Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Brooks on Books: A Baseball Doubleheader

I'm going to try to catch up on a few MLB-themed reviews while the playoffs are ongoing, but don't worry: I do read about things other than baseball! I recommend two fine books this week.

A Pirate's Life by Steve Blass is an engaging and unique sports memoir. Most sports books are written by successful athletes or ones who never really made it, but it's rare to see someone able to write so extensively about reaching the top and finding massive failure (not related to drugs, booze, or other personal demons, that is).

Blass was a standout starting pitcher for the excellent Pittsburgh Pirates 1971 championship team, but soon thereafter he suddenly lost the ability to throw strikes. "Steve Blass Disease" is attributed to pitchers who find themselves unable to reach the strike zone for no particular reason.

Blass faces the  issue head on. He never really figured out what caused his decline, but he (with co-author Erik Sherman) recount with eloquence all of the efforts he made to figure it out. It's interesting to see a top-level athlete talk so much about failure, and Blass' candor is enthralling. He takes you inside what it feels like to go through something like this--not just the experience itself, but having to answer questions from everyone about it, dealing with well-meaning family and friends, et cetera. Blass doesn't hold back from criticizing himself for lack of commitment to his loved ones, either.

It's not all struggle, though, as Blass has experienced many highs in his career as a Bucco player and then a longtime broadcaster. This amusing, fun book is a delight for any Pirates fan, and I think the uniqueness of his career makes this a thumbs up for serious baseball followers of all types. My one disappointment is that I wish Blass included more stories from his broadcasting career. After all, that's how I grew up knowing him, as the color voice of the team, not as a star pitcher.

Another quality baseball book is by an author who happens to be the mayor of Cooperstown, New York, which is home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Split Season: 1981--Fernandomania, The Bronx Zoo, and the Strike that Saved Baseball is an illuminating look at one of the game's most unusual seasons. Katz ably covers the phenomenon of Dodgers rookie sensation Fernando Valenzuela and some of the turmoil that unfolded in New York with the Yankees, but the focus of the book is what it should be: The player strike that led to an unprecedented playoff structure dividing the season in two halves.

If your eyes glaze over at the thought of detailed coverage of labor negotiations, this isn't the book for you, as chief negotiators like union head Marvin Miller and owners'  rep  Raymond Grebey are the real stars of the text. Also, I warn any "they make too much money" types that Katz's account is sympathetic to the players. How could it not be, though?  As the author lays out, the owners were disorganized, self-contradictory, and bargained in bad faith.

Katz makes what could be a depressing slog an entertaining read. Miller's key role in the transformation of the game has been chronicled elsewhere, but it's great to see the thinking of player reps like Bob Boone. Katz takes us inside the negotiations and inside the machinations of each side. Given the circumstances, the strike seems sadly inevitable when it occurs, but so does the eventual return to the basics. It still seems like a waste.

And what is NOT inevitable is the odd playoff system the owners come up with, one attempting to reward "first-half" winners but one that actually encourages tanking by certain teams in the second half. Katz breaks down the absurdities of this scenario while also providing a lucid account of what actually happens.

Split Season is a unique book, a story of a season that, by necessity, covers as much off the field as it does on the field. I highly recommend it to anyone not turned off by reading about labor relations in baseball. Everyone else will be rewarded with lovely coverage of what could have been some dry subject material, coupled with an examination of the on-field action in 1981.

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