Books postsTuesday June 23, 2015
Book Review: 'Benchwarmer' by Josh Wilker
Josh Wilker is welcome respite in a culture where people constantly peddle certainty. He is the duke of doubt, the Caesar of the second-guess. His tagline, “voice of the mathematically eliminated,” is the best I've seen on the web. I think of him as a kindred spirit.
His new book is called “Benchwarmer: A Sports-Obsessed Memoir of Fatherhood,” but it's really an encyclopedia of failure from A to Z, told in conjunction with the first troublesome year of his son's life. It's about attempts to order a disorderly world.
The first entry, “Aardsma, David,” is about the problems inherent in this sisyphean task. When Wilker was young, baseball encyclopedias made sense to him since the first entry was one of the greatest players of all time: Aaron, Henry. “But at some point when I wasn't paying attention,” Wilker writes, “David Aardsma slouched toward a maor league mound for the first time.” Aardsma was the M's closer for a few dismal seasons (2009-10) when we led the Majors in the fewest runs scored. We made him our closer and made a big deal out of him because we didn't have much else. We emphasized the “Aar” in “Aardsma,” as if he were a Pirate, as if we were all pirates, and tough, even though we weren't. Even though we were the doormats of the American League.
Here's how Wilker ends his section on Aardsma:
He's never led the league in anything, never lasted anywhere. Not long after his name started appearing at the bottom of box scores like equivocating textual marginalia—an inning of relief work here, a third of an inning there—the unambiguous order-centering legend he supplanted at the head of the alphabet also had his home run record surpassed, acrimoniously, ingloriously (see asterisk). I was almost forty. I'd never led the league in anything, never lasted anywhere. My wife was a little younger. We'd been married for a while, and the years were starting to lurch by like ghostly freight cars. We talked sometimes about having a kid. I wanted to get everything sorted first. But the world just kept getting more unsortable. I no longer even knew where to begin.
I'd loved Wilker's first book, “Cardboard Gods,” and assumed that enough folks thought similarly that Wilker would be writing full-time. Nope. Not only does he have a day job, but he's constantly worried about losing his day job. “Cardboard Gods,” and any money from it, isn't even mentioned. How sad is that? To write that well and not make a living from it? Meanwhile, E.L. James feasts on caviar.
It's the day-job stuff where I most identified with Wilker. The awful commute:
My bus ride home seemed to go on and on, as it always does if I can't lose myself in a story. We rode past shopping centers and malls and Jiffy Lubes. Sometimes there were low dim homes at the fringe of the busy road, all of them looking like flawed repetitions. Some had American flags. They blinked in and out of sight in a homely, dragging rhythm. There's a conjugated chant of affirmation at the heart of the myth of America—yes, I can; yes, you can; yes, we can. The triumph defining the American Dream can be realized, but it is based wholly on your unwavering belief.
It's a belief Wilker doesn't (or can't) share.
A little over halfway through my ride through the darkness I turned left off of Clark and slipped onto quieter streets for a while. By then my heart rate had risen, so I glided through the dark awake, feeling the day leave me, feeling by its absence how much it had been smothering me, how I go through most of my waking hours just partially alive.
So much of what we consume is wish-fullfillment fantasy but what we really want, what we certainly need, is identification. Is anyone else out there feeling like me? Anyone else feeling this hollow inside? I'd read passages like the above and my eyes would melt with gratitude.
Wilker, who as a child made a hero out of Rudy Meoli, and as an adult made him resonate with meaning, makes this book a tribute to all the marginalia and failure in life and sports. He writes of “Snodgrass, Fred” and “Ehlo, Craig.” He writes of “Bust” and “Can't” and “Desperation Heave,” “Entropy” and “Error” and “Ex-.” He gives us the “Fold” and the “Fumble.” He gives us the “Goat.”
I got bogged down a bit about 2/3 of the way through, as if Wilker's handwringing became too much even for me; but then he recovered nicely (or I did) and we finished strong. Buy the book. We might not be able to order the world, but we can release Josh Wilker from his day job. He deserves to be writing full-time. We deserve to be reading more of him.
Judd Apatow's Five Favorite Books About Hollywood
- “The Devil's Candy,” by Julie Salamon
- “Five Came Back,” by Mark Harris
- “The Disenchanted,” by Budd Schulberg
- “Kazan on Directing”
- “Not My Father's Son,” by Alan Cumming
I also like his answer on the book he was supposed to like but didn't:
The Bible. It's just not working for me. I wish it was. Wouldn't it be great if it did work for me and I had the peace one gets when knowing the universe is just and kind and guided by eternal intelligence? Maybe I'm reading it wrong. I am more of a “Why Good People Do Bad Things” by James Hollis, kind of guy.
