By Alex Belth
Bronx Banter, December 15, 2008
Looking for that ideal last-minute holiday gift for the sports fan in your life? Look no further than The Best American Sportswriting of 2008, edited by Bill Nack, who is one of the finest sportswriters we have.
Nack is a first-rate reporter, a dedicated craftsman, and a true storyteller. He came up with Newsday in the late ’60s and wrote about horse racing. His experience in the field culminated in the seminal book, Secretariat: The Making of a Champion. In 1979, Nack joined Sports Illustrated, where he excelled at the bonus, or take-out piece, writing beautifully about Willie Shoemaker, Keith Hernandez, Rick Pitino, Bobby Fischer, Rocky Marciano, and, of course, Secretariat, to name just a few. (Nack’s best work is compiled in the stellar collection, My Turf.)
Nack now works for ESPN.com. Roger Ebert, who has been friends with Nack since they went to college together, wrote a wonderful essay about his friend last week. If you love words and care about language, you must check this out. It could be the highlight of your week.
I recently caught up with Bill recently to chat about The Best American Sports Writing 2008.
Alex Belth: As a writer, how do you approach a project like this?
Bill Nack: I just look for the stuff that I liked the most, the stuff that I thought was the best-written and best-told stories. I read 70–80 stories that Glenn Stout sent me. I got it down to 35–40 and then it became really tough to pair it down. The last ten were very difficult.
Alex: Did you work with Glenn or alone?
Bill: I did it on my own. There were a couple of pieces that I had questions about but not many. He left it up to me, totally. I trusted him to give me what he thought were the 70 best, and after that I felt it was up to me to find the ones that I thought were the best. And, occasionally, I’d call him up and say, “What do you think of this one?” Some to me were slam dunks, in fact most of them were. Jeanne Marie Laskas, S.L. Price. The only problem that I had was in trying to get a mix of traditional sports with obscure sports. And I was very conscious of the mix.
Alex: Did you also want to mix-up bonus pieces and newspaper stuff?
Bill: Yeah, I did actually. I wanted to make sure there was an adequate representation of newspaper columns, which are a dying species. And when I read Rick Telander’s piece on Doug Atkins, that was a no-brainer. Same thing on Rick Reilly’s piece. The piece on Bo Jackson, by Joe Posnanski—that was kind of a column—that to me was an easy one. That raised a problem because I wondered if we should have two Bo Jackson stories in one book. And I really liked the ESPN.com piece by Michael Weinreb. I loved both of them. And what I liked about them together is that they were completely different takes on the same guy. I think I did consult with Glenn on that one. I said, “Do you mind if we have two Bo Jackson stories?” And he said, “No, no, they are both very different.”
Alex: I actually like having them back-to-back for just that reason.
Bill: The one thing that I noticed in the first batch of stories that Glenn sent me was that there was no humor. It was very serious. The poor woman who was lost in the wilderness and saved by her dog, the Terry Fox Run across Canada, the world’s tallest tree, Scott Price’s piece on the poor coach who died from a foul ball. And I looked at it and thought, “God, some of this stuff is really gloomy.”
I happened to be a subscriber to Golf Digest and Dan Jenkins is a regular contributor. I started looking through my old issues and ran across Dan’s piece about trying to play golf as you grow old. I started laughing as I read it, because he’s one of the funniest writers that’s ever written about sports. I finished it and thought, “This has got to go in there.” So that’s the one humorous piece that I found. I also liked it because I’m 67 and play golf. And there are a lot of older men who still play, so I thought it had a wider appeal. It was not just funny, which I needed, but it was something that a lot of guys could relate to. You don’t have to be 67, all you have to do is be 50.
Alex: Was there a sense with the Tom Boswell column on Roger Clemens and the Hank Aaron story that you wanted to get in pieces that were timely?
Bill: Oh, definitely. I did think of that. I thought people would like Tom Boswell’s piece because it is a comment on Clemens.
Alex: I thought the Aaron piece was phenomenal.
Bill: I showed some of the pieces around before I made my final choices. Some people loved the Tommy Craggs thing and other people said, “You can’t put this in there. Who is this guy?” I just laughed. But they were bent out of shape because Craggs is criticizing the press in his piece. Who is this guy to criticize the press? I said, “I have no idea and I don’t care who he is.” I thought he had a very interesting, sharp take. And when I read it I thought, “You know, there is a lot of truth in this.” I might not agree with everything, but I thought there was a lot of truth in it. I had friends in the piece that he criticized, but I ran it anyway.
