Friday, August 31, 2012

Solid Writing from Sports Illustrated on Baseball & ESPN on Football

There's four excellent pieces of sports writing to note here with two from ESPN the Magazine and two from Sports Illustrated.

The ESPN features came from the September 3 NFL Preview issue and both dealt extremely well with the important and much discussed idea of the negatives of the game weighed against the positives. The lead story was a J.R. Moehringer essay "Football is dead. Long live football" that featured the subtitle "Concussions, lawsuits, death -- but fans are still cheering" followed by 120 points to consider about America's most popular sport.

Additionally, David Fleming wrote the piece "Neither saint nor sinner" that looks at Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita and the suspension the NFL gave him from the Bountygate scandal while he was a New Orleans Saint. Tremendously interesting story that similar to the Moehringer piece delves into the good as well as dark side of pro football.

Switching to a different sport, two Sports Illustrated pieces a few months apart shared for me the common bond of being very good writing about baseball superstars. The recent August 27 issue had Angels 21 year old outfield Mike Trout on the cover and the story within was "Kid Dynamite" by Tom Verducci. It was an well written piece and brought to mind past pieces I've linked to on phenoms Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Trevor Bauer.

Going a while back in time, but also on a baseball superstar was the June 11 SI cover story "The Curse Of Bigness" by S.L. Price on Josh Hamilton. The piece featured the same type of great in-depth writing that Price seems to always provide and showed a fascinating portrait of Hamilton. Some of the stories told showed character tendencies towards the dramatic and attention craving and that certainly doesn't make Hamilton a bad guy, but does seem to tie into his past drug and alcohol addictions and the possibility (certainly not the guarantee, but possibility) of future struggles.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Great Tennis Writing from John Jeremiah Sullivan & S.L. Price

There was an excellent profile of Venus and Serena Williams recently that brought to mind another solid piece of writing following Serena's Wimbledon championship last month.

The recent story was the remarkable "Venus and Serena Against the World" by John Jeremiah Sullivan for the New York Times and piece last month on the Sports Illustrated website "Emotion and all, Williams breaks through for fifth Wimbledon" by S.L. Price.

Two exemplary writers who did revealing work under entirely different circumstances, Sullivan as a feature profile and Price a shorter match recap that he still managed to put a lot of heft into. Both highly recommended.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Sports Illustrated Writing: from Layden, Jenkins & Wertheim

There's been a few cases of Sports Illustrated writing lately that stood out as excellent and can be linked to (an additional solid story from the recent issue should be online in about a week).

From the August 20 College Football preview issue was a profile of USC quarterback Matt Barkley as well as a piece on a horrific injury and the two University of Georgia baseball players involved.

The Barkley piece is titled "Trophy Life" and in it, Lee Jenkins writes a thorough look at the Heisman Trophy contender. Striking from the feature was the friendship detailed between the USC signal caller and a man 70 years his elder, Olympic athlete and Japanese POW Louie Zamperini. It's an odd connection, but Barkley being close to the awe-inspiring subject of one of my favorite books of the year, Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, seems reason to like him.

The other piece of note from this Aug 20 issue was "Why Ask Why?" from Jon Wertheim. It's a powerful story on Zach Cone and Jonathan Taylor and the paralyzing injury suffered by Taylor after they collided going for an outfield fly ball. Wertheim reveals in the story a remarkable resiliency from Taylor... as well another UGA baseball player paralyzed not long before.

Final SI piece to note here was from the website rather than the magazine. Following on the heels of my blog post a few weeks back on great Olympic writing was a story featuring two of my two favorite story lines out of the London Games. From Tim Layden, "In a Games filled with memorable moments, few resonate like Bolt" covers of course the accomplishments of the great sprinter, but also the double gold by U.K. distance runner Mo Farah (who had been featured in one of the earlier pieces of excellent writing noted). Excellent writing from Layden on two amazing athletes.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

"Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey" by Todd Denault

Jacques Plante: The Man Who Changed the Face of Hockey was a book that I wanted to enjoy more than I actually did. Written by Todd Denault, it's a biography of the Hall of Famer best known for becoming the first NHL goalie to wear a mask.

While I was drawn to the subject, the book itself didn't really hold my interest as it struck me as too much of a collection of "this happened and then that happened" event recaps. It definitely seemed to be extremely well reported (especially for a first book from Denault), but I found it lacked the heart of other hockey writing, like by Jack Falla, that I enjoyed quite a bit. Interesting to me, this criticism I had of the book was also said (down to the Falla book comparison) in a review I came across online... with that review having a more positive impression.

Things may potentially have changed later in the book as I set it aside a third of the way through, but just not enough human drama to compel me to keep going.

