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From the Publisher"A great tradition continues with another outstanding collection." Booklist, ALA
"Twenty-eight stories, no duds in the bunch and a few to reread after a dog and a beer." Kirkus Reviews
Each year, The Best American Sports Writing, well established as the premier sports anthology, offers a winning combination of fascinating topics and top-notch writers. This year, Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly assembles an all-star lineup sure to captivate fans of sports and great writing. From baseball to bullfighting, from horse racing to school-bus racing, this collection has something for everyone. Reilly has chosen columnists and feature writers, household names and talented unknowns, and, most importantly, pieces that delve behind the statistics, examining the people and emotions that make the game.
"Twenty-eight stories, no duds in the bunch and a few to reread after a dog and a beer." Kirkus Reviews
I was fired from my first job at fourteen. Lady didn't like the way I chewed my gum. Got fired from a rental-equipment place at sixteen. Thought the boss said, "Fill these jackhammers with fifteen parts oil, one part gas," but it turns out it was the other way around. Got fired from a gas station at eighteen. Left a guy's oil cap off and it fell down into his fan belt and the station had to pay $435 to fix it for him. Got fired as a bank teller at nineteen. Lost $500 one day. Still don't know where it went.
But knock on wood, sports writing hasn't 86'ed me yet. Started doing it for a living at twenty. That's twenty-five years ago now. If there is ever a nuclear winter and sports writing is no longer needed, I'm toast.
I'm not saying I'm good, but I think I know what good is. Good is the stuff we've chosen for this book. Good is not easy. College kids write me all the time asking how to make their writing better. I always hate answering that letter. You send them tips and you come off like a know-it-all. You ignore it and you come off like a jerk.
But editing this book has made me think about it. Two chewed chair legs and three pots ofcoffee later, I finally came up with ten simple strategies that I know will work no matter the subject, length, or deadline. And so, I present now, for your shredding pleasure ... the Reilly Rules.
1. Never Write a Sentence You've Already Read.
That was said by Oscar Wilde, but it's still the best way to make words jump off the page and squirt grapefruit juice in the reader's face. Why write: "He beat the crap out of the guy" when it's so much more fun to write: "He turned the guy into six feet of lumps"?
You ever notice the way cops talk on the eleven o'clock news? On TV, the cop will go all Dragnet on you: "We apprehended the alleged suspect after a prolonged pursuit." But then you hear the same cop down at Dunkin' Donuts and he's going, "Man, we chased this fruitcake everywhere! Guy thought he was Secretariat!"
The best writing sounds like that. It sounds like a guy talking to you over a fence. The Los Angeles Times's Jim Murray, the greatest sportswriter who ever lived, wrote like that. Murray put simple words in an order nobody had seen before.
Murray once wrote in the Los Angeles Times that John Wooden was "as square as a pan of cornbread." Boog Powell was "just slightly larger than the Istanbul Hilton." USC's sweep left was "as unstoppable as a woman's tears." And, "Willie Mays' glove is the place where triples go to die."
Steve Rushin of Sports Illustrated writes like that. He would sell his sister to the Iraqis before he'd write a boring sentence. In his piece "Cold Comfort," he describes what it felt like the moment the radio told him his elementary school was closed on account of too much snow.
"Instantly, it's Mardi Gras and V-E Day and the Lindbergh parade all in one, and the flakes falling outside look like ticker tape."
Guy makes me sprain my grin.
Blackie Sherrod of the Dallas Morning News once described rogue quarterback Bobby Layne's arrest for drunk driving this way:
"Layne ... stopped off to indulge in some heavy research with scholarly friends. Late that evening, Bobby was driving to his hotel, innocently enough, when he was sideswiped by several empty cars lurking at curbside."
Ever read that before?
2. Get 'Em in the Tent.
Murray used to say, "They'll never see the circus if you can't get 'em in the tent." Translated: Without a good lead, they'll never appreciate your death-defying twinkle-toe transition in the twenty-third paragraph. Maybe that's why he once led off a column on the safety hazards at the Indianapolis 500 with: "Gentlemen, start your coffins!"
Have you ever been zapping around on the remote, going from one show to the next? And then something comes on that you just can't zap because you have to know what's going to happen next? That's what a great lead does. In this fragmented world, readers are looking for the tiniest excuse to turn the page, put you down, and get out of their chair. There's no city ordinance that says they have to read you.
So you have to make it impossible for them not to go on to the second graph. Take, for instance, Tom Scocca's boxing lead from "Blood Sport."
"Idly, last week, I watched Beethavean Scottland get beaten into a coma."
