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501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die, Ron Kaplan (2013)

Kaplan’s been writing about baseball books for years so he’s the ideal writer for this project. He hasn’t read everything but has read enough that I’m confident the titles he features will be entertaining and informative for anyone needing a baseball reading list. The book covers books from the 19th century until 2012, with fifteen chapters covering all aspects of nonfiction and a limited selection of fiction, including children’s books. Unless you’re very widely read you won’t have heard of most of these books. I even found an extensive list of books I hadn’t heard of and wanted to read. Most were available in Minnesota public libraries. Since I read this book in 2013, I’ve been reading from these lists and it’s made for lots of fun reading!

100 Things Twins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Alex Halsted (2011)

I picked this up at the library as a comparison tool for reviewing the recently released Brewers volume in this series. It’s definitely a formula, but it works. At the time he wrote this, Halsted was a college student and a baseball blogger, not a working journalist. He has a great grasp on Twins history, covering a lot of great 1960s and 1970s moments as well as the famous more recent World Series wins and the tough 1990s. Like the other books in the series, it covers fans and ballpark experiences. Some of it seems like team PR, but it’s kind of expected out of a book with this theme. It’s to get new fans excited about the team and refresh less recent fans about what they may have missed or have forgotten about. I wish some of the people I’ve been stuck next to at Target Field had read this book. (To the team’s credit, this book and lots of other books on the Twins are available in the team store at the field. Go Team Books!)

Game Six: Cincinnati, Boston, and the 1975 World Series, Mark Frost (2009)

Why not Game 7, when the Reds actually won? This was the game of Fisk’s famous home run, concluding 12 innings of drama that kept the Red Sox alive for one more day. Yes, you can get 400 pages of book out of 12 innings of baseball, but maybe you shouldn’t. Thus the interesting parts weren’t about the game itself but the things around the game: the 3-day rain delay before it, the drama surrounding the change in television contracts with NBC losing its baseball exclusive to ABC beginning with the 1976 season, Sparky Anderson’s managerial style, and the life story of Luis Tiant. I want the Tiant book instead.

You Gotta Have Heart: A History of Washington Baseball From 1859 to the 2012 National League East Champions, Frederic J. Frommer (2013)

I believe this may be a revision of Frommer’s earlier book about D.C. baseball published when the Nationals were moved from Montreal to Washington, updated including the Nationals since then with an emphasis on their 2012 NL East-winning season and heartbreaking playoff collapse. If you’re looking for in-depth analysis on any aspect of Washington baseball, look elsewhere; this book is all about dates, small facts, and fans. It’s less than 250 pages of text that hits on all aspects of D.C.’s baseball history: the original Senators, the Negro Leagues (particularly the Homestead Grays,) the expansion-era Senators, and the current Nationals as well as covering fandom and the intersection of politicians and baseball. Of course it isn’t in-depth. I’ve read 300+-page books on Bryce Harper alone; how can you cover Walter Johnson and Harmon Killebrew in depth in less than that? But as an intro for new Nats fans, it can’t be challenged until the Nats win it all. (This book was received as part of LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program)

Supposedly an embedded report on the 2010 Clinton LumberKings, Seattle Mariners Midwest League affiliate. Entirely more about the author, but that’s intentional. It’s creative/literary nonfiction. I’m used to this genre, but it really doesn’t occur in baseball nonfiction much and when it does it’s by younger essayists. No problem there, but it will take a while for those who only read baseball nonfiction to get used to.

