Archive for the 'Books' Category

Free Baseball Books on the Internet

The setting: it’s spring, and the growl of the lawn mower echoes over the quaint suburban horizon. You’ve finished checking the gutters, the game is on in an hour, and the breeze is decidedly pleasant. You find yourself in need of a glass of lemonade, a shady spot under the cherry tree you climbed a thousand times in your childhood, and a nice book. This post is designed to supply you with one of these things.

Certainly, in this chrome-gilded age you could go to Amazon or ride your Vespa to the local Barnes & Noble to procure your literature, but I present an inexpensive, somewhat circuitous alternative. That choice is Bookmooch, a six year-old book exchange community that allows users to trade books online, free of charge (postage extra). This charming little Ponzi scheme allows each user to upload a list of books that they agree to mail to those who want them, and request the books of others in their place. This is noble! The only trouble is that every book is treated equally in the eyes of Bookmooch, contrary to the wisdom of Dorothy Parker. Thus, six years later, the website is swollen with the decaying remains of Dan Brown novels and dog-eared Louis L’Amour westerns. There was also one Roger Angell anthology, but I already claimed it.

But enough exposition. The purpose of this article is to provide you with a selection of Bookmooch’s current library of baseball literature, for your perusal and (perhaps) procurement. Today, we’ll focus on the young adult genre. Among your choices:

Honus & Me (Dan Gutman): 2 copies available

Amazon Price: $0.01 used, $1.73 new

Tagline: “The first time I touched a baseball card, I felt a strange tingling sensation all over my body.”

As one reviewer puts it: “This is a nice fiction story not as good but up in the ranks with ‘Field of Dreams’”. This is true in the sense that my writing is not as good but up in the ranks with Joe Posnanski. The story: an impoverished boy finds a way to travel through baseball cards into history, meets Honus Wagner, magically ages fifteen years and plays in the 1909 World Series. Probably, he learns a life lesson somehow. A perfect read for fans of baseball history and minor plot holes.

How Spider Saved the Baseball Game (Robert Kraus): 1 copy available

Amazon price: $0.01 used, $10.00 new

There is absolutely no record on the internet of how exactly Spider saved the baseball game, though our best guess is that he came in at the bottom of the ninth up by three. Meanwhile, there’s a lot going on in that picture: beyond using four legs to hold the bat, and sitting in the box, Spider is stunned by the admittedly heavy movement and poor location on that pitch. Even the catcher seems to be fooled.

Tartabull’s Throw (Henry Garfield): 2 copies available

Amazon price: $0.08 used, $16.00 new

I assume that there is a certain subset of the American population who reads a book about baseball and thinks to themselves, “Sure, that was good, but there weren’t nearly enough werewolves in it.” Those who perhaps enjoyed Sparky Lyle’s “Bronx Zoo” but felt it would have been improved if Billy Martin had eviscerated George Steinbrenner with his fangs, and then fell passionately in love with Marilyn Peterson. Reviews on Amazon are generally positive, and to Garfield’s credit, when I scanned cursorily through the book on Amazon, I couldn’t find a laughably bad line to quote.

The Kid Who Only Hit Homers (Matthew Christopher): 1 copy available

Amazon Price: $0.01 used, $4.99 new

Otherwise known as: The Adam Dunn story.

21: The Story of Roberto Clemente, a Pocket Review

Last night, Eric and I went down to the Georgetown section of Seattle, where, nestled between tendrils of the Union Pacific and BNSF Railway, some warehouses surrounded by barbed wire, and a few coffee shops, Fantagraphics Books runs a richly stocked half and half store full of graphic novels and records. On tap for the evening was a conversation between Wilfred Santiago, author of the recently published graphic novel 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente, and baseball writer and Baseball Nation editor Rob Neyer.

The graphic novel is a beautifully wrought Clemente collage, following the hitter from the impactful events of childhood through his career as a Pirate and up to his untimely death. While there were several poignant dramatic through lines, the book’s strength lies in its brilliant visuals, which far outweigh its strictly biographical content. In addition to his many other notable qualities, like his humanitarianism and his greatness as a player, Clemente was a beautiful man, with a striking physicality. Drawing on this aesthetic truth, Santiago stuns and heightens it, with an imaginative and dramatic illustrative style, with its palette of Pirates yellow, and orange and black. The oral tradition of myth-making is put into visual form here.

