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Sports as Stories, Stories as Sport 10 min read

Sports as Stories, Stories as Sport

In celebration of Roger Angell, an essay in honor of Joan Didion, Kottke takes a break, more church-related ugliness, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn
Sports as Stories, Stories as Sport Post image

My mind is preoccupied with sports this week. As you’ll see below, one of the most talented baseball writers to ever hold a pen passed away. I’m thinking a lot of the storytelling potential of sports.

When I was younger, sports were first and foremost activities around which to organize my physical activity. They were things to play, things to practice, things to compete at.

My competitive days ended after high school. Then sports morphed to something to watch, in person or on TV. They were a form of entertainment that kept me close to the games that I loved and missed playing.

As I’ve gotten even older, I’ve grown more removed from sports, even as a casual viewer. I don’t follow sports as closely as I did; I don’t keep ESPN on in the background. I don’t like sports any less than I ever did, but I’ve simply grown more enamored with narratives and storytelling.

As a result, I spend more of my casual viewing time watching movies or TV. But sports remain a rich and diverse venue for all sorts of stories.

To the extent that I spend much time on my own watching sporting contests, I make a lot of time for professional golf tournaments, probably because of the logic I explained above: I still get out on the course often, whereas it’s been years since I’ve played competitive baseball, basketball, or football.

Not all golf tournaments are made equally, and I don’t watch as if they were. Majors take up a lot more of my attention, and this week was the PGA Championship, the most minor of golf’s four majors. The stories were abundant and did not disappoint.

Most important to me at the beginning of the tournament was Tiger Woods’ decision to play, only his second competitive round of golf since a near-fatal car accident more than a year ago. It was a rich story: Golf’s once mighty and reigning king showing flashes of brilliance but obviously beset by the lasting effects of his injuries. It was brave, though many fans grow tired of announcers’ breathless praise of him and his game.

But he withdrew from the tournament before the final round, so his story was not the one of the day on Sunday.

Until his very last hole, Mito Pereira, the young Chilean, was leading the tournament on Sunday; he was four solid shots away from winning, and even if he needed five shots on the final hole, he would have been guaranteed a spot in a three-hole playoff.

But he hit a truly terrible shot off the 18th tee; his ball found the bottom of a creek, and by the time he made his final putt, it had taken him six shots to complete the hole. He’d played himself right out of contention, and the three-hole playoff took place without him. He was full of grace, took all interview requests, and held his head high. Even a casual viewer couldn’t watch without his or her heart breaking for the young man.

Justin Thomas went on to win out over Will Zalatoris. One of the remarkable stats was, coming into the day, Thomas was given a 1.2% likelihood of winning the tournament. It’s not that long-shots never win; in fact, the possibility that they might is one of the most foundational stories to sports.

We watch because of what it says about showing up, about persevering, about believing in yourself, about overcoming; we watch for stories we’d like to be true for ourselves as much as our heroes.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. The journalism world lost a giant this week when Roger Angell died in his New York home at 101 years old.

  2. Angell was intricately bound up with The New Yorker. It was a publication for which he not only wrote and edited since 1944 but also a publication for which his mother was the fiction editor and his stepfather, the inimitable E.B. White, was a foundational personality. There was no chance his passing would go unremarked upon by the magazine, but the remembrance came from none other than the editor-in-chief, David Remnick. He turned around a touching, personal obituary in short order; who knows how much, if any, had been written ahead of time, but it is a fitting send-off and testament to the high-level of journalistic excellence that Angell represented for so long.

  3. Joe Posnanski in his wonderful newsletter, Joe Blogs, wrote of Angell in a way instantly understandable to any writer: as an admiring fan of a genius’s massive talent, full of wonder at how exactly he did what he did. 

