Great Sports Writing: “Say-It-Ain’t-So Joe”

Back when Moneyball was first written, there was a huge backlash among baseball traditionalists that couldn’t even process the idea of nerds crunching numbers to come up with a competitive advantage in baseball.  There was nothing that could replace years spent playing, managing, talking, and analyzing the game, they said.  The debate still rages today, but I think we would all agree that the sabermetric community is starting to win out.  Take a trip back in time though and visit this fantastic piece from San Francisco Weekly by Tommy Craggs (who is now a rockstar at Deadspin).  In it, Craggs deconstructs the very essence of the traditionalists vs. stat guys debate, using former ESPN baseball play-by-play man Joe Morgan.  The piece is now widely pointed to when you need to figure out what side of the debate you’re on and the picture painted of the grumpy, bitter Morgan leads you leaning towards one side in particular.  This is a must-read for any baseball fan and anyone interested in the stats revolution in sports.  From SF Weekly:

The earth beneath Joe Morgan’s feet is impossibly flat, every bump smoothed over, every blemish manicured into oblivion, all so that a white cork-filled ball might roll straight and true, the way it has for a hundred years. I am standing with Morgan, the ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame second baseman, at the edge of the emerald grass at SBC Park, where in two hours the San Francisco Giants will play the Oakland A’s, a game Morgan will explain to America from a booth high above the field. This is his job: to elucidate the game, or, more precisely, The Game, which is what old ballplayers like to call baseball, and which Joe pronounces with infinite reverence and implied capitalization, the way some people say, “The Pope.”

From the margin of the field Morgan half-watches the Giants go about their batting practice. There is an easy Sunday rhythm to the proceedings, and the field stretches out before us bright and green, a true American candyland. It’s on days like this that baseball — The Game — has its best stuff working, the kind of afternoon that has sent workaday newspaper hacks into deadline reveries and inspired every egghead dilettante in a bow tie to get a book deal. None of this is on Joe’s mind, however. In fact, he is shaking his head and looking displeased. “You guys are a joke,” he is saying, and it occurs to me that Joe Morgan might be thinking about strangling me.

He is a small man — they called him “Little Joe” in his playing days — and you can see his 61 years in the gray around his mustache and the slight hitch in his walk, but standing here, fairly gleaming in his ex-jock mufti, Joe looks young, fit, and content. His shoes are fine and tasseled, his suit is a resplendent cream, his jacket is slung insouciantly over his left shoulder — an iridescent look that falls somewhere between churchgoer and deckhand on the Love Boat. Morgan, who grew up in Oakland and lives in Danville, is the analyst for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. In a few hours he will appear on hundreds of thousands of television screens across America. He will have a microphone positioned beneath his chin and an easy, welcoming smile on his face. First-time viewers will think him a pleasant, patient, good-humored man. They will be wrong.

“You’re a joke, too,” he says to me now, and in a moment his right cheek will start to twitch, and his voice will hit its querulous upper registers, and a few sportswriters will crane their necks and listen in. Joe Morgan — the greatest second baseman who ever lived and an Emmy-winninganalyst who also happens to be the most insufferable sportscaster since Howard Cosell returned to his mother ship — is angry. And why is Joe Morgan angry? It has something to do with a book Joe Morgan hasn’t read.

“Both of you are jokes,” he is saying, and what I will learn is that there are many jokes in Joe’s world. We are jokes, those of us who dare have a thought or a theory about The Game though we have never worn the flannels of a baseball team; we are jokes, those of us who think a catcher has an effect on base stealing; we are jokes, those of us who believe in science and reason. The Oakland A’s, if I may extrapolate, are a joke. Their general manager is a joke (though he played The Game). The front office of the world-champion Boston Red Sox is a joke. The guy in the ESPN.com chat room who had the temerity to question Joe Morgan’s wisdom is definitely a joke. The author of Moneyball? Joe’s not sure who that is, but he’s sure he’s a joke. The writer Bill James is a joke, and so for that matter is the entire masthead of Baseball Prospectus. I’m a joke. You’re a joke. We’re jokes, if not all of us, very, very many of us.

