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Also by Charles P. Pierce
Hard to Forget: An Alzheimer’s Story
To Abraham, Brendan, and Molly,
something that’s not from the airport gift shop.
something that’s not from the airport gift shop.
And in memory of Shelby Strother.
“Truth is an odd number.”
—Flann O’Brien At Swim-Two-Birds
Roy Blount, Jr.
“My own personal America,” writes Charlie Pierce, “comes with six seconds left and the home team—anybody’s home team—with the ball and trailing by a point or a goal. There is barbecue at the concession stand, and there is beer in a paper cup, and a band is playing across the way. I can be happy there.” From that perspective, he can look at contemporary stockcar racing, for example, and put his finger on what is wrong not just with big-time sports today, but with American culture-slash-enterprise in general. “Corporate connivance dressed up as populist celebration . . . as raucous authenticity,” is leaching the humor out of everything, even Spam. But Pierce still has a fine palate for the salt of the earth. Sportswriting will not lack savor, or humor, as long as Charlie is handsomely sustaining a certain tradition.
A quarter-century or so ago, I was talking to a feature writer who had been assigned by a general magazine to work up yet another story about the dubious hoopla surrounding the Super Bowl. Though her publication was weekly, she struck me as an everyday enough person, not too fastidious or she wouldn’t have been talking to me. But at one point she looked around the press room and exclaimed, “Sportswriters!” In a tone of disdain!
I was startled. “I like sportswriters,” I said.
She looked startled. “They’re such scruffy guys,” she said.
“I like scruffy guys,” I said. That is not how I should have put it. I should have said, “You can’t generalize from their haircuts,” or “You must mean ‘raffish guys’ or ‘hungover guys.’ ” But her remark had thrown me off balance. To me it seemed clear that the least cheesy aspect of the proceedings, aside from the actual blocking and tackling and pass-catching to come, was these guys’ persistence in pounding out copy, exchanging pungent anecdotes, and griping about the promotional packaging that was overshadowing the game.
This was back before commercial television had quite permeated the sports atmosphere as it has today, to the point that no sports hero with any sense of how his bread is buttered can be expected to see any value in speaking with the media other than on camera, emptily, to the full satisfaction of Nike, Taco Bell, and the hero’s various moneyhandlers. Back then, cities had not yet begun to name their bowls and stadia for amorphous conglomerates instead of agricultural products and mean old sonsofbitches. Back then, a sportswriter still might chew a domestic cigar and sip a medicinal beer while he worked. It was not as though these guys were unacquainted with high style, for they had seen Native Dancer in the paddock in his prime, and he them there in theirs. But they would have snorted at any ascription of positive value to the wearing of Armani. Their sense of couture was best represented by the scribe who wore his new blazer proudly until (and, if the truth be known, even after) an usher came up to him and said, “Hey, buddy, where do we turn these in after the game?”
Today you could call guys like that countercultural. And some of the younger ones could call themselves that back then. They shared the older writers’ admiration for tough, salty, rise-to-the-occasion performers whose calluses and glints were in all the right places (Arnold Palmer, Al McGuire, Bill Russell, Darrell Royal, Frank Robinson, Billie Jean King); but their tastes and their politics had been colored by the sixties and Muhammad Ali. They could hang with the crusty old guys and also with long-haired and perhaps herbally stimulated young athletes. They were to sportswriting as Willie Nelson to country music: traditionalist but loose.
I recollect Charlie Pierce as one of those young guys then, and he manages somehow, mutatis mutandis (I gather that no employable journalist of any age can stay out as late as we did regularly, lightsomely, back then), to be one of them still. Cognizant of both baseball and rock and roll, he is witness not only to the first lifetime home run of an obscure Tiger named Jim Walewander, but also to the fact that the fans cheering Walewander include Dean Clean, Joe Jack Talcum, Dave Blood, and Rodney Anonymous: The Dead Milkmen.
