Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing 2004”

“The Best American Sports Writing 2004,” edited by Richard Ben Cramer

It’s been over six months since I last reviewed a volume of Glenn Stout’s Best American Sports Writing. Sure, I might have spent the interim 195 days reviewing other stuff, but there’s nothing I enjoy more than curling up with the cream of some year’s sports-writing crop, relaxing as I read about some random sport’s random athlete that I’ve never…. hang on.

Did that dude just say he was gonna chop someone’s head off with a machete?

Here’s BASW 2004, edited by Pulitzer prize-winner Richard Ben Cramer.

A Story That Needed to be Told

Every so often a true game-changer enters a sport — an athlete so talented that he or she evolves his or her sport, leaving it forever changed.

Babe Ruth was such a player. Michael Jordan was such a player. And so was Mia Hamm, but because of soccer’s lack of popularity (especially women’s soccer), I’ve never known much about Hamm the person — except of course that she was married to “Nomah.”

Gary Smith’s “The Secret Life of Mia Hamm” gives the full history of the most important women’s soccer player of all time. The reader really understands how Hamm’s upbringing in a family devoted to serving the needy created a player unable to say no to fans or the press but also unable to perceive herself as the marvel she truly was. It’s a fantastic story on one of sport’s true icons.

The majority of stories approach their subjects (no others as big as Hamm) with the same high level of care and craft we’ve come to expect from a BASW story. In Lynne Cox’s “Swimming to Antarctica,” Cox doesn’t skimp on the science, explaining how it’s even possible for Cox to swim constantly in near-freezing water. Joe Posnanski’s “Dusting Off Home,” meanwhile, uses great visuals and emotionally resonant comments from former MLB pitcher Tony Peña to show how in the Dominican Republic, choices basically come down to a life of poverty as a farmer or a life of riches as a baseball player.

And then there’s Michael Hall’s “Running for his Life,” about distance runner Gilbert Tuhabonye. Originally born in Burundi, the story recounts in horrific detail the night members of Burundi’s Hutu tribe locked Tuhabonye and some of his fellow Tutsi tribesmen in a classroom, set them on fire and hacked to death anyone who tried to escape. Tuhabonye and Hall’s visuals place you right in the classroom, burning and terrified, as Tuhabonye must have been.

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a BASW story more intensely or quickly. Desperate to reach the ending despite knowing Tuhabonye would survive, I simply couldn’t put the story down.

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