I was a sick kid.
I was born with an enlarged heart, had virtually every childhood disease by the age of two and thereafter was never well for long. My mother complained that at birth I didn’t cry, I coughed, and she lost track of the number of times she put me on the school bus healthy, only to get a call from the nurse an hour or so later that I had a fever of 103 or 104 and that she had to come and get me immediately. Throw in an eye operation, a bone disease, unexplained searing headaches, five or six bouts with pneumonia, poking and probing by specialists and all sorts of other unexplained afflictions and accidents — falling on a stick and having it pierce the roof of my mouth, crashing through a glass door, a coma after a tetanus shot, losing my front teeth in a car accident, a broken arm, a torn rotator cuff, crushed bladder, a half dozen concussions, mysterious hives caused by cold water, chronic bronchitis, mononucleosis and so on — and, well, I missed a lot of school. At the end of the year, when other kids bragged about their grades, I boasted about how many days I missed. I once set a personal record just shy of 50, and always, always missed at least 20.
It made for a strange life. I think I fell part way into myself at an early age and have never climbed completely out. I was ruled by my imagination, the only constant, escaping the hospital or sick bed by embracing the fever dreams and fantasies and shadow plays on the wall of my room as I’d be woken to take a breathing treatment or eat ice chips or swallow a pill or give my temperature, a humidifier spitting in the background and mentholated oil percolating through quadruple layers of clothes.
Confined, too much, and cut off from anything much beyond the bed-ridden, mind-stripping wasteland of daytime TV (Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Merv Griffin), words saved me, pages of paper I lowered over the bedrails to escape to another place. I didn’t just read words, I consumed them and allowed them lead me away, never questioning their value, utter faith in whatever place they took me. I didn’t learn to read books as much as I did occupy them, to wiggle into the crevices of language and characters and stories and then be swept away, or carried elsewhere. Those places often seemed more real to me than where I was, buried under quilts, and even today my dreams are not often of where I am, but ongoing chapters of stories and scenes that unfold without end. I am not in my dreams as much as they are in me.
At a certain point, as I grew older, I began to realize that some of those words that captured me were more potent than others, the connections stronger, more immediate and emotional, making me feel in ways nothing else ever did. That words could do that seemed like some kind of magic, an utter mystery of invention.
I can remember the moment. I was 13 years old and my English teacher gave us an assignment to create a collage to illustrate a poem. A poem? What’s that? My older brother handed me some anthology and I read “Suicide’s Note” by Langston Hughes: “The calm / Cool face of the river / Asked me for a kiss.”
That’s it, the whole poem. Twelve words that knocked me on my ass and changed everything.
How was it possible? How could writers do that? How could someone, with words alone, ink on paper, make me feel so much, so deeply? How could words teach what life had not, and articulate thoughts and feelings I’d never before uttered but now, once articulated, were unquestionably mine. How did they get in there? And then, eventually a question even more important for me to ask: how can I do that?
I followed the usual path of a young writer, one both completely common and entirely my own, unconscious of its near impossibility — voracious reading from piles of library books, secret notebooks and surreptitious screeds, writing for the school newspaper and then off to college on scholarship for creative writing, coupled with a headlong search for experience, sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll but also pouring concrete, driving cross country, serving the rich and working one crap job after another — janitor, security guard, painter — trying to get old fast, and get past the awkwardness of the young writer to become just the noun itself. I was aware enough to know that I had to jettison and write out all the bad sentences and pretentious ideas and rules-ridden construction and then, every once in a great while, I could see — actually hear it spoken from my own mouth when reading my own words, something I unquestionably wrote, that worked. Then, of course, came the challenge: figuring out why and how to make it happen again, to do it more or less, if not on command, at least often enough to know it was no accident.
Twenty-five years ago, I was somewhere on that path, at the start, making the transition from young writer to writer, when stewardship of this book improbably happened. As a favor to a friend, despite my lack of kitchen skills, an agent of cookbook authors had taken me as a client. An editor at Houghton Mifflin asked whether or not she knew an agent who might have a writer who could serve as series editor of another Best American title, a nonfiction sports collection. She didn’t, but she suggested me. At that point, I’d published a handful of magazine stories for Boston Magazine, and was freelancing while working at the Boston Public Library.
