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The only job I've been able to hold on to is sports writing. I've flopped at everything else. I've been fired more than ceramic pottery and Billy Martin put together.
I was fired from my first job at fourteen. Lady didn't like the way I chewed my gum. Got fired from a rental-equipment place at sixteen. Thought the boss said, "Fill these jackhammers with fifteen parts oil, one part gas," but it turns out it was the other way around. Got fired from a gas station at eighteen. Left a guy's oil cap off and it fell down into his fan belt and the station had to pay $435 to fix it for him. Got fired as a bank teller at nineteen. Lost $500 one day. Still don't know where it went.
But knock on wood, sports writing hasn't 86'ed me yet. Started doing it for a living at twenty. That's twenty-five years ago now. If there is ever a nuclear winter and sports writing is no longer needed, I'm toast.
I'm not saying I'm good, but I think I know what good is. Good is the stuff we've chosen for this book. Good is not easy. College kids write me all the time asking how to make their writing better. I always hate answering that letter. You send them tips and you come off like a know-it-all. You ignore it and you come off like a jerk.
But editing this book has made me think about it. Two chewed chair legs and three pots of coffee later, I finally came up with ten simple strategies that I know will work no matter the subject, length, or deadline. And so, I present now, for your shredding pleasure . . . the Reilly Rules.
1. Never Write a Sentence You've Already Read.
That was said by Oscar Wilde, but it's still the best way to make words jump off the page and squirt grapefruit juice in the reader's face. Why write: "He beat the crap out of the guy" when it's so much more fun to write: "He turned the guy into six feet of lumps"?
You ever notice the way cops talk on the eleven o'clock news? On TV, the cop will go all Dragnet on you: "We apprehended the alleged suspect after a prolonged pursuit." But then you hear the same cop down at Dunkin' Donuts and he's going, "Man, we chased this fruitcake everywhere! Guy thought he was Secretariat!"
The best writing sounds like that. It sounds like a guy talking to you over a fence. The Los Angeles Times's Jim Murray, the greatest sportswriter who ever lived, wrote like that. Murray put simple words in an order nobody had seen before.
Murray once wrote in the Los Angeles Times that John Wooden was "as square as a pan of cornbread." Boog Powell was "just slightly larger than the Istanbul Hilton." USC's sweep left was "as unstoppable as a woman's tears." And, "Willie Mays' glove is the place where triples go to die."
Steve Rushin of Sports Illustrated writes like that. He would sell his sister to the Iraqis before he'd write a boring sentence. In his piece "Cold Comfort," he describes what it felt like the moment the radio told him his elementary school was closed on account of too much snow.
"Instantly, it's Mardi Gras and V-E Day and the Lindbergh parade all in one, and the flakes falling outside look like ticker tape."
Guy makes me sprain my grin.
Blackie Sherrod of the Dallas Morning News once described rogue quarterback Bobby Layne's arrest for drunk driving this way:
"Layne . . . stopped off to indulge in some heavy research with scholarly friends. Late that evening, Bobby was driving to his hotel, innocently enough, when he was sideswiped by several empty cars lurking at curbside."
Ever read that before?
2. Get 'Em in the Tent.
Murray used to say, "They'll never see the circus if you can't get 'em in the tent." Translated: Without a good lead, they'll never appreciate your death-defying twinkle-toe transition in the third paragraph. Maybe that's why he once led off a column on the safety hazards at the Indianapolis 500 with: "Gentlemen, start your coffins!"
Have you ever been zapping around on the remote, going from one show to the next? And then something comes on that you just can't zap because you have to know what's going to happen next? That's what a great lead does. In this fragmented world, readers are looking for the tiniest excuse to turn the page, put you down, and get out of their chair. There's no city ordinance that says they have to read you.
So you have to make it impossible for them not to go on to the second graph. Take, for instance, Tom Scocca's boxing lead from "Blood Sport."
"Idly, last week, I watched Beethavean Scottland get beaten into a coma."
