Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Sports Literature We Have Known and Loved

Can’t anybody here play this game?

Now there’s a refrain that reverberates from ballyard stands and barroom stools just about anywhere the sun shines, the sentiment most oft accompanied by expressions of exasperation and utterances unrepeatable.

The nature of sports and the human frailty of the participants ensure us a glimpse of the full range of emotion—the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, as ABC Sports used to tell us every Saturday afternoon.

For every saga of success, there’s a juxtaposed tale of woe—and the real-life people who lived them.

One such tale actually bears the title Can’t Anybody Here Play this Game?—acerbic New York City columnist Jimmy Breslin’s hilarious account of Casey Stengel’s original (and ever so hapless) New York Mets. Stengel’s unique style produced few victories but helped groom the manager that would lead the franchise to the promised land before the close of that tumultuous decade.

Here’s a brief tale about someone who really could play his game:

As the euphoria of a national championship triumph is winding down, “Coach A” overhears a reporter fishing for a critical remark about the losing squad’s star player. Coach summarily dresses down said scribe, concluding with the prediction that the kid will have a long and successful NBA career.

About four years earlier, newly-hired assistant “Coach B” tracks down an inordinately talented but equally withdrawn recruit in his small home town. Grandma’s old-school ways get Coach in the door, but the kid stares at the floor and barely responds. At one point, he pitches another, slightly older local player. 
“Everyone said he’d have been good in college.” Seizing the moment, Coach points out to the recruit, “They’ll be saying that about you pretty soon.”

For the first time that day, the young man looked his future coach in the eye. In less than a week, Larry Bird had packed up and moved from French Lick to Terre Haute.

For those keeping score, the protective and prophetic “Coach A” is Michigan State’s Jud Heathcote, the opportunistic “Coach B” Bill Hodges of Indiana State. The two vignettes are extracted from When March Went Mad, the Seth Davis contribution to the Magic & Larry shelf at your local library.

The annals of sports literature are replete with the experiences and philosophies of managers and coaches. One of the more entertaining is Life on the Rim by David Levine, a year in the life of the 1988-89 Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association. While head coach George Karl was no doubt the focus of any marketing pitch, basketball lifer Gerald Oliver, Karl’s over-worked assistant, is the cornerstone of this narrative. All who have ever been involved in the operation of a youth-ball team will relate to the trials and tribulations of the gregarious Southerner…and understand why he loves every minute of it.

The stories of our games touch all manner of tangential issues, from competitive equity to social justice—even to love and marriage.

Did you know, for example, that the New York Knickerbockers’ first NBA title bears the stain of performance-enhancing drugs—that the details were revealed in a highly-acclaimed book published that very year?

Did you know, for example, that a Hall of Fame manager held to the notion that there is a perceptible decline in a ballplayer’s production during the year in which he gets married? (No one seems to have told LBJ, huh?)

On a monthly basis, They Keep Feeding Me Straight Lines will attempt to fill in the details to these and other sports stories that have been preserved in print (and occasionally on film).

Feedback, suggestions and especially original contributions to this project are most welcome.

Reading, after all, is FUN-damental!