Alert readers will notice a bit of overlap, though maybe not as much as might have been anticipated, and two pieces received multiple votes. Because of that, I’ll make a couple bonus selections, one from the summer and another from late December. In a completely unintended way, they almost could be companion pieces, and together, they go a long way toward answering why we do what we do here at Post Sports.
We are, first and foremost, journalists, and the teams and organizations we cover are multimillion-dollar businesses; holding those entities and the people within them accountable for their actions is our primary function.
But in the Sports department, so much of our news is the competitions themselves, and those games can seem frivolous, particularly during such tumultuous times. Maybe as a rationalization and maybe as a defensive crutch when confronted with such a juxtaposition, many a “serious” sportswriter has pointed to the lyrical words of the great New Yorker writer Roger Angell, whose story on Carlton Fisk's home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series included the following passage:
"It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look — I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring — caring deeply and passionately, really caring — which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naivete — the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball — seems a small price to pay for such a gift."
Perhaps you have to care that much about a team or a game to appreciate Dan Steinberg's story on the joyful exultation of Washington Capitals fans or Chuck Culpepper's piece on the lingering anguish of a high school football championship game 25 years earlier. Or perhaps you can see in their words an invitation to do so.
Happy new year to all.
The piece that stayed with me most is Jerry Brewer’s column from the PyeongChang Olympics on a Russian figure skater who effectively stood in for her home nation after Russia was disqualified for doping. Alina Zagitova stood for a nation, and Brew’s observations and insight — at probably the hardest event to cover — really stood out, because Zagitova went out there as the Olympic anthem played, because Russia supposedly didn’t exist at these Games, refusing all the while to be shamed by something she hadn’t been part of. (Read the story here.)
Kobe Bryant, revising his own history / By Kent Babb
The best story I read from a colleague? Kent Babb’s profile on Kobe Bryant. Babb wrote with incredible depth, perspective and honesty about Bryant, a superstar who has gone into storytelling himself and wants to tweak the nastiest part of his own narrative: a 2003 sexual assault allegation. It was the most comprehensive and fairly told piece on Bryant I’ve ever read. (Read the story here.)
Liz Clarke and Adam Kilgore
Clarke: Despite years of training and preparation, the fate of many hard-working, dedicated athletes often turns on something random, something entirely out of their control. Dave Sheinin recalled one such baseball player whose name isn’t even an asterisk in the sport’s annals, tracked him down years later and unearthed this gem.
Kilgore: What’s worse than failing in sports? Not getting the chance to find out if you could have made it. The way unresolved pain mixes with hard-earned pride is the beauty of Sheinin’s story. (Read the story here.)
I thought this story did what great stories and perspectives do: It made me think about people and an event of which I’ve long been aware, yet do so in a more intimate, intricate way. (Read the story here.)
LaVar Ball’s wife’s quiet recovery / By Kent Babb
Before this year, it seemed that there was nothing interesting left to write, or say, about the Ball family. Kent proved us wrong, however, by gaining incredible access and showing us the tensions at the heart of a couple that always felt they, and their children, were destined for greatness. Written with great care, and a documentary-like story structure, it reads like a “30 for 30” on the page. (Read the story here.)
Dodgers outlast Red Sox in 18-inning marathon to tighten World Series / By Dave Sheinin
Everything Dave Sheinin wrote in late October stood out, but especially his piece on the longest game ever. Because I don’t even love baseball, but I hung on his every word, went sleepless and then popped up the next morning just to see what kind of spit he had put on the ball this time. And I wasn’t disappointed, because Sheinin at his best on the big events always reminds me of a great speech Tom Stoppard wrote for the play “The Real Thing” about a cricket bat and good writing. A cricket bat is only sort of like a baseball bat, but for our purposes, they are the same thing. To quote:
“This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a little knock, like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly … What we’re trying to do is write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock it might … travel.”
Rick Maese and Dave Sheinin
What happened in Vegas: All night with the Capitals and the Stanley Cup / By Adam Kilgore
Maese: It’ll be a long time before we publish a story as fun as Adam Kilgore’s account of the Caps’ postgame partying with the Stanley Cup. It took sly, stealthy reporting, surely some Red Bull and a keen reporter’s eye to take readers behind the scenes for the start of a party that would last all summer long. The story hooks you with the first paragraph and is packed with memorable lines for Caps fans who’ve waited a lifetime for the celebration.
Sheinin: I’m not the first to point out this was the perfect marriage of writer and assignment, but even rereading this booze-soaked masterpiece of deadline writing six months later makes me feel as if I’d probably blow a .25.
Thirty-six minutes after the gold medal was won, the Olympics happened / By Chuck Culpepper
I loved this story because Chuck didn’t concentrate on the winner, or the top American, or the obvious at all. He found the spirit of the Olympics crossing the finish line long after the stands had emptied, and it was beautiful and fun. (Read the story here.)
Read more from Post Sports: