Thursday, May 1, 2008

Book Review: Living on the Black by John Feinstein

Originally published on Pinstripe Alley

Last night, I finished reading Living on the Black, John Feinstein's 500 page chronicle of the 2007 season focused on the performances of Mike Mussina and Tom Glavine. The title, of course, comes from way both cerebral pitchers have to pitch in order to get major league hitters out.

After reading the introduction and the first few chapters, which followed Mussina and Glavine as amateurs, up through the minors, and to New York, I was really excited. The writing was crisp and clear, the characters were beginning to take shape, and the arc of their careers had been clearly laid out.

Feinstein's supposed goal involved exploring the "inside baseball" aspect of a pitcher's life.
What do pitchers really do during the off-season- especially as they get older- to prepare for spring training? What do they do while "throwing a bullpen"?... How do pitchers and catchers relate to one another; what in the world do pitching coaches really say when they jog to the mound; and what does a pitcher, especially one who can't just rear back throw 95-miles-an-hour fastballs, do to get hitters out? How do they interact with umpires? Opposing hitters? The managers? Their wives?
After a 150 page primer, class had been called to order, and I was prepared to sit at the feet of the master and learn. And then Feinstein began writing about the 2007 season (for about 400 pages).

Maybe the problem is that we're all still too close to 2007- the wounds are too fresh, the heroes and the goats are still on the field. Nearly 20 years separated The Boys of Summer from the Dodgers' final season in Brooklyn. Summer of '49 was written 40 years after the fact- no equivalent nostalgia has settled upon the 2007 season to be enhanced or stripped away by Living on the Black. The only really great book I'm aware of that came out the next season was Buster Olney's The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, who developed his story so kaleidoscopically that the baseball game was merely an excuse to explore the characters on the field, and when he did turn his attention to the field he explored why, rather than how, the game works.

What really bogged down Feinstein was his approach to the season. His introduction seemed to promise analysis; his book delivered inning by inning game recaps, peppered with quotes from the two players in question. Rarely, if ever, did he probe a situation deeply enough to take the reader inside the pitcher's mind- pitch patterns, batter histories, umpire tendencies.

The quotes were another issue all together. Few broke outside the lines of standard post-game platitudes, and those that did were repeated 2 and 3 times throughout the book, as though Feinstein knew he had a good one but couldn't remember if he'd used it.

So instead of glossing the long parts of the season and then really focussing on a few key games/scenes for each pitcher to maintain the momentum of the story, he gave the whole season a semi-gloss; and the book reads like a collection of game recap articles.

What makes it worse, the character development that had begun so promisingly in the early part of the book collapses under the weight of the game recaps. The only character who is clearly visible in the final 350 pages is, unfortunately, John Feinstein. His scorn for the corporate game (selling the naming rights to ball packs, allowing TV ratings to influence the Opening Day and postseason schedules) and his nostolgia for baseball 'as it was' radiates off the page every time he brings up the subject. If those moments were accents within a finely woven tale, they might have been candidly endearing.

Instead, Living on the Black is a catalogue of missed opportunities, blown chances to take the avid fan deep into the experiences of a major league pitchers (because, honestly, what casual fan is going to pick up a 500 page book about the Yankees and Mets' seasons?).

What the book clearly lacked was a strong editor- someone to cut away the repetitious quotes, to help focus the narrative, to keep the two pitchers rather than the game schedule at the forefront. Clearly, Michael Pietsch was not that man. In the acknowledgments Feinstein writes of Pietsch, "He even went along with this title, even though he was not quite sure what it meant." Maybe that's the problem right there.

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