John Chidley A blog about reading, writing, pop culture and sports.


Book review – The Way of Baseball

As I've alluded to once or twice, I used to work for the World's Biggest Bookstore in downtown Toronto, a part of the Chapters-Indigo chain.

About the same time I moved on to being a professional writer many of my coworkers at the WBB also moved on to bigger and better things, including my manager Justin Sorbara-Hosker, who now works for Indigo's online department.

A couple of weeks ago Justin and the staff at Simon and Schuster were kind enough to forward me a copy of Shawn Green's new book "The Way of Baseball" which I reviewed for Indigo's blog.

Below is my introduction, followed by a link to the rest of the article.

Shawn Green's The Way of Baseball has a concept so simple it's amazing no one has done it before—it uses hitting a baseball as an evolving metaphor that can be applied to everyday life.

Green draws on his career as a right-fielder with the Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Mets and examines how he used batting practice as a method of finding peace and balance in his day-to-day life.

The book is broken into nine chapters titled “Stillness,” “Space and Separation,” “Awareness,” “Ego,” “Presence,” “The Zone,” “Nonattachment,” “Gratitude,” and “Epilogue”. Each section details a step in Green’s personal journey as he develops stillness and awareness at the plate and in his interactions with teammates, coaches and fans.

Read the rest of the piece here...


Book Review – Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler

Barney’s Version accomplishes a feat that most Canadian literature can’t: it transcends its genre and stands on its own as an enjoyable read.

It’s a rare trick for a Canadian author, but Mordecai Richler is one of the greats. Barney’s Version is an enthralling and entertaining book that sheds so many of the conventions that other Canadian authors seem to love.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy CanLit. As a Canadian Studies major in my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto I’ve read my fair share of Canadian fiction. Probably your fair share too.  But what should simply be a geographic category has built up an almost immobilizing amount of clichés that detracts from what should be a vibrant literary scene.

Seriously, most CanLit should come with a check list. Small, rural town with a main street of boarded up store fronts. A dark family secret, preferably involving sexual deviancy. Backhanded compliments towards the British and Americans that have a hint of jealousy. Rueful musings about life and history throughout the story.

Sometimes these characteristics are handled with aplomb, like Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business, but more often than not they create a kind of narrative rust that slows the plots of a lot of Canadian fiction.

However, Richler’s Bildungsroman/murder mystery/pseudo memoir as told by Barney Panofsky – and annotated by his son Michael – eschews most of these conventions. It even mocks them in the form of Terry McIvor, the elder Panofsky’s nemesis.

This self-awareness makes this the best book of Richler’s career.

Barney’s Version is set in 1995, as Quebec is preparing for its referendum on sovereignty. Barney, the main narrator, is coming to grips with the disappearance of the Montreal he knew and loved as well as his own personal decline as his body and memory begin to fail him.

The memoir is both a reaction to the unravelling of the world around him as well as a response to the sharp criticisms in McIvor’s autobiography and a final attempt at clearing his name in the disappearance – and probable murder – of his best friend, Boogie Moscovitch.

Planted firmly in the Richlerverse, with characters from earlier novels like the Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Saint Urbain’s Horseman and Solomon Gursky Was Here appearing throughout, Barney’s Version is Richler’s masterpiece of narrative storytelling and character development.

What’s most impressive is that the book is incredibly clever without ever getting showy or cute. Richler’s sharp use of an unreliable narrator – arguably two depending on how much faith you want to place in Michael Panofsky’s footnotes – is sharp and really stretches out the murder mystery until the very last page of the book.

Barney’s Version is well worth checking out, whether you’re familiar with CanLit or not. It is Mordecai Richler at the top of his game, pushing the narrative envelope while breaking new ground for a Canadian author, making him a singular literary figure in Canadian culture.


Farewell Wizard

Wizard Entertainment announced on Monday that it has ceased publication of its Wizard and Toyfare magazines, bringing an end to one of the pillars of my childhood.

Although I hadn’t bought the magazine in years or read it in months, I’m sorry to see it go. It was a big part of my adolescence – I still have a stack of issues sitting at my dad’s – and helped shape me as both a writer and as a person.