So I wonder: Why isn’t Joe Morgan laughing?

Have a great Easter weekend everyone.

[SF Weekly]

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Great Sports Writing: “Bad Nights In The NFL”

Four plus years after it all took place, travel back in time to the night Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams was shot and killed outside a Denver night club after celebrating New Years.  It’s taken that long to get the story straight and SI writer Thomas Lake does an excellent job capturing everything that contributed to the promising young athlete’s death.  We like to mix it up between all-time classic sports writing and instant classics.  This week’s falls into the latter category as this piece ran last week in SI.  It’s a must read and will leave you with a lot of questions about a former Denver teammate of Williams: Mr. Brandon Marshall.  From SI:

The incident in Denver remained mysterious to the public for more than three years. In October 2008 a grand jury indicted a local gangster named “Little” Willie Clark for the murder of Darrent Williams. The indictment said Clark fired the bullet that killed Williams, but it didn’t fully explain why. And the full explanation didn’t come until February and March 2010, over the 14 days of Little Willie’s trial.

By then it was possible to see New Year’s Eve 2006 as a turning point in many lives. In almost every case, the change was for the worse. Nicole Reindl, the young woman saved by her ringing cellphone, still had part of a bullet lodged next to her skull. Brandon Flowers of the Billion Dolla Scholars still had his bullet, too; he could feel it in his leg whenever he climbed the stairs. Rosalind Williams could no longer enjoy New Year’s Eve, or Mother’s Day, because without Darrent she had no children. When the trial began, Darrent’s eight-year-old daughter, a competitive runner named Jaelyn, had only recently recovered from her fear of the starter’s pistol. Her 10-year-old brother, Darius, wouldn’t stop playing an old copy of a football video game that let him use the avatar of his father.

And then there was Brandon Marshall, the Broncos’ receiver, whose fortune turned the other way. On the night of the shooting he was a fourth-round draft pick who had just finished an uneventful rookie season. Over the next three years he made 307 catches. Defenders called him the Beast because his chiseled 6’4″, 230-pound frame was so hard to bring down. Now, taking the stand as a crucial prosecution witness in Little Willie’s trial, he’d become one of the best players in the NFL. He raised his large right hand and swore to tell the truth.

PROSECUTOR TIMOTHY TWINING: New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2006, in the early morning hours of January 1, ’07. Do you remember that night?

MARSHALL: I think about it every night.

Great, great stuff from Lake on one of the most tragic days in Broncos franchise history.

[Sports Illustrated]

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Great Sports Writing: “Holy Ground”

Get the tear ducts ready. If you’re a father or a son and enjoy the Masters, this is a must read from ESPN’s Wright Thompson on his relationship with his dad and the greatest golf tournament in the world. From ESPN:

Most everything makes me think about my Daddy, and this morning, of all the stupid reasons to fight back tears in public, it’s chipped beef on toast. I’m sitting at the corner table on the clubhouse veranda, waiting for Arnold Palmer to hit the ceremonial first shot of the Masters. Man, my father loved watching Arnie. To do it from the veranda with a plate of chipped beef? Hotty Toddy, brother. Only, the excitement of incredible moments like this is muted for me now. I’ve learned in the past three years that I did many things solely to tell Daddy about them later.

The crowd stands on Washington Road, waiting for the gates to open. For a moment, the course is quiet. Birds chirp. Mowers drone. Soon, another lucky diner asks if he can join me. His food arrives first. As we talk a bit, bundled against the chill, he looks at the empty space in front of me.

“What did you order?” he asks.

“Chipped beef on toast,” I say. He laughs. “Breakfast of champions,” he says.

“It was my dad’s favorite meal,” I explain.

“Did you ever bring him here?” he asks.

There is a silence. “No,” I say, turning away.

