These Sports Stories Touch Common Truths in Each of Us

The Best American Sports Writing: 1997

Edited by Glenn Stout and George Plimpton

Houghton Mifflin

323 pp., $13 (paper)

Good writing defies classification. If an article is well written, it ceases to be a story about golf, or gardening, or Guatemala. Instead, it becomes a story about the human condition, something that unravels the way people think. It is a mirror that shows some common touch that binds everyone.

That's why a book called "The Best American Sports Writing" is not just for someone who reads the sports pages. At a basic level, sportswriting is about people who accomplish the extraordinary. The best sportswriters realize this, simply using sports as a vehicle to touch on more universal themes.

A few of the articles in this collection achieve this end. Others are just nice stories. But perhaps most important, each story furthers a very important concept that many non-sports fans do not understand: Sports consists of the struggle to achieve excellence - a goal that, when pursued honestly, can enrich life.

These are stories of people who succeeded in their struggle, of those who fell short, and of those who were consumed by it. Two stand out as exceptional: one of a third-generation bullfighter in Spain and another about Atlanta Braves' pitcher Greg Maddux.

The articles are not remarkable for their subject matter or for the beauty of the prose, but rather for the craft of the writing. The authors take two stories separated by thousands of miles and mountains of cultural differences, and slowly distill them into something more elemental.

In "Man and Bull," by Tony Hendra, which appeared in Harper's Magazine, the author sketches a portrait of matador Francisco Rivera Ordonez - the darling of Spain's bullfighting circuit. Hendra tells the story sparsely, almost standing aloof and acting as a chorus for the scene he sets. He objectively shows bullfighting in all its glamour and grotesqueness, not asking readers to approve of the controversial sport, merely prompting them to read on.

In the end, the success of the article lies in the tone Hendra creates. It is, in essence, a disturbing story, one about killing bulls. However, Hendra focuses on the wordless connection between Ordonez and his bulls and surprisingly leaves the reader with a sense of tenderness and compassion.

The other story of note is "Controlling Force," by Tom Boswell, a story that appeared in Playboy. "Controlling Force" might as well be a doctoral thesis for all that is good about sports. In a time when athletes are so filled with themselves that real understanding of the game and love for it are obscured beneath oceans of shoe contracts and television ads, Maddux's story stands out as a testament that pure sport can endure.

Maddux can't throw 100 m.p.h. He has no major commercial endorsements. He's not even that attractive. But he is a student of the game of baseball, and his careful study of the sport and relentless drive to master its simple, if unflashy, mechanics have made him the best pitcher of the decade.

Maddux's ability to not only think one step ahead of batters, but then to go one or two steps further is mind-boggling. It showcases the best aspects of baseball and an almost scientific precision. Maddux is, in a very real way, a revolutionary in an age of beefed-up batters and power pitchers. His attention to detail drives the article and gives insight into how a genius thinks.

As a cautionary note, some articles are written with language that one might hear at a hockey game.

* Mark Sappenfield is on the Monitor staff.

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