Neyer interviewed Santiago about Clemente and about the book, covering topics like Clemente’s spiritual bent, his legacy as a humanitarian, and the creative challenges of translating baseball into the graphic novel form. Afterwards, Santiago signed copies of the book, and Neyer was nice enough to hang around and chat with a couple of lowly, esoteric baseball bloggers.

The Ten Commandments

In my day job as managing editor of Jew-ish.com, I had the pleasure of speaking with Bethlehem Shoals of the awesome FreeDarko about hoops, Judaism, and Seattle.  Check it out.

Also, I may post some more about FreeDarko soon. They are a big influence on P&P and once upon a time we joked (joked!) about calling this blog FreeGarko. The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is tremendous.

John Lardner: Writer, Sports Writer

Ted and I were emailing recently about what makes sports writing compelling or not compelling. We write many such emails. Our basic complaint is that writing about baseball is nearly always boring and rarely transcends its subject. It rarely even does baseball justice. The kind of trance one falls into reading an average baseball book is nothing like kind of trance one falls into watching an average baseball game; this is unfortunate.

We came to a semi-conclusion that what separates writing about baseball we want to read from writing we don’t is scope. Does the text say something that resonates outside the baseball vacuum? Does it do the work that allows us to connect the content to our own lives, possibly thereby changing our perspective?

But wait just a minute, you say. Are these not qualities we look for in all literature? Sure they are, but in baseball writing – and all sports writing – they are often hard to find. For one, a great deal of emphasis is placed on raw information. This is unavoidable and not a flaw, but a constitutional fact of baseball writing that will become only more prevalent as advanced statistics and analysis become more and more mainstream. (In this sense, good baseball writing will be writing that makes complex ideas about performance evaluation easy to understand and apply.)

Then there are the expectation differences. Ted and I spend a great deal of time thinking about baseball. Not that we’re Socrates and Plato, it’s just that when you spend so much time thinking about a specific topic you find that your thinking evolves. A column or a profile that once would have been interesting to me now feels regressive. I find myself reading about a player’s story, a team’s expectations, a stat-head’s findings, and thinking “so what?”

This all brings me to John Lardner. Through Alex Belth, who has turned me on to more good baseball writing than anybody, it came to pass that John Schulian (a talented sportswriter turned screenwriter) sent me a copy of “The John Lardner Reader.” Schulian edited this collection by the lesser known son of Ring and brother of Ring Jr. It was published last year.

I had never heard of John Lardner previously. He was a war correspondent, a columnist and a feature writer, for The New Yorker, Time, and magazines of the era like True and Sport. The dozens of works collected in this book (subtitle “A Pres Box Legend’s Classic Sportswriting”) are often only glancingly sports writing. Lardner, by all accounts, was a student of the human condition – especially its uglier forms.

The first thing that strikes you about Lardner is that he writes about everybody, from Ted Williams to seedy fight fixing mobsters, with the same casual disdain. The story is the story. The characters are all terribly flawed – and so, as he frequently points out with a wink or an elbow nudge – is he. Tragedy is inevitable and there’s no reason to draw it out. Take one of Lardner’s most famous leads:

“Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”

Says everything it needs to about Ketchel, whose story is typical of this collection. Ketchel was a boxer, a drifter, a gambler, a Kerouacian character before the romance got into it. Lardner was at his best writing about the  lesser known and less accomplished types – not Jack Dempsey, but Jack Dempsey’s manager Jack Kearns; not center fielders but roller derby girls.

Lardner’s prose acknowledges the absurdity and inherent meaninglessness of sports – but it also assigns a commensurate humanity and dignity due to the athletes, fans, commentators, promoters, gamblers, and other men and women with a hand in the endeavor. He is at his best when the subject is boxing. Lardner died young, but in his time on earth, he must have absorbed the entire history and culture of the boxing world. In his jabs at boxing’s corruption, one can read a thousand similar, less stinging sentences by future columnists.

