BOOK REVIEW: CRAMER CHOOSES THE ESOTERIC
The Best American Sportswriting 2004
Richard Ben Cramer, Editor and Glenn Stout, Series Editor
300 pp., $14.00
By Al Mattei
Richard Ben Cramer's writings have centered on the offbeat, which explains the varied brushstrokes of the entries in the 2004 version of "The Best American Sportswriting."
It wasn't enough to have a profile of Tony Pena, the manager of the Detroit Tigers. Instead, Joe Posnanski followed Pena to his native Dominican Republic, where he was taken to his boyhood home as well as to a mansion he bought for his mother. The story also has a twist at the end which must be read to understand the Kansas City Royals' manager and his culture.
There is, as is always the case in this series of books over the years, stories of the fallen athlete. In this vein is a tremendous story from Bicycling called "The Race of Truth. In it, Steve Friedman profiles time-trialist Graeme Obree, who at one time held the world record for the longest distance covered in one hour.
In several thousand taut words, Friedman details Obree's consuming personal drive, his successes, the political skirmishes with the bosses of cycling, and the depressive episodes that nearly killed him.
Robert Draper also writes a profile of a WNBA player for GQ. But it's hardly a "Women We Love" story. Instead, we get a look at Latasha Byears, a swaggering, sailor-mouthed product of the hip-hop generation who has been the lunch-pail carrier for the Los Angeles Sparks.
In the book also is one of the great miracles of sportswriting, how Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated turns a very short interview with Mia Hamm shortly before the 2003 Women's World Cup into the definitive personal history of the soccer legend. Indeed, the framework of that story was pretty well cribbed by ESPN Classic in its SportsCentury profile of Hamm first broadcast in December 2004.
Another story, written by The New York Daily News' Lisa Olson -- yes, that Lisa Olson -- details the secret lives of sports groupies and the lengths players are now going to deal with them.
But where this book really shines is when the authors of the various articles take you to places you would never have seen. Carlton Stowers' "Friday Night Lite" takes you through a season with a small Texas high school's six-man football team. Stephen Rodrick follows an Iranian national as he runs across America to raise awareness for world peace in "A Long Strange Trip." Susan Orlean of The New Yorker takes us to the World Taxidermy Championships.
But perhaps the highlight of this year's collection is Michael Hall's unforgettable portrait of Gilbert Tuhabonye, a Tutsi who barely escaped Burundi with his life after Hutu aggression, only to relocated to Texas where his running talent was being spread to youths in and around Austin and Abilene.
His generous and genial attitude, even after all of the trauma he endured during the civil wars in Rwanda and Burundi, gives hope to us all.