On Writing, Baseball Writing, And The 21st Century

We’re a week into National Poetry Month. I’ve been meaning to write about that. But for the moment, poetry is far from my thoughts. Springtime is for stories. And despite the name of this blog, prose has always been my first love. It’s just that as a name, Pitchers & Novelists lacks a certain romance.

Mostly, I’ve been doing what I normally do. Instead of actually writing, I sit around thinking about what it means to be a Writer, and more specifically a sports writer. I don’t mean beat writer or blogger either. I mean literary writer. Sure that sounds pretentious so I’ll capitalize it too: Literary Writer.

It all started last week when I came across a quote from John Cheever. Until then, I’d known Cheever as a mere reputation, a great pen-pal in Seinfeld, another legendary author whose writing I’d never read a word of. Now he’s the author who prompted a blog post:

The task of an American writer is not to describe the misgivings of a woman taken in adultery as she looks out of a window at the rain, but to describe four hundred people under the lights reaching for a foul ball. This is ceremony.

This, I think, describes why I write about sports. It’s always been the most intuitive way for me to get at other, more outwardly important things. If it wasn’t for the death of a baseball player, I could never have expressed the incomprehensible violence of the drug war in Mexico the way I wanted to. But sadly, there was a pitcher among the dead, and I’m proud of the piece. This is a new feeling though. Brand new.

In college, I wrote about sports for the school paper but always sort of hated myself for it. I got to cover Tim Lincecum the year before he started lighting up the big leagues, but mailed it in on most of the game recaps. I got to write columns on whatever sports issue I wanted, but spent way too much time trying to be funny and controversial. Secretly, I wanted to write non-sports features, non-sports columns. I just didn’t have the confidence to do it. End result? I quit the paper before my senior year to focus on creative writing.

Jim Caple, the ESPN columnist and UW alum, came to one of our meetings. I don’t remember everything he said, but I do remember he addressed the issue more or less as follows. He said he considered sports writing equal to all other forms of journalism, because sports is so inextricably connected with broader society and the human condition. He said he wrote about sports because it allowed him to write about life.

At the time, I didn’t buy it. I still wanted to write about Cheever’s woman in the window. But by now baseball has subconsciously crept into enough of my short stories that I’ve come to terms. Ernest Hemingway wrote a whole book about bullfighting. Bernard Malamud wrote The Natural and won a Pullitzer. Stories about sports can be more than just okay – they can be transformative. Now the way they are told is being transformed. Less George Plimpton in Sports Illustrated, more Joe Posnanski on his personal website.

I got a tweet the other day (a tweet is a message from twitter for those of you not yet following The_Real_Shaq), that seems fitting. The tweet, in its latest form reads as follows:

RT @steveweddle RT @Shoryland Indie film=cool. Indie music scene=cool. But indie writing=stigma. Why

Main point is that for whatever reason, if writing is to gain recognition in the literary establishment, it has come from the literary establishment. The many authors and poets who self-publish or publish online are generally regarded as scrubs, clowns. Of course some of those self-starters really are clowns. But some aren’t; some are gems.

Thankfully, that problem isn’t so evident in baseball writing today. The floundering print media has helped form a sort of horizontal, quirky baseball-literary universe. As I came to know this universe, the now-disbanded Baseball Toaster served as my North Star. From those blogs I gleaned new understanding of statistics and read a lot of fantastic stories about baseball.

This week, a couple of ex-Toastmasters have set the baseball blogosphere ablaze with narrative. First, everyone (including the New York Times and myself) was talking about Josh Wilker and his Cardboard Gods – a former Toaster blog now independent. Now they’re onto The Baseball Chronicle, an online baseball storytelling venture by Phil Bencomo, who contributed to the Toaster’s Cub Town blog.

Their successes, and the general shape of the baseball blogosphere (of which I’m now a very small part) have forced me to consider and reconsider my own writerly dreams. As a kid, when I wanted to be a sports writer that meant a newspaper. As a college student, when I wanted to be a Literary Writer that meant the New Yorker or a novel on display at Barnes and Noble. Those goals haven’t gone away, they’ve just been shifted into perspective. Just as real literature need not address “important” themes and characters like Cheever’s regretful adulteress, the best baseball writing need not come out of a magazine or a book. Indie writing need not =stigma.

In the words of Paul Weller, this is the modern world. If Jim Bouton was on today’s version of the Seattle Pilots, Ball Four would be a blog. If Jim Murray was born thirty years later, he would have already left the LA Times for ESPN. And if any of you feel like reading something powerful about baseball, all it takes is a decent wireless connection.

[Full disclosure: I have contributed to the Baseball Chronicle]

1 Responses to “On Writing, Baseball Writing, And The 21st Century”

  • I agree with the sentiment. Great writers are great writers, whether they’re talking about infidelity or baseball. Roger Angell is always a good example, a writer who cracked the New Yorker scene with excellent writing that is a lot of the time about baseball.

    As an aside (and maybe this is kind of an obvious point), the current media environment, print vs. online etc., offers little guarantee anymore that something printed in a magazine will be as good as or better than a blog post. Most of Esquire is pap, and your standard back page opinion column in any magazine pales next to the best bloggers around. The hierarchy is shifting, and it’s an interesting watch.

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