Friday, April 24, 2009

TBBBC: Book 1 review

The end of April is upon us, and I've finished The Last Real Season, Mike Shropshire's account of the 1975 MLB season, gathered from his notes and stories he collected on the Texas Rangers beat for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The book offers up an extremely jaded view of MLB, which doesn't surprise me given that baseball writers are an extremely jaded bunch, as far as journalists go. Anybody who has to spend seven months with the same group of people, day in and day out, is going to find more than his share of warts and foibles and idiosyncrasies to write about. And there are plenty here, from Billy Martin's various psychoses to Willie Davis' "dude from another planet" act to the writer's own press box debauchery.

The problem is, we've pretty much heard all of this before. If the book had been released on the heels of the 1975 season -- after Ball Four, but before The Bronx Zoo -- it would have been a revelation. At the time, Jim Bouton was basically the only insider who had pulled back the curtain and revealed the seedier side of professional sports. Prior to the mid-70s, sportswriters were to athletes as the White House press corps were to the Bush administration. Their relationship was cozy, their secrets were safe, and all the power was on one side of the table.

But once Bouton -- and later Lyle -- exposed the American public to the travails of their heroes, nothing was taboo. Now, you can't swing a broken fungo at Barnes and Noble without smacking into a tell-all tome from the likes of players (Jose Canseco), managers (Joe Torre), umpires (Ron Luciano), sportswriters (Jeff Pearlman), minor leaguers (Matt McCarthy) and even baseball groupies (Alyssa Milano).

Thus, Shropshire isn't telling us anything we don't already know. There's little shock value here, even though it kind of feels like that's what he's going for. The most enlightening aspect of the book is its discussion of how the baseball world differed pre-free agency. The season is question fell on the cusp of a sea change in MLB -- Charlie Finley had begun to dismantle his Oakland A's dynasty, Catfish Hunter had signed a five-year, $3.5 million contract with the New York Yankees, and in a few months the whole financial structure of the game would be forever changed by wholesale free agency.

I'd have preferred to read a more detailed look at the roots of the free agency movement and how it changed the game, rather than more anecdotes about how many beers or how much tequila Shropshire swilled in the press box while banging out stories about the Rangers. For instance, he pointed out that after the A's failed to reach their fourth straight World Series, pitcher Paul Lindblad said he'd have to work on a Christmas tree lot that winter to make up for the $25,000 World Series bonus that he was counting on as part of his salary. These days, the postseason bonus is mere pocket change to most players, and certainly doesn't have a make-or-break impact on their financial bottom line.

If you're looking for a book filled with fun, surprising, even shocking stories from behind the scenes of a baseball season, check out Shropshire's first go-round, Seasons in Hell. If you've already read that, then I guess The Last Real Season might be the way to go. But don't expect much beyond a fluffy beach book that you'll forget the minute you set it down.Link

TBBBC rating: Two fungoes (out of five)

Now batting: The Entitled: A Tale of Modern Baseball by Frank Deford

On deck: Crazy '08 by Cait Murphy

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