Or Outside's Steve Friedman's lead from "`It's Gonna Suck to Be You'":
"The first time he tried it, the vomiting started after sixty-seven miles...."
How are you not going to keep reading?
3. Say What You Think.
Wholesale tin-eared butchery sports writing goes like this:
"Monolith Tech and Conglomerate University waged a real war on Saturday.
"`That was a real war out there,' said Monolith head coach Bruiser Smith."
Bad sportswriters have this thing about pens and pads. They have to use them - to exhaustion. So if they take the time to talk to a coach or a player or a fan, then they're damn sure going to use it. But do you realize that some of the greatest sportswriters in history - Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice - quoted almost nobody? They said what they felt, knowing they could say it better, funnier, and pithier than any lummox in shoulder pads.
What good is it to quote five people saying Bubba is fast when you can say it by yourself with just, "Bubba is faster than rent money"?
Check out the way Dan Neil sums up a night of demolition derby in his hilarious "Big Night in Bithlo" from Car and Driver:
"As the last toxic fumes from the jet-car bus burning waft over the crowd, the armadillos poke their heads out from their burrows, and the crowd heads toward their pickup trucks, this edition of Crash-O-Rama seems an unqualified success, and by that I mean a complete disaster."
Not a quote in sight.
4. It Sucks Before You Start.
You wrote a piece that sucked. The reason it sucked is not the way you wrote it. It's that when you finally sat down to write it, you didn't have any good stuff. Unless you're Dave Barry or Dan Jenkins or David Copperfield, you're not going to make Pulitzers out of puke.
Sports Illustrated's Gary Smith, the I. M. Pei of profilers, has a rule. He's not done researching a subject until he's interviewed at least fifty people. That's why he only does four a year. And that's also why those four are often the most unforgettable of the year. They are meticulous in their depth of reporting, nearly preposterous. And yet he throws around quotes the way Don Rickles threw around compliments. He prods and searches and hunts until he knows a story so well he can tell it himself, in his own crisp, penetrating prose.
It's not a hunt for detail. It's the hunt for the right detail. The Philadelphia Daily News's Mark Kram, Jr., in his "Joe's Gift," describes how a boy put up a wall between himself and his grief at the drowning death of his older brother, Harry:
"He began to systematically erase Harry from the premises: he sold his bicycle, gave away his books, beanbag chair, and other belongings, and set fire to his clothes."
That is great reporting. You come up with stuff like that, you can't help but write well.
(One other thing. The Washington Post's Michael Leahy, who was given the Michael Jordan beat in 2001, is known as a very accurate reporter. In "Transition Game" he describes a scene in the locker room just before Jordan's first comeback game in a Washington Wizard uniform:
"Another writer, who had predicted his comeback amid much disdain, sidled up, patted his arm, and said, `I didn't get any apology letters.'"
"`Don't expect any either,' Jordan said, unwilling to give this man a morsel tonight either. `You ought to know that.'"
I know that's accurate. I was the writer he was writing about.)
5. The Interview Never Ends.
This is just a quickie, but so many writers shut down their ears when the formal interview ends. Don't. Keep your eyes and ears open and the invisible ink flowing even after the subject shakes your hand and says goodbye. Follow him out. Watch him drive off. You never know what might happen.
When I was covering golf for Sports Illustrated, I invented "trunking," which means following the winner from the eighteenth green, through his press conference, through his winner's dinner, through whatever happens, out to the parking lot, until he puts his clubs in the trunk, slams it, and tells you to get lost. I got more good stuff doing that, and SI golf reporters still do it. In fact, that's how SI managed to quote Vijay Singh winning the 2000 Masters, going out to the parking lot, slamming the trunk, and declaring: "This place can kiss my black ass!"
6. Forget Cereal Boxes.
We all get in ruts, where we believe the only sports worth writing about are the big four: baseball, football, basketball, and hockey - the basic stuff that shows up on the Wheaties box.
But more often than not, the best dramas, funniest scenes, most interesting characters, are places where we forget to go. One look through this book will tell you that. There's a compelling story about bullfighting, a fascinating profile of a blind mountain climber, and an eye-gouging look at backyard wrestling.
Sometimes you might even find a great sports writing story when you look at ... sports writing. Or haven't you read Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke's "Her Blue Haven"?
7. Death to Overwriting!
The quickest freeway to Bushdom, Hackville, Crap City, is to overwrite. Don't.
Just ... don't.
When President Kennedy died, Jimmy Breslin interviewed the gravedigger. That's underwriting. That's poignancy. That says more than a thousand overwrought paragraphs about "the nation's heavy-hearted grief." When Frank Deford came to the key moment in his classic profile of "The Toughest Coach Who Ever Lived" back in the 1980s, he did it like a knife going through left-out margarine:
"[Coach] chatted with [his daughter] and told her how much he missed and loved her, and then he handed the phone to Virginia and went to finish dressing for the Lions Club meeting. In the bathroom, Bull Cyclone had just slapped some cologne on his face when he dropped dead without a sound."
