Sunday, May 31, 2009

Book review: "Bang the Drum Slowly"

Before we started this blog, "Bang the Drum Slowly" is probably the only reason you'd even heard of Henry Wiggen.

I think it's safe to say the second book in the series is by far the most famous of the four-book story arc (with "The Southpaw" running a distant second). "Bang" received tremendous reviews, not only as a great baseball book but as a well-written and touching piece of fiction. It also became the only book in the Wiggen series to spawn a movie, starring Michael Moriarty as Wiggen and an unknown young actor as Bruce Pearson. The unknown actor became something of a star.

Quick aside: I once heard a wise man (who happens to be the co-author of this blog) say Robert De Niro was an uninspired choice to play Bruce Pearson. De Niro is not built like a ballplayer at all, and in many of the movie's scenes, he looks like he's a good foot shorter than Moriarty and the other actors portraying ballplayers. He may not look the part, but I think De Niro knocked the role out of the park. Maybe his role here set the tone for his career; less than a year later, De Niro made us an offer we couldn't refuse, starring as young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II.)

So Robert De Niro and the movie brought Wiggen into the public eye. But "Bang the Drum Slowly" is a phenomenal novel in its own right.

"Bang the Drum Slowly" picks up a few years after "The Southpaw" leaves off. New York Mammoths pitcher Henry Wiggen gets a phone call from Rochester, Minnesota, informing him that Bruce Pearson, the Mammoths' third-string catcher and Wiggen's roommate, is sick. The doctors in Rochester say Pearson has Hodgkin's Disease, and could die at any time. Wiggen and Pearson keep the news to themselves (although Henry shares with his wife, Holly.)

Henry is holding out for more money before the start of the 1955 season, but he strikes a deal with the Mammoths ownership that ties him and Pearson together - if one gets traded, they both get traded. That way, Henry can take care of Bruce and call a doctor when "the attack" comes.

Throughout the book, Mammoths manager Dutch Schnell works to figure out why Wiggen would request such an unusual clause, even hiring a private eye. Eventually Dutch finds out, and despite Henry's best efforts, all the rest of the Mammoths do, too. And while the Mammoths chase the pennant, Bruce's health deteriorates, even as his baseball abilities skyrocket.

There's a very clear moral to this story. Before his teammates find out, Bruce is constantly the butt of the joke; he's ragged by everybody, and he's often too slow-witted to figure out he's being ragged. But the teammates treat Bruce like their best friend when they discover his terminal illness. Wiggen says everybody is dying; Bruce is just doing it a little faster. So why rag anybody?

It's difficult for an author to pull off a novel with such a cut-and-dry moral lesson without the book becoming pure corn. But Mark Harris does it.

"Bang the Drum Slowly" is about dying, and it's about wrestling with fate, and it's about friendship, and just a little bit, in the dark corners, it's about baseball. It's a hundred pages shorter than "The Southpaw," which keeps it from dragging in the middle, but it still feels like a fully fleshed-out tale.

If "The Southpaw" is the baseball version of the Great American Novel, "Bang the Drum Slowly" is the classic American story.

--Matt Kelsey

Saturday, May 30, 2009

In praise of a truly great meal (from an unexpected source)

So there I was, driving down a lonely highway in central Mexico, less than a gallon of gas in the tank and a five-dollar bill in my pocket. Falling asleep behind the wheel and starving from a hard day's drive, I pulled over at a shabby roadhouse with a flashing neon sign: "COMIDA." The inside of the place was just as dilapidated as the outside. I sat at one of only three stools at the bar and ordered a cerveza as the bartender shoved a handwritten menu toward me. I couldn't understand any of the writing, so I pointed at something on the menu, and the bartender grunted and walked into the back room.

Minutes later my dinner arrived. It was a huge cast iron bowl filled with meat. Lots of meat - pork, steak, chicken, even shrimp. The bowl was topped off with a thick, dark, spicy broth that could have been a meal by itself. On the side was a splash of dirty rice and a fist full of tortillas.

I ate and ate and ate until I could eat no more, then looked down at a bowl still nearly full to the top.

It was the best damn thing I ever put in my mouth.

Only this meal wasn’t served at a Mexican roadhouse. It was a restaurant in Independence, Missouri, called the Salty Iguana. The dish was called Iggy's Hot Pot, and it was so good it deserves a story like this one.

--Matt Kelsey

Friday, May 29, 2009

American autoworkers SHOULD only make 30-grand a year, he says on CNBC

What I'd like to do right now is bang a drum loudly.

This will be short, sweet and angry.

I heard this bright guy on CNBC this morning say something I could hardly believe... or stomach. He said this: "American autoworkers SHOULD be making $30,000 to $40,000 a year."

I bloodied my knuckles reaching for his throat before I realized the television was in the way. Thank god I don't have one of those delicate plasma contraptions.



"Should" is the word that got my goat. CNBC has joined the other cable networks in this latest exercise in disrespectful aggravation. The new strategy is to put two or three or five twits on the screen and let them scream at each other for ten minutes. Most of the time you can't tell what they're saying because they're all screaming at once. Which is a good thing. But this morning, for some reason, the other two twits were quiet when this brain surgeon went to work.

What's missing in this intellectually bankrupt media strategy, of course, is critical analysis, clarity of thought, and any semblance of Socratic dialogue. In other words, journalistic principles. Someone, I wanted to scream, ask him a damned question.

