"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: howard bryant

True Identity

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Strong work from Howard Bryant:

Even with a Harvard-educated black man occupying the White House, the conception of black masculinity still revolves around the primal, not the intellectual. The first skill any African-American man learns in navigating the white world is how to make white people comfortable. He must be nonthreatening. Before he can profit from the snarl, he must first soften them with a smile. These tactics predate Matt Barnes’ tweeting of the N-word; they predate the NFL, Jay Z and the Civil War.

Yet no matter the tactic, no matter how powerful or savvy a black man might be, manipulation of his image remains a shadow currency. LeBron James was the first black male to gain the cover of Vogue, in 2008. His portrayal conjured images of King Kong — it was him roaring at the camera with a white woman, Gisele Bundchen, in his arms.

These old constructions, very much alive, were returned to light by Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. Here was a case in which a white man used racial slurs to a Stanford-educated teammate who comes from a two-parent, Harvard-educated home. And more than anything else, the root issue was the eternal difficulty this country has in allowing black men to live in full dimension. Martin didn’t look the part. He didn’t conform to the accepted code of black masculinity, exposing the fault line that has always run underneath the American soil, transformative president or not.

On the Dolphins, Martin wasn’t seen as a real man. Uncomfortable with the strip clubs, he wasn’t trusted as one of the boys. And because he represented the images of scholarship and manners, of dignity and higher education — reputable qualities generally associated with white mainstream America — he was inauthentic in the eyes of black players, but no more authentic in the eyes of whites. His teammates preyed on Martin’s economic class and demeanor, viewing each as weakness, his education as a mimicry of whiteness. (It’s telling that John Elway and Andrew Luck, also Stanford grads, have never been accused of being soft.)

[Image Via: The Starting Five]

Move On Up

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The Dodgers are the first team to advance to the championship series. Over at ESPN, Howard Bryant has a long piece on the rebuilding of a once-proud franchise:

For Johnson, being in the ownership circle is new in baseball, but not new personally. Johnson sold both his equity stakes in Starbucks Coffee and in the Lakers at least in part to finance joining Guggenheim’s bid. Internally, Johnson did not want to be patronized, the athlete, especially the African-American athlete, who lends his name to a venture and then has little say in its operation. In one of his first meetings with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Johnson convinced the chain to remake its food menu at the Harlem restaurants because while the African-American clientele would purchase coffee like any other consumer, “Black people,” Johnson told Schultz, “don’t eat scones.” It was a small but shrewd example of the different lens Johnson brought to the table.

“I want to show these athletes and entertainers that we can be owners,” Johnson said. “Now, going in with Stan and Mark and Todd has been a great experience, but I want them to respect me, too. And the way you get that respect is to write a check. And not to say they wouldn’t if I didn’t, but the real respect comes from when you’ve got skin in the game. And that’s what it’s been for all my partnerships. Howard Schultz [said] if I didn’t write the check, he wasn’t going to do that deal with Starbucks. Go down the line. [Late Lakers owner] Dr. [Jerry] Buss told me, ‘Hey, I love you like a son, but you have to write a check.’

“When you have to write a $50 million check, you have to say, ‘OK, is the investment going to pay off? Is it the right move? Is it the right decision?’ ” Johnson said. “To me, your name is not enough. And I’ll say it because first of all I think that fans react different. The players act different. The players when they’re alone are saying, ‘What? Magic wrote a check?’ So they understand that, and it’s also different for me because I want to make sure I make it right, make sure it goes the way of our strategy. I want to be part of the strategy. I want to be a part of everything. I’ve never not written a check. I want to be invested in the deal. I want everyone to look at me as a real owner and not just some guy who put his name on it.”

A Whole Different Ballgame

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Howard Bryant on the changing nature of the MLBPA:

After the release of the Mitchell Report in December 2007, players were still resistant to the reality that they themselves were the biggest victims of their members’ transgressions. But now, the steroid discussion no longer seems to be a philosophical conversation but a personal one. Players now consider PEDs a violation of their personal baseball code, no different from standing in the batter’s box too long after a home run or repeating what was said in the clubhouse. In the past, they had framed the drug conversation as an imposition of public relations pressure placed by grandstanding outsiders — the public, the media, the front office or Congress.

