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The Best American Sports Writing 2009 (The Best American Series ®) Paperback – October 8, 2009
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I know he feels. I've been reviewing this series for many years, as long as this Web site has been up in one form another. How do I come up with another way of saying, "it's another top-notch collection of the best sports stories of the year?"
The 2009 book was put together by Leigh Montville, who is known now for his biographies of such figures as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Way back when, though, Montville wrote for the Boston Globe when that paper had the Murderer's Row of sports sections writers -- Will McDonough, Peter Gammons, Bob Ryan, Ray Fitzgerald, etc. Montville fit in with them nicely as a columnist, and he wrote a general-interest humor column on Sunday that often was worth the price of admission.
The format of the book remains the same. Stout collects a number of great stories, fills up a few boxes with them, and fires them off to the year's editor. Montville decided to add brief comments about each of his 24 selections at the conclusions, and it's a great move that should be repeated in future years.
More than most years, I think, the guest editor's preferences seem to come through in this case. There aren't many stories about the big events here, although Chris Jones' "The Things We Forget," a review of 2008, is one of the best stories in the whole book. Montville seems more interested in human nature, or previously unknown tales.
Runner's World magazine again comes up with a pair of stories here, Bruce Barcott's "Life and Limb," and Amby Burfoot's "Running Scared." Speaking as a subscriber, it's good to know that others have noticed the high quality material that magazine is producing.
The usual suspects, Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine, check in here, although familiar names -- other than the obligatory Gary Smith piece -- are less common. Some of the other stories that are worth noting are:
* "Inside the Mind of a ... Genius?" by Matthew Teague, a look at Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.
* "Father Bear" by Wright Thompson, as Jack Nicklaus does anything but fade into the sunset.
* "Commie Ball" by Michael Lewis, the "Moneyball" author who took a long, fascinating look of baseball in Cuba.
* "Where There's Smoke ..." by Mike Guy, an honest portrait of NASCAR's Tony Stewart.
There are even a couple of stories here that you force you to wonder if they belong in a book of sports writing. "The Source of All Things," by Tracy Ross, is more about a tragic family history than the outdoors, but it's powerful enough to be reprinted somewhere.
Just about all of the stories here, though, pass the test of carrying the reader through to the conclusion. That makes "The Best American Sports Writing 2009" well worth your time, as usual.
Then, I got to the stories. The first story is great -- a heroic survival tale. But the second story is terrible, and it's more than 20 pages. It just runs through a writer's impressions of the 2008 sporting year, following basically the big events and providing some "insider" commentary.
Meanwhile, Montville was contributing little comments in italics at the end of each story. None of his comments add anything to our knowledge or sensibility. Here are examples of Montville's observations: "He should do it every year." "He is the best at what he does." "No, I don't want to read a story about the medicine ball." "These kids break your heart."
Pulitzer-worthy stuff, for sure. So at that point, I put the book down, assuming that either I've tired of the series or this year was just a stinker.
But I picked it up again, and I was charmed. There's great stuff about immigrant kids in the U.S. and down-and-out youth in NYC, plus an interesting profile of the very intense Jack Nicklaus, and several deeply personal tales. In short, buy the book, and ignore the editor.