By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
With the Mets and Yanks not living up to the preseason hype, area baseball junkies need something to boost spirits, provoke the intellect, and keep them from kicking in their TV (especially upon the inevitable groundball to Knoblauch). This year's batch of baseball books, as bountiful as ever, provides just the necessary balm. Below, part 1 of our look at some of the best prospects.
Together with Total Baseball, the statistical encyclopedia, this book comprises the standard baseball kit to be taken to a desert islandin fact, taken together, they practically weigh as much as an island (Total Baseball comes in at 2538 pages). It would be quicker to list those who aren't in here than those who are, except that I haven't found anyone yet who isn't. Every Hall of Famer, of course, and every important baseball executive and commissioner, but also Eddie Gaedel (the midget with the 1.000 on-base percentage), Jack Norworth (who wrote the lyrics to guess what song), and the greatest of all baseball fiction writers, Ring Lardner.
This volume is clearly not meant to be digested in one or even a few sittings. It's the type of work that rewards simply opening it to any old page. Here's an excerpt from the Roberto Clemente entry, flipped to at random: "To deal with his physical problems, Clemente relied on a Puerto Rican chiropractor, Arturo Garcia, who 'rubs on a potent orange ointment called Atomic Balm, "cauterizes" tendons with a black plastic cylinder that emits crackling blue sparks, and heats aching muscles with a small infrared lamp.' Several times Clemente infuriated Pirates management by shunning medical experts in Pittsburgh, instead relying on Dr. Garcia and his methods."
And Jackie Jensen: "Unable to control his panic at airports he jumped the team on April 29, 1961, and hired a nightclub hypnotist to help him with his problem. The hypnotist later theorized that the fear of flying was 'merely a subterfuge. Jackie needed the fear as an excuse to get home and patch up his marriage.' "
I don't want to overstate the case, but it's possible that the last time so much essential information was gathered in one volume was The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Forget about baseball books for a desert island. Forget about baseball books for the beach. I say that the real test of a baseball book is the bathroom. And the volume that spends the most time next to my spare roll of Charmin? The Stats Inc. Baseball Scoreboard. This is a book that simply asksand answerssmart questions. Should Pedro Martinez have won the MVP? (Yes.) Who's the best hitter in baseball? (Not Griffey, Sosa, or McGwire.) And who are the best fielders in the game? (They don't all have Gold Gloves.) The authors make a special effort to put contemporary questions (Will the Juan Gonzalez trade work out?) into a historical context. The Scoreboardis also sprinkled with bar-bet trivia, like the longest home run of the year (again, it wasn't Griffey, Sosa, or Mc-Gwire) and the newly minted record for the fewest innings pitched per game (hint: the same pitcher also relieved Tom Seaver). All things considered, the Scoreboardis the next best thing to the late, lamented Bill James Baseball Abstract, filled not with numbers but with ideas, albeit without James's ra-pier wit. If you read one baseball book this year, this should be it. "Allen, are you stillin the bathroom?" Be right out, dear.
Allen St. John
By Jay Weiner, University of Minnesota Press, 501 pp., $25.95
There are stadium lovers, and there are stadium haters. And then there's Jay Weiner. A self-proclaimed centrist in the sports-subsidy wars, the longtime Minneapolis Star Tribunereporter unreels a history of Twin Cities ballpark shenanigans that put George Steinbrenner's periodic threats to move the Yankees to Ho-Ho-Kus to shame. The tale begins in the '50s with Metropolitan Stadium, built to lure the Giants before they succumbed to California's greener pastures; takes a side trip to the needless destruction of hockey mecca the Met Center in the '80s; and at last arrives at the Twins' recent dalliances with North Carolina, a threat Weiner reveals was concocted by then governor Arne Carlson to grease the legislative skids for a new ballpark. Weiner has an obvious weakness for businessmen and politicians who "get things done" (and waxes rhapsodic at times about the "civic energy" provided by pro sports), but he also has an eye for the twisted personalities behind the headlines: The portrait he paints of Twins owner Carl Pohlad, a man for whom "the deal" is such a way of life that he can't see when to back off, goes a long way toward explaining the sports-owner arrogance that has given us half-billion-dollar stadiums and season-killing strikes.