Sorry, We're Closed

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Happy Birthday, Frank!

To a great friend and a damn excellent poet...felicitations.

Impersonal Belongings

Let's talk of beauty
Walk in wine
Peel the layers of summertime
From wistful eyes
On aimless days
We reach for thoughts
Beyond our gaze...
Where happy thoughts
Of sleep abide
Encapsulated, side by side.
-- Frank Kras


Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Book Reviews, Part I

Cecilia Tan, The 50 Greatest Yankee Games (John Wiley & Sons)

(Disclaimer: I know all the authors of the books I’ll be reviewing in this short series. Since few, if any, of them are getting the attention of the big book reviewers, I’m happy to publicize them here. That shouldn’t, and won’t, stop me from reviewing them objectively.)

A week ago, I wore out my keyboard ripping on the east coast-centric view of baseball, and here I am recommending a New York Yankees book. What makes this one different?

First of all, there’s the author herself. Cecilia Tan is hardly your typical baseball scribe. An author (and editor) of several acclaimed volumes of erotic fiction, she’s had plenty of practice in telling stories—even if the topic is a forgotten 17-0 Yankees slaughter of Washington from July 1920.

In addition to having a feel for the rhythm of baseball, Ms. Tan brings to these games—many of which have been recounted time and time again—a plainspoken, no-b.s. analytical viewpoint.

Women who write about baseball remain few and far between, and Ms. Tan’s work and life experience help keep this book reasonably free of standard sportswriting clichés. As an outsider from many angles, she clearly had to work just that little bit harder than most men in the business; some ballplayers don’t like talking to women, especially those who aren’t TV types and don’t put on the glamorous act.

The extra effort was worth it. Even if you’re a longtime Yankee fan, you’ll still probably learn plenty; Ms. Tan did her research, going through multiple game accounts from old newspapers, interviewing players for the newer games, and digging deep to uncover things that we’ve already forgotten, even about classic contests of the recent past.

Not all the games are glorious victories; included in the 50 are Bill Bevens' 1947 World Series near no-hitter, Babe Ruth's failed stolen base attempt to end the 1926 Series, and the wild 1983 George Brett pine tar contest.

Ms. Tan’s writing is rich, providing depth to these well-remembered and not-remembered games. Clearly the Yankees are in her blood, and she’s not at all unhappy with her condition.

Unfortunately, the use of a 50-game format in a book clocking in at under 300 pages, and Ms. Tan’s detailed prose, led to an unfortunate omission of box scores from the book (despite a claim on the back cover that box scores are included).

Certainly many of these box scores are available on line at, or in other history books, but not having a box score—even a sabermetric-style “account form” box—removed part of this reader’s, at least, ability to place himself at that point of history. After all, with only a few modifications, box scores from 80 years ago are nearly identical to those we currently peruse, and in fact in some ways (fielding statistics, for instance) much more informative.

My only other complaint is that again most likely due to space considerations, the description of some games end without a page break before the next game begins. This tends to blur the games together a bit and makes the reading slightly more difficult.

These minor points aside, I really enjoyed the book. If you want to buy it, here's a site I recommend.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Radio appearance

Hello again everybody.

I'll be guesting on Bruce Levine's "Talking Baseball" program this Sunday, April 24, at around 8:20 A.M. We'll probably chat about Wrigley Field. If you're in or around Chicago, you can catch the show on ESPN radio, WMVP-AM 1000. I think you can also listen in on the net at

And if you do tune in, I'll want to know why the heck you're conscious at 8:20 A.M. on a Sunday.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The East and the Rest of Us (remix)

(An updated and expanded version of an entry originally posted a few days ago.)

I’ve been asked what I think about the proliferation of books about the Red Sox—their rivalry with the Yankees, their 2004 season, the character involved in being a long-suffering Red Sox fan, etc. In considering this, I’ve been thinking about those teams, those cities, the book industry, and the baseball industry. And my own ambition.

To start on a purely personal level, it is occasionally infuriating to me to walk into a bookstore and see the tables, in the sports section and often those in the front, featuring books on the Red Sox. Stephen King’s book. Johnny Damon. Reversing the Curse. Red Sox Heroes of Yesteryear. And if a book isn’t about the Red Sox, it’s about the Yankees and how they couldn’t beat the Red Sox. All of these books, about a very small subsection of the game, fighting with an overpumped Jose Canseco for the honor of being the book that people read about baseball this year.

