The Cubs Way by Tom Verducci

February 24, 2018

Back when I first logged in to WordPress to debut this blog during an unemployed stint in 2009, I began by reviewing a book by Tom Verducci about a team that was recently the best in baseball. How better to begin a rebooting of this site – and a possible revamping so it covers books about EVERY sport – than with a book by Tom Verducci about a team which was recently the best team in baseball? Here we have The Cubs Way, about, well, you can figure it out…

Okay, no, actually you can’t. When we think of books with names and subject lines like this, we think of one type of book: A chronological narrative of the season in which the team did the thing. Winners, losers, strangely no middle-of-the-roads or underperformers, it’s always a chronological narrative. It covers a small chunk of the offseason, starts up at the preseason, takes off in the opening months, lulls during the dog days of summer, and hits a dramatic apex around August meant to either inspire us or break our hearts. And in any regular book about the Cubs, it would be the latter. We knew all along that that Cubs, no matter how good, would stutter and eventually fall. The 2016 Cubs, though, were not an ordinary Cubs team. And The Cubs Way is not an ordinary chronological narrative about a legendary single-season team. For that matter, The Cubs Way is not a book about the 2016 Cubs season.

There’s but one narrative in The Cubs Way, and that’s seven chapters devoted to individual games for the 2016 World Series. That’s out of 15 or 16 chapters. Every chapter in between is about the decisions that were made in creating the 2016 Cubs, and the thought processes that went into making them. The Cubs Way is, more than anything, about minutia. It tells you everything you could ever want to know about the little quirks and ticks of what makes a player good; why they make that player good; the role a mentality can play; and a lot of other things of that nature that you and I think are pretty simple issues.

Meet Theo Epstein. Yeah, THAT Theo Epstein. The same Theo Epstein who gave the Boston Red Sox a clean slate after they hadn’t won the World Series themselves in 86 years. He was brought in to run the Cubs – not be the general manager, as he was in Boston, but the team President – who were having even bigger problems than the Red Sox. It wasn’t just that their curse ran longer. The Red Sox had been a very good team during a lot of their drought years. In fact, they were outright great in some years, and had come within a few whiffs of the title. The Cubs were an altogether different  monster. The Cubs had spare good years, hadn’t even gotten to the World Series since 1945, and had acquired a reputation as losers of the lovable kind. They owned the hearts and souls of casual baseball fans in Chicago, but they also shared their city with an AL team – the White Sox – that had broken up an 88-year-old curse of its own back in 2005. One of the things Verducci does in an early chapter is present us with statistics which spell out just how hopeless the Cubs were: Since the Cubs last made the World Series in 1945, their losing seasons had outnumbers their winning seasons by a 45-19 margin, with an additional two setting them to rest at .500. In their more recent years, only a couple of their top draft picks spent more than two or three years with the organization. (You’ll have to forgive me for not giving off specifics – I can’t find the exact chapter where they’re located. But it’s absurdly low.)

One of the things that jumps out of The Cubs Way is just what makes Theo Epstein so good at what he does. Epstein is not a static practitioner who developed a single way of thinking when he got into baseball and stuck with it the whole time. He doesn’t run around grousing about tradition and respect and all those other things old people whine about that are make baseball into America’s most insufferable sport. When Epstein was hired by the Red Sox, he went into the job in his 20’s as baseball’s preeminent stathead. He famously built a machine in Boston using the work of Bill James and turned the Red Sox into a more expensive version of the moneyball Athletics Billy Beane created in Oakland. But by the time the Cubs got to him, he was a mature man in his 40’s, and despite having successfully built a machine in Boston, he decided to embark on cursebreaking in Chicago using what he had learned along the line rather than what had worked for him in the past. Although statistics are still a big part of Epstein’s decisions, he adds a new aspect: Character.

Character, Verducci stresses, might have been the most important aspect of Epstein’s ultimate goal. Although winning the World Series was definitely a huge issue, the real goal of Epstein’s Cubs was changing the team’s culture. Changing a culture meant getting the Cubs to think uniformly. It also meant getting the players on the team to reject the longtime Cub mentality. There were to be no lovable losers at Wrigley Field. Epstein wanted to compile players who not only wanted, but EXPECTED to win. The most important thing, according to Verducci, was that Epstein’s Cubs be able to work with each other in creating that mindset. References to the Cubs way were to be turned on their heads so that the Cubs way was a way of thinking of the best possible way to play baseball.

Every chapter in The Cubs way is devoted to a particular key player on the 2016 Cubs and an analysis of the particular strengths they brought to the team. The way The Cubs Way is put together makes it flow more smoothly than a description would make it look, and the little interludes for the seven games in the World Series are seemlessly integrated with the rest of the book. Verducci doesn’t make the mistake of trying to write a gripping narrative. Since we already know the result, there’s no point to doing that. And the 2016 World Series was gripping enough as it was.

Overall – as I try to get back into the flow of trying to review books again – I have to say that The Cubs Way is an interesting look at the kinds of thoughts that go into putting a team together. It explains why your favorite team may not be going after a player with the gaudist numbers, and why that player who blew up with your team’s rival may turn into the best thing that ever happened with your team.

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Abner Doubleday: Boy Baseball Pioneer by Montrew Dunham

January 28, 2018

Babe Ruth. Jackie Robinson. Joe Jackson. The mythologized legends of baseball, those who have an extra layer of interest in their characters. Those are the names written all over fawning biographies, each claiming to find that elusive extra angle. But what of the life of Abner Doubleday? You know, baseball’s ostensible creator? The man responsible for dreaming up an entire beloved sport, and apparently a Civil War General, which I guess should probably warrant some sort of mention. Surely the greatest giant of baseball deserves to have some sort of biography written about him!

Okay, I confess that lead-in paragraph is misleading. Abner Doubleday: Boy Baseball Pioneer isn’t a biography. In fact, it’s a kids’ book, which I’m normally not privy to reviewing, but I was just so eager to get something about an actual book posted that I picked something short and easy. Abner Doubleday: Boy Baseball Pioneer isn’t actually a biography, either. It couldn’t be – after all, as many writers (myself included) have stressed, ABNER DOUBLEDAY DID NOT INVENT BASEBALL! Thousands of diaries, not a single mention of baseball, no evidence of him playing it outside of a letter sent to the MLB offices by a man in the nuthouse… If you believe Doubleday invented baseball, you’re a hopeless idiot.

