Often in these pages I'll casually mention that I pitched something on some subject. Below is an example of one of those pitches. It's a lot of work, and as has been frequently said to me over the years by people on my side, "Your pitches are better than anyone else's pieces." So that's what people are seeing from me. The books also have pitches, but that's a bit of a different undertaking. Stories do, too. Those pitches involve who I am, what I've done, bigger picture issues. Later I'll put up a recent letter to a bigot regarding "Fitty," a story about a school shooting--and it's really about a lot more--that went out after the tragedy in Uvalde. "Fitty" is a story the world needs. These things that I write don't exist without grave reason to exist. Fastidious, precise, paramount reason. That's what a pitch is ultimately trying to convey--or one of my pitches. I'm not doing work where it's someone attempting to write about Kevin Durant's latest Twitter beef. There are different stakes and expectations, and I will deliver on all of that, which is also what the pitch is meant to convey. But as one will see, these things that I give such casual reference to, are a lot of work.
Greetings, sir. Idea for you. Struck me as the season for it. So, an intriguing paradox: as baseball the sport languishes, baseball literature is flourishing. There's a brisk trade in baseball books always coming out, and often they mine a rich historical vein. The game is stagnating with its orientation around the Three True Outcomes--walk, strikeout, home run--but baseball lit is pretty unpredictable and fresh. I've noticed with the passing of Roger Angell that there's this upswing in baseball lit chatter, and you see how many people are into it. A lot of them are former baseball fans, because you can read baseball books as self-contained literature and entertainment without needing to follow the sport.
I want to focus on the best baseball book of its kind, which is the perfect baseball book for right now. That would be Sparky Lyle's memoir of the 1978 season with the Yankees, The Bronx Zoo. I just read it again, because I read it every two or three years as it's a life book, more than "just" a baseball book. And it also helps me better understand this sport that has been my favorite since I was seven-years-old.
I think there are three apex baseball books, each representing one of the dominant kinds. One of them, on the fiction front, is Ring Larder's You Know Me Al. Lardner is among my very favorite writers. He was like the Mark Twain of baseball, with greater acerbity. Then there is the oral history, The Glory of Their Times, comprised of interviews of players from the early days of the sport, which multifaceted humanism, drama, humor, via sport. Then we have Lyle's journal.
Now, the focus with baseball memoirs usually goes to Jim Bouton's Ball Four, but I think if you're an adult, and a thinking adult, it's a book you outgrow. I first read it in eighth grade, and me and my baseball-loving buddies would titter about the bawdy jokes, which were pretty sophomoric, as I look back on them. We were the perfect demo, in a way. For instance, Bouton and a few teammates see a sign for a building that says it was erected in 1922 or whatever, so Bouton says, "That's quite an erection." Ah, hijinks.
Lyle won the Cy Young in 1977, so he was deemed the best pitcher in the American League. Then the Yankees acquired fireballing stud Goose Gossage in the off-season, and Lyle lost his job through no fault of his own.
So that's where he's coming from. The man was legitimately screwed over, but that's life sometimes, right? 1978 was the season when the Yankees had that amazing comeback from down a boatload of games in late summer with the Red Sox (and the 2022 Yankees are lighting it up at present), and then the famous Bucky Dent game. I've never seen a book that takes us into the real-time psychology of a comeback like this one. I'm going to write a book about sports comebacks and what we can learn from them outside of sports, and this is a core text. A lot of life is coming back, as it were. There's a mindset, a process, things to do every day, expectations to manage, ways to keep yourself going. This book has informed my own non-sports life. It has strengthened me.
And it's funny in a grown-up and witty way. I'm a member of all of these baseball lit groups online, and it depresses me to see these life-long "bro" types complain about the intelligence of the book. Like there's too much of it. They're those fourteen-year-olds who remain fourteen at fifty-six. You know the type. Lyle doesn't have it that season. He struggles. He's deflated from the downturn in his career. The black humor is rampant. It's quite Shandean, actually, and what a fun and rare thing that is to say about a baseball book.
There's this sequence when Thurman Munson, the Yankees' storied, star-crossed catcher, goes to the mound for a visit with a struggling Lyle, and says, "Can I ask you a question?" Lyle says, sure, and Munson goes, "Are you honestly trying?" I replay those words a lot in my mind in various situations far from the field.
Then there is how we can apply the book to the modern game, which is all about numbers, analytics, the Harvard think tank approach to the sport. We only see, for instance, starting pitchers go two times through the line-up because analytics dictate that they'll be hit hard on a third pass. There's less of a human component. Lyle writes about Yankees' third baseman Graig Nettles in a way that will change how anyone views the idea of what makes a player efficacious. He goes beyond numbers. Like I said, I've loved this game for decades, and I am a numbers fiend--I give lots of interviews on the radio about modern baseball metrics, so I'm not Captain Old School--and Lyle's writing on Nettles has altered how I watch and understand the sport.
This is the modern baseball book to get in your life, whether you're a baseball fan or not. Put it on the summer list.