Monday, May 22, 2006

The Reading List
By Blogger

They keep piling up. Over the past few months, I've plowed through a number of books, sports-related and not. Some were just released, and others I had neglected to read for too long. Somehow, this English Lit major made it through high school and college without ever reading Beloved (an agonizing read; The Bluest Eye is much better), Jarhead (couldn't put it down), and Friday Night Lights (I was pleasantly surprised after only making it through fifteen pages of this drivel). It's amazing how much one can get done after he buries his XBox and Madden in the back of his closet. Here, now, are critical capsules for four other tomes.

To Hate Like This Is To Be Happy Forever, by Will Blythe
Blue Devils. Tar Heels. In many North Carolina families, one phrase or the other is regarded as language unfit for polite company. Will Blythe's journey back south to live with his mother and document the North Carolina Tar Heels' 2004-05 season aspires to be one of those "more than a sports book" books in the sense that Now I Can Die In Peace is more than a sports book. Like Bill Simmons's collection of columns, To Hate Like This... uses sports as a medium with which to meditate on family. And Blythe's work is much more meditative. Whereas Simmons uses footnotes to inject self-consciousness, Blythe describes his thoughts immediately within the flow of his story and expounds upon seemingly unrelated tangents. Ostensibly, his project is to document his feelings as a rabid fan of Tar Heels basketball, while at the same time trying to be a good journalist and understand the Dukies' side of the rivalry. However, Blythe deftly illustrates bigger truths about family, sports, and belonging, without resorting to preaching or coming off as an exploitative opportunist.

Fantasyland, by Sam Walker
Did somebody say exploitative opportunist? Sam Walker, a sports columnist with the Wall Street Journal, wrote Fantasyland about his experience playing in a rotisserie baseball league with some of the most well-known fantasy baseball writers in the country.

Walker is a solid storyteller. He can tell a yarn, and his description of Jacque Jones reading a roto-based opinion of his worth could be Exhibit A of how to "show, don't tell". However, there is a streak of arrogance in the book that rubs me the wrong way. Walker's experiment is to see if he can gain an advantage over the other players in his roto league by using his access to major league players, coaches, and front office personnel. That's all well and good. He hires two assistants, including a NASA employee as his statistics guru, and then sets out to conquer fantasy baseball. The arrogance struck me partway through the story when I realized that Walker doesn't actually care about fantasy games and treats those who take it seriously as lunatics. I mean, the book's sub-heading is A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe, but excuse me for thinking it likely Walker would dispatch with the "most fantasy players are out of touch nerds" trope. In a particularly grating section, Walker describes how he travelled to a hotel in San Francisco where Anaheim Angels player representatives and management were meeting with an arbitrator to discuss Jose Guillen's suspension for the remainder of the 2004 season. Since Guillen was on Walker's fantasy team, Walker decided that the best course of action would be to (perhaps inadvertently) make fun of the players, management, AND fantasy baseball enthusiasts by staging a "protest" outside the hotel. Even after Troy Percival, Darin Erstad, and Mike Scioscia all either blow him off or mockingly humor him, he further embarrasses himself by taking his picket signs and leaflets to the A's-Angels game that night.

On top of all that, there is at least one major flaw in the story's logic. Even after Theo Epstein remarks that Doug Mientkiewicz is a much better player in real life than in fantasy, I never got the sense that Walker understands that choosing players for rotisserie is a vastly different task than it is in real life baseball. He briefly mentions the animus between Baseball Prospectus and fantasy baseball writers, but gives short shrift to why the BP guys would look down upon the other group. Note to Sam: it's a different game. To choose an easy example, in broad terms, deciding upon a relief pitcher in fantasy is dependent upon how many saves he will get, which is in turn dependent upon, in order: the role his manager selects for him (are there other pitchers on the team fighting for the closer spot?), his ability, the quality of his team, and his injury history. In real life, building a bullpen upon those criteria, in that order, would be foolish. Hey! Tyler Walker has been closing games for the Devil Rays! That makes him a better pitcher than Aaron Heilman, right? Of course not.

Clemente, by David Maraniss
Roberto Clemente is my hero. When I played ball in high school, I always wanted to wear number 8 because I have an inexplicable attraction to the number, but I was never able to get it. It is one of my lasting regrets that I elected to wear 3, 28, and 9 instead of trying to get number 21.

David Maraniss's book is for people who know the Clemente myth: Roberto was a fiercely proud man who stood up and demanded to be counted among the greatest ballplayers ever, as he deserved, and in doing so, stood up for his dignity and the dignity of his people. He died in a plane that crashed into the Carribean because it was overloaded with supplies intended for Nicaraguan earthquake relief.

