THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen

The critics loved “The Corrections.” Published in 2001, it won the National Book Award for fiction for that year and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize a year later. It also won or was nominated for a number of other prestigious literary prizes.

David Gates wrote in his glowing review in the New York Times that “The Corrections” had “just enough novel-of-paranoia touches so Oprah won’t assign it and ruin Franzen’s street cred.”

Wrong, David. Oprah not only chose it for her book club but went so far as to proclaim it “the great American novel.” Franzen, who recognized that his book’s selection by Oprah meant that sales would sharply increase, was nevertheless ambivalent about the situation because he believed that heretofore her selections had been on the “schmaltzy” side. Consequently, when he voiced his feelings in several interviews Oprah withdrew her invitation to have him as a guest on her show (And the dust cover of my hardback copy does not feature her stamp of approval, which had been embossed on earlier copies of the book.). Of course, the publicity engendered by the tempest in a teapot may have had as much of a positive impact on sales as his appearance on her show would have had. But perhaps he did salvage his “street cred.” I hope so.

So how is it that I would give such a heralded book two out of five stars? I’ll answer that, but first here is another quote from David Gates’ review: “If you don’t end up liking each one of Franzen’s people, you probably just don’t like people.”

My answer for the two stars is I didn’t like any of the people. I didn’t like the father, the mother (I did feel some pity for her, but I can’t say I liked her.), the older son (or especially his wife), the younger son, or the daughter (At first I liked her, but only because I didn’t know her. When I did get to know her, I found her to be the most unlikable of the entire crew, except for the older son’s wife.).

Is this because, in Gates’ words, I “probably just don’t like people”? No, it was because I just don't like THESE people or for that matter, any of their friends or associates. There was not a single person that I could pull for – not one. And after 568 pages, I not only don’t like the people, I don’t like the book either.

The two stars were for the writing (otherwise it would have been one), and even then, there were times I wasn’t crazy about the writing either. For example: “…Susy Ghosh asked the table in a voice like hair in a shampoo commercial.” (p. 326) I’m still trying to figure out what the hell that means.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

TRADING MANNY: How a Father & Son Learned to Love Baseball Again by Jim Gullo

In December 2007, Major League Baseball (MLB) released the so-called Mitchell Report. It made the claim that eighty-nine major league baseball players had been guilty of using performance enhancing drugs (PED’s). Although the report made no names public, a few high profile names on the list were leaked to the press.

Jim Gullo, a free-lance writer, and his son, Joe, seven-years old at the time, were huge baseball fans. With the release of the report, young Joe began to ask questions, questions such as: 1) If drugs are bad for you, why do players take them? 2) Isn’t it cheating to take drugs? 3) If it is cheating, why aren’t players being punished?

The elder Gullo was able to satisfactorily answer the second question, but found the other two to be difficult propositions to explain to a seven-year old. Manny Ramirez was Joe’s favorite player and, despite living in the Seattle area, the Boston Red Sox was his favorite team. Steroid rumors had swirled around Ramirez for several years, but he had always denied them. Then he was caught. Twice he was suspended by MLB. He still denied that he had ever resorted to PED’s

The Ramirez revelations hit young Joe like a ton of bricks. It would have been analogous to me at that age to discover that Stan Musial was a boozer and a wife-abuser

Father and son embarked on a two-year odyssey to try to determine why players jeopardized their health by taking PED’s and why MLB wasn’t meting out greater punishments for the perpetrators. They visited with many different people associated with various aspects of the game at both the major and minor league levels.

Very few people associated with the game were willing to discuss the issue. Minor league pitcher Dirk Hayhurst was the only active player who would talk about the problem and even then only in a decidedly guarded fashion. At the time, he was a blogger who was also working on a book about his minor league experiences. He confessed to Gullo that he had to be circumspect about what he said or wrote about the drug problem because it would cause him difficulties with his teammates who were already suspicious of his note taking in the clubhouse. When Hayhurst’s book, “The Bullpen Gospels,” was later published, there was no mention of PED’s

One ex-major leaguer, Scott Brosius, former Yankees third baseman and currently a college baseball coach, was more open in his condemnation of drug use. Partly, I suppose, because he wanted to dissuade his players from giving in to the temptation and because he was no longer an active player. That is still to his credit, because other ex-players approached by Gullo were close-mouthed about the issue.

