorly measured cord, stroking out at a hockey game, hitting your horse at OTB). Sports, as well, enters our lives vertically in all sorts of other influential ways: lavishly consuming our dollars and our precious time; infiltrating and corrupting our language and with it our ways of representing, even assessing, what is important ("They're playing for all the marbles over there in Kosovo"; "It's fourth and long in that Russian economy"). And sports routinely promotes into our attention real people who have no real reason to be there except that they're very tall, or very fat, or very bad-tempered, or very rich or like tattoos. These same people are then promoted (often by sports writers) as interesting models for our human behavior and conduct, so that we often go away confused about what's good and what's bad.
There are other kinds of sports, of course, the kinds we perform ourselves rather than simply observe at distances or on TV. And because we choose to do these, because we act them, sometimes gain pleasurable skills from them, draw close to experience through them, they can begin to seem less unserious. They can even take over our lives in ways we or our loved ones don't like (golf addiction, tennis addiction, canasta addiction). But they can also give us relief from noxious duties, distract us from our bad decisions or dreams, contribute to our fantasies, harden our muscles, keep us in mind of our youths, etc., etc. Positive things - as far as they go.
Each may have its downsides, but nothing's really wrong with these sporting realms. Nobody seriously wants them to quit existing. Part of their satisfying unimportance includes their having almost no victims, offering as little as possible to worry about, being morally uncomplicated - indeed, in their having almost no innate importance whatsoever, except what observers and participants decide to dream up for them. They're free, in the sense of gratuitous. And in a world that seems not always free of what sports are innocent of (moral consequence), this makes them seem good, sometimes even important.
What each of these realms lacks, and what might (in another world) promote either to a plain of genuine importance, is some feature of moral necessity, some "I can do no other" quality of human motive - that spiritual standard by which we routinely appraise action and character and deem each lasting because the events and changes they occasion are so inescapable and important that we employ them to help us understand who we are: if we're good or if we're bad, rather than just good at or bad at something.
Oh, I know. The lives of important brain surgeons and army generals and cult novelists have been lengthened, their thoughts clarified, their decisions made more certain because they fished for trout on the Rangeley Lakes or played varsity squash at Princeton or exceeded at curling up in Manitoba. Whizzer White became a Supreme Court standout only after (and impliedly because of) his All-American football days at Colorado. The scholar-athlete, that deeply serious unserious soul, holds a place of almost Apollonian esteem among American hero figures as the perfection of the sporting ethic made consequential outside of sport: the lessons of the gridiron served young Jonkel well in his march to the statehouse in Bismarck . . . Ja, ja, ja.
Only they didn't have to play sports in the way, say, Hamlet has to kill his uncle. They merely wanted to. And indeed, each of these characters could've done something else - or better yet, done nothing but sit home reading books - and everything would've worked out fine. The really impressive part is that sports didn't cripple their progress more than it did. Auden wrote that poetry makes nothing happen, by which he meant that poetry causes many important things - we just can't see them. But sports really does cause very little of lasting value to happen in the world, except by accident. And this is the fundamental element of sports' character that sports writing has to wrestle with and overcome in order to make itself interesting.

