Requiem For A One-Eyed Batter

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Requiem For A One-Eyed Batter

Posted on 12 September 2012 by Gary Perilloux

A day like any other? Hardly. Soon, Larry Mize would plunk a 140-foot chip into the final playoff hole cup at Augusta, giving Greg Norman the most bitter defeat of his career at The Masters.

But the day belonged to baseball, really. Here we were, a dozen general managers, an auctioneer, several wives, girlfriends and hangers-on in a downtown watering hole about four Mickey Mantle home run blasts from the Mississippi River.

Doug’s, a Beaux-Arts establishment, sported 20-foot ceilings, massive maroon drapes, heavy tables with captain’s chairs, a dartboard and jukebox at the back and a curved-screen, cathode-ray tube piping The Masters in over the bar, helmed by a discreet bookie who’d triple as our barkeep and auctioneer.

Draft Day – all’s right with the world, and just as we pored over our cheat sheets, penciling in last-minute strategies in our Rotisserie reveries, the scene-stealer burst through the door with a stack of research in one arm and a stack of neon yellow caps on the other.

Lyman Gore, a wiry, 40-ish attorney with curly, dishwater blond hair, strode in from a nearby print shop with a gleam in his one good eye and a gift for every Fantasy Baseball owner at the table: A purple logo printed on the yellow caps, LSU-like, but this was no Eye of the Tiger. No, Lyman – confident of claiming his first championship – lavished upon us custom caps with a purple bat striking a purple baseball festooned with his trademark glass eye and a caption below his team name: “Cyclops – In the Bat of an Eye.”

CYCLOPS CAP

Laughs cascaded to the ceiling, and the loudest was Lyman’s, a hoarse cackle that crinkled the corners of his eyes and that echoed through every River City League draft until, finally, two decades later he would claim his first title.

‘I Hate Pitchers’

Pitchers were the bane of Lyman’s existence. It was as if his mind’s eye suffered from a loss of perspective the way his physical eye suffered from a lack of peripheral vision.

Seated with his roster sheet and inside baseball publications – typically at a separate table – he’d grab his thermos and swill some coffee of the Irish kind. When it came his turn to nominate a player in the draft auction, he’d slap his thermos on the table and mutter an oath, “I hate pitchers,” usually followed by the corollary phrase, “with a passion.”

Year-in, year-out, the Cyclops couldn’t seem to break that cycle. The pitchers seemed to hate Lyman as much as he hated them. He’d spend big on sluggers and base-stealers until someone would say, “Lyman, when you gonna draft a pitcher?” His rejoinder: “I hope never.”

Some years he’d sit out the bidding altogether until, at the first break, one of us would say, “Lyman, when you gonna draft somebody?” His rejoinder, “I’m saving my money,” reflected his upbringing as a banker’s son, and then the corollary “I don’t want to blow it all on pitchers” would precede another cackle and a round of good-natured ribbing.

But clearly a pattern was setting in. Lyman, who scouted spring training and pored over player rankings with the best of us, usually exceeding the preparation any of the rest of us could muster, slowly but surely sank into a bidding paralysis. He seemed not to want to pull the trigger and, eventually, seemed incapable of doing so in the crucial moments of the draft.

Fantasy baseball purists know the pitfalls. Never spend too much, too early. Never bring up a player you don’t want to own. And never get so excited about a player that your bid is out of proportion with the player’s Fantasy, not real, value. Sometimes the most modest of bids is excessive. One year, my brother Glen, playing with a Canadian oil man named Lloyd Thomas as his partner, listened while someone opened one of the first bids with “Kevin Ritz, starting pitcher, Colorado.” Now these were the 1990s, and Coors Field was the ultimate hitter’s crib: One simply didn’t draft Rockies pitchers if they could be avoided – and never early in the draft. To his horror, Glen heard the oil man bellow a second bid for Ritz from behind his bushy mustache. A split second of silence ensued, then came the thundering sound of my brother’s foot stomping and the exclamation: “Lloyd!” Wounded, the oil man defended himself: “Well, he won 17 games last year. He’s worth at least one more bid.” Ritz also had surrendered 105 walks and 125 earned runs the prior year to go with a WHIP of 1.601 and a 5.28 ERA.

