Thursday, March 12, 2009

Joe Torre & Roger Angell: When Received Wisdom Ain't the Latter

Almost anyone who loves baseball writing knows the New Yorker's Roger Angell

Roger Angell can be both great and incredibly frustrating, often for the same reasons. He relies on the invocation of the game's legends to create an atmosphere that probably never was. He sometimes writes things that verge sloppily on hagiography. They read like poetry. The only trouble is, poetry tries to evoke the truth, while Angell's nostalgia sometimes masks it with these neatly woven tapestries that are a poor substitute for history.

On the other hand, he can write about topics other writers don't get to sniff because he has the clout to get the quotes necessary or just the chance to opine. Angell is Angell; you know what you're getting.

Despite his name recognition or his presence in Ken Burns' Baseball, he's steadily been eclipsed in the excellence and accuracy departments by Ben McGrath, another New Yorker writer. McGrath wrote a piece on Manny Ramirez that skipped nimbly along the line between admiration and hilarity, and his piece on Tim Wakefield is still the best profile of modern knuckleballers — or, even, knuckleballers as a culture. What makes McGrath's baseball stories more fun to read is his willingness to let the story come to him. Angell frequently goes into his topic with a capitalized understanding of The Game, The Players or The Storybook Event: meanwhile, McGrath's there on the spot, and what comes out comes out.

That latter attitude could only benefit a reading of Joe Torre's (and Tom Verducci's) The Yankee Years, a book that Verducci wrote and that involves Torre speaking in quotes both as responses to Verducci's text and to interviews conducted at various times. McGrath could have had great fun playing with the balance of narrative, how Verducci's account advances a point just as Torre's understandable need to salve players' old wounds and advance more sympathetic views of events tends to undo it. Moreover, one gets the sense that McGrath might have played around more archly with statistics, steroids and contracts and how unlikely it is that Torre really could have stood in the midst of these dramas and been as much of a genially uninvolved baseball guy as he suggests he was.

Truth be told, I haven't had a chance to read but scattered chapters of the book (all of which I enjoyed), but that doesn't matter, as my quibble lies with the review of it. Because instead of using the process of review to look at steroids, stats and contracts in a more probing way, and instead of challenging Torre's narrative, the New Yorker handed this one off to Angell, abandoning deeper discussion in favor of something like fanboyism. While these Yankee years might be those of Torre's stewardship, this isn't an autobiography. It's an attempt at a record, one that Angell takes pretty much at face value because it would seem doing anything else would interfere with praise for the Yankee manager.

But worst of all is his reliance on lazy generalities that contradict himself even within the context of his own review. In honor of my favorite dormant baseball blog, Fire Joe Morgan, I'm going to ape Ken Tremendous' BOLD QUOTE+REPLY format again [underline emphasis mine]:

[A] glow of accomplishment and memory seems to accumulate around the 1996 and 1998-2000 Championship team players who made their mark and, it turned out, could not be replicated—Paul O’Neill, Chuck Knoblauch, Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, Bernie Williams. In saga and perhaps in reality, these were selfless grinders, old-fashioned types who persisted stubbornly in every game, moved up a runner, hit the ball to the right part of the field, even for an out, until the game was somehow won, while their successors fail because they don’t know or care enough about the concept. Torre says as much when O’Neill and Martinez and Brosius and Knoblauch take their leave after the 2001 season. Readers feel the yearning, too,
This is the silliest part of Angell's review. Every person he names, other than Bernie Williams, had weak offensive numbers during some of those dynasty years, had arguably mediocre numbers overall, would be questionable standouts on any non-championship team and has gone on to see successors at his position outperform him. Angell basically recycles here the tautology of "True Yankees" without anything to substantiate it, and he relies on the evasion of saying "saga and perhaps... reality."

Of course, Angell is one of the saga-makers, and his brief hiccup of doubt is dispelled later by his saying, "Torre says as much" (i.e. that those players' championship value was real) and by his unmediated acceptance of whatever Torre says. If Angell objects to saga over substance, he shouldn't trade in it. Instead of examining whether O'Neill, Martinez, Brosius and Knoblauch's later elevation to indispensability holds water, Angell accepts Torre reiterating the myth while omitting the fact that he himself is a fellow mythmaker.