Monday, August 13, 2012

College Football Pieces by Rick Bragg, Wright Thompson & Kevin Van Valkenburg for ESPN

Three features from the Aug 20 ESPN the Magazine College Football preview stood out to me as excellent.

Lengthiest was the profile "Urban Meyer will be home for dinner" on the Ohio State head coach. It's an excellent piece by Wright Thompson that delves into whether Meyer will be able to coach at the level he's accustomed to while avoiding the deterioration in health and loss of family time that plagued him at Florida. It's definitely a question with an unknown outcome and Thompson frames it exceptionally well (with a Thompson interview about the piece here).

Also from this issue was another another excellent profile revealing internal conflict. From Kevin Van Valkenburg, "Who's afraid of the Honey Badger?" is on Tyrann Mathieu, the now dismissed from the team Heisman trophy finalist for LSU. It's fascinating to know that Van Valkenburg wrote this piece questioning whether Mathieu's story "the beginning of a cautionary tale?" prior to him getting booted from the Tigers.

Final story that stood out was from Rick Bragg with "Down here: To understand football's place in the South, you first have to see it from the inside." Reminiscent of the Warren St. John book Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip into the Heart of Fan Mania, it shows (for better or worse) just how much college football matters to people in SEC country.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Writers on Writing - from Thompson, Whitehead & Stout

I've come across a few different pieces lately that feature some really solid content by writers on how they do (or have done) their work. Most recent was insight from Wright Thompson of ESPN via an interview he did with Brandon Sneed titled "Can Urban Meyer Really Make It Home For Dinner? Wright Thompson On Profiling The Man Who Can't Quit Coaching." Sneed is a freelance writer who has published in a number of major magazines and I've linked a number of times to his website... particularly when like is the case here it's to interviews he does with writers dishing on their craft. It's excellent stuff from Thompson, with two of most interesting things being the description of how much work he puts in to his writing and the importance of caring about your subject and what you write (which brought to mind a similar perspective from Anne Lamott).

Also of interest in the craft of writing category was a recent New York Times piece "How to Write" by Colson Whitehead. With 10 (well, 11 sort of) rules for writing, it's insightful content from the acclaimed novelist.

Finally, it's a different angle on the topic, but another excellent piece I've seen of late on writing was by Glenn Stout, series editor of the Best American Sports Writing books. On his blog "Verbplow: Where I Turn Words Over" Stout posted "How I became a writer: a true story." Super fascinating missive by a guy who sought out and then seized an opportunity.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Favorite Olympic Writing So Far

There's quite possibly been better pieces that have been and are still to be written on the London Olympics, but a few have stood out to me so far for the subject covered and/or excellence of prose.

In the category of post-event recap writing was Bruce Arthur for Toronto's National Post newspaper with "Canada delivers something worth remembering in Olympic soccer loss to U.S." Really great work done quickly.

With an insightful and important take from the Olympics was the Jen Floyd Engel column "Games of the Girls? Not really" for Fox Sports.

Finally, two additional pieces that stood out were "Painful, Poignant Memories of 1992" by Joe Posnanski for the site Sports on Earth and "Olympics 2012: Rupp follows good friend Farah to podium in 10K" by Pat Graham in the Washington Times. Both were short works of writing that covered tremendously cool events on the track.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Two great pieces on light and dark side of football - by Wright Thompson & Patrick Hruby

There's two pieces of writing I've seen lately that take completely different approaches to looking at football and which seem equally well done and true.

With the view of football as a fan experience is "Pulled Pork & Pigskin: a Love Letter to Southern Football" by Wright Thompson for ESPN. The piece is from 2007 and covers all that's great about college football, particularly in the states that care about it the most. The pageantry, the fan devotion, the gameday traditions... all chronicled by Thompson in a way that reminds me of Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird (which I reviewed the other day) urging a writing approach of reverence to the subject.

Not necessarily exactly on the flip side, but with an approach looking at the player rather than fan experience was a recent Patrick Hruby feature for The Washingtonian. "Did Football Kill Austin Trenum?" is on the impact of concussions in the sport and tells the at times gut-wrenching piece of a Virginia high school player. Hruby often writes of the darker side of sports (with the most recent piece I've linked to being on the business of sports) and it's solid writing he provides on Trenum, the dangers of concussions and things any parent of a concussed young athlete should be aware of.

Again, both very different pieces, but both excellent in their own right.

Friday, August 03, 2012

"Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott

In the oldie but goodie category is Anne Lamott's 1995 Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life about... both of those things.

I head about the book from author Chris Guillebeau who recommended Bird by Bird for anyone wanting to write better and found myself drawn to not only Lamott's views on writing but also her take on the world. I like interesting contradictions in people and Lamott comes across as religious (with her citing C.S. Lewis and his Surprised by Joy as an influence), profane, funny and with good insight. One thing that particularly stuck with me was how she seems to see the world with reverence and have that come across in her writing. At the same time that she write with wonder, though, she very much writes her world, with all it's warts.

