Saturday, May 19, 2007
Derek Zumsteg, the master of GenY Snark, has a new book out, his first as a solo author. The top line: It's a great summer read, the kind of bagatelle you take to the beach and relax with.
The book is The Cheater's Guide to Baseball. It's an easy-reading 272 page tour of 15 "cheating" topics ranging from the accepted but technically unethical (sign-stealing, for example) to the Just Plain Wrong to Everyone But Pete Rose (for example, gambling on baseball when you're a player or manager). The tone is classic Zumteg, edgy humor concatenated with a numerate appreciation for informed statistics and analysis, enough references to beer to make you fail a breathalyzer test from the contact wooze, and expressions of snarky attitude about the world (and himself). Ironically, though, it's at its most engaging and Derek's at his best when he's covering the most serious topics. His sections on chemical supplements (what I call the Baseball in Steroids issue) and on the sections on Pete Rose and The Black Sox, the two most egregious scandals that ever surfaced in baseball history, are important work. Others have covered a single one of those three subjects as well as Zumsteg, but no one has put together terse, reasonable, eminently readable and informed descriptions of all three in one place.
IMNSHO, the most serious topics are where Zumsteg's background and appreciation for understanding and presenting baseball history is where the book excels. In lighter sections such as Heckling and Doctoring the Ball, the gravitational field that pulls edgy humor over into the "sophomoric" zone seems stronger, and for a summer bagatelle this isn't fatal (I know how to skim snarky sidebars), but it did reduce some of my appreciation of the work.
And I think it's the bleeding into sophomoric humor that won this book its most widely-published pushback, a mildly-negative review of it by one of my favorite authors, former Yankee and Braves pitcher Jim Bouton, in the New York Times Book Review on April 1.
I'm sure the editor at the NYTBR thought she had a stroke of genius when she chose Bouton, master of edgy humor about Baseball, as the reviewer for Zumsteg's seemingly analogous tome. Maybe it was, but the reviewer left a couple of stigmata on the author she probably didn't anticipate. As an anthropologist, I'm not surprised, because one generation's edgy humor is another's bad taste or dead rat bounce. I think more than anything else, generational difference left baby boomer Bouton unimpressed by Zumsteg's work, and the lack of enthusiasm was juiced by what I imagine Bouton saw as a lack of respect for the game. In his own work, Bouton aimed his muckraking at individuals who, he believed, were too ignorant or sloppy or self-indulgent to show the institution the respect it deserved. I'm not sure Derek doesn't share Bouton's respect, but the author's tone might make it look to a reader like disrespect, especially in the lighter chapters. I wish I could perform a little thought experiment...go back in time and give Bouton only the three serious sections I mentioned earlier; I suspect the ex-pitcher would have been a lot more positive.
But there it is: an entertaining summer bagatelle that (strangely enough) excels when it's being the most serious, The Cheater's Guide to Baseball is a bit of an outlier, but one I'll end up keeping in my library to loan to people who don't "get" the supplements issues or why Pete Rose isn't in the Hall of Fame.
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