Now, players are demanding an accountability from one another that didn’t exist in previous years. For the first time, players no longer view steroids as a victimless crime. Users aren’t cheating the public as much as they are other players.

“So, let me get this straight,” an American League player said. “Guy uses steroids. He then puts up better numbers than I do. He goes to free agency and gets the years and the money, takes a job I don’t get and now I have to scramble during the winter to find another slot. Then, he gets busted for steroids and we use my union dues for his lawyers, his defense and his appeal? And that makes sense to you? That bulls— is fair?”

[Photo Credit: AP]

He’s a Loser But He Still Keeps on Tryin’

Howard Bryant has a good piece about our increasingly shrill sports culture over at ESPN:

As technology expands and speeds discourse, edges have sharpened. The attraction to and appreciation for high-level competition — ostensibly the reason we watch these golden athletes — disappear as soon as the final gun sounds. The blame game is our new national pastime.

…A couple of weeks ago, Charles Barkley told me he believes this dangerous undercurrent is affecting play.

“Everyone is so worried about whether they win a championship,” he said. “They don’t care about getting there, about having to beat the best to be the best. All they worry about is what is going to be said about them if they don’t get there. I really believe this. Media and expectations have changed everything. Everyone’s afraid of it because if you miss a shot, if you miss a play, that overshadows the whole series, your whole career. So guys just want a ring, but they don’t want to risk losing. If you don’t want to risk losing, you shouldn’t even be playing.”

And this from a piece on Kendrick Perkins reacting to LeBron James’ tweet about a dunk Blake Griffin threw down over Perkins recently (the story is by Mark J. Spears at Yahoo Sports):

“If I was in the same position, in the same rotation, I’m going to jump again and again and again,” Perkins told Yahoo! Sports. “I don’t care. A lot of people are afraid of humiliation or don’t know how to handle embarrassment or would even get embarrassed. I don’t care.

…“You don’t see Kobe [Bryant] tweeting,” Perkins said. “You don’t see Michael Jordan tweeting. If you’re an elite player, plays like that don’t excite you. At the end of the day, the guys who are playing for the right reasons who are trying to win championships are not worrying about one play.”

Last week I heard Jeff Van Gundy refer to a former player as a winner. Not because the player had won a championship but because of the way he practiced and played the game. You can’t be afraid to fail if you are a true professional. Bryant makes a good point. Our sense of appreciation is often overshadowed these days by a willingness to blame and find fault. But that’s like a coke binge, bad vibes feeding off bad vibes. Appreciation is the name of the game. In the NFL, there was little that separated the last four teams. To dwell on the mistakes made by the Ravens, 49ners and Patriots is missing the point.

[Photo Credit: Paul Sancya and Pat Semansky/AP]

Top Notch

The Best American Sports Writing 2011 is out. Good news for us. This year’s edition of BASW is edited by Jane Leavy and features excellent work from the likes of S.L. Price, Sally Jenkins, Wright Thompson, Nancy Hass, Chris Jones, and Paul Solotraoff.

Here’s a sample of one of the best stories in the collection, a bonus piece by Mark Kram Jr. for the Philly Daily News:

CHICAGO – Quietly, Sonia Rodriguez got out of bed and padded into the other room, where the evening before she had laid out her clothes for work. It was Wednesday, 6:30 a.m., and her husband Paco was still asleep, the gray light of a cold Chicago dawn beginning to seep through the windows of the small house that the couple and their baby daughter shared with his parents. Sonia slipped into the outfit that she had picked out, brushed her hair and stopped back in the bedroom to look in on Ginette, who slept in the crib that was wedged against the wall. Sweeping up her purse, she glanced over at Paco and told herself she would phone him when he arrived later that day in Philadelphia. But as she stepped out the door he called to her.