By then, the jig was up, laughter knifed through the auction tension, and I don’t have to tell you who laughed loudest.

The Comeback Kid

Still, Lyman couldn’t break his lovable loser mold. He’d overcompensate in ways that led to more mirth. When time came for our Minor League picks, Lyman amped up the levity by selecting farm hands for the peculiarity of their names: Razor Shines, Motorboat Jones and Boof Bonser all spent time riding the Cyclops bench.

And yet Lyman flourished in his role as our league’s commissioner. Our River City League began nearly 30 years ago when Rotisserie founders Glenn Waggoner and Daniel Okrent penned the first edition of the classic, Rotisserie League Baseball, and we original owners read it. In those days, we crunched our own stats by hand – ugh! – and delighted in the delayed discovery of who was winning. Lyman joined a couple of years later, when we’d begun receiving weekly faxed stats from a service in Maryland.

When, a decade later, Web leagues burst onto the scene, Lyman stepped up to the plate as our online commissioner. On any given summer night, you could go to our site, glance through the standings and there in the chat room Lyman would be lurking, as sure and certain a presence as the moon outside.

We exchanged hundreds of emails about transactions and trades over the years, often never seeing each other between drafts because we lived in different cities. And then a funny thing happened.

Lyman embraced the baseball strategies of John Benson with a passion and began moving up the standings from his perennial also-ran status. Most miraculous of all, he embraced pitchers. With Benson behind him, Lyman learned that pitchers could be his friends, especially the innings-eaters with low ERAs, stingy WHIPs and frequent W’s in a holy pitching trinity. He learned to eschew saves – you can’t win every category, the reasoning went, so don’t overpay for a bunch of unpredictable relievers.

Gradually, he applied the same systematic approach to hitters. He climbed from 4 pitching points, 21 total points and 10th place (last) in 2001 to ninth a year later, with 14 pitching points and 37 total points. In 2003, he scaled to third place with a balanced line of 24 points in batting and 23 in pitching. The next year, he claimed second place (44 points) in the most competitive year in our league’s history.

And then it happened. In 2005, the Cyclops claimed the no-longer mythical championship, beating my Peripatetics team by 4.5 points and recording the league’s best balance: 26 batting points, 23 pitching points. I couldn’t have been happier if I’d won myself, and I almost felt the same way in 2006 when Lyman edged me by 2 points to take his second consecutive crown.

If anyone deserved to gloat, it was Lyman, but he remained uncannily gracious as a champion and continually competitive in the succeeding years. Shortly after the All-Star Game this year, I pulled into our office parking lot after lunch, heard my phone buzz with what I expected to be a work email and read the impossible: Lyman had died after surgery and a brief illness.

Eternal Summer

I’ll never know what going to war is like, fighting with brothers in arms on foreign soil. But this felt like someone blasted my bunkmate out of our foxhole. I lost it. When I posted a brief email to my fellow owners a few moments later, it stated the unfiltered truth about Lyman: “Devastating: It will never be the same without him.”

Fantasy commissioners aren’t supposed to die, they’re supposed to go on forever – longer than Bud Selig, God love him. Several other league owners had died over the years, but none in mid-season and none more dedicated to this silly, romantic, guts-and-glory game we pursue.

The best I can do is step off the pitching mound and hand the ball over to the late great Mike Royko, whose posthumous collection of columns in 1999 began with this requiem on the final day when his beloved Chicago Daily News ceased publication in 1978:

When I was a kid, the worst of all days
Was the last day of summer vacation,
and we were in the schoolyard playing softball,
and the sun was going down, and it was getting dark.
But I didn’t want it to get dark.
I didn’t want the game to end.
It was too good, too much fun.
I wanted it to stay light forever,
so we could go on playing forever,
so the game would go on and on.

