Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review Collection: Good Baseball Books

 Having reviewed some OK baseball books, I now move to books that I really found wonderful.  I haven't even brought up the Brothers K, which is a family novel in which baseball happens to figure very largely.  That's a good one, too, though.
Robert Benson, The Game, 2001 (read in May 2003)
My most vociferous baseball fan friend, Jason Roth, lent me this book as a light read for the start of baseball season.  The author is a baseball fan who organizes his chapters around a AAA game between the Nashville Sounds (then the Pirates farm team) and the Iowa Cubs (guess whose farm team).  This is a well-written memoir about the author's experiences playing and watching baseball and passing it on to his children.  It's a quick read and was a fun way to kick off another season of false hope that my team would win that year.  The Pirates had finished in fourth place at 72-89 the year before I read this book and improved to fourth place and 75-87 that year.

David Lamb, Stolen Season; a Journey Through America and Baseball's Minor Leagues, 1991 (read in June 2004)
My baseball book for the season, this book was very satisfying.  My friend Katherine Stikkers gave it to me as she was paring down her household in Pittsburgh.  We've shared a love of baseball and played on a softball team together.  Lamb is a journalist who has had a global career, which started with a unique assignment covering the Braves from a distant fan's perspective for the Milwaukee Journal the year they moved from Boston to Milwaukee.  The unique aspect: he was 14 that season. 

This book is the story of a summer - 1989 or 1990 - when Lamb took off in an RV across the country going to minor league games and soaking up the lifestyle and stories integral to the minor leagues.  Many of his stops are chosen because the teams are part of the Milwaukee Brewers system.  Stops in Stockton, CA, El Paso and Peoria, AZ present the relationship of minor league teams to their communities.  This is a great book for baseball fans, even as it has aged.  Lamb met players who have gone on to successful major league careers when they were still prospects or minor league stars (one rhymes with Mozay Funsayco).  Of course, most of the players he meets never made it to the show or didn't last long enough to become household names.  It's a charming book and a quick read. 

A caution to wives:  if your husband reads this book in spring, keep him off used RV lots.

Neal Karlen, Slouching Toward Fargo, 1999 (read in the early aughts)
The reader can discover a lot from the subtitle "A Two-Year Saga Of Sinners And St. Paul Saints At The Bottom Of The Bush Leagues With Bill Murray, Darryl Strawberry, Dakota Sadie And Me".  Karlen, a hard-bitten Rolling Stone reporter is sent to St. Paul to poke fun at Darryl Strawberry's attempt to return to the major leagues through independent baseball.  The St. Paul Saints and their competitors in the Northern League have no ties to any major league clubs.  The players are hoping to be discovered or just like the lights and the grass or in Strawberry's case are trying to make a comeback, keeping a toe in the game.  Karlen finds that he can't give his editors what they want.  He finds redemption all over the place with a team that has a pig with saddlebags take the balls out to the umpire and where the PA announcer deadpans "train" when a train rumbles past the outfield wall.  Oh, and Bill Murray has an ownership stake.  Our then three-person family got to see a game at St. Paul, and it's a baseball bucket list item for sure.

Frank Deford, The Entitled, 2007 (read in July 2007)
This book was over NPR that summer, and being a baseball fan, NPR fan and Frank DeFord fan, I felt I must follow my trifecta.  This is an engrossing novel for a baseball fan to read.  I would not recommend it to the non-baseball fan.  The jacket quotes from baseball insiders all endorse DeFord as getting the baseball life right.  It certainly felt very authentic and "inside" to me as a reader.  The plot - a star player caught in a scandal and his journeyman manager's response in the midst of what may be his only shot as a big league manager - is compelling.  DeFord skillfully spools out narrative and character development in a way that gathers speed and interest as the story proceeds.  If I have one complaint, it is that the climax and denouement happen very quickly - as though DeFord reached the page limit for which he was being paid and did not care to go further.

R.A. Dickey, Wherever I Wind Up; My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball, 2012, (read in June 2012)
I heard R.A. Dickey interviewed - where else? - on Fresh Air.  When I heard that his new autobiography, written with journalist Wayne Coffey, covered not only his development as a knuckleball pitcher but also his childhood abuse history, I was intrigued.  I've read lots of baseball books, and the first person baseball autobiography always puts me in mind of Jim Bouton's Ball Four.  The difference between that book and this one - besides, oh, 42 years - is that Bouton was a self-unaware @$$hole of the first order.  Dickey comes across as much more humble.  His relationship with Jesus forms the centerpiece of his life story.  The book could have been subtitled "Grief, Jesus and Baseball".  Those who aren't so fond of God's Only Begotten may not enjoy this book as much as I did.  Dickey appears to leave nothing on the table.  Some details are only alluded to, but he really comes out with lots of tough stuff in his background,.  The book is not always well-written, especially early.  A memorably banal sentence that starts a chapter irked me: "My favorite time of the year was Christmas."  How many millions of people could have written that sentence about themselves?  It gets better though, and the book hits its stride as Dickey turns to both honesty and the knuckleball in parallel strains of desperation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Have you not read "The Brothers K" by James David Duncan? It is a wonderful novel with baseball running all through it!