"To be an American and unable to play baseball is comparable to being a Polynesian and unable to swim. It's an impossible situation." --John Cheever (The National Pastime) Welcome to the offseason.
I was reminded of this quote while reading a new collection of excellent sportswriting from The New Yorker, a book called The Only Game in Town (Random House, 2010). Seems reading about baseball is the only satisfaction I can get right now.
It's bad enough that the darkness out here in the Pacific Northwest starts rather abruptly around 4 pm, but add to that there are no live games on the TV. Things got down right depressing this past week when we learned that the beloved voice of the Seattle Mariners, Dave Niehaus, died of a heart attack. Dave was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a broadcaster a few years ago. He has been the voice of the Mariners since the team's beginning in 1977. My son has listened to him religiously since he was a toddler. God bless you, Dave.
I have tried to occupy myself with some meaningful baseball reading (be sure to check out our books and DVDs section of CodBall.) Back to the quote above, The New Yorker's Dave Remnick has edited a rich set of sports articles beginning with Roger Angell's The Web of the Game. Angell's article is chapter one of the new book, and it begins where else but with college baseball. ( The Cape Cod league debuts on page 5.) Angell writes in wonderful detail about the game considered to be the greatest college baseball match-up of all time. On May 21, 1981, Frank Viola of St. Johns faced Yale's Ron Darling in what would be (and still remains) the longest no-hitter in history. St. John's eventually won 1-0. Woven into the game story is Angell's conversation with bleachers-mate Smokey Joe Wood, the legendary Red Sox fastballer who won three of four games in the 1912 World Series.
This may be the finest baseball article I've ever read, but then it is followed by author John Updike's classic, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, a must-read for any Red Sox,Ted Williams or baseball fan generally.
The Remnick book is a gift for any sports fan. I do wish it had some historical information in it -- even the date when the article was published would be helpful. The New Yorker's articles are, of course, literary but they are not the genre of sickening phrases about sprawling green grass, the magical crack of the bat and poetic analogies to baseball as a metaphor for life. No, the articles are thick with dialogue, stats and facts I have not read before.
One of the most interesting new baseball books I've read is Sixty Feet, Six Inches, a conversation between Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson. Over the course of 273 pages the pitching legend and the hitting legend reveal their most interpersonal strategies and approaches on topics that have consumed players and coaches for as long as baseball has been a sport. Working the count, being a first strike pitcher or a first pitch hitter, hitting and pitching with the bases loaded. The chapters are fun -- scenarios, things a fellow just has to deal with, towering figures.
I first learned of the book while listening to NPR's Fresh Air. Take a few minutes to listen to the interview of Gibson and Jackson.
The book is written as a simple, often playful back and forth conversation. They have fun together but they are also very clearly still competitive. You definitely get a sense of the cat and mouse mind games going on between a great pitcher and a great hitter. And they bring in lots of examples and names that old timers like me appreciate.
A baseball documentary I might get for Christmas is Time in the Minors. Please note the title is NOT Life in the Minors as Baseball America incorrectly reported in its Nov. 15-28 2010 issue. The You Tube trailer for Life in the Minors did not look interesting at all, but the trailer for Time in the Minors is exactly the kind of film CodBall readers will enjoy. The agony and the ecstasy of two aspiring ballplayers.
The filmmaker, Tony Okun, made a very personal commitment to this film, serving as cameraman, editor, voice and overall creator. Tony, if you see this please get in contact with me as we would love to find a venue to show your film in Seattle.
On to television. I've already written about my love of MLB Network. Here's the short review. It's absolutely awesome. But this week my kids discovered that we can watch Carribean Winter League baseball through the XBox internet features. Using your XBox console, find ESPN3.com. As a result I watched the November 11th game between Santo Domingo's Lions and Tigers -- the Leones del Escogido and the Tigres del Licey.
For those unfamiliar with winter baseball, there are leagues throughout the Carribean -- Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. I'm sure Cuba also plays winter baseball, but the other leagues attract top talent from the U.S. professional teams -- MLB through the minors. The game I watched featured Willy Aybar, Jake Fox and other Big Leaeguers. Some prospects spend the fall in the Arizona Fall League (see my post on the AFL) and others play in one of the Carribean Winter Leagues. For many Latino players, the Carribean Series is the most important thing they do.
Note that on Wed., Nov. 17th, ESPN3 is featuring a Venezuelan League game.
So that's what I've been doing this offseason. I am planning a trip later this month to the Dominican Republic, where I will take in some quality baseball. In preparation I am reading Eastern Stars, a fascinating book that looks at the history and issues behind baseball changing the Dominican Republic (and vice versa). I won't review the book in this post, but will weave it into my reporting from the DR. Stay tuned.
Tell us what you're doing this offseason to follow the game.