July 23, 2014
The Baseball Fan's Guide to the Summer of New Yorker
This summer, The New Yorker has opened up a portion of its online archives to non-subscribers. This is great news for non-subscribers (though not subscribing is itself bad news for non-subscribers), as some of the best baseball feature writing of the past seven years is now available in a non-$6.99/issue format. How will you spend your summer with The New Yorker online archives? May I advise.
Week 1: Waiting For Manny, by Ben McGrath.
The best feature writing is less about the field itself than about the pursuit of excellence in the field. Just as the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi can be engrossing even if you never get to taste said sushi, this feature is entertaining even if you hate baseball. No, really, I have proof: My baseball-hating wife now loves Manny Ramirez and frequently tells people to find and read this article. Did you know that Manny went to the same high school as Henry Kissinger and Alan Greenspan? Did you know that he doesn’t keep track of balls and strikes when he’s batting? So on. Excerpt:
Onelcida Ramirez worked as a seamstress in a dress factory; Aristides drove a livery cab and fixed electronics. Manny and his three older sisters, Rosa, Evelyn, and Clara, lived in a sixth-floor walkup on 168th Street. They had no telephone. The neighborhood at the time was one of the city’s worst—only East New York, in Brooklyn, had more homicides in 1990. Every morning at five-thirty, Manny left the apartment to run up Snake Hill, behind the high school, with a rope tied around his waist attached to a spare tire that dragged on the pavement behind him.
Week 2: The Extortionist, by Ben McGrath.
I once read a long New Yorker profile of Johnny Carson that was written in, oh, probably the 1970s, and I was struck by what an odd job talk-show host is. Carson was certainly a bigger star than most of the guests he had on, yet he was also in a position of subservience, promoting their movies and playing straight man to their funny stories. He wasn’t an actor, or a musician, or a writer, or management; he was something weird and in between, a celebrity whose celebrity was hemmed into this tiny space of culture that barely overlapped with the more traditional routes to fame. This profile of Scott Boras captures something similar. Boras is, essentially, a middleman. He doesn’t produce the game; he doesn’t finance the game; he has no official power over the game. And yet he is one of its most dominant and creative forces, and such a celebrity within it that wherever he goes people jostle to, as McGrath writes, “pay their respects, trading anecdotes for scoops and the feeling of proximity to power.” Excerpt:
One of their main jobs is to underscore the uniqueness of Boras’s upcoming free agents by producing three-ring binders full of Xeroxed spreadsheets and testimonials that can be mailed to potential suitors and the media. Boras calls these “treatises.” When I mentioned the binders recently to a high-level baseball executive, he broke out laughing. “I think it’s more to please the client,” he said. “Like, ‘Here’s a copy for you and your family to put above the fireplace.’ ” The famous A-Rod binder of 2000, which was reportedly printed in an edition of a hundred, at a cost of thirty-five thousand dollars, featured quotes, in large type, comparing Rodriguez to Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and made reference to how “handsome” and “charming” he is. Johnny Damon, whose binder included ten chapters and predicted that he would end up playing more games than any center fielder in history, says, “He made me feel like Ty Cobb.”
Week 3: Talent Grab, by Malcolm Gladwell.
Like pretty much everything Gladwell has written since his absolutely unimpeachable explanation of ketchup, you might come away feeling slightly bamboozled by the author’s argument but not totally sure why. Still, this piece—which ties Marvin Miller and baseball salaries to the rise of the winner-take-all society—is a fascinating challenge to one’s ability to hold conflicting viewpoints about what is right. Is it right that a baseball player can make $30 million (instead of, say, $500,000, or $2 million, or some other comfortable living) because he happens to excel at a nonproductive activity that society has arbitrarily decided is worth spending money on? I don’t know, but it sure feels weird to me. Is there an alternative that is any more fair? Well, no; what Marvin Miller brought was a correction to an even less fair system—“the impregnable fortress of Capital,” as Gladwell puts it. Regardless, you can certainly read and enjoy this piece in a simpler way than I’m portraying it; you can read it as a history of Marvin Miller and the rise of the player’s union, told in Gladwell’s typically colorful and provocative style. Excerpt:
So I said, ‘I want to tell you something. Take any one of you—take Bobby Bonds. I’m going to make a prediction.’ ” The prediction was about Bobby Bonds’s son. The Giants’ owner encouraged his players to bring their families to spring training, so Miller knew Bonds’s son well. He was just a little kid, but already it was clear that he was something special. “I said, ‘If we can get rid of the system as we now know it, then Bobby Bonds’s son, if he makes it to the majors, will make more in one year than Bobby will in his whole career.’ And the eyebrows went up.” Bobby Bonds’s son, of course, was Barry Bonds, one of the greatest players of his generation. And Miller was absolutely right: he ended up making more in one year than all the members of his father’s San Francisco Giants team made in their entire careers, combined. That was Marvin Miller’s revolution—and, nearly half a century later, we are still dealing with its consequences.
Week 4: The Crisis Manager, by Gay Talese.
Gay Talese—Gay Talese!—profiles Joe Girardi, from childhood through his playing and managerial careers. This might seem like a bit too much for a relatively unaccomplished manager who was a relatively unremarkable ballplayer, but the piece isn’t really about Girardi’s career at all. Girardi’s dad, then 81, was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Talese goes with Girardi on the two-hour drive to Gerald Girardi’s nursing home, and Talese’s profile ends up cutting through the sport’s macho default. Excerpt:
Girardi walked over to the wheelchair where his father sat. He leaned over the older man, who, wearing beige warmup clothes, was leaning back with his eyes closed. He did not respond as his son greeted him in a loud and cheerful voice: “Hi, Dad. I love you, Dad.” Girardi repeated this a few times, but his father remained motionless. The physical resemblance between father and son was striking. If you looked at their matching buzz cuts and high cheekbones, it was easy to imagine what Joe Girardi might look like in thirty years.
Each piece is about a huge personality (the Marlins, as represented by either Jeffrey Loria or Ozzie Guillen; and Lenny Dykstra) riding high. Reading these pieces now, we see that each subject’s future was preordained to failure, that neither had the discipline or the inner calm necessary to balance the wobbly scooter they were riding. The Marlins, at the time preparing to open their new stadium after a winter of signing big free agents, would tear down the roster within the year. Dykstra, who was launching a new media business that Pete Incaviglia (Pete Incaviglia!) called “the most brilliant, best idea I’ve ever heard in my life,” would be bankrupt and in jail within a half-decade. Even reading the pieces back then, when they came out, with their anecdotes of excess, you felt uneasy. These seemed at first to be profiles of success. Where, then, were all the qualities we expect to read about in profiles of success? An idea, you realized in each case, is not a plan. Excerpt:
Guillen ignored the remark, slapped his boss’s hand, and patted him on the shoulder several times. “If I get this man to where he should be, it gonna be a raise,” he said.