Worse, in recycling the grinders hogwash, he states that "their successors fail because they don't know or care enough about the concept." This is extremely stupid for three reasons. One, "grinding" means nothing, unless it's something you're doing up on the ass of a girl or she's doing up on yours. Two, the most precious commodity in a game without a time limit is the thing that limits the play of the game: in this case, the out. Praising people for making outs "the right way" by "moving up the runner" is basically like praising someone for moving blood units by driving without a seatbelt into a wall. Sure, you're getting productivity. You're moving units. You're a moron if you haven't asked why it's not a good idea to move those units that way. Three, if Angell views these men as valuable contributors to offense — presumably by "tactically" preventing offense from happening by getting out — he contradicts his own point just paragraphs later. To wit:

That year, Torre rallied the Yankees after an ugly 21–29 start, and Verducci calls the team’s subsequent comeback, built on a torrent of offense—the most runs by any Yankee team in seventy years—his greatest coup as a manager.
Just years later, after losing all those "grinders" the Yankees scored so many runs in one season that it hadn't been done for basically a lifetime. What's Angell's point? The answer is: he doesn't have one other than tautology fed on tautology. Grinders win games. Grinders make the club better. Grinders are clubhouse guys. Team guys. They love the team so much, they make outs that make the game shorter. The right way. Meanwhile, people who hit home runs and score more runs than anyone?—they can't come through in the clutch. Because that's what wins. Not homers: rallies. Or something. To be honest, I'm just guessing as to what his reasoning could be, because I can't really fathom being a fan of one of the greatest offensive powerhouses ever and thinking they lost because they weren't grinding enough. Then again,

The real problem, as Verducci is at pains to show, is the lack of sound pitching, top-line starters in particular
Here Angell just abandons his earlier argument. He establishes that the difference between the dynasty teams was (I guess???) too many elite offensive stars putting up record numbers instead of slug-bunting outs to third basemen, invests something like brainpower in that, then says the real problem was pitching. Well, it was. Good for him.

It appears to have been a clubhouse joke, part of the open baiting that Rodriguez routinely endured. What was harder for him was the daily and season-long comparisons with his infield partner, Derek Jeter, the uncomplaining and iconic Yankee gamer who epitomized a selfless, unconscious disregard for anything but the inning or the play or the at-bat immediately at hand.
Grinders, gamers. Who play the game the right way. Move up the runners. Hit the ball to the right part of the field, even for an out. These people are gutty. Gritty. Not afraid'ta get a l'il dirt on 'em. Too busy gaming and grinding. No time for grooming.

It's like Angell sat down to write this with a pre-ordained ratio of baseball clichés to words.

Although silly in terms of word choice, the passage illuminates Angell's attitude toward the book and how his review serves his willingness to treat Torre's opinions as gospel. One of the things both Verducci is at pains to point out and Torre willingly acknowledges is the latter's preference for Derek Jeter and lack of relationship with Alex Rodriguez. This is very important, because while Derek Jeter is a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer, Alex Rodriguez could still wind up being the greatest player of all time. Unless you're counting intangibles, which tedious baseball mythologizers love to do in spite of its being literally impossible, Rodriguez is a superior player in every way.

Yet Angell persists in the Jeter mythmaking of the "uncomplaining and iconic Yankee gamer who epitomized a selfless, unconscious disregard for anything but the inning or the play or the at-bat at hand." This, in spite of reviewing a book in which both Verducci and Torre make it plain that Jeter insisted on remaining the team shortstop — despite being obviously inferior at the position — over bitterness extenuating from an interview Rodriguez gave to Esquire's Scott Raab years before. (I previously reviewed Raab's collection of celebrity profiles.)

Verducci devotes a whole chapter to Rodriguez's troubles when it came to fitting in, in the Yankee clubhouse, and Jeter's contribution to those troubles is unambiguous. Verducci notes that Jeter implacably demands unswerving loyalty from others, and Rodriguez's one misdeed was enough to earn him years of unflinching cold shoulders from Jeter. It's as if Angell managed never to read any of this. Instead, he read what Torre said; Torre likes Jeter; ergo, Jeet is unimpeachable.

Angell writes words for a living, so one would expect him to be familiar with their meaning. But he trundles out the word "selfless" in describing Jeter, and given his acceptance of Torre's vague baseball-emotional pronouncements in other areas, it's impossible to see this as anything other than parroting. If Jeter truly and selflessly cares for nothing but being a gamer, then freezing out a teammate for years only gives the lie to that description. Worse, refusing to relinquish a position to an unquestionably superior player hardly meets any criterion of selflessness, and that's long before getting to the explanation of having a bitchy junior-high grudge about what someone else said about you, years before, to a third party.

Maybe Angell would never see that. After all, he wrote a review of a book in which Torre opened himself to ample criticism but wound up merely echoing Torre's opinions as received truth. It's probably easy to have a blind spot to schoolgirlish vengeance when you can read a book that challenges your opinions of someone you totally like and come away registering not much more than sympathy for the object of your interest, dismissal of most else, or a passive journalistic as IF.

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