Is Every Line in 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' the Title of a Baseball Book?
Nearly. Follow the bouncing ball, kids:
- Take me out to the ball game (“A Book of History, Hits, and Heros” by Kevin Osborn; also many, many children's books)
- Take me out to the crowd (“Ted Turner and the Atlanta Braves” by Robert A. Field)
- Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks (“A Baseball Novel” by M.Z. Ribalow)
- I don't care if we never get back (“30 Games in 30 Days on the Best Worst Baseball Road Trip Ever” by Ben Blatt and Eric Brewster)
- Let's root, root, root for the home team (“Minor League Baseball's Most Off-the-Wall Team Names and the Stories Behind Them” by Tim Hagerty)
- If they don't win it's a shame (“The Year the Marlins Bought the World Series” by Dave Rosenbaum)
- For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out (“The Cal Hubbard Story” by Mary Beth Hubard; also numerous books on the “three strikes” law in the U.S.)
- At the old ball game (“Stories from Baseball's Golden Era” by Jeff Silverman)
Yes, some lyrics are fudged (“to” instead of “with”; “we” instead of “I”), and the Hubbard book is really “Strike 3, You're Out,” but thought I'd go with it.
Anyone know others?
The Game Behind the Game: Just How Smart was Billy Martin?
The following is a passage from Bill Pennington's book, “Billy Martin: Baseball's Flawed Genius,” which I'm thoroughly enjoying. It's indicative of just how much we don't see during a baseball game; and how much some people do see:
The Dodgers manager was Billy's mentor from the 1949 Oakland Oaks, Charlie Dressen, who had taught Billy many of his sign-stealing secrets. In the top of the fifth inning [of Game 4 of the 1952 World Series], with the Yankees ahead 1–0, the Dodgers had runners at second and third with one out and pitcher Joe Black at the plate.
Dressen, as he had been in Oakland, was also the Dodgers' third-base coach. From his position at second base, Billy watched closely as Dressen flashed a flurry of signals at Black. Dressen's tempo and movements in the coach's box quickened, which Dressen—watching opposing managers—had always said was a tip-off that some kind of play was on. Sizing up the situation, Billy suspected a suicide squeeze and got Yogi Berra's attention behind the plate. He made a fist, turned his hand upside down, and waved it slightly—the sign for a pitchout. Berra crouched and made the same signal to Yankees pitcher Allie Reynolds.
The pitch was appropriately wide of the plate, and Black could not reach it with his bat as he attempted to bunt. Berra then easily tagged out the Dodgers' Andy Pafko, who had dashed toward home plate on the pitch. The suicide squeeze had failed. The Dodgers never scored in the game, losing 2–0.
“Tell me another player who would have seen that?” Stengel asked reporters afterward. “That's why he's my winner.”
Stengel and his winner, with a couple of schmoes in the background.
Harvey's Ladies' and Gentlemen's Oyster Saloon
Here's a nice section from Ben Macintyre's “A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal”:
Harvey's Ladies' and Gentlemen's Oyster Saloon started serving steamed oysters, broiled lobster, and crab imperial in 1820 and had continued to do so, in colossal quantities, ever since. In 1863, notwithstanding the Civil War, Harvey’s diners were getting through five hundred wagonloads of oysters a week. Every president since Ulysses S. Grant had dined there, and the restaurant enjoyed an unrivaled reputation as the place to be seen for people of power and influence. The black waiters in pressed white uniforms were discreet, the martinis potent, the napkins stiff as cardboard, and the tables spaced far enough apart to ensure privacy for the most secret conversations. Ladies entered by a separate entrance and were not permitted in the main dining room. Most evenings, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover could be seen at his corner table, eating with Clyde Tolson, his deputy and possibly his lover. Hoover was said to be addicted to Harvey’s oysters; he never paid for his meals.
Interesting: ladies get first billing but separate entrance and no main dining room.
Here's a little history of Harvey's, which “no longer exists in the city.” (That second photo of the exterior looks like something out of a Wes Anderson movie.) This piece suggests Harvey's does exist; it simply “relocated to the suburbs,” but it doesn't say which suburbs.