I was asked to put together a sort of sampler, recent stories of the kind I would seek for this series. It was easy enough to cull through contemporary magazine anthologies in the stacks, find some sports stories and pretend I had ferreted them out my own. I also made use of a brief meeting with David Halberstam, fresh off the sports best-sellers The Breaks of the Game and The Summer of ‘49. I had helped him with some research and when I met with my editor to discuss the project, I said I knew Halberstam and thought he might agree to serve as guest editor for the inaugural volume. That was a push, but he remembered me and agreed, and that sealed the deal. From the start, I could envision an entire shelf of this book, my name sharing the spine, some small part of me realizing I was meant to do this.
What I did not anticipate was what was really important. Selecting material for this book forced me, for the first time really, to take the why and how of writing seriously. I wasn’t just fooling around anymore, and what worked and what did not were no accidents. Now it mattered. My take on what was good or bad would be tested every single year, not just by the readers of this book, but by my peers, other writers, all of whom, I was certain, were far smarter and more qualified than I.
To paraphrase poet James Wright, fear is what quickened me. I believed from the start that even though the subject matter of this book would be “just ” sports, that sports reached into so much of the world that it could include the full dimension of our experience, that the writers would prove that and all I had to do was uncover the evidence. The fear came, not from the worry that the work did not exist, but that I would not find it, or recognize it, that I would miss the essential and end up collecting the arbitrary. I was afraid the subject would be seen as “just sports,” and nothing else, an accounting of who recently won or lost and nothing more.
The writers, of course, saved me. They did so not only with their words, but their competitiveness, the kind that makes us both share discoveries with others and curse ourselves for not writing it first, or doing it better. In this way the best forced its way into this book, and with each passing year I began to have a better idea, not only of what writing worked, but why.
A big part of that was due to the first decision made in regard to this Series, and perhaps the most important. When it was still in the talking stages, I suggested that we call it The Best American Sports Writing, two words, rather than the compound “sportswriting.” From the start, I think, this made the book larger, more inclusive. It wasn’t “just sports.” It was just writing, and the influence of that adjective became not absolute and narrow, but expansive, wide and ever searching.
I recently had a writer ask me how to find stories “that have that larger, human, beyond-sports resonance.” I think the answer is in that first decision. Sportswriting tells you the score, the essentials, who won and who lost and why. The work represented in this book tells you everything else — why you care.
Unburdened by an exclusive definition, the series was able to evolve into ever more interesting places. While there has always been room here for “sportswriting” — the columns, game stories and shorter features of the daily press — over the past 25 years the media landscape has changed dramatically and profoundly. The daily press, rather than being essential to the genre, at its center, now shares that place not only with other print products, but with an increasing number of online outlets.
Over these years, as the medium changed, so did the content. New formats freed writing from constraints of both time and space. Reporting and reaction need not wait, or have to fit a predetermined hole. Over time, the possibilities of what writers could do expanded. And, ever so slowly, after a transitional period of massive contraction in the print world, the outlets for such work have expanded as well.
This series has bridged perhaps the most volatile era in journalism. I published my first magazine story in 1986, also my first written story, period, about the 1907 suicide of Red Sox manager Chick Stahl. To do so, I had to spend days poring over microfilm, work that in some cases could be accomplished now in only a few minutes. I found a book written in the mid-’60s that told me how to pitch a magazine story, and the advice was not yet outdated. I sent out two pitches by mail. The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine rejection came by way of a mimeographed form letter. The next day, Ken Hartnett, the irascible old-school editor of Boston Magazine, asked to meet me. Despite the fact that I had hair down to my ass, wore a suit freshly purchased from Goodwill that still smelled of mothballs, and had exactly no clips, after talking to me for an hour he still took the story on spec. Over the next week or so I slept about three hours a night, wrote the first, second, third, fourth and fifth drafts out in longhand, and then had to sneak into work early to type it up on an electric typewriter, using the same five fingers I use today — inexplicable nerve damage makes it impossible to touch type. Suffice to say, things have changed since then, but I’ve never been without an assignment, and I type at the speed I think.
