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Sports writing

Thursday 6/30/22

When Roger Angell died in May, I saw social media post after social media post about how he was the best baseball writer ever. He wasn't. He was not even very good. What he was was wishy-washy and vague, and what often happens with people is they 1. Have low standards because 2. They don't get out that much--by which I mean, they don't expose themselves to much and 3. Are subject to the reality that hardly anyone is good at writing about anything. A few metaphors, and people become dazzled, because you don't see much of that with sports writing, which does have a high meathead-turned-writer component. Do you think Skip Bayless was ever a prose master? When that is the reality, winners are still pronounced. As the British say, somebody has to finish first, but this doesn't mean that those who do have talent or are creating anything of significance.


I'm about to paste in something I wrote in ten minutes. I would challenge anyone to find anything in Angell's prose, over many decades, which approaches the prose here. Roger Angell had that job at The New Yorker for the same reason that just about anyone ever has a job at The New Yorker, and that is the wrong reason. In his case, it was straight-up nepotism. Angell's mother, Katherine White, was a fixture of the magazine from 1925 to 1960. You can read all about her in books about New Yorker editors Harold Ross and William Shawn, from when The New Yorker was more invested in merit than now--current editor David Remnick hates anyone smarter than he is, and he's not that smart--but still so much of it was nepotism and cronyism. Not all of it, which is the case at present, along with a need for that mix of pomposity and mediocrity (and the fiction department is really going to want you not to be a straight white male under sixty who has already been boring people for decades, unless you live in Ireland, and then you can be the one token Irish writer), and so that David Remnick can think you're at least a little bit below him.


Angell's stepfather was E.B. White, who, more than any writer, symbolized New Yorker writing over six decades, beginning, again, in 1925. He had their early house style down better than any other staffer. He was their model. White was a strong writer, but a limited one. He had that house style, which also happened to be his house style, and he never veered from it. That strong and simple combo is why he did his best writing for children (which is also when he used his imagination more, something he didn't lean much on with his nonfiction) and his best writerly advice was for people simply trying to write clearly, with no concern that their writing do anything additionally.


Roger Angell was given his position because of his parents. He earned nothing. Nor would he have been able to--his prose is ordinary. It's prose that easily dupes sports people who don't do a lot of reading, who are given his books as Father's Day gifts, and it is prose that is able to rise because there isn't much in the way of viable artistic competition. People want to elevate it as special, because they want there to be something special in a field where there is little that is. (The best baseball book is The Glory of Their Times, an oral history of the early days of the game. Why is it the best? Because of the voices--in the literary sense--of the former players, and the stories they tell with those voices. Their language can have every bit of the literary richness of a Twain, a Ring Lardner. These are men sharing stories. If you were a fiction writer, and you created voices like these, you'd be doing okay. But the best baseball book, was written by people who are not writers. And it's a work of literature.) They want to be able to call to mind a core group of reading experiences from their past, if what they do is spend a lot of time reading sports books. They want a part of their shelf to be that special part of the shelf. But a lot of that is default, rather than what something actually is.


Most sports writing is dreadful. Look at someone such as Jemele Hill at The Atlantic. She's a professional racist. That's what they hired and pay her more than six figures a year to be. She can scarcely work the English language at a rudimentary level, let alone command it. A pro racist, doing sports pieces. And that's one of the "top" slots, right? So what does that mean? Or how about Scott Stossel, a perpetually broken man who also makes well north of six figures, who is carried by The Atlantic. He doesn't do anything there. It's like charity, keeping old Scott on the gravy train. He's the man who dangled a job in front of me, because he knew full well that I was the single most qualified person in the world for that full-time job, as the magazine was poised to go on a hiring spree, taking in people who'd done nothing, had one job in their lives, just out of school, working for some paper in Hawaii. They created a "talent lab" to scout for writers to work for them, flush with all of that money that the magazine was given by Steve Jobs's widow--a fortune. Not money that the magazine pulled in on it own. And they spent and spent and spent on shitty writers. He was also the person who accepted my short story "The Last Field," which is in Cheer Pack, who then disappeared on me for three months, while these hires were made, and did me as dirty as you can do. This pitiful excuse for a man (who made sure that his sister was hired by The Atlantic), and who then said nothing as current literary editor Ann Hulbert unaccepted the story without explanation, in five words. This has been discussed before, but it bears repeating. Because ultimately, they are not going to get away with this. Someone wishing to troll or be contrarian might say, "They did!" Well, there's still a lot of game left, to use a sports analogy. You bet on who you want to bet on. I'll put my money on me and my work, and the truth coming out, and eventually getting seen by enough people, and these people being held accountable.


