One of the judges to select the best British sports book in an annual event lamented at the quality of British sports writing. He compared it unfavorably to what is found in American newspapers and magazines. While this is a surprising and uncharacteristic admission, the current book is telling proof that, indeed, American sports writing is rich in both quality and its diversity of writers and topics. Mike Lupica, the popular columnist for the New York Daily News, has put together a treasure trove of pieces in a variety of sports that underscores the ability of writers to offer rich and finely detailed narratives of both seminal and mundane events in the athletic world.
Eli Manning is the preternaturally talented quarterback of the New York Giants, the brother of the All Pro Peyton Manning and the son of Archie Manning, whose gridiron exploits are sung as hosannas at the University of Mississippi. In a long and deeply satisfying piece about this much hyped football player (titled “The Eli Experiment”), Michael Lewis takes a close look at this phenomenon and, in the process, reveals a number of insights into the way the professional game is played.
Jeff Allison was a gifted schoolboy pitcher in Peabody, Massachusetts. His cautionary saga through the minor leagues of baseball and descent into drug addiction - and the role played by his coach and cohorts in this small town - is narrated in stark detail by Michael Bamberger in his “The Pride of Peabody.” Bamberger holds nothing back in detailing the complicity of a variety of people who saw only the talent of the young pitcher and not his penchant for self-destruction.
Joe Paterno has been coaching football at Penn State University for the better part of five decades. Of late, though, his team has not had much success. Criticism of Paterno has comes from a host of people, all of whom feel that he is past his prime and that the coaching world has changed considerably even as he sticks to his old methods. In “The Lion in Late, Late Autumn,” Pat Jordan visits Paterno and attempts to uncover the man behind the persona. What follows is a marvelous portrait of a successful coach that offers telling insights into what makes Paterno tick and how he is able to maintain his motivation in a high pressure profession.
All in all, there are twenty-five pieces in this collection gleaned from well-known periodicals such as Sports Illustrated and Esquire as well as from daily newspapers. In a poignantly written introduction, Lupica portrays the modern newspaper sports room and how sports writing has changed over time. While sports writing has changed palpably with increased media coverage and the advent of the Internet, the common link that connects the Red Smiths of the past with the Mike Lupicas of today is the keenness of observation and the quality of the writing. This collection is evidence that the link continues to be strong.