Image: Coors Field at night
by Chris Foss
We’re halfway through summer, a relative down time for sports fans. “Big Four” fanatics have two choices right now: watch baseball, or to take part in one of America’s growing summer sporting pastimes. In the second part of this column next week, I’ll examine ways in which sports fans are getting up off the couch and actually playing sports this summer. If you’re content to stay inside and beat the heat, however, you do have options.
The trade deadline briefly makes late July baseball—and prognostication through talk radio and ESPN’s Baseball Tonight—worth checking out on air, especially if you’re stressed at work and can’t get away for outdoor activities or vacation until closer to Labor Day. We’re at a point in the competition where the wheat starts getting separated from the chaff (you Yankees fans know this all too well this morning). The buyers emerge from the woodwork, and the sellers fade off into the sunset. There’s plenty of drama and interest for your viewing and listening pleasure.
Jon Hart, Man Versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and his Extraordinary Sports Adventures, Potomac Books, 2013
by Keith Aksel
Jon Hart’s Man Versus Ball takes readers through the inner-corridors of some of the most obscure segments of America’s sports landscape. He discusses his (sometimes undercover) experiences as a semi-pro football player, a low-level professional wrestler, and a golf caddie, among other adventures. Whether chasing a good story for one of his writing gigs, or simply looking for sports triumph in unexpected places, Hart entertainingly explains that being a food vendor/mascot/ballplayer/caddie/skyscraper stair runner is probably way less glamorous, and way more tiring, than you ever thought.
The book begins appropriately with a chapter titled “Plimpton” in honor of George Plimpton, Hart’s own inspiration as a writer who undertook various sports endeavors just to get a book out of it. In the section, Hart reveals that attempting to cover semi-pro football’s Brooklyn Mariners as a writer is much more interesting if you join the team like Plimpton did. Hart gets pounded here and there playing lineman with the team’s aptly named “Moose” crew, while still intermittently dreaming about making some kind of Rudy-esque impact on the game. Throughout the chapter you get to know the team’s coach (“Pudgie”) the imported-from-Romania backup kicker (Cezar), and the bowling-ball running back (“McGee”). Most, if not all, give Hart a hard time as a less-athletic outsider trying to fit in with a batch of he-men. Even so, Hart forms bonds with his teammates, and admittedly feels empty when the season mercifully ends.
by Keith Aksel
Sports writers like their provocative headlines, a reality made ever-more obvious by the media’s response to the Cleveland Cavaliers winning the NBA Championship. After the Cavs rebounded from a 3-1 series deficit to end the city’s five decade-long title drought, every news outlet produced some version of this article: “What fan base will take Cleveland’s spot as the most ‘miserable’ in the country?” The findings of those articles ran the gamut. Some made grand proclamations using ‘analytics’ (a term that so easily replaced “numbers” in our popular vocabulary that I wonder if people noticed). Others argued that cities like Buffalo were now the most miserable because that city hadn’t seen a title since the days of the old AFL.
In all, what was really accomplished in all these analyses? There is something to be gained by talking about misery, but how do we understand fan misery, and how closely are we looking? When we look holistically, few fan bases actually suffer droughts long enough to be considered “miserable” in any sense of the word. The truth is that fan bases overlap, and that fact makes true misery very hard to find across the American sports fan map. For fans of Cleveland, Buffalo, and whatever other “miserable” town people identify, release valves have allowed those fan bases to experience championship euphoria despite the popular stories told in the media.
Release valves are championships won by teams supported by a given fan base in another sport which keep that fan base from truly living in a title desert. Let’s use Cleveland as an example. Cleveland was doubtless the most title-starved city in the US before that fateful Sunday night in June. The Cavs, Indians, and Browns had all had their near-misses over the decades, compounding the angst felt by Clevelanders. There’s no question that fans of The Land knew disappointment better than anyone…but does that mean they were actually that miserable?
Jonathan Abrams, Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution (2016)
by Chris Foss
This brand-new book from the long-time NBA writer and ex-Grantland contributor Abrams is a masterfully-reported mosaic of stories about the men who jumped (and attempted to jump) straight from high school to the league prior to the 2005 collective bargaining agreement which mandated an age restriction of 19 on draftees for the first time. This is generally a story of breadth rather than depth, and readers interested in one or two particular stories will have to wait for biographies and autobiographies to come out on the key players. Abrams has nevertheless done a good job through interviews and original reporting of gleaning new insights into what he calls the “prep-to-pro generation”.
Abrams starts at the beginning by discussing the antecedent of the 1995-2005 wave of prep-to-pros: a small class of individuals who made the jump in the mid-1970s. In 1974 and 1975, Moses Malone, Bill Willoughby, and Darryl Dawkins came into the league. Malone went on to a Hall of Fame career. Dawkins played many years and was a fan favorite for his dunking ability. Willoughby’s career was more pedestrian, and he ended up overseas after a few seasons. Taken together, their body of work, Abrams contends, was an augur for later prep-to-pros.