As many of you know, I wrote a book, Wrigley Field: The Unauthorized Biography, which came out late last year. It’s sold a couple of thousand copies. Every sale has, in my better moments, led me to deep gratitude to each single buyer. To be able to connect with people at all through what one creates is a truly humbling gift, one that my ego too often resists.

I am proud of the book, and it’s a source of some pain to me that the book has not been given much of a look. For a short time, my publisher—a midsize house near Washington, DC—was able to pay for placement at Borders and B&N, but with a small publicity budget they haven’t had the muscle to pull many favors with the national (or even regional) media.

For purely ambitious reasons, I’d love to see my book in the book-review columns. But neither the Chicago Sun-Times nor the Chicago Tribune bothered to talk about it in their pre-season baseball book review pieces, even though it’s about Wrigley Damned Field.

The editor of a large magazine in this city bypassed promoting my book in favor of juicing a new autobiography of Lou Gehrig, of the New York Yankees, justifying an apparent lack of civic relevance by pointing out to me that Gehrig’s wife was from Chicago or something. Perhaps there aren’t enough magazines or newspapers in the East to give Gehrig his due.

Maybe I’d get it if I lived out east, where the Yankees and Red Sox have so much meaning. There is much to be said for the clash between the “rarified” air of New England and tough, savvy, glamorous New York. The rivalry between the city’s American League teams, white-hot since the early years of the 20th century, continues to burn.

I have friends who live in New York, and in New England, and who love the Yankees and the Red Sox. I watch both teams play often on, and I root for one and not the other.

But you know what? The rest of the country has cities, baseball teams, and culture, too. And it’s just as good.

Go to a Giants-Dodgers game sometime. While the Giants-Dodgers rivalry began in New York, it is no longer a New York rivalry. It now rages between the fabulous (in its own eyes) southern California and the more cultured and sensitive (in its own eyes) Bay Area. LA thinks Frisco is fey and self-important; the Bay has little respect for SoCal, which it considers vapid and shallow. It’s no less intense than any competition out east.

There’s also pretty good clash between Dodgers fans and Angels fans; the AL club plays in conservative, wealthy Anaheim, while the city-residing Dodgers court a multinational, minority-friendly audience. New Angels owner Arte Moreno, a self-made multi-millionaire with ties to Clear Channel, is going after that minority audience; I wonder how the fine upstanding residents of Orange County will react to idea of brown-skinned folks invading their territory.

And back up in the Bay, the Athletics--representing hardscrabble Oakland and the East Bay, and now, with new ownership, fighting to expand their audience into the wealthy East suburban and exurban area--lock horns twice a year with the Giants of the more upscale, counter-cultural San Francisco.

Or come on out Midwest. Don’t even tell any Cardinals or Cubs fans that their rivalry isn’t just as heated as anyone else’s, or that the Cubs and Sox don’t have the most explosive enmity in the game. People around here actually wear shirts that say “My favorite team is the White Sox—or whoever else is playing the Cubs.” And they mean it.

St. Louis and Chicago are hard-drinking cities. For each series the teams play, thousands of fans of the opposite side inhabit the host ballpark, dressed in their teams’ colors, and attempt to outparty each other apparently as a matter of civic pride.

While both cities are technically Midwestern, St. Louis is clearly still a southern city, one that—after a rough start—grew a tradition of baseball integration and is struggling to manage the real thing, with some success.

Chicago is a melting pot, with tons of neighborhoods, sporting people of all races, but these neighborhoods themselves are rarely integrated. Racial tension still simmers here, although its intensity has tapered off.

The north side of the city (home of the Cubs) and the south side (home of the Sox), with fan bases extending deep into the suburbs and exurbs, meet twice a year in a mood to party—but also in a mood to express deeply personal bad feelings about their opponents.

South Siders regard Cub fans as trendy, yuppie, Blackberry-toting airheads, while on the North Side, the White Sox are, if not ignored entirely, considered a lesser life form supported by fair-weather fans distinctly lacking both brains and style. (Both sides annually attempt to prove their smarts by outconsuming each other during interleague games.)

I haven’t touched on the Twins/Brewers rivalry, or that of the Astros and Rangers or the Pirates and Phillies. Or even the Mets and Yankees. But all of them speak volumes about their cities and how their baseball fans view themselves and each other.