“Oh?” he said, blinking the sleep from his eyes. “Are you leaving?”

She looked over her shoulder and said softly, “Yeah.”

“Come here,” Paco told her. Sonia walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. He reached up, drew her into his arms and said, “I want to say goodbye.”

Goodbyes were not easy for them. In the 5 years they had been together, they seldom had been apart. Even when they were still dating, he would stop by and see her at the end of the day, if only for an hour or so just to talk. But Sonia had not chosen to accompany her 25-year-old husband to Philadelphia, where that Friday evening Paco had a 12-round bout scheduled at the Blue Horizon with Teon Kennedy for the vacant United States Boxing Association super bantamweight crown. Boxing had become a sport that Sonia looked upon with equal portions of acceptance and disdain. She accepted it because of the passion Paco had for it, and even now says that boxing was who he was. And yet part of her held it in disdain and she had stopped attending his bouts because of it, unable to cope with the queasiness that would send her fleeing from her ringside seat whenever Paco would engage an opponent in a toe-to-toe exchange. So when he asked her if she would like to come along to Philadelphia, he was not surprised when she smiled and told him, “No, you go. But hurry back to me.” And he told her he would, adding as always, “I promise you.”

And here’s a bit from Howard Bryant’s profile of Dusty Baker:

CINCINNATI — “Light a candle,” Dusty Baker says, his lone voice softly skimming the looming silence of the empty church. “I’m sure there’s someone out there you want to pray for.”

He lights a candle, points the flickering matchstick downward in his large hands, the athlete’s hands, dousing it into the cool sand. It is here in the solitude of St. Peter in Chains Cathedral — funded by Ohio Catholics who donated 12 cents per month toward its construction in 1841 — where Johnnie B. Baker, born Baptist in California, raised in the traditions of the southern black church, kneels alone among the long pews and nourishes his spirituality.

After several moments of prayer, he rises and walks gingerly toward the altar, marveling at the Greek architecture, the Corinthian columns and stained glass mosaics, comforted, despite its bruises, by the sanctuary and the ritual of the church.

“I come in here before homestands, sometimes a couple of times a week during the season,” said Baker. “I pray for my family, for my team, and for Barack Obama, because I’ve never seen people try to take a president down like this, never seen such anger. I mean, what did he do to anybody?”

And from Gentling Cheatgrass, by Sterry Butcher in Texas Monthly:

THE MUSTANG HAS eyes that are large and dark and betray his mood. His coat is bright bay, which is to say he’s a rich red, with black running down his knees and hocks. He has a white star the size of a silver dollar on his forehead and a freeze mark on his neck. He cranks his head high as a rider approaches, shaking out a rope from a large gray gelding. The mustang does not know what is to come. His name is Cheatgrass, and he’s six years old. In May he was as wild as a songbird.

The little horse belongs to Teryn Lee Muench, a 27-year-old son of the Big Bend who grew up in Brewster and Presidio counties. Teryn Lee is tall, blue-eyed, and long-limbed. He wears his shirts buttoned all the way to the neck and custom spurs that bear his name. He never rolls up his sleeves. A turkey feather is jammed in his hatband, and he’s prone to saying things like “I was out yesterday and it came a downpour,” or, speaking of a hardheaded horse, “He’s a sorry, counterfeit son of a gun.” Horse training is the only job he has ever had.

Teryn Lee was among 130 people who signed up this spring for the Supreme Extreme Mustang Makeover, a contest in which trainers are given one hundred days to take feral horses from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), gentle these creatures, and teach them to accept grooming, leading, saddling, and riding. Don’t let the silliness of the contest’s name distract from the difficulty of the challenge. Domestic horses can be taught to walk, trot, and lope under saddle in one hundred days; it’s called being green-broke. But domestic horses are usually familiar with people. The mustangs in the Makeover have lived on the range for years without human interaction, surviving drought, brutal winters, and trolling mountain lions. The only connection they have to people is fear. Age presents another challenge. A domestic horse is broke to saddle at about age two, when it’s a gawky teenager. The contest mustangs are opinionated and mature. The culmination of the contest is a two-day event in Fort Worth in August, where the horses are judged on their level of training and responsiveness. The top twenty teams make the finals. The winner takes home $50,000.

