BOOK REVIEW: SCHAAP'S CHOICES ARE ECLECTIC AND CURIOUS
The Best American Sportswriting 2000
Dick Schaap, Editor and Glenn Stout, Series Editor
309 pp., $13.00
By Al Mattei
The phrase runs through your head the moment you are about halfway through the The Best American Sportswriting 2000: "What in the wide, wide, world of sports is going on here?"
Over the decade that Glenn Stout has been assembling stories for consideration by hired guest editors such as David Halberstam, Dick Schaap, and Bud Collins (the 2001 book editor), the anthologies have shown the talents of crafted writers as well as the stories you often don't read in the local sports section.
Schaap takes the esoteric to a new level in the 2000 anthology. Oh, sure, writers familiar with readers of these books over the years will recognize Charlie Pierce, David Halberstam, and Rick Telander. The usual publications, like GQ, The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, and Vanity Fair, are represented.
But there is also a story from the on-line alternative journal SportsJones.com. There are stories on sailing, ocean swimming, curling, minor-league hockey, ultramarathoning, a satellite rodeo circuit, poker, professional wrestling, cockfighting, extreme skiing, skateboarding, and BASE jumping.
The last three stories, as well as a story on daredevil Robbie Knievel, all represent the kinds of "Xtreme" sports that have found their way into global media -- including ESPN, for whom Schaap works.
The skateboarding story, about Tony Hawk, even plugs the network's participation in the promotion and televising of these type of events. The now-famous 900-degree flip, done by Hawk on television during the 1999 X Games, is presented as a great moment in television history, as if it somehow transformed the way we look at society.
And, perhaps, as it Brandi Chastain's penalty kick at the 1999 World Cup didn't mean anything. Indeed, the choice of stories for the 2000 edition fell short in several aspects. Nowhere was the 1998 NBA strike mentioned, nor Lance Armstrong, the Women's World Cup, or the fallout from the Olympic bribery scandal.
The four major North American pro sports are pretty well ignored, to a point. The football story is about how a former NFL player bonds with several Hall of Famers in the filming of the movie Any Given Sunday. The pro baseball story is an appreciation of the closing of Tiger Stadium, and the lone hockey story is Sports Illustrated's pointed, detailed account of a stick-swinging incident in a major junior hockey game that left one player fighting for his life.
The NBA is slightly better treated, with a profile of then-rookie Jason Williams of the Sacramento Kings, along with the one-shot, one-make career of former North Carolina point guard Tommy Kearns.
The continued rise of women's sports is set aside. The women in most of the stories are reduced to a group of "skiing Bettys" trying to seduce a group of snowboarders, an obsessive runner, and assorted doting girlfriends, wives, and mothers. The biggest doter, in "Soul Survivor," is New Mexican Diane Taylor, who acts as a foster parent/guardian to a basketball player sent out to Roswell in order to escape streets of New York City.
About the only central female athlete in the entire anthology is swimmer Lynne Cox, who swam from Alaska to the Soviet Union in an attempt to bridge the two Cold War enemies in the late 80s.
Indeed, the only time the words "Brandi Chastain" ever appears in the book is in the end notes, listing the "notable" writings of 1999.
But many of those stories have titles which are eye-catching, and make you wonder if what you had just read was really representative of the best sports journalism of 1999. Not published were stories like "She Scared The Hell Out Of Everybody," from Philadelphia Weekly; "How Reality Kicked Mike Tyson's Ass," Men's Journal; "Notah Begay's Long Walk," from ESPN.com; "Shut Up You Wimps, and Pull!" from Philadelphia Magazine; and "Finding Touchdown Jesus," from GQ. Also not published in full form is the groundbreaking Time story "The Crazy Culture of Kids' Sports."
Mind you, there are some memorable stories in the 2000 anthology. There is "Merv Curls Lead," a story about one man's crusade to professionalize curling -- a sport that resists professionalization as much as Ultimate frisbee.
There are a couple of essays that eventually became full-length novels: Bryan Burrough's unforgettable epic on a hurricane smashing into the Sydney-Hobart sailing race, and Garrison Keillor's satirical look at Minnesota politics in the Jesse "The Body" Ventura era.
But three tales stand out. In "Blown Away," GQ writer Stephen Rodrick takes us through the gun culture of the conservative rural South. He neatly portrays the denizens as paranoid, arrogant, racist, and conveniently lacking in memory when it comes to the Columbine shootings.
There is also Robert Huber's Esquire story about the son of Joe DiMaggio and how he has kept his distance from the family and the public spotlight since the Yankee Clipper divorced his mother, slipping into a morass of poverty and near-homelessness.
And then, there is Harper's "Enter the Chicken," in which Robert Huber traverses rural America looking for differences between cockfighting and the way companies treat chickens raised for slaughter. It is one of those tales meant to prick the mind into thinking about the way Americans treat poultry in particular, animals in general.
And when you are taken into that darkened slaughter room at the chicken factory, you can't help thinking, "What in the wide, wide world of sports is going on here?"