Everybody loves an underdog. Paul Lonardo has brought you the compelling story of 25 of them in his new book, Strike IX: The Story of a Big East College Forced to Eliminate its Baseball Program and the Team That Refused to Lose.
The background on the book is that Providence college, despite having fielded a baseball team since 1923, found itself in the midst of an era in which a number of colleges were scrambling to comply with Title IX regulations—the US laws against gender discrimination by colleges receiving federal funds—or risk being sued.
Providence, like most colleges, decided that it was simply easier to eliminate some existing men's sports, especially those with large rosters, than it was to support additional women's sports teams, and a 25-man baseball team seemed the perfect candidate.
The twist comes when the 1999 Providence College Friars decide to fight back, not by actually saving the team—that only happens in Disney movies, folks—but by playing so well that everyone would know exactly what they're missing when the Friars depart. It's not exactly The Bad News Bears or Major League, but you definitely get the impression that the athletes kind of think of themselves that way.
Lonardo covers the story predominantly from the perspective of the student athletes, though he does a good job of creating context for the reader, including the history of Providence College, the culture of baseball programs in the northeast, and the pros and cons of the Title IX law and its results in more general terms, particularly with statistics demonstrating the law of unintended consequences.
But he mostly gives you the story of the players' feelings and experiences, including some of their game feats, which were many for a team that went 47-14 and came within one game of playing for a national championship. Still, he manages not to bore you with gory details from game stories (unlike some other books I've reviewed), striking a nice balance, at least in terms of sports vs. human interest.
The book is not, however, terribly balanced when it comes to telling the school's side of the story vs. that of the players and coaches. That's acceptable, I suppose, as most people don't want to hear about the trials and tribulations of a large corporation, or even a modestly sized college. Guys in dirty baseball uniforms make for more sympathetic figures than a bunch of middle aged white men in business suits.
Providence, being in Rhode Island instead of Georgia, Arizona, California or Florida, is hardly a breeding ground for major league talent. In fact, journeyman infielder John McDonald is the second best player ever to come out of Providence, and he wasn't on this team.
So you likely won't recognize any of the players names, which helps give them an underdog feel. And the fact that they did things like hitting .342 as a team and winning almost 75 percent of their games can only add to your admiration of them.
The writing itself is not bad, but nothing special either, and Lonardo's use of profanity in his own prose comes off as unprofessional and distracting, at least to me. Because the book is self published, and this is the first edition, there are some errata in it that can also be distracting if you're as nitpicky as I am, but hopefully you're not.
Still, the book's real appeal is its compelling, underdog story, and in that it truly delivers. The 1999 Providence Friars may not have won it all like the Cleveland Indians in "Major League", but they made such an impressive run and turned so many heads in the process that they assured their legacy alongside some of the great Cinderella stories in history.
Carl Spackler would be proud.