Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing 2014″

"The Best American Sports Writing 2014," edited by Christopher McDougall
“The Best American Sports Writing 2014,” edited by Christopher McDougall

Plenty of great books don’t have particularly memorable opening lines. But there are some opening lines so awesome on their own that they create an energy that carries through to the final line several hundred pages later.

The best such example might be William Gibson’s Neuromancer: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

But the second best, at least for me, is from Christopher McDougall’s introduction to The Best American Sports Writing 2014: “Death-row cells have better natural light than the Rite Aid in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where you can only glimpse sky through the sad slit of a window above the checkout counter.”

Seriously, how awesome is that? If that doesn’t get you immediately pumped to read the rest, you should stop reading this blog, because I’m not sure the written word is really your thing.

The essay is about McDougall first experience watching the three-dimensional running style known as parkour. McDougall writes of the jolt of energy he felt watching these parkour runners, and how an especially well-written sports story can carry the same kind of electricity.

The bummer is that the opening stories of BASW 14, another volume of Glenn Stout’s annual “Best American Sports Writing” series, don’t carry the same spark. Chris Jones’ “When 772 Pitches Isn’t Enough” looks at an insane-sounding Japanese high school baseball tournament and the surrounding culture, but the other  early stories kinda fall flat.

Traditional sports and almost cliched themes are two reasons for the early struggles. There’s another story about our nation’s obsession with high school sports (Amanda Ripley’s “The Case Against High School Sports”), another story about the dangers of football (Patrick Hruby’s “The Choice”), another “sick kids and dead coaches” story (David Merrill’s “The One Legged Wrestler”). Of the first seven stories, three are about football, one is about baseball and another is about basketball.

A trio of tennis stories injects some much-needed life into BASW 14 about a quarter of the way in. Don Van Natta Jr.’s “The Match Maker” leads the way with a credible argument that the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Billy Jean King (then 29) and Bobby Riggs (then 55) was nothing more than a snow job Riggs came up with to pay off gambling debts.

This match may have been a big deal when it happened, but 40 years later the whole thing seems kinda stupid. Suggesting that the true story is something other than how it was presented makes it clearer why it happened in the first place. The other two tennis stories, Stephen Rodrick’s “Serena the Great” and Brook Larmer’s “Li Na, China’s Tennis Rebel,” are also good, and they deal with the much more modern tennis stories of, respectively, Serena Williams’ dominance and the Chinese professional tennis system.

The last eight stories of BASW 2014, in order, are about: racing; mountaineering; sharks attacking surfers; a surfing competition; professional backgammon; “Kathy Dobie’s “Raider. QB Crusher. Murder?” a football-crime story that’s a much better version of Paul Solotaroff and Ron Borges “The Gangster in the Huddle,” the Aaron Hernandez feature that opens the volume; a mountainous 5K that makes the Warrior Dash look like a slow jog; and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

These eight stories crackle with energy. You hear the hear the violent Sherpa mob coming for you in a Mount Everest basecamp in Nick Paumgarten’s “The Manic Mountain.” You see the bull sharks swimming ominously off the coast of a French resort town in Bucky McMahon’s wonderfully named “Heart of Sharkness.” You  feel every scrape, scratch, cut and break as you scramble up down Alaska’s Mount Marathon in Christopher Solomon’s “The Last Man Up.”

Lastly, you imagine walking with Charlie Pierce through the devastation following the bombing in “The Marathon.” Pierce’s writing often reeks of snarky, cynical self-awareness, of a man who knows how clever he is and delights in letting the reader know it on every occasion. But this piece is about Pierce realizing he can’t make fun of the Boston Marathon anymore, and his losing something so essential to his identity helps him understand the sense of loss so many others felt that day.

This final piece is a somber but not inappropriate way to end BASW 14, considering the bombing was probably the biggest sports event of 2013. And while it doesn’t pump the adrenaline the way the previous stories do, Pierce uses genuine introspection to write a piece with an emotional charge as powerful as any of the prior 24 stories.

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