Droopy Illusions

My wife is growing tomatoes in our backyard, and they are doing quite well. We look forward to their bearing fruit. I grow things, too. And what I grow, sometimes in secret, and sometimes where others can see, is this illusion that I can write. Yes, I’m teetering on the precipice of 60 – but still like to think that maybe I have picked up along the way some ability to string words together.

So, I nurture this illusion and I fertilize it and even prune it now and then. And just about when I have it to the place of blossoming, I read stuff I wished I could have written. My illusions suffer trauma, stems turn brown, leaves fall off, the whole thing kinda droops.

The source of the trauma this time is a sports writer named Joe Posnanski. He’s done this to me before. Posnanski writes for NBC Sports as well as for his own projects. He, like all those to whom I’m drawn, has a passion for storytelling. His fascination is with the people who do the sport, not just with the sport itself. Statistics matter only so far as they help to reveal the person. And he does all this with a light touch and often a clearly discernible grin. (Read the bio I linked above to discover that.)

I was first consciously exposed to Posnanski when he wrote about the Tampa Bay Rays’ improbable 2011 run to the baseball postseason, and the remarkable Game 162. His line in that piece that has stuck with me is this:

I never argue with people who say baseball is boring, because baseball is boring. And then, suddenly, it isn’t. And that’s what makes it great.

He’s not just a baseball guy. He wrote an article about a wacky NFL game last season that I can’t track down. His take is always a bit wry and carefully considered no matter what sport. Still, I find his stories about baseball to be the most engaging.

He’s 2/3 of the way through writing about the top 100 players (in his judgment) to ever play the game, and each article, from Pete Rose to Cal Ripken to Ozzie Smith is laced with compassion and humor and pathos. I read this morning his accounting of #32, the early 20th century pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. A movie was made about Alexander, apparently, one starring Ronald Reagan. And yet

“The Winning Team” stars Ronald Reagan as Grover Cleveland Alexander, making Alex the only American who will ever be NAMED for a U.S. President and PLAYED by a U.S. President in the movies. That alone should make it interesting…. But it does not. “The Winning Team” is so spectacularly bad, there is no possible way you can watch it for more than 10 minutes without your eyes bleeding.

I wish I had written that.

And as he tells Alexander’s story, from his glorious control as a pitcher to his descent into alcoholism, we find this account near the end of his life:

He was broke, and he was drunk, and he was in great pain. Alexander might be the origination of one of the saddest lines in sports literature.

“Aren’t you Grover Cleveland Alexander?” he was asked.

“Used to be,” he said.

Posnanski talks about what made him great as a ball player, but he also talks about what made him human.

Among his few possessions when he died was a typewriter, and inside the rollers was a half-written letter to [former wife] Aimee about how much he longed to see her again.

I knew nothing about this man before reading this. Posnanski introduced me and made me care.

We’ll get tomatoes off my wife’s plants, and my carefully nurtured illusions will survive, somehow. Droopy things will come undrooped. But at this point I can do nothing better than to encourage you to at least sample, and enjoy, some Posnanski. [Any of his vignettes on the top 100 baseball players are worth reading. But don’t be fooled by #57a like I was.]

The Brothers K

Though I read a lot, the time I get to read books unrelated to my ‘work’ is fairly limited. When I choose a book to read I know that it likely will be my companion for many days.

Knowing this, I hesitated picking up David James Duncan’s 645 page The Brothers K. Could I trust the recommendation of the man who loaned it to me? Would it be worth the six week investment it would take to read it?

I have the answers, now. BrothersK

Yes. And yes.

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I had never before heard of David James Duncan. My fault, of course, not his. It is true that he writes books that attract literary attention (this was a NY Times Notable Book for 1992). It is also true that he generates them slowly. Nearly ten years separated this from his previous release of The River Why.

The title is a clear allusion to another ‘Brothers’ book (one I’d like to read again, the next free ten weeks or so I find), but in this case the ‘K’ refers not to the brothers’ last name, but to the symbol used for a strikeout in scoring a baseball game.