Ask him why he said "should." By what criteria "should" an autoworker be paid $30,000 a year? Because he doesn't work hard enough? Because he doesn't produce anything of value to society? Because he doesn't (not true in all cases, of course) have a college education? Because he doesn't work on Wall Street? Because he doesn't wear an Italian suit? Because he doesn't look like me and my pals? Because he plays softball on weekends? Because the Chevy he drives, in the words of Tom Wolfe, doesn't make the proper steely crunch on the gravel of the circle drive of the summer home in the Hamptons the way, say, a German, any German, automobile does?

Why, pray tell, does the man, or woman, not deserve more than 30 grand a year?

I'll tell you why. Because at that wage he won't be able to send his children to college where they might wind up blowing the curve for this bright guy's brood. That's one reason. Maybe because the union man tends -- again, not in all cases -- to vote Democrat. Perhaps because the other folks in this guy's MBA class didn't aspire to work with their hands, either, so it just doesn't seem quite right that the autoworker would have a nice home, a fishing boat, and a membership at the local golf course. (The most e-mailed story at the New York Times last week was, "The Case For Working With Your Hands," by the way...) Maybe because the very idea of an upwardly mobile middle class just makes the hair stand up on the back of this guys perfectly coiffed head.

You know what...CNBC and this self-satisfied Rockefeller can take their $30,000 a year job and shove it. A working man, or woman, produces more of value in an hour than these folks do in a month and they're worth a lot more than 30 grand.

-- Lofflin, whew! Glad I got that off my chest. It's been gnawing at me all day. And you thought full puppet nudity was outrageous...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

"Streets of Laredo;" Novel notes: "Bang the Drum Slowly," Part 4

Okay, one last post about "Bang the Drum Slowly" before I make my final review of the book. I thought it would be appropriate to share the story behind the title of the book for those of you who may not understand how such a seemingly random phrase came to be associated with a novel about baseball.

And actually, this post sort of dovetails with a post John made a couple days ago about unusual song lyrics. The phrase "bang the drum slowly" is a line in a song entitled "Streets of Laredo," also known as "A Cowboy's Lament."

In the novel, Bruce Pearson is dying. At one point in the book, everyone on the team knows it except for Piney Woods, a young catcher brought up to the Mammoths to essentially replace Pearson on the team (Piney Woods becomes a main character in the next book of the Wiggen series).

Piney has a penchant for motorcycles, Western clothes and cowboy songs. After Piney's brought up to the Mammoths, he sits in the clubhouse, playing his guitar and singing "Streets of Laredo." All the boys sit and listen and think about Bruce, the dying ballplayer.

Here's the Wikipedia page for "Streets of Laredo." You'll note that the "official" lyrics use the phrase "beat the drum slowly."

It's a sad song, no matter which version you hear. Following is the lyrics as sung by Piney Woods:

As I was a-walking the streets of Laredo,
As I walked out in Laredo one day,
I spied a young cowboy all wrapped in white linen,
All wrapped in white linen and cold as the clay.

I seen by his outfit that he was a cowboy,
And as I walked near him these words he did sigh,
"Come sit down beside me and hear my sad story,
"I am shot in the breast and I know I must die."

"It was once in the saddle I used to go dashing,
"Once in the saddle I used to go gay,
"First down to Rosie's and then to the card house,
"Shot in the breast and am dying today.

"Get 16 gamblers to carry my coffin,
"6 purty maidens to sing me a song,
"Take me to the valley and lay the sod o'er me,
"I am a young cowboy and I know I done wrong."

"O bang the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,
"Play the dead march as they carry me on,
"Put bunches of roses all over my coffin,
"Roses to deaden the clods as they fall."

--Matt Kelsey, with a tear in his eye

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Novel notes: "Bang the Drum Slowly," Part 3

In "Bang the Drum Slowly," not only is Henry Wiggen the star pitcher for the New York Mammoths; he's also an agent of the Arcturus Insurance Company.

That's right; the best pitcher in the league has a day job.

It sounds crazy today - imagine Zack Greinke behind a desk at Sprint on days he doesn't pitch - but in the world of the 1950s, in which "Bang the Drum Slowly" is set, ballplayers working extra jobs wasn't that uncommon.

I stumbled across a great article online today with a fascinating chart about baseball salaries through the decades (scroll down about two-thirds of the way through the article and look for "Table 4"). The chart shows the salary of the highest-paid player of each decade, as well as the average player salary that decade, plus what those figures would be in 2002 dollars (when the article was written).

For example: in the 1920s, the average major leaguer made $6,992 per year, which is worth about $72,000 in today's money. Ty Cobb, the highest-paid player of the decade, made $80,000 a year, or about $717,600 today.

In 2002, when this data was compiled, the average major league salary was over $2 million. And in the past offseason, several players were signed to $20 million-a-year deals.

But not ol' Henry Wiggen. In 1955 he signs a contract for $14,000 with the notoriously tight Moors family. The contract also includes a clause stating that Wiggen will earn an extra $1,500 when he wins his 15th game, and an extra grand for every victory over 15. According to my shoddy math skills, Wiggen would have earned $22,500 that year, plus a pennant bonus, for his 22 victories. According to the chart, the average salary in the '50s was $12,340, so Wiggen, as a premiere player, made above average money.

Henry cited a dispute with the IRS as his reason for selling insurance on the side.

You know, now that I think of it, we may have a present-day example of a ballplayer working an extra job. Royals pitcher Kyle Davies worked construction over the winter, although he said it was more for the exercise than the money. Still - pretty cool.

More on "Bang the Drum Slowly" to come.

--Matt Kelsey

Monday, May 25, 2009

Full Puppet Nudity! -- Do you think of me like fat? Do you think of me like crack? UUUggghhhh... The piano has been drinking


Something a little different for your enjoyment today from the weird fruits and vegetables beat. Feel free to add your favorites to this list.