At this point I would like to quote some of Pierce’s best lines, but I would just be stealing them, and you will enjoy them more in context. He has a flair for spontaneous foolery—as you will have learned if you have heard him on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, a National Public Radio show on which he and I often fool around together—but he is no snide wisecracker, not one of these snarky junk-ironists who will fill an entire column with obscurely knowing one-liners. Charlie the tough-love romantic can get up for a game, at the high-school or the Olympic level. “I don’t understand these sportswriters who don’t like sports,” he remarked recently. He has the observational chops to examine an icon like Tiger Woods or Magic Johnson both critically and sympathetically, close-up yet with detachment. He has the wit to view with bemused relish the proliferation of superjewelry on today’s lavishly compensated players, and also to elicit from one of them the following explanation of why he is not wearing his usual mega-necklace: “It’s in the shop.”
It is not because he is caught up in nostalgia that Pierce evinces such a keen sense of what tends to be missing in sports and other aspects of culture today. It is because he is still resourceful and hearty enough to dig up and appreciate the good stuff. He has been around long enough, and still gets around widely enough, that when he says something is the damnedest thing he has ever seen, he is saying something.
I’m a rummager and a scuffler in my business. Always have been. I love odd bits of business, the strings, old shoe buttons, and battered tin cornets of history. I don’t know where it comes from, although my grandmother was an old Irish farm girl who used to tell me the stories that she’d heard from the shanachie, the itinerant storytellers who functioned both as entertainment and as a collective memory in the old Ireland. The shanachie told stories for food and drink. If the story was drab, or if it ran too short, out he went hungry onto the Tralee Road in the rain.
That may be where it comes from—my love for small town libraries, and for tiny museums, where the helpful elderly volunteers always have the skinny on the point guard’s grandfather, or memories about the great flood that changed the town’s history, and how the celebrity outfielder’s neighborhood came to be built on what used to be the town cemetery. The drifting dead, then, become as much a part of the outfielder’s story as his glove, or his bat, or his minor-league manager, who (maybe) once was a preacher. And that’s the way my stories grow. The best ones, anyway.
There are a number of stories in this collection that can loosely be called “celebrity profiles.” This is not an unfamiliar genre; a friend of mine calls them “arugula stories,” as in: “(Fill In Your Favorite Greasy-Haired Dyspeptic Young Movie Star Here) looked out over his arugula salad at the trendy Beverly Hills bistro and sighed.” We have them in sportswriting, too. In fact, we have more and more of them, as athletes increasingly have more and more in common with other celebrity entertainers. Frankly, they are my least favorite pieces herein collected.
One of them is about Tiger Woods. It has become somewhat notorious because Tiger said some revolting things, told some lascivious jokes, and I wrote them down and published them and, the next thing I knew, Tiger and his father, Earl, were on national television accusing me of illicit electronic surveillance of a limo driver. What I’d done was take notes when I was supposed to take notes. Let me explain.
For the better part of six months, the magazine for which I worked negotiated with Tiger’s people—a fairly new twist, athletes have “people” with whom you negotiate—to set up a precise slice of time within which I would hang around with the talented young golfer. Part of this was the time during which he would have his picture taken. So I hung around, took my notes, and wrote what I heard, some of which became controversial because young Tiger heretofore had been pitched as some odd combination of Ben Hogan and Gandhi, which meant that when he started talking about black men and the size of their penises, he was offending against his own image, which is serious business now that we all accept the bogus axiom that perception is reality. But, really, how bland is that?
They are throwaways, these celebrity stories, and they teach lessons as simple and as tedious as flat blacktop. Oh, there is occasionally a burst of neon to them, but they are not the stories I love. I love the ones that meander, that find themselves turning down into the shadier places, where blood and bone and history hang over the road like fingers of Spanish moss, where there is a stirring in the bushes, a flash of shadows, and then gone again, and you find yourself bursting into a clearing—not where you’d planned to be, certainly, but a better place than where you were.
I love the stories in which you meet guys named Peerless.
There is in this collection a piece about Peyton and Archie Manning, father and son, both quarterbacks, the father the kind of legend (and the kind of gentleman) in whom the American South seems to specialize. However, as I was visiting Peyton Manning at the University of Tennessee, I noticed that one of his teammates was named Peerless Price. I never had met anyone named Peerless, so I asked to speak to him for no other reason than I wanted to meet someone named Peerless. He became part of the story of Peyton and Archie Manning. There are people who would call this a digression. I say, how can any story be truly complete without somebody named Peerless?
