Thursday, June 11, 2009

Baseball books offer unending stacks of misery

It probably shouldn't come as any great surprise that Selena Roberts' A-Rod takedown has floundered and fallen off the sales charts, only weeks after its debut.

Last month, we had some time to kill at a Chapters megastore, and being the incorrigible baseball fan that we are, we couldn't help but saunter over to the sports section of the store to see what books we could add to our mounting pile of shamefully unread tomes. What we were met with was depressing enough to make us literally (and I mean literally) recoil and walk away.

The baseball section was a wall that was almost completely filled with books focused on steroids, fallen superstars, and fallen superstars who took steroids. It was more than a little depressing, and it really made us wonder if book publishers truly think that there is such a huge market for these exposés on performance enhancers and their users that they would focus on this one small aspect of the current state of the sport to the absolute exclusion of everything else.

It's not to say that we want to stick our head in the sand and pretend that PEDs are not present or that they are not relevant. But do we really want to spend any more of our time digging into the foibles of Alex Rodriguez or Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens or José Canseco or Kirk Radomski when we've heard and read so much about them and their disgraced brethern over the past five years that we couldn't possibly stomach anything more?

Some of the best sports writing of all time has been done on the sport of baseball. The game lends itself to poetic and thoughtful discussion, whether if it be on the history of the game, the changes in how we look at the game through statistical analysis, or the endless debates on the relative merits of players and in-game strategies.

That's not to say that you can't have interesting books that look at the impact of steroids and other performance enhancers: Will Carroll's The Juice still stands up as a must-read for anyone who wants to have an informed opinion on what these subastances do (and don't do), and what is their place in the whole baseball dialectic. But what distinguishes Carroll's book from many of the others is that it approaches the topic with a genuine sense of wonder and intellectual curiosity. Most of these other books seem start with the notion that steroids have ruined baseball, then set out to point fingers, assess blame and castigate the players, the game and, ultimately, the fans for being mindlessly complicit in the disintegration and demise of the grand old game.

On the contrary, we've found over the years is that baseball fans, by and large, are contemplative and intellectually curious people who like to dig deeper and learn more about the game. It strikes us that it would take a certain level of self-loathing to sit down and read volume after volume on how the sport that you're passionate about is a cesspool full of frauds.

And so, as we look forward to our summer reading, we plan on digging into our pile of unread books and reading a classic baseball book that truly captures the essence of all that is great in the game: Jim Bouton's Ball Four. We're looking forward to it.


Navin Vaswani (@eyebleaf) said...

Great rant. I haven't read any of the steroid books. I don't plan to.

I do, however, need to read "Ball Four."

Ottawa Sports Guy said...

You might also want to check out "As They See 'Em" by Bruce Weber and the Joe Torre book by Tom Verducci. I read both last month and found them to be fascinating.

However, I disagree with your characterizing baseball fans who read books on the use of steroids as "self-loathing". I've read many of these books and find them to be as informative about the secretive clubhouse culture as they are about exposing the frauds.

Tao of Stieb said...

I've heard of the Weber book, and plan to read it. The Torre book might be a down-the-road thing...

I take your point about exposing the clubhouse culture, but having said that, I'm thinking that there are lot of things that happen behind the scenes that would be as interesting if not more so than talking about the drug culutre.

Like: How do players prepare for games? In the age of digital video, how has this changed?

What do coaches actually do to instruct players?

Talking about clubhouse culture: What impact does baseball's increasingly diverse rosters have on teams, and what do successful teams do to handle this better than others?

What made Moneyball such a revelation was that it brought us into an area that many baseball fans had never really seen, and it did it with knowledge and humour.

Same goes for Sam Walker's Fantasyland.

The most revelatory baseball read we've had recently is Alan Schwartz's The Numbers Game, which gives an entertaining view of the history of stats while taking a bit of the mystique off of the historical numbers.

So, yeah...basically, we want to read something edifying without always reducing the game to wanton avarice.

JaysGirl5 said...

2 of my fave baseball books...

"The Teamates" by David Halberstam

"The Thinking Fan's Guide To Baseball, Revised Edition" by Leonard Koppett

I usually try to read a new baseball book every summer and re-read Koppett's book, too.

Capt. Obvious said...

Ball Four? A book about the grand old tradition of issuing a walk? Sounds like a page-turner.

Ian Hunter said...

I'll be honest, I checked out Buck Martinez' "The Last Out" from the library, but never read it. I got too into Canseco's "Juiced".

Tao of Stieb said...

I saw a used copy of Ernie Whitt's autobiography the other day, but I couldn't really bring myself to dig into it.

Stephen Brunt's Diamond Dreams is also a must read for any Blue Jays fan. A really fascinating look at the team from before its beginnings up until the two World Series teams.

My Blue Jays book is going to be about the seasons from 1994 through 1998...The dark days of Carlos Garcia, Orlando Merced and Erik Hanson.

Anonymous said...

great post. I'm gathering quite the reading list - thank you! How about George Plimpton's "out of my league?"

Tao of Stieb said...

It's been years since I read any of the Plimpton stuff...would love to take another look.

Inside the Mind of Bill James is a good book as well. Forget the author, and am too lazy to look it up.

Alex said...

it should be illegal to talk about baseball without having read ball four

Darren Priest said...

I totally agree. It should also be illegal to talk pro wrestling if you haven't read "Wrestling With Shadows" and illegal to talk badminton if you haven't read "Shuttlecocks of Fire"

Gay Jays Fan said...

After a rousing night last night with some of the boys at the local fire department my shuttlecock feels like it's on fire!

MK Piatkowski said...

Is ball four the book that followed the 1993 season? That's a great book.

I've also recently re-read Glory Jays, and it's been really insightful. Actually, all the Jays books written have been really good. Kelly Gruber's autobiography is a great read.

Becky said...

I agree, it gets a little old just reading about professional athletes who are on steroids although I don't mind reading a little bit of it. I just finished reading "What Were They Thinking?: The Brainless Blunders that Changed Sports History" by Kyle Garlett that covers more of a range of sports history both bad and good- it was a perfect entertaining read.

Unknown said...

Speaking of Halberstam, Summer of '49 is a great book.