For Teryn Lee, however, there’s more at stake than money. Most of his clients bring him horses that buck or bully, horses that have developed bad habits that stymie or even frighten their owners. Teryn Lee enjoys this work, but his goal is to become a well-known trainer and clinician who rides in top reined cow horse and cutting horse competitions. To step up to that level, he’ll have to do something dramatic. Transforming a scruffy, feral mustang that no one wanted into a handsome, gentle, willing riding horse would make people take notice. Winning would get his name out there, he says.

The Best American Sports Writing 2011 can be bought here.

[Featured image photo credit via My Modern Met]

Fresh, For 2011…You Suckas!

Over at ESPN, Howard Bryant writes about the unfairness of trading prospects for stars:

In San Diego, one of the great robberies (an inside job, really) in recent baseball history took place in the Gonzalez deal this past offseason. The Padres, who missed the playoffs on the last day of the 2010 season, dealt their best player to the Red Sox even though he was under contract for another year. Instead of selling their fans in 2011 on the optimism of 2010′s great 90-win season, playoff appearances in 2005 and 2006 and a thrilling one-game playoff in 2007, San Diego folded, giving Gonzalez to the Red Sox for first-round picks Casey Kelly (a pitcher) and Reymond Fuentes (an outfielder), along with Anthony Rizzo, a first baseman. Remember, the Padres were an afternoon away from the playoffs, then traded their best player and received nothing in return to help them win this season or probably next. Rizzo has appeared in 35 games for San Diego this season, and he’s hitting .143.

The Red Sox didn’t part with any of their big league players in the deal. Not Jacoby Ellsbury, not Clay Buchholz, not Josh Reddick. Both Kelly and Fuentes have potential–Kelly is 21, Fuentes is 20–but neither is yet in Triple-A. Much space exists between Class A Lake Elsinore and Petco Park.

So as the Red Sox win, the Padres sold their fans a future that is at best cloudy and at worst illusory. Each day the Red Sox benefit from Gonzalez while the Padres wait for Kelly and Fuentes to reach the big leagues underscores the need for San Diego’s front office to have acquired big league talent that, at least, would have sent the message to fans that every year is next year.

 

So So Def

Over at ESPN, Howard Bryant has a strong piece on Dirk Nowitzki and being a star player in the age of social media:

The truth, given time to breathe and be analyzed, is this: Nowitzki will go down as one of the greatest players in the history of the game, the greatest player of his franchise, the best (NBA) player Germany has ever produced. He has proved it this year — especially during these playoffs, when the Mavericks have transformed themselves from a team not tough enough to win into a formidable out — and in previous years that he can carry a team early or late. The outcome of the 2011 NBA Finals will do nothing to change that.

The concept of the “instant legacy” has permeated sport and lowered the level of intelligent discussion regarding how the game is played and the players who play it. TV commentators assess a player’s entire career based on two minutes at the end of each game. Meanwhile, the second-by-second instant analysis on social media doesn’t stop when the buzzer sounds. James has been in the playoffs for seven years, carrying a nondescript Cleveland team that without him is once again invisible after six straight postseasons — and his critics are legion. Peyton Manning was once a weak playoff performer, but that changed when he won the Super Bowl against Chicago. Then he lost to the Saints and was somehow relegated back to being subpar in the clutch. Before last year’s seventh and deciding game between the Lakers and Celtics, the ESPN pregame roundtable asked aloud if Kobe Bryant — already the greatest player of his generation — needed to win that night to “cement his legacy.”

Newspapers and magazines have always engaged in the same type of hero construction and deconstruction. The difference now is the speed of the technology and its volume.