    “In some ways, I was disappointed by how uneventful his pregame routine was. It’s hard to say what I expected, but at that age, I felt sure that he had to be doing something different from everyone else to write the way he did. But, no, he blended into the scenery, with his gray mustache and blue blazer and little notepad and crumpled baseball cap. He looked at the same stuff the rest of us looked at. He talked the same way the rest of us talked. Most people did not notice him at all. But a few others did. I could see them. I could see the awe in their eyes, the same awe I felt, and I could read their lips: ‘Oh my gosh: That’s Roger Angell!’”

  4. Roger Angell’s writing is too numerous to cite even a representative fraction of it here. In Posnanski’s remembrance, he was sure to quote many of his soaring passages in some famous baseball pieces. But upon Angell’s death at 101, it’s hard not to (somewhat unoriginally) recommend to you his piece “This Old Man.” It never fails to make me smile, and it never fails to make me cry. It is beautifully rendered, and that’s no small feat. There is a pastiche-like quality to the things on which he devotes time, like the wandering and ambling conversation you might expect from a person in their nineties and with so much life from which to draw inspiration. But it is touching. And real. And honest. And brave. To accomplish such a thing in one’s writing at any age is an accomplishment, but in his NINETIES? Are you kidding me?! Would that it were as simple as he makes it look. Trust me, I’ve tried; it’s far from it, and he was a master. The world will be much poorer without new words from him.

  5. From one literary giant to an essay in search of another. The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan wrote a searching and wandering piece based on her longstanding reading relationship with Joan Didion, who passed away in 2021. (I included pieces written in the aftermath of her passing here and about a thoughtful analysis of her work here.) Flanagan’s is an essay in the truest sense of a Didionesque essay, and it was her contribution to the memorial pieces about Didion. But it was definitely not an obituary. It was something more than that, an exploration of self as much as it was a remembrance of the subject.

  6. Jason Kottke, one of the longest-running and most-well-known blogs on the internet (and an inspiration for what I’d love for this newsletter to be), is taking a deserved break. He made the announcement last week, but I’d missed it when it came out. I read the announcement, and he frames his need for a sabbatical through the symbolism of a fiddle-leaf fig he bought years ago.

    “I’d recently moved into my own apartment after separating from my wife and figured a large plant in my new place would add some liveliness to a new beginning that was feeling overwhelming, lonely, and sad. For the first couple of months, I didn’t know if my tree and I were going to make it. I’d never really had a plant before and struggled getting a handle on the watering schedule and other plant care routines. It started losing leaves. Like, an alarming number of leaves. I’d brought this glorious living thing into my house only to kill it! Not cool. With the stress of the separation, my new living situation, and not seeing my kids every day, I felt a little like I was dying too. One day, I decided I was not going to let my fiddle leaf fig tree die…and if I could do that, I wasn’t going to fall apart either. It’s a little corny, but my mantra became “if my tree is ok, I am ok”. I learned how to water & feed it and figured out the best place to put it for the right amount of light. It stopped shedding leaves.”

    I related to this weirdly specific anecdote because I’d done the same thing. When I moved out to Wyoming, I’d just gone through a breakup, and my ex was a conscientious plant mom. Here fiddle-leaf fig was a favorite. In a conflicted moment of interior decorating, I convinced myself I just missed the sight of those giant green leaves and the illusion of fresher air from more oxygen thanks to the plant. It was just something I needed as an adult, something to keep me accountable, and it had absolutely nothing to do with missing my ex (…riiiiiight). I bought a small fiddle-leaf fig of my own. Surprisingly fickle, the fiddle-leaf fig turned out to be. Brown spots, gnats, too much water, the works; I was a terrible plant owner. I couldn’t save it, and unsurprisingly, it died. It felt somewhat appropriate and representative for that time of my life. If the plant ever made me feel better or somehow connected to her, it went pear-shaped so quickly when it got sicker and sicker; this thing, an ill-conceived healing aid, had backfired on me. After I mourned my small fiddle-leaf fig and time had passed and I moved on more genuinely from the breakup, I doubled down and bought an even bigger fiddle-leaf fig. This one feels a little bit more like mine, as if he can tell he was bought with a purity of purpose and there’s no negativity bound up in his soil. I hope the best for Kottke and his fiddle-leaf fig, and I know I’ll miss him in his absence. I hope he finds what he needs on this break and that he actually feels like coming back to his website. The internet is better with him on it.

