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 Simmons agreed, but said that it is in fact superseded by Wallace's "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm for Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and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
When it comes to baseball, the mind is unreliable and selective in what it remembers. Games and seasons blend into to one another and most second basemen or relief pitchers fade from view forever soon after they leave the diamond for good. Old teams and players live on only as lines of statistics in massive baseball encyclopedias or deep historical databases. Lost, too, are the millions of moments that make up every game. But Roger Angell has been quite good, over the years, at capturing those moments and preserving them as though in amber. And so, in reading his collection of baseball pieces that span more than forty years, one feels a bit like the lucky archeologist who has stumbled upon magnificent specimens so exquisitely preserved as to seem positively lifelike. Angell writes with almost scientific precision: "With the strange insect gaze of his shining eyeglasses, with his ominous Boche-like helmet pulled low... Reggie Jackson makes a frightening figure at bat." Angell is not just an observer; he is also the ultimate fan, rooting for childhood favorites or for a team whose story has caught his fancy that particular year. Game Time is laid out like the baseball year, with pieces about the languor and anticipation of spring training in the beginning and closing with multi-faceted recollections of several past World Series. The many pieces taken together are like one long summer spanning forty years, a summer when you went to the ballpark frequently but listened to most of the games on the radio on the back porch at dusk.
Those of you who've read this blog for a while know that during the summer I tend to pen the occasional post about baseball. Feel free to skip them if you like, but I just can't help myself. Now, on with it. In Chicago, I'm finding that the start of baseball season seems to awaken a collective joy across the city. Riding the El on Friday, I was startled by the conductor's gleeful announcement that the slowness of our train was due to the Cubs home opener. I also learned that the Cubs typically eschew night games at Wrigley Field because, essentially, night games would wake up the neighbors. Most modern stadiums are surrounded by moats of asphalt, but ancient Wrigley is nestled into a city block and surrounded by rowhouses and city traffic and streets lined with bars and diners. Driving north on Clark Street, the stadium explodes into view, surrounded on game day by throngs of fans. A whole section of the city turns into a clamoring carnival of baseball ferment. And then, a few blocks beyond, one returns to quiet streets lined with leafy trees and brick three flats. In the past few days I have noted the pleasure with which the Cubs fan declares that the season has returned. In my experience, they don't talk about the team's chances this year or the strength of the bullpen or anything pulled from the sports pages, they talk about how it feels to have baseball back. They tell me that it's so great to see people drinking beer in Cubs gear on their front porches and shouting "hey" to fans walking to the game. But mostly they sort of cock their heads back so as to gather in some springtime sun, still new enough to be a novelty. In Chicago, baseball doesn't just mean baseball, it means that the gloomy, icy, sunless winter is over. No more trudging through the ankle-deep snow in the pre-dawn darkness to the El, and no more returning by the same route - stepping in the same holes my feet made that morning - in darkness to a home whose clanging radiators provide a cozy warmth, which, over time, simply seems to be the temperature they have set for your prison cell. But, if you see Cubs fans marching through Wrigleyville, all that can be put to rest and forgotten until October, a whole baseball season away from now. There are some grizzled Chicago vets who insist to me that we're not out of the woods yet, that April chills and snows are not unheard of, but I ignore them because, well, baseball is here!(I should note that my already considerable happiness at the return of baseball season has been further enhanced by the book I'm reading right now, a collection of baseball writing by the incomparable Roger Angell called Game Time : A Baseball Companion)