Thursday, May 1, 2008

Trapped in the Office: The Beginning

For the next few weeks, I'm going to be trapped in the office. I have a large amount of work to do. This is my last hurrah before things get really bad, but this is not goodbye.

During this three-week long stretch, which ends for better or worse on May 21st, I'm going to set aside some time each day to write a long-ass blog post. If there's one thing the Bissinger/Leitch "Costas Now" dust-up did, it was fire me up again about blog posting. I'll admit this much: not many people read this blog. Maybe that's because the posts aren't good enough. Instead of being short and snappy, I'm going to write long-ass articles about whatever's on my mind and tie it into baseball somehow. I used to have a weekly sports column. How hard could it be?

Actually, it could be very hard. I wrote that weekly sports column for a community newspaper, but I wrote it only after writing six articles for every issue. On Wednesday afternoon, I'd string together whatever latent sports ideas were floating in my head and use my 600 words to cleverly tie it into current events, politics, whatever. My signature was a clever closing line, plucked out thin air, that tied the whole thing together. I thought the closing lines were gimmicks designed to obscure the insignificance of the columns, but looking back at them now, they're quite good. The lesson being: the more you write, the better writer you are, no matter how bad or insecure you may feel about it.

So anyhow, back to Bissinger and Leitch. There's not much argument against the notion that Bissinger crossed some imaginary line in condemning the Black Tabler-turned-Deadspinner, but there is a wide range of opinions about the character of the man impugned. Blogger/author/poet extraordinaire Joe Posnanski called Deadspin "funny and edgy and perceptive," while Jason Whitlock bemoaned that Bissinger "surrendered the moral high ground to someone who couldn't find it with a map, compass and Mother Teresa serving as a guide." Ouch. I'm solidly a part of the former school, as I find Deadspin funny and edgy and perceptive enough to interview its founder about the site. I'm also solidly against equating what goes on in the blogosphere with one's moral rectitude; even Bissinger seemed to be talking about writing, and was more offended by the language and tone of the work than the morality of the items covered. He seemed to be offended, as someone who has spent his life trying to "perfect the craft," with the morality of knowingly publishing bad writing.

As is infamous now to anyone who cares, most of them in the pro-Leitch crowd that dissected the exchange on the Internet the following day instead of watching it through half-moon eyes when it first happened, Bissinger asked Leitch if he had read any W.C. Heinz, whom he considered an artist of the highest craft. When Leitch responded that he had read The Professional, Bissinger tried to bait-and-switch and asked if Leitch had read any of Heinz' sports columns before the bluster swallowed the non-point. And let me tell you this: as someone who has read many, many sports books in his life, I'm damn glad I wasn't on that panel, because I had never heard of W.C. Heinz until this exchange, and I could not be any less ashamed of it. I've read virtually every sports book that has been recommended to me, from Ball Four to Men and Work to Moneyball, and next, I'll pick up The Professional. We learn things when we learn them. That Bissinger's gambit backfired on him is almost besides the point: the point is, as someone who has been a professional sportswriter like myself, the only credentials one needs to have are the ability to show up to work every day and write. As Leitch said, sports blogging is hard work. My column was hard work. But at least I was doing it.

I haven't been writing enough to say that I've given this blog a good-faith effort, so now's the time to try. My current inspiration is more Posnanski than Leitch, given that the latter rarely writes long posts, though when he does, as in his response to Bissinger immediately after the taping, they're mature and eloquent. I'm also inspired by my friend Cleveland Frowns' work, as he brings a passion for, well, everything into his writing that is damn infectious. So what if he doesn't know for sure that contract negotiations are bogging down C.C. Sabathia's performance this year? When you write well, you don't need to know. The words do the work for you.

And that's the final point: in an age where athletes are programmed to say absolutely nothing, we have ample room to conjecture as to what's actually driving them. It's not irresponsible journalism. It's not journalism at all: it's called being a fan. It's the same conversation we'd have at a bar, only recorded, sometimes beautifully, for all to read. When someone can tell me what exactly is wrong with that, I'll stop doing it. Now is when I start again, hopefully for good.


Despite having not read The Professional, I think I have a fairly good list of sports books that would compose my "Top 10" list. I'm always looking for suggestions or, better yet, free books, but this is what I've mangled up in 30 years or so. These rankings are pretty ephemeral, but they're probably close to the truth.

1. Wrecking Crew by John Albert
Surprise, surprise — it's a book you've probably never heard of. It's about Former drug addicts, aging rock stars and other formerly "unsavory" characters who come together in their 40s to form a baseball team in Los Angeles. If Bissinger was upset that sportswriters today lack Heinz' power to describe the beauty of the games, no book has better described baseball's awesome power. If the theme of redemption is at the core of one idea of the consummate American experience, that idea is intertwined with baseball; look no further than The Natural, Rick Ankiel or Josh Hamilton. Wrecking Crew takes this on at the non-professional level and is all the better for it. I don't know how it stands on repeat readings, but I loved it the first time, maybe because it's so unknown — but maybe not.

2. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Does Infinite Jest count? Probably not, but there isn't a better tennis writer anywhere than Wallace, period, end of story (except his stories never end).

3. Moneyball by Michael Lewis
I also like Star Wars, Bill Simmons and Juno. In other words, I'm not afraid to like things that other people like. In the entirety of the history of baseball, there have been about four cosmic events. I see them as a) founding of the leagues, b) integration, c) free agency, d) Moneyball. Okay, the integration of smart business practices might not be consequentially tied to Moneyball, but it's certainly inextricable from it. Even the DH rule is less important than that book, and that's saying something.

I actually can't think of any more right now... that is, any that leap to my mind as being Best in Class. I have to look at my bookshelf. Maybe this will be tomorrow's post. Good ones are Bo Knows Bo, Men at Work, Eight Innings... I'm seriously blanking beyond that. I'll get back at it tomorrow after the next Sox/Blue Jays 9th inning victory. When was the last time this happened? I think it was probably the consecutive games — in '06 I think — that were won on a Papi home run one day, and a 'Tek homer the next. Exciting stuff. Tonight's Wakefield versus Burnett, so let's hope for a vintage '95 Wakefield start. Do you remember about eight years ago when the big question was whether Wakefield would ever start again? Seems like ancient history now. Actually the story of Timmy W — THAT would make a great book.


Coachie Ballgames said...

DFW's article on Federer in Play magazine a year and a half ago was sublime.

What about "Legend" by TBJ where he basically admits that he is an a-hole (but doesn't admit that he fathered a daughter out of wedlock, wait, sue bird?)

If Larry Bird is The Basketball Jesus does that make Larry Johnson The Basketball Allah? (chris jackson is already the basketball muhammed)

rm said...

Here are some recommendations from me (no surprise they are all basketball-related):
The Last Shot, by Darcy Frey. A "Hoops Dreams" type book, it follows Coney Island high school ballplayers, including a cameo of a young, punk Stephon Marbury.
The City Game, by Pete Axthelm. New York playground hoops in the 1970s.
Fall River Dreams, forgot the author. Story of the Durfee hoops team with Chris Herron. Lots of drinking, lots of great high school basketball.
Second Wind, Bill Russell's auto-biography. When you read this there is no way he won't become your favorite athlete ever.