“Primo explained the frightful catastrophe by citing in private testimony one cigarette, one glass of cognac, and one pistol or revolver,” Lardner writes about a match presumably thrown by Primo “the Ambling Alp” Carnera to a man 73 pounds lighter. In his way with boiling down major events to minor and absurd situations, Lardner’s columns remind more of Calvin Trillin than any sports writer.

Like Trillin later, Lardner was unafraid to include himself in columns, and even less afraid to end things with a punch line – though usually an understated one. Lardner was a humorous writer, not a humorist. He never got out in front of a story. And with the material he worked with, he never needed to.

“The John Lardner Reader” is proof enough that a good story in able hands is enough to make sports writing compelling. My question is whether we’re currently looking at too many hands and not enough stories.

The Big Announcement

Pitchers and Poets was unknown to me back in 2009, when I came across a beautiful, haunting piece of writing about a dead young pitcher and a family’s tribute on the baseball field, The Death of a Pitcher. The piece’s author, a heady young upstart named Eric Nusbaum, was taking the game of baseball in his hands like a wet glob of clay, slapping it onto the wheel and forming it into something dense and glowing, and I knew it.

Well, I wasn’t the only one to take notice. Others out there, the taste-makers of the sports writing establishment, found Nusbaum’s blip on the radar as I did. They felt the same chill when they read about Jaime Irogoyen’s passing, and about a community’s need for the game. And the taste-makers acted.

Now, I am proud as hell to announce the coolest thing ever:

Glenn Stout, series editor of The Best American Sports Writing anthology, and this year’s guest editor, Peter Gammons (!), have selected Eric Nusbaum’s piece, “The Death of a Pitcher,” to appear in this year’s edition, The Best American Sports Writing 2010.

Eric works his tail off for this blog. He works his tail off to create engaging stories, and he’s a pleasure to work with. I couldn’t be happier that he’s been picked for such a substantial collection of writers and writing. He deserves it.

The edition is available for pre-order on Amazon, releasing on September 28, 2010. Check out the entire lineup of writers and work on Stout’s blog.

Book Review: Rules of the Game

The Rules of the Game

It’s difficult to pin down the “Rules of the Game.” One might expect an anthology of “The Best Sports Writing from Harper’s Magazine” to be easily defined: small in type-face, varied in subject matter, and somehow grand. Because one would think – or at least I would think – that any sports writing published in a magazine like Harper’s must surely have some further-reaching implications, some necessary comment to make on society at large.

Thankfully, this is only partly the case. The best of the 28 stories collected in “Rules of the Game” are quirky, literary, and decidedly specific. (Rigorously selected from the 29 or so pieces of sports writing published in the entire history of Harper’s?). If these stories say anything expansive or ambitious, it is only because they are poignantly written – and the best writing, whether poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction, everything-else writing or sports writing can’t help but speak to universal truths.

The gems in “Rules of the Game” are spaced nicely through the book. And like any anthology, the reward comes not from taking these in stories consecutively, but from reading them here and there. It took three months of carrying a copy around in my backpack before I felt comfortable enough to write this review. And even now, I haven’t quite read everything.

When I first pick up an anthology, I’m drawn to the authors I know and love. There is no shortage of them here: the cover boasts contributions from George Plimpton and Mark Twain, among others. And their stories, as expected, live up to the hype. Plimpton writes a wry, but adoring profile of an arranged meeting between poet Marianne Moore and heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali (they write a poem together.)

Twain’s contribution is a nostalgic little essay called Hunting the Deceitful Turkey. Toward the end of his life, Twain tells the story of a younger version of himself, engaged in a fierce battle of wits and endurance with a mamma-bird. “Lie low, keep still, don’t expose yourselves; I shall be back as soon as I have beguiled this shabby swindler out of the country,” Twain imagines the bird telling her young ones.

