Book Reviews: Emma Span and “The Baseball Codes”

Although the closest we New Mexicans have recently come to experiencing major league baseball involved Manny Ramirez’ brief stint in an Isotopes uniform and a set of Rockies/Mariners exhibition games, nothing much says “summer” like baseball on the radio (or iPhone). As many of us aren’t from around here, the unprecedented current ability to follow—via radio, TV and online broadcasts—the team we loved as kids is a revelation. Unless, of course, you’re compulsively moved by cursed blood to root for a team that unequivocally sucks.

Take my hometown Pittsburgh Pirates, for example. Presumable Hall of Fame-candidate Todd Helton, owner of a more than impressive career batting average approaching .330 (all with Colorado), makes almost $18 million a season—roughly half the total cost of the Pittsburgh ball club’s entire 2010 roster. And last year, while the Rockies made the post-season, the excruciatingly frugal Pirates clinched the all-time professional sports record for consecutive losing seasons with 17. Honestly, that one didn’t hurt much more or less than the 16 that preceded it.

Still, there are ways to brighten the annual bummer of unflinchingly following the truly awful team one’s family has embraced, for better or worse, since the age when night games seemed like a major technological advancement. Sports books have always been a deceptively profound part of American literature and, this spring, two exceptional new books on baseball have touched me in distinct manners.

The first, Emma Span’s 90% of the Game is Half Mental and Other Tales from the Edge of Baseball Fandom, is a subway-fast delineation of one young woman’s dyed-in-the-wool journey from over-the-top New York Yankees and Mets fandom to a turn as a Yankees and Mets beat reporter and back again.

In 2007, the Village Voice surprisingly hired a staff sports reporter and, even more surprisingly, that reporter happened to be a New York-raised, beer-drinking, baseball-obsessed 20-something Yale graduate who happened to be female. Thus, for a short while, Span was given what she considered an almost holy privilege: obtaining press passes to both Yankees and Mets home games, which afforded the young writer entry to New York locker rooms crammed with superstar millionaires who were indeed, quite often, naked.

That I could get through 166 pages on New York sports in one sitting is a testament to Span’s amusing portrayal of herself as a very intelligent, driven and emotional writer and fan. Despite her vile subject matter—anyone who wants to read about Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter must either be from New York or suffer from a head injury— and penchant for long-winded diatribes about the intolerable jobs she had before becoming a sportswriter, Span reveals very early and often that she knows baseball like the back of her hand and knows how to write in an intelligent, captivating manner.

Not many sportswriters let you so deep inside the dog-eat-dog world they work in, including embarrassing fights between writers and the rules against remaining a fan after becoming a reporter—and Span’s line-toeing descriptions of the world that spat her out as abruptly as it let her in are fantastic.
That said, the best quote from 90% of the Game is Half Mental, Span’s first book, is actually from longtime New Yorker contributor Roger Angell—now approaching 90 years old—who is quoted as answering the question “why does anyone care whether a multimillionaire uses a stick to hit a small ball past other multimillionaires?” with the following tear-jerker:

“Caring—caring deeply and passionately, really caring—[is] a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved.”

Which brings me to The Baseball Codes, by Bay Area sportswriters Jason Turbow and Michael Duca, who transport readers to a time when baseball players deeply and passionately cared. And not just about earning eight and nine-figure salaries—or even, perhaps, about winning for the sake of winning—but also about the sacred, unwritten rules of the game, which used to be a whole lot more sacred.

Among countless others: Always run out a ground ball or pop-up. Never run over a catcher during an All-Star game (as Pete Rose famously once did). Never run for extra bases when your team is winning in a blowout. Never rub the spot where you were just hit by a pitch. And never, ever bunt when your team is well ahead with just a few innings left.

Speaking of bunting while your squad is in control, perhaps the most incredible (and true) baseball tale included in The Baseball Codes—aside from former pitcher Mike Krukow charging the plate to beat up an opposing pitcher who’d previously beaned Krukow’s teammate—involves former Nationals utility man Robert Fick, who was forced to start at catcher against the Giants in 2007 due to rampant injuries, and a fateful bunt.

With no other experienced catchers on the roster—Fick had caught 132 games over eight unspectacular big-league seasons—then-Nationals manager Frank Robinson was forced to start Fick, who promptly tore rib cartilage while nearly being picked off first in the 4th inning. With his team leading 6-1 in the 5th, Fick was forced to come to bat, even if he was physically unable to swing a bat, because no one else could play catcher.

Fick, who could still catch and (sort of) throw but not swing a bat, was forced to bunt with his team on the winning side of a burgeoning rout, which the unwritten rules of baseball emphatically say is punishable by beaning. The catcher’s meek attempt at a bunt went foul, and the next pitch by infuriated Giants starter Noah Lowry (unaware of Fick’s injury) painfully plunked him. Hey, Fick broke the rules. At least he never had to play for the Pirates.

Alas, for the crime of not adhering to the hallowed, century-old internal codes of baseball, one could go easy on a fairly new-school player like the aforementioned Helton—who has spent his entire career with a franchise that wasn’t founded until well after rules like not showboating after smacking a home run started to vanish faster than Barry Bonds could pompously twirl in the batter’s box. But there’s something special about solidarity, respect and humility in sports that’s going, going and almost gone.

As Turbow and Duca write in The Baseball Codes, “it’s a self-perpetuation of the Code that invariably lights up someone in every clubhouse when he sees how powerful it can be.” Or sends a 90-mph fastball screaming toward a debilitated catcher.

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