Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Baseball books

In the spring, following a trip to Scottsdale to see some Cactus League games, I stockpiled books about baseball – books expressly (Bottom of the 33rd, by Dan Barry), literarily (The Great American Novel, by Philip Roth), or tangentially (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, by Stephen King) about the game – for my summer reading.

This was a stupid idea, of course. I’ve spent more time with my nose in the handy digest Who’s Who in Baseball 2012, easily consulted during a game without missing a pitch, than with any of these books. There’s just too much baseball to watch, and too much entertaining sportswriting to read, competing for one’s time; the more fanciful, baseball-adjacent reading endeavors have to wait for November (or, at least, the All-Star break).

That said, before my book-reading attention was pulled elsewhere, I made it halfway through Bottom of the 33rd (by page count; it’s only the 10th inning) and entirely through The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, by Josh Wilker.

Bottom of the 33rd is New York Times columnist Dan Barry's account of the longest professional baseball game yet played, an 8-hour International League contest in Pawtucket in 1981 that ended at three in the morning on Easter Sunday.

The entire book’s structure is reminiscent of the opening chapter of Don Delillo’s Underworld, as Barry roams the field and the stands, picking up the stories of the assorted minor leaguers, ballpark employees, and fans, before and during the game and, in some cases, thirty years later.

If Barry presses too hard for the mythopoeic in the early going, he settles down nicely long before the extra innings, and I look forward to picking up the book again.

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training is a twenty thousand-word monograph on the first of the universally-dismissed sequels to the classic Walter Matthau-Tatum O’Neal comedy. It’s part of the intriguing “Deep Focus” series from Soft Skull Press: vest-pocket long-form critical views of crappy, secretly-great flicks from the ‘70s and ‘80s. (Other books in the series cover Death Wish, Heathers, and They Live.)

The author, Josh Wilker, is the proprietor of the terrific blog Cardboard Gods, documenting his obsession, then and now, with the baseball cards of his youth. He takes a similar, then-and-now look at the movie – what it meant to him at the time of its theatrical run, when he was a Little Leaguer himself, and throughout more critical viewings as an adult.

He also makes an interesting case for the movie as an unknowing vessel for the feeling in the country during the transition from Jimmy Carter’s America to Ronald Reagan’s. Cheap genre entertainments, like children, will absorb what’s in the air:

“Everyone best knows what his or her nation is as a kid because when you’re a kid, you feel it. Later on, as an adult, you have a better intellectual understanding, maybe, but the feeling isn’t as direct.”

This is an example of the sort of simple truth that woolgathering about the national pastime leads one to. It’s also precisely the sort of thing that sports fans who hate baseball hate baseball for, but who cares? No one writes books for those jerks.

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