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Road Swing: One Fan's Journey into the Soul of American Sports

Road Swing: One Fan's Journey into the Soul of American Sports

by Steve Rushin

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In this alternately hilarious and insightful account, named a Best Book of 1998 by Publishers Weekly, Sports Illustrated writer Steve Rushin uses the lens of sports to come to a deeper understanding of America.

On the eve of his thirtieth birthday, Steve Rushin decided to revisit the twin pursuits of his youth: epic car trips and an unhealthy obsession


In this alternately hilarious and insightful account, named a Best Book of 1998 by Publishers Weekly, Sports Illustrated writer Steve Rushin uses the lens of sports to come to a deeper understanding of America.

On the eve of his thirtieth birthday, Steve Rushin decided to revisit the twin pursuits of his youth: epic car trips and an unhealthy obsession with sports. So he jumped into his fully alarmed Japanese S.U.V. and drove to American sports shrines for a year, everywhere from Larry Bird's boyhood home in French Lick, Indiana, to the cornfield just outside of Dyersville, Iowa, where Field of Dreams was filmed. Now in paperback, Road Swing is the story of his journey.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"There are places that many sports fans have heard about. But to visit them with Rushin riding shotgun, pointing out the odd detail with a nudge of the elbow, is a real delight." --USA Today

"A home run." --Maxim

"Insightful and hilarious...postcard perfect." --The San Diego Union-Tribune

"A riotous read...Sports fans should be grateful for a guy like Steve Rushin--not only does he make a hell of a tour guide, but he also does all the driving." --Esquire

"Both hilarious and resonant, a road trip memorable as much for its unlikely detours and pit stops as for what it reveals about America's obsession with sports." --

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
You don't have to like sports to appreciate this sidesplitting travelogue, a literary home run from Sports Illustrated's senior writer and one of the most agile essayists around. Laugh your way across America with Rushin as he follows the "perforated yellow line of the highway, like a trail of dripping nacho `cheez,' " feeding his own inner bleacher-creature while seeking out the people, places and events that define American sports and culture. Rushin is amazingly adept at wandering aimlessly without losing direction. In Austin, Minn., home of Hormel Foods, he observes, "A can of Dinty Moore beef stew... is roughly the same size and weight as a shotput, if not nearly as flavorful," and discovers to his disappointment that he's a week late for the "Spam Walk for Health." In Cleveland, Ohio, he talks to a man named Cleveland Brown about the departure of the football team with the same name. At a monster truck rally in St. Louis, Rushin affectionately compares the sound of big trucks driving over small cars to "the sound a beer can makes when collapsing against one's forehead." Rushin makes a more poignant, though no less droll, comparison at the desolate, garbage-strewn roadside tomb of "the world's greatest athlete," Jim Thorpe, in the Pennsylvania town that bought the Native American's corpse as a tourist attraction: "I couldn't stop thinking of the seventies public-service commercial in which the old Indian sheds a single tear at the sight of litter." Rushin scores a hat trick with his self-deprecating humor, eye for detail and ability to connect intimately with the reader. And read this book if for nothing else than the descriptions of motels ("La Quinta being Spanish for `next to Denny's' "). (Nov.)
Library Journal
Maybe it's the vastness of the land, or maybe it's the diversity of elements from which we as a country are quilted together, but observers from Kerouac to Kuralt have felt the need to hit the open road and go in search of America. Here Rushin, a writer for Sports Illustrated, combines this penchant with another national obsession--sports--to offer an account of his nearly 24,000-mile odyssey to American sports shrines large and small. Rushin visits Iowa's Field of Dreams; Cooperstown's Baseball Hall of Fame; Indiana's French Lick, where Larry Bird grew up; and Las Vegas, where he narrowly misses the opening of the All-Star Cafe and its display of Andre Agassi's severed ponytail, describing everything with droll good humor. A fun read, this is recommended for all public libraries.--Jim G. Burns, Ottumwa P.L., IA
Jonathan Begg
This is a work of a young enthusiast, too impatient to grind and polish, but able to compensate with abounding energy and an engaging charm.
Times Literary Supplement
People Magazine
...[A] laugh-a-mile journey...
Kirkus Reviews
It is unfortunate that Rushin's often sophomoric sense of humor intrudes on an otherwise engaging and astutely observed odyssey of the rich variety of American sports, major and minor. A Sports Illustrated staffer for 10 years, Rushin covered 23,000 miles "to revisit the twin pursuits of my youth: epic car trips and unhealthy obsession with sports." On his trip, grazing at the "endless salad bar of American sports," he caught everything from amateur softball games and 9-ball tournaments to the NBA playoffs. He included numerous "local shrines," such as Larry Bird's hometown of French Lick, Ind., the field used in Dyersville, Iowa, for the movie "Field of Dreams", and the town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.

