Back in 2010, I reviewed a book for Baseball America called Top of The Order: 25 Writers Pick Their Favorite Baseball Players of All Time. What struck me at the time was the randomness of the contributors, some of whom had no discernible connection to the game aside from being a fan. One might make a legitimate case that ought to be enough, but my point was as a reader I wanted access to something I couldn’t get from simply being a fan myself.
The concept of “Top of the Order” is a good one: “25 writers pick their favorite baseball players of all time.” Original, never-before-published essays on 25 baseball heroes. How can you go wrong?
I mean, what if you lined up Roger Angell, Donald Honig, Peter Gammons, Rob Neyer, and Joe Posnanski? Maybe mix in some newer voices like Josh Wilker and Will Leitch. All writing about their favorite players, providing insight or some kind of personal connection.
Okay, what if you didn’t get those guys, but still had some pretty good writers? Roger Kahn, Pat Jordan, Jim Bouton, Jonathan Eig—maybe Jeff Pearlman. How about an ex-player turned writer, like Doug Glanville? Not bad. Get W.P. Kinsella to write the foreword. Sounds promising. Who else have you got? Some music and film critics? Eh. A couple of fiction writers? Okay. The lead singer for The Hold Steady? Gosh, why didn’t you say so?
The day it ran I received the following email:
Maybe Jeff Pearlman!?
That Pearlman guy is the best baseball writer of his generation. The absolute best.
Enjoyed the review.
I took it then, and still do now, that he was being tongue in cheek with the “best baseball writer of his generation.” Still, I felt mildly awkward, for essentially having been called out—albeit in a sporting, non-dickish way—for belittling his contribution. Though my review overall was fair—not gushing, but my criticisms were focused mainly on a couple of the essays that just didn’t seem to work, including one which discussed players’ “sculpted buttocks”—I’ve always felt a little bad about it, if only for the offhanded remark about Pearlman.
I knew next to nothing about him then, and even that wasn’t so much known as assumed from the little awareness I had of his career. He was the guy who wrote the John Rocker story for Sports Illustrated. He had written a book about the 1986 Mets being bad guys. He had written a book about Roger Clemens and how he fell to earth. Ergo, he was a writer who liked to either take guys down or chronicle their fall. In my mind. Based on virtually nothing.
In the years since, I’ve become a regular reader of Pearlman’s blog. Aside from a blog about indie publishing, an N.C. State sports blog, and Carolyn Hax’s advice column, it is the only site I make a point of regularly visiting, on average 2-3 times a week. (Unlike me, he updates frequently enough to warrant regular check-ins.) I can’t even guesstimate how many times I’ve felt like a complete twat for making assumptions based on things he’d written (that I hadn’t even read, other than the Rocker thing 15 years ago), but it’s probably at least equal to the number of times I’ve read his blog.
Judging by the entries there, we had/have a lot in common. He’s three years younger than me, so most of his pop culture references are square in my sights. Politically, we’re both left of center. He’s mentioned several times being a gawky, scrawny, not-popular-with-the-ladies teen who spent most of his adolescence obsessing over sports. Check. Honestly, had he gone to my high school we probably would have been in the same fantasy baseball league together (and, yes, I started playing in high school).
Most of what Pearlman blogs about has little to do with sports, which is one of the reasons it keeps drawing me back. I get sabermetrics and all the new-fangled stats, but I don’t care enough to keep reading about them over and over. Or about how prospect X is the 37th best prospect in the minor leagues, yada, yada, been there, read that. I guess at this point I’d rather read something different. Something about everyday life from someone I can relate to. That’s why I used to regularly read Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods site when he kept it up.
I recently re-read Pearlman’s Top of the Order essay. His player was Garry Templeton, because as Pearlman put it, to an impressionable 9-year-old from lilywhite Mahopac, N.Y., he was “the ultimate badass.” It was actually quite entertaining and well written, and had it come earlier in the book, before I’d been thrown off by Vic Power and Michael Jordan, I probably would have appreciated it more then. When he writes of his adolescence it reminds me of scenes from some of Jonathan Tropper’s novels, particularly The Book of Joe. I imagine occasionally what a novel by Pearlman would be like. I’m convinced it would fall in that Tropper sweet spot, filled with dysfunction, snark, and awkward hilarity, though I see no evidence he’s planning to ever write one.
I’ve given up reviewing books for the time being. Mostly it was the time hit; it took too much time away from working on my own writing. But one thing I don’t miss is trying to feel like an expert on things I wasn’t as knowledgeable on as I should/could/might have been. Sometimes in order to really thoroughly review a book, one needs to read another book or two on the same subject. When time permitted, I did this. When it didn’t, I did my best. Sometimes that involved making assumptions based on limited knowledge. Sometimes that wasn’t the best approach.