On Sports

Baseball as a fight for the Finnish

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bill Littlefield
May 4, 2008

Sort of Gone: Poems
By Sarah Freligh

Turning Point, 88 pp., paperback, $17

Anatomy of Baseball
Edited by Lee Gutkind and Andrew Blauner
Southern Methodist University, 210 pp., $22.50

The 33-Year-Old Rookie: How I Finally Made It to the Big Leagues After Eleven Years in the Minors
By Chris Coste
Ballantine, 224 pp., illustrated, $25

The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan
Edited by Alex Belth
Persea, 400 pp., $27.95

"Sort of Gone," a collection of poems by Sarah Freligh, follows the adventures and misadventures - mostly misadventures - of a ballplayer who makes a life in the game in part to show his worthless sot of a father that he can do it. How's that for turning the old dad-and-me-at-the-ballgame myth on its head?

The story of the rise and decline of the ballplayer, Al, is occasionally interrupted by a subplot or a snapshot. In one of the latter, "Groupie," Freligh assumes the voice of a woman who hangs around the game: "I need a guy to tell me I'm beautiful, tell me he loves / my red toenails, loves how I listen to him, how he wishes his wife / were more like me." The lines describing Al as he departs the game in "After Seventeen Years, the End" are similarly accessible, and scarier: "You lean into the mike and say you've / had a great run, God willing, but it's time to move / on to / other interests. Like what? All this time on your hands / maybe you'll grow roses. Or something."

Some of "Sort of Gone" is less bleak, and parts of it are funny, but enough is spare and grim that Freligh provides a welcome counterpart to the sentimental rhymes often celebrated as baseball poetry.

Like many other anthologies, "Anatomy of Baseball" is uneven. There is a fine old chestnut from Roger Angell and a pleasant reminiscence from George Plimpton. Then come the mitts. It's not that I don't believe that all the people who've written love songs to their baseball gloves are sincere, but this collection has three celebrations of the glove. What, are we meant to see them as dueling? Enough. More than enough.

On the other hand - the one not encased in an over-celebrated glove - "Pesäpallo: Playing at the Edge of the World," Caitlin Horrocks's account of a vaguely baseball-like game in Finland, is terrific. When Horrocks writes about how she came to accept the teaching position that eventually led to her playing pesäpallo with the students to whom she was trying to teach English, she quotes the man who charmed her into taking the job. During their trans-Atlantic telephone conversation, he mentioned in passing that there was only one bear in the town: "I think you will not meet him in the forest. It is not sure that he exists. Maybe you will. But probably not. And if you do you will run away!"

Small wonder she signed on. Small wonder she enjoyed pesäpallo, which the Finns righteously claim is "smarter, fitter, faster, better than baseball," in part because two balls constitute a walk, and because while the distance between home plate and first base is 60 feet, the distance between first and second is 96 feet, and third base is somewhere in left field, roughly 114 feet from home.

I am delighted to know of pesäpallo, and encouraged that it has survived the gambling scandals in Finland that threatened to bring the game down in disgrace a few years back.

One of the remarkable things about "The 33-Year-Old Rookie" is that the rookie wrote the book himself. Chris Coste, who's now in his third year with the Philadelphia Phillies after playing for 11 years in more minor-league towns that he'd be able to recall if he hadn't written them all down for the book, capably tells a story that may inspire young readers to follow their dreams. It will also demonstrate to readers unencumbered by stars in their eyes that luck can play a big part in determining whether the deserving advance, which is not a bad lesson to learn, even for people who have never dreamed of playing major-league baseball.

Readers who know Pat Jordan for "A False Spring," the superb account of his own failure to progress through the minor leagues half a century ago, will be delighted to learn how much else he has written. For going on four decades, he has been producing ambitious sports journalism for Sports Illustrated, Yankee, Harper's, and others.

"The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan" is that rare anthology with no weak entries. You want baseball? He gives you Roger Clemens, who "assumes everyone's pleasure revolves around him." Basketball? How about Wilt Chamberlain, living alone in "a house of a '70s bachelor who has taken to heart too many of Hugh Hefner's Playboy columns." Maybe you prefer a profile of somebody who only pretends to be an athlete. If so, for you there's "The Noble Turtle," in which Jordan writes of Sylvester Stallone that the actor "felt he was being underappreciated for his efforts when he should have been grateful for being overcompensated for them."

Is Jordan mean-spirited? Sometimes he probably is, but much more often he is simply honest and open-minded. He's appreciative of authenticity and unimpressed by celebrity or notoriety. He's a good listener determined to discover the story and present it with energy and wit. The proof of his success is that the pieces in this collection have held up over the years. Good stories well told are like that.

Bill Littlefield hosts National Public Radio's "Only a Game." His most recent book is also titled "Only a Game."

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