Twenty-five years ago, I used to listen to a sports call-in show in L. A. wherein a guy who billed himself simply aas "Superfan," and whom I envisioned as a congenial cross between Harry Von Zell and Walter Winchell, nightly dispensed vital sports info, intervvvvviewed colorful celebrity sports guests, mediated fan disputes, issued insider wisdom on local teams - in essence did all he could using the AM band to make himself a vicar for citizen needs and to assure us that there was a benevolent good, and his name was sport.
And he was great. My wife and I, without a TV, used to eat our dinner, get finished with whatever piddling duties we had, and then park ourselves on the couch in our little beach house and utterly immerse ourselves, sometimes for two hours a night, in whatever Superfan had on his mind: Dodger news (Marichal was making a comeback with a new club; it fizzled), Laker championship prospects (they won with Wilt and Zeke), Ram quarterback indecision (pretty much the same as now). Like the song says, "I'll never know what made it so exciting." Maybe it was just the Technicolor sports universe cracking open to give me a virtual peek. But it was exciting, and the two of us grew completely involved in the little life of the show - in the caricatured personalities of the callers, "Beano from Encino," "Frankie from Oxnard," "Just Newt from the Valley"; in the ironbound dedication of everyone involved to the unquestioned rightness of our dedication to and use of our time for sports. And in Superfan himself, his chummy, voluble willingness to have faith that dark sports clouds would always give way to bright sports sunshine, all the while staying careful not to be a shameless homer.
What I remember most vividly, though, about those evenings lasting into dreamy summer nights was Superfan's boilerplate sign- off, there at the end of each night's séance with the voices of sport's invisible devotees. "Just remember," he'd say, and a certain breathy solemnity would open in his meaty voice as he was packing up before heading out onto the swarming 405, "just remember, folks, that in the crowded department store of life, sports is, after all, just the toy department." Fade to theme.
In the intervening years, I've tried to take counsel from that bit of complex intelligence, not only because it meant to assure me that there are important things in the world and we need to keep our priorities straight about them (Superfan never said what they were), but that it's also important, if not exactly equally so, that we not take everything so seriously; that in the toy department there are genuine attractions worthy of our dedicated notice, and part of what's good about sports is precisely its optional, inessential character, into which we may choose to thrust ourselves a little, or almost wholly. This wisdom has always reminded me of the old stand-up comic's rule that if nothing's funny, nothing's serious. In the world according to Superfan, if everything's serious, maybe nothing is.
Good sports writing - the best sports writing - always comprehends and often engages this fundamental truth about practically everyone's involvement with sports, be they couch-bound or ironman contestant: that sports is an unserious subject we are willing to seem to take seriously because doing so can make us happy. From this tension between the pseudo-serious and the fanciful, sports writing is often able to generate drama that animates and fosters good writing. In a highly abbreviated form, this tension is what makes the famous anecdote about Joe DiMaggio and his then-wife so vivid and memorably affecting: two larger-than-life characters, who were models for conduct the world over, disagreeing sweetly but unswervingly over nothing more serious than who'd heard the most cheering. It's probably the greatest two-line sports story of all time.
A. J. Liebling was as good as there ever was at advertising sport's basic triviality at the same instant that he made it a sweet virtue by harnessing it to his great wit and writerly felicity, occasionally even affording himself a try at "truth" normally reserved for serious literature. "Jackson was fluttering like a winged bird," Liebling wrote, describing the large but overmatched heavyweight Tommy "Hurricane" Jackson in his 1954 match against the Cuban Nino Valdez, "making a difficult though harmless target. And Valdez," Liebling continued, "conscious of the three-knockdown rule, was following him about, eager to bring him down, even for a half a second, before the round ended. Valdez has had many fights, has always finished strong and was in good condition, but he seemed at this point to be heaving. Perhaps it was merely emotion, for he could not have anticipated a chance to knock off work so early." Any one of us would be happy to have written any one of these sentences as our on-the-record response to seeing two men beat each other up in public. It's privilege enough just to read them. The "winged bird"; the little second-thought parenthetical "even for a half a second," expressing, or more likely inventing, Valdez's patient boxological opportunism; and certainly we prize the provisional aside, placed so carefully at the paragraph's end, reminding us that we are, by the way, reading about feeling human beings here. Beating each other up is just their job, albeit an unusual one.
W. C. Heinz, novelist, war correspondent, and great New York Sun reporter, was another writer who mastered the artful balance of humors sports writing observes when it's done excellently. Recalling his youth and his apprenticeship to the sports reporter's vocation, Heinz wrote in the late 1970s:

"That was how bad I had it in high school, when I was too frail for football and afraid of a baseball thrown near the head and had been a reluctant starter and worse finisher in street fights. Once, when we were both eight years old, they put the shoemaker's son and me together in the high school playground with gloves on, and he punched me around for three one-minute rounds.

"You know," I said, a long time after that, to Sugar Ray Robinson, the greatest fighter I ever saw. "You and I fought the same guy. When we were little kids he punched my head in a playground fight."