How can a story about Rohan Marley be complete without that of his father, Bob? Bob’s mother told me part of Rohan’s story, on a sunny morning in Florida, with some of Bob’s music playing faintly and vividly under our conversation, and she gave a blessing to me for the upcoming birth of my daughter, who can flat dance now, seven years later. Rohan was a linebacker, but his story was much more than that, if you followed it where it led, into the music and the sunshine.
“The blessing of Jah upon your little girl,” the old woman told me, even before my daughter was born.
There is no point in talking about Danny Nee if you’re not going to talk about Vietnam, in which he fought, and about the Gulf War, through which he coached, and about the distance over which the country had traveled between them. The stories Abe Lemons tells, and the impossibly funny way he tells them, are unthinkable without the Dust Bowl and the Depression, and a huge black cloud looming above a small town, the picture of which Abe still carries in his wallet. (OK, so Steinbeck’s fingerprints are still on the story, too, but he never met Abe, who’d’ve had the Joads in stitches on the day they loaded up the wagon.) Jeff Hartwig and his pole-vaulting, and his snakes in Jonesboro are forever shadowed by gunfire erupting over a playground. I walked the woods there, past the sniper’s perch, and the ground seemed to quiver still.
I love the stories about places as much as I love the stories about people. I love the way the wind stirs the grass on the grave of James Naismith in Lawrence, Kansas, where I learned that the old gentleman once played a hot version of “Little Brown Jug” on the fiddle. That led me to the Driscolls of Russell, Kansas, the traditional Democratic hometown opponents of Bob Dole. I love the way there is snow in the air all through wintertime in Warroad, Minnesota, so you can hunker down by the fireplace in the town library, and read the local lore about the Ojibwe—one of whom, Henry Boucha, became a local legend because of the way he played ice hockey, to which Warroad has given its heart. I’m better for having sat there in the barn, one thundery and flashing afternoon, with Junior Johnson, as big in his time and place as Tiger Woods is in his, and Junior with the tang of the outlaw still fresh upon his legend.
I drove up to his house that day—no phone call, no “people” with whom to negotiate. I drove up through the backroads of North Carolina, along which Junior and his friends used to run moonshine, past the hollows and the glens once thick with the law, now becoming flat and open places, ready for Authentic Country Living (starting at $80,000) and office parks. I drove up the long driveway toward the mansion that Junior built on his farm, after auto racing made him rich and Tom Wolfe made him famous. He’s out in the barn, the lady told me.
Well, Junior said, y’all might as well come in and talk.
We sat and talked. Lightning lit up the sky beyond the huge barn doors. You could smell the ozone burning through the rain and over the aroma of the sweetgrass in the fields. The story was about NASCAR, so it was about Junior, of course, but it was about the country, too, about how even the outlaws have agents nowadays. It also—crucially, deeply—was about the hills lying tamed out there in the rain, and the smell of summer lightning.
There are people to thank, of course. My family, which has tolerated my regular absence over the past 16 years, especially my wife Margaret, who now knows more about the infield-fly rule than she ever thought she would, and for that I apologize as well. She is the best editor I have, and that leads me to all the others.
Once, if you asked my toddler son who the worst people in the world are, he would’ve answered, sweetly, “Editors.” It was an editor from whom I first learned that trick, and his name was Bob Sales, and he was the first great editor I ever had. Subsequently, I have worked with estimable people on the stories in this collection—chief among them, David Granger, with whom I have traveled nearly a decade over three different national publications, two of which even are still extant. There are others, of course: T. A. Frail, Rob Fleder, Andrew Ward, Frank Deford, Neil Cohen, David Rosenbaum, Mike Roberts, John Strahinich, Craig Unger, and Robert Vare. All of them were willing to follow the stories wherever the stories went.
I learned about fact-checkers late in life, and I have come to appreciate them as pitchers do great shortstops—they can make your blunders disappear in the next day’s boxscores. I am enormously grateful to Susan O’Donnell, Andrew (The Dark Prince) Chaikivsky, and to the redoubtable one, Ms. Sallie Motsch Brady, and to the rest of the people whose fingerprints are all over these stories for which I get to take all the public credit. Thanks also to Glenn Stout and Dick Johnson—friends, archivists, and lifelong Red Sox victims—for digging out a couple of the stories of which I’d long ago lost my own copies.
