Archive for the ‘Reviews: Books about sports’ Category

‘Living on the Black’ is a primer on pitching and storytelling

September 20, 2008
Sports journalists can learn a great deal about pitching – and storytelling – by reading Feinstein's latest book

Sports journalists can learn a great deal about pitching – and storytelling – by reading Feinstein

I’m always looking for books that can offer insights into sports. John Feinstein‘s Living on the Black does just that, revealing how two future Hall of Famers – Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina – approach pitching in the major leagues. As sports journalists, we need to recognize how much we don’t know, no matter how long we may have played or have covered a specific sport. This book reveals much about pitching by a talented sports journalist. Readers learn how pitchers react to errors, the importance of pregame and off-day routines, and why a first-pitch strike can make or break a pitcher, among other things.

The pitchers themselves are compelling, cerebral characters, something that drives this book. Both are also active union reps. Mussina is far more reserved while Glavine more easily endures the spotlight – although his last season with the New York Mets tested his patience. At one point, Glavine declines a request from a TV reporter, a moment Feinstein uses to offer an insight into journalism.

The reporter wisely waited to see if Glavine would say anything else. Sometimes, especially when dealing with a good guy, reporters know that silence is the best way to get someone to change his mind. Not this time. “I understand the reporter said, sticking his hand out. “Maybe some other time.”

“Almost any other time,” Glavine said. “I appreciate your patience.”

Which he did.

Feinstein also shows the challenges major-leaguers face adjusting to the rhythms of lengthy seasons. “No one goes through an entire year without a bad stretch of some kind,” Glavine says. “I’ve had them every year of my career. It’s like that old baseball saying about bad teams having winning streaks and good ones having losing streaks.”

The first inning can be the most difficult for even skilled pitchers like Mussina. You should count the number of pitches each inning to track trends like this. Halfway through a season, you’ll then be able to evaluate the best and worst innings for a team’s pitchers. That would be a terrific story. Glavine gives up nearly half his total runs in the first inning. Mussina can also be challenged at the start of games.

“The first inning you often aren’t completely comfortable on the mound,” Mussina said. “It takes a while to get yourself to feel exactly the way you want to feel in the game. You throw thirty to forty pitches in the bullpen, then you get eight warm-up pitches on the mound. That’s why a lot of times if you see a guy who is good get through a tough first inning, he settles down and pitches well. When you’re on the bench facing someone good and you get men on in the first, you automatically think, ‘Better get him now because there may not be another chance this good.'”

Some other insights:

■ Pitchers get more excited when facing another team’s top pitcher. “I think it actually gets me to pitch better because I know I have less margin for error,” Mussina says. “It isn’t as if you’re trying harder; it’s just that you’re a little more focused.”

■ Sometimes, pitchers call pitches more than catchers. “With some pitchers, you call pitches,” Posada said. “With Mike and some others, you make suggestions.”

■ The best umpires usually allow players to vent after they have blown a call, but, Feinstein claims, most aren’t that good. Umpires hate to be shown up.

■ Pitchers – and especially managers – care more about quality starts than wins. Sportswriters should also focus on these quality performances. For example, a pitcher can limit a team to two runs and still lose, 3-2, while a pitcher who allows five runs can also win 8-5. Don’t be seduced by wins and losses. Check a pitcher’s other stats.

■ Most pitchers prefer a strike to ball ration of at least 2-to-1, meaning they would prefer to throw 60 strikes for every 30 balls during a 90-pitch outing. Try to chart number of pitches and strikes each inning to get even more insights into a pitching peformance.

You should analyze Feinstein’s work as you read through this lengthy (but quick) read on two compelling pitchers. Also, assess how Feinstein interviews, reports, and describes key moments. This is an educational (and entertaining) book from a masterful storyteller. Check it out.

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Does sportswriting need saving?

September 12, 2008

In the 1920s, Grantland Rice and his peers felt compelled to create heroes out of athletes. Americans had just persevered one of the worst periods in its history. More than 300,000 soldiers were either killed or wounded in World War I, which ended in 1918. That same year, the nation was struck by the Spanish Influenza, a flu that killed more people in a single year than the four worst years of the Bubonic plague. Anywhere from 500,000 to nearly 700,000 died of the disease, roughly a quarter of the U.S.’s population. (And it’s estimated 25-100 million people died worldwide.)

The nation needed a diversion, something to take its collective mind off war and disease. Rice and his colleagues filled the need, promoting baseball, college football, boxing, tennis and golf by creating heroes out of Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Bill Tilden, Red Grange, and Bobby Jones, among others. Sportswriting in the 1920s was filled with exaggerated statements for these “greatest” athletes. The adjectives and adverbs were a-flyin’. And it continued well into the ’70s and ’80s. Today, we scoff and roll our eyes at the language used by some of these sportswriters. But, sometimes, we can also be mythmakers and idol worshippers. This is one of many problems author/blogger/sportswriter Will Leitch says exist in the profession right now.