Fellow cover-boy Pat Jordan’s profile of former can’t miss baseball project Toe Nash is an eerie and disconcerting meditation on the way myths are often built on self-prescribed ignorance, and can thus be quickly shattered. But for the most part, my favorite stories in “Rules of the Game” are not those written by its most famous contributors. They are, like Twain’s turkey and Jordan’s power-hitting outfielder, defined by time, place, and very specific characterization.

Boris Spassky

The title of Nicholas Bethell’s 1973 profile of Soviet chess champion Boris Spassky at first seems overwrought: A Poisoned Russian King. And the story itself, 90 pct of which seems to take place, inside Spassky’s brilliant, self-critical mind, appears doubly ambitious. But it all works perfectly. Spassky is fresh off a loss to American champion Bobby Fischer and he can’t stop thinking about it – he can’t stop thinking period. In this way, he is a lot like a fiction writer, or a slightly Zen Philip Roth character. And perhaps this is why he makes such a great subject. We see the poison in Spassky’s mind, and we can feel it creeping into our own subconscious and we can truly feel the Russian King’s agony at trying to excise it.

In Hockey Nights, the subjects – characters really – are a step or two less self-critical. Guy Lawson returns to the town of Flin Flon, Manitoba where he once played, to write about the prestigious Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. But instead of nostalgia, or parody, or heavy-handed yarns about the pastoral history of Canada’s favorite sport, we get precise characterization. Lawson skates with the teenage hockey players, and takes us into their lives – as well as those of their girlfriends, their parents, and their coaches. What results is a sincere but plenty critical portrait of big-time hockey’s central role in small-town life.

In all writing, especially literary sports writing, nostalgia is a dangerous conceit. And for more than a few stories in this anthology, it proves to be an undoing. For every brilliant, unique article like those by Bethell and Lawson; for every wide-eyed socioeconomic snapshot like The City Game, Peter Axthelm’s 1970 essay on New York’s playground basketball culture, there is an exasperatingly sentimental reflection on sports writing itself (there is nothing sports writers love more than writing about their craft), or fathers and sons, or what’s right and wrong with baseball.

Only in the hands of a novelist, David James Duncan, does nostalgia become something truly potent. His essay A Mickey Mantle Koan is far and away the most heart-wrenching bit of writing in the book. “On April 6, 1965, my brother, Nicholas John Duncan, died of what his surgeons called ‘complications’ after three unsuccessful open-heart operations. He was seventeen at the time – four years my elder to the very day.” So begins a graceful story of brotherhood, of coping, and of an autographed baseball also dated April 6, 1965.

From those first lines, Duncan’s writing is the kind that makes you forget – or not care – what you’re reading from. Be it a magazine, a website, or an anthology like “Rules of the Game.” Indeed, the best selections in this book aren’t the ones that feel most familiar. They aren’t the profiles of champions at their finest moments, or the quaint cries of sports writers bemoaning the rise of television. They are the stories that can’t help but transcend form and transcend subject; the stories that destroy preconceptions and help us by seeing into the minds and hearts of unexpected figures, be they mamma-turkeys or world class poets, chess champs or teenage goaltenders.

Book Review: Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker

Cardboard Gods: an All-American Tale Told through Baseball Cards is not, as its cover and title may indicate, an innocuous book. It is not even a book about baseball cards. Instead, it is a book about baseball fandom, and how fandom ties into family and memory and childhood in 1970s America. In the truest sense, Cardboard Gods is a memoir – a caringly and unusually crafted story that turns the quiet internal desperation of growing up into something palatable and significant without relying on melodrama. Baseball cards are the mechanism. Author Josh Wilker is his own subject.

Wilker himself is what separates this book from the typical Biography fare at Barnes and Noble. Wilker’s is not a glamorous story. He is not a head of state, a commercially successful author, or a star athlete, and the book is defined by the author’s hyper-awareness of this fact. The chasm between the baseball card collector and the ballplayer on the card is as vast as the Green Monster is tall. Wilker writes about an encounter with Red Sox star Jim Rice that he had as a ten year old:

“He turned toward me. I was too shocked to say anything. After all my years of worship, I couldn’t believe a god could hear me, that a god could look me straight in the eye.” Wilker’s imagination is so powerful, his mythmaking so comprehensive, and his daily life so distant from the Cardboard Gods themselves, that the very notion of Jim Rice’s actual humanity marks a turning point. The Gods are shown to be human. “Life got more complicated after that,” Wilker writes with rueful bluntness.