I have to give credit to author Montrew Dunham, because he doesn’t come off like an idiot. Abner Doubleday: Boy Baseball Pioneer isn’t a biography, and it has nothing to do with Doubleday inventing baseball. This book is a narrative, and it comes off as one of those common childrens’ books about the typical life of a boy being a boy during that particular era of American history. Be that as it may, there’s no actual baseball anywhere in the book, either. It involves a handful of the ball-and-bat games that baseball popped up out of, but none of them are baseball proper. In the aspect of creating a window into the past of how an everyday kid from the 1820’s would have grown up, this book does quite a passable job. They even use the jargon of the pre-baseball days: A run is called a tally, and a base is called a goal. There’s a version that gets played with only a single base.

On the downside, Abner Doubleday: Boy Baseball Pioneer doesn’t do anything unique. The book reads like one of the schoolkid reading books I was given when I was about 10 years old. For god’s sake, there’s even a chapter called “Brownie Wins the Game,” and if you haven’t already figured out that that chapter is about a dog screwing with a game, you may be functionally illiterate. Of course, I was maybe the most advanced reader in my school back then, so make of that remark what you will.

As for the story, well, there isn’t one. The book doesn’t have any kind of overarching thought or plan. Save the first chapter, where General Lafayette visits Doubleday’s hometown, this is not a book where anything big happens. It just drifts from one scenario to the next – the dog does something that wins a ballgame, Abner and his friends find a stolen trunk in the woods, Abner’s Father runs for one of the federal government seats in New York and Abner frequently stands outside waiting for him to return home… It’s not until the last couple of chapters when the narrative takes a jump and ages Abner by ten years, turning him into the Academy student-to-be who would go on to command in the Civil War and create the country’s first cable car system.

Honestly, there’s not much substance, and the baseball involved in the book isn’t real baseball. According to the appendix at the back of the book, though, Montrew Dunham admits the goal of his book wasn’t to focus on Abner Doubleday, the ostensible inventor of baseball. I think I can live with that.

The Babe (Movie)

December 16, 2017

Babe Ruth is more than just a legendary baseball player. He’s known as an American icon who lived a larger life than most. His accomplishments in baseball were so far ahead of his time that modern ballplayers have trouble approaching his numbers – most of them still can’t touch him. For god’s sake, Ruth is a sports star who has turned into required learning in elementary school classrooms. And with the way he lived his life, there’s certainly a good movie inside his massive girth somewhere. That good movie, though, is NOT The Babe.

The Babe is one of those movies that tries to take a man and transform him into a pure American myth. I don’t mean that in a good way, either; in this country, we have a way of softening up things that are cold and hard to make them palatable to an audience which demands simplified paragons of virtue. The hot parts are watered down, if not removed completely, and the subject gets Disneyfied. And that’s exactly what The Babe does to Babe Ruth: It tries to present a PG-rated version of a life that was rated a hard R. Screenwriter John Fusco and director Arthur Hiller seem desperate to present Babe Ruth in the way that The Pride of the Yankees presented Lou Gehrig. The trouble is that the material to perform such a trick just isn’t there. Gehrig, by all accounts, was one of the true good guys in the history of the sport. He was 1950’s America before 1950’s America existed – the so-called All-American Man. He lived the stereotype almost to a tee. Parents would want their sons to emulate Gehrig and their daughters to marry men like him. Ruth, on the other hand, was all kinds of a hellraiser.

More astute fans will also notice that The Babe gets truckload upon truckload of basic information wrong. Are my facts wrong, or is The Bambino’s signing bonus in The Babe about $25,000 more than it was in real life? This movie refers to Lou Gehrig; there’s only one reference to him being nicknamed Iron Horse. Most of the characters call him Iron Man, to which even a semi-knowledgeable baseball fan has to wonder when Cal Ripken Jr. managed to attain a time machine. Although The Babe is right about Ruth’s ability to hit home runs turning him into a star, it totally botches the fact that when Ruth was first signed by the Boston Red Sox, it was his ability to pitch southpaw that they wanted; he was thrown into the batting lineup and outfield because he was bored. Ruth wasn’t always fat, he didn’t retire on the day he hit his final three home runs for the Boston Braves, dear lord the things this movie gets wrong are just endless.

I’m not even sure this was done because the extent of someone’s knowledge about Babe Ruth was that he hit a lot of home runs. There’s a weird sort of pressure on baseball fanatics. We have to be able to write sympathetically about baseball while trying to destroy many of the myths that have become engraved in stone by a society that can’t stand blemished heroes. The Babe doesn’t do very much to contribute to the cause of exploring and stomping out a lot of the myths surrounding Babe Ruth. Screenwriter John Fusco doesn’t even mention the fact that Harry Frazee considered himself a theater man who just happened to run a baseball team. Fusco and Hiller try everything they can to soften up Ruth’s character, but all that does is turn The Babe into a bad biography with skewed facts, half-truths, elements crossing over into outright fantasy, and a lot of stuttering and inconsistency. No one involved with this movie is able to decide whether Ruth was a man who lived as rich a life as he could for both better and worse, or if he was just an overgrown child: One of the habits this movie’s version of Ruth does is refer to everyone as “dad.”

Watching The Babe as a knowledgeable fan makes Fusco and Hiller looks like they’re trying to pull off an impossible contradiction. The filmmakers want to play up the mythological elements of Ruth’s life story. So they play up the part of his life where he hits a lot of home runs almost to the point that his early use as a pitcher is an afterthought. The Babe presents him as a jovial and gregarious socialite with an overriding love for children in such a no-holds-barred way that it even includes one of those damned Little Jimmy scenes. You know the type: The ailing kid, Ruth vowing to hit two home runs for him to get better, yada yada yada. But when it comes to exploring the less savory aspects of Ruth, Fusco and Hiller pull every punch. Actor John Goodman, who plays Ruth, also seems to pull punches at times, although he’s less prone to doing so. But Ruth’s vices are treated more like little character quirks. Yes, he eats and drinks, but his lust for food and booze are rather tempered. So is his womanizing, for that matter. The summary of Ruth’s take on women is more “cheated on his wife a few times with a woman he eventually married” instead of hooking up with any woman that moved.

