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Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing 2005″

'The Best American Sports Writing 2005,' edited by Mike Lupica

It’s been almost six months since I reviewed a volume of Glenn Stout’s “Best American Sports Writing” series. I’d say we’re due. So here’s 2005.

A Timely Work

More than any volume I’ve read so far, the 2005 edition closely connects its content with major sports stories of 2004. After that year’s Super Bowl and Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfuntion” ends live sports broadcasts as we know it, Richard Sandomir responds with a column (“Five-Second Delay Can’t Mute Old Voice”) written in the voice of legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell. There’s a second (not as good) Cosell story beforehand that sets up Sandomir’s, integrating enough actual Cosell quotes that you can appreciate how good Sandomir’s imitation is.

Eli Manning was drafted in 2005, so Michael Lewis writes “The Eli Experiment.” It’s not his best work, but it reads clearly in Lewis’ voice.

This edition also contains the best hard-news sports story I’ve ever read. Steve Coll’s “Barrage of Bullets Drowned Out Cries of Comrades” tells the full story of the death of Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman. Coll covers every mistake that led to Tillman’s death from friendly fire in Afghanistan, from the bad marching orders that split his troop to the over-excited soldiers who broke engagement protocols and couldn’t stop shooting. It’s a sad story, but it’s a complete story devoid entirely of bias.

But what would a volume about 2004 be without something about the Red Sox? Well, volume editor Mike Lupica writes in his introduction how the 2004 ALCS gave him and his fellow sports writers a chance to be part of one of the great moments in sports history. But actual stories about the Red Sox ending their 86-year drought don’t arrive until the end. In the meanwhile, the only stories even based in Massachusetts are John Brant’s “A Duel in the Sun,” about the 1982 Boston Marathon and its two best runners, and Michael Bamberger’s “The Pride of Peabody,” a sad story of Jeff Allison, a minor league pitcher once considered of the top high school prospects in the country before an addiction to Oxycontin nearly ruined his life.

When the Red Sox arrive however, it’s with a bang. Tom Verducci’s “Sportsmen of the Year” is an expansive, sweeping look at the entirety of Red Sox Nation. Verducci barely talks about the Red Sox at all, instead relaying story after story of the different kinds of Red Sox fans in New England. There’s a story of a man juggling watching Game 4 and watching his wife give birth. There’s a story of an old man essentially refusing to die until the World Series ends. There’s a story of a widow finding joy in life again after her husband, a true Red Sox fan, died. And interspersed with each story are fan letters doing everything from asking Red Sox to visit an elderly home to apologizing for ever criticizing the team. That Verducci sums up so much of Red Sox fandom in 17 pages is commendable.

The second Red Sox story is Bill Reynolds’ “Spectacular – but Sad,” about a trip to an autograph event soon after the Red Sox won. Reynolds’ article criticizes the Red Sox for gouging additional money from a fanbase that already pays through the teeth to come to Fenway Park. It’s an attack against the blatant commercialism and exploitation with which Red Sox ownership approached that championship (perhaps no more so than with the team’s appearance on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”), and kudos to Reynolds for having the guts to write what needed to be said.

Schmaltz vs. Reality

A Boston University professor of mine once said that to win a sports journalism award, all you have to do is write about “sick kids or dead coaches.” Bad sports writing can easily become cliched, Hollywood-esque schmaltz, and unfortunately the first of this volume’s 29 stories – Gary Smith’s “Running for their Lives” – falls into that category. Smith writes about a powerhouse cross-country team in California where a white coach teaches a group of poor Latino children how to run and supposedly changes their lives forever. It’s a sweet story, but it lacks both timeliness (neither of the two seasons Smith writes about were among the coach’s nine championship seasons) and satisfaction (there’s never any indication that any of his runners did anything with their lives after).

A far more emotionally resonant story is Sean Flynn’s “The Memorial.” Flynn writes about an annual golf game he and his old college friends play in honor of a friend of theirs who died from suicide while they were in school together. More than the game itself, however, Flynn writes how the event keeps these friends together even as geographically they move apart. Without the game, these four would undoubtedly have stopped being in each other’s lives, growing more distant until they’re friends in name only.

With the golf game, however, they remain together years after graduation. The changing nature of old friendships is something we can all relate to. Flynn captures it perfectly.

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