"Who was that?" Robinson said.

"Vic Toisi," I said.

"Vic Toisi," Robinson said. "Did I fight him?"

"Yes," I said. "You fought him in the Eastern Parkway, and knocked him out in the first round."

"Is that so?" Robinson said.
End of anecdote.
Boxing, of course, might be a special case, enticing good writing and the best writers with its built-in moral dramas of men in action and its dangerous aura of near-death creating the feel of honest-to-God necessity. Yet here is Heinz again, this time on American football - cartoonish, dubious, cumbersome - although in this instance Heinz's focus is on one of its cult figures from the 1940s, the New York Giants' coach Steve Owen.

On this morning, it was cold, but the air was clear and the sun was shining. The Giants were running through passing plays in deep right field near the outfield wall with the signs painted on the dark green, advertising razor blades and hot dogs and ice cream. Steve Owen was standing with his hands in his hip pockets, talking to several of us and watching Arnie Herber throw the ball.

Herber threw a pass to an end named Hubert Barker. It was deep and Barker ran for it, but when he was about to run into a wall where the sign advertised Gem blades, he slowed and the pass went over his outstretched hands.

"What are you scared of, Barker," Owen said, shouting at him. "What are you scared of?"

"He's scared of the five o'clock shadow," Bert Gumpert, who wrote sports for the Bronx Home News, said.
End of anecdote - the good clincher line given to a colleague, no doubt just the way it happened. Though the story itself, its immaculate timing, the atmospheric outfield details, the positioning of the great but stern Owen as straight man to the small- time beat reporter for the local rag - all that is pure Heinz.
Locked into these two lovely, simple-seeming passages are the elements of fine sports writing: an actual sporting act is described; no strained attempt is made to rig up events as emblematic of anything, or as metaphor for life; some sense of sport's often drably repetitive, one-dimensional nature is not shirked; a possibility of absurdity lurks alongside the possibility of athletic excellence; all is rendered in the form of good sentences - words well chosen, apt details observed, the reader's attention husbanded, and his intelligence respected by the writer's willingness to acknowledge the obvious while putting together what hadn't been joined before for the purpose of saying something new.
These virtues are, of course, the virtues of most good writing, writing that would serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us. Sports writing, however, because it is about a game we or others choose to play and could as easily not choose, is best when it restrains itself from claiming too much, best when it sees itself as a little life within a larger, more important one.
Plenty of writers fail to exercise this restraint, and the result is often bad writing - none of it to be found in this volume, of course. Such faulty writing typically fails to realize, for instance, that human beings are not interesting just because they're athletes; or that behind-the-scenes business shenanigans are not more interesting just because the rich guys happen to own ball clubs or are players dressed in oversize "business" suits no one but they would ever think of wearing. Or else it fails to recognize that sports has really little to do with producing satisfactory role models and probably never has; or that as a useful metaphor for life, sports generally draws upon an inadequate vocabulary and almost always makes life seem simpler, less livable, less interesting than it really is - more like a game. In my view, life beats sports every time.

