Carpathians, chainsaws, and Cueto: the week’s best writing

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Top image: Atlanta, 9/15, by me. 

Lots of outstanding reading this week, so let’s get to it. First, though, the self-promotion: my book EARNHARDT NATION is coming out in February; you can pre-order it at Amazon here. (Sign up for the newsletter to get all the behind-the-scenes info right here.) Make sure you check out our Grandstanding podcast, covering all of sports and pop culture, on iTunes right here. And, as always, you can find my daily Yahoo work right here.


Best of the Week
“The Hateful Life And Spiteful Death Of The Man Who Was Vigo The Carpathian,” Shaun Raviv, Deadspin
What a brilliant and unsettling article this is. Turns out the guy who played Vigo in “Ghostbusters” was a sonofabitch of the highest order. Settle in for this one: “Most people will only ever know Norbert Grupe as Vigo the Carpathian. But Norbert Grupe—a Nazi soldier’s son, boxer, professional wrestler, failed actor, criminal, and miserable human being who was never so happy as when he could make someone hate him—was once a man so beautiful that other men wanted to paint him.”

“Blades of Glory,” Holly Anderson, Grantland
I really enjoy when a writer with a distinctive voice travels to an unfamiliar locale and paints a cinematic, nonjudgmental picture of something completely foreign. Here, Holly heads to the Lumberjack World Championships in Hayward, Minnesota for a look at all the many ways man, and woman, can compete on, around, and through wood. Check, for instance, this description of the bravery/insanity involved in a speed climb of a wooden pole: “They actually had to put rules in place on the speed climb to keep athletes from trying the plummet from the top on purpose. To avoid the spectacle of a pile of crumpled lumberjacks at the base of each pole, black bands are painted every 15 feet, and each racer must touch at least one foot in every 15-foot section on the way down. The regulations keep the madness at bay, a little, but the math on this is still somewhat unsettling: For a legal descent on the 90-foot climb, a lumberjack can fling himself backward into space, held within reach of the pole only by a length of rope, touch one foot or the other to the pole six times on the way down, and call it good.”

“This Year, A Different Feeling in KC,” Will Leitch, Sports On Earth
Will breaks down the motivation and purpose of the Kansas City Royals fanbase as the team begins its second straight World Series: “There is a seriousness of purpose here now. Royals fans are obviously thrilled to be in the World Series, but there is less awe this time. There is less of a Midwestern Just Happy To Be Here attitude. The rest of baseball is surprised to see the Royals here again — they were supposed to be last year’s story, not this year’s. But Royals fans aren’t. Last year — last October, really — awakened one of baseball’s most passionate, long dormant fan bases. Now they have some unfinished business.”

“The 15 Biggest Plays In Baseball History,” Rany Jazayerli, Grantland
One pitch, one swing, one hit … entire seasons turn on an instant once baseball’s postseason rolls around, and this is a brilliant statistically-minded breakdown of the most significant moments in baseball history. What’s amazing is that we still haven’t had the greatest play of all time yet … but we will, yes, one day we will. This article breaks down all the great postseason moments, including this brilliant depiction of the 1992 Atlanta Braves: “It’s not often you get to see a murder up close, but I once watched Francisco Cabrera murder an entire franchise on national television.”

“Why Fox Held The Story Of Edinson Volquez’s Father’s Death,” Adam Kilgore, Washington Post
Adam Kilgore deftly dissects the journalistic decisions Fox Sports had to make about whether to broadcast a piece of wrenching news during the World Series: “The prevalence of social media, the spectacle of the World Series and some of the most awful news imaginable created a journalistic quandary Tuesday night for Fox Sports. Broadcasters and producers possessed a piece of widely known information essential to the story of Game 1. If they delivered it to viewers, they believed there existed a nontrivial chance they would also inform a man on live television of his father’s death.”

“Johnny Cueto Calms Nervous KC,” Jeff Passan, Yahoo Sports
Jeff’s one of the finest baseball writers around, combining deep knowledge with a storyteller’s eye. Here he is on Royals Game 2 starter Johnny Cueto:  “Over the three previous months, Cueto was a contradiction wrapped in dreadlocks, frustratingly brilliant one start and brilliantly frustrating the next. In his previous two playoff outings, he saved the Royals’ season and detonated a nuclear stink bomb. By the ninth inning Wednesday, he answered with conviction which version of him would show up. The New York Mets’ puzzled looks and feeble swings confirmed: This wasn’t Good Johnny Cueto; it was Great Johnny Cueto.”

“All Hail Gregg Popovich, the NBA’s Rebel King,” Tom Ziller, SB Nation
There’s no middle ground on Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich: you either hate him openly or silently. But you can’t deny that he is simply the finest basketball coach working today, and he’s fought everyone on his way to the mountaintop. Ziller’s got a great primer on his relentless ways here: “In an environment where cronyism and relationships matter above all else, Popovich constantly looks outside the box. He hires the first full-time female assistant coach. He hires a legendary European coach as an assistant. He reinvents his own basketball philosophy to stay ahead of the NBA’s viciously fast curve. He not only ignores norms: he sets the norms from his perch well outside and well above the NBA bubble. There’s no one like him, and that’s only partially a compliment.”

