There’s a major annual holiday this weekend, as most of you already know, one that heralds the arrival of spring like no other event on the calendar. I’m talking about Opening Day, of course, the start of the Major League Baseball season for our hometown team. Some feel that this year’s campaign is beginning with a whimper instead of a bang because the Mariners’ season is technically underway, the team having already played a pair of official games against the Oakland A’s in Tokyo for the benefit of Japanese fans. For me, though, it’s twice the fun—two Opening Days are better than one.
Baseball is the sport most attuned to the calendar, budding with the thaw of winter, thriving through the summer, and fading with the falling leaves, and that may be why books about baseball tend to follow the same schedule. Every team’s manager is an optimist in spring training (“Our guys are in the best shape of their lives”) and each new book is likewise full of promise. The title hopes of the majority of players are dashed by June, but fortunately, reading is not an activity where there’s a single champion. There can be as many winners as there are good books.
Unlike in MLB, where the team with the biggest payroll has won the most World Series titles, the publisher that’s probably deserved the most trophies over time is a small one. Bison Books, a university press in Nebraska, has an unmatched catalog of fiction, history, and reportage about baseball, chronicling the sport from its origins to the present moment. The New York Times just ran a brief profile that barely scratches the surface of what Bison Books offers the serious fan. With sandlot-level resources, they more than hold their own against the giants (and Yankees?) of the publishing world. Which is not to say that those guys don’t rap out the occasional hit themselves. Two recent releases, both memoirs by big-league pitchers who scuffled along for a good while before achieving success, serve as examples.
Wherever I Wind Up is by R.A. Dickey, who was a college pitcher with a bright future and a big signing bonus ahead of him before a team physician noticed the odd way he held his arm slightly akimbo in a magazine cover photo. Upon examination, doctors determined Dickey had been born without an ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, and couldn’t believe he could turn a doorknob without pain, let alone pitch at a high level. The prospective contract shrank and his professional career fizzled until he reinvented himself as a soft-tossing knuckleball thrower. After bouncing from team to team for several years (including a stint as a Seattle Mariner) he finally has an established role as a stalwart of the rotation for the New York Mets. The story of that struggle might make for a moderately good book, but there’s much more to Dickey than his job. He’s an ex-English major with a lifelong love of the written word (he named his bats after the swords wielded by Bilbo Baggins and Beowulf), he’s climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise money for charity, and he’s overcome demons outside of the game that could have felled anyone. His life has been filled with character-building experiences, and they’ve turned him into a character well worth reading about.
Dirk Hayhurst is a similarly thoughtful figure who’s faced off against more than opposing hitters. He was a career minor leaguer whose failures on and off the field helped him realize he had other means to express himself. Channeling his ambitions in another direction, he produced a heartfelt memoir that describes his journey as an also-ran and called it The Bullpen Gospels. It was a critical smash that’s been called one of the finest depictions of an athlete’s life in print, and it allowed Hayhurst to define himself as a writer first and a player second. Largely because of this freeing realization, he started pitching better than ever. He did eventually fulfill his childhood goal of making the major leagues, only to find disillusionment there. He recounts that sobering experience in his equally compelling follow-up, Out of My League. It gives a rare insider’s look at high-level sport, but it’s Hayhurst’s insights about what happens to a man when his dream goes bust that linger.
Those two hardbacks may be the most promising rookies of 2012, but the spring roster also features a couple of outstanding returning veterans in paperback. The aforementioned Bison Books has just released some must reading for any local fan. Before Safeco Field and before the Kingdome, there was Sick’s Stadium, built by a beer baron to house the Pacific Coast League squad he named after his brewery. All that’s left of it is a commemorative sign outside a hardware store, but the real memorial is Dan Raley’s Pitchers of Beer: The Story of the Seattle Rainiers, covering the decades when the team was the only game in town.
One contest that took place on the other side of the country in 1981 probably felt to the players like it took decades. The longest game in professional history, between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings, started on a Saturday night and kept right on rolling until Easter morning and beyond. Since we’re coming up on the anniversary, it’s the perfect time to read Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Barry. The famed newspaper columnist recreates all the play-by-play and shows the ripples that spread afterward in the lives of the participants and the audience. He spins yarns about future Hall of Famers Cal Ripken, Jr. and Wade Boggs, who were both on the field at the time, but also about small-town America itself.
If you’ll be too busy watching baseball to pick up a book for yourself, you’ll still have time to read to your kids between innings, and the perfect choice for that is the new picture book Brothers at Bat by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Steve Salerno. Back in the days of the Great Depression, there were lots of large families, some big enough to form their own traveling teams. None played together longer or more successfully than the eighteen-strong Acerra clan, who sent six boys off to war and still managed to keep their team alive. With a dozen baseball-playing sons, their local high school included at least one in the dugout for twenty-two consecutive years. Their true story reinforces the values of hard work and brotherly camaraderie, but even better, it’s fun. A kids’ book is the perfect format for this simple, charming tale. We can all be grateful the Acerras were a part of history, not least because we’d be suffering through some intolerable reality TV show if they were still around. I’ll stick with live sports broadcasts, thanks—the original reality TV.