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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Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing 2011”

"The Best American Sports Writing 2011," edited by Jane Leavy

Four months have passed since I last reviewed a volume of Glenn Stout’s “Best American Sports Writing” series. We’re long past due for another, so here’s the 2011 collection.

Jane Leavy’s Not-So-Hidden Agenda

Introductions by BASW volume editors are usually just thematic essays (“sports rule” and “sports writing rules” being the two most common). The editors use those themes to loosely connect the stories that follow, so the introductions normally read as if they had been written after all the stories had been chosen.

But Washington Post writer Jane Leavy uses her introduction to lay out specific goals for the 2011 volume. Leavy begins with the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and from there makes it abundantly clear that she began the process wanting to show sport’s recent shift towards the extreme.

This results in a collection of 29 stories that, despite varying greatly in both content and style, maintain a subtle, almost intangible connection to each other. It’s a bold strategy, and it both bolsters and sabotages BASW ’11.

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Book Review: “The Best American Sports Writing 2005”

"The Best American Sports Writing 2005," edited by Mike Lupica

It’s been almost six months since I reviewed a volume of Glenn Stout’s “Best American Sports Writing” series. I’d say we’re due. So here’s 2005.

A Timely Work

More than any volume I’ve read so far, the 2005 edition closely connects its content with major sports stories of 2004. After that year’s Super Bowl and Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfuntion” ends live sports broadcasts as we know it, Richard Sandomir responds with a column (“Five-Second Delay Can’t Mute Old Voice”) written in the voice of legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell. There’s a second (not as good) Cosell story beforehand that sets up Sandomir’s, integrating enough actual Cosell quotes that you can appreciate how good Sandomir’s imitation is.

Eli Manning was drafted in 2005, so Michael Lewis writes “The Eli Experiment.” It’s not his best work, but it reads clearly in Lewis’ voice.

This edition also contains the best hard-news sports story I’ve ever read. Steve Coll’s “Barrage of Bullets Drowned Out Cries of Comrades” tells the full story of the death of Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman. Coll covers every mistake that led to Tillman’s death from friendly fire in Afghanistan, from the bad marching orders that split his troop to the over-excited soldiers who broke engagement protocols and couldn’t stop shooting. It’s a sad story, but it’s a complete story devoid entirely of bias.

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