The editor of Paris Review and sporting dilettante extraordinaire Plimpton separates the sportswriting champs from the chumps in the latest entry in this annual series. In his foreword, series editor Stout notes that throughout recent history ``sports and literature were not strangers.'' The inclusion of such noted ``men of letters'' as Gay Talese, David Halberstam, and the preternaturally long-winded David Foster Wallace--whose Esquire essay, ``The String Theory,'' clocks in at 34 pages--certainly does little to disprove this observation. Curiously, only one ``woman of letters'' was judged to merit inclusion among the 21 entries: Miami Herald writer Linda Robertson's excellent ``Platform Pitfalls,'' which dramatically, and sickeningly, describes the toll high diving exacts on young athletes. Further proof that sports is still a man's world is a disappointing piece by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford, ``Hunting with My Wife,'' in which he patronizes his better half- -and his readers--with asides about the poor fashion sense of his spouse, a former fashion model, and her lack of a killer's instinct. There are other nits to pick: Surely there must have been some better writing over the past year than Roger Angell's gushy profile of pitching star David Cone. All this is not to imply that there aren't some outstanding articles here. John Krakauer's ``Into Thin Air,'' the Outside piece that became the basis for his bestselling book; Tom Boswell's ``Controlling Force,'' a brilliant profile of one of the greatest pitchers of our (or any) time, Greg Maddux; and Garry Smith's prescient and incisive Sports Illustrated article about golfer Tiger Woods--all prove that the sporting press includes some of the canniest writers to be found anywhere. Still, if much this collection represents the best stuff available, one hesitates to see the articles that didn't pass muster.