The paradox of all this, is that as the book develops, it becomes increasingly clear that the titular Cardboard Gods are not deities at all. Rather, they are minor characters, useful in providing historical context, in marking the passage of time, and in propelling certain anecdotes. At their best, they seem to serve as proxies for the real god in the story: Wilker’s older brother Ian. It is much easier for Wilker to come to terms with Steve Garvey’s disingenuous smile and J.R. Richard’s hard luck than the blemishes of his older brother.

The undercurrents of hero worship and brother worship are united in a gut-punch chapter toward the end of the book’s second section (there are four). Topps 1978 #655: Lyman Bostock, which takes place just weeks before the Jim Rice incident, finds young Wilker alone at night with this brother, desperately questioning his own existence and the meaning of the universe.

“I…went and sat on the stairs and gripped my stomach with both hands, rocking back and forth, overpowered by the idea that someday I would not exist,” Wilker writes (he has a knack for stating major crises in simple, heartbreaking prose). The 27-year old Bostock, Wilker had learned that day, had been shot and killed in the backseat of a car – a case of mistaken identity. To calm his distraught younger brother, the fourteen year old Ian Wilker reads trivia questions out of a baseball almanac – “Who is the all-time career leader in triples?” “Who’s the all-time single season leader in doubles?” – until finally, the existential crisis passes.

Josh Wilker might love the Boston Red Sox, and his favorite player might be Carl Yastrzemski. But not even the great Yaz can read him trivia questions when his parents aren’t home. Ian is the God Wilker shares a room with, the God he can copycat. In the end, it is this relationship that carries the book forward. Not the reader’s desire to see another picture of a baseball card, or read another story about those players. I found that after a while, I was barely noticing the players on the cards – they only mattered in as much as they shed light on the story Wilker was telling about himself. In the same manner that form fades to the background of a great epistolary novel or carefully metered poem, the baseball card conceit fades here. Baseball cards augment the content, they do not define it.

The persona of the 40-something copy editor who lives in Chicago and writes movingly introspective essays about the baseball cards of his youth in rural Vermont is familiar to readers of the Cardboard Gods blog, which began publishing in 2006. Wilker’s blog has been featured in the New York Times and praised across the Web by outlets including ESPN.com. But his book is not a rehashing. The content in Cardboard Gods is all new. Wilker expounds on details that were merely brushed upon on the Web, such as his nontraditional family life and his relationships with his father, his mother, and his mother’s longtime boyfriend Tom (all three briefly lived under the same roof).

There is a point, around the Lyman Bostock chapter, in which Cardboard Gods becomes more than a memoir. It becomes more meditative. Without ever stating them explicitly, the book asks serious questions of fandom. What does it mean to make imaginary heroes of ordinary men, to make a religion of the statistics on the backs of baseball cards? At what point does fandom cross from being an interest to a lifestyle? As the book progresses, and Wilker struggles to at once free himself from the grip of the Cardboard Gods, and come to terms with his permanent seat at their altar, these questions become so poignant and pressing that it becomes almost impossible for the reader to continue without thinking these questions through for him or herself.

We may not all have had the same hopeless devotion to our baseball cards as a young Josh Wilker, but we have all lost ourselves in something imaginary. We have all sought refuge in the order of inconsequential places only to realize that the real world is in fact chaotic. In Wilker’s world, this means that the Gods turn out to be men. It fits that the most unabashedly human of the Gods (and the only to be the subject of a Warren Zevon song), Bill “Spaceman” Lee, is among the many writers who have praised Cardboard Gods in advance of its release.

The Spaceman has faced down his own hopeless devotion to the game. He has seen its ugly side. He would no doubt agree that true faith and true love, whether in baseball or religion or romance, are meant to be grappled with, questioned frequently, and reflected upon. Wilker’s faith is the furthest possible from unexamined. He is forced to accept the decided un-godliness of his Gods. Lyman Bostock is shot dead. Jim Rice is just a man who turns at the sound of a young boy’s voice. Steve Garvey is so clean cut he has to be a phony. J.R. Richard becomes homeless, living under a freeway. And the book’s final God, the Great Yastrzemski, strikes out.