Daddy watched the Masters every year. He dreamed of attending just one, and he’s always on my mind when I come here for my job. Indeed, for all of us lucky enough to actually walk through these gates, we cannot leave without having thoughts of our daddies, for Augusta National is a place for fathers and sons. Davis Love III navigates the same fairways as Davis Love Jr. New fathers carefully hold toddler hands. “Can you see?” you’ll hear them say. Strong arms tenderly steer stooped backs. “Look out, Dad,” you’ll hear them say softly. That is Augusta.

This work is a couple years old and somehow eluded me until this week.  Just an incredibly moving piece.

[ESPN]

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Great Sports Writing: “Lessons Learned From Professor ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin”

If you’re a wrestling fan you know that Wrestlemania 27 went down last night, if you’re not, now you do.  One of the best sports bloggers on the planet right now, Spencer Hall, was in attendance as a credentialed member of the media.  What he wrote about the event is an instant classic and a must-read for anyone, regardless of whether you like wrestling or not.  Please, please, please take a moment today and check out Hall’s piece which makes an interesting commentary on sports, America, and life in general, all through the scope of WWE’s Super Bowl.  From SB Nation:

The Rock breathes through his traps like he has a pair of second lungs in them, and like all showmen isn’t playing for the camera, but instead is talking to you, you in 30D in Section 315. Yeah, you. You who needs to hear all the things the Rock has to say about knowing your role, and about what you’re thinking, thoughts which are actually irrelevant because — and the entire crowd will join him in saying this — WHAT YOU THINK DOESN’T MATTER.

He arches an eyebrow, because you and the rest of the universe are worthy of his scorn. The people are his only loyalty, and only that in the plural sense: On the way out of the ring, The Rock will theatrically disdain offered handshakes made by sad individuals in the audience because only a mass of lessers numbering in the thousands is worthy of his address. There is no “you” singular, only the plural “you.” 

In order to find his equal, he must address an entire dome full of people. It’s the only fair way for him to talk.

The Rock does not vary from the script he used 10 years ago in becoming the People’s Champ. The catchphrases are the same. You are still invited to smell what he is cooking. What you think still is of no consequence to him. The Rock still only loves the People. He still uses the same glare, a cross between a Polynesian warrior’s battle stance and a mimeographed Stan Lee Wolverine pose, clenched, heaving and ready to pounce in the direction of the offending party. It is 1999 in replay, and in the midst of a recession exactly  71,617 people and $6.6 million have poured into the Georgia Dome to act like we’re all at the height of the Internet boom. 

It is replay, and no one, repeat, not one single person in this building cares. The Undertaker will keep his WrestleMania win streak alive tonight at the age of 46. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin will stop the show with a proactive bit of officiating in the Michael Cole vs. Jerry “The King” Lawler match. The Rock will perform 35 minutes or so of glowering and intense mike work before wrestling for exactly one very decisive minute. Hipsterdom dies in the arms of Wrestlemania 27 in 2011: This is meat and potatoes, and will be reheated until the desired effect has been attained.

Wow.  I will definitely be re-reading this thing tonight.

[SB Nation]

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Great Sports Writing: “The Curious Case Of Sidd Finch”

It’s the first day of April and baseball season is in full swing. Keeping the day in mind take a trip back to 1985 and please read George Plimpton’s legendary Sports Illustrated profile on Mets prospect Sidd Finch.  It’s one of the best examples of humor ever allowed to reach the pages of a major sports publication and Plimpton does an extraordinary job crafting perhaps the greatest April Fool’s joke in sports writing history.  From Sports Illustrated:

The secret cannot be kept much longer. Questions are being asked, and sooner rather than later the New York Mets management will have to produce a statement. It may have started unraveling in St. Petersburg, Fla. two weeks ago, on March 14, to be exact, when Mel Stottlemyre, the Met pitching coach, walked over to the 40-odd Met players doing their morning calisthenics at the Payson Field Complex not far from the Gulf of Mexico, a solitary figure among the pulsation of jumping jacks, and motioned three Mets to step out of the exercise. The three, all good prospects, were John Christensen, a 24-year-old outfielder; Dave Cochrane, a spare but muscular switch-hitting third baseman; and Lenny Dykstra, a swift centerfielder who may be the Mets’ lead-off man of the future.