That’s how I feel now: C’mon, C’mon!
Let’s play one more inning.
One more time at bat.
One more pitch. Just one?
Stick around, guys.
We can’t break up this team.
It’s too much fun.

But the sun always went down.
And now it’s almost dark again.

Elsewhere, the sun is rising, and I see Ray Kinsella tossing a baseball to his dad, the catcher. Ty Cobb is filing his spikes, and Shoeless Joe Jackson is lacing up his cleats, staring down Cobb. Satchel Paige is on the pitching mound, staring over his shoulder to see how far Jackie Robinson is cheating toward second base.

Perched on the front row of the bleachers, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis casts a quizzical eye at Shoeless Joe and glares at the first baseman, Chick Gandil. Beside Landis, Bowie Kuhn engages A. Bartlett Giamatti in a scholarly debate on free agency, and next to them, wearing the golden cap with the purple eye, sits Lyman Gore – thermos in one hand, stat sheet on his knee.

He winks.

Today, Gary Perilloux’s RCL team stands in sixth place, a point behind the late Lyman Gore’s Cyclops, who are tied for fourth and leading the league with a .282 team batting average. 

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Mike Trout: Poetry In Motion — Or Fish Tale?

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Mike Trout: Poetry In Motion — Or Fish Tale?

Posted on 24 August 2012 by Gary Perilloux

Somewhere along the meteoric path charted by Mike Trout this season, I became smitten with this whole fish tale. A National League sympathizer by habit, I’d only caught portions of the Trout tale. But when ESPN devoted a lengthy segment solely to the analytic physics of one catch made by the Los Angeles Angels outfielder, I knew that all of us in the audience were being sucked into a date with destiny.

No ordinary fish tale here. Mike Trout had burst onto the scene as the second coming of Willie Howard Mays himself. Willie Mays circa 1954, Game 1 of the World Series, with the Say Hey Kid churning his swift legs toward the center field fence and hauling in — his back to the plate, his head skyward — an over-the-shoulder, extra-bases-saving snare from a 460-foot black hole of the Polo Grounds: Vic Wertz and the Indians denied.

After that catch, Leo Durocher would growl, “Willie makes (expletive) catches like that every day.”

Amazing grace

I think “The Lip” would do little more justice to Trout’s exploits. So with deepest apologies to the late, great Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I submit the poetry of Mike Trout in motion.

mag_next02_trout_mike_600

Sonnet from Disneyland

How do I love thee, O Millville Meteor? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when balls sail out of sight
Toward fences scaled by thy gloved grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
ESPN gasp: The Catch! and bases swiped.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Ruth.
I love thee purely, as women shed their Bonds.
I love thee with a passion put to use
in Fantasy drafts, and with my Sabermetric faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my fallen Astros, — I love thee with the Pujols,
Braun, Harper, of all my life! — and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better in the World Series.

By now, you may have surmised that I’m of the tongue-in-cheek school that questions Trout’s long-term greatness. Read that again: “long-term greatness.”

I don’t doubt Trout’s present-day greatness. Besides the catch, his skills as a leadoff hitter with power (.344/24/70) and speed (39-for-43 SBs) and table-setting results (97 runs, an MVP-worthy WAR of 8.6) are easily documented.

Leap of faith

What set me on edge, beyond the unctuous ESPN catch analysis, was an ESPN.com piece in which David Schoenfield opined: “Ranking the center fielders: Trout No. 1.”

To say that a few of us bristled at the premature crown placed on Trout’s head would not be a fish tale. At last glance, Schoenfield’s ranking (with Andrew McCutcheon No. 2 and Matt Kemp No. 3) had elicited 832 comments. A few of them were mine, and after pointing out the superiority of Joe Dimaggio’s rookie year to this great Trout season, I was roundly booed, hissed upon and scolded by Angels Nation for mixing dissimilar baseball eras.

Point taken. It was only later, upon weighing the base-stealing exploits and that other great catch, that I landed upon Willie Mays as an interesting touchstone for Trout. Yes, it’s a different era again, but there aren’t any current-day center fielders with the track record to establish head-and-shoulders superiority at the position.

