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The Sporting Life 

SI shows off its style and history

The week before George Plimpton's death on September 26, the 76-year-old literary lion, in a telephone interview from his New York offices, eagerly recounted his many years as a contributor to Sports Illustrated. Most famous was his April 1, 1985, chronicle of a dazzling, baffling New York Mets pitcher named Sidd Finch.

Guarded by canvas flaps surrounding a pitcher's mound and batter's box at a spring training facility in Florida, Finch, as Plimpton told it, was threatening to alter baseball history during the spring of 1985 -- if only he could be persuaded to pursue a big-league career fulltime. A JUGS gun, used to gauge the speed of pitches, recorded Finch's fastball at 168 miles per hour that same spring.

Finch also had, well, a few eccentricities. His college roommate recounted for Plimpton the wunderkind hurler sleeping on the floor in the dormitory, leaving a woven native carpet, made of yak fur, untouched on his bed. The Mets prospect had a proclivity for playing mournful passages on his trusty French horn, as well.

To Plimpton's eternal delight, millions of readers did not find Finch's story far-fetched; in fact, they savored each of the fabulous fabulist's concoctions. When word trickled out that the entire article was a playful April Fool's Day ruse, the magazine received thousands of irate letters from duped readers.

"I haven't found many opportunities to fool six million readers before or since," Plimpton told me. "It was really quite extraordinary. I later had one man tell me he had actually met Sidd Finch, which seems rather an impossible thing to do."

Plimpton's immortal tale -- which would be impossible today, as, no doubt, a website would have deconstructed the story before it hit the newsstands -- is part of an irresistible new Sports Illustrated anthology. Fifty Years of Great Writing: 1954-2004 is a collection of the sports weekly's best work, part of the magazine's ongoing, year-long 50th anniversary celebration.

For avid readers of Sports Illustrated, who now number 20 million weekly, part of SI's charm is debating its merits. It has become an institution in the culture of sports and, as such, must be constantly reassessed and compared with its earlier incarnations. SI, while still a purveyor of snappy writing and in-depth profiles and essays, now also delivers soundbite accounts through much of its pages.

It boasts a talented staff of expert writers (Gary Smith, the master of the 10,000-word profile, for example), while catering to the much-blurred line between sports and entertainment (Bill Scheft, David Letterman's monologue writer, has a weekly, and wildly erratic, column). As with TV, professional football gulps prodigious attention.

"There's a part of me that wishes it was like it used to be," says Frank Deford, an SI staffer off and on since 1962. "You have to look on the magazine the same way you look on sports in general: What was there was good and great and wonderful, and I'm glad I was a part of it, but life moves on."

Financially, the magazine remains every bit as healthy as Dan Jenkins' bar tabs. Last year, Sports Illustrated sold more than $640 million worth of advertising with paid circulation of 3.27 million. The arrival of Scheft and the increased number of celebrity items (Q&A's with Jon Bon Jovi on football, P. Diddy on training for a marathon) reflect uneasiness with SI's Baby Boomer image, and competition from the hipper ESPN magazine.

Still, for every time I find myself slinging an issue across the living room in disgust over Paul Zimmerman's anachronistic ritual of weekly NFL picks, along comes a delightful Roy Blount Jr. meditation on the history of the triple.

The magazine offers fewer surprises in terms of coverage (Kenny Moore's 1990 account of what makes Kenyan runners so successful would have a tough time displacing LeBron James today), but still offers lengthy, insightful portraits more than any other sports publication.

As Deford points out, most people don't sit around reading old magazines of any kind. Magazines are inherently contemporary, a form of disposable art. True, but Fifty Years of Great Writing proves there are yet sterling examples of timeless writing tucked between the au courant nuggets. The collection includes Deford, of course, as well as dependable bylines from Ron Fimrite, Alexander Wolff, William Nack and John Underwood.

