04 February 2008

Harvard Boys, by John Wolff and Rick Wolff

I wanted to like this book.

I was offered a chance to review Harvard Boys back in November, and I finished reading it weeks ago, but I'm just getting around to reviewing it now. That should tell you something.

John Wolff went to Harvard, like his father, and was drafted in the later rounds as a secondbaseman, like his father. So, like his father, he decided to write a book about his experiences in the minor leagues. (His father's book, What's a Nice Harvard Boy Like You Doing in the Bushes? had a much better title.) Like his father, he's going to have to make a living doing something other than playing baseball, because he hit .207 in the Frontier League in 2006, and did not do much when he got signed by the Mets for the 2007 season.

John does have some interesting experiences here and there, and meets a few interesting characters. He has some successes and failures in his rare opportunities at playing time. He has a lot of ups and downs: getting signed by the White Sox and reporting to Spring Training, then getting stuck in extended Spring Training for two more months, getting assigned to a Rookie League team in Virginia...and then getting released two weeks later. He then got signed by an independent team in Michigan, and was doing pretty well when his shoulder got injured. Trying to play through the injury trashed his stats and eventually ended his season, though he did get signed by the Mets (as noted in the epilogue.)

But none of that, or almost none of it, is anything we haven't heard or read before. Another review of this book (I won't embarass its author) suggested that Harvard Boys was interesting because there aren't many other books that give insight into the lives of professional baseball players, besides Ball Four, of course. But really there are lots of books that do exactly that, and most of them better than this one. Pat Jordan's A False Spring, and A Nice Tuesday, and Jim Brosnan's The Long Season and Pennant Race, are classics of the genre. Newer variations on the minor league, "prespective of a nobody" theme incude Brett Mandel's Minor Players, Major Dreams, Steve Fireovid's The 26th Man, and Neal Karlan's Slouching Toward Fargo. On the major league level, Sparky Lyle's The Bronx Zoo gave unprecedented (and much more irreverent and biting) access into the clubhouse, and there are autobiographical books by Goose Gossage, Bill Lee, Mickey Mantle, Robin Roberts, Carl Erskine, Jim Kaat, Bob Gibson, Don Zimmer, John Kruk, Dick Allen, and Jose Canseco, just to name a few. Harvard Boys has nothing that these books did not have, John Wolff's personal feelings notwithstanding.

I tried to like Harvard Boys. I really did. John Wolff and his dad went to Harvard, a college with an academics-first mentality, much like my own (though I make no pretense that Lehigh is anywhere near as good a school as Harvard), so I had a soft spot for them before I ever picked up the book. I read the whole thing, cover to cover, unlike many book reviewers. I kept thinking that I must be missing something, that it would get better, but it never did. I tried and tried, gave it my best shot and all that, but alas, Harvard Boys never rose much above "mediocre" on my Book-o-Meter.

It's written reasonably well. No problem there. John Wolff has a Harvard education, a degree in psychology (at least he does now, having returned to finish his degree after his first stint in pro ball). So he can write. His style is mostly proper, though informal, but it's not terribly clever or interesting. He doesn't have many creative turns of phrase or quirky expressions or other literary goodies that make a book enjoyable to read. The book was compiled as a series of journal entries that John sent to his father, Rick Wolff, via email during the 2006 season, and it reads exactly that way: like he was sending emails to his dad, with no need to impress anyone with his mastery of the English language, no efforts to wax eloquent in any way. In and of itself, this might not be a bad thing, except that his subject matter does not make up for it either.

John Wolff repeatedly tells us, on almost every page, it sometimes seems, than minor league baseball is boring. The long bus rides, the long practices, long rain delays, long games with obscure players, the long waiting between chances to play, long nights and days off in cities and towns of which you've probably never heard, where there isn't much to do...yep, sounds pretty boring. You've got us there, John...but do you have to keep telling us so? The minor leagues are bad enough without being constantly reminded of how bad they are, don't you think?

One of the major differences between John's book and the one his father, Rick wrote (with Phil Pepe's help) about his time in the Tigers' minor league system back in the 1970's is that John's book includes his father's reflections and insights as well. Most of John's journal entries are followed by a brief response from his dad Rick, and some of these are interesting stories about amusing or odd things that happened to him back then, but sadly, many of Rick's insights aren't all that insightful. Some selected observations from Rick Wolff:

"Playing baseball is all about...playing." (p. 68)

"Even minor leaguers have to pay rent and buy groceries." (p. 127)

"Travel in the minor leagues is not glamorous." (p.184)

"John's right." (p. 202)

"Bottom line? It's boring." (p. 242)

"Nobody cares that you tried hard. All that matters are the results." (p. 245)
Unfortunately, that last one is also true of this book. It was, to be sure, a very good idea for a book, but the execution left a lot to be desired. Generaly speaking, I'd rather not review a book than give it a bad one, but with this book, I felt that it would be a disservice to my readers (the six or eight of you who regularly tune in here), not to tell you of my disappointment with Harvard Boys.

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