Finding romance in empty ballparks

Anyone with an ounce of taste has been reading one American writer in particular for the last couple of years.

John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection of non-fiction pieces, Pulphead, was published to rave reviews and should feature on your bookshelf, where it ought to be joined by his first book, which has been re-issued.

Blood Horses has an immediately attractive sub-title for this corner of the newspaper: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son.

Add in the fact that Sullivan acknowledges the Irish version of his name in the book — O Suilleabhain — and its applicability to his father, who had only one eye, not to mention the fact that Sullivan jr actually lived in Cork for six months... well, we just had to pick up the phone.

“That’s correct, I worked in Kethners restaurant in Cork, I had a great time,” says Sullivan with that distinctive Southern courtesy.

“My grandparents emigrated to the US from Bantry, so that’s where the roots are.”

Sullivan’s book offers an affectionate portrait of his father, whose carelessness with his health led to an early death.

In his prime, however, Sullivan pere was a gifted sportswriter whose talents attracted an odd tribute: the alternative weekly carried a feature called ‘The Sully’, which reproduced one of the sportswriter’s gems each week (the example used in the book itself is the description of a baseball manager “sounding very much like a man about to have his face savagely bitten”.)

“He was bothered by it,” says his son.

“He was touchy about his writing in a way I understand better now I’ve dealt with a little scrutiny myself. Back then I didn’t know what it was like to have people reading you and commenting on you.

“I don’t think it was the criticism, I think it was the attention per se. And I get that. For a writer it’s much easier and more pleasant if people consent to pretend you don’t write at all.”

Sullivan sketches a vivid and engaging picture of his father fighting deadlines in empty ballparks. Romantic and realistic at the same time.

“A lot of my childhood was spent observing his writing life from inside the bubble of my writing life — which sounds ridiculous, because I was only nine years old,” says Sullivan.

“Even though the narrative of his life had some regret and some frustration in it, I think he also felt very lucky to be doing what he was doing, and loved it — or had moments of loving it.

“I liked watching him, and liked the romance of it, that old newspaper culture. I call it old because it belongs to my childhood, though I’m sure it still exists.”

Romance, frustration and regret. Feeling lucky and moments of love. Sounds like sportswriting all right.

* Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son, by John Jeremiah Sullivan is published by Yellow Jersey Press.

Sports writing at the touch of a button

“The 90 minutes concept is something we’ve been working on for a while,” says Neil White of Backpage Press.

“We were interested in the potential and possibilities of digital publishing and at the same time there seems to have been a boom in long-form journalism from websites like The Blizzard and Grantland.

“We thought there might be some middle ground between those long pieces and books of 80,000 words, as we felt there were a lot of stories that mightn’t stretch to an 80,000 word book.

“So we wondered if people would be interested in, say, a 10,000 word e-book that you could read in about 90 minutes, or the length of your morning commute and the trip home when you’re finished work.”

Certainly some of White’s opening titles fit that bill. This week they launch a couple of tempting titles, including an in-depth look at the Argentinian derby, Boca Juniors versus River Plate.

“Superclasico is a good example,” says White.

“The format gives you a chance to examine in detail a match, a fight, an event, and this one gives Joel Richards, who’s lived in Buenos Aires for some time, a chance to explore this in detail.

“The idea is to give you a ticket to the game, and Joel gives you a guide to the city, the history of the fixture, the formation of the clubs, a bit of Maradona, a bit of Riquelme, so you have a huge context.”

Then there’s Barry Whyte’s Making the Weight: Boxing’s Lethal Secret, which deals with the dangers inherent in the sport’s 24-hour weigh-in. “Again, this isn’t something that might stretch to a 300-page book, but it’s a fascinating topic, and Barry gets into the detail of dehydration and the dangers of boxers starving themselves to make weight before they stuff themselves before a fight. It’s a hugely interesting topic and we’re hoping it finds a readership, obviously, but that it also starts a conversation on this matter.

“This one certainly has something to say on an unjustly neglected subject.”

The Superclasico is on this weekend, so the download is available from Friday May 3. Keep an eye out for the others by visiting and following @BackPagePress.

You won’t regret it.

Economists will see the neatness

Last week Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund dished out roddings to the pride of Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively.

There’s been a good deal of debate as to the significance of the results for the beautiful game “going forward”, as they say, but people seem to be forgetting one salient fact about Spain.

The day after the Dortmund game, The Guardian carried some sobering facts about the Spanish economy: “Spain’s unemployment rate reached 27% in the first quarter of this year, with more than six million unemployed for the first time ever,” wrote Giles Tremlett, who added this via Twitter: “57% of under-25s jobless. Cadiz province 42%. 1.9m homes receive no wage.”

Although professional footballers remain insulated from such realities — Lionel Messi allegedly bought his neighbour’s house recently just for privacy — that kind of economic meltdown has ramifications for the business end of football clubs. The rumble of distant thunder about the economic well-being of many Spanish clubs may be replaced by flashes of lightning soon, with last week’s Champions League results suggesting there’ll be little solace available on the field of play.

The fact that German clubs dished out the punishment, of course, shows the kind of cosmic neatness that economists will appreciate, if nobody else does.

Owens proves convenient target

The complaints weren’t long in coming. Within seconds of Nigel Owens’ mistaken call late on in Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final in Montpellier, the tweets and grumbles began to rumble.

Should never referee again, wouldn’t dare show his face in Thomond Park for a game. You know the drill.

It’s unfair always to reduce a game to its final play or two. Over the seventy, eighty or ninety minutes in various codes there are a million options considered and a thousand decisions made. In the bitter afterglow of a narrow loss it’s only natural to lash out at a convenient target, and they don’t come more convenient than the man with the whistle, no matter what the sport is.

That doesn’t make the criticism correct, though. It was unfair to lay the blame at the Welshman’s door for Munster’s defeat. Unpalatable though it may be, he wasn’t the reason Munster lost. I’m sure he’ll referee again And show his face in Thomond Park.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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