Showing posts with label baseball. Show all posts
Showing posts with label baseball. Show all posts

14 May 2015

Play Ball!


by Brian Thornton

 It's mid-May, and we are five weeks into baseball season. Last night I was thinking about what I wanted to write for this week's blog entry while watching my hometown Seattle Mariners extend their longest winning streak of the season–four games–at the expense of the San Diego Padres, and it occurred to me that baseball and writing have a lot in common. Such as:

You can't be afraid of striking out.

In baseball a lifetime batting average that reflects getting a base-hit three times out of every ten at-bats is a hallmark of a successful career. This is also true of success in fiction writing. Most books published by "traditional publishers" these days rarely, if ever earn out. Most make their author nothing beyond their initial advance.

Every once in a while you'll hit a home-run.

When books do take off, earn out for their authors, they can be career-makers. And they don't have to be pretty (Fifty Shades of Grey, for example), they just have to leave the yard.

You're only as good as your last game.

Even E. L. James has had to get past striking the home-run pose, move on, run the bases, and figure out what she'll do next. You can't rest on your laurels (unless that last game was the final game of the world series, with you bringing in the winning run…).

The art of the pitch.

Baseball is a sport that emphasizes the importance of mastering the "fundamentals" of the game through constant repetition: fielding drills, batting practice, etc. Writing is much the same. Most "overnight sensations" have worked at the craft for decades. So write everyday as if you were working on the cut-off move on a throw from the outfield, and do it every day over, and over…

And have fun out there!

Yes, like playing ball, writing at its best, is an awful lot of fun. Otherwise why would we bother with such a maddening process and so many arcane arcane rules?

See you in two weeks!

12 March 2013

Gone South (Again) -- Play Ball!


Space Coast Stadium, Viera, Florida --  Spring Training Home to the Washington Nationals
by Dale C. Andrews

    One of the things about posting articles for over one and a half years on SleuthSayers is that my annual habits begin to reveal themselves.  Nowhere is this more evident than during the winter months.  As I have written before, my wife and I, as we approached retirement, most looked forward to escaping the east coast during the months of January and February.  We are blessed with the fact that our elder adult son lives with us and his slightly younger brother lives close by, so there is no problem each winter with leaving the cats and the house behind along with the weather. 

    This year, like last year, we escaped for ten days in the Caribbean in January, and were under sail on the Island Windjammer ship Sagitta when my birthday rolled around.  Then we were back in the District of Columbia or two weeks before leaving for the Gulf Shores of Alabama, where we encamped for 5 weeks in a condo overlooking the beach and the Gulf.  We have spent most of a short twelve days back in the D.C, survived a final winter snow false alarm, and are now poised, once again, on the brink of our final winter trip – to watch the Washington Nationals in Spring Training in Viera, Florida.
Our Smart Car exits the Autotrain (to general laughter)

    As great as the prior winter escapes were, in many ways this one is my favorite.  Instead of driving our larger “road car” south, as we did when we travelled to and from the Gulf Shore, on this trip we drive our convertible two-seater Smart car the 20 miles to Lorton, Virginia, and then board the Autotrain for an overnight trip to Sanford, Florida, about 50 miles from the cottage we rent across the street from the beach at Cocoa Beach, Florida.  We will be there for one week, then catch a few days in Orlando re-acquainting ourselves with “the Mouse,” and head back to D.C. at the end of March, hoping to have finessed our way through winter once again.

Our rental cottage at Cocoa Beach
    But while the Autotrain and Cocoa Beach are terrific, what I truly love about this trip is its underlying theme:  the return of baseball, and the boys of summer.  It is difficult to understand what it is like to be a Washington, D.C. baseball fan without having lived through the last 40 years here.  Those years included a 33 year stretch without any baseball at all.  Remember that we lost the Senators twice:  First to Minneapolis, then to Texas.  In the intervening years there were repeated attempts to lure the nation’s pastime back to D.C. – one year it became so liklely that the San Diego Padres would relocate here that baseball cards were issued for that team, re-named the Nationals – but all of the previous attempts ultimately failed, generally as a result of a veto by Peter Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, who persisted for decades in the smug belief that if he held us captive long enough Washington D.C. fans would embrace the Orioles as their own.  Sorry.  We didn’t.  There are some things that even hostages will not do.   

    All of this is background to explain how our household, and much of Washington, has embraced the return of baseball to the Nation’s capitol.  As Laura Ingalls Wilder observed, joy is always best when it follows sorrow.  Our thirst was quenched following a very long drought. 