Like Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers K follows the lives of four brothers and their relationship with their father. Added in the mix are twin sisters, baseball, Seventh Day Adventism, fly-fishing, the Vietnam War, broken dreams, and reconciled lives. Duncan captivatingly recounts 20+ years of a family’s life from the fifties to the seventies. Hugh Chance is a pitcher whose potential major league career is cut short by the Korean War. His often rocky marriage to his Adventist wife Laura produces four sons, each begging to be assigned a different four-letter code by Mr. Myers and Mr. Briggs: Irwin is passionate, Everett is the skeptic, Peter is the spiritual one, and Kincaid observes and records it all.

I know little about the author other than he, like many, has little patience with religious fundamentalism and blowhard clergymen. And though the book has smoking, drinking, drug use, Buddhism, fornication, swearing, anti-war rhetoric, and religious skepticism, it is one of the richest affirmations of the importance of committed family relationships that I’ve encountered in some time. Family values rule.

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I’m intrigued by what an author can do, and the relationship he can build with his reader. The details Duncan exposes concerning this family are vast. One might at times judge them tedious. But I can picture the house in which they live and the town they inhabit. Quote me a piece of dialog and I could probably tell you which character spoke it. I fully expect that I could travel to Washington state and sit down with the children and grandchildren of this family, though I know they are fictional. I feel like I understand them, I understand what makes them tick, I understand what motivates them, I understand why they care so much about what they care about.

And I realize that to come to this place, I needed to spend hours with each. I understand these fictional characters better than I understand many real people. And it’s quite possible that I have spent something like fifteen-twenty hours letting their story be told without interjecting my own words and thoughts and judgments. I’ve only been able to listen. How many real people – even those in my own family – get such attention from me? Not many. Maybe none.

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I’ve been searching for a word that captures a book like this. Like Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections the novel’s plot lines are not as important as the characters that inhabit them. Unlike Franzen, these characters become ones we (at least I) love though we may fiercely differ with them. The word that comes to mind is ‘rich’.

There are a few books that, after reading them for some time, I have not wanted to come to an end. Matterhorn was one. The Elegance of the Hedgehog was another. The Brothers K, rich, surprising, rewarding, has joined that list.

The Stories of the Boys of Summer

To my knowledge, I first encountered the writing of sports writer Joe Posnanski when he wrote about the legendary game that in Tampa Bay Rays’ fan-lore is known as ‘Game 162’, the unforgettable night that propelled the Rays into the 2011 postseason. About that night, and about that game, Posnanski wrote a spectacular piece in which he contended that baseball is, indeed, boring.

“I never argue with people who say that baseball is boring, because baseball is boring. And then, suddenly, it isn’t. And that’s what makes it great.”

Evan longoria usp2

As unbelievable as that night was – and I won’t bore you in trying to recount it for you – Posnanski’s writing about it has stuck with me quite as much as the events of which he wrote. To read him is to connect with the history and soul of the game, and that is a gift.

I’ve read occasional things by him over the past couple of years. There is something about baseball that invites thoughtful essays, and Posnanski delivers. This past baseball postseason, Posnanski had some insightful things to say about the over-use and mis-use of baseball statistics in television broadcasts. Stats are a part of the game of baseball, but baseball is bigger than stats. He wants the announcers to tell more of the stories connected with those stats. I found myself resonating with his critique.

Since then, Posnanski has engaged in a project in which he is telling many of those stories that need telling. He has created a list, an obviously idiosyncratic list, as these things always will be, of the 100 best baseball players of all time. What could be academic and encyclopedic is becoming quite the clinic in how to tell a story well. I’ve not been able to read many, as he releases a couple of essays each day and I have other things filling my time. But if the quality remains as it has been, I might find it harder to pull myself away.

I suppose one who is not a fan might not find all the stories compelling. But surely one can read with appreciation about #81 on his list (Joe Jackson), a man who never liked his nickname (‘Shoeless’), and who found money such a great temptation that it led to his permanent banishment from baseball. Or one can enjoy reading about how ‘scrappy and resourceful’ flirted with the edges of ‘honest and legal’ in the career of #83 (Gaylord Perry). Good stuff, this. Check it out.

But first read his essay on Game 162.

But then, every now and again, something happens. Something memorable. Something magnificent. Something staggering. Your child wins the race. Your team rallies in the ninth. You get pulled over for speeding. And in that moment — awesome or lousy — you are living something that you will never forget, something that jumps out of the toneless roar of day-to-day life.