Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing 1998”

“The Best American Sports Writing 1998,” edited by Bill Littlefield

When I saw that Bill Littlefield had edited The Best American Sports Writing 1998, I became very excited. This is the guy who created Only a Game, which consistently pushes the medium of sports radio to unparalleled levels.

While Littlefield’s abilities as an on-air personality and radio journalist are top-notch, his editing talents unfortunately don’t quite measure up.

Of the eight BASW volumes I’ve now read, BASW 1998 has by far been the weakest. So let’s review it.

Few Diamonds, Lots of Rough

One of the only stories to appear in both an annual BASW volume and The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, J.R. Moehringer’s “Resurrecting the Champ” is easily the best story in BASW 1998. Part family drama, part mystery, part boxing story, it touches on subjects as wide-ranging as the sad reality of many ex-boxers’ lives, how deep the sport’s corruption runs, and even the ways in which a reporter and his subject subtly change each other.

It’s a sad, poignant, suspenseful story that absolutely deserved its spot in the 20th century anthology. As further evidence that the best sports writing is always boxing writing, David Remnick’s “Kid Dynamite Blows Up,” about the infamous Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield boxing match, is the second-best story in the volume.

Unfortunately, the majority of the other 24 stories in BASW 1998 don’t work, and for many different reasons. John Seabrook’s “Tackling the Competition,” for instance, doesn’t withstand the test of time because it’s about Sara Levinson – a woman who ran and then left the NFL’s branding department before a combination of Roger Goodell, concussions and Internet streaming forced the NFL to radically change its marketing strategies and render Seabrook’s essay irrelevant.

“The Hit King,” Scott Rabb’s fanboy love letter to Pete Rose, was written before the reality of Rose’s guilt became publicly known. Back then, Rose’s fans still believed he’d been given a raw deal by then-MLB commissioner Bartlett Giamatti, and Rabb comes disturbingly close to suggesting Giamatti deserved to die for screwing over Rabb’s hero.

Now, fans know better.

One story that doesn’t feel out of place is “Betrayal of Trust,” which deals with a sex scandal involving a male coach at a girls’ volleyball club in Chicago. The story seems so similar to the Penn State scandal that the reader is left thinking that such abuses of power, sadly, go back much farther in history than one college football team.

“Betrayal of Trust” is a solid piece, but it’s followed by Steve Marantz’s “A Man’s Appreciation for Women Athletes.” I’d like to think Littlefield placed these two stories side-by-side intentionally, but when the first words following a story about alleged statutory rape are “Men love women athletes,” it’s hard to judge the story fairly. That Marantz spews out so many unresearched, cliched statements about both men and women only makes it worse.

In “Blonde and Sand,” Tony Hendra calls the female matador he’s writing about a “goddess-babe” (an expression with zero place in sports journalism) and says that when she bull-fights, he imagines himself as the bull trying to skewer her. In “Over the Hil, My Ass!” Rick Telander comes off as a narcissistic middle-aged whiner.

And then there’s “Bird-Watching as a Blood Sport.” Author David James Duncan never explains what he means by “blood sport”, instead assuming that all of his readers will inherently understand it. And Duncan doesn’t seem to do a lot of bird-watching – an activity defined by patience, observation and notation – but rather just runs into birds from time to time.

The rest of this essay jumps haphazardly from Oregon’s beaches to Socrates’ Phaedrus (seriously) to a sphere made entirely of animal eyes (double-seriously). The result is a jumbled, nonsensical mess that leaves the reader completely baffled as to what Duncan was ever talking about.

So… much… golf

As Tiger Woods’ career basically began in 1997, BASW 1998 of course needed a few golf stories. And the first two are pretty good: David Finkel’s “Golf’s Saving Grace” shows an actual inner-city black kid inspired by Woods to take up golf, and Charlie Pierce’s “The Man. Amen” tears to shreds the PR myth that Woods’ success could magically redeem one of the most racist sports in human history.

But following two solid stories, Bruce McGall’s “The Case Against Golf” fails to make a clear case either for or against it. And though Thomas Korosec gives a fun glimpse into competitive Putt-Putt Golf in “Goofy Golf,” by that point in the volume it just feels like overkill.

Required reading for journalists?

There are several more solid stories in BASW 1998, including Tim Layden’s look at professional scalping and Tad Friend’s journey to the Basque to check out stone-lifting. David Ferrell goes inside the world of ultramarathons before they became fashionable.

And then there’s Elwood Reid’s “My Body, My Weapon, My Shame.” It’s a merciless, brutal perspective on college football that destroys every positive spin ever put on the sport or its players, and it does so with beautiful, stark, visceral descriptions.

Every sports reporter should read this essay because of this extremely high quality of writing. But at the same time, it’s almost impossible not to read this essay and then question whether the reporter, by writing about the sport, isn’t on some level feeding this monstrous system that turns men into beasts and then leaves them hollowed out and broken.

On the other hand, maybe its because of that concern that every reporter should read this essay.

As long as a journalist still asks that question, it means he or she still has a conscience.

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