I still think Miami will win the series, and I assume that LeBron James will have a great game tonight but man, I’d like to see Dirk match him and have Dallas win their final home game of the season.

Black Man Out

ESPN writer Howard Bryant was arrested last weekend for allegedly physically assaulting his wife in public. The story was covered on the home page of ESPN.com:

“I am so sad today,” Bryant said [in a statement]. “I am sad today because this attack on me by the Massachusetts State Police and the Buckland Police has made it necessary for me to defend untrue allegations and repair my reputation when one conversation with either Veronique or with me would have diffused the entire situation. Instead, the police chose aggression first over dialogue, threatened to taser me whenever I tried to speak, and all in front of my 6-year-old son.

“As a result, I have to defend a charge that I attacked both the woman I love and the police when nothing could be further from the truth.”

“This is all so unfair,” Veronique Bryant said. “There was no investigation. The police made assumptions about my husband that weren’t true. I was never abused or in fear of Howard on that day or any other day. I wasn’t running from him or trying to get away from him. The police weren’t listening to me and they attacked him with violence with our 6-year-old watching.”

Here is Bryant’s laywer, Buz Eisenberg:

Eisenberg, being interviewed on WHMP’s 9 O’Clock Show with Bill Newman and Monte Belmonte, said Bryant was singled out by witnesses and by police simply because he was black and in Buckland. With Buckland being 96.5 percent white, according to the US Census, Bryant naturally stood out no matter what he did, Eisenberg said.

Even before the police came, Bryant could feel people staring at him on Main Street, Eisenberg said.

Eisenberg did not deny that Bryant and his wife argued on Main Street but he denied that the argument ever became physical. Witnesses told police they saw Bryant put his hands around her neck, which Eisenberg and the Bryants have disputed.

He also disputes charges by the Massachusetts State Police that he resisted arrest.

He said the witnesses, who he said were a group of 14- and 15-year-olds, watching the scene from Buckland Pizza overreacted and called police.

“What they saw was an African-American man and a Caucasian woman. It probably never entered their minds that they were married,” he said.

I got an e-mail from a friend the other day who happens to be black. He wrote:

What gets me is that E#$% chose to list this story on their front page, while others who have worked for them and were accused of or involved with similar issues were buried in the site so you had to do a search for their story. They have so many blatant double standards, it’s a wonder they don’t get kicked in the nuts with big lawsuits on a regular basis or are targeted by rights groups. Even if you don’t like the guy, the way they chose to trumpet this over others who have done similar or worse things is out of line.

In regard to what happened, that’s not surprising. Someone has it in for him; where can a professional brotha go without getting f***** with these days?

I know Howard Bryant, not well, but I consider him a friend professionally. I believe him and stand by him.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Brooklyn

Good lineup at Gelf’s Varsity Letters Speaking Serious tomorrow night in BK: Howard Byrant, Tommy Craggs and Dave Jamieson.

The ? Remainz

Last Friday, David Ortiz hit two long home runs against the Tigers, reminding us that he can still turn on a fastball. At least for one night. He creamed both pitches, too. Shades of the old Big Papi not the Old Big Papi.  

The question remains: Is Ortiz back, or was that just a blip? Today at ESPN, Howard Bryant has a long profile on the Boston slugger:

“You have to remember how proud David is,” said his former Minnesota Twins roommate Torii Hunter. “He treats people well. He makes you feel good. He makes it fun to come to the ballpark and play this game. Now, he’s having a tough time, and it looks like the same people he used to make laugh want him out? How would you feel?”

…Last year was supposed to be old news. He had conquered the bad start. He thought he had proved that last year was not evidence of a trend.

“Do you understand that this is killing me?” he tells me one day. “Do you know when I’m going good I cannot sleep because I’m trying to remember everything that I did right so I can repeat it the next day and the next? And that’s when I’m going good. When I’m going bad, it’s even worse because everybody looks to me to be the guy who comes through for this ballclub. It’s like I never sleep anymore.”

