Before the regrettable bulk of sports writing became sportswriting and the Internet emerged as the medium to document the worst of it, one book, every year, nobly set out to chronicle sports writing's best.
And each October, as soon as the newest Best American Sports Writing paperback came out, I plopped the freshest installment of the book on my nighttable, picked one story and plowed through it with care, trying to understand why this one was better than almost everything else printed that year. Sports blogs didn't exist, and neither did certain aggregators of the day's best journalism; this book was the metric.
For me, a kid going through the formative stages of taste — let alone everyone else to whom the book appealed — it made celebrities out of hacks, deities out of the masters. There seemed to be a Gary Smith story every year, and a Charlie Pierce essay too. Rick Reilly, in his prime, was a given, and later in the decade, he made way for Wright Thompson and Chris Ballard and Michael Lewis and the rest of today's leading long-form folk. Looking back on the decade's early volumes — their pages already more yellow than white — there were some familiar names, too. Even Craggs made it back in his alt-weekly and uber-contrarian days.
There's one name that's never been printed in the table of contents, though, and it's Bill Simmons. If Smith and Reilly made their mark on a certain generation of aspiring writers, then it's clear that Simmons has taken their mantle, and yet, even his most memorable columns are relegated to the back with the rest of the year's "notable" sports writing. Perhaps that speaks to the guest editors' tendency to publish a certain type of story, as Simmons once hypothesized, but if a valuable demographic of readers knows Simmons and no one else, it made me think: In 10 years, what will this book look like?
It might exist entirely online, in a year-end list not unlike this, and teenagers looking for bedtime reading might bring a Kindle under the covers. The table of contents might have more 600-word blog posts and fewer 10,000-word epics, and maybe that kind of variety won't be the worst thing. Because in the end, buying any edition of this book is about finding writing to love, about encountering storytelling about sports and doing a duty of passing it on. These aren't necessarily the 10 best pieces of the last 10 years, or the 10 most influential, or the 10 stories to print out and read on the john, or anything like that. They're just 10 stories that this week, the last one of this particular decade, I remembered enjoying. And maybe you will, too.
2000: "Bottom of the Ninth" by Charles P. Pierce
The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers, but this field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that was good and could be again if we can just line up the bondholders. And now, Ray, look out there. Now it's baseball that's rolling by like an army of steamrollers. Not clumsy metaphorical ones but real ones, the kind that build new and modern things, like urban villages and genuine authentic replica ballparks.
Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come. They'll arrive at your door, innocent as children, longing for the past.
And, by God, Ray, we'll be there to sell it to them.
(Is this heaven?)
No, Ray. It's Detroit.
2001: "Inside Baseball" by Joshua Prager
Bobby Thomson, the New York Giants' third baseman, stands poised in the batter's box. In the bottom of the ninth inning in the final game of a playoff, his team trails the Brooklyn Dodgers 4-2, with two men on base. Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca's fastball hurtles toward him. Mr. Thomson swings, he connects, and the ball sails over the left-field wall and into history.
That home run capped an unprecedented comeback by the Giants, propelled the team to the 1951 World Series, and secured Robert Brown Thomson's name in American lore.
Months shy of its 50th anniversary, Mr. Thomson's "Shot Heard Round the World" echoes ever louder. In recent years, the U.S. Postal Service honored it with a stamp. Author Don DeLillo threaded it through his 827-page novel, "Underworld." The Sporting News christened it the greatest moment in baseball history. Sports Illustrated ranked it the second-greatest sports moment of the 20th century (after the U.S. hockey team's victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics). And this year, among the many celebrations planned to mark the jubilee anniversary of the home run, there will be a reunion of the surviving Giants and Dodgers who met Oct. 3, 1951, at the Polo Grounds on Coogan's Bluff in Harlem.
But in all the encomiums and analyses of that singular moment through half a century, one crucial element has been missing — unknown that afternoon even to the nine Dodgers on the field, the 34,320 paid spectators at the Polo Grounds, and the millions who followed the flight of the ball on radio and television. The Giants were stealing the Dodgers' signs, the finger signals transmitted from catcher to pitcher that determine the pitch to be thrown.
