In Robert Graves’ fictional memoir of the bumbling Roman emperor’s assent to power, I Claudius, the title character finds himself in a library with two of his era’s most prominent historians. Just a teenager at the time, Claudius gets into an awkward situation. The two rival historians, Pollio and Livy, press young Claudius to declare which of them is superior. Who’s the best historian in Rome? Claudius answers diplomatically: He says that if you value presentation and language, Livy is the greatest. But if you value interpretation of fact, Pollio is superior.
Game Six, Mark Frost’s history of the penultimate game of 1975’s World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds, seems to find itself squarely in Livy’s camp. The book’s unique and ambitious form – taking us through the game pitch by pitch and interspersing background stories between plays – might well be the best way to write about a single sporting event. Unfortunately, the execution of this form results in a plodding book that feels longer than any extra-inning baseball game.
Frost does not outwardly disregard truth and accuracy for the sake of the story; Game Six is exceptionally detailed and well-researched. It’s just that Frost does not let sourcing or subtleties get in the way of his literary concerns. Attempts to heighten the drama, such as using italics to place readers in the minds of players, go without explanation and become clumsy disruptions. The reader is left wondering whether Frost learned what the player was thinking via interview, or whether he is merely abusing his literary license.
Indeed, the book’s undoing is not Frost’s prose, but the way he flexes his authorial presence. In addition to the use of italics, Frost finds odd and unexpected ways to insert himself and his values into the narrative. One player, mentioned in passing, is accused of living an “unexamined life.” Carl Yastrzemski, meanwhile, steps to bat with “more sheer guts and gritty work ethic than any man who ever played the game.” Guts and gritty work ethic are obviously unquantifiable, yet Frost employs such intangibles to evaluate players as casually as another writer might use On Base Percentage (which Frost does use after a clumsy page-long explanation of the statistic). The hyperbole and the repeated harping on old school baseball values make a tried and true old school baseball book out of what could have otherwise been a fresh entry into the genre.
Game Six is a difficult to review because it seems to reach in so many different directions. Foremost is the action of the game, which carries the narrative momentum forward, and even constantly broken up by various back stories, manages to maintain coherence. Frost writes in enough detail, and with enough perspective, that even taken alone, the game sequences would never be mistaken for a newspaper recap. His description of Carlton Fisk’s famous twelfth-inning home run, allotted an entire chapter, merits a special mention for its lyricism.
Then there are the various back stories. If the action of the game is the book’s engine, then these histories are its cargo. They are what make Game Six valuable, but also at times what make it unbearably weighty. These are histories of commentators and coaches, players and owners, even of the franchises, their cities, and of baseball itself dating back to the 19th century. Their goal is a raising of the stakes. Framed by all these things, the game is meant to take on greater significance. But while none of the stories seem extraneous, their vitality and immediacy are inconsistent; some lend urgency to the action on the field, others are merely anecdotal.
The most notable back story, and the one that occupies the largest part of the book, is that of Cuban born pitcher Luis Tiant, who started the game for Boston. The sections on Tiant are splendidly detailed, humorous, and soulful. It almost seemed as if half-way through the writing of Game Six, Frost realized that the project he should have embarked upon from the start was a Tiant biography. And for all the problems presented by this one, so great is the author’s affection for Tiant that I will go ahead and preemptively recommend El Tiante by Mark Frost, to be released by Hyperion in 2012, despite its likely propensity for sappiness. (Seriously, somebody needs to write a Tiant bio).
The affection Frost has for his subjects, with the exceptions of Boston manager Darrell Johnson, broadcaster Joe Garagiola, and a few bench players, is also part of the book’s downfall. Everybody is a good guy and it’s hard to create a tense story or engage readers when readers are given a reason to root for essentially every character. Even then-Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, a notable racist, gets away with little more than an offhanded slap on the wrist. But then again, this reader is a Dodger fan, with no particular interest in either the Red Sox or the Reds. Boston fans might have very strong feelings about Johnny Bench, and Reds fans might feel the same way about Fisk.
But therein lays the Game Six’s ultimate flaw. It is exceedingly difficult to make one of the most discussed and replayed moments in baseball history seem brand new, to make old rivalries burn hot. Before picking up the book, a reader knows that Fisk’s home run will crash into the foul pole and that 24 hours after that, the entire city of Boston will be deflated by a Joe Morgan single.
It is possible to render the past, as the Roman historian Livy did, with literary verve. But for a variety of little reasons more than any overarching one, Frost is unable to lift Game Six from the ever-growing pile of generic baseball histories. It stands apart in ambition, – the form, the detail, the specificity are all admirable– but not in execution, as the story is bogged down in traditionalism, sentimentality, and bizarre choices.