Last Thursday night, Gelf Magazine celebrated the fifth anniversary of its Varsity Letters series. Monthly, the magazine hosts an evening of readings by sports writers of all stripes, boasting such alums as Joe Drape of The New York Times, Will Leitch of New York magazine and founder of Deadspin, and Amy Nelson of ESPN. The anniversary evening gathered 14 writers who had appeared at past events to speak/read for three minutes about their “defining moment” in sports.
The stories were a mix of the personal and the professional: Jeff Pearlman of SI.com told of run-ins with Will Clark of the San Francisco Giants, and a sense of schadenfreude at seeing an older, fatter, largely irrelevant Clark in training camp some years later; Dan Shanoff, the founder of the Varsity Letters series whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and on SI.com, related how he came to found TimTeblog.com and the day that he first met his hero; freelance writer/editor Emma Span
of ESPN, author of 90% of the Game is Half Mental, by turns amused and repelled the audience with tales of baseball “fan fiction” and imagined sex between the sport’s superstars.
Baseball memories and experiences featured prominently; I heard stories of college football and coaching children and professional basketball. No one mentioned horse racing.
Michael Weinreb, author of Bigger Than the Game and a contributor to ESPN.com, SI.com, and the New York Times, talked about Joe Paterno, in an awed, almost elegiac way, in a piece that ultimately identified Joe Pa’s anachronistic idiosyncrasies as the very stuff of his legend, the reasons that we should idolize, and not gently, indulgently consider him a vestige of a time gone by.
It was exactly the sort of thing that I might write about Allen Jerkens.
And as I listened, often mesmerized, for several wonderful hours, to the series of speakers, I thought to myself, “How great would it to hear _______ [fill in the blank with the name of your favorite turf writers] read here? How great would it be to hear their stories, their ‘defining moments’?”
The audience, as enthralled as I, reveled in the writing and the personalities and the stories; they reacted most powerfully, though at the mention of the familiar: a particular game, a player (favored or detested), a team. Those moments built the bridge between reader and listener, those moments of identification and connection.
And I realized that I could never stand up there and talk about Allen Jerkens, because no one in that room would have any idea who I was talking about.
And it wouldn’t be just me: Steven Crist, Maryjean Wall, Bill Nack – name a turf writer. Oh, a few people might get Secretariat, and maybe a few would get Zenyatta. But given the 20-something vibe of the crowd, you could forget Easy Goer, Sunday Silence, Affirmed, Alydar, Ruffian. I doubt that even the relatively recent Smarty Jones would have evoked more than a look of puzzlement.
Racing, no less than other sports, has its share of stories and storytellers; I’d like to think, given the sport’s history, that it’s got more. But on Thursday night, I realized something that I suppose I already knew: that the audience for those stories is frighteningly small, the core group of storytellers even smaller, and that we speak a language that’s dying. We seldom get to feel that camaraderie so beautifully present that night. Maybe that’s why we love the track so much: it’s the only time we get to be around people who understand our “defining moments.”
Thanks to Gelf for carrying on this series for five years, and I hope those of you in the area will consider coming to the next Varsity Letters event, on March 3; that evening will feature Sports Illustrated’s tennis writer Jon Wertheim and former Baltimore Sun writer John Eisenberg, author of four books about racing, including two I recommend enthusiastically: Native Dancer: The Grey Ghost: Hero of A Golden Age and The Great Match Race.