Or Outside's Steve Friedman's lead from "`It's Gonna Suck to Be You'":
"The first time he tried it, the vomiting started after sixty-seven miles. . . ."
How are you not going to keep reading?
3. Say What You Think.
Wholesale tin-eared butchery sports writing goes like this:
"Monolith Tech and Conglomerate University waged a real war on Saturday.
"`That was a real war out there,' said Monolith head coach Bruiser Smith."
Bad sportswriters have this thing about pens and pads. They have to use them - to exhaustion. So if they take the time to talk to a coach or a player or a fan, then they're damn sure going to use it. But do you realize that some of the greatest sportswriters in history - Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice - quoted almost nobody? They said what they felt, knowing they could say it better, funnier, and pithier than any lummox in shoulder pads.
What good is it to quote five people saying Bubba is fast when you can say it by yourself with just, "Bubba is faster than rent money"?
Check out the way Dan Neil sums up a night of demolition derby in his hilarious "Big Night in Bithlo" from Car and Driver:
"As the last toxic fumes from the jet-car bus burning waft over the crowd, the armadillos poke their heads out from their burrows, and the crowd heads toward their pickup trucks, this edition of Crash-O-Rama seems an unqualified success, and by that I mean a complete disaster."
Not a quote in sight.
4. It Sucks Before You Start.
You wrote a piece that sucked. The reason it sucked is not the way you wrote it. It's that when you finally sat down to write it, you didn't have any good stuff. Unless you're Dave Barry or Dan Jenkins or David Copperfield, you're not going to make Pulitzers out of puke.
Sports Illustrated's Gary Smith, the I. M. Pei of profilers, has a rule. He's not done researching a subject until he's interviewed at least fifty people. That's why he only does four a year. And that's also why those four are often the most unforgettable of the year. They are meticulous in their depth of reporting, nearly preposterous. And yet he throws around quotes the way Don Rickles threw around compliments. He prods and searches and hunts until he knows a story so well he can tell it himself, in his own crisp, penetrating prose.
It's not a hunt for detail. It's the hunt for the right detail. The Philadelphia Daily News's Mark Kram, Jr., in his "Joe's Gift," describes how a boy put up a wall between himself and his grief at the drowning death of his older brother, Harry:
"He began to systematically erase Harry from the premises: he sold his bicycle, gave away his books, beanbag chair, and other belongings, and set fire to his clothes."
That is great reporting. You come up with stuff like that, you can't help but write well.
(One other thing. The Washington Post's Michael Leahy, who was given the Michael Jordan beat in 2001, is known as a very accurate reporter. In "Transition Game" he describes a scene in the locker room just before Jordan's first comeback game in a Washington Wizard uniform:
"Another writer, who had predicted his comeback amid much disdain, sidled up, patted his arm, and said, `I didn't get any apology letters.'"
"`Don't expect any either,' Jordan said, unwilling to give this man a morsel tonight either. `You ought to know that.'"
know that's accurate. I was the writer he was writing about.)
5. The Interview Never Ends.
This is just a quickie, but so many writers shut down their ears when the formal interview ends. Don't. Keep your eyes and ears open and the invisible ink flowing even after the subject shakes your hand and says goodbye. Follow him out. Watch him drive off. You never know what might happen.
hen I was covering golf for Sports Illustrated, I invented "trunking," which means following the winner from the eighteenth green, through his press conference, through his winner's dinner, through whatever happens, out to the parking lot, until he puts his clubs in the trunk, slams it, and tells you to get lost. I got more good stuff doing that, and SI golf reporters still do it. In fact, that's how SI managed to quote Vijay Singh winning the 2000 Masters, going out to the parking lot, slamming the trunk, and declaring: "This place can kiss my black ass!"
6. Forget Cereal Boxes.
We all get in ruts, where we believe the only sports worth writing about are the big four: baseball, football, basketball, and hockey - the basic stuff that shows up on the Wheaties box.
But more often than not, the best dramas, funniest scenes, most interesting characters, are places where we forget to go. One look through this book will tell you that. There's a compelling story about bullfighting, a fascinating profile of a blind mountain climber, and an eye-gouging look at backyard wrestling.