Unfortunately it’s also part of the memoir genre, so critiquing the book may get into critiquing the author as displayed in the book. I think Mann wasn’t old enough to write this book. He’s too close in age to the players (24 at writing) and too far in age from the locals he also profiled. It also doesn’t help that he’s a Vassar grad from New York City attending the University of Iowa’s MFA program who then plops himself into semi-rural working-class Iowa for this project. Simply put, he doesn’t understand Iowa. Iowa City as a college town is much its own thing, not resembling the Iowa he has chosen to work in. (I am questioning why he didn’t try to follow the Cedar Rapids Kernels, the team far closer to his Iowa City base; perhaps the Mariners were the only Midwest League parent club that would co-operate with a nontraditional journalist?) He doesn’t understand the players either; I think some of his subjects, like Nick Franklin, may be from similar economic backgrounds, but they’re not from the same region of the US (or the same country) or the same religion, or the same college background. He mentions his college drug use–ballplayers get tested, they’re not supposed to do that. They wasted their university experience in a completely different way if they had a university experience at all. He doesn’t get why he’s dragged into taking players to bars or to Wal-Mart–he has a car, the players don’t, and they’re exchanging the information he needs for their project for car rides they need to conduct life off the field. He’s not a friend, he has nothing in commmon with them; the players aren’t stupid and they seem to know that he holds them in a mixture of awe and contempt. As Pulp sung, “Everybody hates a tourist.” The part that really got me in his interaction with players was when Mann went to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World with Danny Carroll. First off, neither of them were really old enough to get this movie–Bryan Lee O’Malley is doing nostalgia for thirty-somethings in the comic–and Mann missed a major analogy from the comic; Scott and a bunch of other characters are from small towns in Ontario that are a lot like small towns in Iowa. But, in this scene at the movie, we see that Carroll is at least inquisitive about cultures he doesn’t belong to.

The best part of this book is the oral history of Clinton that Mann only touches on, with the rise and fall of various industries and the union struggles of the 1980s. He understands that but I don’t think he really could get enough of a feel for his subjects to capture it well or in depth.

The other problem I found in this book was in Mann’s treatment of female fans. It seems that he believes that there are no nonsexual reasons for women to be baseball fans. From page 59 of the hardcover edition: “Women watch, never play. Women support, sometimes they love.” Most of the female fans he follows are middle-aged or elderly; I’m surprised he didn’t go the more logical “team mom” route but this is even worse. He does touch a little bit on groupies/seasonal player girlfriends but the more I thought about it the less I think that the women in relationships with players are trying to latch on to stardom or follow the players around than I think that they’re looking for the same relationship with sex that men have. These are small towns. A woman has to stay there, but the players are always leaving.

It’s hard to write a modern biography of the sort of person who almost nobody had a bad word to say about and it’s clear from this book and other accounts that Mark Fidrych was one of these people. Because his subject is one of these rare birds-no pun intended-in being both intriguing and non-controversial, Doug Wilson had to find his drama elsewhere other than the bumps in the road of Fidrych’s baseball career.

Now that the late Boomers and early X-ers have grown up, we’re getting the first waves of 1970s nostalgia. (The Golden Age of Baseball may not be 12, as the joke about science fiction and its fandom goes, but if it isn’t it’s very close.) Unfortunately the infection present in the earlier waves of 1950s and 1960s nostalgia has spread here: the idea that everything was better in the good old days, before free agency. (Conveniently ignored is the fact that if Fidrych hadn’t had his career end early, he would have been eligible for free agency in 1981. He was already a player of the free agency era at his debut.) It’s true that baseball hasn’t quite known a gate-drawing phenomenon on the national level like Fidrych was in 1976 (the more regional Fernandomania of 1981 came close) but I don’t know if it’s an artifact of new media delivering all prospect news before it can be a surprise. It seems more of a “could have only happened then” case but not for that reason- it needed a personality that captured the cultural feel at the time in an environment where this was the most exciting thing going at the time. It is an aspect of fan culture that is missed and is definitely not the same, but I place the blame on ownership and what is and is not allowed at newer parks rather than on the players. If the lack of fan enthusiasm was on the players, the fan culture in Oakland would not exist. If management allows it, the fans in costumes and creative banners hanging off the stadium will happen.

Sadly, if not for this misdirection of nostalgia this book would be excellent, due to its subject: a working-class man who just wanted to work as a ballplayer to earn enough money to buy a garage or a business truck. He moved back home, bought a house, bought a dump truck, married a local, and was driving his truck to excavation jobs until the day he died. The thing he got and never wanted was celebrity, but he used it well to support charity projects.

