The first selection in this estimable anthology opens with the following sentence:
“On the day he decided to pay a man to cut off his leg with a power saw,
Tom White woke up with a powerful yearning to run.”
As Leigh Montville remarks in his introduction, it would take a stoic of unimaginable self-control not to be tempted to read what follows such a stunning opening. What follows is even better as the story describes the decision by White, an intrepid recreational runner, to amputate his damaged leg to better his ability to run with a prosthetic device.
The twenty-four carefully selected pieces in this collection are ample evidence of the quality of American sports writing. Montville casts a wide net both in terms of the sport covered and in his sources. Only one selection comes from a daily newspaper. Befitting today’s technological world, a number of them had their provenance in an online format.
Amby Burfoot portrays in telling detail the perspective of a runner (him) as he battles inch by inch the Boston Marathon. The narration is a terrific blend of careful detail that lends authenticity to the story and a smorgasbord of emotions that run through a runner’s mind as he battles fatigue and his competitors.
While a number of stories stand out – L. Jon Wertheim’s chilling portrayal of a boxer going rogue, Matthew Teague’s unique take on Philadelphia Phillies’ manager Charlie Manuel, Mike Wise’s sad tale of a college basketball player who killed his teammate – it is Michael Lewis’s well-researched and elaborately told story of Cuban baseball players that shines like a beacon for journalism at its peak. On a commission from Vanity Fair, Lewis goes deep into Cuban baseball, using the case of an American agent on trial as the espalier of his narration. What follows is a disturbing look at how players defect from Cuba and what life is in the aftermath, both in Cuba for their families and in the U.S. for themselves.
The current edition follows a long and satisfying line of volumes that showcase American sports journalism at its best. For those who lament the hard times faced by media companies, this is a telling reminder of what talent can achieve if nurtured.