I'm a fan of two sports teams, and I came to the party years after a title in both cases. So I've often wondered what it would be like to follow a championship in progress. Would the intensity be too much to bear? Afterwards, would I greedily want more, or just say "thank God, now I can stop wasting half my free time on sports"? (Of course, the definition of "free time" is that you waste it.)
So I picked up Tim Wendel's "Down To The Last Pitch" (dumb title: what Series isn't?) looking for a way to experience what Twins fans might have felt Back In The Day. And, as such, the book is a stone failure. Which is what made it enjoyable to me, and perhaps would endear it to longtime Twins fans.
Because I really don't need to know what championship excitement is like. I realize I've felt it more than once. It's what you go through when happy awesome moments happen, except that you don't lose at the end. I'm sure you can find coffee-table things which collect, emotional-scrapbook-style, memories of that Series or the '87 one. (If there's a bit of writing about a reluctant sports fan dealing with "do I still root for this now?" after a championship, I'm not aware of it.)
What I've grown to enjoy about baseball isn't just the nail-gnawing moments; hell, there haven't been any of those for Twins fans since Game 163. It's the quirkiness of the sport, its announcers, fans, and especially players. These are gifted athletes competing for pride, pay, and sometimes sheer pissiness in a game requiring such highly specialized skills that they rarely subscribe to the kind of machismo "we wanted it more" bullshit so endemic to other sports. (Observers in every sport have a higher tolerance of this silliness than players, yet baseball fans generally do a good job keeping it down to a dull roar.) If you aren't amused by learning that John Smoltz disappointed his family by choosing baseball over being an accomplished accordion player for polkas . . . then you won't like baseball for long.
I enjoyed Wendel's "High Heat," his Bill James-ish musing (minus stats) on who might have thrown the best fastball in history. (Spoiler: Wendel thinks it's Nolan.) This one, despite being about a supposedly smaller subject, is actually way more rambling. Each chapter ostensibly deals with a game of the '91 Series, while spending most of the time digressing about players in that Series and whatever baseball topics Wendel feels like veering into once he starts describing those players. It's like a GDT, or a radio announcer jacked on weed brownies free-associating during a rain delay.
Here's a typical thread. Wendel starts with a Game Four collision involving Twins catcher Brian Harper, describes hazards to catchers in general, tells about Buck Martinez of the Blue Jays getting his ankle broken and tagging out a runner in two separate instances during the same play. Then Wendel mentions how many veterans disliked Pete Rose running over Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game. ("Fosse . . . was never the same," Wendel writes, quoting my favorite Baseball Project song.) And goes off about the Rose saga in general for several pages (intelligently so, presenting the case for both pro-and-anti-Rose sides.) Finally, we return to a player whose hero, as a kid, was Pete Rose . . . Braves spark plug Mark Lemke. Then Mark Lemke in the Series does something that brings up another topic . . .
Obviously, this is not a straight narrative, along the lines of a historical book about a war or some such. It's Wendel slinging stories about his favorite time as a baseball journalist, back when he was helping midwife USA Today's "Baseball Weekly." (I subscribed to "Baseball Weekly" out of pure joy after that Hennepin County judge ruled the Twins couldn't be contracted because they had to finish out their MetroDome lease, and, in the years before I had a reliable, non-stolen Internet connection, pored over its box scores and stat lines religiously.) I think it'd be disappointing to Twins fans looking for another, newer Series recap with slicker photos. I think Twins fans looking for more curious details about that Series will enjoy it immensely. (Wendel examines Kirby's conversation with Chili Davis before the homer, and Jack Morris's conversation with Tom Kelly before the 10th inning, and finds that no two memories of those conversations match exactly.)
I guess, to sum up, I liked the book for not being what I wanted it to be; "yea, in olden times, when the barley was fresh upon the verdant hillside, better people played a better game in a simpler time." This is a common failing of baseball books (notable recent exception: "Color Blind," by Tom Dunkel, about barnstorming Dakota teams with integrated players in the pre-'47 days, as funny and non-sentimental as the characters it describes.) I thought I wanted to read that kind of hagiography (real word! Look it up!) about the old Twins. Instead, I got old Twins who are a lot like the Twins I enjoy now (OK, better at baseball), and that's actually the book I wanted to read all along.
If you check this out (I think it'd make a good bathroom book, although I enjoyed chugging straight through), be sure and read the "Aftermath" section, about figures from the '91 Series and others Wendel references earlier. For example, Candice Wiggins, an WNBA champion with the Lynx, is the daughter of onetime baseball super-prospect Alan Wiggins, who struggled with drug abuse and died of AIDS-related complications in 1991. Candice Wiggins resented baseball for a long time, but eventually threw out an opening pitch at Target Field. "Baseball," Wendel quotes Wiggins, "wasn't something my family loved . . . it was something that took a person from us. But in 2011, I stayed and I watched the whole game. I got to feel the energy and people told me how it was played and what to look for and I saw that this was my dad's game. What he loved and was good at. This is what his life was and it was so crazy that it took me years to find it."
That's quite the great quote. Not because it reveals anything about Candice Wiggins which she doesn't feel perfectly comfortable saying to a reporter, but because it's exactly what each of us has to eventually realize about our parents, and about the past in general. They did what they could, no different from anyone now, or however far back you care to imagine. For better or worse. At his best (which isn't often, because he doesn't strain to reach it), Wendel gets pretty close to this kind of perspective. At his normal, you get John Smoltz playing polka. And that's still pretty cool.