But editors, advertisers, and publishers have decided that the Yankees and the Red Sox are the most interesting dynamic in baseball.

And this conclusion is driven by some clear evidence. The Yankees and Red Sox were by far the biggest draws in AL parks last year; New York drew an average of 40,847 fans on the road, more than 10,000 higher than the league average, while Boston pulled in 36,002. (And the World Champion Red Sox will certainly get a bump this year; the club is full of mediagenic personalities and has a nice, youthful, friendly white manager.)

But guess what. The Chicago Cubs pulled in 37,100 fans last year on the road, the NL’s highest total, and more than the Red Sox. San Francisco, sporting a competitive team with baseball’s greatest antihero, Barry Bonds, pulled in 36,190, making them a better draw than Boston as well.

While a few books have come out this spring about the Cubs (some books come out about the Cubs every spring), they are not being promoted in Chicago--or anywhere--nearly as well as some of the Red Sox books or Canseco’s book.

And much of that is due to the vagaries of the book business. Scribner rushed Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan’s diary of the 2004 Boston season, Faithful, out right after the World Series—rightfully so, because season diaries generally have the shelf life of a bagel—and other publishers decided that the Red Sox were the topic to push.

Faithful could hardly have failed to sell, since so many of the damn things were printed. In the bookstores I visited, copies were stacked up 50 to 100 in piles that were constantly replenished if even a tiny dent was made. The same can be said for Canseco’s book Juiced.

Nearly every major publisher is located in New York City, the self-professed literary capital of America. There is a VERY STRONG regional bias in the publishing industry, a fact of which anyone living in another part of the country becomes acutely aware within ten or so minutes of beginning their journey as “professional” writers.

The people working in publishing on the East Coast are often from the area, and they have a local bias in what they particularly think is interesting. For anything more regional, or “out there,” to get an East Coast publisher’s attention, it must be sold to said publisher as a book that is like some other book that’s already been a hit.

So if you have a book about the Kansas City Royals, and what their struggle for survival means about baseball, you’d best compare yourself to Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, because it’s already been successful, you see. And once you’ve done that, and you’ve gotten signed (and good luck to you), your publisher is most likely going to want a book that’s an awful lot like Moneyball—whether you wanted to write it that way or not.

So in this environment, people tend to write books that they think can be sold, and publishers try to sell books that they think have already been sold. So every publisher wants a Red Sox book, and most publishers don’t think that said books are necessarily redundant.

For each publisher to have a books about the same topic is good in their eyes, because 1) it takes away even a subtle share of shelf space from another company, and 2) your book just might be the hit. (Of course, what becomes a hit is often decided by where publishers decide to put their promotional effort and cash). In any imitative, reactionary, and negative environment, innovation—often the thing people say they want the most—is almost impossible.

Here's a fine example of just how innovative the industry is. The cover of my Wrigley Field book, which came out in November 2004, sports a shot of Wrigley's playing surface and a mockup of the 'Wrigley Field' marquee outside the park's home-plate entrance. I came up with the idea for the cover and contracted a friend, Chris Bluhm, to do the photos. My publisher's art department did some remixing.

George Castle's book, Where Have All Our Cubs Gone, which came out in March, sports a shot of the 'Wrigley Field' marquee outside the park's home-plate entrance.

And it only gets better. Gene Wojciechowski [currently of ESPN, the magazine, but for a short time a Tribune Cubs beat writer] has a new book out, too. It's called Cubs Nation, and it features a shot of...Wrigley's playing surface and a mockup of the 'Wrigley Field' marquee outside the park's home-plate entrance.

Three Cubs books with the SAME COVER; quite a fine job of gumming up the market, confusing buyers, and screwing not one, not two, but three authors. George Castle's publisher told him that it was "too late" to change the cover design. That was in December, when my book had been out for a month.

(Disclosure: at least one book before mine featured a picture of the marquee on the cover: The Cubbies, a book of quotes and stories written by Bob Chieger sometime in the 80s or early 90s.)

I'm sure it's confusing for bookstore employees to try and shelve my book, George's book, and Wojciechowski's book. Hell, I'm confused by it. Imagine what people in other cities think, if they even get to see any of the three.

But even in Chicago, books about locals get the short shrift. While a Chicago-area Borders or B&N may have a section of local books, the product likely to sit on the high-traffic tables is the one paid for by the largest and richest East Coast publishers. Your local chain bookstore often has very little to do with the community in which you live.

