Making his Bat Flips and Nerds debut and starting a brand new regular column, it’s Dr. Paddy Johnston. Paddy can be found on twitter here — @Paddyjohnston — where he talks about comic books and baseball.
I’ve just finished re-reading Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game that Saved Me by Stacey May Fowles for the fourth time. I rarely re-read books, particularly books about baseball, but this is a book that I will always return to. I want everyone to read this book, regardless of any level of baseball fandom or knowledge. It’s that good.
As a British baseball fan, connections to the sport have to be forged wherever you can find them. So as a person whose life and work revolves mostly around books, my love of the game has been able to grow amazingly through reading about the sport, as well as the usual routes of following on the MLB app and catching the odd live game in the small hours when the cruelty of time difference can be overcome. It’s hard to say definitively and I haven’t checked, because I have a life, but I’m pretty sure that there are twice as many books about baseball as there are about any other sport. And there’s a reason for that.
Baseball has always appealed to me because of its sense of narrative, and because of the stories we find in it. We love baseball for the same reason we love books: we see ourselves, people we know, and our worlds represented in it. All life is found in baseball. As a Blue Jays fan, I love Josh Donaldson’s playful side as he whistles at the White Sox dugout on his way into home; what Fowles calls the “benevolent dad” vibe of generous, well-read former Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey; Yangervis Solarte’s incredible courage in the face of unimaginable tragedy; the divisiveness and self-assurance of Silver Slugger and bat flip king José Bautista, now in the hot corner for the Braves; and the way the team’s confident, cheerful older players like Curtis Granderson and Kendrys Morales can always surprise the naysayers who are all too quick to say that they’re past it when they put in a sub-par performance.
I’m not saying I don’t swoon over an epic Mike Trout homer or that I’m not interested in stats (Dickey’s ERA over the course of his slightly rocky career is a source of endless fascination to me, and I eagerly cheered Albert Pujols’ recent 3000th hit along with everyone else), but to me, baseball is about stories, and stories are how we live. The number one response I received when discussing the Cubs’ historic World Series win in 2016 was “what a great story.” When my interest in baseball grew from mild curiosity into passionate fandom a few years ago, I started to feel as if the stories of baseball – not just the Jays, but all the teams and players – were inextricably linked with my own ongoing life story and my own highs and lows. And until I picked up Baseball Life Advice, there was a part of me that felt like I was mildly insane for thinking that.
In the book, Fowles talks incredibly candidly about this aspect of baseball fandom. About superstition and strange belief in baseball magic, as well as the ballpark being a kind of church, where one goes to have a religious experience – to cleanse, nourish, meditate and renew. She writes about how favourite players are chosen (mine, incidentally, is the aforementioned Grandy Man), about anxiety, possibility and hope, all of which are things that made me love baseball and love it all the more as someone who had never felt that connection with any other sport. Reading this book made me understand my own love for baseball as well as the love that the whole community of fans around the world have for it, and that’s a thing I want to share with everyone I know.
When my confused but well-meaning British friends and family ask me, their brows furrowed, why it is that I like baseball, I usually respond that I like it because it’s a game of perennial second chances, and a game based on seemingly endless opportunity and possibility. Fowles puts this in a better way in the conclusion to her chapter ‘The Runner on Third’: “…in times of uncertainty and disappointment, when things seem dire and nothing seems to get better, it always helps to be reminded that there’s a metaphoric runner on third. We’re in scoring position. We can always come back. And hell, even if we don’t, we’ll be OK.”
Now that’s baseball.
The book is partly a collection of Fowles’ emails from her Baseball Life Advice newsletter. If you haven’t signed up, I insist that you do so, even if it’s just for the obligatory picture of a baseball player with a cute animal that ends every email. I am, as they say, here for that as much as for the regular baseball content.
Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game that Saved Me is published by McClelland & Stewart, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada. The best place to buy it in the UK is from Amazon.