The first edition of this book, published in 1991 and guest edited by David Halberstam, included only stories from print, nearly half from newspapers and newspaper magazines. Online journalism did not exist. Not until the 2000 edition did the book feature a story from an online source (for the record it was Pat Toomay’s “Clotheslined” from Sportsjones.com, also, I think, the first online story in any Best American collection). The online behemoth of ESPN did not crack the pages until 2002. (Gene Wojciechowski’s “Last Call” from ESPN.com)
This evolution has been a good thing. As that sick kid, in a house with no money and parents who did not have the luxury of time to read, most magazines were out of reach — the budget didn’t allow for Sports Illustrated, much less the New Yorker (As I flipped through the pages in the doctor’s office one day I remember thinking, Who would ever read that? There are no pictures and the cartoons aren’t even funny.) I had access to only a single newspaper, the boosterish Columbus Dispatch, which worshipped Woody Hayes and the Republican Party as if a single entity. Sports writing from elsewhere mostly lived on a single shelf at the local Library, 796.M365 in the old Dewey decimal system, where the old Best Sports Stories series, which began in 1944, mostly collected dust.
Now of course, almost everything is available, as most print sources also appear somewhere online and the online world has proliferated and grown — in the past few years, at an astonishing rate. As a result, the nature of sports writing has inevitably changed, evolving in ways that were impossible to predict even a decade ago. But it has always been this way.
Sportswriting, the compound word, initially took shape as the score and the game report, soon supplemented by the notes columns, which gave birth to the true columnist. Features, at least the kind of work we recognize today as features, were exceedingly rare before the 1920s, the start of the age of the magazine, and really did not proliferate until after World War II. And there it sat, sports writing encompassed in but four forms: notes, columns, gamers and features.
By the 1960s, due to the influence of writers like Gay Talese and the need to provide something the lumbering presence of television could not, the nature and character of the features began to change, becoming harder, more demanding and ambitious. When the stray issue of Sport or SI found its way into my hands, or a copy the Best Sports Stories with a byline by W.C Heinz, I was mesmerized. Over the next day or two, I was not confined to bed, but freed.
Over the next few decades, this kind of work really began to flourish, both in the daily press as what became known as take-outs, in newspaper Sunday supplements and in magazines — not just Sports Illustrated and Sport, but also in the late lamented Inside Sports and the hybrid National Sports Daily. General interest magazines took note and sports-themed features and profiles — already occasional guests — became ever more regular staples, not just in men’s magazine like GQ, Esquire and Playboy, but in regional and general interest magazines and even more literary publications such as the Atlantic, Harper’s and the New Yorker. When this series first launched, these are the places where sports writing lived and flourished.
Change, of course, is inevitable. As the online world began to develop, the print world, through a combination of pure economics, greed and one misstep after the other, began to shrink, as did, for a time, the amount and kind of work the guest editors tend to select for this book. Fewer pages in print sources meant less room, which led to fewer stories and stories shorter and often less ambitious. The Sunday supplement magazine all but died off (there were nearly a hundred when this series started), and the 3,000 or 4,000 of 5,000 word take-outs or serial features became both more rare and more predictable.
And when work of any kind becomes predictable, produced by the same impulses and written and edited by the same people according to the same criteria, it suffers. Ambition can ossify into the formulaic. If writing has an enemy it is predictability, and if there is one thing I decry after two and a half decades of wading through this bottomless word bog every day, it is work that is safe and smug and satisfied with itself, the “good enough” story that checks off all the boxes and then goes to lunch. That’s one of the reasons this series features a guest editor, to ensure it never stays the same. This year, it is ESPN’s Wright Thompson.
If writing has a savior, however, it is the individual writer, usually unattached, hungry, ambitious and necessarily more creative. As the online world began to flourish, unconfined by the material and economic restraints of print, the scope of the genre began to expand again. In the last decade — really, the last five years, another form has thrived, filling the space between the decline of the newspaper and the shrinkage of magazine advertising on one side, and a similar contraction in the book world, leading to the near abandonment of the nonfiction mid-list by major publishers. In between was left an appetite unfulfilled.
Leave it to the writers to fill it. We all know it when we see it, but it goes by many names: narrative journalism, creative non-fiction, deep reads, longreads, or the handle that seems to raise so many hackles bound to the past, longform. (Let’s just get this out of the way early — if the name bothers you, call it anything you want.)