In terms of the more nuts and bolts advice she gives around writing, the biggest notion that stands out is a writer writes. It's appointment work that requires putting in the time and good writing something that often can come when you just keep writing and then gleam the good out of the bad. The eloquent (and memorable) phrase used by Lamott is "shitty first drafts." Not to cause injury patting myself on the back, but this idea very much reminds me of the process of writing college English papers way back when... actually, just prior to the original publican of Bird by Bird.

Lamott also notes that if stuck on what to write about, someone should narrow down as much as possible (with the idea of "writing through a one inch frame") and just start describing. She recommends giving yourself short assignments about things as random as school lunches from childhood and people interacted with. The point is to just get started... with the Bird by Bird title coming from Lamott's father telling her brother how to get a report on birds done.

Just a very cool book that strikes me as a kind of (extremely honest, warts and all) love letter about writing by someone who has also taught classes on the subject. She also references the writer as a chronicler of events who stands apart and takes notes as things occur (or just occur to them) and the benefit of writing groups for people who take on this at times solitary pursuit.

Whether someone writes for a living, hopes to, or just loves to write, Lamott notes the reward for a writer in daily work done with devotion and commitment. It's not so important what's written and especially not important what the work starts out being (again, "shitty first drafts"), just to sit down, write... and then repeat the process.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Penn State Crimes, Moral Failures & Journalism Part 2 - on Joe Paterno & Freeh report

After the Penn State scandal first broke and now convicted child rapist Jerry Sandusky was indicted, I did the blog post "Penn State Crimes, Moral Failures & Journalism" linking to a few pieces of great writing on the horrific subject. It's now been a few weeks since the Freeh report came out putting a large amount of blame on late coach Joe Paterno for knowingly covering up Sandusky's crimes and especially in the few days after the report published, there was some new remarkable writing done that's very much worth linking to.

The first two pieces that come to mind were by preeminent sports writers on how they were deceived by Sandusky. Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote "Joe Paterno, at the end, showed more interest in his legacy than Jerry Sandusky’s victims" and Rick Reilly "The sins of the father" for ESPN. Both were very well written and an additional column that stood out at the time was "The Deadspin Five-Point Plan To Rescue Penn State Football" by Drew Magary for Deadspin. Magary generally writes very funny stuff and his piece was both caustic as well as seemingly spot-on.

In line with my blog post idea of preserving some of the best writing on the subject were two posts I came across by others. On his personal tumbler site, LA Times writer Baxter Holmes did "Round-up of fine sentences, part 36 (feat. pieces written about Penn State/Joe Paterno)" and Wired Magazine contributing editor Jason Fagone published "The 5 best and 5 worst sentences written about Penn State in the aftermath of the Freeh Report" on his blog. Both noted some excellent work and Fagone's piece especially stood out with his analysis of the writing he found notable.

Finally, it's another approach altogether, but I thought excellent a recent ESPN The Magazine back page column by Chris Jones. Titled "Statue of limitations" it looks at the now mothballed statue of Paterno and the craftsman who built it. It was an interesting story idea and very well written work.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

"Start Something That Matters" by Blake Mycoskie

In his book Start Something That Matters, TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie provides a solid business book by guy who appears to genuinely believe in helping others.

TOMS is known for it's One for One practice of giving away a pair of shoe (often via Shoe Drops to needy children) for each pair ordered and Mycoskie in the book provides an interesting tale of his background and thoughts about succeeding in business while also doing good.

He began starting companies at 19 and TOMS came out of a trip to Argentina in which Mycoskie saw both huge numbers of children without shoes and a local shoe that he felt could be adapted and sold in the US. The combination of this philanthropic goal with the intent of a for-profit shoe company turned into what the company is today.

In terms of content in the book, Mycoskie provides some solid ideas for success and references examples of their utilization both by himself and others. Method Products is noted as company which (just like TOMS) uses the power of an authentic story to build towards success and the casual dining chain Chipotle brought up as a company founded and run around simple ideas executed on well. Additionally, Charity: water is noted as being a philanthropic organization that's done great work in part due to it's incredibly open and transparent approach to where donations are spent.

Also noted as important by Mycoskie are the ideas of facing ones fears (with him referencing Tim Ferriss writing about worst case scenarios not being that bad) and the huge import of employee trust and morale. The idea from Mycoskie was that the better a company's employees feel about their jobs, the better business will be... which follows very much in line with the idea I've long felt that how employees treat customers is a reflection on how they're treated by management.

A couple of other things mentioned that Mycoskie didn't devote as many words to, but still seemed of import were writing down ideas as they come to you and living simply... with owning as little as possible. Both solid concepts within what was an excellent book by someone doing good work.