Since 1991 Wizard has been the go-to source for most comic book fans. The monthly magazine featured news items, interviews, how-to articles, reviews, previews and just about anything else you can imagine involving comics, all in an irreverent and fun package.

It was that flippancy and sense of humour that has informed my personal and professional style. Although journalism is rarely an appropriate venue for sarcasm, it certainly has its place on this blog, on my Twitter feed, on Facebook and most especially in person.

Every so often I’m reminded of one of Wizard’s jokes or particularly funny turns of phrase and I still laugh.

For example, like the Marvel Comics of the 1980s and early 1990s, Wizard always had a page dedicated to the antics of its bullpen of staff.

In that space they often discussed the escalating prank war amongst the magazine’s different departments, including a gag where three staff members took thousands of photocopies of their faces and plastered them all over their rival’s offices. Into file folders, on computer screens, covering phones, cut into slices and taped to the individual slats of venetian blinds. Everywhere.

Years later, when my friends Wes and Ruben wanted to prank our friends Kate and Hannah, I knew just what to do. Nearly $150 at Kinko’s and hours in the girl’s apartment later, and we’d covered every square inch with black and white copies of our faces, all with the staff of Wizard as our inspiration.

But the slick magazine’s reach extended far beyond its sophomoric humour.

As Matt Demers of points out “Wizard showed me that a person could take something that he/she enjoyed and make a living at it. The articles were written with passion and flair, and exposed me to the deeper side of comics' fandom.”

Basically, being a writer for Wizard was what I aspired – really, still hope - to be. It helped show me that it’s possible to make a living being creative and doing what you love.

But as much as Wizard was a positive influence on me and my work, it also served as a cautionary tale in two respects.

First, it was often criticized by comic fans and professionals alike for essentially becoming a catalogue for the industry’s two biggest publishers - Marvel Comics and DC Comics - and generally ignoring smaller or independent printing houses.

Obviously, this underscored the need not just for journalistic integrity, but to have diversity in your coverage. If you’re going to develop a beat and report on something like the comics industry, you should not neglect any corner, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

Second, despite its decidedly nerdy demographics, Wizard never really expanded on to the internet. Yes, they had a website but it never had any news or really any content beside subscription information or the details on their series of conventions.

I think this was their ultimate undoing. Wizard was in a position to get in on the ground floor of the Internet boom with a hardcore audience that would presumably be web savvy. could’ve been ComicsAlliance nearly a decade before there was a ComicsAlliance.

Instead, publisher Gareb Shamus stuck with Wizard’s out-dated print-only business model. Ironically, they plan to launch, an online comics magazine in February, but it’s obvious to everyone that the cat is out of the bag with several competitors already well-established online.

Farewell Wizard, it’s been fun. You taught me a lot about comics, writing and journalism both in life and in death, but your time had come.


Book Review – The Book of Basketball

The Book of Basketball seemed like the perfect book for me, a natural fit.

But Bill Simmons’ magnum opus, although entertaining and somewhat informative, fell short of my expectations.

You see, like most Canadians, I don’t know a lot about basketball. Sure, I watch maybe a game per week, I know the big name players and I certainly respect their athleticism and the skill necessary to play in the National Basketball Association.

But that level of interest pales in comparison to my obsession with hockey. That’s just the sad truth: In Canada, basketball always plays second fiddle to hockey. From an early age we’re all ingrained with an understanding of hockey that fuels our fascination.

It’s hard for any sport, especially one that runs at roughly the same time as the National Hockey League, to gain any kind of popular traction amongst Canadians.

What it boils down to for me is this: if you gave me a TV with only two channels, one broadcasting the classic 1986 NBA Finals with Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers facing Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics and the other showing a pre-2004 lockout game between the New Jersey Devils and Minnesota Wild, I’d probably end up watching the hockey.

However, I’m always trying to broaden my horizons, especially when it comes to sports and writing, and so I want to expand my basketball knowledge base.