At a Chicago Bears training camp, "a whiff of the Porta Potties" sets off a Proustian wave of nostalgia for high school football games, though he is seriously moved by the tears of Lou Groza and the anger of Dante Lavelli, veterans of the glory days of the dearly departed Cleveland Browns. As Rushin's tour progresses, he visits the obvious: baseball's Hall of Fame, Augusta National Golf Club, the Talladega National Raceway, Churchill Downs, the Houston Astrodome, and Dodger Stadium (though primarily for the hot dogs). But he also hits the not-so-obvious: St. Louis, where the Anheuser-Busch brewery and the Bowling Hall of Fame "stand as twin monarchs to keggers and keglers"; the Mildred (Babe) Didrickson Zaharias Museum in Beaumont, Tex., and the Louisville Slugger plant, which is actually located In Indiana. All of this is great fun, and Rushin can be a sharp, sometimes quirky tour guide, e.g., his side trip to Las Vegas to view Andre Agassi's ponytail on display ina restaurant.

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

"Working press'?'' a Pittsburgh Pirate once said to me with a sneer.

""That's sorta like "jumbo shrimp.'''

""My favorite oxymoron is "guest host,''' I replied chummily.

""You know, like they used to have on The Tonight Show?'' But he didn't know. And he didn't care. In fact, he thought I was calling him a moron, so he calmly alit from his clubhouse stool and chloroformed me with his game socks.

But I see his point. My life's work is not work. Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight likes to say of sportswriters: ""Most of us learn to write by the second grade, then move on to bigger things.'' Most of us stop throwing chairs and calling ourselves Bobby by the second grade, too -but I see his point.

As a writer on the staff of Sports Illustrated, my day job hasn't changed since I was eight. I was raised in a house with mint-green aluminum siding and spent my days watching ballgames in our wood-paneled den. My father loved wood paneling and even had it installed on the exterior of his station wagon. He'd have preferred mint-green aluminum siding, but it wasn't available on the '74 Ford Country Squire.

Pity, because the Country Squire looked like the crate it was shipped in. It was not so much a motor vehicle as an oak coffin with a luggage rack, proof that you really can take it with you. Every summer vacation our family of seven vacuum-packed ourselves into it, then raced across the country as if through one continuous yellow light, pausing only long enough to attend some big-league baseball game-in Houston or Anaheim or Cincinnati-before hauling ass back home. The destination didn't matter. The important thing was that for nine innings once every August, Dad forgot the Kafkaesque problems of his suburban existence. Namely, that his house was rusting. And his car had termites.

It all seems so long ago. My brothers and sister grew up and gotjobs. I grew up and became a sportswriter, though it hardly seems like a grown-up pursuit. The naked manager of the California Angels once threw his double-knit uniform pants at me in anger, something that happens all the time to baseball writers, which may explain why we're so comfortable wearing polyester. Whereas a similar burst of pantsfire across a conference table at IBM would no doubt be considered inappropriate, especially when the trousers in question were mottled with moist tobacco stains. (Please, God, tell me they were tobacco stains.)

It is hard to believe now, but the heroes of my youth were all as smooth and wholesome as Skippy peanut butter. This surely owes something to the fact that I never saw them naked, that I knew almost nothing whatsoever about them. I loved a Minnesota Twins catcher named George Mitterwald, but only because I loved the name George Mitterwald. Beyond that, I was faintly aware that his middle name was Eugene and he lived in Orlando. Or that his middle name was Orlando and he lived in Eugene. And that the Fun Fact on the back of his 1974 Topps baseball card said: ""George likes to take home movies.'' If George liked to take anything else[cad124]fistfuls of amphetamines, long walks in women's clothing-I was blissfully unaware of it.

For some years now, I have wanted to return to that state of blissful oblivion, preferably without a prescription. Which brings us to the book that you now hold in your hands. It is an effort to revisit the twin pursuits of my youth: epic car trips and an unhealthy obsession with sports, usually combined. I wanted to get into my fully alarmed Japanese car and drive to American sports shrines for a year, or until I became fully alarmed myself. The idea was to write a kind of sports-addled Blue Highways. Only bluer, locker rooms being what they are.

