QUEENS, NY—Keeping in line with EOI’s pledge to be as eclectic a sports blog as possible, we bring you our reading and viewing suggestions for those lazy, hazy dog-days of summer ahead.
As for books, I sifted through my memory banks for a hockey-based novel, novella, short story, or poem of similar significance to the wonderful books mentioned below that go about representing their respective sport responsibly and intelligently, but came up empty.
Hockey films didn’t fare that much better, aside from one prominent documentary that is both relevant and compelling enough to make the cut. And if you’re not familiar with ESPN’s 30 for 30, then use this summer and your Netflix account to bring yourself up to speed.
So, below is my personal quick list of those films and books—followed by a rationale behind the choice—I would wholeheartedly recommend to people whom I respect, hoping to share with them some of the enlightenment garnered by these works.
So, may these recommendations make your summer that much more memorable and meaningful.
And if you know of any great hockey tales out there, by all means shoot us a commentary at the end of this article.
Canadian readership, I defer to your better wisdom.
Take care and thank you all for your continued support.
- The Natural by Bernard Malamud
Considering the recent MLB Human Growth Hormone scandal involving a Miami Health Clinic and 20 currently active baseball stars, Bernard Malamud’s classic cautionary (and equally prophetic) tale about the greed underpinning America’s pastime helps to organize a baseball fan’s frustration with this once iconic sport. At the core of the plot is one Roy Hobbs, and not the one immortalized by Robert Redford, but one very much overshadowed by arrogance, naivety, and self-righteousness. Think of the ‘real’ Hobbs as an amalgamation of Pete Rose, Doc Gooden, and Alex Rodriguez. Malamud equips his novel’s protagonist with a voracious appetite for food to help illuminate the intended juxtaposition between a bloated and washed up ballplayer and an equally turgid country and its game at this moment in history. Uncanny it is, however, to see just how spot-on Malamud’s critiques, written during the 1950s, accurately deconstruct the woes that continue tarnishing the game. The greatest sports novel I’ve ever read, by one of America’s great novelists of all time.
- How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer
No other book does more to solidify the belief that globalization is an unavoidable reality than Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains. Any serious sports fan, especially Soccer fans, need to absorb this book’s magnificent concept concerning the evolution of one particular ‘global’ sport coinciding with the emergence of a border-less world in which religion, culture, and a people, commingle (collide, if you’re a pessimist) to create hybrid societies (masked as multicultural exercises) that breed a simultaneous blend of cultural tolerance with equal parts discontent. But more directly, globalization helped spawn slews of soccer experiments that filled organizations with players that 50 to 60 years ago would have assuredly never met, let alone played alongside one another. Unfortunately, the price of soccer’s worldwide expansion is exorbitant ticket prices, racism, and corruption, as clubs exchange integrity and purity in pursuit of millions upon millions of Euros. The most engrossing history of modern-day soccer available on the market, and quite frankly, an eye-opening experience. Explains why soccer will always dominate the world market for better or worse.
- Among the Thugs by Bill Buford
Another soccer book and my choice for the quintessential example of sports reportage published in the past few decades, one that merges curiosity with concision, corrals passion with professionalism at the highest of levels. Bill Buford, former editor for Granta magazine, goes on a year’s long journey into the heart of UK ‘football’ hooliganism that ran rampant in the 80s, and how the emergence of ‘globalization’ (there’s that word again) and the importation of non-English players to English clubs, among other nuances, changed the cultural and political and social landscape of an entire country. Buford also uncovers how said hooligans use soccer as an escape from the poverty and angst defining their very existence, and how embracing a ‘club’ is the equivalent of joining a street gang. Sure to awaken all who read it to the idea that the rabid fan is indeed a special breed of person.
- *Honorable Mentions: Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Eduardo Galeano; The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke; Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby; Orr: My Story by Bobby Orr;
Eduardo Galeano’s book is a quick but incredibly erudite approach to soccer’s history as an altogether human experience and one of the few remaining unifying principles left on earth; Peter Handke’s Goalie examines a professional athlete’s downward spiral into oblivion after a fateful ‘error’ on the pitch sends the protagonist into emotional disarray that leads to murder; Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is one man’s obsession with a sport and the club that keeps breaking his heart, until one year things take a turn for the intriguing–a warm and honest approach to any sport and a must for every New York Islanders fan (ignore both film versions); in light of the Boston Bruins destruction of the Pittsburgh Penguins, the great Bobby Orr is coming out with an autobiography this October–a sure-fire bestseller in Massachusetts and just in time for the new season.
- ESPN’s 30/30: Kings Ransom – Directed by Peter Berg
Solid full-feature documentary on the epic trade that saw Wayne Gretzky go to the Los Angeles Kings, and reignite the passion for hockey in the state of California. But more importantly, director Peter Berg shows the crossroads at which hockey found itself in the late 80s – early 90s: a game that was attempting to compete financially against other entrenched professional sporting events such as baseball, football, and basketball. Moreover, the film invests time in investigating the aftermath that loomed in Edmonton after she lost her iconic son to the almighty dollar, and how both city and club have never been the same.
- Raging Bull – Directed by Martin Scorsese
Boxing movie par excellence and one of Martin Scorsese’s finest films ever. Follow Jake LaMotta as he pummels his way through family, friends, and opponents alike to attain some semblance of self-actualization. If you haven’t seen this film, you’re doing yourself a grave disservice. Gruesome in its portrayal of boxing violence, as each blow given and taken by LaMotta is heard with utter clarity. Raging Bull is a wonderful marriage of the personal and the professional, and the reason why we should never embrace sports figures as heroes–a flawed man portrayed flawlessly by Robert DeNiro.
- Eight Men Out – Directed by John Sayles
Not the greatest of films, per say, but nevertheless makes my top three in both its use of atmosphere and attitude. I’m a sucker for period pieces, especially those that take us back to when a country and its game was in the midst of finding itself. Aside from the aforementioned, I’m also equally prone to falling for origin stories, and Eight Men Out traces for all us ‘former’ baseball fans the seeds of discontent and greed that continues to define the game 100 years later. The early 20th century saw corruption at the bookmaking level, where gangsters were the ones baiting the players, but by 1999 and decades thereafter, we see players overwrought and overrun with an appetite that rivaled any “Mustache Pete” from back in the day.
- *Honorable Mentioned: ESPN 30/30: The Two Escobars –Directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist
The Two Escobars directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist is my all-time favorite 30/30 film, but I didn’t include it in the list above so as to avoid overrunning my article with soccer. But in short, the Zimbalist brothers take a closer look at the rise and fall of the 1994 Colombian National Soccer team, headed by Carlos “Pibe” Valderrama and defender Andres Escobar, and the pressures of playing in and for a country fueled by drug money and ruled over by merciless drug lords, such as the infamous Pablo Escobar. The USA soccer team would launch itself onto the world scene because of its victory against this very same doomed Colombian team, a club once heralded by the great Pele as his pick for World Cup champion that year.