The Best American Sports Writing 2001 is the only volume I’ve reviewed so far where the introduction doesn’t actually introduce anything. Volume editor Bud Collins discusses the volatile, even occasionally violent relationship between athletes and the sporting press, but never once does he mention any of the 28 stories that follow.
Instead, Collins puts a one-section reaction at the top of each story. It’s a unique approach, but the lack of any discussion in the introduction sets an odd tone for the ensuing 357 pages.
And therein lies the theme of this review: tone. An appropriate emotional tone can make a great story even greater, but the wrong tone can just as easily tank an otherwise well-written story.
The best and worst stories in BASW 2001 earn that status because of their tone. “Everest at the Bottom of the Sea,” by Bucky McMahon, captures all the adventure and excitement and danger one would expect in a story about diving for treasure in a sunken luxury cruiser.
Series editor Glenn Stout has said repeatedly that sports writing isn’t the same as writing about sports. One might not think of treasure-diving as a sport, but this story is so cool it absolutely belongs in this collection.
Tom Friend’s “The Natural” is about rising tennis star Alexandra Stevenson. She’s pissed off all anyone wants to talk about is her being the daughter of Julius Erving — a man she’s had no contact with her entire life — and her anger and frustration comes through loud and clear.
Kevin Conley’s “A Stud’s Life” is as gross as an extremely inside look at horse-breeding ought to be. Touré’s “Kurt Is My Co-Pilot” makes you love Dale Earnhardt Jr. (just a rookie at the time the article came out) even if you have zero interest in NASCAR.
Vahe Gregorian’s “Olympic Dream Ends in Agony” is exactly that — an agonizing tale of an Olympian who fails to win the gold medal he’d prepared for all his life. Greg Child’s “Fear of Falling” is about mountaineers captured by Islamic fundamentalists in Kyrgyzstan, and Child makes it nearly as terrifying to read as it must’ve been to experience.
Reading it now also feels oddly prophetic, as it references Afghanistan, the Taliban and jihadists a year before the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
The weaker stories in BASW 2001 suffer because they either lack a clear tone or have a tone that doesn’t match the story. Buzz Bissinger’s “For Love of Joe DiMaggio” is the best example of this.
It’s the story of Morris Engelberg, an accountant who became one of the most important people DiMaggio’s post-baseball life. Engelberg doted on DiMaggio nearly 24-7, sacrificing his own family while making DiMaggio a multimillionaire.
Bissinger’s problem is he never decides if Engelberg is a hero or a fool. DiMaggio treats Engelberg (and everyone else) like dirt, but Engelberg puts up with it for years despite getting little out of it besides a chance to be in DiMaggio’s life.
There’s maybe a paragraph or two about DiMaggio’s legendary time as a Yankee, but that little bit of positivity gets swallowed up by page of page after DiMaggio being horrible to everyone. DiMaggio comes off as a greedy, manipulative ass, treating people with a degree of entitlement a cut above even the lofty levels of entitlement of typical professional baseball players.
Bissinger doesn’t make DiMaggio worthy of Engelberg’s attention, but he also doesn’t make Engelberg a hero for putting up with the abuse. Both come off looking bad.
Charles Pierce’s “The Blessed Fisherman of Prosper, Texas,” about NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, also has tone problems. It fulfills the title’s promise of depicting Sanders fishing and in church, but the story has too much style for too little substance.
The story is textbook Charles Pierce. There’s repetition, long sentences and his trademark combination of cleverness and folksiness.
“The Blessed Fisherman” seems to be as much about Pierce as it is about Sanders.
Not every piece of sports writing needs a clear tone to be great. Jim McManus’ “Fortune’s Smile” doesn’t have tone — except maybe anxiety — but McManus mixes brilliant descriptions and necessary background information for a wonderfully structured inside look at the World Series of Poker.
Some of us have forgotten just how popular professional poker was in the early years of the 21st century. “Fortune’s Smile” is both a reminder and a record of the sport at its peak popularity.
Ian Whitcomb’s “Beach Boy” is about surfing pioneer George Freeth. There’s no tone to it — just a classic historical feature on a person most people have probably never heard of. The Best American Sports Writing has published several such features over the years, and they’re always terrific
Great reporting will always stand out regardless of tone. But The Best American Sports Writing 2001 shows that the right tone can take great reporting and make the final product truly spectacular.