Song lyrics you never thought you’d hear:

Do you think of me like fat?

Well, notice carefully the lyric here isn’t, Do you think of me AS fat? Or, Do you think I AM fat? It’s Do you think of me LIKE fat?

Now this is actually one of the most strangely beautiful and erotic jazz vocals you’ll ever hear. It’s from a sensual song called "Snow" by Canadian Patricia Barber. Here it is in context.

No, wait. First I should give you a line from the second verse you also thought you’d never hear :

Do you think of me like crack?

OK, here it is in context. Imagine Barber’s silky provocative voice behind these words…

Do you think of me like snow, cool slippery and white
Do you think of me Like jazz, as hip as black as night
Do you think of me Like line, summer sheets on which you sleep
Do you think of me Like ink, skinny words you want to keep
Do you think of me Like fat, irresistible as cream
On your lips on your hips like chocolate like a dream
Oh to be the moon
A diamond you can't resist
The space between the stars do you think of me like this

Do you think of me Like crack, illegally refined
Sunglass for your eyes, do you think that love is blind
Do you think of me Like salt, do you taste me in your tears
Do you think of me Like oil, filthy rich my dear

Then, of course, we have this wonderful line from one of my favorite jazz groups – "No Jazz." This lyric is from a jazz rap:

Hip hop, the boogaloo / Whatcha gonna do about the boogaloo?

Just repeat this line a couple of dozen times. You won't be able to get the damned thing out of your head.

Here's a lovely one from a great songwriter named Ray Wylie Hubbard. This song, for some strange reason, makes me think of a small town on the highway between Wichita and Oklahoma City, no small town in particularly, just one large enough to have a tourist attraction (imagine the billboard) called The Snake Farm.


That's it. Just a shiver in a word. Here's the thought in context, as if the context matters:

Snake Farm – it just sounds nasty
Snake Farm – well it pretty much is
Snake Farm – it's a reptile house
Snake Farm – Uuuggghhhhh......

Those of us who feel Uuuggghhhhhly about snakes have Mr. Hubbard to thank for putting our shivers into song.

Then, of course, we have the best strange song lyric of all time, from the master of such, Tom Waits. The piano has been drinking... is the quintessential darkness evoking line, eclipsing Bob Dylan’s immortal …they’re selling postcards of the hanging… by at least a furlong. Here are the first two verses for your amusement:

The piano has been drinking
My necktie's asleep
The combo went back to New York, and left me all alone
The jukebox has to take a leak
Have you noticed that the carpet needs a haircut?
And the spotlight looks just like a prison break
And the telephone's out of cigarettes
As usual the balcony's on the make
And the piano has been drinking, heavily
The piano has been drinking
And he's on the hard stuff tonight

The piano has been drinking
And you can't find your waitress
Even with the Geiger counter…

Let’s add one other twisted thought to this list. Here is a warning you thought you’d never see. It’s for an upcoming program at the Lied Center at the University of Kansas called “Avenue Q”:

“Not appropriate for children due to adult language and adult content such as full puppet nudity.”


Sometimes I think I’ve lived too long.

--Lofflin, waiting on the porch for more rain, but not enough to wash out Tuesday 60-and-over games…

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Nice win today

Good win for the Kansas City Royals today. It's great to win that game on getaway day after losing a few in a row.

I'd like to think Trey Hillman's lineup shakeup had something to do with it. Although I personally think Hochevar should have been given another start or two to earn a spot - and it sounds like that may very well happen - it seems like the changes lit a fire under the boys in blue.

--Matt Kelsey

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Quickly -- for photographers... see these images

Very briefly -- for the photographers out there. Searching on-line for the photograph Walter Iooss took of George Brett and updating a post, I came upon this Website. You must see these images.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Has anyone else noticed?

I've seen something different this season in Major League Baseball. Maybe it didn't start this year; maybe it's been this way for a decade and I just haven't noticed it. It seems like a very minor thing, but I think it's having a pretty big impact on how the game is played.

Has anyone else noticed that when a batter is bunting, he doesn't have to pull the bat back any more to avoid a strike call?

Let me flesh that out a little. The rules state that when a player squares around to bunt, if he doesn't make contact, it's a strike. But if the player pulls the bat back out of the strike zone before the pitch crosses the plate - and if the pitch isn't in the strike zone - it's called a ball.

Seems like batters don't have to pull the bat back anymore, though. All they have to do is twitch the bat back toward them the slightest little bit. On top of that, it seems even if the pitch is right down the middle, it's still called a ball.

This reminds me of the apparent change in the "traveling" rule in pro basketball, by which I mean the traveling rule doesn't exist any more in pro basketball.

It's just another way to give hitters an advantage over pitchers. The juiced ball made every ballpark a hitter's park. Then the strike zone shrank, turning hittable pitches from the letters to the waist into balls. Then players started wearing Desert Storm-worthy body armor, allowing sluggers to crowd the plate, putting outer-half strikes right into the hitter's wheelhouse.

Now, this newest rule change has even given hitters an advantage when it comes to small ball.

It's a rough time to be a pitcher. No wonder more hurlers are turning to steroids - hitters have so many legal ways to cheat.

--Matt Kelsey

George Brett's rant; And a reader tells us why baseball is The Game?

Enjoying George Brett's rant today and the fallout. Page after page of comments in the Star on-line. Oddly, none were racist -- a first for Star comments -- and only a few went MU/KU silly. (I haven't finished all eight pages of Jason Whitlock's comments, so these anomalies may have changed this afternoon.)

