Religious Orders

Mediocre Baseball

Posted: Monday January 07 2013 @ 3:20pm

Religious Order: Sports

I used to feel bad about giving up on a book, but then I realized that life was too short to waste on mediocre books. Here's one I gave up on two-thirds of the way through.

Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball

So, Stephen Jay Gould is an ace writer when it comes to science. Apparently, he also wrote several essays about baseball. This book is a collection of those essays, published after his death. (Or, y'know, posthumously.) Alas, it's not very good.

There are several problems with it. First off is the posthumously nature. Gould had no opportunity to make sure that the various essays melded in any way into a full book, and so they don't. It's not just that there's no flow. There's also an aching amount of repetition. We have to hear over and over about particulars of his boyhood. We have to read the same jokes and snarky comments repeatedly. As separate essays, this isn't a problem. But it sure gets boring when you jam all those essays together.

A second problem is his fawning over players. There are several times when he simply gushes about how great Mark McGwire is, without even a glance at the obvious role steroids played. And, no, I'm not looking with 20/20 hindsight. If you looked at McGwire during his heyday and didn't think of steroids, you're just oblivious. Unfortunately, Gould was oblivious. More amusing was his blind faith that Chuck Knoblauch would soon conquer his tragic case of the yips. (Not to suggest that what happened to Chuck was amusing. Make no mistake, Chuck was an ass, but he was also a damn fine ballplayer.)

The third problem is his wordiness. He takes far too long to explain simple concepts. The worst offender is his essay on why there will never be another .400 hitter. Want to know why? Here's why:

Baseball modifies the game itself to keep the average batting average at .260. As the sport continues to mature, average players get better while the very best hit a wall. This decreases the gap between the average and the very best. Because the game is continually modified to keep that average player at .260, even the very best players can no longer reach .400. In short, the game is graded on a curve and the improvement of average players blows the curve.

Now, that isn't a quote from the book. Oh, no. That's my quick paraphrase. The book contains a long essay to explain a fairly simple concept. Towards the end, there's some interesting statistics to back up the argument, but by then I was so bored I really didn't care.

Fourth is his overuse of religion. Jesus, the guy uses Christian religious examples all the goddamn time! It's not that I mind religious mentions, and, in fact, they often work great as baseball metaphors. But they're sprinkled everywhere, and the guy isn't even a Christian. It's not that he's making any fun of religion. He'sn't. (Double contraction of He is not.) It's just that his frequent use seems, I dunno, weird? Disrespectful in its assumption of the culture of others? Maybe it's just me. I wasn't offended. I just found it weird. It detracted from the content.

The one time it really worked was in talking about Cooperstown, the Hall of Fame Museum, and the hybrid of cultural and historical artifacts. Admittedly, this one was a good essay.

Fifth, book reviews! Apparently, the last third of the book is just his reviews of other baseball books. I read the first one. It's not great; it's not horrible. It's, frankly, about on par with my book reviews. But mine are free. This was the point at which I decided to read something else.


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