Buy the book on Amazon here.

PnP Book Review: Game Six: Cincinnati, Boston, and the 1975 World Series: The Triumph of America’s Pastime

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.

Shoeless Joe

When we asked young Phil Bencomo, chronicler of all things baseball if he would like to write a Situational Essay, we were unsure of what to expect. His Baseball Chronicle is in many ways a kindred spirit in this massive, lonely, internet world.  Both sites value the narrative over the calculated, and both tend to tread dangerous water when it comes to nostalgia. The following essay is many things. It is America. It sure as hell ain’t nostalgia:

At 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning in August, I sat in the back of a broken-down van, stopped on the highway shoulder 10 miles outside of Rolla, Missouri. Much too close for my liking, cars and 18-wheelers barreled past on the left, blurs of light and sound. The trucks left the van lurching from side to side.

I felt small and powerless, protected only by a thin-walled metal box just feet from the road. Perhaps that’s why, as I waited for the tow truck, I turned my mind elsewhere, flicking on a reading light and pulling “Shoeless Joe” from my bag.

* * * *

My parents, four siblings and I had left our home in the Chicago suburbs seven hours earlier. It was an unplanned trip, prompted by the news that my grandmother, widowed less than six months before and fading fast, would likely last no more than a month. By 2 p.m. on Saturday we’d resolved to leave. Six hours of frenetic packing and preparations later, our aging, seven-seat conversion van pulled away from the house, and we began our 1,700-mile, cross-country journey to Phoenix.

These trips have become standard fare over my 20 years, though there’s usually more than six hours of preparation to them. We’ve driven through every state west of Illinois, save a few, and a handful more to the east.

On our trips west, we usually leave by noon and drive through the night, ultimately spending over 24 hours in the van before stopping — collapsing, really — for a night in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But on this trip, it was not to be.

* * * *

My Mom had been driving for a few hours, with the rest of us sleeping quietly, when the noise started. She’d been awake thanks to coffee and an evening nap, but the loud flapping sound, a puttering perhaps, that came from beneath the hood made both unnecessary. I woke immediately, reached for my glasses and found everyone else wide awake, too.

“Is there a bird?” asked my sister nervously. She’s been terrified of them since one found its way into our house through a vent years before. “It sounds like there’s a bird in there.”

Dad suspected a broken fan belt but, after we’d pulled over, could find nothing wrong. Still, the noise persisted. The call went out to AAA, and I began to read.

* * * *

“Shoeless Joe” is a wonderful book that oozes sentimentality like few other novels. The characters are genuinely good in the deepest sense, and the few villains need only a nudge from the realm beyond to change their ways. Even facing bankruptcy and scorn, Ray Kinsella dances merrily to baseball’s magical tune. It’s nearly impossible to read “Shoeless Joe” and not yearn for the simple pleasures of bat, ball and a lush expanse of the greenest grass.

I realize this now, of course, but at 3:45 a.m., as I read in the back of a Rolla-bound, smoke-filled AAA taxi driven by a lithe, mustachioed man whose slow, drawling words whistled through a missing tooth, Ray’s adventures couldn’t have pained me more. Ray drives from Iowa to Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Boston and even to northern Minnesota, with only a few blank lines representing the hundreds of miles driven from city to city. There are no stops for gas followed five minutes later by a wail for a restroom; no greasy meals from roadside fast food restaurants; no thermoses filled with coffee, to be emptied and filled again; and, most salient to me, no middle-of-the-night breakdowns. The realities of long road trips are unacknowledged in “Shoeless Joe,” but I could think of nothing else.

With every repair shop in town closed on Sunday, we were left stranded in our hotel room, waiting for Monday. We could only hope for a swift repair. “Shoeless Joe” was to be an escape from our troubles, not a mockery of them, but while Ray walked with Moonlight Graham, I ate cold scrambled eggs at a Waffle House and listened to my younger siblings bicker out of boredom. The book’s endless optimism gnawed at me. I didn’t want green grass and sunshine — I wanted someone else to suffer, too. But there is little suffering in “Shoeless Joe,” a book in which all troubles are washed away by time and a little faith.

