Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Are We Winning By Will Leitch: Review

Let's just get this out of the way: Everyone knows already that I'm an unabashed fan of Will Leitch's work -- he's a friend and someone I admire, both personally and particularly professionally.

So if I recommend his new book -- Are We Winning? -- to you, it's your choice whether my fanboy attitude earns your discount or your trust. I hope it's the latter.

I'm not even going to talk that much about his book. It's better than "God Save the Fan," which -- while excellent -- felt more like Will's unifying theory (or perhaps closure) from Deadspin and the state of all sports. "Are We Winning" reads more like his opus: The book he was born to write -- about baseball, naturally.

But inspired by the book's release and the events of the last 24 hours in my life, I'm going to veer into self-examination:

Yesterday morning, my apartment started leaking from the ceiling.

"Leak" is probably too much of an understatement: I was shuttling between a half-dozen buckets of various sizes, dumping them into the tub when they filled to the brim, trying to catch everything. I felt like Super Mario. I went through probably two dozen towels, trying to sop up excess water spreading on the floor. When every single one of those was saturated, I burned through at least a half-dozen full rolls of Bounty.

At one point, I opened the front-hall closet -- part of the damage zone -- and I saw my baseball glove, soaked in the nasty brown-black liquid currently dripping (pouring, really) into the buckets in my front hallway.

The glove shouldn't have even been there.

A few weeks ago, the weather got nicer and I got an unshakable urge to have a catch. I rang up my neighbor Jason, I dug out my old glove from deep in a closet in the back of my apartment, and we wandered out to the local park to throw a baseball for a half-hour or so.

We did it again the next week and by the third week, I had come to really look forward to it, not just because I enjoyed our conversation, but because I just enjoyed the catch itself. I probably haven't done that -- just played catch -- since I was a year out of college, living with my closest friends in Wrigleyville, within a few blocks of Wrigley Field itself. That was 15 years ago.

And so that's how my glove came to be in that front-hall (soaked) closet, rather than in the back (dry) half of our apartment where the glove had been sitting in a box for at least a few years.


A brief digression on my history as a baseball fan:

*I have a predictably tortured relationship with baseball as a fan and participant. I didn't play as a kid. One week at baseball camp when I was 12 was enough to prove that "no-field, no-hit" wasn't a template for even a no-cuts youth-league player.

*I was a HUGE Cubs fan -- I remember calling the local cable company on a regular basis, begging them to carry WGN. My dad was from Chicago and a Cubs fan, and I inherited the fandom from him. In that magical 1984 season, I was 11 -- just hitting the age of fan consciousness.

*I played Strat-O-Matic somewhat obsessively from 1985-1988; me and my friends kept using the 1984 season cards, and as a Cubs fan, that was fine with me. Rick Sutcliffe was unbeatable.

*It felt unique to be a Cubs fan in DC. But my dad got a Sunday season ticket package to the Orioles after they moved to Camden Yards, just because a Sunday at a baseball game was fun. It didn't hurt that the O's were competitive -- and Camden Yards was new and amazing.

*Quality Shanoff Trivia: In my college freshman facebook (way before Facebook), under my "Interests," I listed "Chicago Cubs." I had this Cubs hat I had worn since I was maybe 12 or 13, perfectly broken in. By the end of college, I had lost it.

*Living in Chicago for college, my Cubs fandom actually atrophied over the four years -- although I went to plenty of games at Wrigley, which was priceless. (Standard Friday: Afternoon Cubs game, then this wince-inducing hour of cheap open bar at a place called Kronie's.)

*After college, living in Wrigleyville was -- up until I moved in with my wife -- the greatest living situation ever. It felt like the center of the baseball universe.

*After I left Chicago, my interest in following baseball day-to-day -- not just the Cubs -- waned. Maybe that means I was never "enough" of a fan. I just developed other sports passions.

*When I started writing the Quickie, my interest in baseball was entirely focused on the big "national" storylines on any given day. I lost almost all of the sense of a "personal" baseball fandom.

*Since then, I would say that my favorite baseball team is "my fantasy team," a league I have played in for six years (Leitch is the commissioner, coincidentally enough). Fantasy rekindled my interest in following baseball.

*I am pretty terrible at fantasy baseball. A year ago, I committed to getting better -- to playing more avidly and making the mid-season moves that generally keep a team competitive. I finished in the middle of the pack; it felt like a success.

*This season, after 4 weeks, I am in 1st place. It will likely not last -- whatever the fantasy equivalent of an unusually high "BABIP" is, I have enjoyed it so far. Nevertheless, first place feels like an achievement. I spent Sunday snatching Wade LeBlanc from the FA wire and feeling like a genius.

End of digression.


Even as the glove sits drying next to a fan, I can already tell it's going to smell too gross to use. I lament the glove's loss, because I have had it since I was a kid.

My first baseball glove as a little kid was a Scott McGregor model. I don't remember the manufacturer, just the signature. Come to think of it, I don't think the glove had an imprinted signature on it; I believe I actually got McGregor's autograph on the glove at an event he was at.

My next glove was my first "real" glove -- it was (machine-) autographed by Bruce Sutter. Unbeknownst to me, it was a pitcher's glove; at that point, I fancied myself a 1st baseman. I was mostly afraid of the ball, and figured having it thrown at me by a fielder was preferable to having it hit at me by batters. And the outfield was a non-starter, because I sort of panicked at the thought of catching towering fly balls.

