Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Book Review: “Faithful”

My pal Nathan gave me the book “Faithful” by Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan. It wasn’t Christmas. It wasn’t my birthday. It wasn’t Valentine’s Day. He just gave it to me because he’s a good dude. And he’s a true sportsman and a great baseball fan- maybe the best I’ve ever met - because it was less than a month after the World Series and he was probably still stinging. In fact, as long as we’re on the subject, Nathan is such a good dude that he was the 1st person to congratulate me after the ALCS and the 2nd to congratulate me when they won the World Series. (2nd only because my friend Big Tony called me after Johnny D hit his dinger in the top of the 1st, prematurely proclaiming “IT’S OVER! POP THE CORK!” I shouldn't have answered the phone.)

So, thanks Nathan. In the immortal words of "Old School": Blue, you’re my boy! YOU’RE MY BOY, BLUE! Here's my NY Times book review:

> I recently finished “Faithful” and can recommend it to all Sox fans. How can you not enjoy a book that documents the greatest baseball season ever – with writers who are great at telling stories? Having said that, if you’re NOT a Sox fan, this book will be completely useless to you. Don’t even bother.

The book moves quickly, and the authors’ moods swing from high to low to high again as they recap all 162 games. (Being a fan is tough business, they remind us, because YOU HAVE NO CONTROL.) They get a little too excited in May and then a little too down in July. They are appropriately outraged in late September as both Francona and the Twins’ Gardenhire sabotage golden opportunities to gain on the Yankees with bonehead pitching rotations. (Remember?)

The authors start counting their non-baseball blessings after ALCS Game 3, then ever so slowly come to the realization that they’re witnessing a historic turn-around. Amusingly, neither world-class writer can find the words to describe the final 8-game streak. After Foulke flips the ball to Mientkiewicz for the final out of the Series, O’Nan just sits there saying “Wow, wow, wow...” King can’t come up with his own words, so instead he quotes radio announcer Joe Castiglione (though Joe’s call didn’t have the spontaneous emotion one would expect, probably because the Series was such a blowout) and he also reprints all of the short and sweet headlines that appeared in the papers the next day.

King and O’Nan are very funny and generally on target with their observations. King is a bit of a doomsayer and O’Nan is a believer and optimist, which makes for interesting exchanges. The authors try to watch the games on TV or be in attendance whenever they can, but like us, they often have to settle for snippets on the radio or watch the highlights on SportsCenter or NESN. The daily recollections are amusing either way. When they can’t watch the game, they’ll describe the mood of the NESN announcers who provide the highlights.

King is at his funniest and most passionate during the Sox losing streaks (especially in July) and whenever they lose to the Yankees (especially the sweeps). He invents some spectacular variations on the F word that will really impress the kids. Though I’ve always been a Stephen King fan, two diatribes in particular prove once and for all that we are soul-mates: One Birkhead-esque rant in which he drives an irony-free stake through the idiotic notion that “all literary men must be Red Sox fans”... And another in which he RIPS the Boston sportswriters and radio morons for creating an aura of negativity around the team, around Nomar, and in the city. Brought tears to my eyes.

O’Nan is a bit of a baseball freak. I enjoy his writing but I could never go to a game with him. He frequently goes early to games with a giant fishing net to shag BP balls. He tramples little kids to get autographs. He screams at players as they get out of their cars in the parking lot. He goes down to the field during warm-ups and says obnoxious things right to the players faces (including Jeter). He’s sort of overly involved if you ask me, but it makes for good anecdotes. He’s close enough to the dugout to overhear a sarcastic Billy Mueller remark, when Mueller sees Varitek penciled to bat 2nd on the lineup card: “Aren’t we trying today?”

To his credit, O’Nan foreshadows the victory ahead more than once, by explaining that all it takes is ONE WIN for a city to reverse its reputation. His basic premise is that a World Series win is inevitable, just given a frequent playoff team and the law of averages. And how smart does he look now?

The book won’t be useful as a historical reference, however. Both authors are so enamored with 2nd-fiddles such as Daubach, McCarty and Youkilis that they forget to clue you in that Manny, Ortiz and Schilling are carrying the team from game to game. In August there’s a jarring comment that Ortiz, who has barely been mentioned in the book, is having an MVP-type season. There are similar late season footnotes about Manny and Johnny D, Schilling and Pedro. It feels like there are lots of missed opportunities to talk about the bread-and-butter guys. For example, the authors are never sold on either Cabrera or Mientkiewicz, though each clearly had a major impact in August and September (Dave Roberts, however, they are quickly sold on).

For his part, O’Nan starts the book giving elaborate recaps of every game, pivotal or not, which is a little tedious. And he has the annoying habit of not updating the score in his summaries. So I found myself re-reading each of his recaps just to figure out which team was ahead or behind in each game. Over time he starts pacing himself and learns to only deep-dive on the important games.

King’s approach is better. He gives you just the highlights, etches the big plays into memory, and is better at explaining what you're most interested in: how he's feeling. King’s problem is that he talks about himself too much and plugs his creative projects a little more than necessary. Having said that, it is kinda cool that he’s recognized everywhere he goes as a Sox fan. And he’s not shy about reminding you about how good his season tickets are, right next to the Sox dugout. And O’Nan, understandably, is constantly leeching onto the seats whenever King can’t go to a game, which is kinda funny.

Both guys are big on pop culture references and know the history. Like me, O'Nan wonders out loud if King's little girl still loves Tom Gordon. (We never get a straight answer - I guess only if he's traded back to the Sox.) And since it's a Sox book, the clever bleacher rejoinder "Who's your dealer" scores more points than than the media-driven "Who's your daddy."

It's a blast to relive the rollercoaster ride, and if you're missing Summer it's a nice Winter read.

But this, ladies and gentleman, is how "Faithful" will be judged by Red Sox fans: During the darkest moments of July - and when down 3-0 in the ALCS - both authors dig deep to find reason to believe. Faithful indeed.

> My next review: The upcoming art movie “Fever Pitch,” coming to a theater near you April 8th. Jimmy Fallon is no genius but he was great when he played a Sawx fan on SNL... and better Jimmy than Ben. So in other words, I JUST CAN'T WAIT!!


Anonymous Big Tony said...

Big Tony says you two guys missed your callings, you both "coudda been contendas" in the sports literary world. Keep up the greay writing and I'm sure I'll have something to say along the way.

1:59 PM  

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