Sunday: One good book

There are, when everything is said and done, two kinds of sports books. There are the fast-break volumes that sprout up quickly around an athlete, coach or team — including those in the “look at me” or “as told to” genre that ranges into the guides to life or business that some coaches or players undertake. Some of these are worthwhile.

But it is the second kind — those that rise above sport itself, whether through originality or depth of writing or both — that are most often worth reading, and are themselves the reason for this blog.

It’s my intention to spend far more time with the latter than the former. We’re certainly doing that today.

FAR AFIELD: A Sportswriting Odyssey
By S.L. Price, Lyons Press, 2007, 247 pages

Veteran Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price’s memoir of a year spent living and writing for the magazine in Europe begins with what can only be described as a sportswriter’s fantasy sequence, though for Price, it was real.

Price was being courted aggressively by The Chicago Tribune for a columnist’s position, when editors at SI, in an effort to keep him, countered with a question rarely heard in this business: “What do you want?”

Price’s answer is the subject of this book. He asked for, and got, a year in Europe. He moved his wife and three children to Provence, on the southeastern coast of France, bordered by Italy and the Mediterranean.

For those familiar with his work in Sports Illustrated, Price is known as a consummate crafter of compelling stories. And, in fact, a bit of this book appeared in SI before it reached book form.

But in Price’s account is more than just an idyllic year in one of the world’s most coveted and beautiful spots. During his time there, he covered the buildup to the Athens Olympics in 2004, went to Pakistan for a charged cricket series between the host country and India, went to the French open, explored the world of Eastern European basketball recruiting and covered Wimbledon.

You get plenty of his trademark spots observation, but you also get more introspection. He’ll drop out of the European narrative, for instance, to take you back to his college days in Chapel Hill, N.C.

And once in a while, you get a sublime description like the following, gathered after interviewing a Greek marathoner in Athens. Someone soured on the under-construction Olympic venue-to-be, he goes on:

“But the city isn’t finished with me yet. A few days later, at dusk, I walk up to the Acropolis for the first time, not knowing the gates of the Parthenon will be closed, nor that all tourists will be gone. I climb some rocks — the same slippery, foot-worn rocks at Arios Pagos, it turns out, where St. Paul first spoke when bringing the Word to Greece – and upon reaching the top find two black-robed, bearded priests standing alone. The sea wind whips over their faces. I move past them to the edge, below which Athens lies like a martyred body, broken and revered, and the barking dogs and screeching brakes, the rattling trains and jackhammer pounding, come drifting up muffled and gentle. Bells begin to ring. I turn, wide-eyed, but the priests don’t notice. They’re singing. Over my right shoulder, I see the spotlighted Greek flag flying atop the Acropolis, atoped the bleached columns and spindly scaffolds.

It’s one of those moments: cinematic, choreographed by a master hand. The breath of the past settles upon your neck, and you shiver and whisper “Thank you” because you made it, you’re there, you’re here at last. One priest kicks at the stones beneath his feet. One wipes his nose. Prayers rise into the darkening sky. The men in black sing, but the wind takes their words before I can hear. Their mouths moves, and the chaos below looks like a gift.”

In between discussions of the places he went, events he covered and life in Europe with his family, Price fills out the memoir of other people and places he covered, goes back to college life at the University of North Carolina, where he began his long association with Michael Jordan. He includes some interesting insights into Jordan. And, perhaps, the most enjoyable exchanges in these flashback sections come with baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams. He describes the great hitter talking to him over breakfast, profane, provacative, opinonated — even going so far as to want to dictate how Price was eating his eggs and toast.

“Now I want you to eat this toast, because this is special right here,” Williams said. “. . . Now here’s the way I eat it. Here’s the way I want you to do it. . . . See what I do, and I just want you to look at this, and this is what adds to that toast.” He stared for a moment. “But you got to get at the egg PROPERLY. . . . Now you’re going to love this bread.” I tried to slip the egg on my toast. “You can’t do THAT! Just dip that, and break the yoke a little bit. Alright now, you’re on the right track,” he said. He took a bite himself. “Oh, yeah, that is good. Um-hmm. And that bread is made special here, Frankie made it; got a little cheese in it, a little jalapeno. Now, don’t be AFRAID to dip your egg in there. And you don’t have to SLOP all over the place. See that? My egg is not slopped over.”

I’ll admit that, for a sportswriter, part of the allure of a book like this is its discussion of the craft. Price went from newspaper columnist to SI writer, through Sacramento and Miami to Washington D.C. In a postscript, he describes coming home from Europe for his brother’s wedding and seeing the Chicago Tribue shrunk to an alarming size, and knowing he’d made the right choice.

He describes his feeling, though, about the newspaper business eloquently:

I loved it all. This has nothing to do with prime seats or access to athletes; what television — in its popular portrayal of sportswriters on shows like The Odd Couple and Everybody Loves Raymond — intentionally miss is the fact that sportswriting is a job. Oscar Madison and Ray Romano never bother with interviewing or transcribing hours of tape or waiting by the phone for someone to never call; Oscar and Ray don’t work till 4:00 A.M. on a long feature; Oscar and Ray don’t troll empty player lounges in search of that one compelling scene. Instead, they’re your basic high school wiseasses fast-forwarded a decade or two, and though that’s actually true about many of us, it still misses the best part, the quality that keeps us coming back. Spotswriters take the ephemera of a few lost hours and, juiced by coffee, adrenaline and alarmingly deep neuroses, somehow infuse the seemingly unimportant act of hitting a puck, or a ball, or a face with a fist with something approaching significance.

Still there’s plenty here for the fan. This is a poignant nod to the role sport plays in the world, not just in American society, but in cultures on the other side of the globe. Price says, “The fan never understands. The fan always asks, ‘Really: What’s he like? Good guy? Nice?’ He sees his hero enduring, overcoming, waving a flag, happy, winning; he wants him to be kind, too. The fan doesn’t want to hear what I have to say: No. Your hero is not nice. The hero is never nice. Each o fthe great athletes or coaches I’ve covered — Dean Smith, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Sampras, Bill Walsh, Tony LaRussa, Joe M
ontana and Jerry Rice, Barry Sanders, Shaquille O’Neal, Agassi, Tiger Woods — bears at heart a cruelty that, unlike those of us who are taught to conceal it from an early age, is reawarded each time it’s revealed. You can’t be a superstar without this cruelty, because high competition demands it.”

Price then goes into depth on an example of this: Lance Armstrong, as he deals with angry French masses in the Tour de France.

Price’s work, in the end, looks not so much at sports as through them. This is sportswriting at its best, opening out onto a world where sports is a part that helps reveal a much more interesting whole, with “something approaching significance.”

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12 thoughts on “Sunday: One good book

  1. Eric, this is a good review. It almost makes me want to buy the book. I say almost because (1) I'm a tightwad at heart and you're review just has no chance of breaking that habit, and (2) I'm not about to give money to some SI guy who can only insult the fan.If this guy were a real sports fan himself, he wouldn't insult the fan, who is part and parcel of sport. He comes across as a gifted writer, but also a hack doing a job.davidm

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