Brett's meltdown was damn refreshing, if you ask me. His language was even more refreshing. Remember, this is a guy who spit tobacco juice on the floor the day he and his wife inspected the work on the new nursery in his home. Can't remember if the floor was finished or not. I have a book of great photographs of baseball players by Walter Iooss and the Brett entry is Ty Cobb gritty. I don't want to know Brett as a civilian; I've always found it was better not to meet ballplayers or musicians lest my images dissolve. I want to know Brett as a gamer who would look a reporter in the eye and say, (Henry suggests we handle it this way in "The Southpaw" though he admits it will do no good since we will all know what goes in the blanks...) F--- You. Reporters, by the way, are quick to say the same to each other.

But, Brett said something fresh which needed to be said. Those self-important, self-righteous, talking heads need to be called out. Not just about Hillman, by the way. If you spend your afternoon listening to their self-serving rants, you have too much time on your hands. Get a bat and your buddy and go have some BP.

Brett said something profoundly true once: The game is easier the farther you get from the dirt.

Now, here is a fine response to our posts on "Bang the Drum Slowly" from reader Kevin Kuzma. By the way, I did try to teach him to use paragraphs. -- Lofflin


For me, the answer is because baseball is fun to play. I played every sport from third grade on, but I never enjoyed playing any of them like I did baseball. I can still remember stepping up to the plate and listening to my parents and my friends’ parents shouting encouragement while the rival team’s managers were yelling words against me and the infield was chattering. Baseball is a team sport and yet, it’s individual, too. When you step in the batter’s box, the weight is on you. You can look ridiculous at bat or in the field. And the game moves slower, so you have to face whatever it is that doesn’t go your way. I could never be a pitcher. Other than a boxer knocked to the mat, I don’t have empathy for anyone more so than a pitcher who’s seen his best pitch branded by a bat label and walloped over the fence. He has to stand there and listen to the crowd and watch the batter round the bases, then pull himself together on the lonely mound and throw strikes again. Strikes, not balls. Right back to the quest for perfection. Baseball has everything boys want. You get to play in the dirt, foremost. You get to take big swings and hit things. You get to run. You get to spit. You get to slide. I suppose you could make an argument that you can do the same in football or another sport, but I suppose it’s hard to romanticize something so violent. Football comes around when everything about the world is dying or turning cold. Winter is coming on. Hope doesn’t have a position. There are so many individual wars on given play you can’t possibly take in the whole game. Basketball is played indoors and by that arrangement the possibilities of it being something larger are impossible, also given the fact that it was invented to give football players something to do in the off season. I used to love baseball. I used to love the uniforms. The stirrups, the batter’s helmets, the batter’s glove. It was sort of a costume that you put on and you went out and played games for the optimist club, a gas station or an auto repair shop. People who paid real money to sponsor your team and you really wanted to win for those people. Baseball is a spectacle. When you hit a long shot, people stop and watch the ball fly. I’m not sure people look at the sky any more – not to see what’s in it, other than the weather. No one studies it, except kids and adults who look through it, trying to make predictions. My favorite part of baseball was the conversations that went on with the base coaches. That was your reward for a decent hit. There was a face waiting for you. How different does it feel to stand on second? You feel naked out there, far from the dug out, stranded, waiting. I don’t know. I think it’s fun. Fun is the answer. And it’s fun to write about. Look all the words it prompted from me.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Novel notes: "Bang the Drum Slowly," Part 2

John asked a couple great questions earlier, and I thought I'd try to answer one of them in this post: Why is baseball such great fodder for novels?

I think Mark Harris, via Henry Wiggen, offered a pretty good answer for that question in "Bang the Drum Slowly." In this passage, Wiggen was explaining why Bruce Pearson couldn't make it as a baseball player as a slugger only:

He loves hitting. He wishes you could hit and not be bothered with catching, loving to do only the one thing he does best, which in many a sport you can get away with. You can be a block of cement and do only the one thing a block of cement can do and call it "Football," or you can be 7 feet tall and stand around dropping balls in a basket and call it "Basketball," or you can whack a little ball and walk after it and whack it again and walk some more and call it "Golf." But these are not baseball.

(You could argue that the American League's designated hitter rule may have rendered Wiggen's opinion less valid. But has it, really? Guys who can play DH only are not having much of a year. David Ortiz, the best-known and most-beloved DH in the league, is having an awful season. And anyone else who's got the muscle tone to be a professional slugger is under a steroid microscope. Maybe Wiggen was right after all.)

John also asked why many baseball novels focus on players breaking down. "Bang the Drum Slowly" certainly does that, but I'm really looking forward to the conclusion of Harris' baseball series, "It Looked Like For Ever," in which Henry Wiggen himself goes through a physical breakdown.

--Matt Kelsey

The Old Men and the Sea; baseball and the body

Let's push this focus of Matt's a bit farther by raising a couple of questions. We invite any passers-by to offer insight because, for me, these are still open questions.

First, why do American novelists write about baseball?

The list of America's best novelists who have chosen baseball at one time or another in distinguished careers is impressive. Hemingway, of course. Malamud. Coover. Roth. Pulitzer Prize winner (The Killer Angels), Michael Shaara. Jerome Charyn. Heywood Broun. I'm sure I've left someone out.

These were not baseball writers, or, particularly, sports writers. And the decision to build an entire novel around a single vehicle is no small decision. So, why?

Which brings us to the second question. Many, if not all, of these novels turn on the deterioration of a man's body. Why? Why do these great novelists see baseball as the perfect way to focus on either the natural deterioration of the human body or the tragic destruction of the human body?