David Black and everyone in the sprawling Black Inc. empire knows that I love them madly.
For the past six years, on almost every Friday afternoon, I have been blessed with the opportunity to talk sports with Bill Littlefield on National Public Radio’s Only A Game, which doesn’t necessarily mean that we talk about sports. Occasionally, we talk about soccer. (That got him!) We also talk about shoes for industry and shoes for the dead. My thanks to Bill, and to the whole OAG sports team, past and present: Gary Waleik, David Greene, Katy Clark, Karen Givens, Doug Haslam, (Only A) Gabe O’Connor, and Jon Marston. Apologies for that crack about the dulcimer music.
Kevin Hanover from DaCapo called me up one day and asked if I would like to be anthologized. I said, certainly, it sounded like fun, and not at all like being trapped in a glass sarcophagus, and it has been fun. I am flattered and grateful to have been asked—this is also Albert Murray’s publishing house, which is cool—and I would like to thank Kevin, John Radziewicz, and Carmen Mitchell for the opportunity and the privilege of putting this book together. Thanks also to Roy Blount, Jr., for the kind words, and just for being the thoroughgoing, American-icon, national resource that he is—and not just because he knows more than should any living Christian soul on the subject of Songs About Food.
And, last of all, there are the people—famous and not so famous, and everything in between—who allowed me to rummage around in their lives for a spell in order to tell these stories, which is the only job I ever wanted. As we rounded out of the last century, there was a lot of dreary, dismal talk—some of it extremely well-founded—about athletes and the sports that they play. There are people who believe we are going to hell here in America. And, then, there are those of us who believe, with everlasting gratitude to the One Great Scorer, that we’re all still pretty safe—until some shoe company lands the contract to make the handbasket.
Charles P. Pierce
A Big Game
Upon arriving in a new town, some people visit museums. Other people find the theater, or they go off in search of whatever the local newspaper says is the best restaurant in town. I have one friend who haunts courthouses, collecting exotic criminal proceedings the way some folks collect roadside reptile farms. As for me, I seek out the arena or the ballpark. Even after years of traveling to games, I still listen for distant cheering and look for the glow of lights above the near horizon.
I am a sucker for a Big Game. Which is not necessarily the same as a Championship Game. It is not necessarily the same as an Important Game, as defined by television hucksters. A Big Game is more than that. It is a piece of living history, a theater of the generations with an outcome more compelling than theater of any other kind. Thousands of actors have played Hamlet, but Hamlet always dies. Thousands of players have played in the Harvard-Yale football game, and very few of them have the same story to tell. If all the elements are right, and if history has aligned correctly with the emotion of the moment, I would rather be at a Big Game than almost anywhere else in the world.
In this capacity, I have rooted for small-college basketball teams in Wyoming and for small-college football teams in Mississippi, for minor league baseball teams in North Carolina and for high school hockey teams in Minnesota and for a thousand athletes whose names I have long since forgotten. I have been an Alcorn State Brave and a Mishawaka High School Caveman. (Our women’s teams, it should be noted, are gallantly called the Lady Cavemen.) I have been a Reno Silver Sock and an Asheville Tourist. (The centerfield scoreboard read VISITORS and TOURISTS, which I thought was right friendly.) It has been said that we all carry our own America with us. My own personal America comes with six seconds left and the home team—anybody’s home team—with the ball and trailing by a point or a goal. There is barbecue at the concession stand, and there is beer in a paper cup, and a band is playing across the way. I can be happy there.
In Lawrence, Kansas, where stands the University of Kansas, they long ago set up a memorial to the old man on a bare and windy hill just inside the cemetery gates. But they buried him a few degrees south, in a shady plot, with his family and his fellow Masons, beneath a tall marble tower with a great marble ball set on top of it. His marker is flat, set right there in the ground, the stone so darkened and weathered that it looks like a small vein of iron in the earth. NAISMITH, the stone reads, and beneath it, in smaller letters, JAMES and MAUDE.
