I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies: Inside the Game We All Love by Tim Kurkjian (2016)
Tim Kurkjian is my favorite person in baseball. There is nobody else in the wide landscape of sports commentary more knowledgeable, passionate, mystified, articulate, or amused by the game, and he is regularly cited as the person at ESPN most beloved by his colleagues. To hear him speak of the game, in either tree or forest view, is to be reminded of the boyish reverence many of us had as youngsters and to temper our sentimentality with the reality of millionaires playing a game in a park.
It’s far too easy to become cynical about professional sports, and baseball in particular, but Kurkjian refuses to go there, even while confronting the disheartening truths any honest fan faces. What I love most about him is the seriousness with which he talks about the game in its own context, while keeping the game in the larger context of real life. In I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies, he begins with a treatise on why baseball is the best game, then follows it with chapters about how difficult it is, how tough the players are, the poetic and musical sounds of the game at the major league level, and other particular interests he has in the game’s deepest crevices.
Much of the book is delivered in quick hits of curious anecdotes: a quick item about a peculiar game’s finish, followed by something funny Buck Showalter once said, followed by a little-known fact about Fenway Park. Some of those quick hits are great:
The Phillies in the 1960s had shortstop Bobby Wine and second baseman Cookie Rojas, a period known as the Days of Wine and Rojas.
Infielder Craig Counsell played parts of sixteen years in the major leagues despite looking like a librarian.
To not look at the data is foolish, but to look at the data as having all the answers is even more foolish. It is a collision of new-school statistics and statisticians against old-school managers, coaches, and instructors. Neither side is right, neither is wrong; there is so much to be gained from listening to both sides.
However, it pains me to say this because there are few things I enjoy in my media consumption more than listening to Kurkjian talk about baseball, but while each little story is fascinating, as grouped together in this collection, they are not very good reading. They lack the rhythm and flow of good baseball writing, which at its best mimics the rising and receding action of a good baseball game. Sloppy editing exacerbates the problem.
There are exceptions. The chapters on superstition and baseball’s idiotic “unwritten rules” are much better structured, with nice progressions of thought and more reflective commentary. Especially strong is his “Obits” chapter, in which he pays tribute to the late Tony Gwynn, Don Zimmer, Earl Weaver, and Mike Flanagan, and I enjoyed an entire chapter about the inside look at the official scoring of baseball, an aspect of the game seldom covered in baseball books.
Tim Kurkjian is famous for being able to recite such painstakingly specific lists at his top ten shortstops in history, or his ten best Yankees of all time. I can relate to his geekiness, for I’ve spent quite a bit of time composing and revising my own lists. Alas, although this is a decent read with a plus fastball and a crippling curve, it has trouble establishing a rhythm and it gets too distracted by the runner at first. It won’t be cracking my list of top ten baseball books.
Three stars out of five.