Alex: The collection has some good young talent, like Wright Thompson, who has made the series several times now.
Bill: I thought that was a terrific piece he did on Beijing. Really well done. Almost personal in a way. He didn’t just write a piece. He got you into it with vivid imagery. I’ve never met Wright Thompson, I’ve only read a little bit by him, but I thought, “This is really good.” I didn’t know anything about him, but I like Tommy, I liked his work and was happy to put it in this book. If you want to know the bottom line, I didn’t consider personalities, I didn’t consider names, I just put in people who contributed to making this the best possible anthology I could put together.
Alex: I liked how many different styles of writing you chose, not just ones that might reflect your own sensibilities.
Bill: Oh yeah, I like all kinds of writing. I like Faulkner. I like Hemingway. I mean, how different can you be? I also like DeLillo, who is lyrical, I like Fitzgerald, who is also lyrical. I tend to like lyrical writers. But I also like the guys like W.C. Heinz and Hemingway—the guys who write this real straight, vivid stuff.
Alex: And you also have breakaway talents like S.L. Price and Michael Lewis and J.R. Moehringer.
Bill: People told me about the Moehringer piece ahead of time and said, “I don’t know whether you are going to like this.” So I approached it skeptically.
Alex: There is a conceit to the piece—that the subject, USC football coach Pete Carroll, cannot be successfully profiled—that is very self-aware.
Bill: Yeah, but I thought he handled his conceit, or himself, in the piece very well. It didn’t bother me. I emerged from the story understanding who Carroll is and I’m not sure it is possible to understand him. And that was the whole purpose of the story. Who is this guy? But I did get a feeling for the strangeness of this guy because of the strangeness of the story. The approach was different and I think it was courageous.
Gil Rogin, one of my first editors at Sports Illustrated, always said that he admired writers who took chances. Gil was one of the best—if not the very best—writers who ever wrote for Sports Illustrated. He was a major literary talent, so I always trusted his take on writing. He told me, “I like writers who take a chance. It might not always work, but try to be different, try to break away from the mold.”
It takes a certain courage to be different. And I included the Moehringer piece in the anthology as an acknowledgment that he took a chance and it worked. Plus, I thought it accomplished what it set out to accomplish, which was to do a portrait of this strange man who ran through your fingers like sand. To change metaphors, it’s hard to get your arms around Carroll.
I thought the Jeanne Marie Laskas piece was the shocker of what I saw.
Alex: I love that story. It blew me away. It was probably my favorite piece in the collection.
Bill: It’s damn close to mine. I ended up putting Scott Price’s piece first, but it was a toss-up.
Alex: It was written with such empathy.
Bill: Yeah, that’s what I liked about it. When I approached that story, I rolled my eyes and went, “Uh-oh, what is she going to do with these girls?” Because I’ve been around cheerleaders and they are very easily criticized as bimbos and as Kewpie dolls. I said to myself if she condescends to these girls or is critical or patronizing this has no chance, it’s too easy. And I started reading it and I said, “Oh, my god. This is wonderful.” She handled it beautifully. Made me like the girls. I could relate to the gal who is the construction worker, the single mom. They were all interesting. And they were real people. She made them into real people. She didn’t make them into cartoon characters which would have been very easy to do.
Alex: And she didn’t shy away from their sexuality. When they get to wear the cat suit uniforms the cheerleaders get all excited because they like to look sexy.
Bill: Yeah, they have this other life they live. On one hand, they’ve got jobs with kids at home, and on the hand they are kind of Kewpie dolls: Oh, look at this. But it’s really interesting how she brought those worlds together. It was the pleasant surprise of the whole batch. And it was not an easy story to write. The little mini-profiles, the description in the beginning, how she got into the story… that took some work. You could see the originality and the reporting was excellent.
Alex: Talking about easy… That was something that came to mind when I originally read the Franz Lidz story on Steinbrenner. About how he got in to see Steinbrenner. And I wondered if Lidz crossed some kind of ethical line insinuating himself into that situation. But after time, I wondered: Maybe it was fair game. How did you feel about that as a reader and how do you resolve that kind of thing as a journalist?