You may have to be at my end of the curve to see this. I play ball once a week with sixty year olds and once a week with fifty year olds. One of our fellows was complaining recently as we changed shoes on the tailgate at midnight after a double-header that he lost a bunch of players from his 65-and-over tournament team; they had decided to move up to 70-plus.

You read that right. That's an age bracket in tournament ball for players seventy years old and older.

I can tell you that playing ball at sixty-one does two things for you. It gives you an occasional glimpse of what it was like to be fourteen. But it also provides long slo-mo moments when you realize what sixty-one is, lest you forget. The point is this: Playing baseball is like watching the sun set when it is close to the horizon. When the sun is high in the sky, you have no marker and you rarely notice the sun move. But when it sits just above the horizon, it is as if you can watch it fall to earth.

I've puzzled why writers so often use baseball to tell the story of the body. I'd love to hear what others see in this. Why is Bruce Pearson's story so moving to us?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Novel notes: "Bang the Drum Slowly," Part 1

After my review of "The Southpaw," I quickly realized I left a lot of important, pivotal information out that I just couldn't squeeze into a reasonable-length review. Luckily, John came along afterward and added his thoughts about Henry Wiggen's decision to throw a spitball, his relationship with Holly and the deeper meaning of Henry's cowardess.

It's just too much to cram everything into one piece. So in the future, I'm going to break up my thoughts into a handful of posts, culminating in a final review. In that spirit, here's some of my introductory thoughts on "Bang the Drum Slowly."

Whenever I think of the second book in Mark Harris' Wiggen series, I can't help but picture Lou Gehrig.

In "Bang the Drum Slowly," narrated by Wiggen, New York Mammoths third-string catcher Bruce Pearson finds out he's dying from Hodgkin's Disease. Only Henry and Holly know the truth, and Bruce plays his final season with the knowledge that his body is broken and he's not long for the earth.

As a player, Bruce Pearson is nothing like Lou Gehrig. Pearson is basically Bob Uecker without the sense of humor. Gehrig, of course, is one of the greatest ballplayers in the history of the game.

But the two players, one real and one fictional, share a similar fate. Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS - Lou Gehrig's Disease - in 1939, at the peak of his career, and was dead two years later at the age of 38.

I've always been fascinated by Gehrig. He played second fiddle his entire career, first to Babe Ruth and then to Joe DiMaggio, even though Gehrig won the MVP award in 1927 (when Ruth cracked 60 home runs) and 1936 (DiMaggio's rookie season).

But I think Gehrig's most astounding season was 1938. His statistics were respectable by any standards (except maybe his own): .295 average, 29 home runs, 114 runs batted in. What makes these numbers amazing is that Gehrig started feeling the effects of ALS, a degenerative muscle disease, that year.

Think about that: Lou Gehrig put up all-star caliber numbers while dying from an illness that caused his muscles to atrophy.

Gehrig's story was likely an influence for Harris; both Gehrig and Pearson were diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and both players struggled with their failing bodies in their last seasons.

More later about this touching novel.

--Matt Kelsey

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Scott Boras, Manny Ramirez, Baseball Annies...


"I’d stick a pharmacology book inside a Playboy so they’d think I was one of the guys."

OK, if you're following along, this is almost too easy. Too easy happens once in a while and, as a reporter, you're trained not to trust it. So don't trust it.

However, here are some tidbits for your digestion. If you're a good reporter, you'll draw no conclusions from them.

Who Scott Boras represents:
Barry Bonds
Alex Rodriquez
Manny Ramirez
Mark Teixeira
...among others.

How Scott Boras passed the time on those long bus trips in Double A?
"I’d stick a pharmacology book inside a Playboy so they’d think I was one of the guys."

What responsibility Scott Boras takes for the use of steroids by players in his stable?
"I’m not answering questions like that. You need to ask the player."

As I said, this is too easy. But if you want to read more from the mind of Boras, including what the Scott Boras Corp., tells rookies about the world of Baseball Annies and how the agent who holds degrees in law and industrial pharmacology would re-invent the World Series for the 21st Century, read the rest of Kevin Cook's Playboy interview from June 2009.

It's not a bad primer in how to walk on egg shells while asking medium-tough questions, either.


Friday, May 15, 2009

Manny the chemist? A grassy knoll appears on the MLB horizon this morning

OK, let me see if I have this right...

No, let's start over. This will be one of the strangest blogs you've read on this site. I'm wondering if someone spiked my Starbucks this morning.

I used to think I could read.

Buster Olney wrote a provocative little piece this morning about Manny's troubles. Buster Olney may be the best sportswriter in America. If you haven't read "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," you must.

But, I could not make heads nor tails of his column on this morning.

Fortunately, he sent me to the LA Times for the original reporting on the latest Manny development. Here it is. See if you can figure it out. I can't.

It made me even more dizzy.

I'd like to explain this supposedly explosive development to you, but I can't. It has something to do with the complicated interplay of drugs and MLB rules affecting this case. Apparently, this interplay argues strongly Manny is lying about what got him in trouble and what he's been doing.

If you can figure it out, let us know.

While you're puzzling, two disturbing things do seem clear:

1) Olney's conclusion appears sound. Manny juiced up for the big payday and the fans, the owner, the team, all the players who came before him and the record books, were cheated. Manny didn't cheat AT the sport, he cheated the sport.

2) It is a good guess Manny did not act alone. The grassy knoll just appeared on the horizon. Manny is a hitter and a character, Manny is Manny, but Manny is not a chemist. And, if it takes a chemist to unravel the scheme, Manny did not concoct the scheme.

Who did? Maybe I've watched one too many NCIS reruns, or I'm remembering Deepthroat's advise to The Boys, but the first question you have to ask is who stands to gain the most from a $45 million Manny Ramirez contract?

