Here’s the debut of Patrick Sauer’s weekly “Read It Like a Man” column.
Chapter One: Baseball
Opening Day for Major League Baseball is April 5, which dovetails nicely with the beginning of this series. It’s also a good starting point because baseball has always induced the nostalgic sandlot memory-lane-strolls of aging white men like Doris Kearns Goodwin. And the season goes on for-freaking-ever, so you can knock all three books out of the park by the All-Star break (July).
The Natural by Bernard Malamud
The Stats: For all the ink spilled about America’s “national pastime” (the one the NFL usurped about 30 years ago), there are very few great baseball novels. The Natural is one of them. You’ve seen the movie; you know the story. A 19-year-old prodigy, Roy Hobbs, gets shot by a mystery woman, drops out of sight, then magically reappears as a 35-year-old making a comeback with the New York Knights. Swinging his trusty bat “Wonderboy,” Hobbs tears the cover off the ball, leads the Knights to the brink of a pennant, falls in love, and ends his career in dramatic fashion, drilling a home run off a light tower that sends celebratory sparks of glory raining down on the field like bolts from the hand of Zeus.
The Kicker: The pennant-winning homer is the climax of the film adaptation starring Robert Redford. But In Malamud’s The Natural, Hobbs whiffs, the season ends, and he breaks down in tears as some kid asks him if it’s true what the newspapers are saying – that he threw the game.
Why Women Need to Read: Most men know the movie version, but it’s common knowledge that books are always better, so your world-weary observations about the novel will be trenchant. Drop this during the 7th-inning stretch: “When Wonderboy cracks in two, it’s an allegory for Hobbs’ dreams. It’s the natural reduced to a mortal.” Men who prefer the book do so for the sadness that hangs over unfulfilled dreams and the loss of youth. Let the saps have their fairy tales. That Hollywood ending has lovely aesthetics; Malamud’s novel has failure, and soul.
A Pitcher’s Story: Innings With David Cone by Roger Angell
The Stats: Speaking of failure – David Cone was one of MLB’s most dominant pitchers from 1988-99, amassing 180 wins. He was a five-time All-Star, a Cy Young award winner, a five-time World Series champ, and owner of a memorable perfect game in July 1999 (after having suffered an aneurysm in his right arm). A wild man in his younger days, Cone was a writer’s dream: Flaky, funny, gritty, and smart. Before 2000, the pitcher teamed up with avuncular New Yorker writer Roger Angell for an insider’s look at a cagey veteran in his twilight years. Presumably, Cone would have a typically impressive season and lead the Yankees to yet another World Series with Angell and his notepad riding shotgun.
The Kicker: The victory lap was a fiery crash. In 2000, Cone would go 4-14 with a 6.91 ERA. A terrible season, brutal on the psyche, which was somehow made worse by the fact that the Yankees were good enough that loyal manager Joe Torre kept letting Cone take the mound. Things went from bad to worse to worst to please-don’t-make-me-watch-this-anymore. Angell masterfully weaves Cone’s life story throughout the book, which makes the pain of reading about his deteriorating skills that much more acute. And I loathe the Yankees. In a nutshell, Angell tells Cone, “It must be torture to give up something tough and demanding that you once did extremely well.” Two paragraphs later, Angell notes that Cone was back to smoking more than a pack a day. (See? Millionaire MLB pitchers are just like us!)
Why Women Need to Read: A Pitcher’s Story is a tremendous book about failure, which makes it a tremendous book about, you know, life. Cone never “overcomes” much of anything – no word on if he still smokes – but, to his credit, he never took Angell’s offer to scuttle the project. There’s an old sportswriter’s axiom that the best stories come from the loser’s locker room. That season, Cone was a Charlie Brown-level loser, which led to a season of personal questioning, agita, analysis, new techniques, old tricks – anything to make pitches like he always had. He shares everything with Angell, which means A Pitcher’s Story is a master clinic on what goes through the mind of a hurler who can’t make a five-ounce ball his bitch. Tame your man with Cone’s pitching insights, and he just may be yours.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game by Michael Lewis
The Stats: The most important baseball book in a generation mirrors what happened in American society; it should be subtitled: “When the Geeks Took Over the Game.” It’s the story of how Oakland A’s general manger Billy Beane used different statistical metrics to gain a competitive advantage with a team that had little money to spend. (Shorthand: The A’s aren’t the Goldman Sachs Yankees. They aren’t even their yuppie neighbors, the Wells Fargo Giants. They’re the Bailey Savings & Loan.) In broad terms, Beane went after players who got on base a lot by hook or by crook. He labels coveted Red Sox product Kevin Youkilis the “Greek God of Walks,” which ain’t exactly an All-American slugger nickname like “The Sultan of Swat” or “Hammerin’ Hank.”
The Kicker: The A’s win more than their payroll says they should, but never enough to say that Beane beat the system, in terms of titles. The part of Moneyball that gets lost is that it’s a riveting profile of an outsider crashing the old boy’s party (i.e. shattering the glass ceiling for nerds). Beane struggled with self-doubt and washed out as a player before he joined management, but his thoughtfulness started a statistical revolution. Beane needed players on the cheap and his methodology pissed off the establishment until most teams adopted some form of his methodology. Joining ‘em then beating ‘em. Amazingly, there are still a few flat-Earthers in positions of baseball power who doubt the veracity of statistical modeling, because those eggheads “never played the game.” You don’t need me to tell you this, but some men never learn.
Why Women Need to Read: A look at finding and exploiting inefficiencies in the Major League marketplace might sound as boring as, say, watching an actual A’s game, but the number-crunching vs. the-naked-eye arguments have dominated baseball for a decade, and you’ll want to be somewhat familiar with where it all started. Plus, it’s a fallacy (or it should be a fallacy…ladies?) that women only enjoy sports when they “know” an athlete, which is why the Olympics are overwrought with stories about living with shingles, overcoming Xanax addictions, and the pain of pan-sexuality. My guess is that there are plenty of geeky girls out there who would dig baseball a lot more if they knew that today’s game needs protractors and laptops as much as chewing tobacco and HGH. Perhaps Moneyball will spur a young woman, excuse me, another young woman, to become a general manager. When you do, please email and explain VORP to me.
Patrick Sauer is a writer, blogger, and performer. Originally from Billings, Montana, he now lives in Brooklyn. For more, check out: patrickjsauer.com.