On Sports

Perspiration - and inspiration

By Bill Littlefield
Globe Correspondent / November 1, 2009

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Maybe you are a “Slapshot’’ enthusiast, or maybe you’re a “Raging Bull’’ devotee (because Robert De Niro put on all that weight to play Jake LaMotta), or maybe you don’t feel any sports movie can touch “A League of Their Own.’’

According to Ray Didinger and Glen Macnow, who created “The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies,’’ “Rocky’’ is No. 1 - and not, they swear, just because they are Philadelphians.

Their choice is as witless as it is parochial. How can anybody value so highly a movie in which the punches sound like barely muffled explosions? And, while I’m at it, what kind of idiot - or, in this case, idiots - ranks 48 sports-related movies, among them “Jim Thorpe, All-American,’’ ahead of “Bend It Like Beckham’’?

So this book is great fun. And it’s not just a list of movies. The authors have also polled famous or notorious people to discover their favorites. Otherwise we’d never have known that Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles found “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh’’ inspirational.

The first hint that Jack Ridl’s “Losing Season’’ isn’t just another collection of poems about a sport comes with the image in his book’s first entry, “Losing Season: Everybody Talks.’’

“It’s the way December/ turns to March. . . ./ It’s/ not making the coffee,/ not saying good morning/ anymore, not fixing/ the dent in your car, / the draft under the door,/ the difference between/ the two of you.

Ridl’s father was a college basketball coach whose teams won much more often than they lost, but it was the losses that stuck with the coach’s son. When his team won, coach Ridl was relieved rather than happy. Or at least that’s the way his son recalls the weather of his childhood. When his team lost - well, those were the days that inspired, many years later, poems like “Coach Dreams of Being on Vacation,’’ which begins with the coach in his beach chair, “watching the Atlantic roll itself toward his toes,’’ and ends with the screeches of the seagulls sounding as if they were heckling: “You’re a bum, Coach. You’re a lousy bum.’’

One of the virtues of “Losing Season’’ is the accessibility of the poems. They are not simple, because they are about profound and universal subjects: family, fleeting moments of understanding and occasional grace, diminishing skills, and brave gestures against the stubborn inclination of the world to be meaningless or worse. But these poems are powerful in part because they are not puzzles. Ridl has no interest in showing off. His images are illuminating rather than cryptic. He has the confidence to let them out in public without requiring them to dress up.

“K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain’’ presents Ed Viesturs’s take on the passion that has ruled most of his life. No American has climbed as many of the most daunting peaks on the planet as Viesturs has, and certainly his achievements have earned him the right to say something about where he has been and what he has done.

It’s not surprising that Viesturs is inclined to celebrate these achievements, which he attributes to his own determination to remain relatively cautious within a preposterously dangerous context rife with uninformed decisions and foolhardy choices, not to mention avalanches. His conviction is that most of the deaths that have occurred on the mountains he has climbed are attributable to bad judgment on the part of expedition leaders who promised their clients a trip to the top, even when weather, exhaustion, oxygen-deprivation, and the clock have conspired against that triumph. This is not a novel conclusion, though it’s no doubt worth reinforcing. Viesturs maintains that climbers must sometimes be willing to accept that summiting is not worth the risk, in which cases they should embrace the wisdom of climbing down and coming back another day. Of course, it’s easier to give and to take this advice if you’ve already climbed all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks and scaled Mount Everest multiple times.

“The Opposite Field’’ is the memoir of a man who has won two Pulitzer Prizes. While working for the L.A. Times, he wrote about gangs, drugs, immigration, and prisons. So it’s intriguing that Jesse Katz should have chosen to structure his memoir around his days as a Little League baseball coach and league commissioner.

Katz’s decision to coach his son’s team enabled him to know the multiethnic community in which he lived on levels that he might never have discovered as a reporter. Then, when it seemed the league might dissolve for lack of leadership, Katz stepped in as commissioner, thereby earning the gratitude of some parents and the fierce enmity of others. As one might expect from a writer as gifted and honest as Katz, “The Opposite Field’’ is more about fatherhood, growing up, and the success and failure of people trying to establish and maintain a community than it is about baseball. It is a fine and worthy self-examination of a fellow determined to do the best he can.

Bill Littlefield hosts National Public Radio’s “Only a Game.’’ His most recent book is also titled “Only a Game.’’

By Ray Didinger and Glen Macnow
Running, 352 pp., illustrated, paperback, $19.95

By Jack Ridl
Cavankerry, 70 pp., paperback, $16

K2: Life and Death on the World’s Most Dangerous Mountain
By Ed Viesturs and David Roberts
Broadway, 352 pp., illustrated, $26

By Jesse Katz
Crown, 352pp., $25

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