Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lesson learned from Braves fan memoir: Use your library card

Memoirs are a tricky genre. Best seller lists are typically chock full of them, though those same hot titles will undoubtedly find their way into the discount bin if you give them enough time. Tina Fey's Bossypants will come and go, as will the new releases by Sammy Hagar, Barbara Eden, and Shirley MacLaine. A quick book tour to dust off the cobwebs of their popularity, then back to the land of has-beens for most of these "authors."

When a memoirist doesn't have celebrity to sell, they need a hook, something a reader can identify with. Those of us who grew up collecting baseball cards in the 1970s saw something of ourselves in Josh Wilker's Cardboard Gods, which came out last spring. Two years ago, Greg Prince's Faith and Fear in Flushing celebrated his obsession with the Mets, which paralleled on some level my passion for the Mariners growing up in Seattle. It may not have been a home run for every fan, but for Mets partisans it was crushed out of the park.

I'm not sure Braves fans will feel the same about this spring's In the Time of Bobby Cox: The Atlanta Braves, Their Manager, My Couch, Two Decades, and Me. While Lang Whitaker details some of the team's highlights over the past 20 years, this is not an exhaustive recap of every playoff run. Instead, Whitaker presents in each chapter a trait he has learned over his long tenure as a Braves fan, intertwining his life lesson with an example from the team.

He gives us chapters such as "EMOTION: How Greg Maddux Is Like Traveling Cross-Country with Your Grandparents" and "ADAPTING: How Jeff Francoeur Is Like Teaching Yourself to Cook." Whitaker weaves stories about his personal life and the Braves, alternating back and forth every couple of pages until the chapter concludes with the life lesson having been neatly supported by the tale of whichever Brave is being discussed.

Only most of the pairings didn't really work for me. They felt contrived. Chipper Jones isn't like going to college. Especially in Whitaker's case, as he dropped out of the University of Georgia after two years. David Justice's failure to keep the hearts of Braves fans after such a promising start to his career isn't really that much like Whitaker's failure to throw strikes in a gas station commercial.

More disappointing to me, however, was the lack of in-depth analysis into the Braves' play over the past two decades, which I guess is what I was expecting going into this one. This isn't a sabermetric handbook by any stretch. He spends most of the second chapter bashing the 25th man on various iterations of the team, expressing his frustrations for Cox and GM John Schuerholz "keeping at least one player on the roster who is having a below-average season." This reminded me of the time when I was 13 and wrote a letter to the Mariners asking them to dump Thad Bosley (who hit just .174 in 46 at-bats that year). Bosley's next five seasons: .292, .296, .328, .275, .279. Maybe cutting him (which the M's did, though probably not specifically because I requested it) wasn't the right move after all. But it was probably what a lot of Seattle fans were yelling at their TVs back in 1982.

There were several points in this book where I felt the level of analysis was only about as deep as the average fan might be shouting from their couch. I wanted more than that. Whitaker, while not a baseball reporter, does write about sports for a living, covering the NBA for SLAM magazine. But I didn't really learn anything here, and apart from the bit at the end where I sympathized with Whitaker's and his wife's challenges in starting a family, I didn't really feel drawn into his personal story. Certainly not the way I was sucked in by Wilker's in Cardboard Gods.

If you must, I'll recommend checking this one out from the library. Save your money for Bossypants.


  1. Your legitimate criticisms make me want to read this book, if only to understand why and how a baseball memoir can fail. I enjoyed that witty final sentence.

  2. I thought for a while before I wrote this review about why this book didn't work for me. I considered the reasons people read: to be entertained, to be informed/learn something, to relax, as an escape, for the craft of the writing itself, etc. This book just didn't satisfy any of those. Cardboard Gods was so beautifully written it could be worth the read just because of the way Josh Wilker writes. Didn't hurt that he had a more interesting tale to tell.