Sometimes you might even find a great sports writing story when you look at . . . sports writing. Or haven't you read Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke's "Her Blue Haven"?
7. Death to Overwriting!
The quickest freeway to Bushdom, Hackville, Crap City, is to overwrite. Don't.
Just . . . don't.
When President Kennedy died, Jimmy Breslin interviewed the gravedigger. That's underwriting. That's poignancy. That says more than a thousand overwrought paragraphs about "the nation's heavy-hearted grief." When Frank Deford came to the key moment in his classic profile of "The Toughest Coach Who Ever Lived" back in the 1980s, he did it like a knife going through left-out margarine:
"[Coach] chatted with [his daughter] and told her how much he missed and loved her, and then he handed the phone to Virginia and went to finish dressing for the Lions Club meeting. In the bathroom, Bull Cyclone had just slapped some cologne on his face when he dropped dead without a sound."
You can't be graver than death, louder than bombs, more Catholic than the pope. So don't try. Go the other way.
8. Adjectives and Adverbs Sorta Suck, Really.
If I can avoid using an adjective, I will. If I can avoid writing, "He was a lucky sort of guy," and write instead, "He was the kind of guy who could drop a quarter in a pay phone and have it pay 20 to 1," then I've not only made it fun for me and the guy in the Barcalounger in Peoria, but I stand a good chance of not being fired for the week.
When ESPN Magazine's Gene Wojciechowski, as pure a writer as is working today, wants to show that the late Al McGuire was "trusting," he notes that McGuire would throw his car keys on the seat of his unlocked car. When he wants to show he was "quirky," he remembers how McGuire would shop in the oddest places for tin toy soldiers. For "rebellious" he quotes McGuire
Stout, Glenn : The Best American Sports Writing
Glenn Stout has been the series editor of The Best American Sports Writing since its inception and has written three illustrated biographies with Richard A. Johnson : Ted Williams : A Portrait in Words and Pictures; Joe DiMaggio : An Illustrated Life; and Jackie Robinson : Between the Baselines. He is a columnist for Boston Baseball, and his work has appeared in many regional and national magazines and newspapers. He lives in Uxbridge, Massachusetts.
The readers of this book are a unique constituency. For many, I suspect that The Best American Sports Writing makes a more or less regular appearance in their hands sometime between Labor Day and Christmas. It is something of a no-brainer for certain fans of sports and writing, an instant gift happily received. The annual migration of this book from bookstore to bookshelf can be calculated almost to the day, as if inspired by discreet and distant urgings buried deep in the DNA, a kind of seasonal response to diminishing light.
This kind of anticipation, like waiting for the first good snow, creates an exacting level of expectation in many readers. Over time they have developed a great sense of ownership over the final product, as well they should. After all, books cease to belong to the author - or in this case, the editors - as soon as readers turn to the first page. Their experience is all that matters, and when they start reading, the book becomes more theirs than its creators'.
Many writers, particularly those in daily journalism, know exactly what I mean. The Los Angeles Times's Bill Plaschke, whose story "Her Blue Haven" leads off this collection, makes use of a similar situation as the basis for his story; regular readers of our work feel they have a stake in each and every word. They take us seriously, even when we don't always take ourselves that way.
That doesn't mean that the readers of the books in this series are so slavishly devoted that they are above criticism. Quite the opposite. The readers of this series who contact me are rarely shy about expressing themselves. My name on the book jacket gives them that right. Over the years they have made it clear to me that although they enjoy the fluctuations of the menu each year, at the end of the meal they want to feel satisfyingly full. A book like this requires the investment of several hours of readers' time, and it is their right to feel they have used that time well.
Fortunately, most do, at least among those who contact me. Of those who do complain, most are concerned with a kind of scorekeeping, as in, "There were too many newspaper stories," or not enough newspaper stories, or too much football, or not enough hockey. Or too many famous writers, columns, men, women, curse words, adjectives, consonants, etc., etc., etc. - or not enough of those same items. One reader even calculated the annual cost per page of his purchase since the beginning of the series. For the record, we are holding our own against inflation.
