Review: Good Enough to Dream

Good Enough to Dream
by Roger Kahn (1985)

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“I have lived variations of this moment, with authors, physicians, lawyers and bartenders. Layers of acquired, mannered sophistication fall away to passion when they talk of distant baseball dreams that failed.”

Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer was published in 1972. Thirty years later, Sports Illustrated named it the second best sports book of all time, saying it was a baseball book “the same way Moby Dick is a fishing book … no book is better at showing how sports is not just games.”

A copy of that esteemed story of the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers has been on my shelf forever, a tribute both to its place in the sports canon and my penchant for biting off more books than I can chew. On the same shelf for even longer is Good Enough to Dream, also by Kahn. I first read it in the early 1990s, and it has survived multiple (though not multiple enough) cullings of the collection, one of my ten favorite baseball books.

I read it again this summer, a season in which I paid more attention to my favorite sport than I had in many years, sensing since the early days of spring training that 2016 would be historic. The Chicago Cubs were months away from winning their first World Series in 129 years, something so mind-blowing and deep-hitting that I yearned to get back in touch with the fan I used to be, before the days of fantasy baseball. I remembered baseball in Kahn’s book about his year managing a single-A minor league team the way I remembered my earliest baseball cards, not as some commodity or billion-dollar-enterprise, but as something to be treasured because it is beautiful.

I don’t know if anything in baseball will ever be as beautiful for me as Rickey Henderson’s headfirst slide into a stolen second base or Phil Niekro’s knuckleball floating past opponents who could only wave their bats at it. I’m not thirteen anymore, and I’ve seen too many Jose Cansecos and Mark McGwires to be certain of anything.

But the 1983 Utica Blue Sox were the only team in the New York—Penn League without a parent club in the Major Leagues. This meant its players didn’t have a next level to aspire to, at least not the way their opponents did. If the young men on the other side of the field performed well enough, they’d be promoted through the system, someday to make the big-league club. The best a Blue Sox could aspire to was catching the eye of a scout and being purchased by a real team the next season, one with built-in upward mobility.

This is the team that sportswriter Roger Kahn purchased, serving as its president and daily head of operations, making decisions out of a trailer, about a budget that didn’t have room to purchase jackets for its players because it first had to make good on bills unpaid in seasons past by previous owners.

“These fellows I hear are coming back,” I said. “Hendershot, Jacoby. Moretti. Coyle. Are they really major league prospects? How good are they?”

Joanne stood on her high heels in the infield and thought for a while. Then she said, “They’re good enough to dream.”

Why would one of the most successful sportswriters in America put himself in that trailer, mediating disagreements between coaches who had nobody better to coach and players who had nowhere better to play? Because baseball is beautiful, perhaps nowhere more than at its lowest levels, where young men who were legends of their high-school teams, and slightly older men who were about to run out of opportunities, clung to the hope that their time had not yet run out on their dreams of playing professionally the game they loved.

Kahn’s account of that season and the men who played it is one of the best things I’ve ever read about baseball. This recent reading reminded me not only of how much I adore this game, but how many of my own unrealized dreams are still in play. It’s a great book.

Four and a half stars out of five. I love it.

Review: I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies

I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies: Inside the Game We All Love by Tim Kurkjian (2016)

13475097_10155073767467818_1919828450667402095_oTim 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.

Review: The Grind

The Grind: Inside Baseball's Endless SeasonThe Grind: Inside Baseball’s Endless Season by Barry Svrluga
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When the Washington Nationals arrive at their hotel in St. Louis for a weekend series against the Cardinals, their luggage is waiting for them in their rooms. In a few hours, they’ll step back onto the chartered buses and into the visitors’ clubhouse at the stadium, where their personal equipment and freshly laundered uniforms will be waiting for them, each player’s belongings in his assigned locker. In order to allow the players to focus on their jobs as baseball players, the team ensures that they don’t have to worry about the logistics of luggage, transportation, dining, or entertainment, and it is Rob MacDonald’s job to make it happen. MacDonald is the Nationals’ Vice President of Clubhouse Operations and Team Travel, and he is one of 1,100 employees, not counting the players themselves, who endure The Grind of the 162-game baseball season.

The 2014 Washington Nationals finished the season with the National League’s best record, but lost their first playoff series to the San Francisco Giants. It had been a long season, but even the most avid fan had only the faintest idea of how truly long it was. In The Grind, Washington Post reporter Barry Svrluga chronicles the season, beginning with spring training in February, and passing through Opening Day in March, the dog days of late summer, the playoffs in October, and the winter off-season, concluding with the the first moments of the next cycle, the team’s preparations for spring training in 2015.

Svrluga devotes a chapter each to nine different perspectives of the season: Ryan Zimmerman, beginning his tenth season in the Majors, is featured in a chapter called “The Veteran.” Tyler Moore, a promising but no-longer-young power hitter is the focus of “The Twenty-Sixth Man” (baseball rosters are limited to twenty-five players). Chelsey Desmond, wife of shortstop Ian Desmond, is profiled with her young children in “The Wife.” And Rob MacDonald’s chapter is called “The Glue.” A chapter each on a starting pitcher, a reliever, a scout, the general manager, and the off-season, when players go home but the team’s management is working as hard as ever, bring the total of fascinating stories to nine, because of course. Because nine is baseball’s perfect number, the number of completion.

“If the major league life brings a grinding rhythm that wears on the hearts and minds and bodies of even star players,” writes Svrluga, “at least it comes with charter flights and checks with all those zeroes. In the minors, the everydayness is the same. The payoff is not.” Fans are accustomed to one very specific view of what goes on during the baseball season, but here are nine, each with a different approach to its rhythms and flows, each compelling, sympathetic, glorious, and heartbreaking. They are all terrific, but especially memorable are the chapters on Moore and MacDonald, two behind-the-scenes glimpses not well-known by the baseball fan.

No sport lends itself to great storytelling quite the way baseball does, and Svrluga nails the story of the season from beginning to end, giving us nine stories that contribute to the saga. I’ve read more baseball books than most people, and this was immediately a favorite before I got through the first chapter. It is an excellent and worthy addition to the top shelf of any fan’s library.

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