The Best American Sportswriting 2001

Bud Collins, Editor and Glenn Stout, Series Editor

Houghton-Mifflin 2001

368 pp., $13.00

By Al Mattei


Bud Collins is a tennis commentator, a writer with a rapier wit, and, occasionally, a foppish dresser.

But in The Best American Sportswriting 2001, which he helped assemble with series editor Glenn Stout, he becomes something few others have in the course of this series: a visionary.

Upon the assembly of the stories for this annual tome, who could have known of the events of 2001 in the world of sports and the world at large? And, who could have foreseen their inclusion in a book of sportswriting, of all things?

Collins must have sensed something in Touré's article "Kurt is My Co-Pilot," from Rolling Stone. The article, a profile of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, Jr., took the tangential angle of the racer's contrarian musical tastes (hence, the title referencing the band Nirvana) and turns it into a picture of the de-Southernization of NASCAR over the past few years.

What is chilling about Touré's article are the last few paragraphs, dealing with the concept of mortality. We hear Earnhardt Jr. speak about the relative safety of a Winston Cup full-bodied stock car.

"Yeah, sometimes guys get cocked just right," he said in a pre-race confab with his pit crew in a race at Las Vegas in 2000. "That's the way it is. There's things in there your head can hit, and if it hits it just right, you can be permanently injured. But guys normally walk away."

Who knew that, in February 2001, his own father would "hit it just right" into the Turn Four wall at Daytona?

Another visionary choice was the article "Fear of Falling" from Outside. The story about four American rock climbers kidnapped on an expedition to Kyrgyzstan, goes into a description of the network of foreign Muslim guerillas to whom this band of bandits belongs.

Though the name of the organization isn't named in the story, its main benefactor is: Osama bin Ladin. And it is clear, from the description of the network of gunmen, that the fighters belonged to the al-Qaeda network. Who know that the al-Qaeda would be reviled all over the world because of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001?

The four climbers, for the record, escaped only when they gained the trust of the troops, managed to isolate the four of them with a single gunman, then shoved him off one of the very cliffs they attempted to climb.

There is also "Swing Shift," a Michael Leahy story from The Washington Post Magazine that follows baseball icon Cal Ripken Jr. in the offseason, just at the point where he knows his body is not going to allow him to continue playing for much longer. And who knew that Ripken would play his last season in 2001?

The selection of stories are the usual eccentric mix of high-profile athletes, outdoor pursuits, and stories which make you feel a sense of place. You can, for example, feel your chest tighten as Bucky McMahon dives down towards the wreck of the Andrea Doria in the Esquire story, "Everest at the Bottom of the Sea." Your eyes feel like they are straining when James McManus examines a poker hand in the Harper's article, "Fortune's Smile."

There are stories of downfalls -- continuing on a theme that has been long part of this series. Riddick Bowe is shown as a fighter ready to lose more than a fight because of lavish spending and intemperate behavior. Dave Draper -- the bodybuilder who helped bridge the gap between Charles Atlas and Arnold Schwartzenegger -- is shown making a comeback from a life of drugs and depression.

Profiles of tennis player Alexandra Stevenson, surfing pioneer George Freeth, and a 40th anniversary retrospective of Bill Mazeroski's home run to win the 1960 World Series are also included.

But a couple of selections here have been done better in other media. An article on former miler and Japanese POW Louis Zamperini, written for The Torrance Daily Breeze, is almost simplistic compared to a documentary which ran in conjunction with the 1998 Nagano Olympics. And a column on a silver medal-winning wrestler, written for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, fails to make the reader care about the years of effort it took to get to the Sydney Olympics. The unintended consequence is that we get a portrait of a whiner.

Still, there is some knockout writing in this year's tome. Buzz Bissinger's profile on the last days of Joe DiMaggio -- warts and all -- makes it from the pages of Vanity Fair.

A Rick Reilly "Point After" on a Massachusetts high school football player declaring his homosexuality to his teammates is one of the great stories ever kept to one magazine page.

And Pete Kotz's profile of hockey enforcer Garrett Burnett from Cleveland Style, neatly goes into several issues: violence, Canada's hockey culture, sports economics, and local fame.

But perhaps the touchstone of the entire book comes, oddly enough, from the journalistic tradition of the "parting shot," where a retiring writer gets enough column inches to say his peace about anything that bothered him (usually, a dour interviewee or call-in talk show guests).

The Columbia Journalism Review published a telling essay by Gene Collier, a mini-memoir written about his 22 years at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as being akin to being on another world in comparison to his second career in the features department.

Given Collins' visionary touch on this anthology, you have to think that, given Collier's words, print sports journalism has a nasty period beyond 2001.