Best is a difficult concept. But a collection of at least quite good American sport writing seems appropriate for our culture. And not just because we are a sports-besotted country, and writing is an art losing ground to other media, and therefore sports writing could use some bucking up. But rather because we have a long history of wonderful sports writing in America, writing that fully comprehends its station and makes the most of it, and in so doing enriches our national spirit by relieving some of that spirit's natural tensions. There's just something in the American sensibility that values joining the often primal yet contrived acts of sport to the intensities and suave logics of well-made prose. It seems to free us in the way conceptual art frees us. Plus reading sports may be the only reading for pleasure most Americans ever do.
Finally, as much as I love the purely essayistic writing of Liebling and Heinz and Red Smith and John Lardner, and their modern- day inheritors, Roger Angell, Tom Boswell, Tom McGuane, Roger Kahn, Jim Murray, George Vescey, and Mark Kram, I cannot overlook the fact that American sports writing is good in a variety of writerly ways: essays, yes, but also news stories, profiles, news features, and more. And so I've selected the sports stories that follow with what I think of as a spirit of acceptance. My rules have been very few: no pro wrestling, since only the spectators don't know the outcome there, and no stories that fail to describe an actual sporting act. Sports writing, after all, gets boring when it strays from sports acts themselves; when it goes into the counting rooms and doesn't return, or into the jail cell or the rehab unit or the divorce court and leaves actual sports behind; when, equipped with its powers of observation, of sensibility, analysis and pure description, it fails to tell us anew how some difficult feat is performed, how something exhilarating might feel, or how a beautiful act appears to a trained observer, and what difference any of it makes or doesn't.
The appeal of sports writing, then, is exactly what I began this essay seeming to complain about - that it's about sports. There is much pleasure to take in the little life that's there, in human endeavors that lie aside of the great and weighty issues of life, and which can be turned felicitous and absorbing and even memorable by someone who can write - can be made to seem almost if not quite necessary. Indeed, if we can take the time for this pleasure, turn our notice for a moment away from the necessary, we can relish and possibly even understand more of life.

Richard Ford

Copyright (c) 1999 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Introduction copyright © 1999 by Richard Ford. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents

