A road tour of US sports, soup to nuts

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ROAD SWING: ONE FAN'S JOURNEY INTO THE SOUL OF AMERICAN SPORTS By Steve Rushin Doubleday 245 pp., $22.95

Steve Rushin, a writer for Sports Illustrated, smugly had assumed that his near-constant travel for the magazine had allowed him to see the world of sports. What made him question this was a trip overseas in 1994.

It was while on Olympic assignment in Lillehammer, Norway, that he experienced a series of small epiphanies leading him to write "Road Swing," which he describes as a sports-addled relative of William Least Heat-Moon's "Blue Highways," the now-famous back-roads look at America.

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What started Rushin reaching for the Rand McNally Road Atlas, oddly enough, was a night spent watching women's figure skating - as a spectator. He realized he hadn't been an off-duty sports observer in years, and perhaps was missing a lot.

After returning home he resolved to graze "at the endless salad bar of American sports: from the garbanzo beans of celebrity softball to the leafy lettuce of NBA basketball."

In a rented Pathfinder, he set out to disprove the assertion in Shakespeare's "Henry IV" that "If all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work."

His free-form travel saw him begin in Bloomington, Minn., his boyhood home, where a Minnesota Vikings switch plate still adorns Rushin's old bedroom. From there, he let his wanderlust take over.

This is neither all backwater nor big-city travel, but a mixture, including points in between, strung together in two grand loops around the lower 48. In racking up 23,658 miles, he missed only four of the contiguous states.

Rushin has a keen eye for the quirky and idiosyncratic and makes no attempt to read the cosmic tea leaves of sports. About his most sweeping conclusion is that many American families are bound together by sports, which is hardly revelatory.

There's little sacred or too serious here, which at times can be disappointing, and sometimes an unwelcome amount of sports-bar-style coarseness and bite. But Rushin knows how to turn a phrase, tickle funny bones, and make telling comments.

A Montana highway is "as straight as uncooked spaghetti" and Anaheim Stadium expresses the "blissed-out, vanity-plated ethos" of pro sports in California."

Practically his first stop was Dyersville, Iowa, where the baseball movie "Field of Dreams" was filmed. Rushin worried he'd find the diamond built by Universal Studios in a corn field, a tourist trap. The tourists do come, he found, but it's a nice crowd that brings together locals and out-of-towners in friendly games.

Rushin was drawn to burgs like Dyersville, as well as to communities with such intriguing names as Fairplay, Wis., Jim Thorpe, Pa., and French Lick, Ind. From driving into small towns and seeing the number of faded signs heralding former championship teams, Rushin wishes there were expiration dates on such civic boasts.

In Cleveland, he caught up with a gentleman named Cleveland Brown who was not much of a football fan; in Cooperstown, N.Y., he found the Baseball Hall of Fame "unbelievably captivating." He visited Babe Ruth's birthplace in Baltimore. In Georgia, he discovered that Augusta, the home of the Masters golf tournament, is no scenic splendor. In Tennessee, he drove I-40, a most festive thoroughfare on football Saturdays.

Throughout the journey, Rushin surprises and is surprised. In St. Louis, a baseball city, he talks to a monster truck pioneer and attends a women's college soccer game, thus paying homage to the city's reputation as a United States soccer capital.

In Little Rock, Ark., meanwhile, he happens upon two full basketball courts underneath the freeway, and concludes that they must be populated by motorists who abandoned hope of finding the elusive I-30 on-ramp.

The book could have spent more "quality time" on the West Coast, a noted sports region, but who's to argue the South doesn't deserve the attention he gives it? After all, 20th-century sports have been a "veritable Alabamarama" with state superstars such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Bo Jackson, and Bear Bryant. Stockcar racing thrives there, and Louisiana claims to be a Sportsman's Paradise.

*Ross Atkin is a Monitor staff writer.

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