This is, I think, a question somebody in Bud Selig's office needs to be asking.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

The boys are tired, Guillen is Guillen, Aviles is done for now

Ron Mahay has finally thrown three strikes in a row after going one for nine out of the bullpen. This feels familiar. Folks who live in towns like Kansas City know this drill.

Well, sure, this is easy to understand. They boys traveled back to Kansas City late last night. Got to bed late. They're tired. They've lost their concentration.

Can you believe an announcer just opined on such silliness? As the gold glove second baseman sitting beside him in the booth said, you have to cinch up your belt, go out and get the job done. If the manager makes the too tired excuse between tonight and tomorrow night, the fans will know where such an attitude originates and why it persists.

What is much harder to take is the play of Jose Guillen. He's either injured (again) and needs to sit or he's caught the lazies awfully early in the season. That dropped fly in Texas, followed by his inability to score from first on a double to the wall, then another misplayed or unplayed short pop tonight before the bullpen blew up, make it all too painfully clear he is a liability in the lineup and on the field.

The big question about this team is whether it has the character to pinch off a skid and get going again. We'll see.

Aviles just struck out with the bases jammed. The way he turned around and dropped the bat told the whole story of where he's at right now. Needs a breather. Batting him ninth took all the air out of his sails.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Work break

It's so good to see Henry Wiggen making a post again. Don't miss it. It's a great read.

I've been working 12-hour days at my temporary job this week - more on that later - so I haven't had much time to blog. I'll be back soon when the work runs out and the inspiration strikes.

But I've been keeping up with my reading. I've finished my "buffer" book between baseball novels - "Cosmopolis," by Don DeLillo - and now I'm on to "Bang the Drum Slowly," the most famous of the Wiggen series.

I'll be back later with more.

--Matt Kelsey

Henry Wiggen weighs in on Manny, A-Rod, false pep and sportswriters and clucks

I wrote it all up for you 1 time a long time ago. I had just gotten into a scrape with a big lug cluck who owned the hotel we was staying in in Aqua Clara at camp because Perry Simpson was holed up at the barracks with the young punks rather than rooming with us at the hotel on account of his color.

This is what I wrote:

“Naturally the writer got hold of what happened, more or less. I think if you was to go by night to the darkest jungle of Africa and paint yourself black and dig a hole and climb in you would no sooner get to the bottom then there would be a writer there asking you how come.”

We’ll, I figure that must be how Manny feels, and A-Rod and all them others with funny names and some without funny names who have been caught up in this drug deal. But really, none of your ballplayers ought to feel that way because even if they dig a hole everybody will always know every little thing they do because all the clucks will want to read about it. The 1 thing they should not be is surprised.

I guess we did manage to hide the pep the trainers give us from them donkey writers and the clucks that read them. The pep was tricky. Red Traphagen called it false pep and said a fellow ought to not depend on it. I think he was 1 half right about that. If you got too much pep too early in the game you might just peter out when the money innings come. Better to wait for the money innings but if you waited 2 long you might be sitting on the bench with a towel wrapped around your shoulders when the pep kicked in.

Well, I do not suppose any of the boys thought pep was cheating. I never did think about it more than 2 times because Red was right as usual about the false pep so I did not ask for it again until nearly time for the flag. When you are in the run for the flag and money is in the pot you will do a lot of things.

But if you are a pitcher and the hitter has pep and you have thrown about 457 pitches that day and you do not have pep or any energy left, for that matter, you are in a jam and when the trainer offers you pep between innings in the clubhouse, you might be tempted.

That is all I got to say about Manny for now except that I do not think Dutch would have been able to stomach them braids, he would have eat him out every day until he had a hair cut. But 1 thing I do not think the clucks who read this thing of yours understand is that the boys do not really give 2 s---ts about what you write or what the clucks think. This is what I wrote about sportswriters in The Southpaw which was the hardest winter I can remember. I wrote 12 chapters and lost 12 pounds and did not get out of the house into the snow a-tall. Anyway, about them donkey sportswriters:

“They are like fans. Red says the only difference between writers and the fans is that the fans have at least got the honesty to pay their own way in the park.”

I have got to stop now and catch the mail.

--Henry “Author” Wiggen, from retirement

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

Nuff said...

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Manny suspended: Fairness and right, again, on hold

Beware of Mannywood in Los Angles.

Manny Ramirez, according to the L. A. Times, has been suspended for 50 days because drug tests apparently detected performance enhancing drugs in his system. This, just as the Dodgers achieved a record home win streak to start the season.

I commented last night on Matt's review of The Southpaw. I said the novel turned on an ethical issue -- Henry Wiggen's pressurized decision to throw a spit ball which wound up beaning the hitter. Henry's trusted family does not take this well. The entire series of Henry Wiggen books seems to turn on this incident and Henry's reaction to it. In 1953, Mark Harris wrote a hero who realizes certain things are more important in life than winning -- like your integrity, like how you play the game, like who you are.

I said we need more stories like Henry's today because modern baseball players seem to have lost their way. They've wandered into Mannywood and they haven't found a way out.

Mannywood, by the way, is an area of Dodger Stadium the organization named for Manny. We'll have to see how many fans will still be willing to pay $99 for tickes to Mannywood. Manny, of course, has already mounted a defense. We'll see if it is any better than the way he plays left field most days. Here's an interesting take on his chances of coming back.