Here’s an example of what Trout would need to do to establish himself as the premier player of his time at any position, as some are prematurely calling him. Willie Mays won Rookie of the Year honors in 1951 at age 20, posting more modest numbers than Trout: (.274/20/68/59, with 7 SBs in 464 ABs). What’s less known about Mays than some other greats is that he would miss most of his second and third seasons to military service during the Korean Conflict.

But upon his return, oh, upon his return, the heavens burst open: his season of .345/41/110/119 at age 23 would launch 12 straight years with more than 100 runs scored and 13 consecutive seasons with more than 300 total bases. During that stretch, Mays would lead the league in triples three times, home runs four times, stolen bases four times, slugging percentage five times and OPS five times. Nine times he would meet or exceed Trout’s current WAR (soaring past a 10 rating a half-dozen times) and 10 consecutive years he would win Golden Gloves, with an eventual 12 top fielding awards.

Those are the standards Trout and his admirers need to examine before crowning him with anything beyond one-year awards. I’m of the school (a minority one now) that Bryce Harper eventually will enjoy the superior career of the two, once he assimilates the defensive skills and pitch-timing required to thrive in the Major Leagues.

The debate will continue, and two great young outfielders can’t be anything but good for baseball. But let’s enjoy watching what MAY be the Mays and Mantle of our generation without a rush to judgment.

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The Case Against Catchers

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The Case Against Catchers

Posted on 10 August 2012 by Gary Perilloux

Someone, please, have my head examined. I’m certain I lost my mind somewhere on the base paths this baseball season, and I haven’t been able to find it.

You see, the indisputable diagnosis is right there on my Fantasy Baseball roster. Follow the serious neurological disconnect between the top of my roster, where the obligatory two catchers go, and the bottom of the offensive lineup, where those invaluable utility spots reside. And there at the bottom is the indisputable proof: a third catcher.

Add to the diagnosis the fact that ours is an NL-only league, and you know that I seriously need my head examined. Three catchers from the National League on one Fantasy roster? Are you kidding?

The only plausible explanation would be that Mike Piazza and Gary Carter rejoined their teams via time-travel from the peaks of their All-Star careers. But, no, I’ve got on my roster a catcher named Kratz whom I’d never heard of until a few days back and a catcher named Rosario whom I’d never heard of before this year.

Oh, I do have a fellow by the name of McCann from down Georgia way on my team, so there’s a scintilla of logic in my backstop picks. But even there, I broke the Cardinal rule of Fantasy Baseball (or in this case, the Braves rule): Never, ever draft the same catcher from the same team two years in a row, especially if they had a stalwart year in the first season.

It’s the No. 1 Fantasy Rule in the case against catchers. By dint of their back-breaking, knee-buckling, arm-wearying, crazy-pitcher-handling jobs, they cannot sustain great offense two years in a row. Not unless you’re talking 10-15 years ago and the catcher is that first baseman convert from Lasorda land, Mike Piazza. Yes, we’re talking Fantasy, so the fact that he played mediocre to marginal defense most of his career is beside the point.

Simply put, nearly everyone else who puts on the mask has ample reason to hide behind the mask when the subject turns to offense. I took a risk this year by drafting McCann again and paying for him virtually the same thing I did in 2011: $21.

A steal? No. A deal? Yes, except — and here’s the big bugaboo for catchers — they won’t do for you this year what they did for you last (the Piazza exception, notwithstanding).

A History Lesson

Let’s look back through history at Yogi, Campy and Johnny — the holy trinity of mid-20th century catchers. Aside from being Yogi, the on-the-field mastermind behind the most successful run in Major League history, Yogi Berra was the Piazza of the 1950s: eight straight years he led the American League in games caught and seven straight years he finished in the Top 4 in balloting for MVP, winning three MVP awards. Amazingly, two MVP awards were back-to-back (1954-55) and he should have had two more back-to-back (1950-51), except for that Scooter guy at short who stole the 1950 award away.