    Last year in an analogous post I recounted some recommended readings that embrace the national pastime and that are great preparation, read in early spring, for what is to come with the boys of summer.  This year I thought I would add at least two more gems to the list, each by well-known authors who also apparently can’t get baseball out of their minds this time of year. 

    First up, Stephen King.  King is a long-time victim of baseball fever.  His 2004 non-fiction volume Faithful is based on his correspondence with fellow novelist and co-author Stewart O’Nan, both rabid Red Sox fans, throughout the course of the 2004 season and ending with Boston’s trip to the world series.  King has also penned two short works inspired by baseball, 2010’s Blockade Billy, about a mythical 1957 catcher who, for reasons best told by King, has been erased completely from baseball history, and 2012’s A Face in the Crowd, also co-written with O’Nan, a long short story recounting what happens to a baseball fan who begins to see long-departed acquaintances from his past seated around him at the ballpark.  But while each of these works can serve to establish King’s baseball credentials, to my mind his finest baseball-related work is the 1999 novel The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon, the story of a girl lost in the woods who is counseled, in her imagination, by Gordon, the real-life Boston closer from the 1990s, and is ultimately inspired to “close” the novel as Gordon would have a game.  A great read for spring.

    Batting second, John Grisham.  Long before attending law school Grisham dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals and to this day he is a big supporter of little league teams in Mississippi and Virginia.  His non-legal 2001 quasi-autobiographical novel A Painted House features a narration punctuated by family gatherings around the radio to listen to Harry Caray’s play-by-play of St. Louis Cardinal games.  (Yep, that’s where Caray was, paired with Jack Buck, prior to his Chicago days.)  Even though baseball is only a supporting character in A Painted House, the novel is a fine spring read.  But Grisham truly excels with his 2012 novel Calico Joe, inspired by the real-life story of Ray Chapman, the only ball player ever killed by a pitch.  For a National’s fan like myself the novel proved prescient soon after it was released when, in the summer of 2012 rookie Bryce Harper, the team’s boy wonder, and the closest thing we have to Calico Joe, was beaned on purpose by Philly pitcher Cole Hamel for no reason except that Harper was new, young, eager and poised for greatness.  Like the pitcher antagonist in Calico Joe, Hamels self-servingly defended his action as nothing more than a lesson in “old school” baseball.  Former Phillies pitcher Curt Shilling (and, one would suspect, Grisham, as well) had a better word for it – “stupid.”  That lesson is learned in Calico Joe – another great read as we await opening day.

    Time to pack.  I am off to Florida.  Play ball!

(Next week acclaimed mystery writer Terence Faherty joins SleuthSayers, alternating Tuesdays with me.  Terry’s accomplishments – including authorship of both the Owen Keane and Scott Elliot series of mysteries and numerous awards—leave my own scant efforts in a pale cloud of literary dust.  But at least we have this:  Terry and I both love a good pastiche, as anyone who has read Terry's recent  short story A Scandal in Bohemia (EQMM, February 2013) knows full well.  And this we also share:  an understanding that the rules of constrained writing, once mastered, can also be bent.  This extends not just to plot, such as in Terry's re-imagined telling of Conan Doyle’s Bohemian Scandal, but to writing styles as well.  I noted in my last blog Churchill’s admonition that ending a sentence in a preposition was something “up with which he would not put.”  And here is Holmes dismissing the sanctity of the rule in Terry’s Bohemian pastiche: 
The wording of your note is out of character with a true free spirit.  “A matter up with which he can no longer put,” indeed.  Only someone sitting on a particularly rigid stick would go to such lengths to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition.”
I am certain we are all looking forward to welcoming Terry to the SleuthSayers ranks!)

27 March 2012

Gone South III -- Play Ball!


Space Coast Stadium, Viera Florida -- Spring Training home of the Washington Nationals

     Several weeks back I mentioned the geographic challenge of uploading timely articles every second Tuesday during the winter months.  Pat and I decided years ago that once we retired we were going to spend as much time as possible each winter away from our home in Washington, D.C.  This year that meant that for three weeks in January we were in the Caribbean – two weeks of which were on a sailboat with the spottiest internet imaginable.  We came back from that trip to spend two weeks at home, making certain that our adult sons had not completely trashed the house, and then took off again to Gulf Shores, Alabama for two and a half weeks in February.  We lucked out there with great internet available in the condo we rented.  Then after another two weeks of checking on the house we are off on the last of our winter trips – a week and a half in Florida devoted to watching the Washington Nationals’ Spring training.  I’ll have some internet access there, but to be on the safe side this article will be scheduled before we leave. 
"Smartie" getting off of the Autotrain.  Everyone laughed.

