Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Off-Season

On obsessions, minor sports, choking, and The New Yorker.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 17, 2010 at 4:00 AM

The summer solstice is less than a week away, but summer starts in May around here. More important, the summer sports solstice is less than a month away.

There are two days a year when there are no major-league baseball, basketball, football, or hockey games scheduled. This year the dates are July 12th and July 14th, the days before and after the baseball All-Star game. It's as close to a dead zone as there is in sports. There aren't any college football or basketball games either. The World Cup and the vuvuzela (you say obnoxious, I say 200-point Scrabble word) will be history. So will Wimbledon. The British Open doesn't start until July 15th. The Tour de France, which will be at the midway point, will own ESPN.

There's a great new book for the off-season and Father's Day: The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting From the New Yorker, edited by New Yorker editor David Remnick.

Famous writers like John Updike, John Cheever, Ring Lardner, and A.J. Liebling write about baseball and boxing with high style. "Gods do not answer letters," Updike says about Ted Williams' refusal to acknowledge the cheers after hitting a homer in his last at bat. Liebling compares fighter Archie Moore to Captain Ahab and Rocky Marciano to the White Whale and pulls it off. Lardner gripes about the juiced baseball and $80,000 salaries ruining the grand old game. (It was 1930.) And Cheever proves that being able to write fiction does not mean you can write a decent baseball essay. But the best essays are about no-names and their sports obsessions.

Haruki Murakami explains how taking up distance running at the age of 33 propelled his career from Tokyo nightclub to successful novelist. He wasn't athletic or coordinated or good at sports "where things are decided in a flash":

"I think that I've been able to run for more than twenty-five years for one reason: It suits me. Or, at least, I don't find it all that painful. Human beings naturally continue doing things they like, and they don't continue doing what they don't like."

Nancy Franklin takes on Ping-Pong, "the number two sport in the world after soccer," and the difference between "hardbats" and "sponge racquets" that impart more spin. A player named Marty Reisman won the U.S. Open in 1960 after converting to a sponge racquet and then never played with it again. "Reisman," Franklin writes, "marches to his own drummer and likes to talk about his march and his drummer at length."

Dr. Mark Renneker, aka "Doc Hazard," was a legendary surfer in San Francisco, who "tore up the surfing social contract and blew his great, sunburned nose on the tatters," in the words of writer William Finnegan. "The only audience that matters to most surfers is other surfers, for they alone can truly appreciate what they are seeing. They have been through the ordeal of learning to surf."

Lynne Cox is an open-water swimmer, 5 feet 6 inches tall and 180 pounds with 35 percent body fat, who swam the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia in 44-degree water without a wetsuit, shark cage, or lanolin grease. Fifty yards from the end of her 2.4-mile swim she discovered she was slightly off course from the Russian welcoming committee. So she swam an extra half-mile through "an ocean that was like a washing machine" because the purpose of her swims is to promote international harmony.

Malcolm Gladwell probes "The Art of Failure" and the monumental collapse of Greg Norman in the 1996 Masters golf tournament (since eclipsed by the triple bogey by Robert Garrigus on the 18th hole of the St. Jude Classic in Memphis last Sunday). "But was he choking or panicking?" writes Gladwell, who has taken the journalism of sports performance to new heights. "Here the distinction between those two states is critical."

Adam Gopnik gets 7,000 words out of coaching his 8-year-old son's football team, the Metrozoids, and the sublime connections between coaches and kids. Gopnik carefully crafts a motivational speech about separating men from boys and warriors from men and heroes from warriors and so on. His son is not impressed:

"Nobody wants to be motivated to play football, Dad. They want to play football."

There is a little of each of these obsessives in all of us weekend warriors. They get us through the off-season, which is really not an off-season at all.



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