Play Ball — Two Baseball Books

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We are heading into the baseball playoffs, and I am beyond thrilled that the Pirates are going to the post-season for the third year in a row!  This is heady stuff for any Pirates fan, particularly since we lived in Pittsburgh and rooted for the Pirates the whole time they had the longest string of losing seasons of any professional sports franchise.  Really.  We are in New York now, but my heart belongs to the Pirates.  And the Steelers.

Under the circumstances, I am not sure why I picked up Aaron Skirboll’s, The Pittsburgh Cocaine 7 (2010), but I did, and it is an interesting cautionary tale.  In the 1980’s, well in advance of the more recent steroid craze, major league baseball was overtaken by a cocaine frenzy.  The problem seems to have existed for most major league teams.  Obviously not every player indulged, but a bunch of them did.  It was a bad time for baseball and for the country.  It is terrifying to think of pitchers hurling fastballs while high on cocaine, but some of pitcher did exactly that.  The League and baseball club management seem to have had no idea how to deal with this problem other than to put on blinders.  That didn’t work out so well.  They didn’t keep drugs out of the club house; they didn’t provide timely help to their addicted players; and the baseball brand suffered.

PIttsburgh ended up being the focus of much of the cocaine scandal.   Skirboll tells of a number of spoiled, self-destructive PIrates players indulging in an orgy of cocaine.  For some of them, scoring their next coke seems to have been far more important than the game they were being paid to play.  The PIttsburgh prosecutor, in this case the US attorney, took the usual prosecutorial tack and gave the users (in this case, the players) immunity in order to go after their dealers, the source of their cocaine.  As a result, players testified against the dealers, and the dealers were the ones who ended up getting prosecuted and going to jail.  Everyone gave up everyone else to save their own skin, and the fan/dealers paid.  Players may have damaged their careers, but no PIttsburgh Pirate went to jail, no matter how much coke he snorted.  On a humorous note, the Pirates mascot parrot was also implicated but avoided jail time.  Really?  I thought prisons were full of cages.  While the prosecutor’s logic is understandable, at some level it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the local dealers.  Basically, the little guys took the rap for the spoiled players.  As recounted in The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven, most, if not all, of the dealers were fans who just got a tremendous kick from hanging out with professional baseball players.  In a lot of cases, the players were vociferous in their demands for coke, and yet often stiffed their dealers.  These particular dealers don’t seem to have made much, if anything, from their drug sales to players.  Skirboll certainly implies that the fan/dealers wouldn’t have gotten into trouble, or at least not so much trouble, but for their zeal to keep their baseball idols happy.  The moral plays out again and again in college and professional sports:  It is never a good idea to give an athlete (or anyone) whatever he or she might want.  Limits and the ability to say “no” can be good things.

Happily, the PIttsburgh Pirates of today seem to be a far more sensible group of men.  It is such a pleasure to see them win the right way.  Go Pirates!

David Halberstam’s book The Teammates  —  A  Portrait of a Friendship (2003), is a warmer and fuzzier baseball story.  Halberstam, a great sportswriter and baseball fan, sets his story in the fall of 2000, when some of Ted Williams’ old Red Sox teammates are driving down for a last visit with Williams, whose health is in decline.  The trip is made by Dominic DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky, who are in their early 80’s.  Bobby Doerr, another close friend and teammate, is unable to to make the trip, but tales of Doerr are included in this lovely book, which is rich with memories of these four players who came up at the about the same time and who got to know each other very well as teammates on the Boston Red Sox.

This is not a definitive biography of anyone, but it is rich with vignettes of all four players.  The stories of how they got to the big leagues and how they learned to play ball are wonderful.  The three friends were all loyal to Ted Williams, who seems to have been a really difficult personality at best.  Going fishing with Williams was particularly stressful, since no one seems to have been able to meet his highly arbitrary standards.   Equally hilarious was a story of an aging Williams standing in the middle of a trout fishing stream and furiously demonstrating the proper way to swing a baseball bat.   As tough as he was on them, Williams does seem to have appreciated them.