I tend to measure how well I do my job by the way these complaints inevitably even out over the year. Most couch their criticism between compliments anyway, and when readers argue from the opposite sides of the same fence, I figure I must be doing something right.
Each year I invite readers to take part in this series, to send me stories they think might merit inclusion in the book. And they do, often with an eye at least as accurate and discerning as my own. For some reason, authors remain somewhat reticent about submitting their own material, and despite my repeated efforts, some editors I contact each year asking for submissions, particularly in the newspaper field, don't always do so.
Fortunately, the readers take up the slack. Several sent me Plaschke's story, and there is at least one other story that made its way into this volume that I would not have seen had a reader not clipped it, stuck it in an envelope, and sent it off to me. So keep it up.
In addition to those complaints and suggestions, a few missives stand out each year for one reason or another. One reader writes me each and every year asking when the book will be published and where he can find it. And every year I write back and say, "September," and, "Your local bookstore." I assume he is successful. He never asks where to find last year's edition.
Last September 17 I received an e-mail from a reader in New York City. In that strange time, in the wake of the 9/11 carnage, I think many of us everywhere found it difficult to focus and concentrate, particularly on something made so instantly trivial as sports. I felt this myself, for I was working on another project and was forced to write or consider the words "New York" over and over again. For weeks the name of that city felt and sounded different, as if heard for the first time and describing a brand-new place, and each time it caused a momentary and uncomfortable pause from which there seemed no escape. At the same time I was rapidly inundated by sports reportage from all over the country that touched on the horror of that day and found myself lost in the mind-numbing litany of tragedy piled upon tragedy. While I was fortunate in that everyone I loved and cared about in the city survived, still, the buildings had fallen and their shadows never seemed to lift.
And then I received this:
. . . As I struggled to cope with what was going on around me, I kept looking for a way to "take a break" - living in NYC has made it very difficult to do this - everything from the smoke in your hair to the constant wail of sirens, to the naked skyline is an ever-present reminder. I tried to read, watch movies, talk with friends about other stuff, but nothing worked. . . . I sat around unable to think or feel. And then on Wednesday afternoon I shuffled over to my bookshelf, one last attempt to find some satisfying distraction. As I scanned the shelves a large black and gold volume popped out at me - The Best American Sports Writing of the Century . . . the subject matter interesting but removed from reality, the quality of writing poignant but not too deep. . . . I found some solace in the stories, in the words. . . .
And so did I, in his. I don't repeat this story because it was sent to me, but because I believe it was directed to the writers of each and every volume in this series. It is easy for the authors who commit themselves to these and other pages each day and year of their lives to grow cynical, to feel that too many words fall still and silent and stupid, unheard, immaterial, and insignificant. We work, after all, in what others occasionally deride as "the toy department." But I think that this e-mail provides the best and only justification for what any of us do. Words can win awards and sometimes inspire change, they can cause us to laugh and cry or to fall asleep or turn the page. But they can also matter and mean more, perhaps briefly, in the hands of those we serve. None of us can tell precisely why or when that will be, apart from those brief moments when the reader tells us. And as any writer can tell you, perhaps the most important part of what we do is learning to listen well. So to the readers of this book, and the writers who are responsible for it each year, thank you.
My task each year is simple. I read as much as possible in hundreds of sports and general interest publications in search of work that I feel might merit inclusion in this book. I try to avoid missing anything, so each year I contact the editors and sports editors of hundreds of magazines, asking for either submissions or complimentary subscriptions. I also contact sports editors of a like number of newspapers and ask them to submit material.
But as I indicated earlier, I also welcome submissions from interested readers and writers. And writers, hear this: you are more than welcome to submit your own material. My only concern is for the final product. I don't much care how material comes to me, only that I see it in the first place.