Further, Simmons has always impressed me as an imaginative writer who can inform and amuse. Anyone who’s read his blog or followed him on Twitter knows he has a deep and abiding passion for basketball, so it seemed like reading his tome would be the perfect way to familiarize myself with the game.

There’s no denying that I learned a lot from Simmons’ 736 page treatise on every imaginable detail of professional basketball. His meticulously researched book does a lot to explain the evolving styles of play as well as the different personalities that have made up the NBA and American Basketball Association.

His lengthy footnotes and parenthetical asides made me laugh out loud and his pop-culture references are always on point. He’s got a gift for keeping sections that would otherwise be deathly boring fun and fresh. Unfortunately, they also add about an extra 100 pages to an already lengthy book.

That’s just one symptom of this book’s fatal flaw: it is poorly edited. Simmons should’ve been reined in to try and keep the book and more manageable length.

Further, a more consistent naming protocol should have been used. Player’s first names, last names and nicknames are used interchangeably from paragraph to paragraph, sometimes sentence to sentence. Although it can lead to some echoes in the writing, sticking to a standard would have lowered the word count - and in a book this big that could end up cutting some pages – and would have made the book more accessible.

This is where the book ultimately failed me.

As a survey of the history and players of professional basketball, the Book of Basketball seemed like the ideal entryway for a novice fan trying to learn about the sport. But it seems as though Simmons never really decided who his target audience was going to be, and so his narrative swings from being explanatory and appropriate for the new fan, to detailed and filled with in jokes only a long-time NBA fan would get.

Writing a book for the sophisticated fan is fine, but it should be advertised as such and be consistent in its level of accessibility. Unfortunately, the Book of Basketball is all over the map in comprehension, making it a frustrating read.

Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball is funny and smart, but could’ve used a more firm editorial hand to rein in some of the author’s lengthier footnotes and asides to make a slightly more concise book that is accessible for all readers.


Book Review – The End of Baseball by Peter Schilling Jr.

Peter Schilling Jr. came up with a fascinating what-if scenario for his novel The End of Baseball: what if famed baseball owner and promoter Bill Veeck purchased the Philadelphia Athletics and filled its roster with the stars of the Negro leagues in 1941?

It’s a tantalizing prospect. Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and other greats shattering segregation and theoretically playing the best baseball ever.

Unfortunately, Schilling over-reaches and the final product is disappointing. The sprawling narrative just has too much going on, with too many characters for the reader to keep track of.

Focusing on Paige, Gibson, Veeck and perhaps three or four other characters should’ve been enough – the drama of integrating baseball during World War Two is a novel in itself – but Schiller had lengthy sections on supporting players like pitcher Dave Barnhill and Artie Wilson.

At first it’s fun when characters like all-round all-star Martin Dihigo, gossip columnist Walter Winchell, FBI head J. Edgar Hoover and the Sporting News founder Alfred Spink are inserted into the plot, but eventually they clutter up the story and distract from the main plot of the Athletics' struggle to win the American League pennant.

There’s no doubt that Schilling is an excellent storyteller. As a professional journalist he’s covered baseball for the Minnesota City Pages and he’s worked as a film critic for Rake Magazine and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

He has a deft touch chapter by chapter. None of the scenes fall flat, and the descriptions of the baseball games themselves are richly drawn, building tension for the reader with each swing of a bat or cold stare.

Schilling also certainly know his history. Literally every player on the team was a star in his day, and bringing all their personal histories together on to one team is a treat.

Unfortunately, the busy narrative is just unavoidable. Beyond the central plot of the A’s season, there are no less than six subplots. Coupled with asides and vignettes designed to add to those seven storylines, and it’s easy to get lost.

At 337 pages, there’s just not enough room for all these characters. By trimming the fat, Schilling would’ve had a stronger novel.

Peter Schilling Jr.’s The End of Baseball was, by moments, a fun read. It’s got a solid premise to build off of and from chapter to chapter is enjoyable. Unfortunately, the central storyline gets lost in a tangle of plot threads. Maybe worth reading if you’ve exhausted all other sports-related options.

You can read more about this book at Schilling’s website, including a free sample and reviews by other critics.