The most absurd thing about The Babe, though, is just how much of Ruth is portrayed with anger and sadness and other negative emotions as driving forces in his life. Okay, in real life a portrayal like that makes a little bit of sense – Ruth lived in an orphanage until the Orioles bought him, and that probably had a few residual effects. But while John Goodman does everything in his power to salvage Ruth and make him pop to life, the script just doesn’t want to give him room to show anyone a version of Ruth that’s anything more than pissed off or depressed beyond belief. Wasn’t Babe Ruth ever happy? In one scene, he’s caught crying in the locker room repeating a mantra the monks at his orphanage probably taught him. It makes the movie much harder to watch because it creates a disconnect between the subject and the audience, and since everything is shown in a melodramatic way, the audience gets to be left tapped out and annoyed.

Worse still is the onslaught of cliches. The Babe is hackey. REALLY hackey. I already mentioned Little Johnny up there, but that’s just one scene. The Babe is a highlight reel of cliche. Slow motion, power music, all orchestrated in that typical way in which a bad director tries to tell the audience, “Look at how larger than life this is! I can’t believe how larger than life this is! Can you believe how larger than life this is?” I give a lot of crap to The Pride of the Yankees because I think it’s trite and uninteresting, and it hasn’t aged well. But at the very least, it was a solidly-made and consistently presented flick. The Babe doesn’t have any of those redeeming virtues. It’s not exactly a mess, mind you, but it creates a lot of problems for itself that could have been easily avoided had it given us a look at the real Babe Ruth: The one who was called “(n-word) lips” in school because he had “black features,” and not “fat chops” as in this movie. The one who was a powerful, speedy, and muscular athlete at the beginning of his career. The one who did manage to keep up a good training regimen which he took seriously even as he reeled up more and more mileage and wear and tear.

There was a lot more to Babe Ruth than what gets seen here. It would have been a great service to baseball’s original legend to play him how he really was, not how he was seen by people who clearly aren’t baseball fans.

 

Field of Dreams (Movie)

November 26, 2017

When I started this blog, I was a little younger and a lot dumber – it came out of an extended fight with unemployment in 2009. I had just turned 28 and spent the previous three years existing on a 45-hour-a-week, sub-minimum wage job that left me riddled with debt and poverty. If I had seen Field of Dreams back then, I might have understood and even sympathized with Ray Kinsella, the character played by Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. And, well, things have changed a lot for me since that day in October of 2009 when I posted my first baseball book review for this blog. My life still has a few issues that need sorting out, but on the whole, there’s much more going right for me than wrong now. I’ll spare the full-length biography, but there’s a reason I feel compelled to say all this: It’s because, at 36 years old, I am now the same age as Ray Kinsella. And after watching Field of Dreams, I can honestly say it has lost me.

I don’t believe I will ever be able to watch Field to Dreams and view Kinsella as anything more than a lavish idiot. The story is pretty well-known by now: Ray Kinsella buys a farm. One day, he hears a voice telling him that, “If you build it, they will come.” It’s not very specific, but Ray figures out that the voice in his head told him to wreck a significant portion of his farm and nearly bankrupt himself in order to make a baseball field. Which Ray subsequently goes right out and does. Months go by, but nothing happens until one night when Ray sees someone walking around on his diamond. That someone turns out to be Shoeless Joe Jackson, uniformed and looking for a nice field to play on. This starts the movie’s disconnect from reality and logic.

The appearance of Shoeless Joe begins a wild, winding journey through baseball past for Ray. It takes him to a reclusive author in Boston, a ballplayer who only played a single game in the bigs, and some sort of fantastical time warp in Minnesota. Eventually he winds up back on his farm in Iowa, being yelled at to sell the farm by his brother-in-law.

Field of Dreams toys heavily with fantasy elements. The great difficulty in writing fantasy, though, is that it doesn’t take place in the real world. A great piece of fantasy doesn’t start with a great story, but a fixed set of rules within the piece’s universe that the writer adheres to in order to get the audience to suspend its disbelief. This isn’t just true for hard fantasies like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones; it goes for the softer, simpler ones that take place in the real universe as well. Field of Dreams, though, seems to have reversed that formula, and so the narrative logic of the movie seems to be applied in accordance to screenwriter/director Phil Alden Robinson. For example, when Shoeless Joe and the other old-timey ballplayers start to appear on Ray’s cornfield, the Kinsellas are the only people who can see or interact with them. When Ray takes his trip to Boston to see a ballgame with a reclusive author, there’s a constant implication that the author is still drawing breath until the finale at the cornfield. Was he alive or was he dead? And if he was never there at all, how did Bostonians keep telling Ray where he was, and how was Ray able to buy tickets for him when he wasn’t there?

One of the great fantasy authors of all time, the late Terry Pratchett, was known to refuse to draw up or describe an accurate atlas of his most beloved creation, the Discworld. His logic is tough to dispute: He argued that you can’t map the human imagination. That’s certainly an acceptable truth, and it served its purpose of bailing Pratchett out of a lot of traps the Discworld series could have fallen into. But the reason fantasy fans accepted that from Pratchett was because his work was always irreverent and satirical – while the Discworld felt like a living, breathing world to its fans, it was also a vehicle for Pratchett to do his griping about the real world. So literature buffs granted Pratchett immunity on the grounds of the Law of Cool/Funny/Reality. JRR Tolkien, George RR Martin, CS Lewis, JK Rowling, and Frank Herbert always placed the rules of their created worlds before the story, so they never needed to offer an excuse. (Although Rowling really pushes it sometimes – mention the hourglass from Prisoner of Azkaban to a serious fantasy critic and enjoy the ensuing fireworks.) Other authors like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King (yes, King has delved into works of pure fantasy; The Dark Tower was a fine example) partially based their work in this reality, and they always played by setting a few rules which they never contradicted.

Field of Dreams clashes with its own rules and logic again and again. What are the rules on who can and can’t see the ballplayers? Robinson pulls an everyday, inexplicable, unexplained switcheroo during the finale: Ray’s brother-in-law, Mark can’t see the ballplayers. Then he can suddenly see them when Ray’s daughter gets hurt! Okay. Right. Whatever you say. Ray himself doesn’t seem any clearer on the rules; Field of Dreams takes an almost meta turn when the ballplayers invite Terrence to visit the other side of the cornfield with them. Ray spends a good five minutes trying to argue the point before giving up.

