One nice thing about being unemployed is that it's given me the time to catch up on some reading. I used a portion of last week to breeze through "The Machine," Joe Posnanski's new book about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds. It's a splendid book, one that I am happy to add to the modest collection of baseball other sports-related volumes that is starting fill my basement shelf. It's superbly written, well-researched and utterly entertaining.
"The Machine" delighted me, in part because so many of the sports books in my collection are simply not all that good. I say this a bit sheepishly because I know I have neither the patience not the expertise to write a decent book of my own. But it's true: there are more bad sports books than good ones.
In my view, sports books generally fall into one of a number of categories. For the purpose of this discussion, I won't consider fiction books. But for non-fiction sports books, the categories are:
Conversation Books - Usually these books will have a title like "The Best Moments in Washington Sports History" or "Great Barstool Debates." They are usually thin volumes, often with very short essays or lists designed to create an argument. They are like sports talk radio in book form. At their best, these books can be entertaining and occasionally informative. But they're ultimately forgettable and are a dime a dozen.
History Books - When I say "history" I don't just mean that they cover things that happened in the past. I mean they are truly the type of books you might be forced to buy if you were taking a class. Most of these books are written by historians, not sportswriters or journalists, and they are usually rather dry. One example in my collection is "Ed Delahantey and the Emerald Age of Baseball." It's an interesting look at the life of Delahantey in the context of the infusion of Irish ballplayers in the early 20th century, but its author, Jerrold Casway, doesn't quite bring it all to life.
Agenda Books - Every once in a while you run across a book where the author clearly has an axe to grind. The result is a book profiling an athlete or team that is devoid of any nuance. One good example of this is David Rosenbaum's "If They Don't Win It's A Shame: The Year the Marlins Bought the World Series." While the subject is an acceptable one, the book spends so much time blasting the Marlins for spending money on free agent talent that it ignores the skills and personalities of the players themselves. The recent book by Selena Roberts about "A-Rod" has been accused of going there, and I found Jeff Pearlman's "The Rocket That Fell to Earth" about Roger Clemens to cross into this territory. It's one thing to write a book that seeks to expose an unexplored dark side of a player, but the best biographies are not one-side in their portrayals.
Good Autobiographies - The best autobiographies come from deep within a person's soul, offering detail about both the positive and negative aspects of a life. Bad events aren't glossed over. There are admissions of fault, even guilt. Andre Agassi's recent autobiography "Open" fits this category. Daryl Strawberry's "Straw" actually fits this category even though it's not a particularly dense volume.
Bad Autobiographies - If you read "Ty Cobb: My Life in Baseball" you will hear from a man who never did anything wrong and was friends with every other player, even his biggest rivals. Suuuuuure.
Useless Autobiographies - Cobb's autobiography may have sucked, but at least he earned the right to craft a book about himself. Bookstores are littered with other autobiographies from broadcasters, marginal players and executives who are really only writing to stroke their own ego. "Six Beers At A Time," an autobiography by Phillies chairman Bill Giles, fits the bill here.
Feinstein-esque Books - Though he gets a lot of flack for writing so many books, this is really meant as a compliment to John Feinstein, who penned "A Season on the Brink," "A Good Walk Spoiled," and many others. The books essentially follow the "a year in the life of..." formula. At their best, they can be exciting, informative and tug at the heart strings. But at their worst, they can fail at trying to create drama out of nothing.
I place "The Machine" in this final category, except that it's clear that Posnanski researched and wrote the book more than a quarter-century after the events of 1975 took place. The structure of the book works well. We start at the end, reading about Pete Rose in the 7th game of the 1975 World Series. Though we know the Reds go on to win the game and the series over the Red Sox, Posnanski does a superb job of setting a scene that causes the reader to pause and wonder "Ok, how does this all play out?" When a writer manages to create tension around an event in which everyone knows the end result, he's done well.
Here's an excerpt from the book's opening pages, sublimely capturing both the moment and the essence of Pete Rose:
"Bunch of losers!" Rose shouted. "We can't lose this game! We will not lose this game!" His words echoed through the dugout, bounced out into Fenway Park, the fans shrieked and begged and hollered. In the Boston chill, their breath came out like smoke....The Red Sox were about to win the World Series. This was Game 7, the sixth inning. The Red Sox led the Cincinnati Reds by three runs....New England families stood together in front of televisions, bleary-eyed, tears welling, and they screamed, too.....Pete Rose could see them all in his mind. This was his curse. Even in the biggest game of his life. Rose could see the big, stinking Boston tea party they would throw when the Red Sox won."
Good stuff, huh?