But Yogi, like “Iron” Mike Piazza is the once-in-a-lifetime exception to the rule.

Now, let’s take Campy and Johnny at their five-year peaks. Roy Campanella won three NL MVP Awards in the 1950s. But sandwiched between those luminous 1951, 1953 and 1955 MVP years — in which he averaged .318/35/119 with an OPS of .989 were very different years in which he averaged .240/20/74 with an OPS more than 200 points lower at .745. For Bench, the spray of runs, drips and errors were far worse in the alternating years between his MVP performances of 1970 and 1972 and his 4th place MVP performance of 1974. I don’t have the Elias Sports Bureau on speed dial, but in those three great years Bench never drove in fewer than 125 runs, and I doubt any other catcher had three such years in his entire career (Berra, Campanella and Bill Dickey had one; Piazza, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlton Fisk and Javy Lopez had none).

So here’s Johnny Bench pounding the ball at an average of .281/39/131 and an OPS of .907 for those three peak years. But in the intervening 1971 and 1973 seasons he withered to .246/26/82 and an OPS of .748. Not bad years for the mere mortal catcher. But when you’re paying Johnny Bench dollars, you want that Krylon smooth sheen, not the runs, drips and errors of a mortal catcher.

Which brings us back to Brian McCann, who once looked like a lock for the title of pseudo-Piazza or demi-Yogi. You could look it up: For the six consecutive years concluding with 2011, McCann averaged .281/22/86 and his worst year (2010) of .269/21/77 really didn’t miss the mark by much. His OPS that year of .828 also didn’t miss his six-year average of .851 by too much. So I drafted the guy again after throwing him back.

Closing the Case

McCann now is on pace for 26 homers and 83 RBIs, so what’s the problem? That .240 batting average and .762 OPS that place him in the mere mortal category. It just so happens that my Fantasy team has been mired in last place for batting average most of the year and is now one spot off the bottom. That’s more testament to my myopic drafting skills than anything else. But the point is, catchers can really kill your batting average. It’s why you draft two of them because you have to, not because you want to. So how on earth did my feeble brain select a third catcher for the roster?

Well, I foolishly drafted Scott Rolen (at a great price!) in utility, but the Rolex on Rolen’s salad days had wound down. And when he wound up on the DL, the waiver wire was, shall we say, lean and green. The hottest available hitter was catcher Wilin Rosario, who has played his way into the Rockies lineup and is on pace to finish at a McCann-ian pace: .236/27/66/.790.

The third catcher? Suffice it to say that I grew weak in the knees during the minor league portion of our draft and selected one Yasmani Grandal — a catcher! — who miraculously was hitting .312/5/15 in just 24 games after a midyear call up and before the injury bug came calling. In desperation, I replaced him with a crafty, 32-year-old Philadelphia rookie, Erik Kratz, who’s stroking at the remarkable rate of .371/4/9 in just 35 ABs.

And things are looking up. Carlos Ruiz has hit the DL (sorry, Phillies fans) and the crafty Kratz is capitalizing on more playing time. I know, though, that this is all just a mirage. I see the 87-year-old Yogi grinning at me through his bifocals and wisecracking, “Take it from me: The one sure way to lose your league is to keep picking catchers. I know, I’m one of ’em. You do 300 squats a game, sooner or later, you ain’t gonna hit squat.”

Take it from Yogi: Fantasy is 90 percent hitting, and the other half has nothing to do with catching, except for the pitching — and you’ll want some of that. But the case against catchers? That’s closed.

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Taking a flier on Fiers

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Taking a flier on Fiers

Posted on 02 August 2012 by Gary Perilloux

Sigh: 2012 has been one of those years. On my once-proud Fantasy roster, Clayton Kershaw is not the Clayton Kershaw of yesteryear. Chad Billingsley isn’t the Clayton Kershaw he was supposed to become this year. And Brian Wilson’s beard is less scary than his elbow.

