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Classic review: The Only Game in Town

A sparkling, eclectic collection of sports profiles from the pages of the New Yorker.

(Page 2 of 2)

There are occasional misfires, too. A baseball tale from Ring Lardner written in 1930 reads as if it was written by Ring Lardner in 1930. Timeless it is not. An Ian Frazier short fails to amuse as it might have when first published in 1977.

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And pity poor David Owen, who is just one of a zillion media members to craft unintended ironies while chronicling the pre-Thanksgiving 2009 version of Tiger Woods. In Owen’s 2000 profile, when Woods was at his stratospheric peak, Earl Woods bloviates about his son while speaking to an Oklahoma church congregation (“Tiger was made to be a good person and that was first and foremost in our family”). Asked about life away from the fairways, Tiger says, “When I’m off the golf course, I like to get away from everything, and I like to keep everything private, because I feel that I have a right to that.”

Insert tabloid text here.

If you’ve already read John Updike’s description of ornery Red Sox star hitter Ted Williams’s last game at Fenway Park, read it again. Updike succeeds where so many miss the mark in sportswriting: He admires the skill without cradling silly expectations that the bearer of said skill is, or even should be, Prince Charming.

The role of lovable rogue would be out of Williams’s league and Updike never pretends otherwise. More interestingly, he focuses on the uneasy accord reached between a city of fans and their star player after years of spats, breakups, and uneasy reconciliations. When Williams clobbers what augurs to be a storybook home run late in the game, Updike – and Williams – rescue us from the clichéd, expected ending.

Even as teammates and fans beg for a curtain call, Williams disappears into the dugout, never to return. Writes Updike of the fans’ desire for some response from Williams: “[B]ut he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.”

Elsewhere in these pages readers will find the likes of Yao Ming, Lance Armstrong, and Michelle Kwan, as well as the gargantuan grandeur of the 2008 Beijing Games.

If pressed, though, this reader might opt for a profile of Andrew McLean as the best of the bunch. Written by Nick Paumgarten in 2005, it tells the story of McLean’s life as a ski mountaineer, an audacious occupation that keeps McLean continually stalking deathly cliffs.

His may not be the only game in town, but Paumgarten’s is a great place to begin.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.


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