Friday, November 16, 2012

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2012

Michael Wilbon, Editor

It's always fun to see what the guest editors are thinking when the new edition of "The Best American Sports Writing" comes out. Do they like their stories traditional or off-beat? Do they have some unexpected choices, or do they prefer the traditional outlets? What adds to the fun is that the editors often don't have an idea what the source of the article is (I'm assuming they see a few of the possible choices along the way), so the process is almost subconscious.

Curiosity is heightened when someone like Michael Wilbon has the distinction of picking the entries in the annual series. We know Wilbon a little bit more than the others. After a long career in print journalism, including a lengthy tenure (31 years!) with the Washington Post, Wilbon jumped to working for ESPN. There he splits the hosting duties of "Pardon the Interruption" and does work on the network's NBA telecasts, among other responsibilities. We feel as if know him a bit through television.

A look at the contents page offers some obvious clues to Wilbon's intent. The stories come from Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, the New York Times, the Washington Post, etc. The only slightly outside-the-box source might be a story from Deadspin, a website that has its tabloid moments.

And then we read the book itself, and it's almost like watching Wade Boggs taking batting practice. Nothing but line drives, nothing but excellent stories - one after another.

As a subscriber to many of the outlets represented here, the first reaction to seeing them in the book is something like "well, of course that one is in here." Football in a troubled suburb of Pittsburgh. Marathon runner Frank Shorter goes public with stories of abuse by his father. The retirement of a uniform number at Williams years and years after the number was taken out of circulation for reasons that had been forgotten. The poisoning of some old trees in Alabama.

I remember reading a story on cricket in Indian in ESPN the Magazine, and marveling how well author Wright Thompson made that sport, which is an absolute puzzle to American audiences, come alive. He really helped the reader care about cricket, no small task. It's in here. And so is Taylor Branch's epic on the contradictions and problems in college athletes.

Wham, double to left. Whap, triple up the gap. Boom, the outfielder doesn't even have to look as it goes into the seats.

Then there are the new stories to this reader, always a highlight of this collection. "Punched Out: The Life and Death of Hockey Enforcer" obviously took a ton of time to research and write, and it shows. It's one of a few articles on the issue of head injuries in sports, a subject that was well-represented last year as well. We'll be hearing more about it in the years to come, too.

There's Allen Iverson in Turkey, Stephon Marbury in China. The Deadspin story is a profile of the late George Kimball, a legendary Boston sports writer. They don't make them like Kimball any more, and the story fits here in such a collection.

To stretch the baseball analogy to its breaking point, the only story that was something of a pop-up to the infield for me was one on soccer star Lionel Messi. The language on that one is used adroitly, but the description of Messi's particular skills were a bit technical and somewhat wasted on a casual soccer fan like me. It's probably more my fault that the author's.

"The Best American Sports Writing" series has been coming out since 1991. There's still no sign of slippage. Its arrival at the bookstores remains one of the best parts of autumn.

Five stars

Learn more about this book.

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