* * * *

The repair shop, only a mile from the hotel, opened at 8:30 Monday morning. The tow truck driver had the night before told us that the van would make it that far, and he wasn’t wrong. Dad drove to the shop fearing the problem would delay us another day, but, for a change, Lady Luck was with us. The repair took 20 minutes, and we were back on the road by 10 a.m.

Still, I could muster no optimism, even with the aid of “Shoeless Joe,” and I felt old despite my youth. We won’t make many more family trips, not all together. The van’s too old for it, and so are we. I’ll soon finish college, with my sister close behind, and the schedules and lives will grow too complicated. The simple days, with all seven of us under the same roof, will soon pass.

As I read in the van, I wanted more than anything else to love “Shoeless Joe,” to embrace and revel in all the hope and goodwill it represents, to leave all my angst behind with a blown spark plug in Rolla, Missouri. But I thought of my dying grandmother, the reason for the trip, and reality crept in again. I closed the book and watched the trees fly by.

(flickr courtesy of cc:rutlo)

Alex Rodriguez: Tragic Hero? (Part II)

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” – The Witches of Macbeth


This started as an essay called Alex Rodriguez: Tragic Hero. I had noble intensions for it; I was going to compare A-Rod to Macbeth. I would have matched A-Rod’s time in Seattle to Macbeth’s glory as a military hero. I would have talked about how Scott Boras was his Lady Macbeth, encouraging him to take the money from Texas (or slay King Duncan). I would have argued that once A-Rod did go to Texas, his insecurities about the circumstance led him to steroids, and eventually the living hell that is New York and its media. Kind of like Macbeth’s raging paranoia on the throne. I didn’t have a match for the fortune telling witches, but otherwise the whole thing was going to be beautiful. Then I remembered this was a blog, not a high school essay.

(If it were a high school essay, the thesis would read something like this: So and So defines the tragic hero as a sympathetic protagonist who is undone by his own flaws or mistakes. Baseball player Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod), is a tragic hero because a blind, overwhelming desire to be loved by everybody has caused him to make some significant mistakes and hurt his reputation. The main example of this is his use of steroids.)

So I’ll just pose this as a question: Is Alex Rodriguez a tragic hero, well-intended at first but undone by one catastrophic flaw? Maybe. He’s certainly a wounded hero, hardly the knight in shining polyester who sat above even the great Jeter and Garciaparra on the triumvirate of convention-shattering shortstops in the 90s.

Where he’s gained status as an all-time great hitter, he seems to have lost it as a champion of the sport. First, he took the money with Texas. Then he got himself shipped to New York and did the honorable thing for his pal Jeter by shifting over to third base. The rest I don’t need to get into –the regular season dominance and postseason struggles are fresh in all our minds. The clubhouse dramas and marriage problems, and now the steroids are fresh too.

But what’s guided all this behavior? I think back about the excerpt I started with in the last post, from the poet Cody Walker:

When I was younger I wanted to be a baseball player. But I can’t remember whether I loved baseball, or whether I just wanted everyone to love me. A confession, then: I still want everyone to love me—blindly, entirely, without sense or reason.

Which motivates Alex Rodriguez? His love for baseball, or his desire to be loved? The answer is probably a lot more complicated than either choice. Money fits in there somewhere too, and a whole litany of subtle factors I probably couldn’t understand. But more than greed or competitive lust for victory, it feels to me that Rodriguez has been guided by an unquenchable desire to be loved, praised, adored.

If his tragic flaw (or at least self-damaging one) really is an addiction to Praise, Adulation, and Worship, then maybe it all makes sense. Maybe his crucial error was somehow letting his own sense of humanity get intertwined to unrealistic notions of heroism. Maybe it was the high off all that admiration that so skewed his understanding of consequence. Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Will heroism itself be the undoing of Alex Rodriguez?

Part III coming when it comes…