This venerable collection begun in 1991 keeps getting better. As series editor Glenn Stout remarks tellingly in his Foreword, there is a reason why this series is not titled “The Best American Sportswriting.” Instead, the last word is split into two, “sports” and “writing.” The pieces in this collection are not there because they are good descriptions of athletes or athletic events. Rather, they are there because they are exemplars of good writing, period.
The twenty-nine selections in this compilation run the gamut from mainstream U.S. sports such as football and baseball to those that operate at the margins, such as running. The common thread, though, is the writer’s penchant for getting deeper into the subject and presenting it in a compelling fashion. Michael Lewis takes the relatively humdrum endeavors of a football place kicker in “The Kick is Up and It’s… a Career Killer,” and brings us center stage into the life of Adam Vinatieri. We soon learn that a kicker’s professional life is anything but humdrum.
Joe Posnanski profiles the preternaturally talented Bo Jackson whose athletic life was cut short due to injuries, though not before showing us plausible evidence of what might have been. J.R. Moehringer takes us into the calm but hectic world of Pete Carroll, the head coach of the University of Southern California football team. The list goes on, but the quality remains consistently satisfying.
The estimable William Nack, a longtime sports writer at Sports Illustrated, edits the current collection. Nack made his name writing about horse racing, so it isn’t surprising that he has affection for relatively obscure sports. Eli Saslow introduces us to ba’, a game probably played only in Scotland but a distinct throwback to today’s rugby and even American football. Jeanne Marie Laskas’ look at the pregame rituals of the Cincinnati Bengals is both funny and riveting.
The future of newspapers as we know them now is highly uncertain. But one thing is clear from this collection: the demise of American newspapers is certainly not due to the quality of their content. There are sports writers who bring to us via words the triumphs and travails of athletes. The best of them get anthologized in a collection such as the current one.