There are no sordid tales of drugs or infidelity in The Teammates.  This is just a nice, thoughtful book about baseball and friendship.

Steaming Florentine Murder Mystery — The Dead Season

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The stifling summer heat dogs all the players in The Dead Season  —  A Mystery of Florence by Christobel Kent.  Anyone who has ever visited Italy in July or August will recognize the smothering heat and the deserted, empty feeling.  None of this is an impediment to murder, and The Dead Season‘s plot encompasses killings and all manner of fraud and thievery.  Banks, real estate and superficially elegant villains figure heavily in this novel’s complicated crimes.

In addition to a wonderfully sordid atmosphere, The Dead Season offers private investigator Sandro Cellini, who was recently forced into retirement from the Florence police force.  Sandro is no longer young, and he struggles in his new situation.  He is no longer part of a professional team, and he is feeling the economic pinch.  Fortunately, he has loyal and imaginative assistance from his wife, a former colleague still on the force and his hard-luck assistant.  Sandro’s relationships with these people are a key element to this book.   They are far more interesting than the usual sidekicks, and their own personal relationships and struggles enhance the book considerably.

The fine plot is founded on greed, old grudges and people desperately trying to keep up appearances.   Solving the mystery requires an understanding of social and economic forces, as well as patient attention to  details.  The novel’s greatest strength comes from the characters’ perceptiveness and responses to each other.  That, together with the overwhelming presence of a stifling, deserted Florence, makes for a great story.   I look forward to reading more in this series and particularly hope that Roxana Delfino, an interesting supporting character, is brought into Sandro Cellini’s fold for future mysteries.  She has the makings of a great detective!

And Still More Football — Check out NFL Brawler

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Ralph Cindrich’s NFL Brawler is a hoot!  Cindrich is a former professional football player who made it to the big time as a sports agent.  In his memoir, which is really too polished a name for this raucous book, Cindrich tells tale after wonderful tale about growing up in Southwestern Pennsylvania and taking on the world.  There is a great warmth when he talks about his family and community, and he clearly loved many of his clients.  Still, NFL Brawler is the perfect title, because Cindrich takes on life as a contact sport.  His stories of playing in college and then in the NFL are fascinating for sports junkies, but even sports novices will learn a lot about this very crazy industry.  As a player, he figured out early on what it would take to stay on NFL rosters, even if he didn’t possess star talent.  More importantly, Cindrich started thinking early about what he would do when his football career ended, and attended law school in Texas while still in the league.  He moved his practice back to PIttsburgh after his football career ended and embarked on a colorful career as an agent for professional football players.  His player roster primarily consisted of linemen, and it was interesting to see how he built his business.  It was all about relationships — solid relationships with his players and cantankerous relationships with management.

Along the way, NFL Brawler, tells wonderfully profane stories about all sorts of colorful football characters.  The players come across as much nicer than management, but then he is a player’s agent.  Cindrich’s war stories about negotiating with NFL teams are highly entertaining and instructive.  Even if you don’t like football, his negotiation strategies are worth the read.  Basically, he knew his market, he knew his opponents and he often created leverage out of apparent weakness.  Much of his career happened before free agency and the dollars seem low by today’s standards, but Cindrich is larger than life!  I would LOVE to see him go head-to-head with Roger Goodell.  Seriously.

This is a great read, particularly for football season.  Ralph Cindrich doesn’t waste much time on reflection, he just rears back and tells a hell of a story, with a great deal of warmth and precious few apologies.

Entertaining Football Murder Mystery

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Tis the season  —  to play football!  In Hangman’s Game, Bill Syken, a writer and editor for Sports Illustrated, has written a highly entertaining murder mystery set in the wacky, power-mad world of professional football.  Like Mike Lupica’s warm and witty sports novels, Syken successfully uses professional football as the premise for a very good story.  Nick Gallow is a veteran punter and a horrified observer when a prized recruit for his Philadelphia NFL team is gunned down late one night.  Nick is a thoughtful guy and, since he is “only” a punter, he has a lot of time to try to unravel what happened.  In Nick Gallow, Syken has created an interesting and sympathetic amateur sleuth.  Of course Nick himself has an interesting backstory and a complicated personal life.  All of this suggests that this won’t be the last Nick Gallow book.  I certainly hope that there will be more to come.