Basketball had a single inventor. That we can say this with authority makes the game unique among sports. The Scottish shepherd who first hit a rock with a curved stick, thereby inventing both golf and recreational prevarication, is lost to antiquity. It has never been clear whether the inventor of American football was the first man to run with the ball, the first man to throw a forward pass or the first man to devise a point spread. Baseball has at least four creation stories (at least one of which is an absolute lie), all of which obscure the fact that America’s putative pastime is really a British mongrel. Basketball, however, began irrefutably in this country with James Naismith, who is buried in this shady plot in Lawrence, Kansas, where he came to coach at the university and in which function he remains the only men’s basketball coach at the University of Kansas with a losing lifetime record.
I mention all of this because it is within basketball that the growth of sports—for good and ill—can be most vividly seen. After all, in certain places, even high school sports have become afflicted with a giantism similar to that which has afflicted the professional games. I can be fairly sure that old Jamie Naismith would not approve of much of it. He was said to be rather stiff-necked in the area of personal deportment. Still, there is evidence that he was not entirely an old fud: we know, for instance, that he played the fiddle, and that “Little Brown Jug” was his party piece.
Across town, on this breezy morning fresh with the onrushing springtime, Kansas is preparing to play Kansas State in basketball for the 237th time. I think that if he could, Naismith—1-1 lifetime against the Wildcats—would be there on Saturday. I think he would cheer. I think he would shake a pompom. I do not think he would chant “Bullshit!” at a referee—even though nobody ever had better credentials to do so. (Naismith was death on profanity.) But I think he would enjoy a Big Game. I think he’d have—and I’m sure he will one day forgive me for saying so—a hell of a time for himself.
More than anything else, a Big Game needs to have a sense of place. It radiates outward from the arena. It spreads itself beyond the stadium. Children slide down an icy sidewalk toward the warmth of the field-house doors. Halfway up the block, they can smell the popcorn. Time stops at midafternoon. The old men come out in their blazers. The women all wear camellias. The air itself seems to quiver and shake. The first time Florida and Florida State played football last season was a Big Game. It was in Tallahassee, all raucous with accumulated tradition, cheers echoing back through time and the generations. The second time they played football was in the Sugar Bowl. This was not a Big Game. It was merely for the national championship.
Alas, more and more, the Big Game is being overshadowed by the Championship Game, which increasingly is becoming just another television show. For example, there is no more entertaining sporting event in the country than a football game between Mississippi and Louisiana State, particularly if the game is played in Baton Rouge. First of all, the game is played in Louisiana, which, as we all know, is not part of the United States of America in any sense that really matters. Second, the game is played at night, fog swirling through the paludal air and Spanish moss hanging like ghostly fingers from every tree. Third, surrounding the game, there is a sprawling celebration that is pretty much what the Druids would have thrown if they’d had sororities. The game will probably never be a Championship Game, because neither LSU nor Ole Miss has competed for any kind of championship since God was a boy. The people in charge of such things will probably never designate it as an Important Game, either. But it is a Big Game, every year. Big Games are not about trophies and banners. They are not about ratings and rights fees. Instead, memories are at stake, entire lifetimes of them. Bright as midnight torches, they are as warm and genuine as primal fire.
In or near the town of Monona, Iowa, there once was a highway patrolman named Howard Bell. It seems that Bell once nabbed Kansas coach Roy Williams for speeding along Highway 52. Williams was in town recruiting a local high school star named Raef LaFrentz. The following evening, lurking still, Bell ticketed LaFrentz. Three years later, LaFrentz is preparing to play Kansas State, and he has just told the story on a conference call that included representatives of the Sporting News, Sports Illusstrated and the Associated Press. Howard Bell is now famous, and he doesn’t even know it. That is the way things happen today. Radar at the ready, Trooper Bell now cruises the information superhighway.
LaFrentz is preparing to play in a Big Game, though it has ceased to be much of a competitive rivalry. Kansas has won the game nine times in a row going back to 1994, and Kansas State is winding up a thoroughly miserable season. Nevertheless, on the running track that circles the basketball floor in Allen Fieldhouse, students have been camped out for tickets for nearly three days. In one corner, engineering students work out a design assignment using what appear to be Popsicle sticks. Two students have set up a small video arcade near one of the darkened popcorn stands, and a number of others are asleep under blankets. This will be the last home game for six Kansas seniors. The fans are urged to bring flowers and to shower the court with them before the game.
- On Sale
- Dec 28, 2000
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Da Capo Press