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Posts Tagged ‘sports’

Bull City Summer

April 17, 2013 | by

At Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Photo: Kate Joyce.

At Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Photo: Kate Joyce.

Unless you are a baseball adept, or familiar with Durham, North Carolina, your relationship to the words Durham Bulls may be an inverted one. Perhaps your mind flips the words to Bull Durham, the 1988 movie about life and love in the minor leagues. Kevin Costner stars as journeyman catcher Crash Davis (there was a real player by that name, long ago), who is sent to Durham to tutor the young, talented, and wild Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a flamethrowing pitcher who is never sure where his pitches will go. Nuke spends the summer canoodling with Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), an aging baseball groupie, before he is called up to the “Show,” the major leagues. That clears the way for Crash and Annie to become the batterymates, as baseball argot puts it, they were destined to be. It is a mellow, even melancholy consummation, a sadder-but-wiser ending to an antic, shaggy, often profane baseball tale of getting all the way to the major leagues, or just to the end of summer—to the end of a dream.

Bull Durham gets a lot right, and real minor-leaguers approve of it—my multiyear polling of ballplayers in clubhouses shows it to be the truest baseball movie: they identify with the bus-ride scenes (the minors are still known colloquially as the bus leagues), with Crash lamenting the “dying quail” difference between hitting .250 and .300 (the difference that’ll get you to the majors), and with the lecture Crash gives Nuke on how to fob off sports clichés on reporters like me.

But Bull Durham does omit a crucial detail, one that the casual viewer will probably overlook. Read More »

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Offsides, Part 2

January 24, 2013 | by

Jelena Tomašević, Joy of Life, 2006, mixed media, 22.3 in. x 33.2 in. © conrads duesseldorf.

This is the second installment of a multiple-part post. Read part 1 here.

Like Savićević, the Croatian Zlatko Kranjčar, fifty-six, had been a successful, offensive-minded player in his day, and one who understood the importance of international soccer. Nearing the end of his career in 1990 at the age of thirty-four, Kranjčar captained Croatia’s first national game of its post-Yugoslavia era. As a coach he led the Croatian national team into the 2006 World Cup. He had experience, and a lot of it. When Savićević hired him in 2010 as Montenegro’s new manager, it was Kranjcar’s eighteenth year of coaching and his twentieth job.

Also like Savićević, Kranjčar had historically favored an attacking style of play, one that resembled the Yugoslavian teams of Montenegro’s past. “The former Yugoslav players have the reputation as the Brazilians of Europe,” said soccer journalist and Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper. At first glance, the Montenegro team appeared to be no different. Its two star players were strikers: Vučinić, the team captain, and Stevan Jovetić, who also plays in Italy, for Fiorentina. Read More »

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Offsides, Part 1

January 23, 2013 | by

Mirko Vučinić showed up to the first day of soccer season this summer with a mustache. It was a thin one, and it made him look like a character out of an Italian neorealist homage to the dignity of the working class—handsome and proud, and heroic because ultimately he is up against forces that are far too great for him to succeed. Vučinić is the starting striker for Juventus, Italy’s Serie A defending champion. To date, though, he may be most famous for dropping his shorts, placing them on his head, and running around the pitch in his underwear after he scored a goal in an international match against Switzerland in 2010. You likely wouldn’t see that in an Italian neorealist film. But that’s all right, because Vučinić isn’t Italian. He’s Montenegrin, and Montenegro has a story of its own.

The country, once a part of the former Yugoslavia, is one of the tiniest in all of Europe. Incredibly, its population of 657,000—about the size of Baltimore’s—is the same as the number of registered soccer players in Poland, Montenegro’s first opponent in its 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, which began in September. In order to automatically qualify for the World Cup, Montenegro has to finish first in its group of six, or make it to a playoff match and finish second. The team’s other opponents in the group include Ukraine, whose population of forty-five million is a mere seventy times larger than Montenegro’s, and England, whose team is ranked sixth in the world and is the group favorite. Read More »

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ThunderStick

January 14, 2013 | by

It came in a box. A big box, with two or three others. Sam had finally cleaned house.

It’s not every day you get a box of tennis racquets in the mail. I ripped it open and immediately shook hands with each one.

“Now guys, shake hands with the racquet.” If I’d said that once I’d said it, I don’t know, maybe twenty-five times. Once for each tennis clinic I’d taught for little kids over high school summers. Kids who’d devised a game called Hit the Ball at the Teacher, which they’d passed on to their younger brothers and sisters, the little buggers.

There was a Yonex in the box that felt cold and distant—the shake of a bureaucrat. There was another I’ve since given away that felt insubstantial—the absent shake of someone scanning the room for more important hands. And then there was the Prince. I swear to you, the Prince’s handle still felt warm.