Leitch is not shy at offering suggestions in his book God Save the Fan, which is no shocker to anybody who’s read his commentary on Deadspin. He hates ESPN as much as Carl Hiaasen hates Disney (which, now, is really the same company), he believes sports journalists can be elitist, and he offers advice on ways to adapt to new media.

In the book, Leitch says the need for experts is a blight on both fandom and sports journalism. As a result, TV is now filled with experts screaming) about issues and radio waves are filled with Mad Dogs ranting and raving about players, managers and owners. (Unlike working journalists, many of these ‘experts’ do not spend time in locker rooms or at practices.) I agree with Will that covering a sport does not necessarily make one an expert; however, not spending time observing practices and talking with those connected to teams can make you much less informed.

“This is, of course, the point; it’s not particularly difficult to become an ‘expert’ anymore. It’s all for show. Hell, now that I run a sports Web site, people have come to call me an expert, and I’m damned sure that I don’t know anything. … Does the fact that I write poop jokes and puns on ‘Chien-Ming Wang’ really qualify me to answer these questions? Typically, I tell them I am just another idiot who happens to type fast, and that my opinion should not be considered even slightly more credible than that of the guy who drove your cab to the station. They laugh, and then say, ‘Yeah, so really, who do you like?’ And then there’s some sort of wacky sound effect, maybe a gong, or a dnkey braying.”

Leitch particularly dislikes when sports journalists attempt to cross over into ‘real news,’ delivering analysis on what sports mean to communities, cities, and the country. Leitch, a devout (St. Louis & Arizona) Cardinals fan, argues that sports mean less than those covering them believe.

“It’s a fundamental concept: Sports do not matter. The average fan understands this – despite pretty much every sports commercial, which portrays fans as some sort of unwieldy, testosterone-laden, beer-shotgunning mob of delinquents – and that is why we put sports in its proper place: as somethng to partake in and enjoy because we want to escape from our jobs, our bills, our responsibilities, our lives. The world is a terrifying place, with grays and complexities and confusion at every turn. Sports affords us none of this: If our team wins, we are happy; if they lose, we are sad. It doesn’t need to be more than that. That simplicity is enough. It’s plenty.”

In addition, Leitch dislikes the idea of ‘branding’ journalists, turning them into celebrities who eventually become the story. He loves fantasy leagues that reveal athletes for what they really are – robotic producers of statistics. Writes Leitch: “Fantasy sports distill the athletic process to the core and treat athletes with the reverence that they deserve – none.”

Leitch can be rough on both professional athletes and sports journalists, but he also realizes his role is as much entertainer as commentator. And he’s having some fun in this book. Sometimes, he’s right on the mark; other times, he is not (at least, in my humble opinion). This book is not a primer on sports journalism, but sportswriters can still learn a great deal by reading it.

So are we still using sports as an escape from a plunging stock market, volatile international affairs, and an eroding environment? Leitch would agree that sports journalists still spill considerable ink (terabytes?) creating heroes and myths. After all, didn’t this nation just turn its lonely eyes to a horse (Barbaro).

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Gonzo (sports) journalism

July 18, 2008

Hunter Thompson was more than a drug-inhaling, liquor-imbibing, self-aggrandizing radical journalist. A new book claims the man who put Gonzo into journalism, writing subjectively, profanely and sarcastically, was also a sports journalist. Not that Thompson made many deadlines, apparently. In Outlaw Journalist, UF journalism professor William McKeen reveals that Thompson loved sports, covering Super Bowls, heavyweight title fights, and marathons. CBS Sportsline’s Greg Hardy interviews McKeen about the man whom he calls “the world’s luckiest failure as a sportswriter.”

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‘Scoring from Second’ shows baseball is more than a game

October 18, 2007

This review was originally published in the Charleston Times-Courier.

Summer is already a distant memory. Days are shorter. Scraps of corn and soy are scattered across harvested fields. And baseball season has just ended.

For most of us, baseball really ended decades ago when we learned we were not talented enough to play at the college or professional levels. That’s tough to accept after so much time spent tossing wicked curves to our friends, ripping mammoth homers, and diving for line drives Brooks Robinson would have been envious to catch.

Sure, we knew better, but we loved the game — the smell of worn, leather gloves pressed against our faces, the sweet smell of newly mown outfield grass, and the rough feel of a wooden bat, knowing it possessed all kinds of magical possibilities.

More than 30 accomplished writers explore their own relationship with the sport in “Scoring from Second: Writers on Baseball,” a book edited by Phil Deaver, a man who once shagged balls and snared line drives as a kid in Tuscola.

These writers reveal that baseball does not enchant everybody. Instead, it taunts overweight, uncoordinated kids and pressures talented kids to the brink of suicide. Baseball also helps one deal with heartache, despair and death.