You can't be graver than death, louder than bombs, more Catholic than the pope. So don't try. Go the other way.
8. Adjectives and Adverbs Sorta Suck, Really.
If I can avoid using an adjective, I will. If I can avoid writing, "He was a lucky sort of guy," and write instead, "He was the kind of guy who could drop a quarter in a pay phone and have it pay 20 to 1," then I've not only made it fun for me and the guy in the Barcalounger in Peoria, but I stand a good chance of not being fired for the week.
When ESPN Magazine's Gene Wojciechowski, as pure a writer as is working today, wants to show that the late Al McGuire was "trusting," he notes that McGuire would throw his car keys on the seat of his unlocked car. When he wants to show he was "quirky," he remembers how McGuire would shop in the oddest places for tin toy soldiers. For "rebellious" he quotes McGuire himself, saying, "I only comb my hair if there are four people in the room, and if there are four people, I'm getting paid." But not once does Wojciechowski write, "Al McGuire was a trusting, quirky, rebellious sort of a guy." And aren't you glad?
And don't even talk to me about adverbs. I hate adverbs. I would rather be coated in chicken drippings and dropped in a leopard den than use adverbs. If you can't find a better way to say "hungrily" or "proudly," you need to find a new line of work, preferably nowhere near words.
9. Look Around, Stupid.
Not to be insulting, but sometimes the best stuff is right in front of us. The only trick is seeing it. When Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi attended Dale Earnhart's funeral, he did something odd. He didn't write about Earnhart. Or Earnhart's family. Or Earnhart's legacy. He wrote about the other drivers sitting in the church that day, staring into a box they knew could contain them next week.
One time the writer John McNulty was profiling sensational Triple Crown winner Native Dancer, owned by the glamorous Vanderbilts. And McNulty pulled off one of the most delicious Look Arounds I've ever read. In fact, he closed his piece with it:
"As Native Dancer passed each stall where a Vanderbilt horse was being groomed, work stopped for a few moments. `There he go,' one groom said, pausing to work on his horse, and it was nice to hear him say, `You a good horse, too.'"
10. Ignore All Rules.
After all, you probably have real talent and will end up making Hemingway look like a guy who writes owner's manuals for Japanese televisions and will show up someday and take my job.
And I refuse to go back to the jackhammer refueling industry.
Excerpted from The Best AMERICAN SPORTS WRITING 2002 Copyright © 2002 by Houghton Mifflin Company
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|Her Blue Haven from The Los Angeles Times||1|
|Almost a Hero from Sports Illustrated||10|
|The Cuban Ali from The Washington Post Magazine||23|
|Backyard Bloodbath from New Times Broward-Palm Beach||39|
|"Please Let Me Die" from The Dallas Morning News||58|
|A Name on the Wall from Sports Illustrated||77|
|Joe's Gift from The Philadelphia Daily News||93|
|Blind to Failure from Time||106|
|Transition Game from The Washington Post||116|
|Recalling Brother's Bravest Hour from The New York Daily News||124|
|Nightmare Is Real for Mourners from The Orlando Sentinel||128|
|Last Call from ESPN.com||130|
|Seeing the Light from The Denver Post||133|
|Making Their Points from The Chicago Sun-Times||138|
|No Angst in All-Star Ichiro from The Seattle Post-Intelligencer||141|
|Don't Go All Rasheed About This from The San Francisco Chronicle||146|
|We All Have Some Inner Daly, but Most of Us Suppress It from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution||149|
|Cold Comfort from Sports Illustrated||151|
|Big Night in Bithlo from Car and Driver||154|
|Detour from ESPN: The Magazine||159|
|Flesh and Blood from GQ||169|
|Higher Education from Sports Illustrated||182|
|Near Death in the Afternoon from GQ||203|
|Blood Sport from Baltimore City Paper||219|
|"It's Gonna Suck to Be You" from Outside||223|
|The Killing of Alydar from Texas Monthly||237|
|Giants' 1951 Comeback Wasn't All It Seemed from The Wall Street Journal||259|
|The Enlightened Man from Esquire||271|
|Notable Sports Writing of 2001||291|
Posted September 4, 2003
Posted November 18, 2002
Every sport has a story that transcends the field. Any boy who grew up in Minnesota will read "Cold Comfort" again and again. A truly wonderful collection of inspirational stories. Sports really can change hearts.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.