Where have all the great sports books gone?
There's a strange phenomenon in sports books these days. They can't just describe an athlete's career. Instead, they have to put him on the couch and figure out how his childhood issues affect his ability to play.
Or they can't just tell a story of a player, a coach or a team. Instead, the story must change the sport, or even better, society at large, forever.
So much significance, so little fun.
Consider these recent titles:
Summer of '68: The Season That Changed Baseball, and America Forever
The Team That Forever Changed Baseball in America, the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers
The Match: The Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever
The Glory Game: How the 1958 NFL Championship Changed Football Forever
Lombardi and Landry: How Two of Pro Football's Greatest Coaches Launched Their Legends and Changed the Game Forever
Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever
Bushville Wins!: The Wild Saga of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and the Screwballs, Sluggers, and Beer Swiggers Who Canned the New York Yankees and Changed Baseball
See the pattern?
Why can't publishers just publish a book without investing so much meaning in every pitch, every pass, every putt? It's only a game, right?
People love reading sports books for the drama they offer, the excitement and the vicarious thrill of competing at the highest level. Some of the best books, period, are sports books. (Stick around for some examples.)
There have been three phases of sports books. The first was The Hagiography Era, in which ballplayers were described in saintly terms and there was no mention of women or booze, let alone steroids or HGH. This period abruptly ended with the publication of Jim Bouton's Ball Four in 1971. That book, still as fabulously funny and profane as ever, told the truth about ballplayers' lives -- Mickey Mantle leading teammates on the roof of the Shoreham Hotel to peek in women's windows; a player reminding teammates, after a road trip and about to meet their wives, "Don't forget to look horny, men"; a pitcher doing an imitation in the back of the bus of Donald Duck about to reach orgasm.
Those were the days.
So the second phase of sports books was The Era Of Cheerful Depravity, which began with Ball Four and ended with another game-changer, the epic memoir Open, by Andre Agassi.
Agassi's life is a painfully open book -- his childhood struggles with his father's dominance; his coaches' destructive tactics; his relationship problems; the physical pain he endured. Open is the gold standard of modern sports books, the book by which all other sports books must be reckoned.
The downside is that Open inaugurated the third era of sports books -- The Era Of Suffocating Significance. Hence the game, team or athlete that changed the sport, the nation or the Solar System. Hence the disquieting tendency, in our shameless age, of athletes to let it all hang out regarding all manner of childhood abuse, physical deformity or marital blundering.
There are exceptions, of course. Harvey Araton's Driving Mr. Berra, which tells of the tender friendship between the baseball legend and his annual spring training chauffeur, Yankees star pitcher Ron Guidry, is a gem. So is Hank Haney's analysis of Tiger Woods' golf game and tortured psyche, The Big Miss. Ditto Lance Armstrong's War by Daniel Coyle and Sunday Money by Jeff MacGregor on NASCAR. And if you thought Moneyball and The Blind Side were phenomenal movies, the eponymous books by Michael Lewis are even better.
(For your deeper reading pleasure, you can find my Amazon list of best sports books here.)
Maybe the publishers can abandon the Oprah-inspired navel-gazing and ponderous searches for cosmic significance. Sports books are an opportunity to discover truths about the human spirit revealed when people push themselves past their perceived limits and, in the words of the poet John Gillespie Magee, Jr., "Break the surly bonds of earth and touch the face of God." That's all the significance needed.
So here's a plea to publishers from a guy who's written with a bunch of athletes and broadcasters (Dave Winfield, Pat Summerall, Chad Hennings, Doug Christie and Chris Myers, to name a few): Just keep your eye on the ball. Tell a story without needing to broaden out its meaning to encompass truth, justice and the American Way. The concept of sports doesn't need embellishment. It's enough in and of itself.
As Yogi's Yankee manager Casey Stengel once asked, "Can't anybody here play this game?"
New York Times best selling author Michael Levin runs BusinessGhost, Inc., America's leading provider of ghostwritten books.