A Brit learning Baseball through Books: A Drive into the Gap and the selflessness of Roberto Clemente

“The problem with history is that every story has multiple witnesses, but no witness ever has the entire truth.”

– Kevin Guilfoile

A Drive into the Gap was one of the first books about baseball that I ever read. My dad, noticing that I was taking an active interest in sport for more or less the first time ever (a short stint on the high school fencing team notwithstanding), nurtured it by providing an early link to books, the focus of my life’s work and a much more comfortable place for me. He gifted the book to me for my birthday in 2015, the same year that I began following the Blue Jays with true passion and the same year they made a long-awaited return to the postseason, winning the ALDS and introducing me to my first feeling of true, unrelenting joy deep in my heart when I watched José Bautista celebrate his walk-off homer with that bat flip (as chronicled in the subject of this column’s first entry, Baseball Life Advice). Things came together in a big way for me and baseball that year, in much the same way that they did for Kevin Guilfoile in the year he wrote A Drive into the Gap.

It’s an interesting book in a unique package, published in a unique way too. Those of you who aren’t stationery hipsters like me might not have heard of Field Notes, which is an effortlessly cool brand of notebooks with a National Park Service-esque aesthetic that also branches out into other things, including publishing the occasional book. One of these books is A Drive into the Gap, which is only around 50 pages, with a cover that’s simply the title text on a green background reminiscent of a scout uniform, and a size akin to one of the company’s many elegant notebooks. In fact, if you stack it next to a bunch of their notebooks, it blends in, slotting Guilfoile’s carefully considered and beautifully concise prose into your own scratchy ephemera, much like the logical, structured, narrative of baseball slots easily into the unprecedented and unwanted messiness of human life.

It’s this messiness that killed Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Clemente in a plane crash on the way to Nicaragua shortly after his 3000th career hit in 1972. But the same messiness also prevented Pirates photographer Les Banos from having been on the same plane, as he was working for both the Pirates and the Steelers at the time and had to photograph Steelers games while Clemente took his trip with the aim of providing food to the starving in poverty-stricken Venezuela. And the same messiness is held to account by time, as well as baseball, both of which became difficult for Guilfoile’s father as he developed Alzheimer’s in old age.

When Kevin Guilfoile was a young child his father Bill was the public relations director for the Pirates, and knew Clemente well. This is the framework on which the story of the book, by turns incredibly simple and highly complex, hangs. The opening of the book, as you’d expect from a novelist, is a powerful hook, as Guilfoile describes his father breaking into his piggy bank for change to use in a payphone to call everyone to give them news of Clemente’s death. Their landline had been disconnected when the previous caller forgot to hang up in his grief for Clemente. The image of Bill Guilfoile trudging through the snow to the payphone is one that has always stayed with me, as much as any of the images of Clemente presented throughout. All of them make it clear that he was the right person to give his name to an annual award for sportsmanship and community spirit (which, coincidentally, was won in 2016 by my favourite player, Curtis Granderson).

When I first read the book I wasn’t that up on baseball and didn’t know who Clemente was. With this book serving as my introduction to him, I’ll always think of him as the man who gave an interview to a journalist he didn’t like for the first time in years just to help Bill Guilfoile in his first day on the job as head of PR. Clemente’s selflessness was powerful, as was his sense of self, just as much as his bat. And while this book is a story about the mystery of where the bat Clemente used to get his 3000th hit ended up (I won’t spoil it for you here), it’s also an exploration of the ravages of time and memory, and what they do to the mind, to relationships and to the game of baseball. But most of all, it reminded me not only of the importance of kindness, but how important and meaningful kindness can be in the context of sports, professional or otherwise. It’s a great book for baseball nostalgia, insider stories and sporting curiosity, but it’s about kindness above all.

This is best exemplified by Guilfoile’s passage comparing Clemente to Barry Bonds, who Guilfoile knew professionally when he was an intern responsible for getting players’ signatures on merchandise to give to kids. When you’re a professional athlete, he writes, “the demands on you will never end. And you can react to those demands in a number of different ways. Barry Bonds decided that he would just never give anybody anything, because he knew if he gave them one thing today they would ask for three tomorrow. And he was probably right about that, as wrong as it must have been for his soul.

Roberto decided to do the opposite. If you asked him for one thing, he gave you four. He worked hard to become one of the best who ever played the game, and then he gave away the trophies that proved it.”

That’s something we should all strive for.

Amazon UK only has the ebook, which is acceptable if you want to get the content, but the format of the physical edition is key to the narrative here, in my opinion. As such, it’s my recommendation that you buy the book directly from Field Notes in the US. It’s well worth the cost of international shipping.

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