pulp (2006-26)

Take Me Out to the Bookstore

A roundup of this season’s crop of baseball reads

by Paul Lewis

They usually start appearing every year in February, but by the time spring rolls around and summer gets its hooks into the atmosphere, they’re propagating like blades of grass in the infield of a Little League diamond. They’re the yearly crop of baseball titles, and while most are filled with love of the game and desire to pass along knowledge like a sage old coach, only a few are so universal as to cross over into the pantheon of enduring must-reads. Or, better yet, frame the debate and context of the game for years to come.

The game as it stands in 2006 is marked heavily by two books of recent years, Michael Lewis’ Moneyball (one of my favorite non-fiction reads of all time) and Jose Canseco’s Juiced (a poorly-written naming of names that still sheds light into those dimly-lit major league clubhouses). This year the big book is unquestionably Game of Shadows , a take-down of Barry Bonds’ alleged use of steroids to surpass almost every homerun standard on record, most recently Babe Ruth’s career homerun mark. With that overhanging specter, it’s easy to be glum and joyless and think there are no heroes in the game you love, but other books would beg to differ.

Baseball’s last hero, if you believe the subtitle of David Maraniss’ new biography, was Clemente ($26, Simon and Schuster). Roberto Clemente was indisputably the first Latin superstar in baseball and, as a dark-skinned Latin coming into his own in a segregated United States of the 1960s, just as important a figure as Jackie Robinson to those attempting to demolish racial barriers in sports and society.

Perhaps because of language barriers and biases in the press during his playing years, Clemente is likely the most misunderstood of the universally-acknowledged great players in the game, and because of his death in a 1972 plane crash just after he had played more games in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform than anyone else in history and collected his 3,000th major league hit, he had little chance to speak for himself to an audience that appreciated the gains he made for Latino players in this country.

Clemente died while attempting to shuttle earthquake relief supplies to Nicaragua, fulfilling his long-standing premonition he would die in a plane crash. Maraniss chronicles Clemente’s passion and complexity with an even-handed grace, certainly aware of his shortcomings but vividly portraying how Clemente grew in stature and confidence as his career progressed, becoming more and more vocal about the social issues which meant the most to him.

Maraniss’ reporting on the plane crash itself is the most vivid section of the book and an exceptional instance of research. It would take too long to recap Clemente’s many career highlights, but it should be noted that he and Lou Gehrig are the only players in baseball history to have the waiting period for Hall of Fame consideration waived. He posthumously joined in 1973.

As colorful a portrait as Maraniss’ book is, my favorite baseball title of recent months is Fantasyland by Sam Walker (Viking, $25.95), a book not just about fantasy baseball, but take-no-prisoners fantasy baseball at the highest levels.

Walker was a Wall Street Journal sports columnist who felt he needed a little personal recharge, so he decided to embrace a hobby he had long struggled against: fantasy baseball, a booming industry on which millions if not billions of dollars are spent every year by players looking for any numerical edge they can find. He wrangles an invitation to Tout Wars, a bragging-rights league featuring an exceptional array of armchair general managers, most of whom make their livings in baseball punditry.

He dedicates the length of the season to his pursuit, effectively making it his full-time job to travel coast to coast, using his media credentials to, in effect, “manage” the players on his roster in real life. He shamelessly dangles data in front of general managers to convince them to grant more playing time to his draftees and pep talks guys on his roster, even going so far as to picket a team hotel when they plan to suspend his star player.

If you’ve ever played fantasy baseball, and I have, this book is indispensable and utterly makes sense. If you’ve never played, you might scratch your head as you swerve between shock at the level of dedication one can devote to such a seemingly innocuous hobby and humor at any number of scenarios over failed or one-sided trades, unexpected injuries, slumps, league trash-talking and dramatic moments in both the “real” baseball games and the “fake” fantasy league.

Happily, Fantasyland made me utterly forget the doping cloud hanging over the sport for a few hours. It joins Moneyball on the shelf of this year’s absolutely essential baseball titles.