Manny wasn't in the lineup tonight at Dodger's Stadium but his teammates still mounted a potent attack, scoring six runs in the first. He was on the air however, in the bottom of the first, recommending "the only ticket broker" he will ever use in a commercial that begins with "I love LA." It will be interesting to see if LA loves Manny in 50 days and if anybody still wants him to hawk their products.

I've just begun grading the ethics finals for this semester. They're pretty good. On paper. What's impossible to test, to evaluate, is whether any of the ideas of the course sink in. Unfortunately I didn't get to one scenario I usually use which almost always produces somewhat disturbing results. What if, I ask, we found a drug you could give your child at age two that would guarantee that child would be a genius, always far ahead of the other children in school and brilliant in his or her field as an adult? Would you give your child that boost?

The scenario is meant to test the bounds of fairness. I expand it later by adding that the drug costs $1 million per dose. It will obviously be available to only the wealthiest parents.

But many times I don't get that far in class. The students are outraged that a parent would want to turn his or her child into an egg head. The child would have no fun, the students agree, no joy in life. 'He'd be working equations on the playground while everyone else played ball,' they moan. In short, such an intellectual boost would ruin that young life forever.

Not all students agree, of course. I remember one very good collegiate athlete whispering to me that he had always been the smartest kid in his class. He did whisper, and I understood why.

Next time I advance the first scenario, I'll wait until the outrage about "intellectual cheating" calms, then I'll ask, thinking of Manny, 'What if this drug would provide superior athletic skills for the child, guaranteeing a huge Major League Baseball contract?'

I think we already know how that one would go.

Manny has, apparently, been Manny. Maybe it's time to just give up the ghost of fairness and right and bring Vince McMahon in to be commissioner of baseball.



Henry's conscience, his wife Holly, is talking to him about the spitball. The Moors are the wealthy owners of his team, the New York Mammoths:

"... you are losing your manhood faster than hell. Pretty soon in bed will be the only place you are a man. But that is not manhood. Dogs and bulls and tomcats do the same, Yes, you are losing your manhood and becoming simply an island in the empire of the Moors... I knowed for sure a week or so ago. I really did. I seen you on the TV. I seen you throw that spitball at the man from Boston. And your Pop seen it clear up in Perkinsville, and he said only a few words. He said, 'I am sorry to see Henry stoop to do a thing like that,' and he cried a few tears right there in the midst of all the people in the Arcade Department Store...

"Is it worth it, Henry? Suppose you killed that man? Where is my Henry Wiggen that I remember could never even swing his fist at a man...

"You will go on playing baseball till your feet trip over your beard. It is a grand game. I love to see it, and I love to hear you talk about it. It is a beautiful game, clean and graceful and honest. But I will be damned if I will sit back and watch you turn into some sort of low life halfway between a sour creature like Sad Sam Yale and a shark like (Mammoth's manager) Dutch Schnell.

"You are a lefthander, Henry. You always was. And the world needs all the lefthanders it can get, for it is the righthanded world..."

If you love baseball and you can read that without a tear, your seat may rightfully be in Mannywood. Manny was the ultimate lefthander; let's hope when the facts come out we don't discover he was a righty all along. I'm not holding my breath.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

For writers -- read this!

Brief, because I don't want to step on Matt's fine work below. I've always said when I read great writing, I'm actually reading great concentration. If you want to write, or do anything else well for that matter, please read this. You'll thank me.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Book review: "The Southpaw"

Believe it or not, this is our 100th post on the Henry Wiggen Blog!

For me (and I think I can speak for John), this has been a blast. We've even developed a bit of a following, which is amazing. Thanks so much for reading, and here's hoping the next hundred are even better.

I can't think of a more appropriate topic for the 100th post than the review of "The Southpaw." After all, Mark Harris' book is the first to introduce the world to Henry Wiggen.

In "The Southpaw," Wiggen, the novel's narrator, is coming off his first full season with the New York Mammoths. The reader doesn't know right away why Wiggen is even writing a book, but we know it has something to do with a journalist named Krazy Kress and a column Wiggen refers to frequently as "hogwash" and other such adjectives. Wiggen seems to think that good writers never use contractions, and except for when he's quoting someone else's writing, there's not a single contraction in the book (please ignore the fact that I used three contractions in that sentence alone).

A young, promising pitcher from Perkinsville, New York, Wiggen in 1950 earns himself a measly contract to play for the Mammoths. Wiggen lives with his father, also a pitcher, and next door to family friend Aaron and Aaron's niece, Holly. Henry is a strange mixture of cocky and cowardly. He has a truckload of confidence and believes himself to be the second coming of his idol, Sad Sam Yale (and he's not shy about telling anybody). But he also gets physically ill whenever he thinks about getting in a fight or being drafted into the Army:

Every time I ever been in a fight I usually always just covered up and left this other chap, whoever he was, just whale away at my wrists and elbows and the spaces between. Pretty soon somebody would break it up. Just to see 2 guys fighting makes me weak. When I was a senior at Perkinsville High we had this military training where the class would split into 2 groups and fight over Callahan Hill in the lot on Callahan Avenue with bayonets with boxing gloves on the end. We must of fought this fight 100 times and I was always the first 1 killed. Not killed really, but I would just lay down and die, too week to fight, crouching around until somebody stabbed me with a boxing glove. The fellows used to call this my Coward Crouch. Actually the trouble was it give me loose bowels and how in the hell can you go on fighting with loose bowels?...This used to bother Pop a lot, but Aaron said to Pop, "Why should it bother you? Is it not better for a fellow to go down in his Coward Crouch and live to fight another day?" and pop said he supposed it was.

