Athens, GA (Oct 20, 2008) - The chill of Autumn has arrived in Georgia. The National and American Leagues have each concluded their championship series. To the dismay of many, the Tampa Bay Rays have defeated the Boston Red Sox in seven games to earn the right to face the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2008 Fall Classic. For the Red Sox, it was perhaps not as painful a loss as their 6-5 loss to the New York Yankees in the 11th Inning of Game 7 in the 2003 American League Championship Series. That gut-wrenching loss is one of many chronicled by Bill "Billy-Ball" Chuck and Jim Kaplan in their recently released book, Walkoffs, Last Licks, and Final Outs: Baseball's Grand (and not-so-grand) Finales (2008, ACTA Sports, 256 pages, ISBN-10: 0879463422, ISBN-13: 978-0879463427).
Although I received and read this book over the spring, I held off on this review because I thought it should be reviewed as the World Series started. This was done so that people might find the book to read in the off-season, or to find the perfect small gift for the true baseball fans in their lives. This book is perfect for both of these purposes.
It does not try to sell itself as great literature, and it is not. Instead, it is a book of short vignettes that are the poetry that is baseball. It may be the joyful ode to the teams we have loved, or the sorrowful ode to the teams that never lived up to our expectations. In its own way, it touches on the Shakespearean follies and tragedies that you find in life, that are sometimes magnified in the spotlight of sport. Is it not just since yesterday that Green Bay Packers fans are looking towards the Meadowlands and crying out even louder "et tu Favre?"
Yes, this description may seem over the top, but if you have ever met Bill Chuck, you will understand why. This book, his first, is a tribute to those things in baseball that were never noticed or have long been forgotten. It is written from his love and passion for the game that goes back to his childhood. This might best be summarized in this reminiscence from Bill in the new book, Remembering Yankee Stadium:
"As a kid, whenever I couldn't fall asleep, I would think of Tony Kubeck taking a ground ball in the hole and using that sidearm throwing motion, making the throw right on the line to Moose Skowron. And the next thing I'd know, I'd be fast asleep."
You do not see this kind of passion in many kids today, and many people might not have the clear memories of Bill, or may not have heard many of the stories he and Kaplan share with the readers. I am not even sure if this memory was in Bill's mind when he decided to write the book. No the moment that crystallized his decision that the book had to be written was the last at-bat of Cal Ripken that never happened. And in writing the book, he and Kaplan tell the stories of the superheroes and the everyman in the game, and the moments they experienced, what Bill calls "the heart and soul of the game."
There are of course, the stories that everybody knows, like the infamous Bill Buckner error in 1986 World Series. There are also the stories many have not heard or know, such as when Brooks Robinson became the only play to hit into four triple plays in his career, what National League team was the last to integrate (and when it happened), and who the only player was that wore his birthday on his day to day uniform. For me, it was fun reading about the Bill Mazeroski walk-off home run against Ralph Terry game 7 of the 1960 World Series. Even though this happened a couple of years before I was born, it added to what I knew of Terry when he was playing on the PGA Tour in the early 1980's, a story I did not hear from him in all the times we had talked.
In many ways, the strengths of the book are also its weakness. Some stories are given great detail, and some things seem to be put in as afterthoughts. There are so many quick hits, you wish you could read more detail about them. Some facts and quick stories are told so quickly, that you wish you could have more of the context surrounding them. But perhaps this works because baseball is much the same, the game can go on with interminable boredom, but the pace and tenor of the game can change in the snap of a finger. Did that not happen with Boston in Game 5 against the Rays?
This is not a book you can read from start to finish in one sitting. It is not written that way, and if readers try to finish it that way, they may tire easily, miss some key information. You need to read it as it has been written.
Earlier I mentioned writing about the love and poetry of the game. It is fitting that Chuck and Kaplan include part of one of my favorite poems, A. E. Housman's To An Athlete Dying Young, as one of the section introductions in the book:
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the lauel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
It is without reservation that I recommend this book for the casual baseball fan who wants to read stories and could care less about statistics. It is also for the rabid fan who wants to look behind the numbers. And if you are having a hard-time trying to think of a gift for a member of the baby Boom generation, to be included as a companion book with Remembering Yankee Stadium (that I will review later this week), this is the book for you.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars