James Taranto, in his "Best of the Web Today" feature for the Wall Street Journal, occasionally pokes fun at sportswriters who inject political opinions in their accounts of athletic events. Mike Lupica, a fine sports columnist for the Daily News, is a prime example, as he sprinkles in digs at Dick Cheney, Rudy Giuliani or President Bush, in between commentary about the Yankees, Barry Bonds, or crooked referees in the NBA.
This annoying tic is, fortunately, the only downside to S.L. Price's excellent "Far Afield: A Sportswriting Odyssey" (Lyons Press, 247 pages, $24.95), which is an entertaining and compassionate memoir of the year he spent with his family in the south of France with the support of Sports Illustrated. Mr. Price, already a veteran sportswriter for The Sacramento Bee and the Miami Herald when he joined Sports Illustrated in 1994 can digress, for example, from his searing descriptions of the chaotic 2004 Olympics in Athens to ruminate on that year's presidential election. When speaking with German, Italian, and French colleagues, he confidently predicts that John Kerry will easily defeat Mr. Bush. Mr. Price doesn't offer any particular political insight or knowledge, but he does shoot from the hip in his writing.
It matters not a whit whether you agree or disagree with Mr. Price's political analysis: It detracts from the real strength of "Far Afield," which is mostly a wonderfully written pastiche of his family's ramshackle rental in Provence, cricket matches in Pakistan, soccer rivalries, and the Tour de France. It's exhilarating, Mr. Price writes, "to be caught in a soccer riot, bricks and bottles flying riot batons, flailing, the stink of beer and sweat and tear gas in the air," and to witness a crowd of spectators "as passion whirs out of control." The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is tame stuff, the author implies, compared to particular sporting contests throughout the world, the results of which are summed up in a paragraph or two in most American newspapers and magazines.
Although journalists in general suffer no shortage of ego, Mr. Price exhibits a rare humility, sloughing off praise for his award-winning columns by saying he's a good writer, but will never be a great one. He delves into his upbringing in Connecticut, his lack of direction while in high school and college, and tortured relationship with his father.
Mr. Price is especially tender when describing the sacrifices his wife, Fran, and three children have endured to further his career, and seems astonished that, expecting little out of life as an adolescent, he's reached mid-life as a content professional and family man. When Mr. Price says that Fran is "smarter, funnier, more gifted, and kinder" than he is, it doesn't smack of condescension but of a genuine conviction that his marriage is "one of the century's great steals."
Anyone who's traveled abroad will identify with Mr. Price's self-deprecating stories of trying to calm crying kids on endless airplane flights, the inability to communicate with his French neighbors, and the discovery that a thief in Belgrade has absconded with his credit card number and racked up $1,600 in charges.
Interspersed with riveting passages about the matches he's covering while on assignment overseas — his chapter about the rise and fall of the storied soccer club Olympique de Marseilles and the game it lost to Real Madrid in the fall of 2003 might make for a book itself — are diversions to Mr. Price's past experiences with legendary athletes. He recalls the day he spent in Florida with baseball icon Ted Williams in 1996, when the cantankerous personality was watching a 17-year-old girl, felled by a brain aneurysm as a youth and confined to a wheelchair, go through the paces of physical therapy in Williams's pool. "He was seventy-eight, half-blinded by three strokes," but yet, as Mr. Price relates, the slugger "begged God to let him do more, something to make her better, and cursed the higher power that could hurt a child."
Mr. Price was an acquaintance of basketball superstar Michael Jordan when they both attended the University of North Carolina, and as a result had rare access to him over the years. He explains that fans never understand that their heroes are "not nice," because the sheer nature of competition "demands" cruelty. In one scene alone with Mr. Jordan in a Chicago Bulls locker room in 1992, at a time when the athlete had "become the most famous man in the history of the planet," but also a bitter one, Mr. Price is able to cut through the star's standard patter and finds still some human yearning in him. Although the "money and fame had twisted his life into something unrecognizable," Mr. Jordan wistfully tells Mr. Price that his years in college were "the best time" in his life.
"Far Afield" is a triumph that will appeal not only to sports devotees, but any reader who's curious about travel, complicated family relationships, and a world that exists beyond America. S.L. Price might insist he's merely a good writer, but this is a pretty great book.
Mr. Smith writes a weekly column for New York Press.