Why was MLB so tardy in creating a drug testing policy and why even today do many think the punishment for violators is insufficient? Jim Gullo struggled with that question but never arrived at what he thought was a good answer. I’m not sure why, because it seems obvious.

MLB in the mid to late 90s was reeling from the strike-shortened season of 1994. It was a year that the unimaginable occurred; there was no World Series.

Four years later saw the herculean home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Not only did both sluggers surpass Roger Maris’ single season mark of sixty-one home runs, but McGwire stomped it into the ground with seventy home runs. (McGwire’s record would stand for only three years, however, when Barry Bonds hit seventy-three in 2001.)

How did McGwire’s Cardinals team fare during his record-breaking season? It finished in 3rd place in the division with a record of 83-79 and, worst of all, 21.5 games out of first place. However, the team’s attendance for the year was 3,195,691, which represented an increase of approximately 500,000 over the previous year. Not only that, wherever the Cardinals (or Cubs) played on the road the home team always enjoyed an increase in gate receipts.

Sammy Sosa lost the home run race to McGwire, but his team still benefited. The Cubs finished second in the division with a record of 90-73, but 12.5 games out of first. But they made it into the postseason as a wild card, only to be swept in three straight by the Braves. The Cubs drew 2,623,194 fans that season, also an increase of approximately 500,000. (Poor Sammy Sosa, the only hitter to hit more than sixty home runs in three different seasons, and yet failled to finish first in either of those years. He finished second to McGwire twice and once to Bonds.)

It is apparent that PED’s were financially good for baseball franchises – and their players.

But why would players jeopardize their health? Gullo struggled with that question for 250 pages, but he had answered it on page sixty. The aforementioned Dirk Hayhurst was in competition with pitcher Clay Hensley for a spot on San Diego’s major-league roster. Two years before, Hensley failed a drug test. He had been taking steroids. His only penalty was the fifteen-game suspension that was in force at the time. He made the roster; Hayhurst was assigned to San Diego’s Triple-A Portland team.

Triple-A may be only a step away from the major leagues, but in all other aspects it isn’t even close. For example, that season Hensley would make the minimum MLB salary of $410,000. Hayhurst would make $1,200 a month, but only for the duration of the baseball season. Hensley would travel by air, stay in luxury hotels, and receive a hundred dollars a day as meal money. On the road Hayhurst would travel on buses, stay in fleabag motels, eat at convenience stores and gas stations, and receive meal money that would barely cover that meager fare. Furthermore, while Hensley stayed around long enough to qualify for a major league pension, Hayhurst did not.

Although this does not explain why a Hayhurst and others do not surrender to the PED temptation, it does explain why a Hensley and many others do.

PED’s have resulted in millions and millions of dollars of income for players and franchises. Let’s consider this list of accused violators of MLB’s drug policy: Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, and Manny Ramirez. These are among the greatest superstars of a whole generation of players. But because of the shadow hanging over their respective heads, in all likelihood none will ever be admitted to the Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, as the old adage goes, they can cry all the way to the bank. (This makes a baseball fan like me wonder about the relevance of the Hall of Fame if all these sluggers, MVP’s, and Cy Young winners will not be there. I also wonder what it now means to players who are being elected to the Hall. Has the significance of that honor been greatly diminished?)

Trading Manny, the title of the book, is a reference to a trade that father and son made after their two-year odyssey. They traded Manny for a new favorite player, one who did not drink, dip, and, despite being in his mid-twenties, was an admitted virgin abstaining from sex until marriage. His name is (no surprise) Dirk Hayhurst, a relief pitcher who spent part of two seasons in the major leagues while appearing in a total of twenty-five games. (However, I am sure that father Gullo didn’t allow his son to read Hayhurst’s The Bullpen Gospels when it was later published, because it is filled not only with profanity but also with the extremely crude activities engaged in by him and his teammates during a single season in the minors. (Well, nobody’s perfect it would seem, not even Dirk Hayhurst.)

Even after two suspensions for drug violations, Manny Ramirez had never admitted his guilt. But just as I finished reading “Trading Manny,” I ran across a news story in which Manny confessed. Now, he said, he has found the Lord and has changed his ways. He knows that he should never have used PED’s, but that’s in the past and he knows he can still hit, despite being 42-years old. All he needs, he says, is the opportunity to prove it. Never mind that he has failed to do so in the minors during the previous two years.

Manny won’t make it back to the big leagues, not because of his past drug abuse, but rather, despite his claims to the contrary, because he can no longer hit. If he could, major league teams would be lining up to sign him.