Field of Dreams is among the highly popular and beloved of all baseball movies. It earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture in 1989, and baseball fans of all stripes have been moved almost to tears by it. Perhaps this is my weakness in criticizing it, because I wasn’t a dyed-in-wool fan from the cradle. I came into baseball fandom at a comparatively later age – I was 19 when I opened my mind to give the sport’s nuances and quirks to give it a real shot. If one thing about this movie has been a part of me through my life, it’s the fantasy of it, having grown up a lonely kid who found solace in his cartoons, sci-fi/fantasy, and video games. And when I really grew up, baseball was a vehicle which enabled me to connect with the real world rather than escape from it. None of that, however, changes the fact that all I see in Field of Dreams is a schmaltzy popcorn flick.

This movie takes us down a weird and loosely-connected path, and if there’s any sort of theme or idea that can be cobbled together from the whole of it, it’s… Well, is it the idea that sports can connect generations? Is it to show that sports will, in spite of corporate branding, always be contests for regular folks to put their troubles behind them? I would personally vouch for the latter there, but Field of Dreams has a sickly after-school feel to it. Robinson takes the old Innocence of America path which wears on baseball’s mythology. Several of the cliches are here: The movie’s fulcrum seems to be Ray’s relationship with his father. Shoeless Joe Jackson is the sweet, naive country boy who could have just as easily been called Clueless Joe Jackson. (I do find it funny that the emphasis is on how much Ray’s father loved the White Sox, by the way; the opening narration says the family eventually settled in New York City and that Ray’s dad cheered for the Yankees. I do understand that the movie needed a tragic baseball figure to activate the plot, but the Yankees have that too; Lou Gehrig is at least as tragic a baseball figure as Shoeless Joe Jackson, if not even more of one.) And among the major plot points are Ray helping a reclusive author rediscover the joy of baseball and helping a career minor league player, Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, live out his dream of facing a big league pitcher. Graham lives in a small town in Minnesota.

For all the cliched schmaltz, though, Robinson does get something right: When he has to present one of his cliches, he doesn’t dwell on them with power slow motion shots and Full House music. He gets in and out with them, playing a licensed soundtrack, and that succeeds in giving Field of Dreams an earnestness that a lot of other baseball movies – including classics like The Pride of the Yankees – lack. Robinson wants your emotion to be real instead of melodramatic, and Field of Dreams doesn’t care if you feel that way or not. It knows that if you’re going to be emotionally touched by a movie like this, drawing out the key scenes won’t do anything, and if you’re not, you’re only going to be annoyed.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t go into much detail over Ray’s character, and it doesn’t sufficiently answer the question: Why? Why did a voice come out of nowhere, speak only to Ray, and what in his character compelled him to comply? It’s made obvious in the opening that Ray and his wife, Annie, were 60’s kids who never quite surrendered their old ideals. But one thing I’ve noticed as I get older and start transitioning into middle age myself is that, even though my ideals have changed very little, my methods have gotten more pragmatic. As I mentioned, Ray Kinsella is the same age as I am now, and our forms of rebellion have gotten smaller-scale as pragmatism has moved in on us. I even understand the angle of wanting to feel close to his dead father – a point which was really hammered home for me a year ago when my beloved mother fell to cancer. (Feeling closer to her is about the only reason I have for following the NFL these days.) What in his logic process starting at Point A sent him on a journey where the logical Point B is to spend his life savings on a baseball field? Yes, he spends the movie going on a journey, but that was a result of building the baseball field. Let’s think of this as Close Encounters Syndrome, remembering the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, when Richard Dreyfuss walks onto the alien spaceship to go on an intergalactic journey… Leaving his wife and kids behind and not so much as a note. (And an ending that Steven Spielberg said years later he came to hate for that very reason.) Robinson doesn’t go into such a character exploration. While Ray grows a little as a person throughout the movie, he doesn’t do so enough to create a satisfactory answer.

About the best I can offer for Field of Dreams is this: It does the job. It feels more like a Saturday Matinee movie like the cheap time-wasters old broadcast stations used to show on weekend afternoons. If you’re willing to take Field of Dreams as that and nothing more, it’s pretty good. Just don’t try to overthink it. And don’t try to find anything Oscar-worthy in it, because it’s just not there.

The Bad News Bears (Movie)

October 27, 2017

Its been awhile, but I think I’m finally able to get back to doing this again…

Well, if the very few of you who have stayed subscribed to this blog during my educational hiatus remember anything – anything AT ALL – about the way I think about baseball movies, you may recall how much I hate seeing kids in them. If not, long story short: They’re cheap directorial tools which are usually there strictly as metaphors for a more innocent time. (This has never been more obvious than in Eight Men Out.) If the movie is about the kids, then the grown-up jocks in the movie are – save the big egotist who thinks his star is under assault – there to be role models, all sensitive to the kid. Maybe you also recall that one of the things I liked about the Major League series is that it took a no-holds-barred approach to portraying ballplayers.

That’s probably the thing that impressed me the most about The Bad News Bears. Whereas Major League showed adult athletes the way they probably talk and act in real life, The Bad News Bears shows that the kids have no more varnish than the adults. Forget what we think we know about all-American kid values shown to us from saccharine 80’s sitcoms; the Bears are the real deal. The kids in The Bad News Bears are a ruffian bunch thrown together and forced to make whatever they can of it. They trash the English language. They trash opposing ballplayers. They trash their manager. They trash each other. And if you’re familiar with the sensibilities of the working classes (I was raised in a lower working class neighborhood in upstate New York myself), you’ve known every single one of them.

The ragtag crew includes an overweight catcher named Engelberg; a mercurial and foul-mouthed shortstop named Tanner; a Hank Aaron wannabe named Ahmad Abdul Rahim; Timmy Lupus, a bullied kid who has become withdrawn; and a great assortment of other lack of talent. The man who get charged with the thankless task of patching this group of angry rapscallions together is Morris Buttermaker, a onetime coulda-been-contender turned pool cleaner and boozehound. And what cosmic disaster brought these kids together? A lawsuit. Just before the start of the movie, a lawsuit was filed against the Bears’ league for excluding the least athletically-gifted kids, and the Bears were formed in order to settle it. As a result, the Bears have been cast out by the rest of the league. It’s so bad that their sponsor is a bail bond company.

Buttermaker doesn’t begin to teach the Bears how to play baseball because he feels a sense of duty. He does it because he sees a group of kindred spirits. In the meantime, parents of kids from opposing teams strike a stark contrast to the easygoing Buttermaker. They get angry and heated while Buttermaker lets his crew mosey through games and mostly lets them play out the games. Now, I do think this was one of the major themes of the movie: Ultra-competitive little league parents and kids who are playing because they just want to have fun.