And that matters not only to all of us as consumers of books, but also to anyone trying to survive as an author, especially if what that author wants to write about isn’t what established editors and publishers think that the public wants to read.

Of course, the real lesson here is that while Juiced and Faithful have sold, other baseball books—with much smaller publicity budgets, less attention and hype, and other topics besides two East Coast teams—have sold as well. Moneyball was a huge left-field hit, while the overhyped Pete Rose biography was one of the bigger publishing white elephants of the last decade. Buzz Bissinger’s Three Days in August, about Tony LaRussa and his Cardinals, is moving.

I’m crossing my fingers that the obsession with two of the 30 major-league baseball teams will end soon. Not just for me, or for George Castle, or for others trying to get their books published, but also for the game itself. The fifties—while a well-remembered time for baseball in New York—were terrible for baseball almost everywhere else in the country, with the game losing popularity everywhere but Fun City. We don’t need to revisit that era.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Bear with me

Hi, folks. It's been a while, I know. This blog thing...for someone who writes for a living--and enjoys it--blogging is a blessing and a curse. Blessing because it gives you the forum to communicate, but a curse because you're forced every day to decide if what's on your mind is interesting enough to share.

For the last couple of weeks, I haven't felt like I had many words worth sharing. Not much inspiration; just the usual annoyance at right-wing lunatics, happiness that baseball is back, good feelings about warm weather, songs running through my head, good times with friends and does that mean I'm living a life without inspiration, or a life OF inspiration?

A few things...I'm on the radio this Saturday at noon on WMVP (AM 1000) on Tom Shaer's show. I'll be talking about Wrigley Field. I'm also doing a talk at the Harold Washington Public Library (downtown Chicago) in the Chicago Author's Room, at 5:30 P.M. on Thursday, May 12, also about the NL's oldest ballpark.

And...did you know...I'm in an oldies band? I'm playing rhythm guitar and singing in the Captain Blood Orchestra. We're playing at the Mayfest on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago on June 2 (I know, I know, it ain't May, is it?) sometime in the evening. More to come.

Coming up soon on this blog: a response to James Finn Garner's question on how I feel about the influx of Red Sox of new baseball books by people I know...and a review of the new CD by Switchback.

Love to you all.


Tuesday, April 05, 2005

What's in Your Head?

Here are some things I've been listening to, and thinking about, of late.

Herbie Hancock, Blow-Up Soundtrack. The ground-breaking 1966 Antonioni film is fascinating-though often frustrating-but the music is just straight-up cool. Hancock and his ensemble stretched themselves, providing not only cutting-edge jazz but also mellow loungy music, blues, latin-influenced jazz, and even a couple of funky rock & roll pieces that crackle. (The intro bass from "Bring Down the Birds" served as the anchor of Dee-Lite's "Groove is in the Heart.")

Sandalwood, Sandalwood Sitar Music Ensemble. Beguiling Indian instrumental music from a Chicago-area husband and wife duo.

Sheila Chandra, This Sentence is True (The Previous Sentence is False). The latest (well, 2001 anyway) CD from the British singer of Indian descent is familiar and new at the same time. Following her classic approach of vocals laid over instrumental drones, Chandra and her longtime producer Steve Coe also successfully integrate digital recording techniques into the mix. Most of this is fascinating, and I've been coming back to it since its release.

Four Seasons, "C'mon Marianne." A classic Motown-type record with a few critical pieces rearranged. Sort of like walking around in the dark in a room after you've slightly altered the furniture.

Booker T. and the MGs: "Green Onions." It's arguable that the world is divided into those who worship at the feet of this record and those who don't.

Monkees, Head soundtrack. I've been reacquainting myself with this great late 60s film on DVD, and the soundtrack makes fantastic listening; assembled by Jack Nicholson (!), who helped write the script, it seamlessly combines the six soundtrack songs with bits of dialogue to create a trip of its own.

Also, a couple of fun links, courtesy of friends.

AMO sends along the advertising sloganizer. Very funny.

Jonathan sends the interesting tricks of the trade site.
Wanna know, f'rinstance, how to chill wine quickly?

...and there's also the very funny "Black Astronauts" film recommended by Frank Kras.

And a lovely opening day baseball piece from McSweeney's, courtesy of brother Tom as well as Phil Rogers.