Just after the first of the year I forward those stories that I find myself wanting to read again and again - usually about seventy-five - to our guest editor, who makes the final selection. That task fell this year to the estimable Rick Reilly, who supplemented my picks with some of his own.
As you read this, I am several knees deep in stories under consideration for The Best American Sports Writing 2003 and always welcome more. Each nonfiction story must have been published in 2002 in a newspaper, magazine, or online publication in either the United States or Canada, and it must be column-length or longer. Reprints are not eligible. All submissions must be received by me by February 1, 2003.
All submissions must include the name of the author, the date of publication, and the publication name and address. Photocopies, tear sheets, or clean copies are fine - reductions to 8®-by-11 are best. Newspaper stories should be mounted on paper, if possible, since loose clips stuffed in envelopes often suffer in transit. Owing to the volume of material I receive, no submissions will be either returned or acknowledged. Neither is it appropriate for me to make any comments about any individual submission.
Publications that want to make absolutely certain that I see their material are advised to send a complimentary subscription to the following address. This is not, and never has been, a requirement, but with a subscription I can survey material over the course of the year rather than in a deluge each January.
Submissions and subscriptions should be sent to this precise address:
The Best American Sports Writing
PO Box 381
Uxbridge, MA 01569
I may also be contacted by e-mail at BASWeditor@cs.com, but please note that no submissions will be accepted electronically, either pasted in or as an attachment.
Earlier editions of this book can be ordered through most book dealers or online sources. An index of stories through the year 2000 is available on glennstout.net. Thanks again to Eamon Dolan and Emily Little of Houghton Mifflin for their trust and help each year, and to Rick Reilly for his active involvement. Siobhan and Saorla again managed to hold their own against the endless onslaught of paper. Readers Scott Chait and Ed Page, among others, made significant contributions to this volume as well. And thanks again to the writers for allowing me to shape their book.
Introduction by Rick Reilly
Bill Plaschke. Her Blue Haven
-- from The Los Angeles Times
Frank Deford. Almost a Hero
-- from Sports Illustrated
Eugene Robinson. The Cuban Ali
-- from The Washington Post Magazine
Bob Norman. Backyard Bloodbath
-- from New Times Broward-Palm Beach
Juliet Macur. Please Let Me Die
-- from The Dallas Morning News
William Nack. A Name on the Wall
-- from Sports Illustrated
Mark Kram. Jr. Joe's Gift
-- from The Philadelphia Daily News
Karl Taro Greenfeld. Blind to Failure
-- from Time
Michael Leahy. Transition Game
-- from The Washington Post
Mike Lupica. Recalling Brother's Bravest Hour
-- from The New York Daily News
Mike Bianchi. Nightmare Is Real for Mourners
-- from The Orlando Sentinel
Gene Wojciechowski. Last Call
-- from ESPN.com
Adam Schefter. Seeing the Light
-- from The Denver Post
Rick Telander. Making Their Points
-- from The Chicago Sun-Times
Art Thiel. No Angst in All-Star Ichiro
-- from The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Scott Ostler. Don't Go All Rasheed About This
-- from The San Francisco Chronicle
Steve Hummer. We All Have Some Inner Daly, but Most of Us Suppress It
-- from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Steve Rushin. Cold Comfort
-- from Sports Illustrated
Dan Neil. Big Night in Bithlo
-- from Car and Driver
Dan Le Batard. Detour
-- from ESPN: The Magazine
Peter Richmond. Flesh and Blood
-- from GQ
Gary Smith. Higher Education
-- from Sports Illustrated
Elizabeth Gilbert. Near Death in the Afternoon
-- from GQ
Tom Scocca. Blood Sport
-- from Baltimore City Paper
Steve Friedman. It's Gonna Suck to Be You
-- from Outside
Skip Hollandsworth. The Killing of Alydar
-- from Texas Monthly
Joshua Harris Prager. Giants' 1951 Comeback Wasn't All It Seemed
-- from The Wall Street Journal
Jeanne Marie Laskas. The Enlightened Man
-- from Esquire
Notable Sports Writing of 2001
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