Writing About Sports

Bats and Stats is expanding its focus. Included in this expansion will be articles about sportswriting — or as Glenn Stout, who was editor for the Best American Sports Writing series for 30 years, views it — sports writing, the difference between sportswriting and sports writing subtle but significant.

The audience will, hopefully, expand beyond those who enjoy reading about sports to include students eager to learn how to write about sports and teachers interested in using sports as a writing enabler.

To start on this journey, I will share and examine one of Charles P. Pierce’s stories. Pierce’s background is both varied and extensive. Among his achievements is his sports stories have been published in the Best American Sports Writing series nine times, placing him fifth on its most often published list.

His story, “Bad Blood Takes Center Stage in Bruins-Leafs as Suspension Lingers,”  was published in Sports Illustrated on April 14, 2019. It is unique for a sports story in that it is divided into three sections.

In one of the best opening paragraphs I have seen in journalistic writing, let alone sportswriting, Charles Pierce wrote this about the second game of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs:

In the single most predictable development in the National Hockey League since the Atlanta Thrashers decamped for Anywhere Else, winding up in Winnipeg, the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs decided that there had been entirely too much fast skating and open-ice action in the first game of their Stanley Cup playoff series. So Boston came out throwing the Maple Leafs around like a autumn thunderstorm. The Leafs responded rather in kind and, by the time it was all over but the hum of the MRI machines, the Bruins had put Toronto away, 4-1, evening the series at a game apiece, and instilling in it the requisite amount of ill-feeling and bad-blood that gives life and meaning to a playoff series.

If you are a fan, savor it, a journalism student, learn from it, a writing teacher, share it.

Not only does Pierce start his piece with a tempting appetizer, but in his second sentence he sweetens it with this quote:

“Everybody has to pull on the rope,” said Boston defenseman Charlie McCoy. “We have to play to our identity.”

That quote is like the number two hitter in a baseball lineup. The leadoff batter’s job is to get on base. The number two batter’s role is to advance the leadoff batter when he gets on base, thus increasing their team’s chances of scoring. Further, when the first batter gets on base and the second batter is at the plate, suspense mounts as more is at stake. 

Writing-wise, with his quote Pierce wants to increase reader involvement. “Pull on the rope” is a metaphor that is knotted to the team’s identity.

Identity is an underestimated — and underused — concept in sportswriting today. Just as individuals have identities, so do teams. And in game one, Boston announced their identity via their actions — as Pierce said at the start of his next paragraph: “Which the Bruins did almost from the moment the puck first hit the ice.” 

English teachers: Pierce is asserting it is okay to start a “sentence” with which, which automatically makes it a sentence fragment. By doing that, he is also sharing an aspect of his identity. It is a stylistic intervention seen elsewhere in his writing, e.g., his piece “A Big Game” contains these two sentences: ”I am a sucker for a Big Game. Which is not necessarily the same as a Championship Game.”

His sportswriting then moves beyond just giving a blow by blow account of the game action. He places his words within the context of establishing identity, thus enlarging his writing’s scope.

To add flavor to his thoughts, Pierce engages in personification, humanizing the puck: “After taking a rather ordinary turn behind the Toronto goal, Maple Leaf winger William Nylander rather casually started up ice only to leave the puck behind, lying there flat and lonely at the left post.”

Pierce ups the excitement by zooming in on the “running battle between Boston’s Jake DeBrusk and Toronto’s Nazem Kadri.” About Kadri, Pierce wrote, he “has something of a rap sheet trailing him,” Pierce’s words dancing in a metaphorical ballroom. After delving into their acts of violence, using details such as “DeBrusk dropped Nadri in open ice with a knee to his knee” to liven their interaction, Pierce, a master of paragraph shifts, segues seamlessly from 2019 to “April 2, 1969, 50 years ago,” another time when Boston and Toronto battled in a Stanley Cup series.

In that section, about that series first game Pierce wrote , “A rookie defenseman named Pat Quinn lined Orr up and laid him out, cold, with a sledgehammer of an elbow”; then started the next paragraph with “The old Boston Garden went completely insane. The league’s director of officials was in attendance and is said to have whispered a silent prayer for Orr to get up, lest nobody get out of the building alive.”

Good writers not only tell, they also show, deepen their readers experience by situating them within its physical setting, into a place where they can hear silent prayers and see the swirling fists, grabbing hands, and sliding feet. 

And then, just when readers are fully immersed in the aftermath of the Orr drama, Pierce slams a foot down on his writing brake, jumps into his time machine and returns to 2019, barely leaving readers time to catch their breath. 

Though Pierce does not elaborate on his Kadri comment, he slows the pace and shares his take on the NHL’s 2019 attitude toward fighting, including 41 words in a mention of baseball’s, football’s, and basketball’s fighting history, barely enough to pique a reader’s interest in exploring that further. 

I doubt the NHL’s leadership took his words seriously then as it still does not seem to take fighting seriously now. 

Money is still the monster that dictates the NHL’s moves.

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