In the pitchers paradise of Petco Park, Cameron Maybin continues to be all tools and no home improvement. He and my defenseless Dodgers shortstop, Dee Gordon, are creating new faults in the Mendoza Line.
After analyzing the heap of trouble Ryan Braun brewed for himself in the offseason, I concluded brilliantly that Braun would not be worth in 2012 what I paid for him in 2011 ($43). Sigh. Double sigh. (Braun’s hitting at a full-season clip of .310/45/113 with 27 SBs and an OPS of 0.991 that would virtually match the 0.994 of his MVP year. And in our classic 4×4 Roto league this year, he sold for – you guessed it – $43.
Sigh. I look at the lonely first base in Miami now, and my aching heart turns to song for consolation, “Where have you gone, Gaby Sa-a-anchez?” (To New Orleans, with a .202 average on his knee.)
The Five Commandments
This year, I simply succumbed to too many no-no’s at our league’s 29th annual live auction:
  • Thou shalt not participate in a draft en route to an out-of-state vacation.
  • Thou shalt not study the players so furiously that thou fails to devise a bona fide draft strategy.
  • Thou shalt not take a pass on the top players merely because they’re selling for as much or more as last year.
  • Thou shalt not pursue the perfectly balanced team to the exclusion of being great in any single category.
  • Thou shalt not replace a hurt player from the draft with a pitcher or batter merely because they impressed you during your vacation trip to live games.
OK, let’s call it quits at The Five Commandments of Fantasy Drafts. By now, you’ve gained a crystal clear view of my train wreck of a 2012 draft. No need to go to Ten Commandments when the first five guaranteed me the cellar through much of the first half of the season.
After finishing within a whisker of first place last year, I’ve found myself treading 30 points or more back for much of the season. For my beleaguered, rag-tag Fantasy team, the 2012 season has become – in the words of that sage Beltway scholar – a clown year, bro.
And yet I trudge on. I stumble toward October with delusions of red, white and blue bunting in my future and a cascade of brown chocolate Yoo-hoo over my head — the fantasy equivalent of the Gatorade shower. In my heart of hearts, I know those will be unfulfilled dreams this year and — you know what? — I’m OK with that.
What? Yes, you heard me right. Part of surviving a keeper league year after year, and it’s a big part, is knowing when to accept defeat gracefully. I saw the gravity of my mistakes early in the year and accepted the fact that 2012 would become for me a kind of Bryce Harper season, a year of dropped flies and stealing home and learning how to hit second and field questions about celebratory beer in Canada: in short, a teachable year.
It didn’t help that after experiencing an awful draft and watching the Royals stagger through a winless first homestand that I wandered down I-70 later in the week and became enamored of Bronson Arroyo’s masterful dismantling of the Cardinals. Man, the garage band rock star looked like his old self. So among my two dozen waiver moves to replace hurt and demoted draftees this year, I made one of my first picks Bronson Arroyo, who’s now on pace to go 7-10 and win the fewest games since he became a full-time Major League starter: a teachable moment.
Fliers and Hot Fiers
In these fantasy years that try men’s souls, the temptation to throw in the towel and find sweet success in simulation games is great – very great. But I’ll have to pat myself on the back for one thing.
I did the adult thing: I accepted at the outset that I was not going to win the league in 2012. It wasn’t going to happen. And with that pressure off my conscience, I set about building the best fourth-place team you’ve ever seen.
Starting out at rock bottom, I reasoned that getting to the middle of the pack should be reward enough for such a bad start. And if I got to the upper middle of the pack – fourth place – why I’d actually be in the money in our league, and that’s all right with me.
And while I’ve had teachable “bad” moments (see Arroyo) this year, I’ve also had teachable “good” moments. Just last week, when the latest of my pitchers succumbed to elbow badness (Billingsley), I was poised to concede wins, where I’m in next-lo-last place, and go with saves, where I could spring from third to second or even first with one more closer success story.
The timing seemed propitious. The Marlins had promoted Mike Dunn to closer for the struggling Heath Bell; and Dunn converted his first opportunity and was available in our league. No brainer, right?
But wait, here’s Ozzie Guillen talking about the dreaded “closer committee” and I’m not feeling so high on Dunn. And in another corner of the league, there’s this guy named Fiers who’s had five remarkable starts in a row as an under-the-radar prospect, a guy who once broke his back in four places, a guy who willed himself into firing a higher-speed fastball.
I’m a sucker for these guys. I need help in ERA and WHIP, too, so my gut says, “Take a flier on Fiers, take a flier on Fiers, take a flier on Fiers …”
I did, and what do you know? The viscera were right. Fiers pitched 6 innings, 5 hits, 0 BBs, 1 ER, 4 Ks and whittled his ERA to 1.96 in his first start for me. There are the moments you live for: In a season of discontent, where winning is out of the question, here is a mini-win with an additional reward: After a weekend away from baseball, I return home to find my team in fourth place!
And then – sigh – there’s this news: Chad Billingsley is coming back already to test that testy elbow, just as I’m feeling increasingly Fiers-friendly. Don’t you just love it? Here’s hoping the gut goes 2-for-2.

