* RK Review: 90% of the Game is Half Mental

Ron KaplanContributor IApril 22, 2010

And Other Tales from the Edge of Baseball Fandom, by Emma Span (Villard, 2010)

As much as I love baseball, there are times when I take a step back and wonder, “What am I doing with this nonsense? Surely, there are better ways to spend my time and energies.” And at the risk of being presumptuous, I think a lot sportswriters feel that way, too.

But then I come across a book Emma Span’s 90% of the Game is Half Mental and feel comforted. (I guess a subtitle for this entry could be a take-off on an old baseball saying: “Span and Sane and pray for rain.”) There are a lot of folks out there way smarter then I (or is that “me”? See what I mean?) who believe in the various pleasures of the game, whether it’s athletic, scenic, mathematical, or some other aspect. (Okay, so I’m a sheep.)

Span’s book falls into this category. Early on she quotes Roger Angell, which I repeat at length:

It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitive as a professional sports team, and then amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look — I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost.

What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring — caring deeply and passionately, really caring — which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naivete — the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball — seems a small price to pay for such a gift.”

Span, who covered sports for the New York Village Voice for a time, engagingly writes about the difficulties of tempering her “fandom” with her professional duties. It is a semi-unique viewpoint, given the dearth of women on sports desks and certainly considers the logistics of working in a lockerroom environment with athletes and male journalists and the necessity of trying to fit in, to be looked on as just a writer, and not a member of a particular gender. And, as regular readers of the Bookshelf know, I’m all about the insider’s view of the creative side.

At the same time, she’s not above offering her observations on how the game shortsightedly misses the mark.

You can tell a lot of what kind of audience a given TV show expects by paying attention to the commercials. I’ve spent thousands of hours watching baseball, which means I’ve sat through countless thirty-second spots for razors, hair regrowth, serum, erectile-dysfunction pills, and beer ads showing guys choosing Coors Light over women. There must be nearly an hour of ads during a typical Mets or Yankees broadcast, if not more, and often not a single spot is  targeted at me. I used to get a small pseudo-subversive kick out of how I was throwing awrench into all thse mareketing strategies–Ha! I am immune to your marekting efforts, m*****f******! I will not ask my doctor about prostate enlargement! — but then I just boguth a TV, which is better. [Italics in the original, but I edited the naughty word so the blog police won't block the Bookshelf).

It's these sprinklings of humor that make 90% so enjoyable and not a screed against the sport.

As a baseball afficianado, Span wonders about the need some have to dumb-down the game for women, comparing one book by two female writers to the "Teen Talk Barbie [who] so famously put it in my youth, ‘Math class is hard.’”

Span opines about sports talk radio, justifying her love for baseball with friends who aren’t fans, the tyranny of statistics, classic baseball movies that just don’t do it for her, and the difficulties of becoming a civilian again after having had that special access to the press box. When she writes about dealing with officious team officials in obtaining credentials when she worked for the Voice — a weekly publication — it brought back memories of when I was a part-timer for STATS and had to suffer the embrassment of having almost hat in hand to get wait to get clearance, finally receiving a limited-access pass just minutes before game time. It was like high school, with the cool kids (i.e., the regular scribes) enjoying all the perks while being relegated to the desk with the chair that had one leg shorter than the rest.

Despite all these little indiginties and doubts, Span writes towards the end,

…once in awhile I think I should give up on the sport altogether, that there are better uses for my time and money and energy.

But it’s not gonna happen.

Amen, sister. As a Yale graduate, Span falls into that “smarter than me/I” category, so what’s good enough for her is good enough for me.

For more of Span’s writing, visit her blog, Eephus Pitch (“Tossing pure junk about New York baseball”)