The root of this road trip, the genesis of my exodus, lay in Norway. Two weeks into the '94 Winter Olympics, I found myself in a frigid Lillehammer parking lot with a mob of other unlaundered scribes, violently clamoring for complimentary underpants being thrown from the back of a Hanes truck. We lunged desperately at each promotional three-pack like bridesmaids at a bouquet. There wasn't time to indulge size or style preferences: If a packet went skittering across the icy pavement, we tore after it and then into it, hyenas on the veldt.

It was all very sad. I retired to my dimly lit dorm room that evening, dined on reindeer jerky, and passed the balance of the night quietly chafing in mesh briefs three sizes too abbreviated. In hours such as this, a man is given to sober self-reflection. My life, it occurred to me, lacked a certain gravitas.

The very next evening came the women's figure-skating final. I attended the event simply as a spectator, and my ticket seated me, serendipitously, next to an elfin gentleman who introduced himself as Al Harding. He was a kindly and gregarious factory worker from Portland, Oregon, and none of us sitting near Al seemed to mind that his Olympian daughter, Tonya, had been accused very recently of the contract kneecapping of a rival skater. On the contrary, Al became fast friends with all of us, including a ten-year-old boy from Atlanta who gave Mr. Harding a pin bearing the likeness of Whatizit, a.k.a. Izzy, the cartoon mascot of the '96 Summer Olympics.

""What is it?'' Al asked, examining the pin.

""Whatizit,'' replied the boy, ""What is it?''




""Who's he?''


""Izzy, is he?'' Al finally responded in a moment of relative clarity. ""Well, I'll have to wear Izzy when I go to Izzy's: That's the name of my favorite restaurant in Portland.'' Al pinned Izzy to his parka like a prom night boutonniere, then leaned in toward the boy as if to share a confidence. ""You know,'' Al stage-whispered, ""Izzy's has fifty-seven different compartments in its salad bar.''

Well. Where to begin? It struck me at once that I had never heard a more eloquent statement of American culutral values (compartments in a salad bar being my homeland's equivalent of stars in a Michelin guide); that I had never been to Portland or indeed to an Izzy's (a chain of pizzerias in the Pacific Northwest); that it had been years since I had attended an athletic event as a spectator (and I genuinely missed the cut-and-thrust of cheap-seat conversation; the trough-style urinal is our modern-day town hall); and that I had never, until that very moment, witnessed a figure-skating match? Meet? Pageant?

It was a revelation. Entering the arena that night, fans were confronted by a sign filled with pictograms depicting the myriad items prohibited inside. Among these were the standard knives and bottles and cartoon bombs, to be sure, each one circled with a slash through it. But there was something else, too, circled and slashed: the silhouette of a toy poodle. This was the first sporting event I had ever attended, in a lifetime of attending sporting events, whose organizers felt it necessary to tell fans: No poodles.

Once inside I saw why, of course. The crowd was liver-spotted with ladies wearing floor-length furs and G-force facelifts. No doubt each had checked a dog at the door, dogs that looked like fright-wigged woodchucks, if woodchucks wore cable-knit sweaters.

All of which is to say that, in a hockey arena five thousand miles from home, I'd had a series of small epiphanies. The red lamp was lit above my own goal. After a decade devoted to sports and travel-everything I have ever covered has been an away game; my entire adult life has been what announcers call ""an extended road swing''-I hadn't seen as much of the world, or of the world of sports, as I had smugly assumed.

Shortly after returning from Norway, I resolved to look again at my country by grazing at the endless salad bar of American sports: from the garbanzo beans of celebrity softball to the leafy lettuce of NBA basketball.

I had a sudden desire to visit the boyhood home of Larry Bird in French Lick, Indiana, and to buy Topps bubble-gum cards and to attend a high school football game and to hang out with pool hustlers and to watch Louisville Sluggers being ""Powerized''-whatever on Earth that means. I wanted to put my finger to the pulse of American sport, and I wanted that finger to be one of those giant foam rubber index fingers worn by pinheaded fans across the land.

In short, I resolved to hit the road and to cover it all -cover it like- well, like the capacious salad bar sneeze guard at Izzy's pizza restaurant in Portland, Oregon.

Fear not. I had no interest in ""rediscovering America,'' which travelers and travel writers have been doing at least since the time of Columbus, who rediscovered the New World half a millennium after the Vikings arrived. At the same time, I have no doubt that one can, through the keyhole of sports, see into an entire culture, even one as far-flung and diverse as American culture. ("""American culture,''' you say. ""That's sorta like "jumbo shrimp.''')

Meet the Author

As Senior Writer for Sports Illustrated, Steve Rushin has written dozens of articles, including the centerpiece for the magazine's fortieth anniversary issue. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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