This book is a look at the AAA level of minor league baseball, by following a set of individuals through the International League during the 2012 season. I joke a lot that the IL is terra incognita for me and this book both proved it and educated me. The players he followed were only familiar to me if they had played previously in MLB or even only the Pacific Coast League, or if they had been involved with the Brewers.

One of the players he follows is Scott Podsednik, who had a very unusual and transaction-filled 2012.He started the season in the Phillies organization, ended up with the Red Sox organization, made the majors with the Sox, then got traded to Arizona and two days after that was released. Then the Red Sox signed him again to a major league contract.

I enjoyed reading about managers Ron Johnson and Charlie Montoya. Montoya has been a longtime manager in the Rays organization, primarily at Durham, and one of the strengths that people keep mentioning about the Rays is their continuity of coaching.

Strangely, I found the stories of the players Feinstein didn’t track throughout the season to be more interesting. This was mostly, outside of the managers, Feinstein doesn’t go into a lot of depth about the personalities he tracked in 2012. It makes me wonder how much got cut down to edit the book to a more manageable size, if anything was cut at all. There are a lot of stories about players relevant to the 2014 Brewers like Zach Duke and Pete Orr.

It’s absolutely fascinating, especially if you only follow MLB or only dip into the minors to look at prospects or your own team’s minor league system. It’s an emotional wringer even for people like me familiar with the high minors or who think the entire purpose of baseball is a metaphorical framework explaining failure. (Why, yes, I did like the sections about Brett Tomko best of all.)

This book is a ridiculous crime fiction novel featuring a relief pitcher private investigator. The part about a reliever being a PI wasn’t the ridiculous part. It was everything else.

Does traditional noir set in this present day really work? I’ve read a few of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series (which one of the cover blurbs on this book compares it to) and I’ve never felt ooky about reading those, even with the period sexism. 1964 was indeed another country and the female agency in the McGee series seemed different than it does here. Even with female heroes and villains (and victims) Monday seems to have included them only as plot objects.

The suspension of disbelief didn’t happen for me. The baseball is generally good, the opposite of most sports-related genre fiction I’ve encountered. Here we have sports that make sense (mostly) but the crime plot is over the top. Or distasteful. Or, more to the point, both.

(The bad baseball point: why would a manager make the team LOOGY the closer? It’s clear at the beginning that the protagonist is a situational reliever. If his splits were equal, he wouldn’t be used as a situational reliever. See Sean Doolittle and Glen Perkins for usage patterns for a high-leverage LHRP.)

This book is one of those massively recommended baseball novels. As a peek into 19th century baseball and the 1876 Red Stockings, it’s unparalleled in fiction. There’s definitely enough baseball in here. Unfortunately the entire kitchen sink went into the production of the rest of the novel.

1) It looks like a straightforward time-travel novel with lots of baseball.
2) Then our protagonist has to escape from gamblers. Not so unusual for the period, but…
3) He runs into Mark Twain (who he’s named for)
4) and there’s psychics
5) and the Fenian Brotherhood
6) and then it turns into a time-travel romance (with no HEA)
7) and a cross-country chase
and most of the baseball disappeared.

The end made it look like one of those “the old days were better” books when it’s clear from Sam’s actions in the past re racism and sexism that he didn’t agree…whatever, it didn’t fit the author’s plot template.

In conclusion, it’s crackfic. It hung together as well as can be expected–it takes a talented author to juggle this much and have the audience keep watching, and Brock is–but there’s a point where he starts dropping balls. Thankfully it’s late in the novel.

Brewers at Marlins: Brewers #1 prospect Jimmy Nelson makes his 2014 debut.

A’s at Blue Jays: Drew Pomeranz is making his 4th start of the season. He’s given up 3 runs this year, 2 on solo home runs. I don’t think it’s sustainable but watch him now before the pixie dust runs out.

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