Kicking off an occasional series on the literature of sports:

1. Beyond the Game, Gary Smith

Despite the sports junkie circles I travel in, I don’t know anyone who’s read this, or at least no one who hasn’t read it at my insistence. Smith is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, generally considered to be the living master at sports-oriented literary nonfiction (you may know him from his recent piece on Pat Tillman), and the best thing about the magazine. His gift is compelling, usually heartbreaking stories about famous and unknown athletes. It’s worth the price of admission for his profile of John Malangone, once considered to be the heir to Yogi Berra, but whose career went off the rails because of the remnants of an early tragedy–as a New York schoolboy, he accidentally killed a friend with a homemade javelin. There’s a modestly happy ending that I won’t spoil for you, but believe me when I say it turns the piece from a well-told tale to a fable bordering on art.

2. My Steve Sax Connection, Alan Bennett Waldman

I found this in the free bin at Powell’s in Hyde Park, and for better or worse I’ll never be able to shake it. Certainly, I’ll never read a more strange book about athletics of any kind. It’s the memoir of a Chicago native and his harrowingly awful childhood and the disillusioned life that follows, during which he comes to view Los Angeles as an oasis and Dodgers second baseman Steve Sax–famous more for his bout with Steve Blass disease than his relatively distinguished career–as an indirect “positive father figure.” Yes. That does not begin to describe what a soul-crushingingly odd book this is, however; noting that there’s a dreamlike scene involving Sax and Frank Sinatra might be a first step. As one of my friends noted (this was passed around my college newspaper office like a rare treasure), if it was fiction, it would be a left-field masterpiece. As it’s a memoir, I can’t even begin to qualitatively evaluate it. You can preview it at Waldman’s site.

3. The Last Shot, Darcy Frey

The There Are No Children Here of sports journalism. New York native and prominent magazine journalist (Pushing Tin is the very loose adaptation of Frey’s wonderful piece on air-traffic controllers from the New York Times Magazine) Frey follows high-school basketball whiz Stephon Marbury and his Coney Island teammates. Worth reading if you’ve ever hated on Starbury, and it makes me think his $15 sneakers actually come from the heart.