My Top 10 Essential Sports Books

My friend Justin asked me to write a blog post of my top 10 essential sports books, and, well, who am I to deny my faithful readers?

Justin didn’t give me much of an outline beyond the fact that they should be non-fiction and that they’re books that would be essential for starting anyone looking to start a personal sports library.

I decided to interpret “essential” as a book that is timeless, has a broad scope that makes it accessible and, of course, features strong writing.

Variety was also a watchword when I put this together. When it comes to writing not all sports are created equal – coming up with a list of 10 baseball books is a snap, while naming even five essential hockey books can be tricky.

However, I did manage to get a decent spread of sports. Baseball, hockey, soccer, football, professional wrestling and other combat sports are all well represented.

I should also add that this list is designed to be taken as a whole. Many of these books are meant to dovetail with each other, provide contrast or compliment other entries.

They don’t need to be read in any particular order and none of them stand out as the best of the lot. But taken altogether all ten fit together nicely, giving the reader a reasonably broad understanding of sports and athletics, even if some specific sports are left out.

Of course, I’ll also point out that I’ve read all of these books (titles that have a link will take you to my earlier, full reviews of the book). Since I haven’t read every sports book ever there are, I’m sure, some gaps in my selections.

Now, in no particular order of preference:

Ball Four by Jim Bouton

The grand daddy of ‘em all, Ball Four is Jim Bouton’s memoir of a year as a major league pitcher with the Seattle Pilots and later the Houston Astros. This book is the first real, hard-hitting look at the world of baseball – or any sport for that matter. Incendiary when it was released in 1969, Bouton’s book remains funny and insightful. Context will help you enjoy it, but 75% of the book can stand on its own. Admitedly, some of its power has been lost to time, but definitely worth reading, particularly the sections on some of Bouton’s more famous colleagues like Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams.

Bullpen Gospels by Dirk Hayhurst

Another relief pitcher’s memoirs, Bullpen Gospels comes from a more sincere and self-deprecating perspective. Dirk Hayhurst’s book on his year in the San Diego Padres’ minor league system is less about baseball and more about finding himself and trying to make some sense of the mess that is his life. Bullpen Gospels’ introspective narrative gives the reader a glimpse inside the surprisingly fragile psyche of a professional athlete and stands in contrast with Bouton’s groundbreaking work. It’s amazing to see how things have changed in the 50 years between the two memoirs. That said, some things never change – like baseball players womanizing ways.

Living on the Black by John Feinstein

My third pick also features professional baseball pitchers, but  manages to be completely different from the earlier entries. John Feinstein’s tome (it’s a hefty 508 pages) follows the 2007 seasons of soft-tossers Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina. Living on the Black discusses the history of the players association and explains the ongoing evolution of the pitcher. Reading this book gave me a much stronger understanding of the importance of every pitch and every at bat of baseball. This book comes as close to explaining the art of big league pitching as anyone can without actually suiting up.

Searching for Bobby Orr by Stephen Brunt

Stephen Brunt’s biography of Bobby Orr – certainly the best defenceman of all time, and arguably the best hockey player ever – is marked by the fact that it was totally unauthorized. The seasoned Globe and Mail columnist had to dig deep for years to find anyone willing to speak to him about the very private Orr. All that hard work paid off as Brunt paints a rich portrait of a complicated man who revolutionized the sport of hockey on and off the ice. Searching for Bobby Orr is worth reading if just to be immersed in Brunt’s breathless description of Orr’s trademark end-to-end rushes. A must read for understanding the modern National Hockey League.

Hitman by Bret Hart

Although professional wrestling isn’t really a sport, there’s no denying the athleticism of the performers. Bret Hart’s upbringing as the most prominent member of the Hart family of wrestlers puts him in a unique position to describe the crazy lifestyle of the World Wrestling Federation. At the same time, Hart’s incredibly violent home life, coupled with his constant marital infidelity is engrossing and makes this the grittiest of all the entries on this list. This autobiography is, in a word, jarring. There is no book that is so open and honest about the sex and violence that pervades the lives of professional athletes.

