Maclean’s: Who’s your favourite baseball player?

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Who’s your favourite baseball player?
Thu, Jul 29, 2010


Edited by Sean Manning

This is supposed to be a book in which well-known writers pay tribute to baseball players, but the love is so ambiguous it feels more like hate. Not all of the writers go as far as Whitney Pastoriek, who spends most of her essay bashing Roger Clemens as the ultimate example of McMansion-building “lack of character.” But disappointment is a common theme, as in Craig Finn’s account of Kirby Puckett, whose story ended in “infidelities and shocking public behaviour.” Even Neal Pollack’s essay on the irreproachable Greg Maddux becomes partly an excuse to bash all the “mega-sluggers and their bulging neck muscles” around him. There aren’t many outright love letters in here, and most of them have to do with older players: W.P. Kinsella’s foreword offers a laundry list of favourites since the ’40s (along with a completely gratuitous complaint about modern pop music being too loud), and veteran sportswriter Roger Kahn recalls his encounters with Jackie Robinson, the baseball equivalent of a saint. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Carrie Rickey even spends her pages paying tribute to a player who doesn’t exist: Crash Davis from Bull Durham.

When it comes to real, living players, though, the contributors to this book often seem to be working out their own conflicted feelings about the game. Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone turns his entry on slow-footed slugger Jim Rice into a rant against the “stat geeks” who tarnished his reputation by pointing out that he wasn’t worthy of the Hall of Fame, while Michael Ian Black remembers how Mets leadoff man Mookie Wilson indirectly led him to confront his own youthful racism. That may be, in the end, the best tribute to baseball and the people who play it: in spite of steroids, scandals and sabermetrics, baseball players can still get ordinary people very, very angry.




Monte Reel

In 1996, a health-care worker in Brazil’s Guapore River Valley, near the Bolivian border, brought rumours of a single Indian male roaming the surrounding forest to Marcelo dos Santos, one of the few people in Brazil liable to do anything about it. Dos Santos worked for FUNAI, the new national agency responsible for establishing the traditional territories of indigenous peoples, a necessary step in putting teeth into the provision of the 1988 Brazilian constitution that preserved their land. Without such data, ranchers expanding into the rainforest had every incentive to drive off—or even kill—any Indians there before native title could be secured. Dos Santos found one of the huts the nomadic Indian used, enough evidence to begin an ongoing battle over one man’s fate that also grew to touch on the future of Amazonia, and the relentless encroachment of modernity on wild places and wild humans.

It is an epic quest, all right, but also a strangely unsettling one. Reel skilfully brings to life everyone from dos Santos and his colleagues, dedicated to protecting their last man standing, to ranchers bent on clear-cutting their way across the continent, to poor peasants resentful that one man stands to gain 96 sq km to maintain himself, to remnant tribes (one reduced to five individuals) that have come in from the jungle, to very mixed results. Everyone with a stake in the story, in fact, except the elusive Indian. Dos Santos comes close to contact, including a six-hour standoff in which the Indian unwaveringly points a notched bow at him until he goes away, and the man does, over the years, begin to accept FUNAI’s gifts of food and tools. But he never speaks, never reaches out from a loneliness dos Santos finds unfathomable, never provides the answer to who he and his people are (or were), never compromises. By the end of the book, neither Reel nor dos Santos nor the reader can feel anything but admiration for him.




Robert L. O’Connell

On Aug. 2, 216 BCE, an apocalyptic day in southern Italy, Carthaginian forces commanded by one of the greatest military geniuses who ever lived surrounded and destroyed a much larger Roman army. When one of history’s most famous battles was over, 48,000 Romans lay dead or dying, losers—as Robert O’Connell graphically but precisely phrases it—“in a mass knife fight, killed in the most intimate and terrible ways, their faces and thoraxes and abdomens punctured and mangled.” The butcher’s bill was higher than the U.S. count in the entire Vietnam War; more dead soldiers on a single day, in fact, than any other army suffered in all of Western history. Ever since, generals have tried to replicate Hannibal’s encirclement tactics and achieve what Dwight Eisenhower called “a battle of annihilation.” They were mostly unsuccessful, since a Cannae-level victory requires not only Hannibal’s genius but also a certain blind arrogance on the enemy’s part; more to the point, the generals seemed unaware that the Carthagian ultimately lost his war.

Given Rome’s colossal influence on Western culture, the pivotal moments in its history have never ceased to fascinate. Here O’Connell, who teaches at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, excels in his beautifully written, evocative account—not just in explaining what happened at Cannae or in retelling the traditional story of a Roman Republic too tough (pigheaded, actually) to sue for peace. The fate of Hannibal, who won battle after battle before losing the one that mattered (the last one), is treated as a cautionary example for any imperial power that believes a shock-and-awe assault will win a war on its own. So too is the afterlife of the “ghosts” of the battle—its disgraced Roman survivors, exiled by the Senate to duty abroad. Later they formed the core of the army that finally beat Hannibal, and in the process transferred their allegiance from the state that scapegoated them to their general—a small glimmer, according to O’Connell, of a trend that would later destroy the republic.




Hephzibah Anderson

Throughout history, men and women have chosen celibacy for any number of reasons: Gandhi had spiritual motives, Beethoven’s might have been creative, and Sir Isaac Newton simply didn’t have time for sex, with all that physics. In Chastened, British journalist and broadcaster Hephzibah Anderson vows to be celibate for a year because she’s emotionally exhausted after a recent affair gone wrong and a decade of sex with little love. (Spotting her college ex with his girlfriend just outside of a jewellery store on the eve of her 30th birthday didn’t help.) What follows is her search for love without sex. And while her discoveries may not be tantamount to figuring out, say, gravity, they’re remarkable in their own right.

Set mostly in London, with a few Manhattan sojourns, Anderson chronicles her dates with a cast of suitors, including the Beau, the Boy Next Door and Mr. Vermilion. Without sex to distract her, she’s forced to engage with men in novel ways. Sometimes the results are cringeworthy, like the pack of professional singles she endures at a Valentine’s dance. She’s also forced to give the quiet guy in the corner a chance, to appreciate old-fashioned chivalry, and to accept, even crave, different sorts of physical contact: several months into the vow, Anderson notices she’s hugging her friends much longer than usual.

While Anderson believes that Carrie Bradshaw and Bridget Jones have become tedious, the best parts of the book read as if co-authored by the two heroines. Anderson would be served well if she relied more on this voice than on Sigmund Freud and Germaine Greer. Their awkwardly integrated quotes drag Chastened away from what it is: the story of one person’s vow of celibacy (with, rest assured, plenty of sultry details) and the lessons learned. Besides, nobody wants to psychoanalyze Anderson: we just want to find out if her delayed gratification will pay off at the end of her vacation from sex—and with whom she will choose to end it.



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