Monthly Archives: May 2008

Far From Home: Latino Baseball Players in America – by Tim Wendel and Jose Luis Villegas

Far From Home by Tim Wendel and Jose Luis Villegas

There are books that you find yourself spending a lot of time with — some because they’re just long, others because the thoughts and concepts contained within are difficult to understand and process. But once in a while you run into a book that you spend a good amount of time with simply because it’s good, engaging, and it stimulates your mind.

I would add Far From Home by Tim Wendel and Jose Luis Villegas to that list.

It’s not often that I get to review books from National Geographic, which is a shame because they are generally some of the nicest ones I get to read. The first thing you notice about this book is how great it feels to hold — it’s thick, sturdy and just appears to be full of great content.

At only 160 pages, it’s by no means overwhelming – and with over 100 photos, you don’t find yourself plowing through page after page of text. The words share the spotlight with the pictures – which I think you’ll find yourself spending quite a bit of time looking at. Each looks like it was scrutinized thoroughly before being added to the book, as they each capture an essence of the subject that you will be able to read and ponder just as if someone had tried to translate it to words.

The story of the Latino ballplayer is one that has been part of the baseball narrative for over a century – yet it doesn’t seem to garner the public’s attention. I certainly won’t use this venue to make a cry for more public attention towards the Latino story — nor do Wendel and Villegas use Far From Home for that purpose.

What it does is provide a relatively brief but still worthwhile synopsis of the numerous Latino experiences in baseball, dating back to the 1870s. While there is a historical aspect to the book, it doesn’t approach the subject with the approach of a typical history text.

If anything the book results in a story of humanity – individuals who battled a prejudiced America, language barriers, cultural differences and other hurdles to become not just star players, but men who put on the jersey and became part of the baseball lore of numerous cities across America and in their home countries.

If names like Clemente, Cepeda, Minoso, and Marichal were part of your vocabulary, you’ll enjoy this book. If you cheer for players named Rodriguez, Pujols, Cabrera and Ramirez, this book will provide the backdrop for what brought baseball into these players’ lives and what in turn they bring back to baseball.

The story of Latino ballplayers in America is a rich and fascinating one, and one that if you know it will make you appreciate what you see on the field that much more. Far From Home makes that story accessible and engaging to anyone who picks this title up, and while it might not warrant a permanent spot on your bookshelf, it is one that definitely warrants time in front of your eyes.

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The Code: Baseball’s Unwritten Rules and Ignore-at-Your-Own-Risk Code of Conduct – by Ross Bernstein

The Code by Ross Bernstein

If you’ve played baseball, you’re undoubtedly familiar with The Code…the unwritten rules about how the game is played.

But a lot of us aren’t as familiar with how the game works beyond hits, runs, and errors, and that’s what makes Ross Bernstein’s new book, The Code a worthwhile read.

Bernstein covers how the game is supposed to be played when it comes to fights, arguing with umpires, life in the clubhouse and more, providing a thorough explanation to the code of conduct that governs baseball.

The book is highlighted by lots of quotes and thoughts from current and former big leaguers about who explain how the code gets carried out on and off the field, and share insight on some famous breaches of the code that a lot of us remember from recent years – such as Robin Ventura charging Nolan Ryan after getting hit by a pitch, or Ben Davis breaking up Curt Schilling’s perfect game with a bunt.

However, an almost over-reliance on player comments could also be seen as one of the big drawbacks. The abundance of the shaded gray boxes definitely help to provide color to the context, but at the same time almost become distracting because it breaks the path that Bernstein is taking the reader down.

The book will definitely help fans understand and appreciate the hierarchies and protocols that help set the tone for what you see happen between the white lines. While baseball is played with a gameplan and certain strategies, there is a good amount that has to be improvised, and oftentimes according to the long standing code. If you’ve ever started to sense the tension on the field at a ballgame increasing, chances are it gets covered in this book.