A Fighter’s Heart by Sam Sheridan

The only sport that comes close to baseball’s massive catalogue of books is boxing. Unfortunately, the sweet science is only one corner of the world of combat sport. Therefore, I chose Sam Sheridan’s survey of all sports where athletes fight – from boxing to Brazilian Jiu Jitsiu to mixed martial arts and, yes, even cock fighting – to try and encompass one of the more literary sports.  Sheridan tries valiantly to understand the role that organized combat has in society and what it is about prizefighting that attracts competitors and spectators alike. An intersting and thought-provoking read that provides insight into the fringes of professional sport.

How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer

Like A Fighter’s Heart, Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World tries to figure out the role of sport in a greater socio-political context. Foer’s theories are a little over-simplistic and he’s not without his biases, but nonetheless it’s an excellent book that successfully draws connections between political movements, sectarianism and nationhood with soccer teams around the world. An excellent sports book for the non-fan, and enjoyable and informative for anyone who believes that sport is an integral part of society.

Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger

You’ve probably seen the movie or the TV show, but as good as they are, they just don’t do justice to Buzz Bissinger’s original examination of high school football in the oil town of Odessa, Texas. Although he  doesn’t draw conclusions like Sheridan or Foer, Bissinger goes into greater depth than the other two books. Dark, sure, but Friday Night Lights does an incredible job of showing, at least on a small scale, how important sports can be to a community. By the final chapter you might not feel like a Permian Panther, but you’ll definitely sympathize with these young men.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Possibly the most influential book on this list, Michael Lewis’ Moneyball is often misunderstood as being a kind of baseball strategy guide. Really, it’s all about Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane squeezing the potential out of undervalued properties – in this case, baseball players. It’s a philosophy that goes well beyond the world of baseball, and the book’s become popular in many business circles. There’s lots to learn from Lewis’ most popular book: the intricacies of baseball trades, the importance of walks and the rigidity of old school baseball. Stay ahead of the curve by picking it up before Brad Pitts’ film adaptation comes out.

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

Speaking of books being ruined by movie adaptations – please ignore the romantic comedy starring Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore loosely based off of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. It’s barely related to the original. Few books capture the agony of cheering for a team that just never gets it together. You can sustitute any number of clubs for Hornby’s Arsenal. The Chicago Cubs, Detroit Lions and Toronto Maples Leafs will all do fine. This is what fandom is all about: not the highs of winning a championship but the agonizing lows where every bounce goes for the other side, where every home game gets rained on and every draft pick is a bust. Hornby captures that pain perfectly.


Graphic Novel Review: The Rocketeer: Complete Adventures by Dave Stevens

The Rocketeer saves the day, twice.Sometimes it’s hard to articulate your feelings about a book or movie. Other times it just comes to you, like when I recently finished reading The Rocketeer: the Complete Adventures, a reprinting of Dave Stevens’ seminal series that was originally published n 1982.

I found myself saying: “Really? That’s it?”

Not that it was a knock on the content of the book. The artwork is gorgeous and really pops thanks to the re-colouring done for this edition by Laura Martin. Stevens’ stories are good too, with some decent action as stunt pilot Cliff Secord learns to use a stolen jetpack and win back his best girl, Betty.

Stevens does an excellent job of building a sense of suspense, particularly in the second story “Cliff’s New York Adventure”. It’s a nice touch that he incorporated his hero into the Wold Newton Universe, having him work alongside the Shadow and with associates of Doc Savage.

But that’s the final story. There’s only two.

This was not what I was expecting, at all. As I made my way through the book I was waiting a third and final act that would match up with the ending of the 1991 film adaptation starring Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly. That climax never comes.

Instead, the Complete Adventures end with Secord leaving New York City for Los Angeles, with the expectation that he’ll be reunited with his girlfriend Betty. There should be another third to this book, but it just ends on that note. It’s an anti-climactic end to an otherwise enjoyable book.

I guess that’s the rub: those first two stories really are great. They’re fun and pulpy and in many ways are like Alan Moore’s Tom Strong.