No sport affects us like baseball — at least, lyrically. Football may be about war and punishment, and basketball may be about power and style. But they lack the familial intimacy of baseball, a sports that connects fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and grandparents. “Scoring from Second” explores the reasons for this.

For example, baseball taught Jocelyn Bartkevicus to deal with life, and it taught her stepson to deal with death. Cancer, which had already ravaged the writer’s family, poised to attack a tiny 5-year-old boy who was more interested in chasing ice creak trucks than fly balls.

“Chris played right field, where we used to put the deaf girl when I coached my sister’s softball team,” she writes. “Out there, a kid gets bored. Chris stared up at the clouds, down at blades of grass, over at his elementary school. He put his hat on sideways, then backward. He threw it up in the air.”

Jocelyn and her son relied on baseball to help endure the roughest times.

Baseball taught Susan Perabo that baseball is not only for boys. Like several other writers, Susan refused to yield to this macho attitude. Instead, she fought to play baseball years before Title IX attempted to even the playing field for young women.

Eventually, she earned a chance to play a season for Webster University in St. Louis.

“There was a little bit of sun left in the sky and we had nowhere better to be,” she writes. “The thing is — the thing I see so clearly now — was that on that cool evening there simply was nowhere better to be, nowhere better than a baseball field, shagging flies in the outfield with my teammates, my friends and I playing simply for the love of it.”

This is a book even non-baseball fans can appreciate. Sure, the book has its share of lyricism — “baseball is as beautiful and irresistible and as irreversible as a first kiss.” But this book is not an ode to baseball as much as it is an exploration into the lives of people who happened to play the game wherever they could — in sandlots, back yards and on organized teams.

In the end, these writers realize baseball is just a game, like life, where the rules may seem a little clearer but the final score is never certain.

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‘Scoring from Second’ shows baseball is more than a game

October 18, 2007

Summer is already a distant memory. Days are shorter. Scraps of corn and soy are scattered across harvested fields. And baseball season has just ended.

For most of us, baseball really ended decades ago when we learned we were not talented enough to play at the college or professional levels. That’s tough to accept after so much time spent tossing wicked curves to our friends, ripping mammoth homers, and diving for line drives Brooks Robinson would have been envious to catch.

Sure, we knew better, but we loved the game — the smell of worn, leather gloves pressed against our faces, the sweet smell of newly mown outfield grass, and the rough feel of a wooden bat, knowing it possessed all kinds of magical possibilities.

More than 30 accomplished writers explore their own relationship with the sport in “Scoring from Second: Writers on Baseball,” a book edited by Phil Deaver, a man who once shagged balls and snared line drives as a kid in Tuscola.

These writers reveal that baseball does not enchant everybody. Instead, it taunts overweight, uncoordinated kids and pressures talented kids to the brink of suicide. Baseball also helps one deal with heartache, despair and death.

No sport affects us like baseball — at least, lyrically. Football may be about war and punishment, and basketball may be about power and style. But they lack the familial intimacy of baseball, a sports that connects fathers, mothers, sons, daughters and grandparents. “Scoring from Second” explores the reasons for this.

For example, baseball taught Jocelyn Bartkevicus to deal with life, and it taught her stepson to deal with death. Cancer, which had already ravaged the writer’s family, poised to attack a tiny 5-year-old boy who was more interested in chasing ice creak trucks than fly balls.

“Chris played right field, where we used to put the deaf girl when I coached my sister’s softball team,” she writes. “Out there, a kid gets bored. Chris stared up at the clouds, down at blades of grass, over at his elementary school. He put his hat on sideways, then backward. He threw it up in the air.”

Jocelyn and her son relied on baseball to help endure the roughest times.

Baseball taught Susan Perabo that baseball is not only for boys. Like several other writers, Susan refused to yield to this macho attitude. Instead, she fought to play baseball years before Title IX attempted to even the playing field for young women.

Eventually, she earned a chance to play a season for Webster University in St. Louis.

“There was a little bit of sun left in the sky and we had nowhere better to be,” she writes. “The thing is — the thing I see so clearly now — was that on that cool evening there simply was nowhere better to be, nowhere better than a baseball field, shagging flies in the outfield with my teammates, my friends and I playing simply for the love of it.”

This is a book even non-baseball fans can appreciate. Sure, the book has its share of lyricism — “baseball is as beautiful and irresistible and as irreversible as a first kiss.” But this book is not an ode to baseball as much as it is an exploration into the lives of people who happened to play the game wherever they could — in sandlots, back yards and on organized teams.

In the end, these writers realize baseball is just a game, like life, where the rules may seem a little clearer but the final score is never certain.

This review was originally published in the Charleston Times-Courier.
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McPhee brings reporting to new level in this classic book

May 21, 2007

John McPhee reveals much about the two protagonists in his book Levels of the Game. McPhee discloses their political beliefs, backgrounds, political opinions and fears. He also shows the reader how the main characters – Arthur Ashe and Chuck Graebner – play a game that has made them well known. But the game of tennis itself also reveals much about these two young players competing in the semifinals of the 1968 U.S. Open championships.

