[10 July 2007]
Though its claim on the title of “America’s National Pastime” is now tenuous at best, the game of baseball remains superior to all other sports in at least one aspect. Some sports, such as football, have more violence, while others, including basketball, boast faster-paced action. No other sport, however, seems to serve so well as a metaphor for American culture. Volumes on baseball dominate sports shelves in bookstores nationwide, and these tomes depict the sport as everything from an embodiment of democratic values to a symbol of familial unity or romantic love. Readers unfamiliar with the world of sports literature need only browse Scoring from Second: Writers on Baseball, a new collection edited by Philip F. Deaver, to realize the extent to which writers have employed baseball as a metaphor for life.
The subtitle, Writers on Baseball deserves some clarification. Although collections of baseball writing are not rare, Deaver’s edition manages to be unique. Scoring from Second avoids the work of the most famous baseball writers; in fact, only a few of the authors included in the book are known primarily for their work in sports. The anthology includes pieces by noted authors such as Ron Carlson and Michael Chabon, journalists like Tom Stanton, and a host of academics. Overall, English Professors on Baseball or Baseball as Creative Nonfiction might have been more appropriate subtitles for Scoring from Second.
Many of the essays here are riveting and rewarding. The lively writing and healthy wit of Dan O’Neill’s, “The Heat Is on for Cards” belie the article’s initial appearance in a newspaper’s sports page. Carlson’s “The Softball Memo” uses conversational prose and self-deprecating humor to reconstruct a significant moment in his own athletic career. Cris Mazza, who memorably writes that when she “wasn’t feeling the surging hormones [her] health class predicted would arise, it was comforting to understand the infield fly rule or how the conditions are right for the hit and run”, brilliantly weaves a coming-of-age story with a retrospective of the San Diego Padres. Michael Steinberg sheds light on both the mind of a young pitcher and the pathos of a Jewish coach in “Trading Off: A Memoir”.
When Scoring‘s writers leave a healthy distance between themselves and their subject matter, they often achieve surprising success. In “That’s Why We’re Here”, Peter Ives describes the day when the Make-A-Wish foundation sent him and his son to Yankee Stadium to meet the players and watch a game. Ives writes that he remained “peripheral to that recollection, the stocky, balding man behind a Nikon who kept saying, Thank you”. In his piece, Ives is a sort of literary photographer, staying in the background and telling the story through verbal snapshots of his son’s excitement. Michael Chabon also manages to withhold harsh judgment when he critiques a commonly maligned player in “Jose Canseco, Hero”. Chabon rejects simplistic interpretations of steroid abuse and focuses instead on Canseco’s roguish character, even going so far as to link the baseball star to literary figures such as Ulysses and Sinbad. Thanks to recent controversy over Barry Bond’s homerun record chase, Chabon’s essay on baseball, steroids, and character is more relevant now than when it was written.
Unfortunately, not all the authors in Scoring from Second chose to downplay their own role in their stories. Many of the compilation’s essays are personal memoirs. A few of these, the Mazza and the Steinberg essays included, are genuinely engaging; however, people who try to read the collection from cover to cover will likely become exhausted with the high number of nostalgic pieces that try to uncover lessons from childhood baseball experiences. Overall, Deaver’s specialized focus actually weakens his book. In the preface the editor says he wants readers to see “how the game took its place among the many grounding features of [the book’s authors’] experience that made them who they are”. Frankly, many readers who pick up Scoring from Second are likely to be less interested in the personal development of various creative nonfiction writers than in the game of baseball itself.
Deaver would not have needed to compromise the intellectual integrity of his book if he had included fewer memoirs. Interestingly, Lee K. Abbott, who wrote the book’s foreword, mentions Michael Lewis’s excellent book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which examines a newer emphasis on efficiency in Major League Baseball’s front offices. Lewis weaves statistical research, economic analysis, and extensive reportage into a vivid profile of the 2002 Oakland Athletics and their general manager, Billy Beane. Like Lewis in Moneyball, more and more contemporary writers are exploring baseball as an intersection of various academic disciplines. Scoring from Second misses this trend, and it is poorer for it.
Despite its shortcomings, Scoring from Second is still a success. Although it is more likely to appeal to writers than diehard baseball fans, students of the game will still find much to cherish in the collection’s pages. The sheer number of challenging and memorable essays compensates for the pieces that fall flat and for the book’s unfulfilled potential. After all, even the very best baseball players convert only three or four of every ten at bats into base hits. Perhaps Deaver can find some sort of poetic consolation in that statistic.