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New Yorker sports essays capture moments worth remembering

Years ago, when Roger Angell was in his prime as a magazine writer and editor, a critic said it was impossible to imagine anyone writing better about any subject than Angell did about baseball. Any literate fan of Angell's work had to agree. So it is good to see that David Remnick, the current editor of The New Yorker, bowed to Angell's talent when he put together a collection of great sports writing from the magazine.

Remnick, who published a recent biography of Barack Obama, has us at "hello" in this marvelous collection. He dedicates the book to Angell, who has been at the magazine for more than a half-century. Remnick also bats Angell leadoff with "The Web of the Game," a recounting of a 1981 college playoff game between Yale and St. John's.

Angell sits with Smokey Joe Wood, the former Red Sox ace who is still lucid at 91. Wood regales the author with tales from the early days of baseball, while Ron Darling and Frank Viola are in a pitching duel that winds up 1-0 in 12 innings. Darling pitched 11 no-hit innings and lost. Angell sees the game as a natural extension of pitching duels from the game's long-ago era. "Darling stitched us together," he wrote.

Despite the profusion of modern media, it's rare to find this sort of sports writing. This collection is a daunting reminder (for a sports columnist) that much of the best sportswriting didn't appear in newspapers or sports magazines, but in the pages of our country's most literate and enduring magazine. It's great writers who happen to be writing sports.

Remnick tries, almost too hard perhaps, to include a story on every minor sport imaginable among the 32 pieces. Still, in many cases you harken back to the quote about Angell. You look up from the page and wonder if this might be the best piece ever written on surfing or cycling or Ping-Pong or marathon swimming or dogsledding.

There's good stuff on the major sports, too. A.J. Liebling, the great boxing writer, writes on the Rocky Marciano-Archie Moore bout of 1955, while reflecting back three decades to the Jack Dempsey-Jeff Willard fight at Yankee Stadium. Liebling admired Moore's losing effort "because it proved that the world isn't going backward, if you can just stay young enough to remember what it was really like when you were really young."

John Updike's story about Ted Williams' final game, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," is considered by some the best sports piece ever written. It's humbling to think that Updike wrote it on deadline. Here's Updike on Williams running out his home run in his final at-bat: "He ran as he always ran out home runs — hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of."

There's a section devoted to major athletes, beginning with John McPhee's famous profile of Bill Bradley in his final season at Princeton, "A Sense of Where You Are." This had to be a writer's dream, examining a supremely talented basketball player who was also one of the brightest players of his time.

A friend once told me that "writing is understanding." That notion flows through these pieces. You feel the writer getting to know the subject and placing it in a larger human context. McPhee comes to know Bradley and what motivates him. He also recognizes "the fundamental narcotic of basketball."

Rebecca Mead "gets" Shaquille O'Neal, too. Mead understands the fascination that O'Neal, this "drastically oversized" regular guy, had with American teenage boys, and how pro basketball is marketed to them. "The prevalence of teen-boy tastes in American culture is something that suits Shaquille O'Neal, since those are also his tastes."

Henry Louis Gates also explores pro basketball's connection to American consumer culture in his profile of Michael Jordan. Gates discusses Jordan's success as a "crossover" figure who sustained himself as a marketing icon for so many years.

David Owen's profile of a young Tiger Woods comes across as too reverential, perhaps because of recent revelations about Woods' personal life. It seems to have been chosen more for the fame of the subject than the quality of the piece. But then it's the stories about lesser-known athletes that make the collection soar. This is when magazine writing becomes art, when the author takes the mundane and raises it to a universal level.

Charles Sprawson takes us into frigid arctic waters with Lynne Cox, who used the "solitary and eccentric" sport of marathon swimming to bring harmony to other countries; Kevin Conley takes us into the horse barn where the famed stud Storm Cat executes his invaluable skill; Lillian Ross introduces us to Sidney Franklin, the only U.S. citizen ever recognized as a top-flight bullfighter.

The collection hits its stride in "Personal Best," the middle of the five sections. Nancy Franklin examines the American Ping-Pong culture and explains how the advent of the sponge paddle changed the game. Haruki Murakami relates his discovery of distance running to his "belated but real starting point as a novelist."

One of the most elegant and compelling stories is by Nick Paumgartner, who spends time on the slopes with ski mountaineer Andrew McLean. Four men had died in extreme skiing accidents with McLean. Paumgartner had two family members die that way. He admits to the "anxiety that comes from tempting fate." But "in the daylight, disquiet gives way to delight," and he takes the risk, anyway.

The most moving piece is "Last of the Metrozoids," Adam Gopnik's loving memory of Kirk Varnedoe, the New York art historian who died of cancer in 2003. Gopnik, a veteran staff writer at The New Yorker, was Varnedoe's close friend and collaborator. In the last year of his life, Varnedoe coached a group of 8-year-old football players, including Gopnik's son. Teaching the boys became a work of art in itself.

Surely, Remnick had a fondness for Gopnik's piece and wanted Varnedoe's memory to live on. "Metrozoids" is about striving and love and how sports matter in our lives. They keep us young and connect us to other people. They give us precious memories, well worth collecting.

Jerry Sullivan is The News' senior sports columnist.

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The Only Game In Town: Sports Writing From The New Yorker

Edited by David Remnick

Random House

492 pages, $30