But with any of the Tom Strong books there’s a sense that these are just a few of hundreds if not thousands of stories, and theyère much more detailed and fulfilling. The Rocketeer leaves you hanging.

It’s a shame that there wasn’t more to the series, and even worse, there never will be since Stevens passed away in 2008.

All in all, The Rocketeer: the Complete Adventures is a fun read and it has gorgeous artwork, but it’s disappointing that it’s so short and, ultimately, feels incomplete. It's a great concept, I just wish there was more of it.

If you’d like to read a second opinion, I’d recommend Chris Sims’ review of the Complete Adventures from December 2009.


Book Review: the Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

As much as I love reading, it’s rare that a book leaves me breathless. Tom Rachman’s the Imperfectionists does just that, over and over again.

Rachman is a London-born journalist who has worked all over the world and he chose a familiar subject for his debut novel – the newsroom of an English-language paper in Rome.

Each chapter revolves around a different staff member or reader, with many of their stories intersecting and building on previous episodes. At every interval there is a short story about the history of the paper, colouring in some of the background of the main storyline.

It’s a masterful plot structure, deftly done, especially for a first-time novelist. The way the disparate characters and storylines intertwine and relate shows how skilled Rachman is as a storyteller.

The book had been recommended to me by my fiancé, who knew it’s tales of deadline drama in a newsroom would appeal to me, and she was spot on. Although Rachman never stoops as low as cliché or caricature, many of the characters rang true.

All of the characters are sketched out with a deft touch rarely seen in even the best authors, let alone by a first-timer. Rachman’s cast are remarkably realistic and likeable, creating sympathy for the characters and disappointment when things inevitably turn sour for the protagonists.

That’s really my one complaint about the Imperfectionists – it’s unrelentingly depressing. No good deed goes unpunished in Rachman’s world. Characters are craven and selfish. Infidelity is common with everyone ending up alone. Even success comes at a great cost in this world.

Half-way through I was dying for at least one good thing to happen to a character. Some sort of ray of hope, one chance at redemption. Anything! I was desperate for a lifeline, but it never came.

No, Rachman never gives up on his dark outlook, with the final chapter being one of the most heartbreaking.

Despite that, the Imperfectionists is an excellent read that will impress you with its complex structure. Although I was introduced to it because of my occupation as a journalist, I think this book would appeal to anyone. Definitely worth checking out.


Book Review: Bullpen Gospels by Dirk Hayhurst

Halfway through Dirk Hayhurst’s Bullpen Gospels it occurred to me that I was reading one of the best books on baseball, ever.

That’s some strong talk, particularly for someone who hasn’t read the entire baseball canon. But I’m getting there - just about every other book I read is about baseball.

I’ve devoured Jim Bouton’s Ball Four more than five times, I loved John Feinstein’s Living on the Black and Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. Also, as fans of this blog know, I’ve reviewed  the graphic novel Satchel Paige:Striking Out Jim Crow as well as Sports Illustrated’s Great Baseball Writing.

The Bullpen Gospels slot in right above all of those, including Ball Four, my previous titleholder.

They’re comparable books too. Both are written by professional baseball players who find themselves pitching long relief in a bullpen full of odd characters. Yes, Bouton was an established major leaguer trying to master the knuckleball while Hayhurst, at that point, was a career minor leaguer in the San Diego Padres organization, but they’re still pretty similar books.

Bouton’s book is infamous for exposing the real lives of baseball heroes like Carl Yastrzemski and Mickey Mantle at a time when they were idolized by most fans. The aging Seattle Pilots reliever took a lot of heat for the book, with many people saying Bouton was a gloryhound. I don’t agree with that sentiment, but it certainly reads like an expose. 

Love it or hate it, Ball Four is a hilarious and insightful read. But, by contrast, the Bullpen Gospels is a much more genuine and sensitive story.

Starting with Hayhurst’s truly dire home life with an unbalanced grandmother and a fractured family crippled not by one, but two, alcoholics you immediately feel for the young reliever. When he moves on to spring training and the minor leagues you can’t help but appreciate his sense of humour.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between Hayhurst and Bouton is that the former rarely criticizes his teammates or the Padres’ executives. On the few occasions when he does speak poorly of someone, it is a reasonable and measured critique, and he shies away from dropping big names for the sake of glamour.

