11 May 2010

Review: Are We Winning?

Anyone who has read what I write here knows that I love baseball. It is, without question, the greatest sport ever put on this planet, and one of my absolute favorite ways to spend a few hours. So despite the fact that I was not smitten with his last work (God Save The Fan, essentially a collection of long-winded Deadspin essays), I couldn't wait to get my hands on Will Leitch's new book, Are We Winning? Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball.

Leitch is at his best when he writes about baseball. He's got a way with words that incorporates the modern view of the game with the romanticized purple prose of bygone years. It's easy to understand why: he grew up idolizing newspaper legends and went to the University of Illinois with the explicit purpose of becoming one of them. His two passions have been movies and sports, and it is in the field of sports that he truly shines.

Leitch grew up as a Cardinals fan, and he's been able to avoid any wavering from that, thanks in large part to his father. The elder Leitch gave his son sage advice when he left for college: "There's going to be a lot of Chicago people up there, and a lot of Cubs fans. You can fool around with a Cubs fan if you want, but don't you dare bring one home." Are We Winning? is primarily a book about the relationship of Will and Bryan Leitch, and how that has been built around baseball. Bryan Leitch seems like an amazing guy, but he also seems like the stock character father from the Midwest: stoic, hard-working, hard-drinking, and with charisma that bubbles over, allowing him to make friends with anyone anywhere (as with a man at Wrigley wearing a Cubs shirt and a Cardinals hat [makes me sick to my stomach to hear about that]).

The best parts of the book are unquestionably those that deal with the father-son dynamic. Leitch manages to make his stock-character father seem like something more than that. He could have easily left his father with the stereotypical traits and had a fine story, but instead he delves even further and allows the reader to see past the clip-art version of a Midwesterner.

Other parts of the book seem to lag just a little, but probably only because of their juxtaposition with the father-son bits. Are We Winning? is organized into the half-innings of a game that Leitch and his dad attended at Wrigley in 2008. The two die-hard Cardinals fans unwittingly ended up at the game where the Cubs are given the chance to clinch the NL Central against the Cardinals, while Tony LaRussa's squad floundered just out of reach of playoff contention. In each half-inning Leitch weaves general baseball stories with play-by-play of the game and the bits of the father-son relationship.

The general thesis of the baseball stories seems to be, as implied in the subtitle, that baseball is better now than it has ever been. This flies in the face of many baseball old-timers, who see the sport as constantly leaving its better days behind. But Leitch is able to offer a convincing argument: more people watch baseball now than have ever done so before, they are able to access more and better information than before, and the players are better than they ever have been. He's right on all three counts. The athleticism of even the worst baseball players (read: Yuniesky Betancourt) is better today than ever before, and it's led to better baseball. And with MLB.tv and other advances from MLB Advanced Media as well as innumerable blogs and other websites dedicated to baseball, we're more able to access information about this better game. I'm able to follow the Seattle Mariners while living in Washington, DC, and I'm actually able to do so better than I did when I lived in Washington state 6 years ago. That is incredible.

But what happens in the book is that these baseball stories get overshadowed by how incredibly good Leitch's writing about his father is. I love reading random bits about baseball, especially when they're written by Will Leitch. But here, I wanted to read even more about his dad. Maybe this is just the desire for a deeper connection with a parent over baseball. My dad never cared about baseball too much (always supported my little league playing, and went to Mariners games with me, but hates them for being "crybaby millionaires"), and though my mom coached my little league team and always let me watch the Mariners, she hardly follows them any more (she told me the other day "I really only know two guys on this year's team: Griffey and Ichiro." She didn't know Felix Henandez, one of the top-3 pitchers in the American League. See what I mean?). I'd love to have a baseball connection with a parent like Leitch does, and I think that's what made his stories so compelling, and what made the purely baseball anecdotes so anticlimactic.

That said, I can't recommend this book enough. It has some flaws (Leitch periodically reintroduces anecdotes throughout the book that he has already used before several times, and always treats them as new. This really annoyed me for some reason.), but they don't end up doing any major damage to the book. It's a quick read, and one that I'll probably come back to at some point. Why? Because even with its problems, baseball is still the best thing around. Like Leitch says, "We expect baseball to be perfect, all the time. And it is perfect. But it is run by human beings, who are far from perfect, who are not even close." No matter what those human beings do, they can't change the fact that baseball is perfect. Thanks, Will, for reminding why I love this game so damn much.

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