Friday, May 27, 2011

New releases lack allure of last year's titles

There's still plenty of time left and plenty of releases I need to get to, but I have to say I'm a little disappointed in this year's crop of baseball books. Whenever I pick up a new release, I weigh it as a possible "best of 2011" candidate. To this point, I've only hit three for which I can make a compelling argument (John Thorn's Baseball in the Garden of Eden, Neil Lanctot's Campy, and Jonah Keri's The Extra 2%). Last year by this time I had read a good half dozen I felt could go on the annual top 10, with at least three that I knew I couldn't be talked out of no matter what.

I've yet to fall absolutely in love with any title this year. Thorn's book was a tremendous piece of research and will stand up as an important volume at least until he or someone else is able to unearth even more detail on baseball's roots. But it wasn't the kind of page turner that keeps me up late into the night. It's been too long since I've been tempted away from sleep. I could blame Josh Wilker (Cardboard Gods), Jeff Gillenkirk (Home Away), and Dirk Hayhurst (Bullpen Gospels) for bags under my eyes last spring. And though Joseph Wallace's Diamond Ruby didn't make our top 10 last year, I'm a sucker for a good baseball novel and stayed up a couple nights thinking "one more chapter, just one more chapter" while working my way through that one.

This year, for the most part, it's been station-to-station baserunning. Hit the end of a chapter, check the clock, go to bed. There are a dozen books on my list of on-deck candidates, but the only one that has me very excited is Chad Harbach's novel, The Art of Fielding, which has been creating something of a buzz in publishing circles, even generating some noise at this week's BookExpo America. Unfortunately, it doesn't come out until September. I'm optimistic George Vescey's Stan Musial will be good, and I've heard some nice things about Dan Barry's Bottom of the 33rd, but I guess I'll see when I get there whether they live up to expectations. I've certainly hit a couple already that did not. (Ahem, Parents Behaving Badly, ahem, In the Time of Bobby Cox.)

One of my personal favorites this year has been Pitchers of Beer, by Dan Raley, about the history of the Seattle Rainiers, though I realize it's probably got more regional than national appeal. Having grown up in Seattle, I'm sure I'm inclined to rank it higher than those who hail from other parts of the country. I liked it so much I sent my copy to my uncle, who used to take me to Mariners games when I was a kid. He grew up watching the Rainiers, and I kept thinking of him as I read it. But can I put it on the top 10 in December, given its possibly limited appeal? Probably not. It will likely wind up in the near-miss category, along with another University of Nebraska Press release, Pitching in the Promised Land. Nebraska cranks out a lot of very solid books. While they may not create the buzz of some of the most popular releases, they never seem to have a clunker.

What am I missing? What have you enjoyed so far this year? Are there must reads out there that are slipping past me? Or did the Class of 2010 set the bar so high that this year's crop is just not able to reach it?


  1. One of the problems is that there were so many high profile bios last year: Mantle, Maris, Aaron, Mays. With all due respect, they're going to the second level of Hall of Famers (which seems like an oxymoron) with the Campy book as well as Jim Kaplan's book cover the Spahn-Marichal duel. Vecsey's bio on Musial is better than the two recent books over the last few years, but the St. Louis legend has never had the same buzz as those written up in 2010.

    Shawn Green's "Stillness at 95 MPH" might be a bit "too zen" for most readers, but it is one of the more thoughtful memoirs written by a player in recent years.

    Haven't read it yet, but Dan Barry's "Bottom of the 33rd" has been getting good buzz, too.

    But overall, I agree with your assessment about the general lack of hot titles in 2011.

  2. Ron, I'm about halfway through "Stillness at 95 MPH," and I agree it's unique and thought provoking. I set it aside when I got my copy of Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding" this weekend. I've got a long way to go, but I think it will be a huge hit. Certainly one of the top baseball novels to come along in a while. Doesn't come out until September, but I just had to read it now.