Bill: One of my mentors, first at Newsday, then at Sports Illustrated, is Sandy Padwe. He’s now a professor of journalism at Columbia and has been for years. I called him up. I said, “I’ve got a story here by Franz Lidz about George Steinbrenner and here’s the situation: He’s with an old friend of Steinbrenner’s—old, good friend. Franz’s intention was to write a story about George, how he’s been, who is going to take his place. Very logical, good story. Hadn’t been done. So he gets one of George’s oldest and best friends who hadn’t seen George in a year and goes over there. Somebody leaves the grounds and they drive in through the gate. They meet a gardener. And Tom says, “We’d like to see George.” So they see George and he says, “Hey, Tommy, how you doing?” I told all of this to Sandy and I said, “Lidz didn’t break-and-enter.” He said, “No, there is nothing wrong with that, it’s enterprising reporting.” And that was exactly my take, but I wanted to bounce it off Sandy because I trust his judgement because he thinks about these things. I didn’t see anything wrong with it; I thought it was perfectly handled. Not only that, when Franz wrote it, he wrote it sympathetically. All he did was write what he saw, and then he wrote a long background story on the kids.
I thought the piece filled a void that had been out there for a long time, it was like a public service. It was all rumors, nothing was documented. In a situation like that you want to go in there and say, “This is what really is happening.” Let the chips fall where they may, but at least it’s not just speculation. And don’t forget, the Yankees are the most important sports franchise in America. It would be like the owner of the Manchester United football team in Britain—not only that but a very active owner.
Alex: What was interesting was that a lot of guys in the New York media, even old enemies like Mike Lupica, really backed-off George. In the context of that, the Lidz story was almost jarring. Which is ironic considering what a public figure Steinbrenner had been for years.
Bill: And that’s another thing, Alex, which made the piece okay. It’s because George had been so front-and-center for so long. He was the most voluble, volatile owner in America—not just New York—who had used the press all of his life to attack players, to attack his managers. So it’s not like he was Gene Autry.
Most owners are in the background. This guy was not only not in the background, he was up front and used the press. So he invited this scrutiny because this is the way he was. It would be inappropriate to go after an owner who was essentially a private guy, but George? His whole life was spent in the limelight. Where is George? That was the question people were asking in New York. And nobody was dealing with it in the press. Franz went out there and found out, and I thought he did a hell of a service.
Alex: There was one story in particular that I was happy to see in the collection and that’s Mark Kram’s memoir about his father. That’s my other favorite in the book.
Bill: Yeah, I thought it was a hell of a piece. I’ll tell you why I liked it: because it was so hard to write. I mean, can you imagine writing a story like that about your father? And coming to terms with your father’s failures. His father was a brilliant guy who was an extremely difficult guy to live with and to work with and everybody knows it. I heard stories about Mark Kram Sr. for years at SI. I wasn’t quite sure, despite what I’d heard, what had happened. And Mark’s piece cleared it up for me. He did his reporting. I don’t know why the piece was not accepted by SI [it was originally commissioned by the magazine]. I didn’t want to raise the fact that it was an SI story because that would open up a can of worms that was, “Why didn’t they run it?”
Alex: What’s most important for you, a writer’s style or the writer’s take?
Bill: I just like really good writing. I tend to like lyrical stuff. Charlie Pierce, he’s my kind of guy. Scott Price, I like his stuff. I like the guy who turns a phrase and not everybody can do that. It’s a talent.
Alex: Michael Lewis…
Bill: And Mark Kram, Sr. And Mark Kram, Jr., too. And John Schulian, and Frank Deford, obviously. Wright Thompson has a nice turn of phrase. He says things a little bit differently. You don’t find a lot of clichés. And the hardest thing to expunge from your prose is clichés because they are the first thing that come to your mind. They are the easiest—like anything else it’s going to the path of least resistance. So, at least in my own experience writing, I try to avoid clichés and try to find a new way to say something old. And that’s hard. I can see guys doing the same thing when they’re writing, because they are saying things differently, they are finding new phrases. The happy accident of the nice term or phrase—that’s what writing is all about and that’s what makes it worthwhile. It’s part of the creative process. It’s the fruits of the creative process. So I look for that kind of stuff.
I’m drawn to the people doing things a bit different, whether it be Moehringer or Jeanne Marie Laskas. They obviously have talent. And I hope I’m able to recognize it and see the originality of it. And that’s hard work. I mention it in the intro, but I found the reporting in all of these pieces extremely good. And you can tell when the reporting isn’t any good because it’s like a ham sandwich without the ham. It’s all mayonnaise. But when you get pieces like these with reporting, you can feel it, you are there. You’ve lived it, felt it. And if you don’t get that feeling you know the writer is phoning it in. But I don’t think there is a single story in here that was phoned in. That’s what I liked about it best: great reporting, vivid writing.