Hammer of the Gods

From Dwight Garner’s review of The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron:

Mr. Bryant’s book can be read as a companion piece, and a reply of sorts, to “Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend,” the recent biography by James S. Hirsch. These two ballplayers were both born in Alabama during the Great Depression (Mays in 1931, Aaron three years later), and both were among the last Hall of Famers to have played in the Negro Leagues. Their years on the field overlapped almost exactly. But they could not have been more different as personalities. Mays was joyous and electric, on the field and off, while Aaron was introverted, sometimes painfully so. They became lifelong, if low-key, antagonists.

Mr. Bryant, a senior writer for ESPN magazine, quotes the sportscaster Bob Costas as remarking, about Mays, that we “associate him with fun” and remember him with fondness. With Aaron, he added, “it is all about respect.” That quotation lingers like wood smoke over “The Last Hero.” These biographies of Mays and Aaron, taken together, are a striking and elegiac assessment of race relations in America during the 20th century. They are elegant portraits, as well, of two different ways of being a man. Wrap them both up for the 14-year-old in your life. The volume that’ll be left standing when the major book awards are handed out, though, is Mr. Bryant’s, I suspect. His is the brawny one, the one with serious and complicated swat.

…Aaron is clearly a hard man to get to know, and I’m not sure Mr. Bryant entirely does. His life off the field is detailed haphazardly: his two marriages, his children, his passions. His own words, quoted here, are mostly unmemorable. But “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron” had the forceful sweep of a well-struck essay as much as that of a first-rate biography. In an era in which home runs are now a discredited commodity, Henry Aaron looms larger than ever: a nation has returned its lonely eyes to him.

[Photo Credit: Rich Lederer of The Baseball Analysts]

Built to Last

Good long piece by Hillel Italie in the Huffington Post on Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and cooperative biogrpahies:

“Before I got to Aaron, the best advice I got was from David Halberstam, who wrote a book on Michael Jordan without getting Jordan and a book about Bill Clinton without getting Clinton,” [Howard] Bryant said of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist.

“He said to me, `The strategy was very simple – for every day they didn’t talk to me, make three phone calls to other people.’ You have to work around obstacles. It was the best piece of advice anyone’s given me.”

After Bonds overtook Aaron, in 2007, Aaron opened up to Bryant.

“When Henry and I finally spoke, he was tremendous, he was unbelievably gracious,” Bryant said. “He was even somewhat embarrassed someone was taking an interest. He didn’t ask for any money. He didn’t ask for any review copy of the book. He could have made the one phone call that every author dreads – which is to call all of his people and say, `Hey, this guy is writing a book about me. Don’t talk to him.’”

Earlier this week, Allen Barra gave his take on Bryant’s book:

Just when it seemed as if all the great baseball subjects had been done, Howard Bryant checks in with this biography of Henry Aaron, which, amazingly, Mr. Aaron had to wait 34 years to get.

Mr. Bryant, author of “Shutout,” the definitive study of race in baseball, and “Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball,” is a great writer for a great subject. Mr. Aaron’s story is the epic baseball tale of the second half of the 20th century, in many ways the equal to Jackie Robinson’s.

And in the Village Voice, Barra praises Bryant’s frank handling of the relationship between Aaron and Mays:

Bryant argues that “so much of the relationship between Mays and Aaron was perceived, often rightly, as tense if not acrimonious, stemmed from their personalities — the self-centered Mays and the diplomatic Aaron.”

There’s no doubt, says Bryant, that “Mays exemplified the rare combination of physical, athletic genius, and a showman’s gift for timing. What went less reported and, as the years passed, became an uncomfortable, common lament was just how cruel and self-absorbed Mays could be.”

…Bryant cites a first-hand account from 1957, a United Press/Movietone News reporter named Reese Schoenfeld, that Mays ragged on Aaron from the sidelines while Henry was being interviewed in front of a TV camera: “How much they paying you, Hank? They ain’t payin’ you at all, Hank? Don’t you know we all get paid for this? You ruin it for the rest of us, Hank! You just fall off the turnip truck?”

