(b) I’m biased toward pieces that are unusual and surprising in both their subject matter and approach, and biased against pieces that are none of those things. I read a lot, probably too much, and if a piece covers the same ground as 10 other pieces, I’m turned off … unless it manages to make said ground fresh, in which case, it’s probably on my list;
(c) I’m biased toward reported pieces and against non-reported memoirs and opinionating, no matter how well written. I like steak with my sizzle, and find the world more interesting than the writers who populate it;
(d) I’m also biased in that a number of my selections were written by people I count as friends, and/or know a bit (in the most Wibonian sense of the term). Just wanted to admit that up front.
And now, the list:
“Statis Pro Baseball: An Instruction Manual,” by Michael Weinreb, Grantland. Of all the sports writers and I know and follow, Michael is the most likely to work for the New Yorker. As in: I’m not sure why they haven’t hired him already. His reporting is keen; his prose is graceful; his ideas are smart but never MFA precious or grad school pretentious. In short, he writes like an adult, and I’d very much like my stuff to read like his when I eventually grow up. What I admired most about this piece is that it didn’t settle – it easily could have been a tedious, navel-gazing memoir-ish piffle, the kind of story that cuts straight to the ponderous Meaning of it All without telling an actual, you know, story. Instead, the piece deftly weaves personal narrative of Weinreb’s teenage obsession with a stats-driven baseball game around the bittersweet tale of the game’s creator, and through the reportorial effort -- the sheer and subtle accumulation of detail – comes to some deeper insights that have been earned, and not just foisted upon the reader like tablets from the mind’s Mount Sinai.
“Punched Out,” by John Branch, New York Times; “Concussions in the NHL: Waiting for Science,” by Ken Dryden, Grantland; “Concussion Inc.” blog, by Irv Muchnick. Penn State was the biggest sports story of the year – with good reason – but a decade from now, brain trauma in athletics will continue to be the far bigger issue, a public health crisis about which the public remains largely ignorant and/or in willful denial. Branch’s rich, heartbreaking profile of Derek Boogaard put a human face on the problem; Dryden’s made an important (and necessary) case for erring on the side of caution and protecting people’s brains; Muchnick’s blog is the best place – maybe the only place – for muckraking, truth-to-power journalism on the topic. In fact, I expect that all of us will hear a lot more from Muchnick in 2012.
“From Another Era and Another Sport, a Sex Abuse Scandal Still Inflicting Pain Today,” by Jeff Passan, Yahoo Sports’ The PostGame. The most amazing thing about this piece is neither the writing nor the story itself, both of which are superb. It’s the fact that Jeff wrote this piece – which reads like a back-of-a-magazine blowout project – in a matter of days. Hours, really, including an all-night writing session. For someone as slow and methodical as myself, this made me want to find a new line of work. But it also inspired me to work a whole lot harder.
“Blindsided: The Jerry Joseph Basketball Scandal,” by Michael J. Mooney, GQ. A classic example of an odd local news story going national, and then being forgotten in favor of the next new shiny thing – allowing a curious writer to dig in and find the longer, better, more human tale behind the original can-you-believe-it? headline.
“Staying the Course,” by Wright Thompson, ESPN.com. Wright is unfairly talented, and also hard-working, and also has the energy of an 8-year-old boy washing down Adderall with Red Bull, and next to Bill Reiter he might have the most appropriate name going in this business. Best of all, he takes none of that for granted. He is always, always pushing himself to be better. This wasn’t the kind of story that generates headlines or – gack – Internet/talk radio controversy du jour buzz (needs more White Mike Vick, for starters), but it was insanely difficult from a who cares? perspective and masterfully executed. Moreover, I think it marked a significant milestone in Wright’s evolution as a writer, because it didn’t read like a sports story. It read like a short story. And that makes all the difference.
“The Case Against the Case Against Lance Armstrong,” by Tommy Craggs, Deadspin; “The Brutal Truth About Penn State,” Charlie Pierce, Grantland. Pierce is the old master of slaying sacred cows and calling bullshit where bullshit sorely needs to be called – with apologies to Chris Jones, was anyone more right or prescient about Tiger Woods? – while Craggs is (in my estimation) his heir apparent. Both can pop deserving balloons with a single sharp sentence; both construct solid, rock-ribbed arguments to support their lacerating conclusions; both have a welcome, critical eye for the same parroted balderdash the rest of us blithely let slide. Sports writing in the two-guys-shouting-at-each-other-for-ratings era can often bring to mind the famous line from Yeats: the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Fortunately, Pierce and Craggs have plenty of the former.
“Chaos has Engulfed Happy Valley,” by Bill Reiter, FoxSports.com; “At Penn State’s Stadium, Profanity, Scorn Greet one Father’s Protest,” by Nathan Fenno, The Washington Times. Is it possible to be among the media scrum parachuting into the hot zone of a Defcon 1 national news story and still come up with something original and important? Yes. Detail makes the difference: see Reiter’s hilariously sad description of a slow-motion car chase involving Joe Paterno. Also, always zig where others zag: see Fenno finding the single best Penn State gameday story outside Beaver Stadium.
“The Frozen Lake,” by Justin Heckert, Yahoo Sports’ The PostGame. A love story about death, nature and, I guess, sports. This piece is almost indefinable, at least in terms of a quick pitch to a dubious editor. And that is what makes it so good. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that the prose is so damn lyrical, as haunting and beautiful as … a frozen lake.
