In the current edition of this venerable series, Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, Liarís Poker and other books, has put together a collection of 27 pieces that can, at best, be called eclectic and contemporary, covering traditional sports like baseball, football, and basketball. In perhaps a nod to the changing tastes of the reading public, Lewis includes the Paris-Drakar Rally (a 5,500-plus automobile race), scuba diving, poker, cheerleading, and rodeo, among others. What it amounts to, ultimately though, is a collection less satisfying than its predecessors. What it gains in range, it loses in the depth of perception and astute observations that have been the hallmarks of great writing.
Some gems in the collection portray an event or a person in trenchant detail. Best among them is David Grannís ďStealing Time,Ē a marvelous diary of flamboyant base stealer Rickey Hendersonís attempt at comeback at age forty-six. Henderson sincerely believes that he can be a major leaguer again, notwithstanding his age, his tiring legs, and the burnt bridges that he left behind at several clubs, where he developed a reputation as someone who cared more for personal records than for the team. Grannís story catches up with Henderson during the playerís sojourn at the Golden Baseball League. The story gets into the heart of what makes a player like Henderson tick and what makes such a player long for the glory of the spotlight again and again.
Neal Pollack, tongue firmly in cheek, examines the growing interest of young, able-bodied men (and presumably women) in the administrative details of running a team more than playing for one. He cites the popularity of fantasy leagues and the increasing coverage of sports executives and their moves in popular sports shows such as ESPNís SportsCenter as the main reasons why what was once essentially a behind-the-scenes activity has now emerged center stage.
Pamela Colloff details the strange saga of Merry Stephens, a high school womenís basketball coach in Texas who was fired and run out of town for being gay, this after leading the team to unprecedented success and being named Teacher of the Year one year and Coach of the Year three times. In a culture otherwise dominated by the quest for success, Stephensí story points out tellingly how conservative small-town America can be.
While this annual paean to American sports writing falls short of its illustrious predecessors, it is still a worthy entry because of pieces like those described above and a few others. It is strange, though, that Michael Lewis chose not to include his own wonderful portrait of New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning that appeared in The New York Times Magazine Ė a piece that went to the heart of what it takes to succeed at the highest professional level.