The only person Hayhurst is really hard on is himself.

Gospels is a quick read that makes its way through an entire baseball season, with a truly joyous ending. It also imparts a better understanding of what life in the minors is like for aspiring ballplayers. Hayhurst is an effortless and charming writer. He’s likeable and always sincere in his beliefs.

I’d recommend this book to anyone, particularly as a companion to Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.


Book Review: Sports Illustrated’s Great Baseball Writing

I have wanted to read this book since it first came out in 2007. I’ve waited in anticipation for three years, and it was definitely worth the wait.

After all, it is Sports Illustrated’s Great Baseball Writing. A volume of the best baseball writing from arguably North America’s best sports magazine between 1954 and 2004. Of course it’s going to be good.

“It’s a measure of the quality of this collection that the weakest piece in it is by Robert Frost;” says Michael Lewis of Moneyball fame in the book’s introduction. “It’s a measure of its honesty that the editors left out pieces by William Saroyan and Ted Williams in favour of better ones by writers you may never have heard of.”

The content really is fantastic. Leigh Montville writes about the last days of old Tiger Stadium in Detroit. The mystery of Billy Martin is tackled by Frank DeFord.  Peter Gammons talks about the fans of Boston’s love and support of Bill Buckner after his disastrous misplay in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

On and on the book explores every corner of baseball, from famous names like Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial to the magic of a triple to a Japanese-American revolutionizing the way that the game is played in Hiroshima, a city devastated by the Second World War.

Of course, it’s still subject to the great Achilles’ Heel of its weekly magazine source: some of these articles get dated, and fast.

For example, right now, there is a recent Sports Illustrated – cover-dated May 17 - sitting on my coffee table with Shaquille O’Neal staring at the reader with the headline “Good old Shaq: Can He Deliver a Ring to the King?”. Pretty awkward when LeBron James, Shaq and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers were eliminated from the National Basketball Association playoffs on May 14.

That kind of automatic obsolescence is the nature of a weekly publication schedule, but it makes for some uncomfortable reading in a book that collects those articles years later.

Chapters like Steven Cannella’s “Against the Grain” (March 25, 2002) don’t hold up well  as it explains the influence of the maple bat and how “the ball jumped off it with more zip”.

Maybe maple bats do help batters. Maybe Cannella was reporting on what he felt was a real factor in the power surge. I’m not sure. Unfortunately, the piece comes across as a ham-handed attempt at explaining the steroid-fuelled surge in home runs in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Reading Tampa Bay Devil Rays catcher John Flaherty say that “People talk about the ball being juiced. I’ve been saying for a while now that the wood is so much better than it was when I came up,” makes me cringe because I can’t help but think that the ball and bat have nothing to do with the rise of the long ball.

Every time Barry Bonds is mentioned in this book awkwardness ensues.

Similarly, Tom Verducci’s “600 and Counting” (August 19, 2002) looks at the mysterious spike in Barry Bonds’ home run numbers. Verducci, one of the best writers in baseball, breaks Bonds’ career into three stages with the final level being explained away quickly:

“[I]n Stage 3 Bonds has crept closer to home plate, enabling him to pull pitches on the outside half of the plate with power rather than hitting line drives to the leftfield gap.”

Sure, Bonds probably did adjust his batting stance at different times in his career, but there’s also a lot of circumstantial evidence that suggests that he used performance enhancing drugs during that same period. The Steroid Era has left me so cynical that I can’t help but believe the latter over the former and that Verducci was naive.

Then again, that’s probably the point. After all, this is a book dedicated to the entirety of the baseball experience from 1954 to 2004. The ignorance of fans and sports journalists about steroids between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s is certainly a part of that history.

All in all, Sports Illustrated’s Great Baseball Writing is an excellent read. Just be prepared for some rather uncomfortable articles that seem ridiculous in light of the Mitchell Report and other investigations into steroid use in professional baseball. Some of the articles just do not hold up in the face of more cynical examination.