15 June 2008

Major League Baseball is something of an anomaly in American sports. It is by far the most pastoral of games. This has obvious roots in the summer time game being played in fields when the ground was not rock hard, but goes beyond that.

Sports like football and basketball, which are the only other two that actually matter here (hockey used to but the NHL shot itself in the foot again and again and again…), are by far more physical. If you ever jogged to meet a pass in football you would be met by a safety that will drive his shoulder through your chest cavity. Basketball, as much of a non-contact sport as it is supposed to be, takes incredible strength to block out the other team on rebounds and band with jumping bodies as they drive toward the lane. Yes, baseball players run toward grounders and after fly balls, but apart from an occasional collision with a wall, the sport is quite contact free and includes an awful lot of standing around.

There is nothing wrong with baseball. The sport is part of the national landscape. The stands are still filled with fanatics who might harm another human being for Yankees tickets, but the game itself is more complex of a fascination than any other game. The fields are all different shapes and sizes. We may not have the ruins of Greece, the overpowering palaces of Louis XIV, or even the historic Globe Theatre of London, but we have our ballparks.

The Red Sox play with the Green Monster in left field because the park was built in an extremely confined space. The ingenuity that went into designing one of the most recognizable parks in the league is amazing. The Green Monster sits 310 feet from home plate and center field extends to 420 feet because of the odd geometry of the park. Half the reason many go to the park at sometime in their lifetime is to go a classic American structure.

Wrigley Field is not as much an oddity as Fenway, but the field itself is noted for its ivy covered outfield wall and its basket making that deep shot just that much more likely to go out of the park. It also discourages outfielders from running and jumping into the brick wall. Cubs tickets are purchased as much for the game as for the experience. The field evokes an escape to years before when people think of things as being less complicated (even though in reality they were…got to love nostalgia), from the small seats to the trough in the men’s room.

The game of baseball offers Americans and fans all over the world a chance to relax with play that is much skill play as much as it is a display of athletic prowess. Baseball builds slowly through the hot summers giving fans a chance to relax and remain competitive at the same time. Things begin to heat up in the fall as the few teams that are worthy advance closer to the World Series. This also allows things to cool off at parks where teams are out of it, of course then they have football season to keep them preoccupied.

- Guest written by David

08 June 2008

The Greatest Game: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the Playoff of ’78 by Richard Bradley

“It felt not just like a singular moment, but a fragile one, a rare convergence of tradition and rivalry and timelessness that would not be easily, if ever, re-created.”
- Richard Bradley in The Greatest Game

You know the story: The Yankees storm back from 14.5 games down in July to overtake the Red Sox in September, only to end up tied at the end of the season, forcing a one-game playoff at Fenway Park. The unlikeliest of players hits a home run to put the Yankees on top to stay, and then they sweep through the ALCS and the World Series to become world champions for the second consecutive year.

This might have been the shortest book ever written. I mean, Peter Gammons and Murray Chass probably summed it all up in about 1000 words the next day, right? But don't bet against Bradley. Thirty years later, with most baseball fans (especially those of the Yanks and Sox) having heard the story hundreds of times, Richard Bradley managed to find more. A lot more. He has put together a book that tells you not just about the game, but about the histories of the teams, the circumstances and events leading up to the game itself and background on many of the personalities involved.

And what personalities they were. George Steinbrenner. Mike Torrez and Ron Guidry, Reggie Jackson and Carl Yastrzemski, Bill “Spaceman” Lee and Goose Gossage, Billy Martin and Don Zimmer, Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk, George Scott, Mickey Rivers, and of course, Bucky (F-ing) Dent. There are fewer characters at a Loony Tunes convention, and Bradley does each of them justice, in their turns.

The book gives some background, but then goes into the game itself, following pitch-by-pitch, an inning at a time, discussing personalities and histories of each of the players as they come to bat. In the alternate chapters, he goes into more detail on some of the more prominent people involved in the game, so the reader can have a better sense of the meaning and experience of the game from various perspectives. It’s an approach that works very well, as you really do find yourself identifying with each of these people, in turn, but the story of the game itself retains its tension, even though you already know how it turns out before you ever pick up the book.

Bradley’s prose is excellent, as you should expect from someone who has written a bestselling biography of JFK, has written for some of the best known periodicals in the country, and is a former executive editor of George magazine. About Billy Martin, he says, “Martin carried that me-against-the-world attitude, a combustible mix of courage and insecurity, pride and fear, into his play on the baseball diamond.” About the Reggie Jackson chocolate bar fiasco, he writes, “…and Reggie! Bars were raining from the sky like some high-calorie biblical plague.” Describing the aging, out-of-shape Bob “Beetle” Bailey: “…Bailey’s stomach pressed enthusiastically against his uniform.” The writing is very good, tight but descriptive, expressive without being verbose, and a pleasure to read.

If there is a problem with the book, and really, there aren’t many, it’s that Bradley mixes up a few of the minor, baseball related details. He’s written often and well before, but never about baseball, and it shows, though just barely. He gets a statistic wrong here and there (baseball fans are notoriously sensitive to this sort of thing), mixes up right and left field at least once, and gets a few other details wrong.

He mentions that the regular season tie in 1978 was the first such occurrence since 1948, but that’s only true for the Junior Circuit. He did not realize that since the National League’s by-laws were different, the regular season ties that happened in 1962, 1959 and 1951 (ending in Bobby Thompson’s famous “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”) were resolved by 3-game series between the two tied teams, rather than the American League’s one-game playoff.

Still, such qualms are relatively minor for such an otherwise excellent book. Bradley’s composed a volume that should be of interest to not just fans of the Yankees or Red Sox, but of baseball and history in general. OK, so maybe just baseball.