Batter up! The Major League baseball season is about a quarter over and none of my three teams have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs! Go Baltimore, Cincy and the Cubs! (And Cubs, you might want to strive a little harder.) Don’t you think we should talk some baseball here and promise to recommend a few kids’ books at the end? After all, baseball has inspired more great book writing than any other American sport.
I recently came back from an 18 year hiatus. I gave up on baseball in about 1994. Labor strife that year, greed, steroids, etc. But now the Kid is back. And his top two teams have been riding high.
I got back kind of sudden. My book club read Moneyball by Michael Lewis. I’d not heard of it and I didn’t even know it was a recent and well-regarded movie with Brad Pitt. But man, it sucked me in. Lewis carts us away with him to the world of Billy Beane, a can’t-miss big league prospect in the ‘80s, who missed.
Beane decides the scouts blew it on picking Beane, that they went on gut instinct and not the right kind of data. So he reinvents the art of managing a baseball franchise and becomes a crazy successful general manager of the Oakland A’s. And he turns into a scientist of statistics, climbing up the metaphorical shoulders of the shunned genius Bill James. (James has finally gained respect from the baseball establishment and helped the Red Sox win their first two World Series championships since 1918 in 2004 and 2007.)
Somehow Beane has the smallest payroll and the best teams circa 2001, gathering a team of discards that don’t look right to the baseball scouts. Moneyball: an enthralling book about the baseball world being willfully clueless and finally getting outsmarted.
And now on October 3, 2012, his A’s have done it again: they’ve come from 13 games out and won their division in the 162nd and last regular season game in a feat with only four precedents in history (1914 Boston Braves, ’51 New York Giants in Willie Mays rookie year, the ’78 Yanks and the ’95 Mariners.) With the smallest payroll in the majors! Ouch, Texas Rangers, that’s gotta hurt!
Moneyball was so fun to read and talk about that- shazam! I was a fan again. Just in the nick of time for my teams. (And just as my brother in Atlanta was coming into the fold again. Nice wild card entry for the Braves, bro.)
So here I am: Dan Patterson, baseball fan. And it’s time to reassimilate. News items:
1. There are now 6 divisions instead of four.
2. There are now 30 teams including ones in Denver, Phoenix, Washington D.C., Tampa Bay, and Miami. Sorry, Montreal.
3. The Brewers have switched to the National League.
4. I know the names of few players.
…time to get back to speed!
I became a fan in 1976. I bought hundreds of ’75 and ’76 baseball cards. (It was all Topps then.) I read the sports pages every day. And there was a writeup for every game (unlike now when the Oregonian only writes up two or three games). I spent my spring afternoons in 4th grade gazing out the classroom windows, thinking about playing when I got out.
Pretty soon I was expert. I could name some complete lineups. I’d guess within a year I could name 10 players easy off the top of my head for any of the 26 teams (by the time Seattle and Toronto joined in ’77).
And you want statistics? I was brimming with home run numbers, RBI’s, ERA and win totals for people like Joe Morgan, George Foster, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver, Fred Lynn, Dave Parker, Amos Otis, Dave Concepcion and Ken Singleton.
I guess in 2012 I just expected it to all come back to me. Except I can’t afford baseball cards anymore. (Come to think of it, 1994 was about the time cards turned crazy expensive. In ’76 it was $.10 for seven cards plus a horrible piece of bubble gum.) And my dad no longer subscribes to Sports Illustrated and anyway, he’s 2000 miles away. (And when the O’s are on the cover, it’s hard to even find it on the newsstand.) And the paper doesn’t cover baseball too well. And I don’t have cable TV.
Wish I could learn the players. The names that stay with me have familiar surnames like Prince Fielder. I remember his slugging dad Cecil. And Matt Kemp, who I guess isn’t related to the Tiger’s old star Steve Kemp, but at least the name jogs my memory. Plus there’s a guy or two that’s still around, like Chipper Jones who’s retiring this fall at the age of 40.
So here I am, a clueless baseball fan, enjoying it all again but wondering how I’ll ever learn a new generation of names so I can feel good about my teams and about myself. Shouldn’t there be internet-era ditto pages I can download and cut out, nine players to a page?
Well, if you’re still with me, thank you very much. And now I’ll mention some juvenile baseball books. At Powell’s I just picked up a perfect book for a middle grade or 47 year old baseball fan. A 2010 Scholastic paperback called Ultimate Guide to Baseball: Facts, Stats, Stars and Stuff by James Buckley, Jr. Great history as well as a spread about all 30 teams. Indispensable to Dan!
And now let’s go to some dustier places. We had a battered, corny-looking old paperback on our shelf in about 1979 that my brother-in-law got me to read. And he was right, The Kid Comes Back by John R. Tunis was really engaging. So was the previous book, The Kid From Tomkinsville. (And a quick search shows Tunis was a revered writer and a New Yorker regular.)
Suddenly I remember loving a novel from my dad’s era, Safe! By Harold Sherman (1928). Corny but delectable.
The series that enthralled me as a kid was Major League Library by Random House. They were these handsome hardcover books I think I paid $3.00 for at B. Dalton. I loved Baseball’s Zaniest Stars and several others.
Recently I polished off Great Hitters of the Major Leagues by Frank Graham (1969). Willie Mays is on the cover and it has a chapter on 11 greats going back to Ty Cobb. Still very entertaining.
I tried recently to re-read Strange But True Baseball Stories by Furman Bisher. Promising topic, but disjointed, incompetent story-telling. Far superior is More Strange But True Baseball Stories by Howard Liss. You read about a catcher trying to catch a throw off the top of the Washington Monument and other great stuff.
Have you ever had that bedtime problem when it seems WHATEVER you read over-stimulates you and gets your heart pumping? For some reason, these baseball books are my antidote. Fun but neutral.