‘The Possibility of Joy’

Sports stories from the EthnoTraveler archive

By / March 2018

One of the few remaining places to find literary essays in mainstream American newspapers is the Sunday Review section of the Sunday New York Times. They do not surface every week. Some weeks the Review (which has been called by various names through the years) is little more than a glorified op-ed page, a slightly polished transcript of typical cable news blather, and yet from time to time, say once every three weeks, amidst the blustery polemics from columnists and policy wonks, there it is, like a cleft between the crosswinds, a piece of writing utterly unsanctioned by the news cycle: an essay among the invectives.

Whenever I see one, I tend to cut it out (with scissors) and put it on file. Perhaps I want to prove to future generations that this kind of writing actually existed. Perhaps I have an emotional attachment to print newspapers, to the feel of the page between my ink-ashed fingers. Whatever the case, my file, a manila folder in a cardboard box in the office that doubles as my bedroom, overspills. There’s John Banville on “The Grim Good Cheer of the Irish.” There’s Pico Iyer on “The Joy of Quiet,” Ann Patchett on book tours, Frederick Seidel on motorcycles.

It could make for a half-decent anthology, my collection of cutouts. Call it “Last Newspaper Essays Alive!” In such an imaginary volume, here is what I know: I would reserve prime real estate for the Irish-American writer Colum McCann’s dazzling “What Baseball Does to the Soul.”

Published on March 30, 2012, on the cusp of Major League Baseball’s opening day, the essay has McCann, a Dubliner who has been living in New York since 1984, circling around a late-inning Alex Rodriguez homerun from a previous October that, as he writes in the opening passage, brings to mind “a curveball from the past.”

The curveball he has in mind is a trip across the Irish Sea to catch a Liverpool soccer match with his father in 1975. To hear McCann tell it, the game itself, which ended in a draw, was unremarkable. But the event that follows, a surprise visit to meet his grandfather (“a fabulous ruin,” “a man given to the Irish trinity of drink and song and exile”), sets McCann on a mental flight to try and reconcile aging, fatherhood, and citizenship with the drama of sports.

At surface level, the essay is a love letter to the Yankees (“there is always call for a miracle”), to Yankees Stadium (“the huge swell of diamond green”), to Yankees fans (“Siddown. Shaddup. Fuhgeddaboudit”). But McCann, a National Book Award-winning novelist, transforms it into something more transcendent. The essay is studded with enough verifiable detail (box scores, snatches of play by play) to appease prickly sports fans and fact-checkers. But McCann also brings to it the kind of narrative pizzazz and scene setting characteristic of his finest fiction. Within scenes, he wields a kind of staccato lyricism redolent, on the one hand, of the verse of Seamus Heaney, a poet McCann has said he can never get enough of, and on the other the percussive rhythms of baseball itself, the smack of balled fists in leather mits, the crack of sliders against wooden bats.

At EthnoTraveler, we’ve published many sports stories through the years. From personal essays about Djiboutian marathon running, profiles of Uzbek arm-wrestlers, reporting about Turkey’s female hockey teams, and memoirs of Italian football glory, these pieces testify to the art, cultural function, and personal necessity of play. They showcase writers who are curious, empathetic, and amazed. Sentence by sentence, they create, as McCann writes about baseball, “the possibility of joy.” –DB


The Djiboutian girls darted between French soldiers and disappeared from view. I fell into a steady rhythm broken only by the necessary leaps over crevices cut through the clay by Ethiopian lorries earlier in the year. We ran straight, following the stones. Two French soldiers flanked me for a few kilometers but at a water stop I pulled ahead. I passed a Somali woman I knew. She joked that since I was stronger, I should carry her on my back.
–Rachel Pieh Jones, from Sneaker to Sneaker in the Grand Bara


Many conservative Muslim families in Erzurum are not particularly keen on their daughters playing hockey. There are currently four teams in the Turkish Super Lig, all of the which except Narman are in the western, more progressive cities. Convention demands modesty and propriety. When parents express these sentiments, Yuksel shows them a hockey uniform.
–Brian McKanna, from Daughters of the Ice


One could forgive Ferit Osmanli, a four-time world champion arm wrestler, a man with 17-inch forearms that might as well be made of granite, for pawning off these duties. Nobody expects Tiger Woods to mow the fairways at Congressional, but arm wrestling, even at the highest level, can be a humbling endeavor.
–Andy Owens, from The Arduous Ascent of an Arm-Wrestling Phenom


Some might consider it a risk to stand on a rock amid the stampede of some 50 horses in spirited pursuit of a headless goat carcass. But, after about an hour of photographing a game of buzkashi from among the vocal spectators on the perimeter, I knew I had to get closer. Anyone can stay on the edges and show you what this intense, significantly more graphic, rendition of polo looks like.
–Nevada Wier, from ‘Better on Dirt Than Concrete’


Her cheeks were tear-streaked, her eyes cinched tight, and in her right hand, the same hand that had rested against the left one during the game, was an open bottle of wine. She thrust it high into the air. She took a long, deep swill. On that manic summer night, back when Italy was young, carefree, and alive, she was, she is, she always will be, at least in my memory, the picture of triumph.
–Chris Watts, from Triumph Among the Ruins


No matter the results and the injuries endured along the way, there is always that galvanizing moment before the frenzy, that moment when the brave and the idiotic, some wearing speedos, others donning superhero attire, inch their toes to the lip of the hill. The grass is green and tall with possibility. Unspinning, the wheel is within anyone’s reach.
–Patric Brasher, from  Go, Cheese Racer!


Shadows grow long as the sun sets and the call to prayer will soon end this particular match. Only a few tosses remain. A middle-aged Djiboutian man crouches flat-footed in the dirt. His macwiis, a wrap-around sarong, is tucked up between his knees. He stares straight ahead, shifts slightly to the left, swings his right arm backward and forward, and releases a heavy silver ball.
–Rachel Pieh Jones, from Women Are My Tribe


Ibrahim Ozcan, a die-hard follower of camel wrestling, confesses his family’s addiction to these events. “It’s our culture, it’s our ancestors’ sport,” he explains. “We look online each week to see where the best camels are going to be, and we go there, every Sunday for four months. Then the season ends, and life is monotone again.”
–Andy Owens, from When Camels Collide


League football may be wrapping up in the next few weeks, but it won’t leave the consciousness or conversation of life here in England. The nation doesn’t move past football in the off-season. It will still be what people discuss at pubs and read about in the papers. And people will keep playing football on grass and concrete and turf whenever they get a chance, because at the end, while it is a sport which gives hope, unites and is beautiful to watch, it is after all, a sport to play.
–Nathan Martin, from London Meditations


Drew Bratcher is the editor of EthnoTraveler.