Sports is such a mess that the best sports book of the year is about what a mess sports is.
Fans resent players and players abhor fans. Ticket prices are moving up and franchises are moving on. Owners are greedy nitwits and athletes are ill-mannered troglodytes.
“More and more,” writes Mike Lupica, “the modern fan feels like someone trapped in an abusive relationship.” Lupica is a journalist, a sports columnist for the New York Daily News, but he also counts himself a fan, and he is fed up.
“Mad As Hell: How Sports Got Away from the Fans And How We Get It Back” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $22.95) is a humorous, profane, illuminating and largely sensible take on what’s gone wrong and what it will take to make things right.
Owners want new stadiums? Let ‘em put up a quarter of the money. Marge Schott of the Cincinnati Reds keeps saying disparaging things about Asian-Americans and blacks, and chummy things about Hitler? Three strikes and she’s out. Lupica makes a lot of sense and has a lot of fun doing it. Three cheers.
More labored and more dour, sportscaster and former Atlanta Falcon Tim Green offers an insider’s look at pro football in “The Dark Side of the Game” (Warner Books, $19.95).
The approach has been taken before, but as Green points out, the results have been either laudatory pap or malcontent rumblings. He strikes a better balance, and his accounts of life in the NFL from the indignity of auditioning for the pros to why players don’t wear jockstraps - are unique.
Gordie and Colleen Howe also break new ground in “And … Howe!” (Power Play Publications, $32.95). Co-author Tom DeLisle helped assemble 427 pages of first-person stories from the Detroit Red Wings legend, his wife and their kids. An easy, conversational read - it’s amazing how matter-of-fact Gordie can be about ending a hockey fight by lifting a guy by his nostrils - “And … Howe!” pulls no punches.
Historically, hockey has not lent itself to memorable reading. Charles Wilkins scored in 1989 with “After the Applause,” the sort of where-are-they-now compilation that revisits old players every year, and he’s back with “Breakaway: Hockey and the Years Beyond” (McClelland & Stewart, $23.95).
The co-author of an earlier Howe autobiography, Wilkins is a cerebral writer and an attentive interviewer. His profiles of the ferocious John Ferguson, the obsessed Tiger Williams, the contemplative Erik Nesterenko and five others are gems.
He writes like a less murky John Updike. Through most of “Golf Dreams: Writings On GolfJohn Updike” (Alfred A. Knopf, $23), so does Updike. The excerpts from his Rabbit Angstrom novels are impenetrable, but his passion for the game carries the short stories and articles that make up the rest of the collection.
If Updike is Oakland Hills, Rick Reilly is Chandler Park and Turk Pipkin is somewhere in between. Reilly’s “Missing Links” (Doubleday, $21.95), a sometimes forced but frequently riotous comedy about hustlers at a Boston cow pasture called Ponkaquogue, is in its umpteenth printing and has been optioned for a sitcom. Pipkin’s “Fast Greens” (Dial Press, $19.95), loftier and by definition less successful, is a terrific account of a grudge match between two hardscrabble former friends in outer Texas.
Reilly’s former compatriot at Sports Illustrated, Rick Telander, followed Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman and the Chicago Bulls as they reclaimed the NBA championship in 1995. “In the Year of the Bull: Zen, Air and the Pursuit of Sacred and Profane Hoops” (Simon & Schuster, $23) ranks among the best one-season chronicles from any sport.
A time zone and a few light-years from Jordan’s spotlight, scrappy Marty Malloy played second base on the dim fields of baseball’s low minor leagues. Paul Hemphill followed him through a season in Macon, Ga., and “The Heart of the Game: The Education of a Minor League Ballplayer” (Simon & Schuster, $23) topped the usual towering stack of baseball books.
Former University of Michigan professor Donald Hall also makes the baseball highlight film with “When Willard Met Babe Ruth” (Crown, $16), a lyrical children’s tale of a chance encounter with the Bambino that becomes a piece of family lore.
“The Best American Sports Writing 1996” (Houghton Mifflin, $12.95), edited by John Feinstein, continues an annual tradition of excellent writing and varied subjects.
Particularly strong are a piece on a Heisman Trophy winner gone to jail and a Naval Academy football player gone to war. End to end, the 26 articles would make Mike Lupica glad to be a sports fan.