Some “Best American Sports Writing” introductions imbue their volumes with early energy. Others are fine, if forgettable.
The Best American Sports Writing 2000 is one of those unfortunate volumes with a detrimental introduction. Dick Schaap spends more than half of it mostly talking about how many famous friends he has and how cool that makes him, then gives a perfunctory final thought about how sports stories should always be entertaining, and when possible funny.
The problem is, none of the BASW 2000 stories are funny. What’s worse, too many of them fall flat.
James Hibberd’s “Poker Face” is about professional poker player Johnny Chan, but the essay doesn’t seem to have much to say beyond that he plays a lot of poker, and you kind of walk away from the story thinking, “so what?” Jeanne Marie Laskas’ “America is a Bull” is about a neither famous nor innovative bullrider, and his struggles aren’t enough to carry the central metaphor of the title.
And Jonathan Miles’ “Ay Caramba!…” is one of the worst fishing stories to appear in a BASW volume. Its lack of a point is matched only by a dense, meandering writing style that renders scenes all but indecipherable.
But by far the flattest of them all is Stephen Rodrick’s “Blown Away,” about a machine gun show and the militia communities surrounding Knob Creek in Kentucky.
Rodrick opens the essay by calling the people at the show “freaks,” but it’s unclear if he means it as a compliment or insult. Rodrick presents the characters’ devotion to the Second Amendment as both knowledgeable and rational, but he also presents scenes of them buying Nazi paraphernalia alongside their weapons and says nothing on the troubling association.
Maybe this passed for objectivity in the late 1990s, but now it feels like sticking to the shallow side of the pool. We live in a country of near-constant gun violence these days, and a writer who’s going to write about guns has to either take a stand or make it explicitly clear why not.
This isn’t to say all 23 stories fall flat. Mark Levine’s “The Birdman” examines pro skateboarder Tony Hawk’s world just before the first Tony Hawk Pro Skater video game would make him millions of dollars and a household name. Hawk is one of most legendary, influential athletes in any sport, and “The Birdman” is the best example of sadly short list of essays written about him.
Michael Finkel’s “Running Like Hell” and Guy Lawson’s “Merv Curls Lead,” about a cult where long-distance running seems to be a method of brainwashing and a really shady Canadian trying to make professional curling a thing, respectively, are as wonderfully weird as their subject matters. Daniel Coyle’s “Peerless,” meanwhile, makes it clear just how cool skier Eric Pehota truly is.
Charles Sprawson’s “Swimming with Sharks” is the inspiring tale of Lynne Cox, pretty much the coolest open-water swimmer of all time. Burkhard Bilger’s “Enter the Chicken” teaches you everything you’ll wish you could never know about cockfighting – gruesome, but enthralling.
And then there’s Garrison Keillor’s “How I Won the Minnesota Statehouse,” about a professional wrestler in Minnesota making the change to politics. The story nearly falls apart early on – a joke about using Hamas terrorists to liven up a show falls especially flat when read just weeks after terrorists attacked, among other targets, a sporting event in Paris.
But then you realize this is a satire of Jesse “The Body” Ventura, an actual wrestler turned actual governor in the state where Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” show takes place, and it becomes a lot funnier. At least, it does until you read about how this wrestler would reject mainstream politics, would exploit a party of “bikers and bird-watchers and disgruntled dishwashers and surly seniors,” would refuse to kowtow to special interests.
Suddenly, this character named Jesse Valentine isn’t Ventura. He’s Donald Trump, except where this story is a joke, Trump’s is very, very real.
The essay ends with the lines. “I’ll cock my ear to that distant cry of ‘Jimm-ee, Jimm-ee!” and turn to go to the limo and look up and see every senator and congressman and justice and ex-President and ambassador standing, mouth open, in shock and confusion, as if they had just witnessed the explosion of the Hindenburg, wondering, ‘How did this happen?’ It’s called democracy, boys.”
No story in a BASW volume reviewed to date has ended in such chilling fashion. And unbelievably, a story so relevant right now was first published more than 17 years ago.