In the grip of baseball
Baseball is an emotional game. For every thrill of victory there is an agony of defeat. Yet the fans still have faith, still think their team, though mired in the basement for a decade, has a good a chance to win the championship. Come September, if not earlier, they're right back where they started, still spouting the optimistic rallying cry, Wait 'til next year! Then there's the male-bonding factor, as fathers pass their love of the game to the next generation. And for many, the memories of playing the sport as a child linger for a lifetime. Jim Bouton, author of the watershed (and recently re-released) Ball Four: The Final Pitch, condensed these sentiments into one sentence: You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time. There are several new books which embrace the emotional grip of the national pastime.
If you're old enough to have been a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, no game was more emblematic of that queasy feeling of having the floor pulled out from under you than the 1951 playoff game with the hated cross-town rival New York Giants. It was the contest in which Bobby Thomson hit his shot heard 'round the world. One only has to look at the photo of Ralph Branca, the poster boy for bad sports karma, crying on the clubhouse steps, to understand the tremendous ups and downs athletes and fans face on a regular basis. John Kuenster deftly captures this attitude in Heartbreakers: Baseball's Most Agonizing Defeats. He cites many examples of victory cruelly denied by a poorly timed home run, an error or some other mishap. A more recent example was Red Sox Bill Buckner's fielding gaffe against the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series. Boston was two strikes away from its first world championship since the days of Babe Ruth, only to see victory slip away.
The home run is the most dramatic way to send fans into fits of agony or ecstasy. One swing of the bat can spell doom for the opposition. Rich Westcott chronicles the most famous of these shots in Great Home Runs of the 20th Century. The aforementioned Thomson blast is included, of course, as well as Mark McGwire's and Sammy Sosa's record breakers, Carlton Fisk's extra-inning thriller against the Reds in 1972, Bill Mazeroski's 1960 World Series walk-off home run against the mighty Yankees, and a hobbling Kirk Gibson's last-gasp blast in the '88 Fall Classic, all fodder for the highlight reels.
One of the more heartwarming stories in recent years is told in The Oldest Rookie: Big-League Dreams From a Small-Town Guy, by Jim Morris with Joel Engel. Morris was one of thousands of prospects who, despite their talent, fail to make it to the major leagues. After puttering around in the minors for several years, fighting injury and the pressure to get on with his life, Morris retired, struggling to make a living and provide for his family. Almost 15 years after he threw his last professional pitch, Morris, by now a high school baseball coach who still had a 95 mph fastball, accepted a challenge from his team: if they made the playoffs, he would try out for a major league team. When the high school team scored a come-from-behind victory in the playoffs, Morris was forced to keep his promise. At the tryouts, he threw faster than he ever had, earning a place with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. No, this book is not a retelling of The Natural; Morris did not become a latter-day Roy Hobbs. He just lived his dream, and he relates his amazing story with humility and charm.
Although the headlines usually focus on the stratospheric salaries of today's top stars, George Gmelch's Inside Pitch: Life in Professional Baseballshows another side of the sport. Gmelch gives readers an overview of the whole process of becoming a professional ballplayer, from the time a player emerges from the womb of his amateur days and signs his first professional contract until he leaves the game, either on his own or on orders from a higher authority. This fascinating book calls on the insights of scouts, managers, coaches, front office personnel and the players themselves. Gmelch shows fans the day-to-day, humdrum, insecure toil of the minor leaguer who is often ill-prepared for life away from home, unfamiliar with the most rudimentary tasks such as doing laundry and handling finances and such. The author calls upon his own background as a minor leaguer, giving Inside Pitch a unique air of authenticity.
Baseball Extra, edited by Eric C. Caren, is one of the more unusual compilations available to baseball fans. Reprints from more than a century of newspapers not only highlight the national pastime, but help put it in historical perspective. Baseball reports share the pages with non-sports news, both regional and national. The huge format of the book gives the reader that being there feeling and makes for hours of fascinating reading.
Ron Kaplan is a freelance writer specializing in baseball. In a role-reversal, he took his father to his first baseball game when he was 65.
Extra innings for baseball fans!
More promising baseball books are scheduled to hit the bookstore shelves as the season progresses:
A Pitcher's Story: Innings with David Cone by Roger Angell. One of our best baseball writers takes a candid look at the craft of pitching.
Home Runedited by George Plimpton. A collection of first-rate fiction and nonfiction writing about a winning topic: home runs. Contributors include John Updike, Garrison Keillor and Don DeLillo.
The Final Season: Fathers, Sons and One Last Season in a Classic American Ballpark by Tom Stanton. A moving memoir about the loss of a beloved ballpark Tiger Stadium in Detroit and the way in which one parent comes to terms with his mortality.