McPhee writes that tennis, like any game, reflects an individual’s personality: “A person’s tennis game begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms into shot patterns and characteristics of play” (McPhee 6). In the course of describing the tennis match, McPhee diverges from game descriptions to offer anecdotes, stories and commentaries about these two men. Sometimes, the diversions roll along for many pages. At other times, they stray for just a few sentences. As illuminating as these digressions are, they pale beside the on-court comments and thoughts of Ashe and Graebner.

There are many levels of thinking in this book. The players think to themselves, think aloud, and speak their thoughts during the lengthy match. Their thoughts are also offered when they speak in lengthy monologues and when others speak about them. The two players mutter, murmur, exclaim and shout their thoughts while on the court. As a result, readers get inside the heads of two prominent players – and other writers can use this book to get inside the head of a writer who not only finds a way to capture the thoughts of his main characters, but who also does an exceptional job inserting them into what is essentially a game story.

A rule of journalism: Don’t read people’s minds. (I knew you would think this is a good rule.) Sports reporters should not tell readers what they are thinking. “It drives some copy editors nuts,” writes Tim Harrower, author of Inside Reporting, “to read sentences like these: ‘Barb Dwyer dreams of being a rodeo clown someday. She feels certain it’s the best career she could choose’” (81). As Harrower points out, how does the reporter know how Barb feels? Reporters cannot observe one’s dreams, nor can they get inside the mind of people like this rodeo clown. Instead, journalists should revise the preceding sentence to read: “Barb Dwyer says she dreams of being a rodeo clown” (Harrower 81).

In journalism, where space is more limited, rules for citing sources are much different than they would be for lengthier novels. Even a relatively short book, like this 150-pager, allows for much more space to expand on ideas. In journalism, for instance, reporters are told they should beware of monologues, especially those that take up two to three pages, as some do in Levels of the Game. Most newspaper stories, even profiles, are fewer than 1,500 words. Allowing someone to speak for 500-plus words does not make sense in these shorter works. McPhee ignores this rule, like so many others. But it is his use of internal thoughts that he does best of all.

McPhee almost certainly spoke with Ashe, Graebner, and many people for this book, otherwise it would have been dismissed years ago. Like most reporters, McPhee must have asked the two tennis players many questions about the match, such as: How did you feel you played? What were your thoughts? What did you think when he served the ace? Unlike most journalists, though, McPhee then inserted these responses as thoughts as another play-by-play element. Readers can see the action taking place. “Left arm up, fish closed, index finger extended, he continues to point at the ball until he has all but caught it. His racquet meanwhile dangles behind his back. Then it whips upward in the same motions as for a serve” (McPhee 13-14).

Readers can also hear what Ashe is thinking here when he slams this lob back at Graebner: “Ashe maintains his cool appearance, but he is thinking, ‘My God, what’s happening? Here he goes. He’s going to get the first set. And if he does, my confidence is going right down the tube. Graebner is a front-runner, very though when he’s ahead. Someday, he’s going to get the lead on me and he’s not going to give it up” (McPhee 14). In the middle of a match people do not think so reflectively, coolly and structured. It is difficult to believe Ashe would think: “Graebner is a front-runner, very though when’s ahead.” That sounds like something said upon reflection, not in the moment. There are many such comments throughout the story. But they are rarely jolting, and nearly always illuminating.

McPhee offers the players’ thoughts in three ways – as an omniscient narrator who taps into the minds of players, as an objective narrator who reports what he sees and hears, and as a more limited omniscient narrator who gets into the minds less intrusively. In some ways, this final approach seems more a hybrid of omniscience and third-person objective than the clearly defined limited omniscience. At times, this presentation is more all-knowing; at others, it is more limited in the sense that the thoughts seemed to have come from some reporting. But, since it does not fall exactly into either of the other narrative points of view, I will refer to it as limited omniscience here. In this manner, McPhee typically introduces the players’ thoughts in something by writing “says to himself” or “tells himself.”

Early in this tennis match, Graebner feels pretty confident, knowing Ashe cannot handle his hard, accurate shots: “Graebner says to himself, ‘Look at him. He’s just slapping at my serves’” (McPhee 22). Later in the set, Graebner believes he might be able to win the match pretty easily: “Graebner is thinking, ‘If I break him now, his morale has had it’” (McPhee 34). But Graebner starts to struggle both physically and mentally, something Ashe realizes. The reader realizes this through Ashe’s thoughts. These two players, who are friends, know each very well. The see things in one another’s game that fans in the stands would never know. That’s why McPhee spent time getting to know these players and asking about their ideas and thoughts. Ashe, for example, knew that Graebner relied on his wife for support during matches, that he looked at her in stands, especially when he was struggling. After Graebner double faults, he does just this. “Ashe is thinking, ‘Graebner just looked at his wife.’ And behind Arthur’s impassive face – behind the enigmatic glasses, the lifted chin, the first-mate-on-the-bridge look – there seems to be a smile” (McPhee 50). This thought (and that Ashe knows his opponent so well) reveals much more than exposition or quotes could – even if the thought is not precisely how Ashe considered it during the match.