It was always there, only now there was a place designed to support it. If there is any material difference in this kind of work, it may be that traditional print features and book-length narratives tend to rely on the reader’s pre-existing interest in the subject. The best longer features overcome this, just as the best poems and best fiction do; the “subject” does not matter and is secondary to the execution of the form, the creation of an interesting narrative of characters. That is part of what makes longform so attractive to writers, the inherent challenge to write something engaging regardless of a reader’s pre-existing interest. Yet at the same time, these same longform stories need to respect the reader who is already interested in the subject. This means you never dumb down; you write up. It is an engaging, exciting place to be. Once upon a time, I regularly heard from younger people who wanted to know, “How can I be a sports writer (or sportswriter)?” I don’t get asked that question much anymore. They tell me, “I want to write longform.”
Here’s the thing. The skills and craft required to produce good work — good sports writing, of any length — have not changed. If I have realized anything over the last 25 years, it is this. Length is only a consequence of the time and care spent reporting, writing and editing. As many stories are killed by being too short or underreported as are by being too long — witness the formulaic and deadly dull “news feature,” that populates the newspaper. Every story in every circumstance can be told in any number of ways. That might mean a story of 1,500 or 3,000 words but it might also mean a story of 15,000 or 30,000. Every story, regardless of length, must feel as if it is organic and just as long as it needs to be.
After 25 years of professional reading, not to mention nearly 30 years as a professional writer, from my chair the best stories, whatever name you want to give them, share a few qualities — that is one thing that has not changed, as true today as in 1920, or when I was swaddled in my bed as a 10-year-old. So what do I look for when seeking out “the best?”
I believe the best work features thorough reporting, and has a defined shape, a structure and a backbone and an architecture and a music all its own. The stories I wish to read again are organic, written from within, from the material outward rather than plugged into some pre-existing template or journalistic equivalent of verse, chorus, verse. They are confident from the first word — and certain, sounding as if they already know the end of the story from the start, as if every word is predetermined from the first syllable. I once heard Bill Heinz talk about how important it was for him to find the opening chords, for they define all that can follow. The best stories allow the reader to identify characters by revealing something universal, something authentic we share. They unfold, they answer questions before the reader asks them, they create three-dimensional pictures that play out over that fourth dimension, time, they let the reader to create an internal movie of what is happening, they play to the senses, and involve the senses.
All the parts can be in place, but in the end, I think it is the SOUND of a story that buries it in the reader’s mind and makes it matter. I mean a literal singular sound that, even if never uttered aloud, is distinctive, its pace and tone seductive, a rapt voice whispering in your ear. Just as one need not know the singer’s language to appreciate the song, the sound of a story should be just as engaging. I don’t read for the stories in this book as much as I listen for them.
The really good story provides an experience that approaches the book experience, it takes you from one place and by the end, leaves you in another, changed. The lede is important, of course (why else continue?) but the end is no less so. Stories should not just finish and stop from exhaustion, but allow the experience of reading to continue for a moment, to stop the reader cold, to force he or she to relish the experience, and want to share it. The best close makes the reader pause and allows the momentum of the story wash over like a wave, like the water that runs up the sand and then sinks and disappears, leaving a trace behind. That is what first carried me away from my sickbed and still does so today.
I believe the goal of reading and writing is to change lives in ways large and small, and when the water recedes, the reader must know something has changed. This is the payoff for time spent listening to words. This is why we bother. You emerge at the end almost without breath, transformed, and you want to read it again.
Here is what I listen for more than anything else: to want to read it again. After 25 years of this, if that was not the case I do not think I could read another word. The last thing I want is for this book to come out and not want to read it again myself. This has not often happened. Amid all the false starts, the hundreds and thousands of stories I start to read then stop because, well, I discover I don’t even want to read them once, the rare story that demands to be read again and again keeps me at it.
That’s the dirty little secret of this series. Many readers have already read some of the stories collected in these pages each year, and now it is easy enough to find virtually all of them online. Yet it is just that — the desire to read a story again, to re-experience its craft and drama, that provides the rationale for this series. Discovering work you’ve never encountered before is great and essential — but so is becoming re-acquainted to work you might already know, this time stripped down to its core, just words, on a page or a screen, your eyes, mine, and the writer, all sharing something saved.
And in the end, that is the justification and logic of bothering with any of this at all, as an editor, a writer or a reader. We hope to be taken away — to share, through words, and become more than we are. If you give yourself to something, long enough and completely, it gives you something back.
So I have learned from the words in this book.