If you're reading this—in print, online, on a tablet, on the can or in the can (we get letters from prison)—congratulations: You can read. Have you any idea how lucky you are?
This is an article from the Oct. 7, 2013 issue
Roughly 800 million adults are illiterate, and countless more choose never to read anything at all. An ancient maxim misattributed to Mark Twain goes, "The man who won't read has no advantage over the man who can't," but you knew that already because you are a reader of varied and impeccable taste.
For starters, you're a sports reader, as odd as that phrase sounds. "When people hear you're a sportswriter," as Frank Deford has put it, "they assume you're more interested in the first half of that word than the second." In 1978, when Deford described Jimmy Connors in this magazine as "champion of all he surveyed, Alexander astride Bucephalus astride the globe," you got the idea the writer had also done a fair bit of reading.
Given the myriad ways now available to "experience" sports—delivered live to your phone, in highlights at the gas pump, streaming across your Google Glass as you fall down an open manhole—it is to your credit that you still enjoy sitting in silence as a picture is painted in the artist's loft of your brain. The best broadcasters paint these pictures too, of course. The incomparable Vin Scully said recently of a bloop single by the Dodgers' Andre Ethier, "Sounded like he hit it with the morning paper." But Scully's fellow Angeleno Jim Murray once wrote in an actual morning paper, "The trouble with Spokane is that there's nothing to do there after 10. In the morning. But it's a nice place to have breakfast."
That is recited from memory. In the age before the Internet, my father traveled the world for work—Alexander astride Bucephalus astride the magnetic-tape industry—and returned home with three-day-old copies of the Los Angeles Times or The New York Times or The Times of London. (That city's Hugh McIlvanney, on fighter Joe Bugner: "He had the physique of a Greek statue but fewer moves.") But there were also the backs of baseball cards to be read, cereal-box side panels and the Minneapolis Star sports section. And in the public library was a leather chair shaped like a fielder's glove, into which a contented child could fall like a soft fly to read about baseball while pretending to be one.
In that chair, I opened a book called Five Seasons and discovered Roger Angell writing about the Cubs' spring training park in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1976: "The wood of the fence is aged to a pitch of low C, and Reggie Jackson, leading off for the visiting A's in the sixth inning of a game there, whacked a double off the wall that made it resound like a plucked cello."
And while I read fewer sports books than I once did—an occupational hazard; does Hefner read romance novels?—sports always find their way in. This summer, in a novel titled The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, they came almost literally out of leftfield, when a character defined paradise: "It means 'walled garden.' From the Persian. That's what a baseball stadium is. Especially Fenway. A walled garden."
On June 4, 1989, the Ireland national soccer team beat Hungary in a World Cup qualifier, the Ayatollah Khomeini was reported dead in Iran, and both events converged on the TV in Toner's pub on Baggott Street in Dublin. The Irish novelist Roddy Doyle was there and captured the moment:
First the picture of Khomeini.
Then thousands of people grieving in Tehran.
"They must have lost their match."
Just 20 words, but the first time I read them (and a dozen times after), they put me inside a crowded pub I'd never been to, in a country I'd not yet visited, among people I'd never met but wished I had. This is one of reading's greatest tricks, the way it can transport you through time or remove you from it entirely. It explains how—37 years after a spring training game that was forgotten before it was over, in a stadium that's no longer there—a meaningless double off a ghostly wall is still resounding, like an ancient cello, plucked just so.
You can have sports delivered live to your phone and see highlights at the gas pump. But there's still nothing like having printed words paint a picture in your brain.
What's the best piece of sportswriting you've read?
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