July 2010

Adrienne So

nonfiction

The Game from Where I Stand: A Ballplayer's Inside View by Doug Glanville

Although baseball is supposed to be the great American sport, it's hard to find that many people who play it, or even enjoy watching it. Football has speed, violence and drama; in baseball, the most contact you'll find is a pitcher thunking a fastball into the side of a batter's arm. The most appealing part of baseball games are, to me, the hot dogs.

And yet, in Doug Glanville's capable mitts, baseball is infused with passionate athleticism. Glanville is a creature almost as rare as a unicorn -- a professional athlete who is also an Ivy League graduate. He was scouted as a first-round draft pick in his junior year at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was studying engineering. For the next nine years, he played for teams like the Chicago Cubs, the Phillies, and the Yankees, sharing locker rooms with celebrities like Sammy Sosa and Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez, before dabbling in real estate and eventually writing a series of guest columns for The New York Times.

The Game from Where I Stand is part memoir, part sportswriting, and part cultural anthropology. Everyone thinks that they know what the life of a pro athlete is like -- you play a sport you love, and get paid millions for it, boo hoo for you -- but for every tired cliché that Granville offers, he has several others that feel fresh and revelatory. Like the sheer fact of a baseball player's physical capabilities. Of course, an outfielder must have outstanding eyesight, but the fact that they can distinguish if a kid in the third deck has chosen ketchup or mustard on their hot dog is ridiculous. The most surprising revelation is that the sport of baseball is entirely populated entirely by over-sensitive nerds. They spend hours and hours compiling statistics, analyzing swings, and, most importantly, sniping at each other for minor lapses in conduct and holding grudges over insignificant slights.

Most of these young men never even went to college, and they bring their high school melodrama with them into the stadium. Glanville relates one tale where he hit a home run, and flipped the bat a little too far in triumph. Such a display of arrogance went against baseball's unwritten code of conduct. The punishment? He spent the rest of that season waiting to get plunked in the head by that pitcher with a hundred-mile-per-hour fastball. That seems a bit extreme.

There are the usual reflections on making your way up through the minor leagues; the temptations that assail you once you make it big; and that most important question that every twenty-five-year-old raking in over seven figures agonizes over: What kind of car do I drive?

But perhaps the most interesting chapter -- and the subject of Glanville's column for The New York Times -- is about the question of steroid use. In retrospect, it seems ridiculous that the steroids scandal took as long to blow up as it did, that McGwire, Sosa and Bonds could have even pretended that they weren't on steroids as they accomplished their record-breaking feats. All you had to do was look at the numbers.

“No one all of a sudden just gets exponentially better at a time in your career when you are hurting all over and supposed to be slowing down, unless of course you find a way not to hurt, and not to age,” Glanville writes. But he adroitly explains how he and his fellow players could have let the scandal fester for so long. They were turned into twelve-year-olds, fans who wanted to believe. And in any case, anyone who claims that the clean players should have outed the others is ignoring two important facts: First, that not even the clean players knew for certain who was using and who wasn't; and second, when you spend every waking moment with the same team of men, they become family. And even if you suspect something isn't right, you don't just go blurting out Uncle Tim's dirty laundry to an unforgiving press. Even if it does mean that the integrity of a game that you all love is ruined.

By certain hints, Glanville makes it known that he intended his book to be a guide to living, not just playing professional baseball. A few of his points have greater resonance. For instance, he talks about the urge that baseball players have “to keep it real,” to not let their good luck go to their heads and continue hanging out with the same people and doing the same things that they did before they became rich and famous. Glanville points out that while keeping it real keeps you grounded, it also means that you lose the opportunity to grow. What's the point of earning millions if you never eat out at a nice restaurant or meet new, interesting people?

“Some of those friends don't necessarily want you to grow -- not for any malicious reasons but because they're afraid they will lose you, and you are afraid of the same thing,” he says. That could've applied to any of my friendships and relationships between high school, college, and post-college.

But more often than not, his efforts to tease out greater meaning from the minutiae of a professional ballplayer's life just emphasize how completely different they are from us Regular Folk. The great struggles of their lives aren't ours. Most of us don't have a career span of ten years. Most of us will never struggle over whether or not to use steroids (My decision? No) and most of us will never, ever have that struggle that Glanville describes so eloquently, the struggle when you return to civilian life without the perks and privileges of “flashing your MLB card.” And you know why? Because civilian life is actually... normal life. Our life.

I will never struggle with the realization that actresses will no longer fall into my lap because, you know what? Actresses never fell into my lap. Big whoop.

Still, Glanville is consistently entertaining, and there are worse reasons to read a book than because you know absolutely nothing about the world that it reveals. The Game From Where I Stand isn't breaking any new ground, but it's insightful, occasionally educational, and way better than anything that Barry Bonds could've had ghost-written.

The Game from Where I Stand: A Ballplayer's Inside View by Doug Glanville
Times Books
ISBN: 0805091599
304 Pages