As it happens, this is Syken’s first book, and it embraces the sweaty, crazy world of professional football with understandable cynicism and a great deal of affection.  There are colorful players, psychotic coaches, spoiled owners, sleazy agents and all the folks who hang around with them.  Power, insecurity and personal vanity pretty much rule the day, as Nick sorts through a colorful list of suspects.  While the plot of Hangman’s Game is interesting and fast-paced, the best part of this book is the larger-than-life cast of football characters and the author’s understanding of what makes them tick.

I highly recommend this book to everyone, including folks who don’t like football.  For better or worse, professional football has become a cultural reference, and Hangman’s Game has a lot to offer to fans and non-fans alike.   This is a very good read.

Dark Mystery Set in Fascist Naples

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Murder mysteries set in Fascist Europe are dark and creepy.  There is something particularly ominous and exciting about a detective trying to do his job and solve a crime in an atmosphere of violent corruption.  Typically the detective’s efforts to solve the crime peel away layer upon layer of cruelty and horrific abuse, and no one is really a good guy.   This is the essence of noir, with the added dimension of knowing how much worse  things are going to get as Fascism plays out.  The reader knows that most of these characters are doomed and that they have no idea of the horrors that await them.

Viper, a dark Italian mystery by Maurizo deGiovanni, is a fine contribution to this gloomy genre.  Set in Naples in 1932, Viper involves a murder at a brothel in 1932, and Commissario Ricciardi has the case.  The characters are well-drawn and conflicted.  Ricciardi is very much a Humphrey Bogart sort of character.  He is smart and sarcastic, while at the same time displaying a closet idealism.  He fears what is to come.   Notwithstanding his scruples, circumstances compel him to play ball with terrifying thugs.  He has a few cards to play and uses them carefully, but the new Fascist order complicates everything and threatens everyone.  Much as Ricciardi and his colleagues might like to proceed with business as usual and simply solve the murder, the present reality drags them into bed with the regime and its representatives.  The solution to the crime is cleverly plotted, and fortunately the humor and understanding among Ricciardi’s various relationships mitigate some of the despair.  The unresolved romantic backstory adds some welcome humanity and a pleasing vulnerability to a very interesting detective.

I highly recommend this book, particularly to readers who are interested in Italy and in Europe between the two world wars.  I can’t wait to go back and read the first book in this series.

Stunning War Novel from the Point of View of a Girl Who Survived the Serbo-Croatian War

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Girl at War, Sara Novic’s first novel, tells a compelling and horrific war story.  Ana Juric, the novel’s heroine and narrator, is an NYU student who experienced extreme violence as a young girl in Croatia in the early 1990’s.  Girl at War‘s narrative goes back and forth between Ana’s childhood in Croatia and the present day.  These transitions build the drama and thankfully never leave the reader in doubt as to where the story is.  Novic is an accomplished, confident writer who feels no need to confuse the reader as to time and place.  Her narrative is clear and reveals that Ana remembers her past only too well.  She survived her childhood trauma and knows she was lucky to land on her feet and be raised in comfortable middle class surroundings outside Philadelphia.  Nonetheless, as a middle class student at NYU, Ana realizes that she isn’t “over” her past and that pretending it didn’t happen isn’t working.  She abruptly decides she can’t avoid her past any longer and that she needs to go back and confront it.  This isn’t one of those books where a person has led a long and tortured life and decides on their death bed to deal with old ghosts.  On the contrary, Ana is young, and once she recognizes that she can’t simply continue her denial, she bravely acts.  Ana’s willingness to take action and save herself is heroic and inspiring.  This is a harrowing story, but Ana’s youth seems to be on her side and encourages the hope that she will find some peace and happiness.

The book’s Croatia settings and characters, both during and after the conflict, are remarkable.  Reading the newspapers and various non-fiction accounts simply didn’t inform me the way this clear-eyed novel did.  Girl at War is a great book and an important contribution to the the literature of war.  It would also make a heck of a movie.