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Saturday, October 08, 2016

The Best American Sports Writing 2015

This year's The Best American Sports Writing, edited by Wright Thompson, is another mixed bag. I will give Thompson credit for one thing--most of it is actually about sports. Some years the only connection to sports was that it was about an athlete that had committed some sort of crime. There is only one article of that vein this year, Greg Hanlon's "The Sins of the Preacher," about former baseball player Chad Curtis, a Christian proselytizer while playing, now doing time for sexual abusing teenage girls while a coach.

Instead there are some really good pieces here about sportsmen and women, some in their twilight, like "Awakening the Giant," about Y.A. Tittle, and "Precious Memories," by Tommy Tomlinson, about Dean Smith in his last days with dementia (he had not yet died upon the original publication of the article). There is a great piece by Ariel Levy on long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad's many attempt to swim the Straits of Florida called "Breaking the Waves" and a haunting essay by Jeremy Collins about a friend who passed away and their shared love of a certain Atlanta Braves pitcher in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Greg Maddux."

There are also some articles that may make you mad. A profile of Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, states: "No team owner in American sports is more famous and infamous, more revered and reviled, than Jones. After the 2010 death of New York Yankees boss George Steinbrenner, Jones assumed the mantle of America’s mercurial team owner, hell-bent on doing it his way and constrained only by a salary cap." That's by Don Van Natta Jr. in "Jerry Football." Tim Graham, in "Broke and Broken," vilifies the WWE and Vince McMahon for their shoddy treatment of their wrestlers, and how many have died young. Here's a few choice quotes: "The billion-dollar spectacle of pro wrestling relies entirely on the ruthless economic, mental, and physical exploitation of its performers," and "There is no such thing as a nice billionaire, and Vince is unexceptional in this regard."

What may turn many hearts and minds cold is "Who Wants to Shoot an Elephant?" by the terrific Wells Tower, who follows a couple and their guide as they hunt down an elephant in Africa. Tower tries to be objective, but he can't quite get there. The married couple come across as ruthless, vicious people, who try to rationalize their action by saying they're saving trees that elephants eat. Basically, they just want to kill things. They are the kind of people most other people hate--they spent $80,000 on a gun. "But the elephant is about 15 feet away, and I will now confess to being scared just about shitless. The elephant snorts and brandishes its vast head. Lunch goes to lava in my bowels. If not for my present state of sphincter-cinching terror, I would well be in the market for an adult diaper. This is an amazingly pure kind of fear. My arteries are suddenly capable of tasting my blood, which right now has the flavor of a nine-volt battery."

Some articles are more fun, such as "Haverford Hoops," by Chris Ballard, about a very long college basketball losing streak, or "The Sea of Crises," by Brian Phillips, about the mysterious world of sumo wrestling. There's also an article about caving, "In Deep," by Burkhard Bilger: "There, in a cloud forest in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, lay the staging area for an attempt to map the deepest cave in the world—a kind of Everest expedition turned upside down."

In the international world, there's an article about American football played in China, "The Year of the Pigskin," by Christopher Beam, and the daring escape of Dodger Yasel Puig from Cuba in "No One Walks Off the Island" by Scott Eden. But my favorite piece just may be only tangentially connected to sports. It's "Those Kansas City Blues: A Family History," by Katie Baker, who uses the unexpected success of the Kansas City Royals to tell her memories of that great American city: "When we talk about Kansas City, what we’re talking about is a certain state of mind, a bricolage of bootstrap can-do-ism and ingrained suspicion of the more lawful authorities."

The last article is very brief, "Peyton Manning Leaves Crushing Super Bowl Loss with Reputation Intact," by Dan Wetzel. It details Manning after his devastating loss to Seattle in Super Bowl whatever. I had grown a little weary of Manning, especially after he plugged Budweiser after winning the last Super Bowl and his association with the vile "Papa John" Schnatter. But Wetzel leaves us sports fans with a nice sentiment as the book ends, with a boy asking for an autograph after the loss: "How many times through the years had Peyton Manning signed for people, stopped for photos for people, been gracious to people. Now? Here? In the harried moments after this painful and thorough loss, after a chance at a championship  was lost and might never come again, in the cramped walkways of a football stadium--not some charity meet-and-greet--isn't he allowed to be, well, selfishly human? Manning didn't think so."

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