The occasional contributors aren't shabby, either. John Steinbeck offers a sporting take on why he can't document the sporting world, tossing off an enviable essay with effortless elan. William Faulkner delivers a perfectly Faulknerian take on the Kentucky Derby in 1955, appropriately titled, "Kentucky: May: Saturday." Several days at Churchill Downs leave the Mississippi novelist ever brilliant in describing the Run for the Roses with inscrutable, circumlocutory insight:

We who watched have seen too much; expectation, the glandular pressure, has been too high to long endure; it is evening, not only of the day but the emotional capacity too; Boots and Saddles will sound twice more and condensations of light and movement will go through the motions of horses and jockeys again. But they will run as though in a dream, toward anticlimax; we must turn away now for a little time, even if only to assimilate, get used to living with what we have seen and experienced.

Jim Harrison and Wallace Stegner prove prescient with telling indictments of poachers and national parks stretched far beyond repose, or even reasonable limits.

The sportswriting palindrome, Mark Kram, details the Thrilla in Manila Ali-Frazier bout in 1975. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos make cameo appearances but, as is always the case with Ali, the Great One demands the spotlight. Between rounds, he tells his ring manager, "Just another's day work. I'm gonna put a whuppin' on this nigger's head."

Two decades later, Richard Hoffer captures a less-engaging but still captivating heavyweight fighter, Mike Tyson. Based on Hoffer's diligent reporting, Tyson's sad saga reveals the co-conspirators in his self-immolation: Tyson the thug, and us, the eager voyeurs of Tyson's endless depredation and denigration.

Such a consecration of alliteration leads us to the static-cling coiffure and equally electric verbal volleys of boxing's most notorious and loquacious promoter, Don King. Kram crams so many revelatory quotes and grandiloquent disquisitions (King's not the author's) into his account ("I am quintessential!") that it becomes both unsurprising and shocking that King is still at it. Just after this year's World Series, for example, King offered some Sunshine State real estate to the Florida Marlins for a proposed ballpark and, yes, entertainment destination rivaling ... well, whaddaya got?

As with the weekly magazine, the Sports Illustrated anthology must be judged for what it doesn't include as well as for what it does. In other words, what this reviewer, a 25-year subscriber, wanted in the book, but didn't find.

Start with Ed Hinton's profile of Jimmy Johnson, a portrait of 1990s NFL coaching as sharp as Aikman-to-Irvin. Gary Smith's jaw-dropping travels with Pat Summitt, the Tennessee women's basketball coach who kept recruiting while in early labor, should be here, as well. And no Peter Gammons? His depiction of the 1986 World Series' immortal Game 6 -- Bill Buckner, anyone? -- merits inclusion.

It's hard to complain much, since the anthology's 558 pages breeze past with alarming speed. Don DeLillo captures the essence of the weekend gambler, flummoxed by point spreads and incongruous last-second lapses. John Ed Bradley, a former LSU footballer, returns to his college coach's deathbed and both men find consolation disparaging a face-mask penalty called 23 years earlier.

Distant memory brings us to Scotland. For those used to recycled Jenkins anecdotes in Golf Digest, it's worth exploring the days when he earned the reputation he now coasts on. A 1978 trip to Scotland's golf shrines -- the Royal & Ancient, Troon, Carnoustie, Turnberry and more -- makes mashies, neblicks, gorse and whin as lively as a round (golf or drinks, your choice) with John Daly.

Of the more recent contributors, Rick Reilly, the last-page columnist, is an obvious favorite. He sometimes trips over his endless analogies, but Reilly's reliable excellence is, to borrow from John Updike, Tiger Woodsian.

Deford, appropriately, closes the collection, a Baltimore boy writing about the death of a Baltimore hero (Johnny Unitas). It was Unitas and the Colts and the 1958 championship game that made pro football colossal and set the path for big-time sports. None of which mattered to Deford. For Deford, the crew-cut quarterback was a hero: "We would talk about Johnny U. the way most men talk about caressing beautiful women."

Or, perhaps, the way George Plimpton talked about fooling six million readers, armed only with a fictitious French horn player and a 168-mile-an-hour fastball.

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