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It’s been over six months since I last reviewed a volume of Glenn Stout’s Best American Sports Writing. Sure, I might have spent the interim 195 days reviewing other stuff, but there’s nothing I enjoy more than curling up with the cream of some year’s sports-writing crop, relaxing as I read about some random sport’s random athlete that I’ve never…. hang on.
Did that dude just say he was gonna chop someone’s head off with a machete?
Here’s The Best American Sports Writing 2004, edited by Pulitzer prize-winner Richard Ben Cramer.
Every so often a true game-changer enters a sport — an athlete so talented that he or she evolves his or her sport, leaving it forever changed.
Babe Ruth was such a player. Michael Jordan was such a player. And so was Mia Hamm, but because of soccer’s lack of popularity (especially women’s soccer), I’ve never known much about Hamm the person — except of course that she was married to “Nomah.”
Gary Smith’s “The Secret Life of Mia Hamm” gives the full history of the most important women’s soccer player of all time. The reader really understands how Hamm’s upbringing in a family devoted to serving the needy created a player unable to say no to fans or the press but also unable to perceive herself as the marvel she truly was. It’s a fantastic story on one of sport’s true icons.
The majority of stories approach their subjects (no others as big as Hamm) with the same high level of care and craft we’ve come to expect from a BASW story. In Lynne Cox’s “Swimming to Antarctica,” Cox doesn’t skimp on the science, explaining how it’s even possible for Cox to swim constantly in near-freezing water. Joe Posnanski’s “Dusting Off Home,” meanwhile, uses great visuals and emotionally resonant comments from former MLB pitcher Tony Peña to show how in the Dominican Republic, choices basically come down to a life of poverty as a farmer or a life of riches as a baseball player.
And then there’s Michael Hall’s “Running for his Life,” about distance runner Gilbert Tuhabonye. Originally born in Burundi, the story recounts in horrific detail the night members of Burundi’s Hutu tribe locked Tuhabonye and some of his fellow Tutsi tribesmen in a classroom, set them on fire and hacked to death anyone who tried to escape. Tuhabonye and Hall’s visuals place you right in the classroom, burning and terrified, as Tuhabonye must have been.
I’m not sure I’ve ever read a BASW story more intensely or quickly. Desperate to reach the ending despite knowing Tuhabonye would survive, I simply couldn’t put the story down.
Susan Orlean’s “Lifelike” is about a national taxidermy convention and competition. Orlean starts the story by describing the bizarre group of people and exhibitions in almost Dr. Seuss-like cadence. But after that, as Orlean starts focusing on actual taxidermists she meets, the story starts to drag. It might’ve worked better as a quasi-recap, a play-by-play that would’ve given Orlean a chance to use more of her other-worldly scene-setting BILITY.
Andy Meisler’s “The Fright Stuff,” on the other hand, makes two structural errors. A story on national air races, Meisler begins with a deadly crash. That’s a classic way to draw in the reader, and Meisler executes it well enough, but the story never returns to that scene after the initial paragraphs.
Instead, Meisler starts talking about other races AND racers, using so much technical jargon that the reader simply gets lost, wondering “what happened with the dead guy?” Meisler needed to either write a different lead or return to it throughout the story, and he needed to seriously scale back the airplane terminology.
There are also a few stories that fall under into the “dead coaches and sick kids” category — that over-saccharine style of writing that dramatizes everything, trying to play to the reader’s sense of nostalgia instead of his or her intellect and/or passion for athletics. Ira Berkow’s “An Unconventional Tradition of Success,” Mitch Albom’s “Trying to Find Yourself in the Toughest Times,” AND Joan Ryan’s “Galarraga Steals Base, Stops Time” all fall into this category, though that’s nothing out of the ordinary for Albom.
Rick Telander’s “Playing Against the Clock,” however, doesn’t fall into this category. A series of sports-related vignettes in Telander’s family life — his daughters’ swimming, his son’s youth football, his recreational softball — the sentiments feel honest, genuine.
Telander doesn’t blow the significance of these moments out of proportion, but the reader comes away understanding just how important they are to the narrator. And as a writer, that’s all you can ever ask for.