The Best American Sports Writing Contents

Contents

Foreword by Glenn Stout vii

Introduction by Richard Ford xiii

Shirley Povich. Recent Baseball Feats Require Footnotes 1

from The Washington Post

Guy Lawson. Hockey Nights 5

from Harper's Magazine

G. Endgame 29

from The New Yorker

Jonathan Miles. Big, Ugly Green Fish 39

from Sports Afield

Melissa King. It's All in the Game 43

from Chicago Reader

David Halberstam. Jordan's Moment 57

from The New Yorker

Thomas Boswell. For Timeless Player, It Was Time 69

from The Washington Post

John Hildebrand. Coming Home 73

from Harper's Magazine

John Mcphee. Catch-and-Dissect 89

from The New Yorker

Randall Patterson. The Trophy Son 109

from The Houston Press

Steve Friedman. Kingpin 124

from GQ

David Remnick. American Hunger 139

from The New Yorker

J. D. Dolan. Pool: A Love Story 164

from Esquire

Allen Abel. When Hell Froze Over 177

from Sports Illustrated

Dan Wetzel. Not Your Ordinary Bear 192

from Basketball Times

Simon Winchester. Sheep of Fools 217

from GQ

David Mamet. The Deer Hunter 227

from Sports Afield

Biographical Notes 237

Notable Sports Writing of 1998 241

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Introduction

Introduction
Most sports writing operates at a disadvantage - the disadvantage being that it's about sports. No matter how the culture tries to amplify it, sports (especially the spectator kind) is simply not a very serious human pursuit. Oh, yes, people make handsome livings at it - playing it, owning it, promoting it, litigating it, televising it, remembering it, even writing about it. People occasionally even die from it or have their lives markedly changed because of it (bungee jumping with a poorly measured cord, stroking out at a hockey game, hitting your horse at OTB). Sports, as well, enters our lives vertically in all sorts of other influential ways: lavishly consuming our dollars and our precious time; infiltrating and corrupting our language and with it our ways of representing, even assessing, what is important ("They're playing for all the marbles over there in Kosovo"; "It's fourth and long in that Russian economy"). And sports routinely promotes into our attention real people who have no real reason to be there except that they're very tall, or very fat, or very bad-tempered, or very rich or like tattoos. These same people are then promoted (often by sports writers) as interesting models for our human behavior and conduct, so that we often go away confused about what's good and what's bad.
There are other kinds of sports, of course, the kinds we perform ourselves rather than simply observe at distances or on TV. And because we choose to do these, because we act them, sometimes gain pleasurable skills from them, draw close to experience through them, they can begin to seem less unserious. They can even take over our lives in ways we or our loved ones don't like (golf addiction, tennis addiction, canasta addiction). But they can also give us relief from noxious duties, distract us from our bad decisions or dreams, contribute to our fantasies, harden our muscles, keep us in mind of our youths, etc., etc. Positive things - as far as they go.
Each may have its downsides, but nothing's really wrong with these sporting realms. Nobody seriously wants them to quit existing. Part of their satisfying unimportance includes their having almost no victims, offering as little as possible to worry about, being morally uncomplicated - indeed, in their having almost no innate importance whatsoever, except what observers and participants decide to dream up for them. They're free, in the sense of gratuitous. And in a world that seems not always free of what sports are innocent of (moral consequence), this makes them seem good, sometimes even important.
What each of these realms lacks, and what might (in another world) promote either to a plain of genuine importance, is some feature of moral necessity, some "I can do no other" quality of human motive - that spiritual standard by which we routinely appraise action and character and deem each lasting because the events and changes they occasion are so inescapable and important that we employ them to help us understand who we are: if we're good or if we're bad, rather than just good at or bad at something.
Oh, I know. The lives of important brain surgeons and army generals and cult novelists have been lengthened, their thoughts clarified, their decisions made more certain because they fished for trout on the Rangeley Lakes or played varsity squash at Princeton or exceeded at curling up in Manitoba. Whizzer White became a Supreme Court standout only after (and impliedly because of) his All-American football days at Colorado. The scholar-athlete, that deeply serious unserious soul, holds a place of almost Apollonian esteem among American hero figures as the perfection of the sporting ethic made consequential outside of sport: the lessons of the gridiron served young Jonkel well in his march to the statehouse in Bismarck . . . Ja, ja, ja.
Only they didn't have to play sports in the way, say, Hamlet has to kill his uncle. They merely wanted to. And indeed, each of these characters could've done something else - or better yet, done nothing but sit home reading books - and everything would've worked out fine. The really impressive part is that sports didn't cripple their progress more than it did. Auden wrote that poetry makes nothing happen, by which he meant that poetry causes many important things - we just can't see them. But sports really does cause very little of lasting value to happen in the world, except by accident. And this is the fundamental element of sports' character that sports writing has to wrestle with and overcome in order to make itself interesting.