At least that’s my general impression. The truth is, at some point this theme gets muddled, possibly to extend the length of the movie. A lot of what happens once the theme is established go right against it: Buttermaker picks up a couple of hotshot recruits so the Bears stand a chance at winning games; tells one of those hotshots to nad every ball he has a shot at; and yells at a player to intentionally get hit by a pitch. Yes, he finds himself once again and all is well that ends well, but sheesh! And that’s the ultimate problem with The Bad News Bears: It can’t tell whether it wants to come or go. The extremes are exemplified best by Buttermaker himself. While star Walter Matthau is at his grumbling, surly best as Buttermaker, his lackadaisical way of playing his character doesn’t do very much to reveal the sort of fellow that Morris Buttermaker is. He appears to act less on long-held personality traits and more on what’s in front of him. Although, this may be the point, since it makes us believe he’s capable of pretty much every action he performs in the movie.

The Bad News Bears is mercifully short on sentimentality or morals. By the end of the movie, it feels like the Bears came together in the name of a single object, but that’s it. No one gives off the air of someone who just learned a lesson, and the final action of the Bears in the movie is to tell their opponents, the Yankees, where they can stick their second-place trophy. Buttermaker certainly doesn’t become a better person, either.

For all The Bad News Bears gets right, unfortunately, it suffers from a severe case of front-loading. The movie is tightest and most coherent in the first half, when it looks like it’s going to succeed in getting its point across. But around the time Buttermaker starts trying to recruit his daughter into pitching for the Bears, it starts to crumble. Director Michael Ritchie starts going haywire in trying to cram too many different points of view into the movie, then the thing ends on a climactic Big Game that’s prolonged for far too long. And the legalese surrounding the right of the Bears to exist gets in the way of further character development. And that’s a shame, because the characters are written so strongly that you want to see how they develop.

Still, The Bad News Bears gives you the sort of baseball movie you want to see to unwind: It tells a good story, it provides you with memorable characters, it makes you laugh, and it makes the Yankees look bad. And it’s a refreshing change to see a group of kids in a movie who aren’t acting like little paragons of innocence.

(And no, I’m haven’t turned against the Yankees.)

 

Defending the Timer

April 9, 2015

It’s a load of complete crap, you know. All that stuff about baseball having never been changed from the moment Alexander Cartwright and his buddies devised of it, I mean. Yeah, it’s crap. Doesn’t exist. Real as the Curse of the Bambino.

I’ve taken to watching the old-timey ballgames played according to 1800’s rules at the Genesee Country Museum in upstate New York, and about the only things those games have in common with today’s is the basic object: Hit a ball, run the bases, and get home. This old-time league doesn’t allow so much as sliding. Throwing is underhanded, there are no trick pitches – the whole point of pitching is to get the ball into a position where the batter can hit it – and entire nine-inning, 27-out games are played within the space of maybe an hour. And no, there aren’t any weird time condenses. 27 outs. One hour. Maybe an hour and a half, if things are slow.

In the meantime, in Major League Baseball, the league with the greatest players in the world, I haven’t been able to watch a full World Series game in years. You can blame the length of the games for that.

Let the purists wine and scream all they want. Baseball’s pastural beauty argument has run its course. This sport is broken, and its lack of a timer is the unquestioned culprit. Our beloved National Pastime is falling behind because the average length of its games has shot up around three minutes a year for the last ten years to a record high 3:08 last season. That’s not the peak; that’s the average, meaning there were plenty of games which lasted considerably longer than that.

When people of generations older than my own tell me about their afternoons at the ballpark watching doubleheaders, it’s taking on a distinct air of phoniness. It’s like the older folks who actually got to see doubleheaders regularly are telling me stories of them more and more to reassure themselves that there was once a time when they happened. These days, baseball teams are barely able to squeeze one game into a single afternoon, and the sport has been slowed to such an extent that no one wants to see a thrilling comeback. Crowds are all gone by the seventh inning and one team up five runs because the batter walks ten feet from the box and spends two minutes adjusting his gloves between every pitch. Baseball’s boosters try to play up the amount of action in baseball by saying the game is always going while football players spend 30 seconds in huddles between plays. Well, no, they don’t. There’s a ton of time between pitches because of inconsequential little actions the players perform.

There’s no pastural beauty in any of that, and the wonder of baseball is lost on a generation that thinks of baseball season as nap time. The advanced statistics revolution also appears to be compounding the damage – walks are frequently seen to be as good as hits, so more batters are waiting; game strategies are based around pitchers being forced to throw until their arms fall off; and the prospect of striking out isn’t the embarrassment it used to be.

Whatever other sports you like – if you like any other – have something in common: They all recognized the need to keep the action moving upon being slowed. Football tightened restrictions on defensive players to encourage more passing, and some six or seven quarterbacks have thrown for 5000 yards in a single season since – a feat only ever accomplished once before the mid-millennium, in 1984, when Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins achieved the feat under an extraordinary set of circumstances. The NBA’s San Antonio Spurs became known for boring, methodical basketball which depended on strategic fouls meant to prevent their opponents from building up too much momentum, and exploited defensive rules at the cost of the sport’s flow. The NHL’s New Jersey Devils did something very similar to the spurs when they created the Neutral Zone Trap, a defensive maneuver which used the NHL’s stupid passing rules to force their opponents into playing dump and chase hockey. The Spurs and Devils were both highly successful – the Spurs have won five titles with their playing style and the Devils have won three, and other teams, encouraged by the success of both teams – although most notably the Devils – have followed suit, exploiting rules in order to make up for the lack of star power on their rosters. In both sports, executive interference was necessary to speed things back up.

Soccer gets maligned by people who don’t understand it for being slow, but the makeup of a soccer match is two 45-minutes halves with a 15-minute halftime in between. The timer never stops, and time during which the teams aren’t actively playing is added on to the end of the halves. Even if both halves in a soccer match go five minutes (I’ve very rarely seen them go beyond four), you’re still talking about an entire soccer match played just shy of two hours.