The grip was slightly sticky—as a good grip should be—and worn where my right index finger curled up the beveled edge of the shaft. It filled my palm easily and comfortably: the racquet’s way of looking me straight in the eye as our hands met. This was Emma’s racquet.

The frame was a little slick for my tastes. Shiny black, with an aqua-blue and pink blaze up both sides of the head that looked like rain blotches on a Doppler weather map. And it was called ThunderStick. There was a lightning bolt through the diagonal slash of the n “Thunder.”

“Lord, did Emma know that?” I wondered. Not her style. And there was another message from the manufacturer along the inside rim: “Sweet Spot Suspension.” If that were true, I figured it was okay that it looked a little cheesy and was called ThunderStick.

I fingered the strings and saw they were worn, with little bits of neon-yellow fuzz stuck at the junctions where the vertical and horizontal rows overlapped. Evidence that this racquet was not new. Evidence that Emma had hit with it.

Read More »

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Quit Thinking, You’re Hurting the Club

October 25, 2012 | by

In game six of last year’s World Series, with the Texas Rangers one strike away from clinching the franchise’s first championship, Lance Berkman, the St. Louis Cardinals’ aged first baseman whose thick physique and round face had earned him the nickname “Fat Elvis,” lined an inside fastball into shallow right-center, plating the tying run from second base. Even though he had just fulfilled the childhood fantasy of nearly everyone playing and watching the game that night by rescuing his team from World Series defeat, Berkman betrayed little emotion. Instead, he stoically slipped off his batting gloves and leaned in to listen to the instructions of the first-base coach, as if it were yet another humdrum hit in his distinguished career.

Until David Freese lofted a walk-off home run to center in the eleventh inning, Berkman remained in a state of what appeared to be Zen-like empty-headedness, his posture relaxed but attentive, his expressions varying little with each pendulous momentum shift. It was as though he were the only person in Busch Stadium who failed to comprehend the magnitude of the moment. When asked afterward what he was thinking about during his do-or-die at-bat in the tenth inning, Berkman simply replied, “Nothing.” This answer reinforced a central point in David Foster Wallace’s essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”:

It is not an accident that great athletes are often called ‘naturals,’ because they can, in performance, be totally present: they can proceed on instinct and muscle memory and autonomic will such that agent and action are one … The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up to the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: Read More »

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When Are You Gonna Get Over This: An Interview with Jim Shepard

October 16, 2012 | by

Jim Shepard is the author of six novels and four short-story collections. In a departure from the typical trajectory of the American writer, however, his novels came first: graudally, he has, by his own admission, become more and more drawn to the short-story form. And what short stories! His subject choices are bold, strange, almost stunning in their range: the love story between two gay engineers on the Hindenburg; a Roman scribe sent to man Hadrian's Wall; the inventor of the Godzilla epics. His narrator might be the Creature from the Black Lagoon or Aeschylus at the Battle of Marathon or John Entwistle or perhaps a British explorer searching for a sea in the middle of the Australian desert. A lot of his stories are set in the world of sports—baseball players moving to Cuba during Castro's revolution, football players, mountaineers, a Yugoslav soccer player who moves to Ajax Amsterdam during the sexual revolution. And yet, despite such a range of subjects, each story manages to feel true, the voice credible, the world evoked uncannily, so much so that the reader often feels like he's stumbled upon these character's private diaries.

I recently edited and translated a collection of Jim's stories for an Italian publisher, and I decided to focus on those stories that had, more or less, some sort of connection to sports. The reason for that is simple: I have never read stories set in that world that manage to evoke it as well as Jim's. Also: I like sports. I called Jim up on Skype, from my ex-girlfriend's kitchen in Milan, Italy, and asked him a few questions about short stories and sports.

In translating your stories, I started resenting the way you write, because it forced me to do so, so, so much technical and historical research, decipher so much lingo and jargon. It really was the most laborious translation I’ve everdone, and it really hit me just how much work you put into a single story.

Yes!

A different writer would take that kind of work and make a novel out of it. He’d make that much groundwork last three or four years.

My friend Ron Hansen, the novelist, always says to me: “You’re crazy! You know, you did eight months of research and all you got out of it is a story. I would get a four-hundred-page novel and make a lot more money.” But part of it is also that, you know, it doesn't feel like drudgery to me. If I’m reading about these subjects, it’s because I’m strange enough to want to be interested in them anyway. So the idea that I have to read yet another book about volcanology doesn't make my heart sink. It makes me think, “Oh, good, I get to do that!” You know?

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