Sunday, April 3, 2005
Oh happy day! Baseball is back in Washington after all these years! And to celebrate it, here's a trio of books about the real national pastime from three distinctly different positions -- major league manager, high-school coach and (oh, unhappy day) Cubs fan.Summer Madness
Fifteen years ago, Buzz Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, wrote Friday Night Lights , a searing look at high school football that ESPN voted the best sports book of the last 25 years. Several years later, in A Prayer for the City , he chronicled Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell's efforts to revitalize his town. Now a Vanity Fair contributing editor, Bissinger is back on the sports beat, having enlisted the cooperation of St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa in Three Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak, and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager (Houghton Mifflin, $25). "As a lifelong baseball fan, I found myself more curious about La Russa than anybody else in the game," Bissinger writes. Together, they "came up with the idea of crafting the book around the timeless unit of baseball, the three game series. The one we settled on, against the eternal rival Chicago Cubs, took place in the 2003 season. Had the goal of the book been different -- to write about a particular season -- it would have made sense to switch gears and write about the Cardinals' magnificent ride of 2004. But that wasn't the goal."(Though perhaps it would have been, had the Red Sox not had their miracle year.)
They hoped to write a book that would have "lasting and universal application no matter what season it took place in." We'll have to wait a while for that determination, but in the meantime we have the book itself, which is generally quite satisfying. When Bissinger is wearing his essayist cap, there's too much of this kind of writing: "The lineup was in tatters without the great [Albert] Pujols: the karmic gestalt of it completely disrupted, Freudian analysis cut abruptly short, feng shui in crisis." But when Bissinger and, by osmosis, La Russa get to both the games and the game itself, the overwrought prose gives way to more showing and less telling, and the result is interesting reading. Not the least of the enjoyments are the history of those two old Midwestern rivals, the Cards and the Cubs; the rich background of baseball information; and, especially, the character of Tony La Russa. In explaining how out-of-place that mediocre-player-turned-great-manager is in the macho, meat-eating world of major league baseball, Bissinger asks what one should make of a man who is not only "a vegetarian, but a vegetarian with a law degree." By the way, the Cards won the three-game series, 2-1.Grace Under Relentless Pressure
For those who might prefer to read about the 2004 season, not 2003, there is Gene Wojciechowski's Cubs Nation: 162 Games, 162 Stories, 1 Addiction (Doubleday, $22.95). Wojciechowski, a senior writer for ESPN magazine, doesn't come right out and proclaim his fandom, but you have no doubt where he stands after reading his reaction to the Cubs' season-ending loss in the 2004 National League Championship Series: "Doom. Despair. Despondency. Another Wrigleyville wake. The Cubs are all too familiar with such solemn gatherings. You know the numbers: no World Series championship since 1908, no World Series appearance since 1945. . . . Cursed? I don't know. I do know there is a cemetery located just down the street from Wrigley and a cemetery just across the street from the Cubs' training facility in Mesa, Arizona. And is it a coincidence that at the O'Hare Airport parking garage, the Cubs' level is located on, sigh, the bottom floor?" Need more evidence of his loyalty? Who but a dyed-in-the-wool fan would write an entire book about the Cubs?
Whereas Buzz Bissinger had already written two Serious Books, this appears to be Gene Wojciechowski's first. He's a clever writer with a sharp sense of humor, and he has the requisite big heart of all true Cub fans.
The book actually covers every game of the season, in diary-entry fashion; first comes a very brief account of the final score, and then the author comments or provides a Q&A on a wide variety of subjects. Those questioned range from former players to the guy who sings the national anthem to columnist George Will (a Cubs fan) to a beer-seller to one of the Ballhawks (the fanatics who chase balls hit out of the park) on the corner of Waveland and Kenmore, "which is where any Ballhawk worth his beer gut positions himself during a Cubs game."
Here's the author interviewing George Will:
"Q. You once wrote, "From [former Cubs shortstop Roy] Smalley I learned the truth about the word Overdue. What is that truth?
"Will: That truth, as my father explained to me, is that Stan Musial batting .242 is 'overdue.' Roy Smalley batting .242 is having a career year. Overdue is a way of not taking seriously the strong probabilities of baseball. . . .
"Q. Do you see any similarities between managing a Cubs team and managing the government?
"Will: No, no, because the Cubs have talent. Managing the Cubs is closer to a priestly duty. [Government] is bureaucratic muddling through. What's the governmental equivalent of Mark Prior? Abraham Lincoln, I suppose, and they don't come along that often."
By taking the focus off himself, Wojciechowski provides a great deal of information and even more entertainment. And he offers story after story after story, my favorite being his brief tale about the Billy Goat Tavern, 430 North Lower Michigan Avenue, and the origin of the famed Billy Goat's Curse, which is as good an explanation as any for the Cubs' pathetic World Series record.
With the conclusion foregone, there's not a whole lot of suspense or drama as we near the end, so the author wisely decides to close on a low key by allowing that Steve Bartman, the Cub fan who kept Moises Alou from catching a foul ball -- the last out that would have put the Cubbies in the 2003 World Series -- is not really a bad guy. Nice. You put the book down with a smile.Short Stop
Coach (Norton, $12.95; forthcoming in May), by bestselling author Michael Lewis, is a very different matter. In fact, I must confess some bewilderment as to why this 87-page "volume" is even considered a book. Apparently, it is an exact reprint of an 8,764-word article Lewis wrote for the New York Times Magazine in March 2004 about Bill Fitzgerald, his prep school baseball coach, a most admirable man who refuses to alter his values to suit the demands of modern parents. As far as I can see, there's nothing new except for two dozen full-page pictures. And for this book, which is half the size of a baseball glove, they want $13. Could it be simply a way to capitalize on the controversy raised by Moneyball , Lewis's 2003 book about general manager Billy Beane and his Oakland A's?
Now Lewis is a good reporter and a very good writer, and this slimmest of volumes makes a good point -- that a coach who can change the direction of a boy's life, as he did for the 14-year-old Lewis, is a treasure to be, well, treasured. But 13 bucks for a half-hour's read? I wonder what Coach Fitz would have to say about that? Let's see, for a dollar more I can get two reserved seats in the outfield upper deck at RFK. Hmm. •
John Greenya writes frequently about sports.
Cubs' Moises Alou (right) is congratulated by Derrek Lee after Alou hit a home run against the Cincinnati Reds last September.
Wrigley Field under lights for a game between the Cubs and the San Francisco Giants in 1996
St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, right, with pitcher Jason Marquis just before Game 4 of the World Series against the Boston Red Sox last October