In the meantime, those who love baseball are campaigning against positive progress in spite of all common sense and logic. Baseball today is more and more a spoiled picnic; fans walk into the park, eat their hot dogs, drink their pops, and chat with each other from the second to the sixth inning, when they leave. Trying to watch or listen to an entire game by radio or TV is nearly impossible. Somehow, though, baseball fans have come to the conclusion that this is for the betterment of the game, and that argument gets repeated ad nauseam whenever fans are confronted with it. Actually, that’s not even an argument – it’s an effort at self-reassurance.

The actual arguments against speeding up baseball start with the players whining about how it would throw off their rituals. But you know what? Screw them. With the ridiculous money they make for basically sitting most of the afternoon, they can afford to learn to change their approach. And after that, the arguments against new rules to speed up baseball are based on one single element: Tradition. And you know what? Screw that too. If your entire argument – be it for baseball or anything else – is based entirely within tradition, you’ve conceded. Tradition is not a good reason to keep doing anything the wrong way.

I have one problem with the new rules and one problem alone: They don’t go far enough. Do you really think small fines are going to be deterrents to multimillionaire players who hate the new rules? Forget the fines – the rules should have come with in-game penalties.

Beyond that, though, the change is needed. Bring on the timer.

The Post No One Wanted, Especially Me

September 14, 2013

Well, this is it.

As my more long-term readers know, I started this blog during a bout with unemployment back in 2009. I’ve risen to some kind of prominence and been acknowledge by several authors whose books I’ve reviewed on this site, most notably Cait Murphy (Crazy ’08) and Marty Appel (Pinstripe Empire).

My life has also gone through some wild uphevals since then. I’ve been slowed by a return to my hometown, a couple of jobs, and other things I wanted to try writing. Well, none of that compares to what’s going on in my own personal life right now. One day, I snapped and realized that the starving part of being a starving artist sucked exceptionally hard, and it was something I wanted no part of. So after re-evaluating my life and giving a little thought to my situation, this past year I made the decision to enroll in the University of Buffalo to study Exercise Science, full time, possibly as a prerequisite to another area of study to follow. UB took me.

Its now been eight years since my last tour of duty through academia, and I’m being so thrown off by the return to routine that with everything I’m learning in my classes, it feels like a shrapnel bomb went off in my head. I knew going in that I would have to make sacrifices, and one of them is unfortunately this blog. I will still keep it up – hell, I have a part-by-part review of Ken Burns’s Baseball to finish. Unfortunately, it leaves me virtually no time to read, analyze, and review baseball literature the way I once did.

I’ve enjoyed writing this blog, and I’ve learned some truly interesting things about baseball. Now I have to work to let in other subjects like calculus and human nutrition. Trying to do both at my age (32) is something that might leave a lot of clutter in my head, so I have to keep my priorities straight. And let’s face it, as much as we love to debate whether Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth was really a better player, that subject would mean very little to someone I was trying to teach to operate a new mechanical leg. This isn’t the biggest sacrifice I’ve had to make. I’ve also largely given up video games, and considering my first prominent writing gig was for an independent video game website, I’m still not sure if those close to me believe I’m really doing that.

I might write once or twice in my increasingly little spare time, and I’ll certainly be cheering for the Yankees and White Sox, same as I did when I started Lit Bases. For those interested, my journey can be followed through my personal blog, The Windy Nickel. http://windynickel.wordpress.com/ I’ll always be trying to make it as a writer as well, so thank you all for reading and commenting – especially the authors who stopped by and left messages. It meant a lot.

Who’s on Worst? by Filip Bondy

August 21, 2013

I know I’m merely reiterating a sentiment that’s been recorded a million billion times in the past, but there isn’t much of a better way to start a review of a book like this: Part of the big reason people are drawn to baseball is that it seems so humanized. The folks who go to the plate at the very highest levels of the game are are still hoping to be good enough to hit the ball three times out of ten, if even that. Baseball is human. Humans are very prone to mistakes. Baseball is such a challenging sport that greatness in it is decided by still being able to fail more often than having success. Three hits out of ten tries is the best ratio one dares hope for. The last time anyone did better than that was in 1941, and two things stick out about even that accomplishment: The first is that the hitter who successfully did that was still only hitting the ball four out of ten times. The second is that the hitter was Ted Williams, very possibly the greatest hitter of all time.

Is it any wonder we get so fascinated by books which celebrate the worst of the ballplayers? We’re not even insulting them, or mocking them, we’re celebrating them as regular old joes who make foibles trying to play a sport which demands more minute speed, reflexes, and awareness than any other. We love such celebrations because we realize if we tried to play baseball, we know that the people making the biggest errors could easily be us.

Some of us are also bad at making jokes or puns, such as Philip Bondy, a writer for the New York Daily News who wrote the book Who’s on Worst? This is another book celebrating the worst in baseball, and by the standards of what it’s supposed to be and what it’s trying to do, it’s a dandy.

Just when you think you’ve seen the worst of baseball covered at every conceivable angle, someone comes along and finds new things to spot that are rarely pointed out in baseball conversations. Yes, there are several standards inside Who’s on Worst? – the ever-ubiquitous worst hitters and worst pitchers are both in this one. Goats? Yep. Cheaters? Of course. So what’s new, exactly? Well, Bondy shows how narcissistic New York City sportswriters are by giving us a chapter on the most overpaid Yankees players. That’s not a coincidence; it’s an official chapter Bondy justifies by saying the Yankees have overpaid even by today’s ridiculous baseball economics. There’s a whole different chapter dedicated to the most overpaid players who weren’t Yankees. Telling of the era, there’s also a chapter full of players who used steroids but still sucked all over MLB.

At the end of every chapter, Bondy gives us his top ten list of the worst, but in the chapters he only expounds on half of them on average. This book could have been a lot stronger if he would have included the details for all of them. Maybe that was something the editor did, but if that’s the case, then this book really could have used a different editor. As for the arguments he uses to state his cases, Bondy is great at this. It takes guts to call Gene Mauch one of the worst managers of all time despite being number eight on the list of games won. Mauch’s record was 1902-2037 for his career, and he never made the World Series. He was responsible for The Phold while managing the Philadelphia Phillies and blew a couple of great chances with the California Angels. Bondy uses a quote or two to describe Mauch as a little guy who sacrificed more than a couple of wins to keep players in his personal doghouse and overworked his better pitchers.

His list of worst team owners is also pretty unusual. He includes both Frank McCourt and The Wilpons, but Peter Angelos and Jeffery Loria are numbers nine and ten respectively. Charlie Comiskey doesn’t even make the cut.

