Dispatches | March 10, 2011

As a writer of short stories and someone who needs at least ten minutes of ESPN’s Mike and Mike’s sports talk prior to leaving the house every morning, I couldn’t have been more excited for the March 7, 2011 issue of ESPN the Magazine—“The Fiction Issue.” Rarely do these two interests of mine come together on the page.

As I think about the short fiction I’ve read recently, whether it be TMR submissions or story collections, so few sports stories come to mind. And, as Hobart founder Aaron Burch noted in a recent discussion with the TMR interns, most of the sport stories that do come to mind deal with baseball. Check out Hobart’s online baseball themed issues for examples. The few stories that I can think of that aren’t about baseball are about sports writers or fans. So little is devoted to the games themselves. There’s plenty of good nonfiction on the subject of various sports, so why the lack in fiction?

Maybe it has to do with a penchant for melodrama and moralizing. When I think of the few stories I wrote in middle school or junior high, they all had to do with full counts in the bottom of the ninth, or the game’s final play/minute, or the scrappy underdog facing off against the cocky superstar. Maybe even as more seasoned writers, we fear these tropes so much that we avoid the topic altogether. Whatever the reason is, I was excited to dive into the issue and fill that void.

“The Fiction Issue” is a collaboration ESPN and McSweeney’s, and there’s a lot to like in its pages. Some of it is a bit silly—Dave Egger’s first person narration by Brian Wilson’s now immortal playoff beard, Tom Barbash’s cataloguing of reactions to Lebron James’ sudden departure from basketball for the sport of bowling, and the “What If” feature that tracks the ripples through time of minor alterations to (in)famous sports history. Still, in these moments of silliness, the writing remains crafted and always fun.

Other included short stories are downright good fiction. The quality of Tobias Wolff’s “Squashed,” a tale of a young man’s experience with the intrinsically preppy sport, may be no surprise. Miguel Batista’s short story “The Family Business” might sneak up on a few more people. Batista, a veteran pitcher now playing for the Cardinals, is a published author, but I was pleasantly surprised by the craft and heart shown in this, his first, short story. In my opinion, everything in the issue is worth a look.

But, as I’ve mentioned, I’m a sucker for this melding of subjects (while I write this literary journal blog entry, I am watching a Big East Tournament game so that I can “scout” my Syracuse Orangemens’ next opponent). What I wonder is, how will the rest of its audience like it? How will my fellow academics and writers who aren’t already dreaming about their NCAA tournament bracket or haven’t worried lately about the nuances of the NFL labor agreement react? And how about my high school friends and their like—who were good enough to play sports past high school, and who haven’t read anything since Lou Holtz’s latest autobiography? The publishing possibilities of appealing to both groups (and of course those like me who are in the middle) could be tremendous, and I’ll be interested to hear how these audiences react to “The Fiction Issue.” What did you think?

Mike Petrik is a PhD candidate in the Creative Writing program at the University of Missouri, and an intern at the Missouri Review.