Twenty-five years ago, I used to listen to a sports call-in show in L. A. wherein a guy who billed himself simply as "Superfan," and whom I envisioned as a congenial cross between Harry Von Zell and Walter Winchell, nightly dispensed vital sports info, interviewed colorful celebrity sports guests, mediated fan disputes, issued insider wisdom on local teams - in essence did all he could using the AM band to make himself a vicar for citizen needs and to assure us that there was a benevolent good, and his name was sport.
And he was great. My wife and I, without a TV, used to eat our dinner, get finished with whatever piddling duties we had, and then park ourselves on the couch in our little beach house and utterly immerse ourselves, sometimes for two hours a night, in whatever Superfan had on his mind: Dodger news (Marichal was making a comeback with a new club; it fizzled), Laker championship prospects (they won with Wilt and Zeke), Ram quarterback indecision (pretty much the same as now). Like the song says, "I'll never know what made it so exciting." Maybe it was just the Technicolor sports universe cracking open to give me a virtual peek. But it was exciting, and the two of us grew completely involved in the little life of the show - in the caricatured personalities of the callers, "Beano from Encino," "Frankie from Oxnard," "Just Newt from the Valley"; in the ironbound dedication of everyone involved to the unquestioned rightness of our dedication to and use of our time for sports. And in Superfan himself, his chummy, voluble willingness to have faith that dark sports clouds would always give way to bright sports sunshine, all the while staying careful not to be a shameless homer.
What I remember most vividly, though, about those evenings lasting into dreamy summer nights was Superfan's boilerplate sign-off, there at the end of each night's séance with the voices of sport's invisible devotees. "Just remember," he'd say, and a certain breathy solemnity would open in his meaty voice as he was packing up before heading out onto the swarming 405, "just remember, folks, that in the crowded department store of life, sports is, after all, just the toy department." Fade to theme.
In the intervening years, I've tried to take counsel from that bit of complex intelligence, not only because it meant to assure me that there are important things in the world and we need to keep our priorities straight about them (Superfan never said what they were), but that it's also important, if not exactly equally so, that we not take everything so seriously; that in the toy department there are genuine attractions worthy of our dedicated notice, and part of what's good about sports is precisely its optional, inessential character, into which we may choose to thrust ourselves a little, or almost wholly. This wisdom has always reminded me of the old stand-up comic's rule that if nothing's funny, nothing's serious. In the world according to Superfan, if everything's serious, maybe nothing is.
Good sports writing - the best sports writing - always comprehends and often engages this fundamental truth about practically everyone's involvement with sports, be they couch-bound or ironman contestant: that sports is an unserious subject we are willing to seem to take seriously because doing so can make us happy. From this tension between the pseudo-serious and the fanciful, sports writing is often able to generate drama that animates and fosters good writing. In a highly abbreviated form, this tension is what makes the famous anecdote about Joe DiMaggio and his then-wife so vivid and memorably affecting: two larger-than-life characters, who were models for conduct the world over, disagreeing sweetly but unswervingly over nothing more serious than who'd heard the most cheering. It's probably the greatest two-line sports story of all time.
A. J. Liebling was as good as there ever was at advertising sport's basic triviality at the same instant that he made it a sweet virtue by harnessing it to his great wit and writerly felicity, occasionally even affording himself a try at "truth" normally reserved for serious literature. "Jackson was fluttering like a winged bird," Liebling wrote, describing the large but overmatched heavyweight Tommy "Hurricane" Jackson in his 1954 match against the Cuban Nino Valdez, "making a difficult though harmless target. And Valdez," Liebling continued, "conscious of the three-knockdown rule, was following him about, eager to bring him down, even for a half a second, before the round ended. Valdez has had many fights, has always finished strong and was in good condition, but he seemed at this point to be heaving. Perhaps it was merely emotion, for he could not have anticipated a chance to knock off work so early."
Any one of us would be happy to have written any one of these sentences as our on-the-record response to seeing two men beat each other up in public. It's privilege enough just to read them. The "winged bird"; the little second-thought parenthetical "even for a half a second," expressing, or more likely inventing, Valdez's patient boxological opportunism; and certainly we prize the provisional aside, placed so carefully at the paragraph's end, reminding us that we are, by the way, reading about feeling human beings here. Beating each other up is just their job, albeit an unusual one.
W. C. Heinz, novelist, war correspondent, and great New York Sun reporter, was another writer who mastered the artful balance of humors sports writing observes when it's done excellently. Recalling his youth and his apprenticeship to the sports reporter's vocation, Heinz wrote in the late 1970s:

"That was how bad I had it in high school, when I was too frail for football and afraid of a baseball thrown near the head and had been a reluctant starter and worse finisher in street fights. Once, when we were both eight years old, they put the shoemaker's son and me together in the high school playground with gloves on, and he punched me around for three one-minute rounds.

"You know," I said, a long time after that, to Sugar Ray Robinson, the greatest fighter I ever saw. "You and I fought the same guy. When we were little kids he punched my head in a playground fight."

"Who was that?" Robinson said.

"Vic Toisi," I said.

"Vic Toisi," Robinson said. "Did I fight him?"

"Yes," I said. "You fought him in the Eastern Parkway, and knocked him out in the first round."

"Is that so?" Robinson said.
End of anecdote.
Boxing, of course, might be a special case, enticing good writing and the best writers with its built-in moral dramas of men in action and its dangerous aura of near-death creating the feel of honest-to-God necessity. Yet here is Heinz again, this time on American football - cartoonish, dubious, cumbersome - although in this instance Heinz's focus is on one of its cult figures from the 1940s, the New York Giants' coach Steve Owen.

On this morning, it was cold, but the air was clear and the sun was shining. The Giants were running through passing plays in deep right field near the outfield wall with the signs painted on the dark green, advertising razor blades and hot dogs and ice cream. Steve Owen was standing with his hands in his hip pockets, talking to several of us and watching Arnie Herber throw the ball.

Herber threw a pass to an end named Hubert Barker. It was deep and Barker ran for it, but when he was about to run into a wall where the sign advertised Gem blades, he slowed and the pass went over his outstretched hands.