Ordering the three to collect their bats and batting helmets, Stottlemyre led the players to the north end of the complex where a large canvas enclosure had been constructed two weeks before. The rumor was that some irrigation machinery was being installed in an underground pit.

Standing outside the enclosure, Stottlemyre explained what he wanted. “First of all,” the coach said, “the club’s got kind of a delicate situation here, and it would help if you kept reasonably quiet about it. O.K.?” The three nodded. Stottlemyre said, “We’ve got a young pitcher we’re looking at. We want to see what he’ll do with a batter standing in the box. We’ll do this alphabetically. John, go on in there, stand at the plate and give the pitcher a target. That’s all you have to do.”

“Do you want me to take a cut?” Christensen asked.

Stottlemyre produced a dry chuckle. “You can do anything you want.”

Christensen pulled aside a canvas flap and found himself inside a rectangular area about 90 feet long and 30 feet wide, open to the sky, with a home plate set in the ground just in front of him, and down at the far end a pitcher’s mound, with a small group of Met front-office personnel standing behind it, facing home plate. Christensen recognized Nelson Double-day, the owner of the Mets, and Frank Cashen, wearing a long-billed fishing cap. He had never seen Doubleday at the training facility before.

Christensen bats righthanded. As he stepped around the plate he nodded to Ronn Reynolds, the stocky reserve catcher who has been with the Met organization since 1980. Reynolds whispered up to him from his crouch, “Kid, you won’t believe what you’re about to see.”

A second flap down by the pitcher’s end was drawn open, and a tall, gawky player walked in and stepped up onto the pitcher’s mound. He was wearing a small, black fielder’s glove on his left hand and was holding a baseball in his right. Christensen had never seen him before. He had blue eyes, Christensen remembers, and a pale, youthful face, with facial muscles that were motionless, like a mask. “You notice it,” Christensen explained later, “when a pitcher’s jaw isn’t working on a chaw or a piece of gum.” Then to Christensen’s astonishment he saw that the pitcher, pawing at the dirt of the mound to get it smoothed out properly and to his liking, was wearing a heavy hiking boot on his right foot.

Christensen has since been persuaded to describe that first confrontation:

“I’m standing in there to give this guy a target, just waving the bat once or twice out over the plate. He starts his windup. He sways way back, like Juan Marichal, this hiking boot comes clomping over—I thought maybe he was wearing it for balance or something—and he suddenly rears upright like a catapult. The ball is launched from an arm completely straight up and stiff. Before you can blink, the ball is in the catcher’s mitt. You hear it crack, and then there’s this little bleat from Reynolds.”

We hope everyone has a good weekend.  Get outside and enjoy some baseball!

[Sports Illustrated]

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Great Sports Writing: “For Isiah, NBA exile isn’t easy”

In a day where the news is predominantly focusing on the NCAA, you might have missed this awesome Isiah Thomas profile from Fox Sport’s Bill Reiter.  It’s unfortunate timing for an awesome piece which examines how exactly the former point guard became one of the most hated figures in NBA history.  Is Isiah the NBA’s version of Napoleon, sitting in exile waiting to come back and make his triumphant return to the game that banished him only a few years ago?  Reiter examines all angles.  From Fox Sports:

Isiah Thomas, two-time NBA champion, former NBA head coach, former NBA general manager, former NBA part owner, is now the head basketball coach at Florida International University. The mere mention of his name as a possible future NBA executive brings sneers.

“I love the game of basketball,” the 49-year-old says, a glass of red sangria sitting in front of him. “I was brought up in the game. That’s what I’ve done my whole life: high school, college, pros. Basketball’s always been in my life.”

Yet, this curbside bistro in Coconut Grove, this is where a fast and furious fall has taken Isiah Thomas. Now in the Sun Belt Conference, he sips his drink and looks around. Across the street sit his wife and daughter. Around the corner awaits his condo, with the maritime-themed lobby and elevator and a quiet ease of luxury.

