Critic’s Notebook: Grantland takes on the bigger world of sports

Los Angeles Times Book Critic

When it comes to sportswriting, I tend to subscribe to George Plimpton’s small-ball theory: The smaller the ball, the better the writing about the sport. This has a lot to do with my own biases (I’m a baseball fan, not much interest in basketball or football), but it also seems borne out by the literature. And yet, if Bill Simmons is right, the whole notion of a ball theory (small or large) might turn out to be moot.

“We’re trying to fill a void, getting good writers to write about what they want,” he says during a recent phone conversation about Grantland, the sports and pop culture website that ESPN launched last June with Simmons as editor. Among Grantland’s contributors? Chuck Klosterman, Jane Leavy, Malcolm Gladwell, Colson Whitehead and Dave Eggers, who helped launched the site with an essay on Wrigley Field (“ragged and crumbling and lived-in,” he calls the ancient ballpark, “beautiful in an almost accidental way”) that deftly evokes why, when it comes to the Chicago Cubs, winning has long been a secondary pursuit.

Eggers is something of a shadow presence in the latest Grantland iteration: a print quarterly, the first installment of which has just been issued in collaboration with McSweeney’s Books. His Wrigley piece is not included, but his sensibility is all over the design. A 300-plus page hardcover, bound in imitation pigskin, and full of essays, opinions, graphics and inserts (including a 67-page oral history of Frank DeFord’s long-defunct sports daily, the National), it’s a bit like an issue of McSweeney’s for the sports geek in all of us.

“With the Net,” Simmons explains, “things get lost. We thought it would be cool to see it in book form.” The idea, he continues, is to use the quarterly to capture — and, in a sense, preserve — a particular period in the life of the site: the months leading up to each issue.

Thus, in Issue 1, we find a record of the first half year of Grantland — Simmons on the paradox of Lebron James (written between Games 4 and 5 of last year’s NBA Finals), Anna Clark on Ty Cobb as a metaphor for Detroit, Whitehead from the World Series of Poker (“I have a good poker face,” he begins, “because I am half-dead inside”). There are considerations of HBO and Amy Winehouse, as well as a long piece by Tom Bissell that uses L.A. Noire to frame an argument about video games as “one of the most important conceptual shifts between story and storyteller in a hundred years.”


But there is more — and I don’t just mean the one effort here that didn’t first appear on the Grantland site: Simmons’ re-worked take on the movie “Hoosiers,” an expansion of an older piece from No, it’s that, in making the shift from Web to print, Simmons is also making a case for the staying power of the material, and by extension, of sports as a whole.

This is the conundrum faced by anyone who writes about what happens on the playing field: How to make it resonate beyond last night’s score. Why is it important, what we feel about a particular game or athlete? What is the bigger angle, the bigger connection, the bigger point of view? I think of John Updike, whose 1960 New Yorker piece on Ted Williams’ final game, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” frames the dynamic between player and fan as one of nearly mythic significance: “The affair between Boston and Ted Williams,” he writes, "… falls into three stages, which may be termed Youth, Maturity, and Age; or Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis; or Jason, Achilles, and Nestor.” Or Grantland Rice, the legendary sportswriter for whom Grantland is named, a stolid sentimentalist but one who helped create the conventions of the form.

For Grantland, then, the idea is to rethink those conventions, or disregard them altogether, while also opening the conversation to a new way of thinking about the games we play. That’s why the Bissell piece is so illuminating — because it takes something we don’t normally consider in such terms and re-shapes it, contextualizing it in a different way. If video games are now sports, or poker is, then the small-ball theory is not just outdated but irrelevant, a trope that has little to do with how we engage with the idea of sports now. And if sportswriting can blur into entertainment, isn’t that a reflection of the larger culture, in which sports is entertainment, and has been at least since Harry Frazee’s sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees helped finance his production of the musical “No, No Nanette”?

This, Simmons suggests, is the point precisely, that sports exist as part of a bigger world. As far as Grantland, he wants it to reflect that, to see what develops and move on from there. In addition to the quarterly, he’s planning some additional enhancements — more pop culture and a podcast studio — but mostly he’s intent on letting the project take its own pace. “It’s better to be under the radar a bit,” he says, although, as he acknowledges, “this is already bigger than I thought.”