"Stealing signs is nothing to be proud of," says Mr. Thomson, now 77 years old. "Of course, the question is, did I take the signs that day?"
2002: "Higher Education" by Gary Smith
The Hawks' Nest, Hiland's tiny old gym, became what Willie had always dreamed it would be: a loony bin, the one place a Mennonite could go to sweat and shriek and squeal; sold out year after year, with fans jamming the hallway and snaking out the door as they waited for the gym to open, then stampeding for the best seats an hour before the six o'clock jayvee game; reporters and visiting coaches and scouts sardined above them in wooden lofts they had to scale ladders to reach; spillover pouring into the auditorium beside the gym to watch on a video feed as noise thundered through the wall. A few dozen teenage Amish boys, taking advantage of the one time in their lives when elders allowed them to behold the modern world, and 16-year-old cheerleaders' legs, would be packed shoulder to shoulder in two corners of the gym at the school they weren't permitted to attend. Even a few Amish men, Lord save their souls, would tie up the horses and buggies across the street at Yoder's Lumber and slink into the Nest. And plenty more at home would tell the missus that they'd just remembered a task in the barn, then click on a radio stashed in the hay and catch the game on WKLM.
Something had dawned on Willie, sitting in his front-row seat, and on everyone else in town. The black man's values were virtually the same as theirs. Humility? No coach ever moved so fast to duck praise or bolt outside the frame of a team picture. Unselfishness? The principal might as well have taken the coach's salary to pep rallies and flung it in the air-most of it ended up in the kids' hands anyway. Reverence? No congregation ever huddled and sang out the Lord's Prayer with the crispness and cadence that the Hawks did before and after every game. Family? When Chester Mullet, Hiland's star guard in '96, only hugged his mom on parents' night, Perry gave him a choice: Kiss her or take a seat on the bench. Work ethic? The day and season never seemed to end, from 6 a.m. practices to 10 p.m. curfews, from puke buckets and running drills in autumn to two-a-days in early winter to camps and leagues and an open gym every summer day. He out-Amished the Amish, out-Mennonited the Mennonites, and everyone, even those who'd never sniffed a locker in their lives, took to calling the black man Coach.
Ask Willie. "Most of the petty divisions around here disappeared because of Coach," he'll tell you. "He pulled us all together. Some folks didn't like me, but I was respected more because he respected me. When my dad died, Coach was right there, kneeling beside the coffin, crossing himself. He put his arm right around my mom-she's Amish-and she couldn't get over that. When she died, he was the first one there. He did that for all sorts of folks. I came to realize that color's not a big deal. I took him for my best friend."
And that man in Willie's coffee clan who'd held out longest, the one given to calling Coach a nigger? By Coach's fifth year, the man's son was a Hawk, the Hawks were on another roll, and the man had seen firsthand the effect Coach had on kids. He cleared his throat one morning at the Berlin House; he had something to say.
"He's not a nigger anymore."
2004: "Lifelike" by Susan Orlean
As soon as the 2003 World Taxidermy Championships opened, the heads came rolling in the door. There were foxes and moose and freeze-dried wild turkeys; mallards and buffalo and chipmunks and wolves; weasels and buffleheads and bobcats and jackdaws; big fish and little fish and razor-backed boar. The deer came in herds, in carloads, and on pallets: dozens and dozens of whitetail and roe; half-deer and whole deer and deer with deformities, sneezing and glowering and nuzzling and yawning; does chewing apples and bucks nibbling leaves. There were millions of eyes, boxes and bowls of them; some as small as a lentil and some as big as a poached egg. There were animal mannequins, blank-faced and brooding, earless and eyeless and utterly bald: ghostly gray duikers and spectral pine martens and black-bellied tree ducks from some other world. An entire exhibit hall was filled with equipment, all the gear required to bring something dead back to life: replacement noses for grizzlies, false teeth for beavers, fish-fin cream, casting clay, upholstery nails.