Despite all this, and Isiah’s smile, and Isiah’s charm, and Isiah’s assurances he’s happy as can be, it strikes me as absolutely certain the man is not satisfied.

He is exiled.

As Reiter’s colleague Jason Whitlock likes to say, damn thing done!

[Fox Sports]

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Great Sports Writing: “Princeton vs. UCLA: Reflections On A Historic Upset”

I know we usually do our great sports writing recommendations on Fridays, but with March Madness starting tomorrow and the perfect timing of this incredible article, this could never be more appropriate.  Join former Princeton Tiger Sean Gregory as he recounts his team’s incredible first-round upset of defending-champion UCLA.  The game is largely credited as being the impetus for the mdoern day tournament as we now know it and it is one of the all-time great sports upsets.  It’s the perfect story told from the persepective of one of the only people who could perfectly tell it.  From Time:

“Oh, my God.”

Gabe Lewullis does not remember uttering those words, under his breath, late one Thursday night 15 years ago. But after he hit one of the most memorable shots in college-basketball history, the national television cameras caught him mouthing that phrase of disbelief. “To this day, I would not believe that I said it, if I didn’t see it,” says Lewullis, 34, now an orthopedic surgeon in Boston, back then a fuzzy-headed freshman from Allentown, Pa., who was starting for just the second time in 16 games for the Princeton University team. “The moment was just like gray to me. It’s weird how that works.”

Lewullis had spent a significant portion of the 1995-96 season in his coach’s doghouse, which was more like a kennel, since so many Princeton players had a spot. He hurt an ankle, and missed some time with a virus. Even worse for Lewullis, his coach — Pete Carril, who is now enshrined in the hoops Hall of Fame — thought he did not cut fast enough to the basket or bring enough energy to practice. “There’s a name for guys like you,” Carril told him one day. “Phlegmatic. Why are so you f—ing phlegmatic?”

But now, in front of over 30,000 fans at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, and millions more on CBS, Lewullis had just hit a backdoor layup with four seconds left, giving Princeton a 43-41 lead over UCLA, the defending national champions, and the most storied college-basketball program ever. Princeton would hold the advantage, and pull off a historic, shocking first-round upset.

And to make the icing on the cake even sweeter, it was of course Gus Johnson who was on the call that day.  Read this article before the tournament starts.  One of my favorites this year.

[Time]

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Great Sports Writing: “The Silent Season Of A Hero”

With baseball knocking on our door, take the time this afternoon to check out Gay Talese’s legendary profile on Joe DiMaggio for Esquire Magazine.  Considered one of the greatest journalist writers of all time, Talese was one of  the first reporters to really challenge the notion of the handshake agreement reporters used to have with players/celebrities and the private affairs that took place behind closed doors.  Talese (along with the Gonzo god himself, Hunter S. Thompson) is widely credited by many writers for being one of the fathers of a new movement of writing that took place in the 1960s where reporters tried to become fully immersed in the stories they were trying to tell.  In this story about DiMaggio, realize that many of the details he is disclosing to the reader were never known by the American public despite the fact that DiMaggio may have been the most famous man in the US at the time.  It was ground-breaking and many of today’s great journalists and websites (Deadspin) can trace their roots to the barriers Talese broke through with this piece. 

I also find it interesting to draw parallels between DiMaggio and his modern day equivalent LeBron James.  Notice how alike DiMaggio’s arrogance personality is to LeBron and take note of the understood rules of anyone that wants to be in his company.  Sound familiar?  The only difference of course was that DiMaggio was one of the greatest clutch athletes to ever live and won multiple championships.  It’s a timeless piece of writing and a fantastic choice for this week’s edition of great sports writing.  From Randomhouse.com:

But these days were ending when Zio Pepe arrived, and he expected his five sons to succeed him as fishermen, and the first two, Tom and Michael, did; but a third, Vincent, wanted to sing. He sang with such magnificent power as a young man that he came to the attention of the great banker, A. P. Giannini, and there were plans to send him to Italy for tutoring and the opera. But there was hesitation around the DiMaggio household and Vince never went; instead, he played ball with the San Francisco seals and sports writers misspelled his name.