"What are you scared of, Barker," Owen said, shouting at him. "What are you scared of?"

"He's scared of the five o'clock shadow," Bert Gumpert, who wrote sports for the Bronx Home News, said.
End of anecdote - the good clincher line given to a colleague, no doubt just the way it happened. Though the story itself, its immaculate timing, the atmospheric outfield details, the positioning of the great but stern Owen as straight man to the small-time beat reporter for the local rag - all that is pure Heinz.
Locked into these two lovely, simple-seeming passages are the elements of fine sports writing: an actual sporting act is described; no strained attempt is made to rig up events as emblematic of anything, or as metaphor for life; some sense of sport's often drably repetitive, one-dimensional nature is not shirked; a possibility of absurdity lurks alongside the possibility of athletic excellence; all is rendered in the form of good sentences - words well chosen, apt details observed, the reader's attention husbanded, and his intelligence respected by the writer's willingness to acknowledge the obvious while putting together what hadn't been joined before for the purpose of saying something new.
These virtues are, of course, the virtues of most good writing, writing that would serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us. Sports writing, however, because it is about a game we or others choose to play and could as easily not choose, is best when it restrains itself from claiming too much, best when it sees itself as a little life within a larger, more important one.
Plenty of writers fail to exercise this restraint, and the result is often bad writing - none of it to be found in this volume, of course. Such faulty writing typically fails to realize, for instance, that human beings are not interesting just because they're athletes; or that behind-the-scenes business shenanigans are not more interesting just because the rich guys happen to own ball clubs or are players dressed in oversize "business" suits no one but they would ever think of wearing. Or else it fails to recognize that sports has really little to do with producing satisfactory role models and probably never has; or that as a useful metaphor for life, sports generally draws upon an inadequate vocabulary and almost always makes life seem simpler, less livable, less interesting than it really is - more like a game. In my view, life beats sports every time.

Best is a difficult concept. But a collection of at least quite good American sport writing seems appropriate for our culture. And not just because we are a sports-besotted country, and writing is an art losing ground to other media, and therefore sports writing could use some bucking up. But rather because we have a long history of wonderful sports writing in America, writing that fully comprehends its station and makes the most of it, and in so doing enriches our national spirit by relieving some of that spirit's natural tensions. There's just something in the American sensibility that values joining the often primal yet contrived acts of sport to the intensities and suave logics of well-made prose. It seems to free us in the way conceptual art frees us. Plus reading sports may be the only reading for pleasure most Americans ever do.
Finally, as much as I love the purely essayistic writing of Liebling and Heinz and Red Smith and John Lardner, and their modern-day inheritors, Roger Angell, Tom Boswell, Tom McGuane, Roger Kahn, Jim Murray, George Vescey, and Mark Kram, I cannot overlook the fact that American sports writing is good in a variety of writerly ways: essays, yes, but also news stories, profiles, news features, and more. And so I've selected the sports stories that follow with what I think of as a spirit of acceptance. My rules have been very few: no pro wrestling, since only the spectators don't know the outcome there, and no stories that fail to describe an actual sporting act. Sports writing, after all, gets boring when it strays from sports acts themselves; when it goes into the counting rooms and doesn't return, or into the jail cell or the rehab unit or the divorce court and leaves actual sports behind; when, equipped with its powers of observation, of sensibility, analysis and pure description, it fails to tell us anew how some difficult feat is performed, how something exhilarating might feel, or how a beautiful act appears to a trained observer, and what difference any of it makes or doesn't.
The appeal of sports writing, then, is exactly what I began this essay seeming to complain about - that it's about sports. There is much pleasure to take in the little life that's there, in human endeavors that lie aside of the great and weighty issues of life, and which can be turned felicitous and absorbing and even memorable by someone who can write - can be made to seem almost if not quite necessary. Indeed, if we can take the time for this pleasure, turn our notice for a moment away from the necessary, we can relish and possibly even understand more of life.

Richard Ford

Copyright (c) 1999 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Introduction copyright (c) 1999 by Richard Ford
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