The Books of Summer: A Triple Play of Baseball Books
April 26, 2000
High and Tight: The Rise and Fall of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. By Bob Klapisch. Villard Books, New York. 229 pages. $22/hardcover.Silver Seasons: The Story of the Rochester Red Wings. By Jim Mandelaro & Scott Pitoniak, with a foreword by Joe Altobelli. Syracuse University Press. 313 pages. 50 illustrations. $39.95/cloth, $17.95/paper.Strike Four: Adventures in European Baseball. By Jeff Archer. White Boucke Publishing, Lafayette, Colorado. 234 pages. $12.50/paper.As attention spans grow ever shorter in our sitcom-bred cyber-society, you hear it more and more often: Baseball is boring.After the national pastime evolved into a national disgrace during the 1994 players' strike, the complaints grew louder and more diverse: Baseball slaps its fans in the face. The game is too slow. The players are overpaid and arrogant. And the owners are worse still.Running wild without a commissioner since 1991, America's diamond tycoons resemble the proverbial foxes usurping the chicken coops. Their greed -- which spawned concepts such as "replacement players" and "day-night double headers with separate admissions" -- makes a mockery of the old game. And their illegal collusive tactics deny the players rights which are routinely guaranteed other workers throughout the United States and Canada. But that's another story.Major League Baseball, still lacking a collective bargaining agreement, has countered the public's negative notions with a shotgun approach. They've introduced expansion, a wild card playoff berth, an allegedly juiced ball, rules designed to speed up play, and disco dancing groundskeepers. Yet the chorus of boos builds to a crescendo. Baseball is boring, the couch potatoes scream.Well, these three books prove 'em wrong. Only one deals with Major League Baseball, which may be a message in itself. True aficionados appreciate the game intrinsically, whether played by Little Leaguers, semi-pro weekend warriors, college kids or even women (what would Ty Cobb have thought of that?). Sure, it's a rush to watch Ken Griffey Jr. take his cuts against Roger Clemens with the bases loaded late in a close game, but that situation can be equally as exciting at any level.This isn't news to millions of minor league fans who know that there's beauty in the bushes.Gannett Rochester Newspapers' sportswriters Jim Mandelaro and Scott Pitoniak capture the excitement of Triple A-level ball in their new book Silver Seasons. This history of the Rochester Red Wings comes at a crucial juncture for that nearby International League franchise. Since 1961, the Red Wings have been the top farm club of the American League's Baltimore Orioles. Recently, the Orioles announced they were severing that long-standing relationship, just when the Wings are ready to move into a spanking new downtown ballpark, Frontier Field.So much for tradition, but at least those 35 good years have been carefully documented in this easy-to-read, well-researched team biography. Here's a fascinating field of dreams factoid: The 1971 pennant-winning Red Wings club (including future Orioles Don Baylor, Bobby Grich and Terry Crowley) also included a light-hitting infielder by the name of Ron Shelton, who went on to write the screenplay for the movie about minor league baseball, Bull Durham (1988).One of the book's most suspenseful chapters recounts "The Game That Wouldn't End" played between Rochester and the Pawtucket Red Sox in 1981. The 33-inning contest started April 18, was suspended on April 19 and finished on June 23. It's a long, sad story, but the incident earned those Triple A players a permanent place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. "Hey, everyone associated with that game is in Cooperstown," Red Wings catcher Dave Huppert told the authors. "That's the destination of everyone who ever plays this game." Besides such homespun philosophies, Silver Seasons also offers 73 pages of "Extra Innings," long lists of Red Wings records, year-by-year standings, and an all-time roster dating back to 1928.Silver Seasons makes several references to clubhouse champagne celebrations and back of the bus brew fests. But just as the intensity of competition increased in the big leagues, so did the intensity of partying increase during the 1980s up in The Show. With High and Tight: The Rise and Fall of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, New Jersey newspaperman Bob Klapisch (now with the Bergen Record) picks up where he left off in his last book about the collapse of the New York Mets, The Worst Team Money Could Buy (co-authored with John Harper).He takes his readers