Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing 2013″

“The Best American Sports Writing 2013,” edited by J.R. Moehringer
“The Best American Sports Writing 2013,” edited by J.R. Moehringer

In the four months since I reviewed The Best American Sports Writing 2003, I spent most nights reading a collection of HP Lovecraft horror stories. And after slogging through some very, very slow-paced stories about monsters, I decided to return to non-fiction with The Best American Sports Writing 2013.

Finishing the volume in at most a month, BASW 2013 was a breath of fresh air to a mind altogether exhausted by stories of nameless horrors with names impossible to pronounce.

Here’s my review of BASW 2013, which had Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer as its editor.

Solid start to finish

Despite BASW volumes claiming to be the best sports stories written during the previous year, there’s usually at least one story in a volume that doesn’t work. The tone might be wrong, the subject might be boring, a point might not come through or an editorial choice or structural idea might be a bad one.

This volume has no such stories. Every story is well-written and well-paced. Every story has a clear and appropriate emotional tone, and every story has a point to make.

When you read Karen Russell’s “The Blind Faith of the One-Eyed Matador,” you feel the horror of a bullfighter who loses an eye (and most of the rest of his face) in a bullfight. When you read Jonathan Segura’s “The Game of His Life,” you feel the author’s slow transformation into a true soccer fan thanks to his alcoholic soccer-loving hooligan friend.

When you read Barry Bearak’s “Caballo Blanco’s Last Run,” you feel the freedom the titular character felt running through the desert, and you feel the loss his friends feel after discovering his dead body.

Erik Malinowski’s “The Making of ‘Homer at the Bat'” reminds us that “The Simpsons” was once considered — and succeeded at being — a dangerously subversive show in American pop culture. Burkhard Bilger’s “The Strongest Man in the World” is an in-depth look at a sport I’d never before thought of beyond highlights of men throwing kegs or towing firetrucks.

You feel something both during and after reading each story in BASW 2013. There are no bad stories.

Great stories, bad placements

A typical BASW volume usually touches on a wide range of sports. There are the big four of football, basketball, baseball and hockey, of course, but other sports discussed have included bullfighting, surfing, golf, running, cycling, boxing, swimming, skateboarding, even video games and chess.

BASW 2013 covers such a wide range of sports. Jason Schwartz’s “End Game” might be the definitive story on Curt Schilling’s failed “38 Studios” video game company, and Nicole Pasulka’s “Eddie is Gone” is a terrific feature on a central character in competitive surfing’s emergence out of Hawaii.

A lack of variety isn’t BASW 2013’s problem, but rather too many similar stories put back-to-back by Moehringer. There are four consecutive stories about running, and the feelings the characters feel when they run are so similar that they could almost run into each others’ stories.

There are five consecutive football stories, even if one is about NCAA athletes taking political stands, the second is about concussions and the third is about current Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer.

The fourth story, Paul Solotaroff’s “The NFL’s Secret Drug Problem,” warns that however the NFL eventually solves the concussion/post-concussive syndrome epidemic plaguing its current and former players, it won’t get much of a breather before it has to deal with the countless players who retire addicted to team-prescribed pain medication. The last one, Jeff MacGregor’s “Waiting for Goodell,” is a parody of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”

Having never read the play — I think it’s about futility? — I have no idea how clever MacGregor’s version is. But after five football stories in a row, the biggest exercise in futility might have been trying to draw a unique point from yet another story on the same sport.

The worst placement, however, comes in the back-to-back stories of “The Legacy of Wes Leonard” by Thomas Lake and then “Mourning Glory” by Chris Ballard. While they’re about different sports — high school basketball and baseball, respectively — they’re both classic “sick kids or dead coaches” stories (read the introduction).

Both are about a team bonding together in the face of the death of a star athlete. The two stories are so similar, their tones and structures so identical, that putting them back-to-back lessens each one’s emotional impact.

Moehringer really should’ve spaced these two stories out, using something like Bridget Quinn’s “At Swim, Two Girls: A Memoir” (a heartfelt story of a young girl trying to live up to her superstar older sister) as a palate cleanser in between.

Not every BASW 2013 story about a dead player is a “sick kids or dead coaches” story. Allison Glock’s “At the Corner of Love and Basketball” is a chilling reminder that while women’s athletics have accepted homosexual athletes a little faster than their male counterparts have, the life of a young lesbian basketball player is still incredibly challenging.

I’m not sure any one story in BASW 2013 sings the way individual stories in other volumes have. But if given a grade, every story would get at least an A-, and plenty of BASW volumes have held B, C, or even D-worthy essays.

A collection of entirely A/A- stories is absolutely worth the cover price.

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