McPhee also taps into the characters’ minds omnisciently, where he has total knowledge of all characters’ thoughts. The author does not merely report what the characters think; instead, McPhee states the thoughts more authoritatively and knowledgeably. There is no “he thought” in the sentences. Sometimes, McPhee mixes in thoughts with game description, which allows the reader to understand what how the thoughts connect to the actions. In addition, this mixture helps propel the story forward. All reporters should play with narrative point of view. Try to get inside the minds of those you cover — a difficult and time-consuming task, for sure. That means you had better spend much time with this person and you must speak with others about this person in addition to other research. But this approach works well, when done right. Try this for a feature. Give yourself some time (and some space to write it.)

“Now the thought crosses Graebner’s mind that Ashe has not missed a service return in this game. The thought unnerves him a little. He hits a big one four feet too deep, then bloops his second serve with terrible placement right into the center of the service court. He now becomes the mouse, Ashe the cat. With soft, perfectly placed shots, Ashe jerks him around the forecourt, then closes off the point with a shot to remember. It is a forehand, with top spin, sent cross court so lightly that the ball appears to be flung rather than hit. Its angle to the o net is less than ten degrees – a difficult brilliant stroke, and Ashe hit it with such nonchalance that he appeared to be thinking of something else. Graebner feels the implications of this. Ashe is now obviously loose. Loose equals dangerous. When a player is loose, he serves and volleys at his best level. His general shotmaking ability is optimum. He will try anything. ‘Look at the way he hit that ball, gave it the casual play,’ Graebner says to himself. ‘Instead of trying a silly shot and missing it, he tries the silly shot and makes it’” (McPhee 82-83).

At other times, McPhee offers thoughts like extended interior monologues, allowing the characters to describe plays or to comment on ideas that extend outside the lines of the match for several pages at a time. McPhee also captures how these two players observe: “Ashe lifts the ball, hits, and the twist falls exactly where Graebner had imagined it would” (McPhee 120). Each approach allows the reader to learn much about the players and the match.

McPhee also reveals the characters’ thoughts through verbalized comments that nobody probably heard except, perhaps, a linesman or an umpire. McPhee would have relied on reporting after the match to learn the words spoken during an outburst or to hear the thoughts and mutterings of a frustrated or angry player in the middle of a heated match. McPhee inserts them into his play by play as if he heard the comments in the moment. Perhaps, McPhee heard the following comment spoken during a break when Ashe stood by the umpire’s chair: “’Thank God I never have trouble with the handle [of his racquet],’ Ashe remarks and return to the court” (McPhee 105). It is unlikely McPhee heard this since even reporters and fans are usually too far away to hear anything but loud exclamations and grunts. At another point, Ashe wins four straight points that include a loose, liberal shot that barely makes it over the net for a point, something that infuriates Graebner, who ‘mutters:’ “Arthur, you lucky bastard. How can you hit that shot?” (McPhee 114). A little later in the match, Graebner speaks angrily – something that reads much more like post-game commentary than a thought considered in the heat of the moment: “ ‘Wouldn’t you know at a moment like that Arthur would tear off an all-time winner,’ Graebner murmurs to himself. ‘Arthur’s weakness is his forehand. So I play to it on a big point and he hits a great shot.’ Fifteen-thirty” (McPhee 130). Either way, these comment add depth, offering explanations, commentaries and insights into the actions on the court and about the character of those playing the game.

A writer can’t be everywhere at once. Journalists need to verify all information before adding it to their stories. Sometimes, though, journalists need to trust their sources. But this idea is not comforting to most reporters (and to far fewer editors.) Journalists want to verify that the facts offered by sources are correct.

Once, while covering a story for a magazine, I needed to describe a moment from a football practice that I had never attended. To some in journalism, this is heresy. But the moment helped define a defensive back I had been assigned to profile. So I asked this college player to describe the scene – everything from how the play evolved to the weather and what others were wearing. I then posed some of the same questions to others at the scene to ensure the facts were correct. For example, the defensive back said the temperature was in the low 80s, and another person said it was hot (a much more subjective term.) A check of the national weather service verified the temperature in the area was in the 80s. As a result, I felt confident enough to report this (and several other) facts about the moment. That’s what a writer needs to do. But how do you verify thoughts? A writer can ask others if the source has repeated these comments before or can check letters and other writings to determine if these ideas had been repeated at other times. But, ultimately, one cannot always verify thoughts. Reporters do use this in stories, but on a more superficial scale. For example, a sports reporter might ask a batter what he was thinking right before he hit the game-winning double, but who’s to know if those were the batters’ actual thoughts. Journalists, though, usually feel much more uncomfortable digging into thoughts in much more depth and length to report stories in newspapers (and, to a lesser degree, in some magazines).