Maybe a hitter took a little too much time admiring his home run, or a runner went into second a little harder than would normally be expected. Some things are subtle and can’t be picked up from the stands, while others are clear as day – especially if you know what to look for.

At 272 pages, it feels just a bit longer than it should be, given the topic. The code is pretty cut and dry – it could probably fit on a single sheet of paper. The explanation and how it gets carried out take up the majority of the book, along with commentary from all the players and coaches that Bernstein brings to the book. But the chapters are fairly short, and you can easily jump around and move to the topic that most interests you.

From bean balls and brawls to bunting to break up a no-hitter, it’s all covered in Ross Bernstein’s The Code, something that wouldn’t be a bad read if you’re looking for a different topic of baseball to read about. It’s not one that I would clear off the bookshelf for, but you’ll definitely have a better appreciation for the game after reading it.

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Living on the Black – by John Feinstein

Living on the Black

Most of us have probably dreamt of being a ballplayer for a day. But what if you could be a ballplayer for a whole year?

Of what if you could be two ballplayers?

Now before you think I’m nuts – this is just what John Feinstein allows you to do with his new book Living On The Black.

It’s the 2007 season, spent with Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina – chronicling their ups, downs, trials and successes.

What makes the book interesting is the contrasts that these two veterans bring to the game. Glavine, the “crafty lefthander” and Mussina, the previously hard throwing righty who learns to adjust to life without a power fastball.

While they play just five miles apart, their teams couldn’t be more different – the pressures of Mussina’s Yankees to always be in the playoffs, versus the resurgence of Glavine’s Mets who seemed to have the NL East locked up until – well, you know what happened.

At over 500 pages, the book feels a bit lengthy at times…which is a shame, because there are some really interesting and insightful parts that most any baseball fan can benefit from. If you can get through that, I think you’ll enjoy it.

Much like an updated version of Roger Angell’s A Pitcher’s Story, which chronicled David Cone, Living on the Black provides an interesting insight into the lives of two of the current game’s best pitchers.

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Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends

Rob Neyer's Big Boof of Baseball Legends

One of the best parts of baseball – at least as far as I’m concerned – is the stories. The anecdotes, legends, and tall tales that define the game add a richness to the history of the game, that otherwise would be just numbers and play-by-play recaps.

But what do you do if those stories aren’t 100% accurate?

Well if you’re ESPN’s Rob Neyer, you write a book about it. Some would say you ruin those stories by muddying them with the facts, but I’ll save that judgment for later.

I was initially won over by the introduction, where Neyer advises you why you shouldn’t buy or read the book. If you want to keep the legends and stories of baseball as they are in your mind, don’t read it. It will definitely spoil, or at least take some of the luster off some of baseball’s best stories.

But – that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the book…there’s lots of stories that you probably have never heard, especially if you’re to the younger side or new to the game. Most of the stories come from before 1980 – which is interesting in itself…since that is when information about baseball started changing due to the widespread availability of information, the dawn of the Internet and changes in record keeping which made the numbers of the game much more valuable and sought after.

In a way – Neyer highlights a deficiency of the modern game – the lack of great stories. It certainly doesn’t seem like many great legends are talked about from the current era – and I think it’s due to the availability of numbers and facts that we have today. It’s kind of a shame if you ask me. People will still talk about seeing great moments of the game – the McGwire/Sosa home run chase, Bonds breaking the single season and career marks, Ichiro breaking the single-season hits record and so on, but the legend factor doesn’t seem to be as prevalent.

The book wins points thanks to short chapters that make it easy to pick up and put down, and each story is really its own, so you don’t necessarily need to read them in order or have the most recent one fresh in your head to appreciate the rest of the book.

I think this will definitely appeal to the older fan who has memories of the stories that Neyer dissects; however without a desire to learn about baseball’s history, the younger fan may not be as into the book.

I don’t think it’s a must-add to the book shelf, but if you enjoy debunking myths and legends, you’ll definitely get a good read out of Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends.

What do you think? Post your comments!

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