Scott Stossel grew up rich in a Boston suburb. So, every year or two, they pull this weak man out of mothballs--the same man who threatened me by saying I'd never write for The Atlantic again, if I publicly told the truth about how he behaved, admitted he behaved, and how they treated me, which is like verbally agreeing to an NDA for your rape, with someone who only plans to continue doing you like they just did you anyway--to write a piece such as this, as their go-to Boston sports guy. Anyone who tries to read it will laugh, I understand that. But seriously look at how bad it is. How out of touch. So comically pretentious. This is what happens when a so-called smart person, who wants to think of themselves (and who has a desperate need to do so) as a prose stylist, tries to write something "deep" about sports. Painful. You wince with every clause. The man can't write. And you see his insecurity on full-display, his need to try and show that he's sufficiently intellectual, and not among the rabble who didn't grow up in towns like Beverly--because trying to maintain a sense of entitlement, despite knowing they possess no real talent, is everything to these people. That matters more to them than their families. Than doing the right thing. Than any actual justice. Than that conscience that constantly barks at them. This is their one true God. That's just how these people are. And I know these people better than their mothers do. Which they also know.


Sports books may be about interesting topics--because sports history is so rich--but they often read like dry, flat reportage. Then people pile on with the so-called best. They echo each other. "Finest ever," etc. And it is not.


This is, though. What am I supposed to say? It's ordinary? It's not as good? That's clearly not true. Don't say anything? Let others say all of it? Well, that's the thing, though, isn't it, when you're banned, hated, feared, envied, by the bulk of an industry, though you've done absolutely nothing wrong, with the problem being that you can do this, and you do it constantly, every day, with every kind of writing there is, and the kinds you invent, and with every subject, with fiction and nonfiction. So that would be playing into their hands, no? And to play into their hands would facilitate the hell that is my life, poverty, death, instead of trying to do something about it, and get to where I deserve to be, and where everyone, including these people, knows I deserve to be. I am not going to do that. So, what choice remains? To say the truth. The prose backs it up. It always backs it up. By the way: this piece on catchers will be going into You're Up, You're Down, You're Up: Essays on Art in Life and Life in Art. The book was otherwise finished a couple months ago, or whenever it was, but this will be a final addition. It fits well.


The batting average dipped in 1973, but Fisk crushed homers and was again near the top of the leader board. He was hurt for much of 1974 and 1975, and it looked to Red Sox fans at the time that Fisk was simply one of those outstanding talents who wouldn’t have a long career. The 1975 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds is still what most casual fans know Fisk for, on account that he’s responsible for the best known visual in the history of the game. I was born in September of that year. As the World Series unfurled, I marked time between stops in this life, living in a foster home in New Bedford. This will sound weird, but it has always mattered to me that I was alive when Carlton Fisk hit the twelfth-inning blast in Game Six—a baseball game that comes awfully close to being a work of art—to give all of New England hope that a World Series title, last seen in these parts in 1918, might become a reality. You will not be able to convince me that my foster mother did not have the game on, and that I saw and that I dreamed as I did so.


In a way—the less consequential way—the hope didn’t last. The Sox lost the next night, which is not an inconsequence—the juggernaut Reds took the title, after all—but is also not the takeaway. That would be the image of Fisk dancing as he alternately lopes and crow-steps towards first base, with the ball he has just driven—a rising line drive—beginning to hook as it travels above the left field line towards Fenway’s Green Monster outfield wall. He raises his arms above his head—you must allow me the present tense, because this will always be a present tense moment for me—imploring the prospective game-winner to remain fair. He pushes, he pushes again, with those beseeching limbs, and when the ball strikes the yellow pole likewise beckoning in the Boston night, he leaps in triumph.


If the New England soul—the spirit of what it means not just to be from these parts, but of them—could be encapsulated in what others humans might look to and say, “Oh, yes, I get it,” it would be the Fisk dance. It is to fall in New England what the verse of John Keats is to that same season in the original England. One enjoys a nice gourd, but when the clip plays on TV, all of the good ghosts you have ever known gather and watch with you, before resuming activities. Don’t sleep on autumn, says the Game Six Fisk home run: the true connoisseur of the season understands that as the surrounding world scales itself back, it is imperative that one do what one must to continue, to move forward, to all but inspire the hibernating spring, and the renewal she will bring, before she brings it. Harvest on the outside, yes; sow and reap, reap and sow, on the inside, as the world shoots you its reminders of our finite time, but not finite possibilities.


I cannot tell you how many times in neighborhood backyards that I launched a batted tennis ball high above the tree line some 120 feet away, putting the windows of a neighbor’s house in danger, then raising my arms, pushing the air aside as I hopped, the jumping boy-frog of the South Shore. It was not a steamy August mid-day on these occasions, with the foreknowledge that soon we’d be dropping our bats and mitts and cannonballing into a buddy’s pool. It was forever the New England autumn when you saw your breath, smelled the decaying leaf matter, the ambrosia of this place that could wage and win an olfactory battle with any Christmas tree or wreath anyone else from anywhere else cared to put forward as challenger.


People rightly talk of the elements as snow, wind, rain. There was no hocus-pocus in the Fisk home run. But will is an element as well, as the man in me, and the man I became, understood. Or it can be, depending upon the depth and commitment of yours. Had the ball flowed foul, Fisk would have fought on, returning to the batter’s box, expecting himself to do what he just nearly had. That’s not merely baseball. That’s how you want to live.