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The Elusive Great American Baseball Novel

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The Elusive Great American Baseball Novel

Posted on 31 July 2012 by Gary Perilloux

The recent splash created by Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding lured me into the Great American Baseball Novel Debate once again, because I honestly could not quite put my finger on where Harbach’s handiwork belongs in that pantheon. It’s a helluva book, a good read and an adroitly written novel in many ways, but it’s also discursive, digressive and downright exasperating in spots — a lot like Dee Gordon‘s defensive work for the Dodgers this year. So for perspective, I naturally turned toThe Natural – the Bernard Malamud classic so wildly distorted by Hollywood a generation ago but so much beloved by many as The Great American Baseball Novel for its unflinching, unsentimental treatment of a great but tragic figure in the mid-20th century game.

So how did Harbach stack up to Malamud? Well, it’s a bit like comparing Willie Wilson to Willie Stargell. Or Yogi Berra to Rickey Henderson. Frankly, I found Malamud a bit overrated, given the appearance of a few too many colorful but stock characters. I remained vexed over what to make of The Art of Fielding, in which a lanky college shortstop plays flawless defense, rises to top-tier draft prospect, only to lose his nerve, his mental health and, effectively, his career when a rare errant throw seriously wounds his roommate, who’s reading a book in the dugout. (Well, this is a college baseball team.) What ensues is a bit of Herman Melville-inspired madness in many directions, from prolific drug use among players to promiscuous relationships — the college president’s homosexual affair with the wounded player hurdles toward scandal while the shortstop and his mentor, the team’s catcher, wind up in a love triangle with the campus president’s daughter — whew! — and, yes, there’s an honest-to-goodness college baseball championship pursuit, which mercifully becomes the book’s strongest passage. At times, The Art of Fielding had me pining for the simple joys of a Troy Soos baseball mystery.

So I stepped back to the warning track to gain more perspective. Let’s face it: For its fine use of figurative language, for its creative scope and its fearless undertaking of the baseball odyssey, Shoeless Joe – better known in Hollywood as Field of Dreams – pushed the baseball novel to new imaginative heights. But there’s just one problem with crowning W.P. Kinsella’s masterpiece as The Great American Baseball Novel. It’s only his second-best novel. You laugh? Well, in my book, Kinsella only got better in The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, a towering account of the Chicago Cubs traveling to play their minor league affiliate in early 20th century Iowa and of the lead character’s time-travel pursuits to go back to the actual game and prove its existence — only to wind up in an endless, extra innings game that would play on through monsoons for 40 days and 40 nights. Trust me, you have to dip your toes into this one and gradually get up the nerve to dive in, but, oh, what a magical tale Kinsella weaves.