along on Mets' charter flights as the airborne Amazins' redefine the term "flying high." Booze flowed freely and cocaine was commonplace in the cabin. As any rookie bartender can attest, get a crowd of testosterone-laden 20-year-old athletes on that particular chemical combination and things often turn nasty -- and fast.Strawberry had a particularly cruel routine. He'd swill a few frothies and then begin berating second baseman Tim Teufel, who eventually silenced the superstar slugger by charging down the aisle fists flying. In 1986 Strawberry's venom poured over Le Moyne College alumnus Tom Browning, who was pitching for Cincinnati at the time, and Klapisch vividly recounts the ensuing on-field brawl.Gooden's and Strawberry's downfalls -- complete with wife-beatings, cocaine, tax evasion, cocaine, firearms, barfights and more cocaine -- make for depressing reading, but their seemingly successful efforts at rehabilitation may inspire some. Klapisch writes in an easy-going conversational tone, yet his anecdotes are never superfluous; they illustrate a specific theme. The story bounces back and forth between each of his superstar subjects and eventually interweaves as they both find themselves in the New York Yankees stable, ostensibly clean and sober.Because recovery from addiction dominates both players' lives, Klapisch could easily have fallen prey to the trendy psychobabble that passes for wisdom in self-help circles. Instead he plays it straight. No proselytizing, no sermons, no heavy message. Figure it out for yourself: If you're fucked up all the time you can't play ball. What's your priority? That analogy applies to everybody in all walks of life, and the writer lets that fact stand on its own. No preaching necessary.Seasoned reporter that he is, Klapisch quotes from many and varied sources, including Pete Rose, former commissioner Peter Ueberroth, owners, trainers, and even clubhouse attendants. Of course, recent developments -- such as Gooden's May 14, 1996 no-hitter and Strawberry's resurrection from the purgatory of the independent Northern League -- are not covered here. But the book does end with the two troubled players re-united in pinstripes along with former Mets coach Joe Torre (now Yankee manager) and ex-Mets pitcher David Cone. Klapisch's in-depth reportage has a darker side than the personal struggles of Dwight and Darryl.Baseball fans and commentators such as New York broadcaster Michael Kay have wondered aloud why no other team picked up Strawberry's contract after the Yankees let him go last fall. Is it possible U.S. government drug warriors pressured major league teams to keep Strawberry out of the game? In 1995, Klapisch reports, the Clinton White House leaned heavily on George Steinbrenner, leading to a contractual cocooning of the power hitter. Strawberry was, in essence, living under house arrest while he made his comeback last summer with the Bronx Bombers.He hit a respectable .276 last year against American league pitching, but in '96 it seemed as though major league owners collectively agreed to keep hands off the Strawman -- perhaps promising Steinbrenner a right of first refusal -- until after the slugger served out his exile with the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern League? Whatever, it's clear that powerful unseen forces are often at work behind the lineups in America's big league sports.Overseas, it's a whole different ballgame. Just ask Jeff Archer, now the editor of a San Diego newspaper called The Alternative. His Strike Four scores with the strange story of an expatriate American sporting goods salesman (Archer himself) who becomes a mover and shaker in European baseball. Archer's rambling first-person narrative must be one of the most unusual baseball books ever written.It starts in 1973, when a 27-year-old Archer became pitcher/coach of the Crawley Giants, near London. Along the way, Strike Four benefits by the regular reappearance of several colorful characters such as madman-turned-mascot Ben McGrath and British Secretary of Baseball "Rapid" Robert Garrod. Archer often found himself fuming at the poor attitude, biased umpiring and language barriers which hindered European baseball. Nevertheless, he hung with it, playing and coaching in France, Holland and Belgium as well as the United Kingdom through 1982. An appendix on the International Baseball Association documents the numbers of amateur baseball players throughout the world, attesting to the game's universal popularity.They may not know a passed ball from a wild pitch, but Archer's European teammates and opponents all felt something that's missing from many American clubhouses: a passion for the game.