The championships were held in April at the Springfield, Illinois, Crowne Plaza hotel, the sort of nicely appointed place that seems more suited to regional sales conferences and rehearsal dinners than to having wolves in the corridors and people crossing the lobby shouting,
"Heads up! Buffalo coming through!" A thousand taxidermists converged on Springfield to have their best pieces judged and to attend such seminars as "Mounting Flying Waterfowl," "Whitetail Deer — From a Master!," and "Using a Fleshing Machine." In the Crowne Plaza lobby, across from the concierge desk, a grooming area had been set up. The taxidermists were bent over their animals, holding flashlights to check problem areas like tear ducts and nostrils, and wielding toothbrushes to tidy flyaway fur. People milled around, greeting fellow-taxidermists they hadn't seen since the last world championships, held in Springfield two years ago, and talking shop:
"Acetone rubbed on a squirrel tail will fluff it right back up."
"My feeling is that it's quite tough to do a good tongue."
"The toes on a real competitive piece are very important. I think Bondo works nicely, and so does Super Glue."
"I knew a fellow with cattle, and I told him, 'If you ever have one stillborn, I'd really like to have it.' I thought it would make a really nice mount."
2005: "Sportsmen of the Year" by Tom Verducci
The most emotionally powerful words in the English language are monosyllabic: love, hate, born, live, die, sex, kill, laugh, cry, want, need, give, take, Sawx.
The Boston Red Sox are, of course, a civic religion in New England. As grounds crew workers tended to the Fenway Park field last summer after a night game, one of them found a white plastic bottle of holy water in the outfield grass. There was a handwritten message on the side: GO SOX. The team's 2003 highlight film, punctuated by the crescendo of the walk-off home run by the Yankees' Aaron Boone in ALCS Game 7, was christened, Still, We Believe.
"We took the wording straight out of the Catholic canon," club president Larry Lucchino says. "It's not We Still Believe. Our working slogan for next year is It's More than Baseball. It's the Red Sox."
Rooting for the Red Sox is, as evident daily in the obituary pages, a life's definitive calling. Every day all over New England, and sometimes beyond, death notices include age, occupation, parish and allegiance to the Sox. Charles F. Brazeau, born in North Adams, Mass., and an Army vet who was awarded a Purple Heart in World War II, lived his entire 85 years without seeing the Red Sox win a world championship, though barely so. When he passed on in Amarillo, Texas, just two days before Boston won the 2004 World Series, the Amarillo Globe News eulogized him as a man who "loved the Red Sox and cheap beer."
Rest in peace.
2007: "Let Us Now Raze Famous Men" by Jeff MacGregor
For better and worse Don King embodies in the vastness of his good-natured greed the hungering abundance of America in all its mindless dualities and stubborn oppositions; in its soaring entrepreneurial spirit and its murderous bureaucracy, in its loving charity and its sterile lust for money and power. It's all there in one man.
As it is in each of us. Love him or hate him, this wealthy and impoverished man, this pardoned sinner, this earnest huckster, this violent advocate of sweet peace in the world is just like you. He is us.
"My magic lies in my people's ties!"
He is Horatio Alger with a gun!
"I work for the day when all people will be clothed in dignity!"
Or have at least had the wool of dignity pulled over their eyes!
"Only in America!"
He is America!
And this is his day.
2007: "The Old Ba' Game" by Eli Saslow
For almost 30 minutes, the scrum deadlocked in the 15-foot-wide alley. Two hundred Uppies grunted and pushed in one direction; 115 Doonies held their ground. Thick steam rose from the pack, and Thomson couldn't find fresh air. He called out for space, but the screaming mob drowned his request. His eyes rolled backward and his head fell on his shoulder. A nearby Doonie slapped him across the cheek and poured water on his face, desperate to wake him. Thirty seconds passed before two spectators climbed down from the alley wall and stepped on the heads and shoulders of ba' players to reach Thomson. They pulled his limp body from the pile and carried him 100 yards away.
Once he awoke, Thomson asked his girlfriend what had happened. His ribs ached, but he felt otherwise okay. A few friends stopped by to check on him, and one offered a flask of whiskey.
"Thanks," Thomson said. "I need this to get my nerves back."
