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THE SUBJECT IS SPORTS, AND THE WRITING IS SUPERB

THE BEST AMERICAN SPORTS WRITING 1997
Edited by George Plimpton
Series edited by Glenn Stout
Houghton Mifflin
323 pages, $13 paper

There's a winsome passage in the foreword of this annual celebration of sportswriting as an art form that goes a long way toward explaining what's going on inside.

"I went to college in the glorious late '70s," writes series editor Glenn Stout, "a time period much maligned today but that I remember during which you could do just about any damn thing you wanted without being bothered by anyone, a kind of suspended magnetic field between the disparate excesses of the '60s and the '80s.

"What this meant for me was that I somehow managed to spend my five years of undergraduate study completing four years of work without ever pausing, for even a moment, to consider what I was going to do to earn a living."

In these days of market forces and the push to make media a super-achieving jewel in the corporate crown, Stout's confession seems quaint, adolescent. But then look where this youthful exuberance goes. Look what it finds. The smirking idealism that fills his foreword naturally gravitates toward sports and literature, and the meeting of these two passions.

"Sports and literature were not strangers," writes Stout. "They hung out on the side, after hours, in secret, swapping stories late into the night. They didn't always go home together but they had a certain respect for one another."

Sports literature -- it was a concept easily acceptable to us journalists coming of age in the '70s. The Watergate exposes and the flair of New Journalists forged common values and made our spirits soar. Here was a higher calling, whether it was chastising a corrupt government or turning daily observation into art. Journalism was a way to elevate ourselves and those around us. At the same time we writers could participate in one of the most glorious avocations a young person could imagine. We never saw that suspended magnetic field as an anomaly, a chance reflection that happened to come together between the rigid inverted pyramid of newspapers in the '50s and '60s, and the corporate balance sheet days of the '90s. This was how journalism was supposed to be.

Sports literature was another exciting and sometimes intoxicating opportunity to become heroes in our own internal drama, enter the foothills of art, and use our talents and time to create something that would last.

That's why Stout's yearly anthology of the best non-fiction that happens to be about sports is such an affirmation, a reminder why many of us got into journalism in the first place. You enter a realm of what sport can do: "translate the muddle of success and failure in life into the knowable," as author Padgett Powell so confidently states in his contribution to the book. "Who wins and who doesn't and why."

If you're lucky and good, you come out with something that didn't exist before -- a written account of a writer's vision, a drama capable of reaching anyone familiar with winning and losing in life, and the very human experience of living on after either outcome.

And every year, a lot of good people succeed in busting through the unavoidable obstacles of the practical world: too little time, too much emphasis on propping up existing power structures and the strong temptation to take literary shortcuts. They come out with work typical of this book, sports literature in the true sense of what Washington Post editor Ben Bradley recently called "the commitment to the pursuit of truth," written in a style and perception worthy of an artist.

Sports literature. Read this anthology and see the power that remains in the well-crafted word honestly pursuing truth.

There's Jon Krakauer's original magazine story on the ill-fated amateur mountain-climbing expedition of Mount Everest, which he expanded in the best-selling book "Into Thin Air." It should be required reading for anyone who ponders his or her own limits, the lure of adventure and the strange transformation that comes when a personal drama occurs and forever changes the way someone looks upon life. It's also an unforgettable object lesson in a journalist throwing himself into the story and then getting so involved that the writer's life will never be the same.

Pick a literary sports apple off a tree here. Powell, normally a fiction writer, describes the world's ranking arm-wrestling champion with images that make the reader feel the man's grip. "Cleve Dean moves his arm, the famous one . . . and it looks, this arm, like the leg of an ordinary person. . . . It is not a steroid tacky veiny thing but a Michelangelo thing. It looks like sandbags, or big stones under skin."

Rick Reilly's "Heaven Help Marge Schott," a profile of the out-of-touch world of the Cincinnati Reds owner, is one of those funny and sad articles, a delight to read while conveying the cruelty of a rigid mind. Gary Smith heralds golfer Tiger Woods as a global savior in one of the boldest and most unusual stories of the year. David Foster Wallace makes us more interested in the intricacies of the high-power professional tennis world than reasonably possible.

After the 21 entries quoted in their entirety comes an appendix of honorable mentions, about 75 other articles judged notable of distinction. Some of the best-known writers and journalists of the day are included in this list. (Jerry Sullivan's Buffalo News Sunday magazine story "From Burundi to UB" is included in this edition.) Their contributions seem equally compelling.

"Best American Sports Writing" is a terrific Christmas present. It also is a clear testament to the beauty, elegance and power of the idealism that fueled these stories. It shows what can come from the youthful commitment to that suspended magnetic field when journalism became an art form. Corny as it sounds, it's a reminder that journalism's job is to question those in power, get beyond the authorized observation and knee-jerk quotation, and be the outlet for a writer's courageous and hard-fought pursuit of truth.

This book shows what can come from those ideals. The results are as memorable and stunning as anything you'll read this year.