I’m still fairly new to reading ESPN’s Bill Simmons (and despite his relentless Boston boosterism, I get a kick out of his columns). One reason is that he has some interests beyond the ballfield, quite rare for folks who make a living in sports punditry, and contained within his columns, you’ll sometimes find gems like the list of “best sports pieces ever written” that he dropped into his “Mailbag” this week.The list is really terrific, and, as much because I want to remember it as I do share it with you, I decided to try to find links to some of these pieces online (or at least to the books that contain them).Simmons put the list together after a fan asked him whether his recent footnote-adorned column on Manny Ramirez was in tribute to David Foster Wallace. Simmons said no, but that it was a meaningful coincidence. The reader mentioned Wallace’s famous “Federer as Religious Experience” as an exemplary piece of sports writing. Simmons agreed, but said that it is in fact superseded by Wallace’s “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm for Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness,” (from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) which Simmons calls “one of the single best sports pieces ever written.” He then shares his list of the rest of the best (with the first seven joining “Joyce” as the best ever):”Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” (about Ted Williams) by John Updike”Gone for Good” (about Steve Blass) by Roger Angell (appears in Five Seasons and Once More around the Park)”What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?” by Richard Ben Cramer (also in book form)”Lawdy, Lawdy, He’s Great” (about the “Thrilla in Manila”) by Mark Kram”The Silent Season of a Hero (about Joe DiMaggio) by Gay Talese (appears in The Gay Talese Reader)”Ego” (about Muhammad Ali) by Norman Mailer (appears in The Best American Sports Writing of the Century)”Pure Heart” by William Nack (appears in My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood Money, And The Sporting Life, Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, and The Greatest Horse Stories Ever Told: Thirty Unforgettable Horse Tales.”The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” by Hunter S. Thompson (appears in The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time)”Medora Goes to a Game” by George Plimpton (appears in George Plimpton on Sports)”Agincourt and After” by Roger Angell appears in Five Seasons)”Distance” (about Bob Gibson) by Roger Angell (appears in Once More around the Park and Game Time: A Baseball Companion“Magic Act” (about Magic Johnson) by Charles P. Pierce (appears in Sports Guy: In Search of Corkball, Warroad Hockey, Hooters Golf, Tiger Woods, and the Big, Big Game)”Holy Ground” by Wright Thompson”Centre Court” (about Wimbledon) by John McPhee (appears in Pieces of the Frame)”Raised By Women To Conquer Men” (about Jimmy Connors) by Frank Deford”The Loser” (about Floyd Patterson) by Gay Talese (appears in The Gay Talese Reader)”A Voice Crying In The Wilderness” by Tony Kornheiser (about Rick Barry)Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made by David Halberstam (excerpt)”The Mourning Anchor” (about Bryant Gumbel) by Rick Reilly”Ali and His Entourage” and “As Time Runs Out” (about Jim Valvano) by Garry Smith (both appear in Beyond the Game)So, literary sports fans, do you have any you want to add to this list? Share in the comments below.See Also: The New New Journalists, Football Books: A Best Sports Writing Addendum
On Tuesday I attended what will almost certainly be my last Dodgers game for a long time. It wasn’t one of the better games I’ve been to. Perhaps because they were playing the Mets, the stands were more crowded than usual. Halfway into a sloppy game the distractable Dodger fans devoted their energies to Thundersticks, shouting matches with transplanted New Yorkers, and the dreaded wave. Hideo Nomo didn’t have his stuff, and the Dodgers were plagued by timid, sloppy baserunning. There was a bit of history, though, as Mike Piazza hit his 351st home run, tying Hall-of-Famer Carlton Fisk for the most career home runs by a catcher. The ball was passed down through the bleachers and dropped over the wall to left fielder Dave Roberts who tossed it in to the ballboy. After the game Piazza said that he was happy to get the ball back and that he looks forward to getting his hands on the one that breaks the record. Over the last three years I’ve been to twenty or so ballgames. It became especially easy after I moved into my current house. At around six, I would hop in my car and drive north on Alvarado to Sunset. I’d park out front of Little Joy Jr. and stop in for a beer and meet whoever was joining me that evening. Then we’d walk back out into the sun and up the hill to Chavez Ravine, purchasing tickets on the way from the cadre of scrambling scalpers. Los Angeles, while better than some places, isn’t known as a great baseball town, and the Dodgers have certainly underperformed since I’ve been around, but I did have some moments at the Stadium that were truly sublime. If you go to enough games, you’re bound to. There was opening day 2003 when we paid 40 bucks to a scalper to sit way up in the top deck behind home plate. Fighter jets flew low over the field and the noise of the sellout crowd mingled with the leftover roar of the engines. Then an Army transport plane dipped low into view and a half a dozen paratroopers leaked out of the side of the plane. As they drifted down they emitted colored smoke, and the trails intertwined as the troopers landed on the ballfield. Then there was a rare damp day in May last year. The Dodgers were playing the Padres or the Brewers or somesuch lowly team. The scalpers were a forlorn lot, knowing that their profits would be slim. My purchase of a field level seat felt like charity. The Stadium was quieter that night and mostly empty, only the diehards had bothered to come out for this meaningless game. A collective calm settled over the whole place, folks in windbreakers with blankets on their lap mesmerized by the crack of the bat, the delicate arc of the ball, and pop as it hit the fielders glove in the misty twilight. Perhaps, the most memorable though, was May 5th, 2002. The Cubs were in town and my friend Matt, an artist who now lives in San Francisco, joined me in the cheap seats for a packed Sunday afternoon game. Cubs fans were liberally sprinkled among us and several fights erupted. Every inning or so another spectator would be escorted from the stadium owing to his disorderly conduct. Neither the game nor its outcome were memorable, the stadium was so full of life. Afterwards the PA announcer Mike Carlucci invited everyone onto the field for music and fireworks in celebration of Cinco de Mayo. As the stands emptied and people spilled across the outfield, the loudspeakers blared Mexican rolas interspersed with several American patriotic anthems. Matt and I spread out in center field, and up above, a fantastic fireworks show enveloped the heavens. An inebriated fellow Dodger fan stood behind us during the festivities and proudly belted out every word to every song, switching languages effortlessly. Even after the music had fallen quiet and the fireworks had faded from the sky, he wasn’t ready to leave, “Play some Puerto Rican music!” He screamed to no one in particular, “play some Puerto Rican music!”And to accompany my little ode to Dodgers baseball, I thought I should mention Roger Angell, whose writing about baseball is one of the reasons I love the game. Two of his classic collections have recently been released in spiffy new editions: Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion and The Summer Game.