After he's signed by the Mammoths, Wiggen goes to Spring Training in Aqua Clara and meets up with some of the players who would become his best friends over the next couple years, including Perry Simpson, a black second baseman who becomes Wiggen's roommate (which gives opposing teams something to taunt Wiggen about). And Henry also meets some of his idols, including Sad Sam Yale, who (of course) does not live up to his heroic image.

Wiggen spends two seasons in the Mammoths' minor league system before getting a late-season call-up to pitch one inning in relief for the big league team. That one inning helps earn Wiggen a spot on the 1952 Mammoths roster and a turn as the Opening Day starter.

If "The Southpaw" has one flaw, it's that the saga of that 1952 season drags on too long (well over half the novel). But that's actually a pretty accurate portrayal of a baseball season; it drags on and on, especially in the hot months of July and August.

Wiggen is a rookie sensation, and the Mammoths are the team to beat in the league. But it's a race to the wire, and Wiggen is a critical piece of the puzzle. Near the end of the season, though, Wiggen starts to feel pain in his back, made even worse by the hopes of the Mammoths resting squarely on his young shoulders.

I've read the classic American fiction books, from "To Kill A Mockingbird" to Twain, from Hemingway to Salinger, from Pearl S. Buck to "The Pearl."

But then, here's this humble baseball novel, written in 1953, by a little-known author.
So my final review of this book, in the world of literature, in probably blasphemous (although faithful readers might say we've been blasphemous for the last 99 posts):

Mark Harris' "The Southpaw" is about as close to the Great American Novel as you're ever likely to find.

This book is a masterpiece - by baseball standards or otherwise. It has a little bit of everything - it tells an epic story, it's funny, it's packed with drama and tension - all told through the beautifully simple and elegant storytelling style of Henry Wiggen.

Mark Harris died two years ago this month. But Henry Wiggen will live on forever. The four books in the Wiggen series are an appropriate legacy for a truly brilliant author.

--Matt Kelsey

An aerobic exercise for writers : Two by two

The power of two. The old mind body split. Twins and opposites. Yes and no. The entire computing world built on zero and one, and only zero and one.

Every now and then writers need a way to get their juices flowing. They also need a way to practice, since writing is more a practice of writing than writing on demand.

I stumbled on this great writing practice on a bus trip to St. Louis. If you’ve seen the interstate highway between Kansas City and St. Louis once… you've seen it forever. But boredom is a powerful force and across the miles I discovered the power of two’s for writing practice.

Share this with your writing friends. I’m interested in whether it works for anyone else. Please let me know.

Here’s what I wrote in my notebook (at least what I can read of it):

Red bud magenta in bare woods.

Wet fields and muddy rivers.

Brown fields and farm ponds.

Rusty cars and abandoned yellow school buses.

Shredded wheat bales and billboards for “Nostalgia USA.”

Arrow Rock and Pilot Grove.

Balers and new green cultivators next to the Triple X Adult Super Store.

Rough cut corn stalks against wet black fields.

Tall white sycamores among layers of white dogwood blossoms.

Prairie Grove Baptist Church and, well, I suppose a prairie and a grove were here once upon a time.

Artichoke Annie’s Antique Mall (I did not make this up) and the Warehouse of Dinettes (nor this).

A young mother who plans to quit smoking this summer for her daughter who tells her daughter stories each evening when she picks her up at Grandma’s so she won’t go to sleep before they get home.

Jesus Completely Saves and kids turning the pages of a CD case like a family scrapbook.

Rainy morning and big heavy bus wipers. Wish they could wipe away these heavy questions about what to do with the small part of life I have left to live.


Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Seabiscuit for a new age

A lot will be made in the coming weeks about the Kentucky Derby victory by Mine That Bird, a 50-to-1 longshot, the second-biggest underdog victory ever in the history of America's most magnificent sporting event.

But let me point out what may become an overused parallel. Mine That Bird could become the Seabiscuit of this generation.

Seabiscuit was purchased for $8,000 in the early 1930s as the United States was struggling to break free from the Great Depression. Americans grabbed on to the underdog Seabiscuit, who quickly shot up from obscurity to become one of the greatest racehorses of all time. Seabiscuit gave hope to the masses, and a sense that anyone could reach for the stars.

Mine That Bird was purchased for $9,500 by his owner in 2008. Other horses in Saturday's Derby were purchased for two, three million dollars. And nobody gave Mine That Bird a chance until he was six lengths ahead on the home stretch.

Now, as the president might say, we're in the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. And Mine That Bird, the horse that nobody wanted (at least not for more than 10 grand), will likely try to pick up the second leg of the Triple Crown in two weeks at The Preakness.

Back in Seabiscuit's day, thoroughbred racing was really the only game in town besides baseball and boxing. So Mine That Bird likely won't have that kind of impact. But if the ninety-five hundred dollar horse wins The Preakness and runs for the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes in June? This country will be crazy for horse racing.

I'm rooting for Mine That Bird, and I'll be rooting for him in two weeks along with the rest of a nation in need of a moral victory.

--Matt Kelsey

Sign of a coming apocalypse?

Willie Bloomquist just hit a home run.

--Matt Kelsey

Friday, May 1, 2009

Great blog: 'Ron Kaplan's Baseball Bookshelf'

Here's a wonderful blog that's dedicated to baseball in literature. It's a lot of fun checking out Ron Kaplan's site to see what's new on the baseball book market.

Kaplan also did a great writeup on the book reviews we do here at the Henry Wiggen Blog. Ron's a prolific blogger; the post about our reviews was made three days ago, and since then he's made over a dozen posts.

Speaking of those reviews, watch for a review of "The Southpaw" by Mark Harris (starring Henry Wiggen!) in the coming days.

--Matt Kelsey