Writers like John McPhee, Truman Capote and Gay Talese seem less disinclined to report thoughts as facts. Perhaps, that is where creative non-fiction writers diverge from journalists. Even if these are not the exact words, unverified comments and thoughts can offer wonderful insights about people and events. So there is value in this. And readers appear to accept such offering more easily in a novel or essay than they would in a newspaper article. Thus, creative non-fiction writers can take more license and chances in their writings. So while the New York Times feels quotes should be cited without any alterations (“We regard quotations as absolutely sacrosanct. If there is any reason at all to be tempted to change them, then you take the quotation marks off and paraphrase it”), journalists like former Esquire editor Arnold Gingrich says one needs to be able to interpret what sources tell us (“The cruelest thing you can do to anybody is to quote him literally.”)

This is a major difference between creative non-fiction writers and journalists, but one that should not cause a chasm between the genres. Reporters regularly change and correct grammar and syntax, among other things, in quotes. People say what they mean but they do not always say it the way the mean. But, in the end, all we can do is trust that what sources say about their thoughts is true. After all, we’re not mind readers.

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Crafting profiles when the main character won’t speak

May 16, 2007

Joe DiMaggio stood alone in his restaurant, staring out a bay window at the San Francisco wharf where tourists watched the fishermen repair their nets. One pretty blue-eyed blonde brushed her hair back and took some photos. DiMaggio, holding a cigarette, followed her with his gaze as she walked down the street before returning to his table where he finished his tea. DiMaggio, at age fifty-one, no longer played before fifty-thousand fans at Yankee Stadium, but people still flocked to see him. Only DiMaggio never felt comfortable talking with people, least of all a writer who wanted to delve into his private life, something he guarded at all costs. DiMaggio sneaked into a back room when the writer entered the restaurant, spoiling any chance for an interview.

Gay Talese never had a chance to interview DiMaggio, but that did not stop him from writing a profile that has set the standard for all others. In fact, “The Silent Season of a Hero,” was named the greatest sports article of the Twentieth Century by David Halberstam and Glenn Stout, editors of The Best American Sports Writing of the Century.

I’ve read way too many profiles where the only person interviewed was the person featured. That’s a terrible approach. The person profiled should be the last person you speak with. Instead, gather stories from others who are less guarded in offering information and insights. Friends and family are usually more than willing to gab about one another — even if the stories are embarrassing. (And embarrassing stories can reveal much about a person, just as stories that show the bad side of someone yield much. Remember, nobody is all good or all bad, so do not create a person who is so one-dimensional. You might, though, if you only speak with the person interviewed.) More than a few years ago, I read a wonderful profile on Patrick Ewing that did not include a single quote from the Knicks all-star center. I believe the great Gary Smith wrote that piece for Sports Illustrated. (I’m about to start Beyond The Game, a collection of Smith’s wonderful stories through the years.)

In the piece on DiMaggio, Talese found a way to write about his subject in ways that, ultimately, proved superior to the traditional manner in which so many reporters approach profile stories. (He also wrote a tremendous profile on Frank Sinatra, another person who refused to speak with him, that is featured in The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits and Encounters, a book that offers many lessons in how to write a profile story. One should observe, research and interview. That Talese did not interview the protagonists of these stories does not matter. (In fact, this is a strength of these pieces. Who cares what Sinatra and DiMaggio say about themselves? What insights can they offer that hasn’t been stated before? Plus, can we really believe what they say? Their disdain and distance makes these stories all the more appealing and intriguing.) Talese interviewed countless others who know these men instead.

Talese is a keen observer, taking in details others might have missed, like DiMaggio lighting up his fifth cigarette in the past half hour. In addition, Talese clearly researched these people, as any good reporter, by reading what others had reported on these two men. These other articles and interviews help inform the main story, supplying insights into how these men had acted in the past. Finally, though, it is the writing style that sets these stories apart. Talese tells the stories through the eyes of others, shifting the mind’s eye from fishermen to waiters to fetching middle-aged women to press agents.

Talese researches well. He find stories that essentially fill in the blanks, that help to explain and convey ideas and points. So when Talese talks about Sinatra’s personal touch with friends, readers can see Sinatra in action. Talese could have stopped after the first sentence; instead, Talese finds examples to illustrate his point:

“Sinatra does things personally. At Christmastime, he will personally pick dozens of presents for his close friends and family, remembering the type of jewelry they like, their favorite colors, the sizes of their shirts and dresses. When a musician friend’s house was destroyed and his wife was killed in a Los Angeles mud slide a little more than a year ago, Sinatra personally came to his aid, finding the musician a new home, paying whatever hospital bills were left unpaid by the insurance, then personally supervising the furnishing of the new home down to the replacing of silverware, the linen, the purchase of new clothing” (Talese 24-25).