“The Last Act of the Notorious Howard Spira,” by Luke O’Brien, Deadspin. I loved this piece on every level. Great writing, keen reporting, clear structure, and at the center of everything an unforgettable, too-real-to-be-fake character in Howie Spira. The challenge in long form writing often isn’t what to include in a story; it’s what to leave out, because absence is what engages a reader’s imagination and makes storytelling literary. I assume Luke left many, many more maddening and anguished interactions with Spira on the cutting room floor. He put the right ones on the page. (Side note: people who think Deadspin is nothing more than snark, poop jokes and junk photos aren’t paying attention; the site also produces long form stories – not navel-gazing essays, but actual reported get-out-into-the-world stories – to rival any of its big-budget media competitors. I find this heartening).
“Stay Soft, Dirk Nowitzki,” by Luke O’Brien, Deadspin. Technically, this piece was about an NBA power forward; in reality, it was an argument against: (a) lazy, clichéd sports writing; (b) an entire worldview. As O’Brien wrote, the ability to tame fate is the most adamantine and American of fallacies, especially in sports, where it is held that the sheer will of an individual can prevail over anything at the last, even in a team game. (Try persuading Dwyane Wade of this now.) We demand our stars work harder, be more valiant, tougher, more cutthroat, less sensitive, more solipsistic, less socialistic, develop a killer instinct, dominate, crush, destroy, show no weakness, dispense with humor unless using it to mock, have unwavering confidence in personal greatness, ignore doubt, reject fear, embrace hero status. But this is not courageous. This is stupid. No one in the industry wrote a more insightful paragraph this year.
“The Shame of College Sports,” by Taylor Branch, The Atlantic; “Renegade Miami Booster Spells out Illicit Benefits to Players,” by Charles Robinson, Yahoo Sports. It’s one thing for run-of-the-mill sports columnists – like yours truly – to decry the great and mighty sham that is college sports amateurism. It’s quite another for a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian like Branch to thoroughly demolish the moral and intellectual underpinnings of the same. When amateurism eventually draws its last shallow breath – probably via a court case, possibly via the NCAA decided to simply do the right thing – Branch’s clear-eyed critique will be seen as a pivotal document. As for Robinson’s expose? Reporting like this makes it much easier to argue that the entire system is utterly untenable.
“He’s Got the Whammy on Me,” by Sam Eifling, The Classical. What does it mean to psych an opponent out? To be psyched out? Eifling looks for answers, and doing so, raises an implicit question: how come nobody has tried the answer this before? My only problem with this piece is that it wasn’t longer; I suspect a writer with more time and a bigger travel budget could dig up much more.
"We Are the JumboTron Generation," by Michael Kruse, Yahoo Sports' The PostGame. Oops. Almost left this out. Kruse is known for top-noth narrative journalism in the old school sense of the term - but this, a think piece/meditation done right, shows a bit of his range. Also, I'm not sure if Kruse intended this, but the piece says as much about where sportswriting is going - people writing about the experience of watching television and reading the Internet - as it does about our increasingly mediated society.
“The Kiss,” by Chris Ballard, Sports Illustrated. Great idea for a year-end piece; even better execution. Like the classic Gary Smith piece on Richie Parker, “Crime and Punishment,” the piece provides a panoramic view on a set of characters whose interactions reveal a larger truth.
“Can I Kick It? (Yes, I Can),” by Chris Kluwe, Deadspin. Leave it to the NFL’s funniest punter to pen the single most amusing piece I read all year. Lesson to all aspiring scribes: if you’re going to engage in a good old-fashioned blood feud in print, don’t halfass the righteous bitchiness.
“Philly Booed Santa, but Santa Still Smiles,” by Liz Merrill, ESPN.com. Another piece I loved because it refused to settle. Liz didn’t just find the man behind the infamous Santa Snowballpocalypse; she found the story of that man. Something like this takes empathy and humility on the part of a reporter – increasingly rare qualities in an age of posturing and argumentative blather – and luckily, Liz has both of those in spades.
“Against the Butterfly,” by Kent Russell, n+1. My favorite piece of the year, both surprising and delightful; what begins as a technical discussion of goaltending style becomes something else entirely, an argument about how to live. I adored the slow build of this story, the clean prose, the understated, revelatory ending. In a year in which I read far too many pieces that tried – and failed – to use sports-as-metaphor to say something profound, this piece quietly and unpretentiously succeeded.
“Seven Seconds of Wow,” by Patrick Hruby, ESPN.com. Last but not least, this was my favorite piece that I published this year. (My favorite piece that I wrote, about Dock Ellis’ LSD no-hitter, won’t run until Spring Training 2012). 2011 was the latest chapter in an ongoing transition period for me: I stopped writing journalism junk food humor pieces for ESPN’s Page 2; started writing sports pieces and columns for the Atlantic Online and the PostGame; took a non-sportswriting day job at the Washington Times. I’m still trying to figure out how to make this all work, and where my long-form, magazine-style writing aspirations fit into earning enough money to, you know, eat. As such, I was pretty proud of finishing this piece – I nearly had it taken away from me because another ESPN-affiliated writer was planning something on the same topic – and even more proud that I managed to write something about NBA halftime acts that was actually good. I hope that bodes well for the year to come.