While Aaron became more and more agitated, Mays laid it on thick: “You showin’ ‘em how you swing? We get paid three to four hundred dollars for this. You one dumb nigger!”

According to Bryant, “Henry’s reaction for the next fifty years — to diffuse, while not forgetting, the original offense — would be consistent with the shrewd but stern way Henry Aaron dealt with uncomfortable issues. The world did not need to know Henry’s feelings towards Mays, but Henry was not fooled by his adversary. Mays committed one of the great offenses against a person as proud as Henry: he insulted him, embarrassed him in front of other people, and did not treat him with respect.”

Say Hey: fight, fight!

One last thing about the Aaron book that’s interesting to me is that it was written by a black man. So many sports biographies of black and Latin players, from David Maraniss and Larry Tye, to James Hirsch and Brad Snyder, are written by white guys. That’s not a knock just a fact. And it’s not to say that race is enough to judge the merit of the final product. Reporting and writing is what makes a great book no matter if the author is white or black, man or woman. Bryant wasn’t magically granted access to Aaron’s inner circle because he’s black, he did so because he’s an ace reporter who has paid his dues.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what kind of sensitivity and empathy he brings to the subject that a white writer might not. For instance, when I was writing about Curt Flood, I had to imagine what it was like to be a black kid playing ball in the deep south in the mid-1950s. I was earnest, no doubt, but it was largely an intellectual excercise, one where, through reporting and research, I attempted to intuite something beyond my experience. That’s a distance Bryant doesn’t have to cover. It doesn’t necessarily mean his writing will be better, but it’s sure to be palpably different.

Moreover, I think great biographies often tell the story of the subject and in some way, even if it is largely subconscious, the story of the author as well. My Flood book was no great biography, it was a first book, but when I look back on it, I see that I was drawn to it for several personal reasons too. The first was to learn more about Flood (and to learn how to write a book) and share his story with a YA audience.  But I think my attraction to him had everything to do with my relationship with my father. Flood was talented and troubled, alcoholic. My need to find out more about him, to appreciate his accomplishments, and forgive his failings, was directly related to how I felt about my Old Man.

[The Tortoise and the Hare picture by Esoule]

Step Up Front

Howard Bryant’s first book Shut Out was a crisply-reported history of racism in Boston sports that suffered from, among other things, poor editing. Bryant made a huge leap forward as a writer with his second book, Juicing the Game. The prose was cleaner, more confident, the narrative structure, sound, the reporting still sharp. It was a real page-turner and a worthy sequel to John Helyar’s Lords of the Realm (full-disclosure–this book was edited by Cliff Corcoran).

Now, comes Bryant’s most ambitious project to date, the one where he aims to hang with the big boys, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. I give Bryant credit for his reach–he’s read all the right guys (Halberstam, Cramer, Montville, Haygood)–and has a compelling subject in Aaron. Bryant is Reggie here, it’s October, there are men on base, game is on the line, and all eyes are on him.

I just got my copy in the mail and am eager to tear into it. It is “of weight,” an exceedingly handsome-looking book.

In the meantime, dig this excerpt:

In 1959, the writer Roger Kahn would attempt to profile Henry for Sport magazine. He encountered the same frustration that sports editors of the Mobile newspapers had: Depending on the day, Henry would tell a different story about his origins, and, when placed side by side, no two stories ever exactly meshed.

Kahn was never quite sure if he found himself more frustrated by Henry’s early story or by Henry’s unwillingness to tell it. “I did not find him to be forthcoming,” Kahn recalled. “He wasn’t polished and really did not have the educational background at that time to deal with all of the things he was encountering in so short a time. If there was a word I would use to describe him then, it would be unsophisticated.”