And yet, I know the preponderance of baseball novel purists would laugh me off the mound for pitching this lesser-known Kinsella classic as The Great American Baseball Novel. Such a novel should swing for the fences, shouldn’t it (and Kinsella does)? Like the five-tool prospect, such a novel should wow the reader with its plot, setting, characters, climax and denouement, should it not? The controlled, character-driven tension of Almost Famous by David Small — one of my personal favorites — suffers perhaps from the lack of a stirring climax, and the story of one man’s struggles after the game inexplicably bored some readers. Others have found the fine, coming-of-age baseball novel, Season of the Owl by Miles Wolff Jr., overly derivative. (See To Kill A Mockingbird.) And in this post-Paterno world of fallen heroes, some would find the fascinating 1970s character study by Norman Keifetz, The Sensation, a bit heavy on molestation melodrama and short on baseball convictions.

So what’s a baseball reader to do? Shrug his shoulders and admit that we’re no more likely to determine the unequivocal Great American Baseball Novel than we’re likely to determine who’s the better team: 1927 Yankees or 1976 Reds?

I found myself mired in this line of thought one weekend when my wife and I were about to leave the upper deck of the local Barnes & Noble and my eye caught a striking book jacket under the new fiction sign. The Might Have Been, by Joseph Schuster, proclaimed an important new voice in baseball fiction. I hesitated, recalling my disappointment over another ballyhooed baseball book some years ago, The Slider by Patrick Robinson, a wooden, stilted work I simply couldn’t finish. Would this book be equally underwhelming? I bought it and hoped for the best, figuring I should end my quest for The Great American Baseball Novel by merely reading one more baseball novel for the heck of it, completing my journey with a whimper, and moving on to other reading pursuits.

If you’ve noticed one common theme among the contenders here, it’s that of the suffering player — from Roy Hobbs to Moonlight Graham to Schuster’s Edward Everett Yates. In The Might Have Been, you’ll require several chapters of reading before you become accustomed to the author’s affectation of calling the protagonist by both his first and middle names: Edward Everett did this and Edward Everett did that. We learn, in flashbacks, how Edward Everett seized a 1970s opportunity to play for the St. Louis Cardinals, gaining his first at-bat in a pinch hit appearance for Lou Brock. And we quickly learn of Edward Everett’s free fall from the Major Leagues, his series of unfulfilled romantic relationships from minor league player to minor league manager, and his remarkable encounters with marvelously drawn, similarly flawed human beings who build character in Edward Everett even as he inevitably moves on to a new relationship. The pain of what might have been a distinguished Major League career is never far removed from his consciousness, he wears his minor league managerial duties on his sleeve, he carries his game logs and player charts home with him at night, studying them in the company of a seizure-wracked dog after his latest love moves out and furiously fends off his offers of flowers and reconciliation. He thumbs through childhood pictures of a son he’s never met, from a relationship that foundered at the end his playing days. But on game days in Indiana, in towns where he courted the boy’s mother, he scans the faces in the stands and he imagines he sees her, or him — the family he never had.

What endures, what keeps him in the game, is not his masterful baseball instruction of the revolving door of misfits who populate his lineup. What endures are the familial bonds Edward Everett desperately needs, the connection to a cause, the ability to lead a nuclear family of man-children who’ll inevitably find themselves in the same “might have been” universe as Edward Everett. What matters is the connection to each other, through all the seedy motels, bumpy bus rides and dimly lit fields. What matters is a team. Hardly the stuff of great baseball revelations, you say? Where’s the baseball noir and the villainous owner of The Natural? Where’s the literary panache of The Art of Fielding? The field of dreams from Shoeless Joe?

You won’t find them here. What you will find in The Might Have Been are refreshingly nuanced characters, realistically drawn scenes of minor league life, more failure than success between the foul lines, and one courageous coot of a manager. What you will find is that Joe Schuster’s debut may just be the Greatest American Baseball Novel ever written. Period.

Gary Perilloux took the plunge into baseball fiction himself, completing an as-yet unpublished manuscript, Happy, in which a crime committed by St. Louis Browns players during the Bill Veeck era surfaces on the eve of one player’s induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

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