I found it difficult to get Bony’s angle on steroids. It’s certainly telling that he gives steroid “cheats” their own chapter, but he never seems to condemn it or condone it. He treats them as they’re just there, another obstacle MLB has to reckon with. Somehow, Manny Ramirez managed to get himself onto that particular list. Traditional folks on his cheating list include Gaylord Perry, a character asinine enough to try to defend himself while running his mouth about steroids. Others include Kevin Gross and Wilton Guerrero, Vlad’s brother.

One of the more interesting chapters is on star players whose relatives weren’t quite as good. Hank Aaron’s little brother only hit 13 home runs. Pete Rose’s boy had a career which didn’t run as long as his dad’s. There’s also chapters on goats and lucky players. I had qualms with these: Steve Bartman is listed as a goat, and Jeffery Maier is listed as lucky.

There’s a chapter on the biggest jerks in the league, too. It includes a couple of the usual suspects, like Dave Kingman and John Rocker, but also, surprisingly, Jeff Kent. There’s little question that Kent probably deserves to be known as such a jerk, but it’s a change seeing him get mentioned because he usually gets overshadowed by teammate Barry Bonds.

There’s really not much more to say. Filip Bondy’s Who’s on Worst is a fun, well-argued book about some of the worst things in baseball. It’s definitely worth checking out if you don’t mind being copped out by chapter-end lists which were only comprised of half the chapter, and therefore being deprived a several details you would want to know.

42 (Movie)

July 8, 2013

It’s hard to think that in a 40-year acting career that included Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan, Richard Kimble, and an Oscar nomination for Witness, Harrison Ford never really tried to delve into the role of a person who actually existed. It’s why the casting of 42, the movie about Jackie Robinson, felt so weird: It isn’t some great Method actor known for disappearing into his roles playing Branch Rickey. It’s Ford, one of the all-time recognizable movie stars. He does a beautiful job of it, too.

That’s important, because the story of Jackie Robinson as told in 42 is very much the story of Branch Rickey, the man who took the chance of signing Robinson. Rickey actually receives a wee bit more character development than Robinson, as we get to hear the stories of why Rickey feels so strongly about signing a black man to a major league contract, we learn of his devout Methodism, and he’s really the one pulling a lot of the strings. On the other hand, we don’t learn so much about Robinson’s past, and we don’t even get any views on interpretations of Robinson’s famous 1945 tryout for the Boston Red Sox – something the Red Sox only did to appease Civil Rights activists, after which they told Robinson not to call them, they would call him.

42 plays out as the story of Jackie Robinson’s rookie year in 1947, when he won the Rookie of the Year award and led the Dodgers to the Pennant. That’s the only year we get to see played out in 42, but man, is it ever a doozy. I know Robinson faced unfathomable racism of the worst kind, and seeing it placed right in front of my face was pretty jarring. I was born in 1981, and it’s difficult for see how different everything was back then, and know that there are still a lot of people alive today who had to live through the kind of abuse Robinson faced. (My father was born in 1947.) A lot of the motivations for bringing Robinson up to the bigs had to do with money, something even Rickey even admits when he tries to sell the idea. Hey, if it worked!

The racism is the main theme of 42. Although there’s naturally a lot of baseball played in the movie, 42 has very little to do with baseball. Yes, we get regular updates about how the Brooklyn Dodgers are doing, but 42 exists mostly so we can get a look at Jackie Robinson and get an idea of the way the rest of the world reacted to him. There are some famous bits and pieces of the year in the movie – Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman verbally undressing Robinson with a relentless onslaught of every racial slur he can think of, and Pee Wee Reese placing his arm around Robinson’s shoulder as a show of solidarity as Robinson is lustily booed by a crowd in Cincinnati. A moment I would have liked to see would be after Robinson led the minor league Montreal Royals to their Championship, after which him and his wife, Rachel, were chased through Montreal by throngs of adoring fans who wanted to celebrate; the irony of that wasn’t lost on Jackie or Rachel. Montreal is in fact covered pretty generically, and Robinson’s Montreal Manager, Clay Hopper, barely has five minutes of screen time. That’s a shame for an ornery southern segregationist who was completely transformed by the experience of having Robinson on his team and mentored more black players who came up through Brooklyn’s system afterward.

There are some very powerful scenes in 42; Branch Rickey’s declaration about wanting someone with the guts to not fight back is in 42, and his worry about facing the lord one day with an inexcusable answer to the question of why he didn’t let black people play Major League Baseball are both in it. Hell, none other than Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel, gave 42 her personal blessing and said they did a great job with it. However, there are far too many scenes in 42 awash in syrupy melodrama. First of all, there are some of those damned kids in the movie. I’ve long believed the use of kids who turn up during pivotal power scenes is a cheap directorial tool for hacks, and half the time I keep wishing the little ankle-biter gets run over by a train. During the scene in Cincinnati with Reese and Robinson, there’s one of those kids, and he’s seen taking after his father and screaming slurs, then being instantly changed when he sees Reese place his hand on Robinson’s shoulder and chat him up. The scene would have been just as effective without the kid, especially since 42 is mostly melodramatic kid-free and this happens close to the finale. Gag me.

That’s not all. The ridiculous score sounds like the insufferable music that always accompanied the Lesson of the Week on a terrible 80’s sitcom. I get that such dreck is par course for movies like this, but there’s virtually no other kinds of music heard throughout 42. What this does is give 42 a real after-school special feel, and after-school specials don’t ring fond memories in people of my generation. By and large, we just started getting fed up with the things after awhile.

You can’t have a sports movie without an army of cliches, and things were decidedly looking down after the scene where Jackie proposes to Rachel over the phone. Cliches are wildly abundant because of the nature of 42: A sports movie about racism. 42 takes its sweet time letting you know exactly what it’s about. One early scene shows Robinson trying to use the toilet at a gas station but being denied for being the wrong color, then telling the attendant they would be getting gas somewhere else. Another scene is when Jackie and Rachel arrive in New Orleans for Spring Training and Jackie finds herself staring at a Whites Only bathroom, saying she’s heard about them, but never seen them before. Annoying as those cliches were, they were at least important to the theme of the movie. The other cliches come through the baseball medium, and they’re no good at all. Most of them revolve around people having their opinions of Jackie being changed on a dime because he makes some otherworldly athletic play. There are on-cue diving catches and home runs. There’s a walk-off at the end of the Big Game at the finale.