Talese does not always cite his sources, but it is clear that he speaks to many people, everyone from friends of those profiled to those who are more distant, like an acquaintance or a golf club manager. In “The Silent Season of a Hero,” for example, Talese writes that DiMaggio works hard to keep in shape. Talese shows this through the eyes of others.

“He tried hard to remain as he was – he diets, he takes steam baths, he is careful; and flabby men in the locker rooms of golf clubs sometimes steal peeks at him when he steps out of the shower, observing the tight muscles across his chest, the flat stomach, the long sinewy legs” (Talese 109).

Had Talese stated these facts himself, the story would have been far less interesting. The fact that others see DiMaggio in this manner (especially that they steal peaks in the shower) shows how DiMaggio looks in a more fascinating manner. Talese does not rely on his own point of view when creating these portraits (not that he remains silent. He invokes the first person a few times in both pieces), telling the reader how to think. Instead, Talese shows. He shows DiMaggio through the eyes of the fishermen on the famous San Francisco wharf. He also shows Sinatra through the eyes of his agent. And he even shows what New York is really like through the eyes of a popular masseuse and a cop talking a potential jumper from the George Washington Bridge in another story, “New York is a City of Things Unnoticed.”

Talese feels comfortable hanging out and revealing what he sees. He is also skilled in doing the leg work that reveals so much back story. And he also seems at ease allowing others to tell some of these stories. Talese does not need to speak with those he profiles. Instead, he can talk to those who really know the score.

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This book will help you ‘Watch Baseball Smarter’

May 4, 2007

Just picked up a book that every baseball writer should pack away in the satchel. Zack Hample’s Watching Baseball Smarter does exactly that by teaching fans (and sports writers) how to better understand the game. You can learn how to calculate earned-run averages, on-base percentages, and fielding averages, among other things. You can also learn how a split-fingered fastball drops when it reaches the plate, why a knuckleball flutters, and how to grip a four-seam fastball. You’ll also learn more about pitch sequences.

This book also includes some history, such as the fact balls caught on one-bounce were originally called outs, that the pitching mound was originally 50 feet from the plate until 1893, and that foul balls were not called strikes until 1901.

The strength of this book is in its clear explanations of the game itself, such as a breakdown on how players field each defensive position, strategies for running (and stealing) bases, how umpires call games, and how to calculate and understand statistics. The book also includes a chapter on random stuff to notice, such as how catchers gesture to call pitches during warm-ups: “Slider—He moves his glove to one side with a backhand motion.”

You’ll also learn how to scrutinize a boxscore and how to keep score. The 42 pages of glossary terms alone is worth the price of this book ($13.95). Plus, you’ll get a list of season and all-time records for hitting and pitching. This book is written clearly and with some humor. Sit down and read a few chapters and then pack it away so you can reference it before you cover your next baseball game. It’s a new book, so check the tables near the front of your book store, which is where I found this gem. Check it out and keep it with you. You’ll learn volumes.

Now, I need to check out another book I found, The Cheater’s Guide to Baseball. That looks like an interesting read as well. I’ll let you know.

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Three inspiring (and instructive) books

April 5, 2007


Over lunch, a colleague of mine tried to explain what he taught over in English, something that both intrigued and scared me. He called it creative non-fiction. I’d read uncreative fiction and creative journalism, but this seemed more like an excuse for a journalist to make up information and publish it as fact. He promised that was not the case. Rather, the genre is a combination of many approaches that cross over several subject areas, like Gonzo and Literary Journalism.

I learned I had, in fact, read several examples of creative non-fiction that included Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus To Our House, an investigation of modern architecture, and The Painted Word, a book that similarly comments on modern art, among other things. I’d also read many essayists he cited, among them Montaigne, Bacon, Hazlitt, Thoreau, and E.B. White. I was intrigued, but not yet compelled to take on the form itself.

I read a few more essays but soon lost interest. I returned to my comfort zone by writing several journalism pieces, a couple of book reviews, and drafts of short stories. A year later, I read a book another colleague had recommended, Madeleine Blais’s In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle, a book that sent shivers down my spine.

As I read the story of a high school girls basketball team, I learned a great deal about something I thought knew a great deal about (high school athletics) and even more about young women (even though I have two daughters). Sports books can expand beyond the finite boundaries of the playing fields and courts, something that can also be applied to newspaper and magazine coverage. Sports journalists can also examine social issues and probe political events. Writes Blais: “Girls’ basketball is not boys’ basketball being played by girls. It’s a whole new game.” This book proved a whole new game of writing for me.

Blais reveals to this 40-something father how girls think. I learned, for example: “When teenagers communicate on the phone, it’s not always the content of the conversation but the fact of its having occurred that carries the deepest meaning.” I further realized that “pimple = apocalypse,” and that young women struggle with more complex issues than how to set a pick-and-roll on the court. Which of her divorced parents should a young girl hug first after a game?

