Wednesday, October 28, 2009

How Life Imitates a Thomas Boswell Column

For decades, sportswriter and columnist Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post has penned beautiful, trenchant commentary. His baseball writing, in particular, captures the hard truths and romantic spirit of the game, mostly without succumbing to the wistful dreaminess so typical in the trade (except in his book titles: How Life Imitates the World Series, Why Time Begins on Opening Day, etc.).

Boswell always writes with a purpose to a cathartic conclusion. One professor of my acquaintance assigns his carefully crafted columns to her writing classes for basic training in rhetoric. Until his World Series preview column this morning, however, I hadn't sent a link to one of his WashPost pieces to a friend or relative for a couple of years, maybe more. Reading Boswell used to be a twice-weekly routine for me, a necessary act of recreation. Why no longer?

One answer: the rise of rapid-fire highlight and debate shows on cable. A high volume of quick, pithy takes on topical issues -- often at high volume -- has superseded the well-thought-out exploration of a single theme. In sports, Tony Kornheiser's and Mike Wilbon's Pardon the Interruption, a preeminent, high-quality example of this format, even employs a time bell to keep the discussion lively.

Another: On the Internet, vehement opinion-mongering in response to any mental stimulus has supplanted the omniscient, thoughtful, writerly voice of yore. Whether in politics, sports, or celebrity gossip, the role of today's columnists, talk-show hosts, and bloggers is to kick off an inflammatory debate that will maximize the number of page hits by rabid partisans. The inmates are in charge of the asylum. The tabloids have always been with us, to be sure, but careful consideration of topical issues by an informed commentator now seems as quaint as a Labor Day doubleheader.

But I think the primary reason is that Boswell's talent is largely wasted on covering the Washington Nationals, a quasi-replacement franchise for the team of his youth, the twice-departed Washington Senators. Brilliant writing about the nearby Baltimore Orioles in the Cal Ripken/Eddie Murray era could not assuage his grief and anger at Major League Baseball officials over not having a team in the Nation's Capital. Boswell's columns became a sweet, sad song of yearning for a new franchise to replace the loss and end the grieving. Along the way, he excoriated baseball leadership -- from the Commissioner-for-Life, to the Players Association's obstinate boss, to the Orioles' incompetent owner -- for debasing the game that he cherishes, and that his readers have come to cherish through his writings, week by week.

At long last, Boswell's prayers and entreaties were answered: Major League Baseball delivered a franchise to Washington. The Nationals, nee the Montreal Expos, arrived to play for D.C.-area baseball fans -- and were quickly confirmed as a flop, the new taxpayer-funded stadium sparsely filled, the new team's flaws ruthlessly exposed by baseball's unforgiving 162-game season. Even the best writer in the business can lose his edge when his lifelong dream is fulfilled, and it turns out to be a letdown.

But now comes the World Series, and life, like sportswriting, returns to the present tense. Boswell's beat shifts back from the local losers to the exalted winners. In his World Series preview column this morning, he sets up this year's classic match-up between the Phillies and Yankees -- brilliantly, concisely, and from several levels: analytical, critical, cultural, economic, inspirational. What he says about the World Series is...well, click here and enjoy the read. He says it better than I ever can.

Once again, Tom Boswell has made me care about this trivial, irrelevant, thoroughly wonderful game, infused with as much meaning as everything that's most important in my life. I sent the link to my friends.

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