Baseball has always been the most fantastical of sports for me--although it’s comparably slow-moving (at least in relation to basketball and football), it feels like there are so many individual and group possibilities within a single game. I grew up watching Home Run Derby reruns, and have always viewed the game within similar iconic contexts.
I did play through high school, first as a starter, then a relief pitcher. I had a nagging shoulder problem, and left baseball to run track, but definitely missed the sport, especially the control and dynamic of being up there on the mound, the chance to win the game or let it go to shit.
I have to say the Yankees--I know it’s a common choice, but my family’s from the Bronx, and I was a sucker for the Gehrig/Ruth mystique. I still go to games when I can.
Second, and this will probably be either a seemingly-obvious-to-ask question, or a dumb one, but I feel I have to ask: were these guys (Barrett Stickle, King Dolan, etc.) real people? If so, how and where did you find them; and, if not, were there inspirations or research?
The players depicted in the book are not directly real, but they are certainly amalgamations of real players, teams, situations, etc. And I do mention some actual players, like Addie Joss. The sum collective is the archetypal dead-ball era player: scrappy, fresh, sometimes prone to off-the-field trouble. I’ve always been fascinated by Ty Cobb (even his name sounds larger-than-life), as well as players like Sam Crawford, who is legendary for hitting triples.
Now that I really think about it, that’s the defining thing for me about the era--a triple is a hustle-hit: a down in the dirt, win or lose it all kind of risk that we don’t see as often anymore in the contemporary game. It’s certainly still a crowd favorite--in some ways, I think of it as the player over-extending himself. The guys of that area were absolutely athletic, of course, but I also get the sense that they learned the tricks of the game, and were willing to exploit them whenever possible.
I pored over baseball stats as a kid, even made my own extensive record books and gave them to my family at Christmas (they humored me). I went back to some of those old books for the occasional idea, but then took the fictional results wherever felt authentic as narratives.
Continuing that... were there any of these players (of your own creation, from the book) that you fell especially in love with during the writing (or even later? during the editing or collecting for the book?)? Any that you kind of wanted to keep going with, give more than the space of only a page? Any that you kind of wish had really existed?
Tris Hooper, the last in the final version of the book, was actually the first profile I wrote, and the character I feel is most deserving of a full story (or something longer). His fate at the end feels a bit unfair, but I think the trajectory of his narrative and life is really representative of the dead-ball aesthetic. And Noone Pender is a bit of a pathetic soul, and yet someone who intersected with greatness.
I wish Box Joseph was a real person--I’m sure he’s an archetype of sorts, particularly the passing of the game from father to son. Although my father was a football player, we did play baseball together--and I spent so much time playing with my older brothers, who really broke down the game for me, represented it as an art form. One of my brothers chose football over baseball at the University of Delaware, and it sometimes sounds like a lament from him--another missed opportunity of sorts that adds to the legend of the game.
Part of what I love about baseball, I think, (and you mention this above) is its tendency toward narrative -- something about its slow pace, and also the way it feels so segmented. Games, down to innings, down to at bats. I’m probably overreaching for metaphor here, but that segmentation seems to really lend itself to the writing in this particular book. And, along those lines, is the language itself -- both precise in the way the best short-shorts are, and the, for lack of better term, “baseball-ness” of it. “long arms, stood far from the plate.” “At the chest, at the heart, where a throw belongs.” This is not really a question and, admittedly, more an excuse to highlight the baseball phrasings that I love and that you used so effectively, but could you talk at all abut the form and language of these pieces?
Thanks for the compliment--I’m a huge fan of Don DeLillo’s End Zone: a book about football, not baseball, but certainly a book about identifiable moments of athletic action (as you say, “segments” of a larger whole). DeLillo captured the cadence of football, and I’ve absolutely wondered if an equivalent existed for baseball, a game that, despite its boundaries of inning and such, could theoretically go on forever. Baseball happens in bursts: crack of the bat, sliding into a base, the hold-your-breath moment of a fly ball lost in heavy sun. Since I knew I wanted to work within a truncated form, I really thought the sentences in the book should occur as bunts: sometimes quite short, others dribbling along.
In terms of form, baseball is a conundrum: 9 innings, 3 outs per inning, so we know the frame of nearly every game (ones that are not canceled because of weather, or the home team up in the bottom of the final inning). That said, I always enter a game with a strong optimism that it is bottom-heavy: there’s nothing worse than a strong first 3 innings and a boring final 6. I tried to make the profiles lead somewhere, at least emotionally, even if baseball games so often end with an anticlimactic whisper. Last summer I went to a Yankees game like that--rally in the 9th, bases loaded, ended on a strikeout. I think nearly everybody in the stadium remained in their seats a bit longer than necessary, hoping the game would go on.