Running into the Sun

The  Best American Sports Writing 2015
Wright Thompson, Guest Editor; Glenn Stout Series Editor

Best_Sports_15Cutting corners. It’s what we do to survive.

And yet I have a suspicion that doing so doesn’t sit easily with many of us. In my own case, blessed with the near-eidetic ability to recall every flub and deliberate act of incompleteness, it’s a glued-on hairshirt. Others, I  hope, have saner ways of coping.

Perhaps that explains the general  fascination with sports. I have said before that I have a complete inability to immerse myself in the male rituals built around sport. I have struggled to understand them and every year or so I rejigger my latest working theory. But I get no closer.

Until now. Because it occurs to me that one of the attractions of athleticism at the highest levels is that to achieve it you can’t cut corners. Maybe sports serves to remind us of what we can achieve when we set out to transcend limits. Or maybe the last paragraph and a half is just a bunch of codswallop.

madux

Greg Maddux
The only pitcher in MLB history to win at least 15 games for 17 straight seasons

Back to cheating. The way I cheat on sports is reading these annuals. They are usually a year or so behind which gives me some contemporary reference points for listening to yesterday’s scores on the morning news. As cheats go, though, it’s not always that helpful.

The series editor, Glenn Stout, points out nearly every year that the word sports in the title is an adjective, that the noun sportswriting is too narrow for what good writing about sports can encompass. Sometimes, like the hand of the guest editor, that’s more apparent than others.

This year, the presence of that guest editor smacks you in the face. I don’t know much more about Wright Thompson than I’ve learned from the bio on the back cover and from his introductory essay. If I’ve calculated correctly he’s right around 40, the age where the eternal promise of youth has to start confronting the reality of limits. How else can you account for the dark tone of this collection?

Jerry JonesOwner of the Dallas Cowboys. Even I know who this clown is.

Jerry Jones
Owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Even I know who this clown is.

I’ve seen enough sports–professional and super-high level amateur–to know that timelessness is part of the appeal. We age, the teams and Olympians are forever in their prime. So what should we make of it when sports serves as a way of confronting the dark side of life rather than celebrating the light side? I’m not smart enough to answer that question but if you read this volume you’ll certainly have a lot to chew on.

Let’s take a look. Jeremy Collins, in a piece ostensibly about baseball great Greg Maddux (the Hall of Famer himself makes an off-field appearance in the story), shares not just his love of baseball, but how that shared love in his childhood was inextricably tied to the death of his best friend. What a burden to carry for the rest of your life.

Or consider some of the ‘winners’ profiled. Gordy Gronkowski, the father of what were at one time three NFL-playing brothers, runs his business and lives, alone, in an oversized house built to raise his brood. The loneliness oozes off the page. Or how about Fred Hatfield? Maybe only readers of Strength & Health or WWE fans know who he is. But in Rick Bass’ amazing profile (it is truly a fine piece of writing) this super powerlifter turned corporate executive (“I don’t have very much corporate acumen” is a refrain) feels overlooked for the science and math he applied to being able to squat with more than a thousand pounds on his shoulders.

Y.A. (Yelberton Abraham) Tittle In defeat at the top his game. I grew up in a house where YA and DOn Gifford were two thirds of the holy trinity.

Y.A. (Yelberton Abraham) Tittle
In defeat at the top his game. I grew up in a house where YA and Frank Gifford were two thirds of the holy trinity.

You think it can’t get any darker? Burkhard Bilger takes us a mile underground with a group of extreme cavers. I remember reading this piece when it originally appeared in The New Yorker and was struck again by the obsession (and the feeling of claustrophobia). Then there’s Y.A. Tittle, his dementia-seized mind trapped in a slow sensecence.

Chris Ballard weaves an improbable tale of a college basketball team so legendarily terrible that 30 years on they celebrate their, ahem, accomplishments. If there’s too much vainglory in much sports coverage, this story illuminated all that is best about team sports.

Wait, there’s more. Wells Tower takes us on an elephant hunt and it’s enough to make you consider joining PETA. (It might be easier to just be disgusted by over-privileged Texans, though.) Katie Baker uses the appearance of the Kansas City Royals in the World Series for the first time in decades to ruminate on what KC was, and what it has become. The Royals are barely a backdrop for this meditation on family and place. Stunning.

Diana Nyad coming ashore in Key West after swimmigng from HavanaI swim regularly and connot even begin ot fathom this trip.

Diana Nyad coming ashore in Key West after swimmigng from Havana
I swim regularly and connot even begin ot fathom this trip.

The larger than life profiles are here, too. Jerry Jones playing out who knows what psychodrama with America’s team.  In another fabulous New Yorker profile, this one by Ariel Levy, we see Diana Nyad, a hero of my youth, swimming, in her 60s,  110 miles across the Straits of Florida .  There’s even Chad Curtis, a success on the Yankees, doing time for molesting teenage girls.

If the point in these selections is that sports isn’t bigger than life or different from life but rather life itself then it’s a point well made.

I have a terribly sentimental streak. I’m quicker to tear up than I’d care to admit. Lately any number of things have been unexpectedly hitting me right in my own soft spot. Maybe that’ s where I am in my own life.

What I know, though, is that these selections were worth every minute I spent with them. And maybe more.

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