Review: The Natural

The Natural

Sports fiction strangely suffers from the exact same problem that political fiction does. Because there’s so much available in the true world, both past and present, fiction has to be either an obviously forced and exaggerated version or often come across as feeling simply redundant. While success is not impossible, it’s an uphill climb.

One of the classic sports novels is Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, famous for its enduring reputation and movie version that sits alongside Starship Troopers in the field of “movies completely different from the book”. Having read the original book, I have to say: I don’t like it.

There’s one big problem with this book about baseball, which is that Malamud didn’t know that much about the sport. While others have gone into more detail, I’ll say this. There’s some errors like talk of a past World Series between the A’s and White Sox (two AL teams), but the bigger issue is simple. Hobbs comes across as what someone who doesn’t know that much about baseball would think a great player is.

Hobbs is good (unless the plot calls for him not to be) and good in a very boring way, simply hitting and hitting and hitting, not even rising to the level of classic Paul Bunyan baseball stories like how Cool Papa Bell supposedly got hit in the back by his own line drive simply because he ran so fast. Nope, it’s just four home runs in a game and “wondrous averages”. This isn’t a John Rourke or Blaine McCracken of the diamond, it’s a guy skilled in the baseball equivalent of “Special Forces, Ranger, SEAL, and gutter-fighting”.

Without that frame of reference, a lot of it is just references to various baseball legends-Babe Ruth, in the form of the Whammer. Fred Merkle’s baserunning fail, in the form of Fisher’s Flop, the Black Sox (in the form of the ending), and so much more (as the Gerry O’Connor article points out). A modern version would incorporate versions of Bill Buckner, Steve Bartman, and the 2004 lunar eclipse, to give you an idea of how blatant it all is to anyone who knows the slightest bit about early 20th century baseball.

So why am I suddenly so hard on realism and accuracy, when I’m clearly not when it comes to other books? Because the book is self-serious, for one. It’s like trying to write a literary novel about the life of a man who was a soldier, making the battle scenes right out of a stereotypical John Wayne movie, and sometimes descending to Ian Slater levels of technical inaccuracy. Would that interfere with the tone? Definitely.

Especially since, with the benefit of hindsight, this just looks like an exaggerated version (remember the introduction) of the Capital N Narrative approach to sportswriting, the clumsy and inaccurate reduction of a game into a tale of personal morality and internal struggle, applied constantly to real games by sportswriters of dubious quality (sometimes with extra crass humor).

Finally, the prose simply isn’t very good. It’s blocky, incredibly “lush”, and everything is either overdescribed or underdescribed. None of the characters are particularly interesting. And to be honest, in many ways the book feels just as shallow as the movie, only with a different morality. Give me saccharine goo that knows it’s saccharine goo over pretentiousness that doesn’t know its own subject any time.

The Hall of Fame And The Hall of Herb

One of the most amusing things that I look at in sports history is to see how many Cooperstown plaque-holders can match the title record of Herb Washington-one. A little background is in order.

Herb Washington was a track athlete who was hired by the Oakland A’s as a “designated runner”. His lack of baseball knowledge meant that in practice, despite his speed, he couldn’t steal bases effectively. The trend of pinch-running specialists continued throughout the 1970s (in 1976, the A’s had two, Larry Lintz and Matt Alexander), but those were actual baseball players who could run fast. Washington, on an excellent three-peating A’s team, appeared in the 1974 World Series-and promptly got picked off at first. But he still got a title that many Hall of Famers didn’t have.

Just in the inaugural 1936 class, only one inductee (Babe Ruth) exceeds Herb Washington in championships (with seven). Then you have Ty Cobb (zero), and Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson, all with one, “equaling” Herb Washington.

Short Baseball

I discovered a sport called “short hockey” existed. That is hockey played with four skaters and a goalie per team with 10 minute periods across the width of a half-rink. As it’s much less exerting, teams can play a lot of games in just one day. As the ownership/sponsorship of all the Russian short hockey leagues I’ve seen by sportsbooks shows, it’s aimed more at gamblers than actual fans.

So I figured, what would “short baseball” look like? As is, baseball already has many more games feasibly scheduled than many other sports. Yet I decided to amplify it more with two tiers.