    While we drove to and from Gulf Shores, our Spring Training tradition sends us south on the Autotrain.  This allows us to leave our bigger "road trip" car in D.C. and travel instead with our convertible Smart car, which would never otherwise see Florida.  (I can’t imagine 900 miles of I-95 in Smartie).


    The train is always a blast. --  dining cars, where, as a couple, we invariably sit across from people we have never met, and lounge cars where strangers sip cocktails together while watching the scenery pass.  No wonder  trains  have always been fodder for mysteries.  I can’t ride an overnight train without thinking of The Lady Vanishes,  Hitchcock’s second-to-last British film.  The 1938 movie (based on the largely forgotten book The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White), together with Hitchcock’s 1959 American film North by Northwest and Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express all capture the microcosm that is train travel – a self-contained slice of life, detached from the rest of the world by movement.  No wonder that trains afford a perfect setting for classic golden age mysteries – how better to contain your story and all of your suspects?  While ocean liners are a close second, nothing beats the tightly cabined setting of a train.

    So to and from Spring Training I have little trouble conjuring up SleuthSayer thoughts.  But what about baseball itself? 

    For whatever reason the nation’s pastime hasn’t provided much of a setting for mystery stories.  Perhaps readers will offer up other examples, but the only ones that spring readily to my mind are the Ed Gorgon stories by the great Jon L. Breen.  Jon started the series way back in 1970 and has written that his original inspiration for Ed Gorgon, the baseball umpire who repeatedly is called upon to solve mysteries between calling balls and strikes, was that Frederic Dannay, then editor-in-chief at Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, liked nothing better than baseball and dying messages.  So Jon served up both in Diamond Dick, the first Ed Gorgon story..  That story, and the further installments in the series, spanning thirty years, are collected in Kill the Umpire: The Calls of Ed Gorgon published by Crippen and Landru in 2003. Jon's collection is a fun read and is available at Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, or direct from Crippen and Landru.   (Tell Doug Greene that Dale sent you!)

Shoeless Joe and Ty Cobb, 1913
    If one casts a wider net other non-mystery baseball stories can be reeled in.  Much of the literature that has derived from baseball seems to have its roots in the Black Sox scandal, in which various members of the Chicago White Sox were charged with conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series.  Even though they were acquitted by a Chicago jury, eight players were eventually suspended from baseball for life, including (famously) Shoeless Joe Jackson, who got his name from once running the bases without his shoes on, and who may have been the greatest baseball slugger of all time.  Ring Lardner was a young reporter covering the scandal, and his impressions of Shoeless Joe were said to be the inspiration for his baseball short stories that were later collected in You Know Me Al, a series of letters authored by a vernacularly-challenged ball player.  Lardner uniformly portrays the White Sox players in You Know Me Al as semi-literate and hopelessly avaricious. 

    A real life episode that has repeatedly found its way into baseball lore followed Shoeless Joe Jackson's appearance before a grand jury empaneled to investigate the conspiracy allegations.  On September 29, 1920, The Minneapolis Daily Star, during the course of reporting on the scandal, published the following account:
When Jackson left criminal court building in custody of a sheriff after telling his story to the grand jury, he found several hundred youngsters, aged from 6 to 16, awaiting for a glimpse of their idol. One urchin stepped up to the outfielder, and, grabbing his coat sleeve, said:

"It ain't true, is it, Joe?"

"Yes, kid, I'm afraid it is," Jackson replied. The boys opened a path for the ball player and stood in silence until he passed out of sight.

"Well, I'd never have thought it," sighed the lad
    The line, and the saga of Shoeless Joe, who may or may not have been guilty as charged, reverberated through baseball literature.  In Bernard Malamud’s The Natural the central character, Roy Hobbs, is offered a bribe to throw a game and is then confronted by a child who says “Say it isn’t true, Roy.”  (The line is only in the book, so don’t look for it in the 1984 Robert Redford film!)   The story of Shoeless Joe is also at the heart of the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams, based on Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella.  And, finally, anyone who has seen the movie or stage production of Damn Yankees (a story close to the heart of any Washington, D.C. baseball fan) will remember the refrain “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo.”  (Hannibal Mo. had nothing to do with Shoeless Joe, but, hey, a song’s gotta rhyme, right?)

    Well I should stop here and start packing.  We are off on one last winter trip to the south.   Hopefully when we head back to Washington D.C. it will be spring, because if winter persists it will be me who you will hear lamenting “it ain’t true, is it, Joe?”