Blais is also a poet, a sociologist and a solid reporter. She addresses the emptiness that gnaws at these girls when they feel “as if you have let everybody down,” as well as the silliness of young girls, particularly regarding a player who calls herself the “goddess of giddiness.”

By the end of the book, my perspective on sports writing had changed. Reporting could yield so much more than inverted pyramid structures or witty little features, something I had always suspected. But, in this book, I learned how it could be done. So I decided to immerse myself in a project where I could do the same type of reporting. Six months later, I started a project that I foolishly believed would take a few months to report and a few months to write. At the end, I realized I had not spent enough time so I spent another full season with this team, during which I compiled three binders filled with notes and 12 cassettes filled with individual interviews of these college players.

After writing drafts of several chapters, I realized I needed more guidance so I read several other books, including The Miracle of St. Anthony and Friday Night Lights.

In The Miracle of St. Anthony’s, Adrian Wojnarowski follows a Jersey City, N.J., high school basketball team coach by Bobby Hurley’s dad. The neighborhood is rough, like the coach and some of the players. Wojnarowski is at his best when he captures the dialogue of the story’s main characters and when he describes what he sees. You can learn a lot by just hanging out. Too often, reporters rush through their stories, asking a few quick questions, recording a few stats, and leaving. Often, the best stories can be found by hanging out at gyms, fields, hallways and coach’s offices. Slow down and let some stories come to you.

In Friday Night Lights, which earned a Pulitzer Prize when it was published more than a decade ago, H.G. Bissinger branches out beyond the sidelines of this Texas high school football team to cover politics, legal matters and social issues. Like Wojnarowski, Bissinger chronicles a season of a high school sports team.

The town is a character in this book. (When you’re out on a feature, jot down some details about the places you visit.) Setting is key in most feature writing. That’s the case with Odessa, which was a sports-crazed, conservative, small town in the 1980s. Many of the school’s supporters fought against black athletes playing on their team, preferring that they remain across the proverbial railway tracks. (Odessa had desegregated less than a decade earlier, but more than 25 years after the landmark Brown v Board of Education decision.) Some parents and a few players were angry these black students had taken away coveted positions on the team. Bissinger shows how racism affects local politics, educational policies, and the football team.

While the town is central to the team’s psyche, the games do not always propel the story. Bissinger sometimes describes a game in a few paragraphs, spending more time telling stories about current and former players, explaining political battles among parents and school board members, and offering history of the oil industry.

Bissinger’s ability to weave these other narratives into the story, and his subtle commentary, are a strength of this book. These three books can teach sports reporters a great deal about writing and reporting. Check them out.

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Last Best League teaches much about baseball

March 30, 2007


Anybody covering baseball should pick up Jim Collins’ The Last Best League, a book that covers the top wooden-bat league in the nation. The top college baseball players in the country gather in Cape Cod each summer to see how they compare to other top prospects. Collins follows a team through a summer season. You’ll get a chance to see another side of professional and college baseball in this wonderfully written book.

This book also teaches much about setting, something sports journalists need to capture for gamers, features, and profiles. Setting should be more than mere background in a story, something Collins proves. Setting should help define the people we focus on in features about runners, ball players and swimmers. Head out to practice and describe athletes in their settings, both on and off the field.

Show plants blooming, hear wind whistling through an open field, and describe the salty air on a sultry night. A writer who spends time describing the tactile elements of a scene will retain readers in far greater numbers.

Here’s how Collins describes Chatham, a village on Cape Cod, Mass.:

“The days were lengthening, extending the sunlight past eight o’clock. Salt marshes greened up. Cranberry bushes and black locust trees bloomed. Some of the players had their first fun in town.”

And Collins describes the winds that frequently rake the towns and fields on the Cape through sound:

“Wind always blew here – the only question was whether high or low. When the wind was low, as it was that day, it snapped the American flag near the press box, whistled over the top of the plateau, and swirled across the diamond toward left field. The wind jerked fly balls, suddenly shifted them, gave outfielders fits.”

I love scenes where he focuses on a moment, like a photographer who frames a close-up shot:

“Chad Orvella’s hands were sweating so much that they squished in his leather batting gloves; he couldn’t swing without slipping. He walked back to the dugout with his bat under one arm, took off his batting gloves and wrung them like a sponge. D’Antona’s gray ‘Wake Forest’ T-shirt darkened with sweat halfway into his first round of swings. The players wished Schiffner would allow them to take B.P. in shorts and no shirts, the way teams did in Orleans and Bourne.”

This scene is palpable. The hands squished, the feet slipped, the glove was “wrung like a sponge,” and the T-shirt was soaked with sweat. The scene is palpable. Readers can feel the moment. Readers are immersed.

Collins shows so much more in this book as well. In particular, sports reporters can learn more about the business of college and professional baseball and about game strategy. This book is worth a read. Check it out.

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