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Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing 2002″

"The Best American Sports Writing 2002." Edited by Rick Reilly.

Is five weeks a long time to finish a 285-page book? I can never tell if I’m a slow reader or not. Anyway, that’s how long it took me to finish the 28 stories in “The Best American Sports Writing 2002.” So now here’s the review, after which I will read something that doesn’t start with an essay by series editor Glenn Stout (it will still be a sports book, of course).

The 2002 volume was edited by Rick Reilly, one of the true powerhouses of the sports journalism world. By 2002, he was a staple of Sports Illustrated and had already won National Sportswriter of the Year six times. Since then, Reilly has moved over to ESPN and won the award five more times. While some might not care for the lightness and humor of his writing, it’s impossible to deny his talent.

Reilly’s introductory essay carries his trademark levity, but more than that, it carries punch. Peter Gammons’s 2010 introduction has all the weightiness of a true historian of the game. David Maraniss’s 2007 essay loses itself midway, shifting from a diatribe against modern editing to a story about his father. Reilly’s introduction – 10 rules for being a good journalist – makes you laugh, but hidden among the jokes is the knowledge that these strategies work. Reilly is good as it gets, and if silliness is his way of explaining what makes him so good, I will gladly laugh and learn simultaneously.

But you all didn’t read this because you give a crap about the introduction. You want to hear about the stories. So let’s tell ‘em.

One of the Best All-Time, but Not the One Stout Thinks

In “The Best American Sports Writing 2010″, Stout said that if he were going to assemble The Very Best of the Best American Sports Writing, one of three stories included would be Bill Plashke’s “Her Blue Heaven,” about Plashke’s correspondence with a Dodgers blogger afflicted with severe cerebral palsy that types using a head-pointer.

The story is certainly well-written. But one of the best ever? Not so sure.

Here’s a question to consider: if you read a story about someone of regular physical ability who spends all day blogging about her favorite baseball team, but the writing is clunky and statistics-heavy, and only her mom reads her stuff, would you think that person is a hero? But because Sarah Morris has this horrible disease, it’s different? Aren’t we just admitting that we so lower our expectations of what a disabled person can do that when they do the things we do everyday (like blog), we’re astounded? Isn’t that just the least bit patronizing? Is this story about one woman’s “triumph over adversity,” or a sports writer coming to grips with his own cynicism?

Before you all start thinking I’m just a heartless jerk, allow me to try and off-set my incredulity. Gary Smith’s “Higher Education” was the first story possibly in my life whose ending made me cry. Literally. I straightened my back while finishing the story on the train, and I felt tears rolling down my face. The story is about an African-American Catholic who becomes the high-school basketball coach in a white, Mennonite town. The story begins like a Hollywood tale, with the coach’s arrival causing a racial backlash, which then fades after he starts winning. But Smith gives so much color to his description of the relationships formed between the coach and his players that the coach (whose name we only learn at the end is Perry Reese, Jr.) comes alive, becoming a person, not a caricature.

I won’t spoil the end completely, but it ends in tragedy. And Smith’s descriptions of the town after the tragedy occurs are so vivid, so resonant, that I started to bawl along with the townfolk. This story is about sport actually changing a town. It’s rare that reality can match fiction in making a point about life, but “Higher Education” does. This story could be in the “Best of the Very Best.”

A New Look at Familiar Faces

Two essays in the 2002 volume found new angles in well-told stories, and they should be commended. Frank Deford’s “Almost a Hero” takes a new look at German boxing star and Nazi supporter Max Schmeling. The story uniquely presents the two Schmeling-Joe Louis fights as the best thing that could happen to the losing boxer. Schmeling beating Louis in June 1936 shook Louis out of a lackadaisical training regimen that was holding him back from true greatness. Louis soundly beating Schmeling in June 1938 kept Schmeling from becoming a permanent symbol of Aryan dominance, forever unwelcome anywhere but Germany. Deford even suggests the two boxers knew that they’d saved each others careers, which might explain why they became such good friends after their careers were over. Deford made a Nazi seem like a decent human being in my eyes. If that’s not a sign of talent, I don’t know what is.

Joshua Harris Prager’s “Giants’ 1951 Comeback Wasn’t All It Seemed” tears to shreds one of the great moments in sports history. Though rumors of sign-stealing had circulated ever since Bobby Thompson hit the most famous home run in history, no one had ever admitted to it. Prager’s account of that game (and season) is the first with multiple corroborating testimonies to prove the New York Giants were stealing signs. That the man who set up the elaborate theft system was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan makes it kind of tragic. But if you’re from Boston, and hate everything related to New York athletics, seeing the crowning moment in Crown Heights history destroyed can’t help but make you laugh.

A Bad Decision, At Best

The final essay in the 2002 volume is Jeanne Marie Laskas’s “The Enlightened Man.” It’s supposed to be an interview with former Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Korey Stringer … I think. What it is definitely is a rambling, incoherent, semi-stream-of-conscious jumble of run-ons and made-up words (“Philisophicalness?” Seriously?). Somewhere hidden in it is a thought about the turning point in every brash young NFL player’s mental approach, but it’s lost amidst words that, no matter what Maraniss might say otherwise, desperately needed editing.

Laskas’s poor writing choice and odd story title suggest one of two things about her. Problem is, neither of them are good. If Laskas thought that Stringer’s words were so deep and meaningful that she should just transmit them without a single “um” or “like” removed, she’s an idiot. But if this is all a sarcastic jab at a man who thinks he’s really deep but in reality is just a big fat doofus, then she’s even worse than an idiot: she’s  disrespectful. You don’t mock your interviewees, you don’t patronize them, you don’t make fun of them. And you especially don’t do it in print. If that isn’t a cardinal rule of journalism, it ought to be, and those who don’t take their subjects seriously (unless they don’t want to be taken seriously) aren’t worth the paper their words are printed on.

Overall, this Volume is Pretty Darn Good!

For the most part, this is the most solid of the three volumes I’ve reviewed. Well-paced, each essay is different enough in tone from the ones around it that there isn’t any emotional carry-over, making each article a unique reading experience. Only one real dud. Some of these stories are pretty cool; after reading about a blind man who hiked Mount Everest or ultra-marathoners in Colorado, you find yourself asking, “jeez, what did I do today?” Others are pretty provocative, from the visceral stupidity of the adolescent extreme wrestlers in “Backyard Bloodbath” to the abject sadness of the distance runner suffering from anorexia in “‘Please Let Me Die.’” But this volume will run you through the full gamut of human emotion, and you’ll be happy for the journey.

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