  • Semi-short baseball, which is like conventional baseball only with six innings, games ending in ties after two extra ones, a designated hitter, and some pace of play rules. Semi-short leagues, despite their betting-friendly nature, are treated as serious competitions with ceremony, champions, and the same rigorous record-keeping.
  • Mega-short baseball, which is just a means to an end of making as many gambling-friendly matches. Games are five two-out innings which automatically end in ties after the bottom of the fifth, there are rapid pitch clocks, and, most crucially, pitchers have to throw the ball in the least stressful way possible. This both saves on the need for countless pitchers and encourages scoring by having pitches be easier to hit. There are also no formal standings and essentially no official record-keeping.

If I can find an appropriate place for it in my fiction, I’ll gladly put “short baseball” in, with an alternate history background as to how it got started and developed (which almost certainly means earlier and more widespread legal sports betting in baseball-friendly countries).

Review: The Book Of Basketball

The Book Of Basketball

I’ll be honest, The Book Of Basketball was one of my favorite sports books, as fit someone who grew up reading Bill Simmons’ web columns. Now it looks worse in hindsight. And I don’t mean the tasteless jokes.

The secret about Simmons is that his difference from the stuffy old sportswriters is and was a matter of style, not substance. There’s the same focus on the capital-N Narrative, the “he’s got that clutch spirit” eye test, and the sort of only-a-sportswriter-can-see-it “intangibles” that aren’t talent anyone can see or statistical/tactical analysis an expert can. It’s just dipped in sleazy jokes and pop culture references.

The not so-secret part about him is his unashamed Celtics fandom. This ranges from harmless (much of the description) to mildly annoying (ranking Celtics high and then clumsily placing Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ahead of Larry Bird to go “see, I’m not biased-see”) to the seriously flawed (Having an entire chapter devoted to excoriating Wilt Chamberlain while praising Bill Russell).

The opinionated history of the NBA section is funny, somewhat informative, and really well-written. It should have been stretched to the then-present, instead of, say, the sections complaining about the MVP award and the abominable “Russell, then Wilt” chapter. There’s the inevitable “Of course a surviving Len Bias would have been a legend and not the kind of Christian Laettner/Danny Manning-esque player who’s great in college but merely good by pro standards” section.

Then there’s the Hall of Fame Pyramid, where his concept of the best 96 players of all time, from Tom Chambers to Michael Jordan are listed. It’s a fun but obvious attempt to have the cake (see, it’s a logical ranking-a formal ranking) and eat it too (“This guy knew The Secret [a banal “teamwork” cliche Simmons tries to pass off as profound], I don’t need numbers”). Take a combination of Simmons’ previous antics and an obsession with winning championships (and not the kind of obsession an actual player or even a fan understandably has, but a specific “I’d rather be Robert Horry [7 titles] than Charles Barkley [0 titles]” statement) and the result is not that good.

The anecdotes are often well-done, but lose their power when submerged in a combination of inconsistent use of stats (Simmons goes from fluffy “stats” like total All-Star appearances to an overimpressed Thomas Friedman-esque reaction to advanced stats to the sort of “You can’t measure heart”-style quotes that the likes of Fire Joe Morgan would rightfully tear to pieces), and the cliches. The Team Player against the Selfish Greedy Superstar, the man who can rise to the occasion and grab the ring vs. the man who just doesn’t have it in him. This Manichean writing is dinosaur sports commentary at its worst.

This book feels like a long-range two pointer, inefficient and outdated. There are some good moments, just like how there are still justified long two shots. But, with a decade of hindsight and a more open mind, there’s more bad than good here.

Review: The $3 Million Turnover

The $3 Million Turnover

I’ve been in a basketball mood recently, tracking the evolution of the sport from pre-shot clock clunking around to the 1961 superfast play to the grinding and “isoball” of the late 1990s and early 2000s to the current superfast play and three point launching. And of course the off-court drama.

So, having already heard of the “Pro” series of sports agent mysteries in the 1970s from Paperback Warrior, I read the initial hoops-centered installment, The $3 Million Turnover. Centered around a sports agent/private eye and a kidnapped star basketball prospect, I found it-iffy.

The prose is really, really dated and reads almost like an unintentional parody of old “hard boiled gumshoe” novels. There’s that and the basketball part of the story being mostly incidental to the main plot-the stuff like the then-present rivalry between the NBA and the ramshackle ABA is just window dressing and the player himself is really just a MacGuffin. I had a lot less fun with this book than I hoped I would, though to be fair I was stepping out of my comfort zone.