My dad played in a softball game on the weekends -- god, this must have been 20 or 25 years ago, so he was older than I am now, but not by much. I remember he was pretty good, too, a compact but powerful hitter and solid defensively in the outfield. He didn't play baseball in high school or anything; he was just your average fun-on-the-weekend softball player.

He had this Lou Piniella model glove that I coveted. I'm not even sure that it had anything to do with Sweet Lou himself; I only got interested in him as a player because of the glove. I liked the glove's shape, its particular webbing and that it was so much more broken in than mine. I remember my dad kept it in his closet and I would sneak it out to play with. It was better than my glove in its construction, but it was also better than my glove because it was his glove.

One day, I finally wore him down -- as a parent now myself, I understand how this transaction works -- and he "traded" me his glove for mine. I was probably 14 or 15, because it still has the faint marking on it of "8/8/88" when I noted the date of the first Wrigley night game.

I have had the glove ever since -- more than 20 years -- packing it away as I have moved from home to college to my own apartment to my grandparent's house to co-habitation with then-girlfriends (whose father, ironically, was buddies with Lou Piniella) to business school to part of the boxes that I brought with me into my relationship with my wife.

Despite the fact that the glove has barely been used since college -- where I finally found my calling as a decent career as a crafty IM softball pitcher (until an unfortunate, Mitch Williams-style meltdown in the league championship game my senior year, in which my team was defending campus champs) -- I lug it around from place to place on the mere possibility that it might get used for a game of catch.

That is how I know that baseball remains core to me as a fan.

Even if I didn't come to the realization of that until the glove was gone.


Will's book is a lot about the relationship between fathers and sons and baseball. (The subtitle is, in fact, "Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball.") If that Piniella glove -- and, of course, the Cubs fandom plus the Orioles games -- was the connection point between me and my dad and baseball, then it begs the question of how I will connect with my own two young kids about the game.

I took Gabe to his first baseball game two years ago, when he was two -- the Brooklyn Cyclones. We sat in the front row directly behind home plate, because I neurotically wanted the netting there between the ball and my kid. Gabe was more interested in the PA announcer and the team's seagull mascot.

Last summer, we took him back to Coney Island, this time bringing along his 9-month-old brother Jonah. Gabe was mostly interested in the helmet sundae; Jonah squirmed.

Gabe has a small toy bat, and in his room, I pitch him oversized stuffed balls -- he has more eye-hand coordination than I ever did. The next step is to go to the toy store and get him a plastic tee. I'm sure his younger brother will want to join in.

It is not important to me -- in the least -- that my kids be good baseball players. I'd like for them to be decent enough in gym class not to be an outcast. I'd like them to enjoy intramural softball. I'd like them to appreciate a game of catch. I'd like them to be good baseball fans.

(On Saturday, Gabe marched into my room and, for the first time, declared a baseball allegiance: "I like the Yankees." As my heart broke a little bit, I replied allergically: "Ehh, you don't know what you like yet." I don't want to dump on his individuality as a sports fan, but come on: The Yankees? If I do nothing else as a parent, it's to insulate my kids from becoming Yankees fans. In New York, that is no easy feat. All that said: If he really wants to be a Yankees fan, I'm hardly going to push him away from that. Nudge him, maybe....)

In July, I'm taking my wife and kids to Chicago, where we are meeting up with my siblings and siblings-in-law and my dad, to celebrate the centennial of my dad's dad, who would have been 100 years old that month. He took my dad to Cubs games.

To continue the tradition, that weekend -- hopefully with my dad and siblings coming along -- I am taking Gabe to his first-ever MLB game: Wrigley Field on a Friday afternoon. I can't think of a more perfect way to introduce him to Major League Baseball.

Fathers, Sons and Baseball. That's what Leitch has written about, compellingly. If you want to enjoy what has instantly become one of my favorite baseball books of all time, read it.

(If nothing else, I will guarantee you that reading it will -- as it did for me -- make you consider your own relationship with baseball, your relationship with your parents (as it relates to baseball) and your relationship with your kids (or future kids) as it relates to baseball.

And I can't think of a more enjoyable thing to think about.

-- D.S.


Ross Jacobson said...

Did this IM championship meltdown you refer to happen at Northwestern's Long Field? Or where on campus did they play IMs at?

Dan Shanoff said...

Yes, at that time they held the softball IMs on Long Field. I still remember my collapse vividly, although overall I had a very good record as a starter.

As anyone who went to NU with me knows, I was a little obsessed with IMs there.

Steve Sprague said...


Push hard to make your kid a Met's fan. You live in NYC so I don't think there's any way he ends up a fan of someone other than the Mets or Yankees. Perhaps he'll develop a taste for being unique, as you did in being a Cubs/Bears fan in D.C., but odds are he'll fall in with the rest of his friends. If you really don't want him to be a Yankees fan start buying Mets gear post haste. Some trips to the new Shea would be in order as well. You need to act fast though. Fandom often times can attach for life at a young age. I got a whiff of the Pistons when I was 7 and 8 years old and didn't let go. Even through the '90s when many of my friends in Western Michigan were Bulls fans and enjoying the Jordan era, I clung to hope that the Grant Hill era would turn around.

Of course your initial thought that it doesn't really matter who he roots for is true. Just gently push him towards the Mets.

Ross Jacobson said...

Well as an IM referee supervisor, I'm probably the same way. Although I only have two championships to my name in my four years. Softball and flag football are still played out at Long Field. The basketball championships are played at Welsh-Ryan Arena while the regular season goes on at Blomquist.

I'm not sure what IMs were like when you were in school, but my boss said they've been overhauled in the past 10 years since he's gotten there.