Even as a teenager, Henry was expressing his lack of comfort with public life. On subjects both complex and innocuous, he would not easily divulge information, and he developed an early suspicion of anyone who took an interest in him. The reason, he would later say, was not the result of any personal trauma, but, rather, that of growing up in Mobile, where the black credo of survival was to focus on the work and let it speak for itself. It was a trait that was equal parts Her­bert and Stella. Not only did Stella remind him never to be ostentatious but Herbert and all black males in Mobile knew what could happen to a black man who drew too much attention to himself. “My grandfather used to say all the time, ‘They don’t want you to get too high. Know your place,’ ” recalled Henry’s nephew, Tommie Aaron, Jr. “I think a lot of that rubbed off on all of us.”

In fact, Henry would employ the recipe for star power best articu­lated in the old Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That, too, was fitting, because as a movie fan, Henry fell in love with Westerns. He did not volunteer much truth, so the scribes printed the legend. There was more than one drawback to Henry’s approach, however: As difficult as it was to piece together his early years, writers—virtually all of them white, carrying the prejudices against blacks that were common at the time—filled in the blanks for him, defined him, creating a cari­cature, from which he would not easily escape.

Center Stage

Book Excerpt

It wasn’t easy to select an excerpt from Howard Bryant’s new book “Juicing the Game,” because so many of them are excellent. But I think that one of the most insightful and powerful sections focuses on Barry Bonds, the greatest player and most controversial figure of his era. So for your summertime reading pleasure, please enjoy Chapter 17 from “Juicing the Game.”

By Howard Bryant

(Part One of Two)

The problem was Barry Bonds. The BALCO testimonies combined with the commotion and compromise that led to a strengthened drug policy, one baseball executive thought, provided baseball with a special opportunity. The sport could start fresh and begin a new era of enforceable drug testing while allowing the suspicion and doubt that plagued the previous decade to slowly recede into history. Bonds, however, would not allow baseball such a clean break from the steroid era.

The problem was that he was too good. To the discomfort of some baseball officials, Bonds would soar so high above anyone who ever played the game that no one would ever be allowed to forget this difficult decade, for he was no longer one of many great players, but arguably the best ever. Bonds already owned the single-season home run record and was set to break Hank Aaron’s career record in 2005 or 2006. In addition, between 2001 and 2004 he hit for four of the top twelve slugging percentages of all time, breaking Babe Ruth’s eighty-one-year-old record in 2001, and, over the same four seasons, recorded four of the top eleven on-base percentages of all-time, breaking Ted Williams’s single season record in 2002 and then demolishing his own record by becoming the first man to reach base more than 60 percent of the time over a full season in 2004.

The result was a bitter irony to that spoke to the odd and unprecedented state of baseball: Instead of celebrating the greatest player the sport had ever produced, numerous baseball officials entered 2005 lamenting the notion that they were being handcuffed by him. Bonds stood as the symbol of the tainted era, of its bitter contradictions and great consequences. Jason Giambi’s was a more open scandal, but Bonds was more emblematic of the larger complexities. If baseball suffered from the conflict of reaping the benefits of high attendance and unprecedented mass appeal while its players individually fought the taint of illegitimacy, then Bonds’ continued ascension, first past his peers and then past every iconic standard in the game’s history, served as an eternal reminder of all the sport did not do to protect its integrity when it had the opportunity. By shattering Mays, eclipsing Ruth, outdistancing Aaron, and putting the single-season home run record even further out of reach, Bonds and the era in which he played would always be present.

Thus, the enormous specter of Barry Bonds loomed, not because of his guilt or his innocence, but precisely because of the impossible question of how much of his phenomenal achievement (and by extension the feats of his peers) was real, how much was due to his use of anabolic substances, and how no one, for or against, friend or foe, could ever discuss the greatest player of his generation or the greatest records in the sport without in turn discussing the drugs that contributed to them. Not only would the decade from 1994 to 2004 be forever associated with steroids, but so, too, would the record books. There would be no escape, either for Barry Bonds or the sport that made him famous.

(more…)

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver