To fall in love with the great game of baseball, your average British fan must overcome numerous barriers when they first encounter the sport. Not raised with the game like our stateside cousins, we must learn and digest as much information as we possibly can to make heads and tails of what we see.
What is a sac-fly? How does a 4-6-3 double play work? Why are the bases loaded?
Some of us take to it with relative ease. Others will develop the ability to read and interpret the game over many years.
I have now been a baseball fan for 12 years but I have never stopped learning, finding myself constantly surprised by the incredible depth of the sport’s vernacular. Baseball can be intimidating to the newcomer and one soon discovers there are many complexities involving a game where men essentially see ball, hit ball, and run.
When I first began learning about America’s national pastime, the internet was an invaluable resource, as was Channel 5’s excellent MLB On Five every Sunday night. However, I’m an old fashioned guy and baseball is an old fashioned game, and so it was books I turned to in an effort to learn the game’s finer details in my rookie reason.
A quick browse online resulted in Roads to Redemption: A Guide to Major League Baseball arriving at my door. Written by Craig W. Thomas and published in 2005, the book was already a couple of years old when I received it but uniquely suited to my needs. Thomas, a Brit himself, acknowledged his own learning curve in the book’s early passages and his book sets out to welcome the British fan, making them instantly feel at home in this alien world of acronyms and statistics.
Thomas, a Red Sox fan still radiating from the glory of 2004, wrote with an infectious enthusiasm that really struck a chord with me. His glossary in the second half of the book was especially helpful, and I regularly found myself turning to the A-Z when I heard or read a word I hadn’t encountered yet. His chapters on the history of the sport provided a great introduction, and a memorable piece about attending a late-season Mariners game really resonated with me as well. Living vicariously through this story was as close as I could get to the ballpark experience, as it would be another decade until I could witness a game in person.
Doubling down on those ‘day at the ballpark’ vibes, my second literary purchase was Faithful by Stewart O’Nan and the legendary Stephen King, a journal of Boston’s historic 2004 championship season. Right from the start I could tell this book was tailor-made for me as O’Nan and King combined to chronicle the Red Sox’ season right from the start of spring training all the way to their epic World Series victory. The day-to-day stories of following their team never feel repetitive, and both authors do a wonderful job of making you feel like you’re sat at Fenway alongside them.
The diary format and authors’ passion for their team share similarities with Nick Hornby’s classic Fever Pitch (another favourite of mine) and now I look back, I’m amazed that O’Nan and King’s literary powers weren’t enough to convert me into a Red Sox fan.
Since those initial purchases many years ago, my fascination with baseball, and especially baseball books, has only grown with each passing season. Over time I’ve developed myself quite a little library that has slowly come to dominate my bookshelves, with books about teams and players from coast to coast, and even as far as Japan (do yourself a favour and buy You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting).
As a sports book enthusiast, I have long held the opinion that baseball writers far surpass their peers in other sports. American football and basketball don’t even come close, and football, despite its global appeal, still remains in baseball’s shadow in terms of sheer quality. Perhaps cricket and boxing could give baseball a run for their money but I have yet to enjoy one of their books to such an extent that could change my mind.
Baseball and the written word will forever be linked, inextricably so, even when newspapers become a thing of the past. The greats like Roger Angell, Roger Khan, Robert Creamer and Jane Leavy captured baseball’s mythological heroes like nobody else could, and we are lucky to relive baseball’s rich history through these masters of prose and poetry. The relaxed pace of the game and the ongoing war between pitcher and batter allows for a level of storytelling that other sports simply can’t match.
The combination of baseball and books will always remain an unbeatable partnership in my eyes, and together have played an important role in my bond with the game. Be it a pre-season primer ahead of a new campaign or a pick-me-up during the dog days of summer, a book and a ballgame go together like peanuts and Cracker Jack.