The readers of this book are a unique constituency. For many, I suspect that The Best American Sports Writing makes a more or less regular appearance in their hands sometime between Labor Day and Christmas. It is something of a no-brainer for certain fans of sports and writing, an instant gift happily received. The annual migration of this book from bookstore to bookshelf can be calculated almost to the day, as if inspired by discreet and distant urgings buried deep in the DNA, a kind of seasonal response to diminishing light.
This kind of anticipation, like waiting for the first good snow, creates an exacting level of expectation in many readers. Over time they have developed a great sense of ownership over the final product, as well they should. After all, books cease to belong to the author — or in this case, the editors — as soon as readers turn to the first page. Their experience is all that matters, and when they start reading, the book becomes more theirs than its creators’.
Many writers, particularly those in daily journalism, know exactly what I mean. The Los Angeles Times’s Bill Plaschke, whose story “Her Blue Haven” leads off this collection, makes use of a similar situation as the basis for his story; regular readers of our work feel they have a stake in each and every word. They take us seriously, even when we don’t always take ourselves that way.
That doesn’t mean that the readers of the books in this series are so slavishly devoted that they are above criticism. Quite the opposite. The readers of this series who contact me are rarely shy about expressing themselves. My name on the book jacket gives them that right. Over the years they have made it clear to me that although they enjoy the fluctuations of the menu each year, at the end of the meal they want to feel satisfyingly full. A book like this requires the investment of several hours of readers’ time, and it is their right to feel they have used that time well.
Fortunately, most do, at least among those who contact me. Of those who do complain, most are concerned with a kind of scorekeeping, as in, “There were too many newspaper stories,” or not enough newspaper stories, or too much football, or not enough hockey. Or too many famous writers, columns, men, women, curse words, adjectives, consonants, etc., etc., etc. — or not enough of those same items. One reader even calculated the annual cost per page of his purchase since the beginning of the series. For the record, we are holding our own against inflation.
I tend to measure how well I do my job by the way these complaints inevitably even out over the year. Most couch their criticism between compliments anyway, and when readers argue from the opposite sides of the same fence, I figure I must be doing something right.
Each year I invite readers to take part in this series, to send me stories they think might merit inclusion in the book. And they do, often with an eye at least as accurate and discerning as my own. For some reason, authors remain somewhat reticent about submitting their own material, and despite my repeated efforts, some editors I contact each year asking for submissions, particularly in the newspaper field, don’t always do so.
Fortunately, the readers take up the slack. Several sent me Plaschke’s story, and there is at least one other story that made its way into this volume that I would not have seen had a reader not clipped it, stuck it in an envelope, and sent it off to me. So keep it up.
In addition to those complaints and suggestions, a few missives stand out each year for one reason or another. One reader writes me each and every year asking when the book will be published and where he can find it. And every year I write back and say, “September,” and, “Your local bookstore.” I assume he is successful. He never asks where to find last year’s edition.
Last September 17 I received an e-mail from a reader in New York City. In that strange time, in the wake of the 9/11 carnage, I think many of us everywhere found it difficult to focus and concentrate, particularly on something made so instantly trivial as sports. I felt this myself, for I was working on another project and was forced to write or consider the words “New York” over and over again. For weeks the name of that city felt and sounded different, as if heard for the first time and describing a brand- new place, and each time it caused a momentary and uncomfortable pause from which there seemed no escape. At the same time I was rapidly inundated by sports reportage from all over the country that touched on the horror of that day and found myself lost in the mind-numbing litany of tragedy piled upon tragedy. While I was fortunate in thhat everyone I loved and cared about in the city survived, still, the buildings had fallen and their shadows never seemed to lift.
Annnnnd then I received this:
. . . As I struggled to cope with what was going on around me, I kept looking for a way to “take a break” — living in NYC has made it very difficult to do this — everything from the smoke in your hair to the constant wail of sirens, to the naked skyline is an ever-present reminder. I tried to read, watch movies, talk with friends about other stuff, but nothing worked. . . . I sat around unable to think or feel. And then on Wednesday afternoon I shuffled over to my bookshelf, one last attempt to find some satisfying distraction. As I scanned the shelves a large black and gold volume popped out at me — The Best American Sports Writing of the Century . . . the subject matter interesting but removed from reality, the quality of writing poignant but not too deep. . . . I found some solace in the stories, in the words. . . .
And so did I, in his. I don’t repeat this story because it was sent to me, but because I believe it was directed to the writers of each and every volume in this series. It is easy for the authors who commit themselves to these and other pages each day and year of their lives to grow cynical, to feel that too many words fall still and silent and stupid, unheard, immaterial, and insignificant. We work, after all, in what others occasionally deride as “the toy department.” But I think that this e-mail provides the best and only justification for what any of us do. Words can win awards and sometimes inspire change, they can cause us to laugh and cry or to fall asleep or turn the page. But they can also matter and mean more, perhaps briefly, in the hands of those we serve. None of us can tell precisely why or when that will be, apart from those brief moments when the reader tells us. And as any writer can tell you, perhaps the most important part of what we do is learning to listen well. So to the readers of this book, and the writers who are responsible for it each year, thank you.
My task each year is simple. I read as much as possible in hundreds of sports and general interest publications in search of work that I feel might merit inclusion in this book. I try to avoid missing anything, so each year I contact the editors and sports editors of hundreds of magazines, asking for either submissions or complimentary subscriptions. I also contact sports editors of a like number of newspapers and ask them to submit material.
But as I indicated earlier, I also welcome submissions from interested readers and writers. And writers, hear this: you are more than welcome to submit your own material. My only concern is for the final product. I don’t much care how material comes to me, only that I see it in the first place.
Just after the first of the year I forward those stories that I