- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
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.