My Sports Doc Fandom
I love a trip to the ballpark.
Here’s my dream outing: shady seats on a sunny day; a poorly attended game between two teams with nothing at stake; a cold beverage and a few hotdogs, some popcorn maybe, a wad of cotton candy, a soft pretzel or two, an ice-cream cone; and the company of a friend who follows the game, and who explains the goings on to me while I pretend to listen though really I’ve been mesmerized by the scale of everything, the mania of the billboards and the oracular mystery of the scoreboard, the droning of the announcer and the weird roller-rink music. Truth be told, they could be racing speedboats down there or baking cakes and I’d be just as happy with the spectacle because—if you haven’t guessed it yet—I am in no way a baseball fan.
In fact, team sports generally aren’t my thing—not baseball, not football, not basketball, not hockey. Even the one professional team sport I do follow, soccer, leaves me deeply conflicted. While I love the game and am in awe of the skill and creativity of the players, it’s hard to ignore the sheer corruption of FIFA and the financial (and other assorted) shenanigans of team owners. Harder still to ignore is how frequently passion for a team turns ugly for too many fans: into tribalism, xenophobia, racism and violence. It’s not a pretty picture, it’s not unique to soccer, and it’s at the heart of my discomfort with sports team fandom. Which left me more than surprised to discover that I’d become partial to the sports documentary.
It started for me—as perhaps it did for others—during lockdown, with The Last Dance, the multipart Michael Jordan doc that took public consciousness by storm for a moment, until it was displaced by sourdough bread or whatever. It’s not the sort of thing I would’ve sought out on my own, but one of my sons recommended it, and he’s never steered me wrong on these things, and so I had a look. I was glad I did. Though I knew the broad strokes of the story being told, the story-telling—aided by extensive archival footage, then-and-now player interviews, and overall great production values—was compelling. I was riveted, and ate a lot of popcorn. When it was over, I wanted more (sports docs and popcorn both). This time, my son pointed me at something a bit more obscure, but no less compelling: the work of Jon Bois.
If you’ve never heard of him (I hadn’t), here’s a nutshell profile: Bois is a sportswriter and video producer for Vox Media’s SB Nation. Home-schooled as a kid and largely self-educated thereafter, Bois has produced a wide variety of content for SB Nation’s YouTube channel, Secret Base, in which he delves into odd and obscure corners of sports history, often alongside his frequent collaborator Alex Rubenstein. Some of that content includes: The History of The Seattle Mariners (a six-part documentary series about the baseball team), The Bob Emergency (about the waning popularity of the name Bob amongst professional athletes), Captain Ahab: The Story of Dave Steib (about the longtime Toronto Blue Jays pitcher), and Section 1 (about the crash of a small plane just after the end of a 1976 football playoff game in Baltimore). These are merely a sliver of Bois’ large body of work, but they illustrate his eclectic sports-related enthusiasms, his distinctive narrative style and his thematic interests as a storyteller.
His storytelling tools don’t seem promising at first glance: ancient, low-quality film and video clips, still images of even older newspaper articles, a wealth of (usually fascinating) statistical analysis, often presented in the form of some truly weird infographics, and arguably the cheesiest lite-jazz on the internet. The alchemy that turns such unlikely dross into narrative gold arises from Bois’ concerns as a storyteller.
He’s not interested in great-man hagiography or in the celebration of dynasties. Nor is he fascinated with uplifting tales of plucky underdogs defying overwhelming odds to win the championship (in fact, victory is not a thing that engages him much). What does interest him (and indeed what describes a through-line across much of his work) is human fallibility—our reliable capacity for self-sabotage, our love of magical thinking, our perverseness, our convoluted struggles to improve, and our powerlessness in the face of random (often whacky) exogenous events. Combine that with Bois’ absurdist sense of humor and his essential affection for his subjects (most of them, anyway) and it adds up to some engaging work. It’s easy to find on YouTube and definitely worth a look. Have plenty of popcorn handy.
A Secret About a Secret
And the reviews have been kind. The Wall Street Journal said:
“A Secret About a Secret is a murder mystery—stylishly penned, meteorologically moody and ever so slightly Gothic. Whether the book heralds the beginning of a new series or not, it’s a humdinger.”
Speaking of Events…
On September 8-11, I’ll be in Minneapolis for Bouchercon 2022.
Bouchercon, the annual world mystery convention, is always a good time.
If you’re attending, I’ll be at one event and a panel–both of which are nice and early! Hope to see you there.
A Word from Our Sponsors
I’m reliably informed that my “online channels” are going gangbusters. If you’re so inclined, I’d appreciate your checking them out at the links below.
On My Nightstand
The Guide by Peter Heller
A wilderness mystery set in the mountain west. Lovely descriptions, palpable sense of place, deft, deeply felt characterizations. Heller’s narrative voice is quiet and sure, and a pleasure to lose yourself in.
Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar
A beautiful, brutal collection by the Iranian American poet. Poems of loneliness, otherness, loss, addiction and recovery—hard-won and always provisional.
In My Playlists
Science reporting from Quanta Magazine, on math, theoretical physics, computer science, and life sciences. I found the Jan 2021 episode on quantum tunneling, the Hartman Effect and superluminal speed particularly freaky.
NPR Tiny Desk Concerts
A great long-running series. Bite-sized samples of some excellent music. Roams across genres and across the world. A great vehicle for discovering artists you may not have heard of, or for reconnecting with artists you haven’t heard in a while. There’s much to love in this catalog. I particularly enjoyed a concert from last April by Diamante Eléctrico, and a session from 2018 with Jorge Drexler, but—really—it’s a cornucopia.
Thank you for reading!