While the myth is truth, in a sense, Maraniss attempts to depict Clemente by giving great detail to his socio-political context. How, exactly, did the mainstream culture push Clemente down? The most striking example Maraniss harps upon were the white big city sports reporters' habit of quoting Clemente phonetically in a transparent attempt to marginalize him. What kind of city was Pittsburgh in the 1950s and 1960s? Maraniss lays out the ethnic breakdown of the city's neighborhoods at the time. In many different ways, he contends that what's important when trying to understand Clemente today is understanding his context because the basic elements of his life are so woven into sports fandom in the United States, exponentially more so in Latin American countries.

It's wonderful to read a biography that openly acknowledges that there is a wealth of information available about the subject, so this one will tackle the man from a different angle. Sports fans know the Clemente myth. They can look up his stats. They can read about him on any number of web sites, or they can watch footage of his play on YouTube (look at those throws!). This book is an eminently readable attempt to illuminate the gaps.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, by Chuck Klosterman
I'd already read it and written about it, but I enjoyed it so thoroughly that I wanted to re-read after letting it simmer a bit. I'm most of the way through this second time around. Discussions about sports play a prominent role in the book, from Klosterman's examination of what made the Celtics-Lakers rivalry so compelling, to his explanation of how soccer is a sport inherently geared to outcasts and losers who merely don't want to fail (at least as the sport is constructed in American youth culture). Mix with essays about Saved By The Bell, The Sims, and Pam Anderson, and you're on the train to Klosterville!

Perhaps the most fascinating section of the book is an interlude between chapters when Klosterman asks twenty-three hypothetical questions designed to reveal something about your character. Here are three of the questions with my answers.

CK: #2) Let us assume a fully grown, completely healthy Clydesdale horse has his hooves shackled to the ground while his head is held in place with thick rope. He is conscious and standing upright, but completely immobile. And let us assume--for some reason--every political prisoner on earth (as cited by Amnesty International) will be released from captivity if you can kick this horse to death in less than twenty minutes. You are allowed to wear steel-toed boots.

Would you attempt to do this?

DA: Not until I'd done some homework. First, I'd let Amnesty International know about the proposition and work with them on understanding backgrounds and whatnot of the most important people being held prisoner. That would be so that I don't unwittingly release some future Idi Amin in a distant corner of the earth. Second, barring any potentially disastrous consequences to releasing hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, like, say, civil war flaring up in ten different regions, I'd stock up on equine medical knowledge in order to figure out how to kill the thing as quickly and efficiently as possible. Horses are not people. I will always--ALWAYS--put people before animals, and though some animals may inspire fond feelings, a horse's pain is nothing compared to a person's.

CK: #4) Genetic engineers at Johns Hopkins University announce that they have developed a so-called "super gorilla". Though the animal cannot speak, it has a sign language lexicon of over twelve thousand words, an I.Q. of almost 85, and--most notably--a vague sense of self-awareness. Oddly, the creature (who weighs seven hundred pounds) becomes fascinated by football. The gorilla aspires to play the game at its highest level and quickly develops the rudimentary skills of a defensive end. ESPN analyst Tom Jackson speculates that this gorilla would be "borderline unblockable" and would likely average six sacks a game (although Jackson concedes the beast might be susceptible to counters and misdirection plays). Meanwhile, the gorilla has made it clear he would never intentionally injure any opponent.

You are commissioner of the NFL: Would you allow this gorilla to sign with the Oakland Raiders?

DA: Of course not. Using similar logic to my answer above, gorillas are not people. They are not homo sapien. Therefore, they can't be covered under the CBA. Ergo, they have no rights, and I am perfectly within my bounds to bar them from playing. Otherwise, what's to stop some enterprising team from training an elephant to rumble onto the field, catch a pitch in its mouth, and then stroll into the end zone?

CK: #12) You meet a wizard in downtown Chicago. The wizard tells you he can make you more attractive if you pay him money. When you ask how this process works, the wizard points to a random person on the street. You look at this random stranger. The wizard says, "I will now make them a dollar more attractive." He waves his magic wand. Ostensibly, this person does not change at all; as far as you can tell, nothing is different. But--somehow--this person is suddenly a little more appealing. The tangible difference is invisible to the naked eye, but you can't deny that this person is vaguely sexier. This wizard has a weird rule, though--you can only pay him once. You can't keep giving him money until you're satisfied. You can only pay him in one lump sum up front.

How much cash do you give the wizard?

DA: Fourteen dollars. My reasoning is as follows... I don't think I'm particularly unattractive. Unfortunately, experience up to now has indicated that I am not the most attractive fellow this side of Cillian Murphy. Therefore, I'd want to spend some money. However, I wouldn't want to spend so much that I end up freakishly really really good looking. Yeah, fourteen bucks sounds about right.


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