He took a swig and handed back the flask. Then he lifted himself up over a wall and dropped back into the riot.
2008: "Death in the Baseball Family" by S.L. Price
In the bottom of the eighth Sanchez trots out to first base and fields a few grounders. Then the moment he's been dreading comes; before he looks he can feel Scott Coolbaugh walking up the line to the coach's box. The Drillers lead 3—2, and the crowd of 6,853 has thinned. A man eats peanuts; a child sleeps on his mother's shoulder. On any field, anywhere, there could be no more emotionally charged moment than this one, but the fans don't seem to notice. While Coolbaugh takes his position in the box, Sanchez readies himself not 15 feet away. In the Tulsa dugout, two pitchers shake their heads at the eerie sight of two men yoked by tragedy and separated by one thin line of chalk. One of the pitchers thinks, This whole thing is just unreal.
For a moment or two, Sanchez and Coolbaugh are close enough to hear each other whisper. But Coolbaugh doesn't want to distract Sanchez during the game, and Sanchez, with no idea what Scott is thinking, can't stop his mind from racing. He wants to apologize, grieve, console, be consoled, say something, anything. He steals a glance at Mike Coolbaugh's brother. He fields the first out, a pop-up. The bases load, then Frisco ties the game, but Sanchez can't focus. Mostly he looks at the dirt by his feet. The inning ends. The two men run off in different directions without saying a word.
Coolbaugh doesn't go out to the field in the bottom of the ninth. At first that's a relief to Sanchez, but then he wonders if Scott can't bear to be near him, if the Coolbaugh family will ever forgive him, if his future seems doomed to unfold in the space between two unanswerable questions.
"Why me?" Tino Sanchez asks. "Why him?"
2008: "23 Reasons a Profile of Pete Carroll Does Not Appear in this Space" by J.R. Moehringer
19. TO WRITE A PROFILE THAT'S ACCURATE, I'D BE OBLIGATED TO DESCRIBE A BIZARRE AND HUMILIATING CONTEST OF WILLS BETWEEN THE COACH AND ME
Carroll is part camel. It's the only explanation. After a morning of meetings, followed by a speech to a booster group, we return to campus. It's unseasonably warm. I fantasize about a dozen glasses of cool water lined up before me. Looking at my watch, I calculate 18 hours since he's ingested any type of liquid. I couldn't be more parched if I were trailing around after T.E. Lawrence. I mention my ravenous, desperate thirst to Carroll. He sighs, guides me to a minifridge in the assistant coaches' locker room, grabs me a cold Gatorade. My mouth waters as start to unscrew the cap.
Aren't you going to have one? I ask.
Well, I say, I'm not having one until you do. I set down the Gatorade.
He warns me not to make it a competition. If I make it a competition, he'll die before he takes another drink. (Later he explains it this way: "What I am is a competitor. That's what I am. My whole life, everything I can ever remember, I've been competitive-competitive for friendships, competitive for love, competitive for sports, competitive for heroship, competitive for everything and battling for everything. When I throw my gum away, I'm trying to land it on the line.") Clearly I don't want to get into a thirst-off with this man. Nothing good can come of that. I take a sip of Gatorade. The cool orange flavor runs down the back of my throat, and I almost weep with pleasure.
That night I get a text message. I don't recognize the number. But it doesn't take long to figure out who it's from.
still haven't had anything to drink.
2008: "The Legend of Bo" by Joe Posnanski
That was the day that Buck O'Neil heard the sound — a crack of the bat he heard only three times in his life. The first time he heard it was as a boy, when he watched Babe Ruth take batting practice. The second time was as a player in the Negro Leagues, and the player was Josh Gibson. The third time was Bo that first day in Kansas City.
"You had to rub your eyes," Art Stewart said. "Because you couldn't believe what you were seeing."
A short while later Bo was playing for the Memphis Chicks in that little park in Charlotte. He muscled a long fly ball over the Krispy Kreme sign in left field.
"That was Bo Jackson's first professional home run," the public-address announcer said.
Everybody cheered. And then someone pointed and shouted, "He broke his bat."
Yes, kids. Bo Jackson broke his bat on his first professional home run.