It was DiMaggio until Joe, at Vince’s recommendation, joined the team and became a sensation, being followed later by the youngest brother, Dominic, who was also outstanding. All three later played in the big leagues, and some writers like to say that Joe was the best hitter, Dom the best fielder, Vince the best singer, and Casey Stengel once said: “Vince is the only player I ever saw who could strike out three times in one game and not be embarrassed. He’d walk into the clubhouse whistling. Everybody would be feeling sorry for him, but Vince always thought he was doing good.”

After he retired from baseball Vince became a bartender, then a milkman, now a carpenter. He lives 40 miles north of San Francisco in a house he partly built, has been happily married for 34 years, has four grandchildren, has in the closet one of Joe’s tailor-made suits that he has never had altered to fit, and when People ask him if he envies Joe he always says, “No, maybe Joe would like to have what I have.” The brother Vincent most admired was Michael, “a big earthy man, a dreamer, a fisherman who wanted things but didn’t want to take from Joe, or to work in the restaurant. He wanted a bigger boat, but wanted to earn it on his own. He never got it.” In 1953, at the age of 44, Michael fell from his boat and drowned.

Since Zio Pepe’s death at 77 in 1949, Tom at 62, the oldest brother – two of his four sisters are older – has become nominal head of the family and manages the restaurant that was opened in 1937 as Joe DiMaggio’s Grotto. Later Joe sold out his share, and now Tom is the co-owner with Dominic. Of all the brothers, Dominic, who was known as the “Little Professor” when he played with the Boston Red Sox, is the most successful in business. He lives in a fashionable Boston suburb with his wife and three children and is president of a firm that manufactures fiber cushion materials and grossed more than $3.5 million last year.

Joe DiMaggio lives with his widowed sister, Marie, in a tan stone house on a quiet residential street not far from Fisherman’s Wharf. He bought the house almost 30 years ago for his parents, and after their deaths he lived there with Marilyn Monroe. Now it is cared for by Marie, a slim and handsome dark-eyed woman who has an apartment on the second floor, Joe on the third. There are some baseball trophies and plaques in the small room off DiMaggio’s bedroom, and on his dresser are photographs of Marilyn Monroe, and in the living room downstairs is a small painting of her that DiMaggio likes very much; it reveals only her face and shoulders and she is wearing a wide-brimmed sun hat, and there is a soft, sweet smile on her lips, an innocent curiosity about her that is the way he saw her and the way he wanted her to be seen by others – a simple girl, “a warm, big-hearted girl,” he once described her, “that everybody took advantage of.”

The publicity photographs emphasizing her sex appeal often offend him, and a memorable moment for Billy Wilder, who directed her in The Seven-Year Itch, occurred when he spotted DiMaggio in a large crowd of people gathered on Lexington Avenue in New York to watch a scene in which Marilyn, standing over a subway grating to cool herself, had her skirts blown high by a sudden wind blow. “What the hell is going on here?” DiMaggio was overheard to have said in the crowd, and Wilder recalled, “I shall never forget the look of death on Joe’s face.”

He was then 39, she was 27. They had been married in January of that year, 1954, despite disharmony in temperament and time; he was tired of publicity, she was thriving on it; he was intolerant of tardiness, she was always late. During their honeymoon in Tokyo an American general had introduced himself and asked if, as a patriotic gesture, she would visit the troops in Korea. She looked at Joe. “It’s your honeymoon,” he said, shrugging, “go ahead if you want to.”

She appeared on 10 occasions before 100,000 servicemen, and when she returned, she said, “It was so wonderful, Joe. You never heard such cheering.”

“Yes, I have,” he said.

Friday. Friday. Friday.  Pour yourself a cold beer.

[Randomhouse.com]

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