What really confused me, though, is that 42 seems to place a big emphasis on Robinson’s ability to steal. Yeah, we get that Robinson was very fast, but as this movie proves, that doesn’t translate well to cinematic excitement. Not on a baseball diamond, anyway. That’s not entirely absurd because Robinson was a two-time Stolen Bases Champion, but his stealing numbers in either of those years wasn’t outrageous – 29 in 1947 and 37 in 1949 – and it’s clear from the start of the movie that Branch Rickey wants him because he was a prolific hitter (.311 career average). So it seems funny to me that stealing would be given such an emphasis, even if Robinson did steal home in the 1955 World Series.

I won’t begrudge 42 for its story or the fact that it shows us just how stupid we really used to be. The fact that it earned a ringing endorsement from Rachel Robinson says more about it than I ever could, and you should probably go see it for that reason alone – it is, after all, one of those stories that really needs to be told, and that you can’t fully appreciate until you know something about it beyond the usual school textbook glossover. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a very good movie, though. At least Harrison Ford’s performance is captivating enough to hold your attention between the after-school special parts of it.

Comeback by Dave Dravecky

July 3, 2013

The great trouble with the Christian Inspiration genre of any medium is that there’s only one brand of it. The only differences are the obstacles and the number of times God is mentioned.

I went looking through my local library for a book which wasn’t about the Yankees or Red Sox, and what I came up with was a forgotten bit of Christian Inspiration called Comeback. It was written in 1990 by Dave Dravecky, who pitched for around five years in Major League Baseball. Although he was originally put into the Pittsburgh Pirates system, all his big league hurling was done for the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants. He got to play in the World Series for both of those teams. According to Wikipedia, he compiled some fairly respectable numbers: 64-57 win/loss record and 3.13 ERA to go with 558 strikeouts for a career which went from 1982 to 1989. All-Star in 1983.

Other than that, Dravecky didn’t have very much about him that was remarkable. Yeah, at one point he went broke, like so many people who make the Major Leagues do, but that wasn’t blowing the money on bourbon and hookers like a lot of those others. Dravecky’s bank-breaking happened on a series of bad home investments – a boring, middle class way to kill an account. Instead of living up the rock star lifestyle at the beginning of his career, Draveky was married to his high school sweetheart even when he was drafted.

So what about him warrants a book? Well, it started with a tumor that popped up in 1987. The operation to get the tumor out removed half his deltoid muscle in his pitching arm, which is a big deal because the deltoid is the muscle responsible for the rounded padding of the human shoulder, and therefore the muscle responsible for the shoulder being able to perform many of its primary functions. Its removal is a big issue, and for Dravecky, it resulted in the loss of a lot of movement. This happened in his PITCHING shoulder. If you’re a pitcher and you get that sucker cut out, there’s a good chance you don’t pitch again.

Well, Dravecky DID pitch again. He also broke his arm, came back from that, broke his arm again, and retired after the doctors told him his cancer was making a little comeback of its own. That’s where Comeback ends. Researching Dravecky, I learned that he finally had to bite the bullet and have his entire left arm amputated in 1991.

I was expecting Dravecky’s life story, but Comeback is about that and that alone: His cancer and his return to baseball from that cancer. Dravecky writes that it started with a lump which even the doctors wrote off, but escalated to a point where it couldn’t be ignored – the thing grew up to the size of a golf ball. Dravecky details exactly what the operation did to him, and write about the various exercises he had to perform in order to get into playing shape again. When he’s back in shape, he write about what it was like for his arm to break again, twice. This only goes over his stint in San Francisco, where it all happened. He barely writes about San Diego or the minor leagues, although while he was in Pittsburgh’s system, he played for the Buffalo Bisons. This dated the book for me because while he was pitching in Buffalo – my hometown – the Bisons were still playing at War Memorial Stadium, a run down shack of a stadium in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods. Buffalo’s minor league baseball stadium, Pilot Field, was built in the late 80’s. It set the standard for what a ballpark experience turned into in the 90’s and is still considered a crown jewel today.

Faith and family are the main focal points of Dravecky’s life, and he writes a lot about his prayer group. Given Comeback’s genre, you would expect this. I think Dravecky tends to downplay his own determination in favor of his faith, since he writes that and his competitiveness as the primary factors which allow him to really excel. The most interesting parts of the book are when he writes about those exercises. The least interesting are when he goes into detail about his religion, and that’s not (just) the fact that I’m an atheist talking. It’s as I wrote in the beginning: There’s no original way to do Christian Inspiration well. The way it’s often done is to tread on eggshells, writing as much as possible about feeling God, because that’s the only way to do it without pissing people off. Taking a deep water dive into theology alienates people, and if the author is writing for a big, broad audience, alienation is the last thing he would want. That doesn’t leave a lot of room to explore the theology the way Dravecky probably would have liked, and so, like a lot of Christian Inspiration I’ve been exposed to, it feels weak.

The most interesting tidbit I picked up from Comeback is the fact that all baseballs are apparently different. Baseballs take such hard beatings during games that it’s impossible for them to keep their shapes, and so they’ll be replaced dozens of times over a single game. Therefore, pitchers handle thousands of balls throughout their careers, so they tend to notice little differences between the baseballs. It makes perfect sense when you think about it.

It’s tough to write about a story I’ve read a thousand times. It’s tougher for me to see what meanings I can dig out of the Christian Inspiration genre. Even knowing that Dravecky ultimately had his arm amputated, I didn’t get as much out of Comeback as I did out of Soul Surfer, the story of how professional surfer Bethany Hamilton fought to regain her surfing form after her left arm was bitten off by a shark. Both Dravecky and Hamilton are amputees and devout Christians, but Hamilton was faced with an obstacle which would have made her situation comical had it not actually happened. Somehow, she pulls off the incredible trick of surfing without an arm. In any case, the genre is boring because despite the country being overwhelmingly Christian, no one wants to take chances with the inspirational/theological mold even within the Christian faith. There aren’t any inspirational memoirs by celebrities of other beliefs. I’ve read one autobiography by an orthodox Jew in which religion is a major factor in the author’s life: The famous AV Club head critic Nathan Rabin, who never writes about his devotion to Judaism after the first chapter or the factors that led him to it. It wouldn’t kill anyone to publish one of these written by a famous Muslim. Or, (gasp!), a celebrity memoir in which the author finds his strength within after a search for religious inspiration only lets him down.


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