  7. Speaking of making the internet better, Ed Yong, of The Atlantic, has been indispensable during the COVID-19 pandemic. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting; I’ve written about and shared his stories in this newsletter many times. He recently published a story about a new concern: a surprising number of monkeypox cases. Monkeypox, so named because it was first observed in monkeys but is most often carried in rodents, is a less-severe relative of smallpox, and Yong’s piece tries to assess how much America has learned from the COVID-19 pandemic when it comes to responding to public health issues.

  8. Even though a lot of this week’s edition is dedicated to a remembrance of a man after his death, it’s fundamentally positive and celebratory. That was not the case last week, where I wrote about profoundly dark and negative topics. One of the topics was the ugliness seen within Greg Locke’s church in my native state of Tennessee. The quotes from Tim Alberta’s piece painted a vivid picture, but if a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video must be worth a million. Jeff Sharlet, a writer who focuses a lot on the intersection of evangelical Christianity and conservative politics, retweeted a video of Locke on Twitter. It’s actually shocking, not just the words he said but also the reactions of those in the congregation. You’d be forgiven for not realizing it was a church service. The simple truth is this: It wasn’t. The scarier truth is this: It is by today’s standards.

  9. More ugliness related to churches came in the form of a 300-page report of an investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention “that found that sex abuse survivors were often ignored, minimized and ‘even vilified’ by top clergy in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.” The Washington Post first reported on the release of the report, and it described it this way:

    “The findings of  nearly 300 pages  include shocking new details about specific abuse cases and shine a light on how denominational leaders for decades actively resisted calls for abuse prevention and reform. Evidence in the report suggests leaders also lied to Southern Baptists over whether they could maintain a database of offenders to prevent more abuse when top leaders were secretly keeping a private list for years.”

  10. On the last Saturday in April, I was in Rapid City, South Dakota to see a movie that wouldn’t be screening in Gillette. It also happened to be Independent Bookstore Day. As it so happens, Rapid City has an independent bookstore, a cute little two-story shop called Mitzi’s Books (you can buy from Mitzi’s at this link if you’d like to support a local shop). I wanted to give some business in celebration of the day, and one of the books I bought there was The Every by Dave Eggers. It seemed fitting since the dystopian-lite near future chronicles the ascension of The Circle (a fictional company that’s some kind of mix between Google and Facebook, introduced in an earlier book by the same name and turned into one of the only movies I’ve ever considered walking out of) after it’s purchased an e-commerce site known as “the jungle,” to form an even more ubiquitous digital behemoth. The not-so-subtle dig at Amazon was compounded by his refusal to sell the book on the real-life site; it would only be marketed through independent bookstores. I just finished the book, and I really enjoyed the world it created and the ideas it explored, no matter how terrifying. In this Los Angeles Review of Books piece by a philosophy professor and tech critic, the book is analyzed for what fiction can do that real-life analysis and criticism can’t.

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been watching in the past week.

Remember: The legend for my list was stolen from Mr. Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film, and Italics is a book. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

5/16: Better Call Saul, S6 (AMC/AMC+); We Own This City (HBO Max)
5/18: Star Wars: The Clone Wars, S1 (2) (Disney+)
5/19: Under the Banner of Heaven (Hulu); The Offer (Paramount+); Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2) (Disney+)
5/20:Atlanta, S3 (Hulu);  SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (Criterion Channel)
5/21: THE EVERY; SCREAM (2022) (Paramount+); The Ipcress Files (AMC+); Star Wars: The Clone Wars (1) (Disney+)

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