Remember, as a kid, when no one in the world mattered as much as your sports hero? When you wore his number, copied his style, lived or died with every pitch? Remember that? Well, it is a well-known fact that some people never grow up.
For evidence, observe some of the characters in The Roar of the Sneakers (Bantam Books, $1.75), Editor Robert Gold's original softcover anthology of sports fiction spanning the past 40 years. Wild-eyed fans exhort their favorites in the sweaty morality play known as professional wrestling. An autocratic father, inept during his own youth, trains his reluctant son for competition as purposefully as a lioness teaching her cub to hunt. And a middle-aged touch football player daydreams of pass-receiving greatness ("Ray Berry and I dig pressure") when, in fact, he couldn't catch a cold in a blizzard. The lesson in this, if there is one, is that attaching excessive emotional freight to such athletic experiences is proof positive that we humans have more than a little fat in the head.
Still, an outstanding athlete has rare, transitory physical skills, which may be irrelevant to his character. The point is best illustrated in Jack Olsen's contribution. "Winning is Better." Olsen focuses on pro football star Luke Hairston, who unloads a pistol full of blanks in the direction of his team's owner and, occasionally, uses drugs as well. One teammate suggests that Hairston plays a very self-sacrificing game after his adrenaline takes effect. " 'He don't take no adrenaline,' replies another player, 'but he take somethin', 'cause I see his eyes widen up before every game.' "
Enhanced by selections from John Updike, Budd Schulberg and Roger Angell, The Roar of the Sneakers is richly perceptive in its depiction of every level of sport; John Cheever's "The National Pastime" begins, "To be an American and unable to play baseball is comparable to being a Polynesian and unable to swim." The collection ranges from ego confrontations in schoolyard basketball, to dead-end minor league careers, and finally takes the reader to the ultimate sporting ritual, the Olympics.
A few stories present semiliterate protagonists who implausibly begin articulating like William Buckley. But, in general, the writing is superlative—witty, suspenseful, and so evocative that you would need a uniform to come any closer to the action. It won't even matter if your adolescent fantasies are debunked along the way. A myth is not as good as a smile.