Horse Racing
“One of a kind: American Pharaoh Set To Race For The Last Time,” Pat Forde, Yahoo Sports
A fine elegy for one of the most impressive horses in sports history, American Pharaoh, who prepares to leave behind competition and head off to a life of horse leisure: “As the great horse galloped through the crisp Kentucky air, striding beautifully as always, the crowd ringing the training track at Keeneland Race Course Thursday morning feverishly recorded the moment. Cell phones. Tablets. TV cameras. Still cameras. A few old fossils simply stored the image in their minds with the naked eye. It was a moment to savor: the shiny bay colt moving with easy speed on a loping breeze, through long shadows and slanting sunlight, one of the very last times he’ll be seen on a track.”

“How ‘Southern Bastards’ Made Me Love Football Again,” Fight Like Sugar, The Sports Fan Journal
“Southern Bastards” is one of the best comic books on the market today, and there’s not a single superhero anywhere near it. It’s a raw, brutal portrayal of life and death in a football-mad Alabama town, and this short article introduces you to the series and gives you some damn good reasons why you ought to start reading it yourself.

“No Surrender,” Zac Ellis, Sports Illustrated
A powerful story of Idaho’s Jake Malek, who suffered a devastating cancer diagnosis at age 17 yet continues to soldier on in the face of an awful certainty: “While he was undergoing treatment, the communities in Spokane and Moscow banded together in support. Teachers and students at West Valley High passed out T-shirts and wristbands that read “Malek Strong,” and a poster bearing the same message still hangs on the wall of the school’s lobby. Whitney and his staff taped a three-foot photo of Jace to the door of the wrestling locker room, reminding those who pass through what true adversity looks like. Rival high school wrestling teams threw fundraisers to help the Maleks cope with medical bills.”

“Manning-era Failures Fuel Irsay’s Impatience,” Charles Robinson, Yahoo Sports
Colts owner Jim Irsay has had the greatest of luxuries–two historic quarterbacks. Yet he’s got only one Super Bowl win. He’s realizing that after possibly squandering 13 years of Peyton Manning, he needs to maximize his chances with Andrew Luck. Great reporting here from Charles: “His most hated rival in the league is the New England Patriots, and Manning’s contemporary, Tom Brady, is 4-for-6 in his Super Bowl escapades. Irsay has watched those numbers pile up, and in their wake it becomes impossible to not question how 227 total games and 11 playoff seasons of Peyton Manning resulted in one Lombardi Trophy. It becomes impossible to not ask the question: Is there something I could have done better?”

“Are the Golden Bears About To Break Through?” Holly Anderson, Grantland
More Holly? Sure, why not? She had a good week. Great profile of a football program trying its damnedest to keep up in the Pac-12 … and, against odds, succeeding: “The Pac-12 is more than ready to make sure teams that fall behind get left behind. But let’s not let this moment pass without noting how remarkable it is that this school is even in the realm of realistic discussion of programs keeping pace, how this squad is two years removed from a 1-11 campaign in which it lost to every FBS team it played, and has equaled last season’s win total by the first week of October. This is California’s moment before the moment, and that can be scary, but there’s a grim egalitarianism to what it’s about to attempt. The Bears, after all, are afforded the same choice as anyone about to step into an abyss: Either you can fall, or you can fly.”

Race & Politics
“Jeb Bush and Rand Paul Should Drop Out. Instead They’ll Run For President Forever,” Jeb Lund, The Guardian
Our presidential election process would be hysterical if it weren’t so damn serious. Here, Jeb eviscerates two of the stragglers at the back of the GOP herd, Jeb Bush and Rand Paul, excoriating them for staying in the race because they don’t know what else to do: “Both Paul and Bush should just drop out of the race, but there’s no reason to expect that they will, because dropping out would be the most practical outcome. If the Republican primary process were governed by the rigors of making any sense, no part of it as currently constructed would exist. Up is down, high is low, water is dry, we wear shoes on our heads, hamburgers eat people and everyone can and will run for president forever.”

“There Are No Innocent Black People,” Greg Howard, Deadspin
Stemming from the Columbia, S.C. incident of a police officer body-slamming a student, this is a strong assessment of the way society presumes African-Americans to be guilty from the moment of their birth. You may not agree with either the premise or the conclusion, but Greg’s perspective deserves attention: “In too many schools, all youthful defiance—talking in class, or not wearing the proper uniforms, or refusing to engage, or by-God fisticuffs—is taken as an illegitimate affront to or subversion of authority. The difference for black kids is that their defiances and even their mistakes are less often taken as one-offs or obvious bumps on the road to adulthood, and more often read as dangerous markers of intent.”

“The Funky Little Phone That Sold A Million Magazines,” Erik Malinowski, Rolling Stone
It’s a football! It’s a phone! It’s a football phone! Erik brings us the inside story on the greatest promotion of all time: Sports Illustrated’s football phone. Plus, check out the surprise guest in the embedded video. “Time Inc. executives flew to China to sign up whatever manufacturers they could, to get assembly lines moving as fast as possible. Loeb himself went to Taiwan several times to personally inspect production samples and make sure the color was correct and check on myriad other challenges. (“How do you describe what a football looks like to somebody in China?” he laughs.) But there was no shortage of potential complications that could arise, aside from getting the basic shape correct. The ball had to be able to sit securely on its tee-shaped base. The cord had to jut out of the ball at just the right angle and maintain its sturdiness. The ball had to be cut in half the long way so it could open, but it wasn’t a straight line; the cut shoots slightly in at a diagonal halfway through, so as to angle more naturally when a person held it to their face.”

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