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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Top of the Order

Maybe it is because the season is so long, some 162 games stretching over a full six months during which a baseball fan can live and die with his team for three or four hours at least five days a week. Maybe it is because the game attracts the kind of sports fan who loves nothing better than immersing himself in the detailed statistics and history of the game. Whatever the cause, there is just something special about the long-term bond between a baseball fan and his favorite players and team that other sports do not quite seem able to match.

Even though most baseball fans have a favorite all time player, they might find it difficult to explain their choices to other fans because not everyone makes the obvious choice. It would be too easy if everyone chose Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Albert Pujols, Barry Bonds (unlikely, these days) or one of the game’s great pitchers. Choosing a favorite player is a personal thing and many fans choose their favorites as much for what they do off the field as for how those players have affected the record books.

In Top of the Order, published just in time for the 2010 baseball season, twenty-five journalists, novelists, former players, and entertainers offer short pieces about their own favorite players and how they made those choices. Some of the players chosen are surprising, some not, but the real fun of Top of the Order comes from reading how and why these particular players were chosen. Among the more expected choices are players like Tom Seaver, Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols, Jackie Robinson and Mariano Rivera. But among the twenty-five favorites are also players like Steve Dembowski, Michael Jordan, Mookie Wilson, Neifi Perez and fictional catcher Crash Davis. Many readers, I suspect, will be drawn first to the essays on the second group of players out sheer curiosity to find out why a fan holds them in such high regard. As author W.P. Kinsella says in the book’s foreword, “Favorites, it seems, come in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of talent.”

Readers/baseball fans will delight in the relationship between writer (and minor league pitcher) Pat Jordan and his all time favorite player, Tom Seaver. They will be astounded by the unique talent that Steve Dembowski, Jim Bouton’s choice, had for getting hit by a pitch almost at will and how he was never given a look by a major league team despite his incredible college career .729 on base percentage. They will perhaps wonder at how Whitney Pastorek could still choose Roger Clemens as his favorite all time player knowing what we know about the man today. And they will enjoy revisiting the careers and personalities of some of the greatest players who have ever played the game.

A portion of one paragraph from Jonathan Eig’s remarks on Lou Gehrig, though, says it all for the baseball purists out there who so strongly detest how the steroid-generation of players has corrupted the game and its history: “As a boy, I hadn’t cared a bit if my heroes were decent or dreadful people. They were ballplayers, and that was all. Now, with Bonds, one of the greatest ballplayers of all time struck me as one of the lowest pieces of dung ever scraped from the bottom of a shoe. He didn’t just kill the notion of ballplayer as hero. He beat it to a bloody, lifeless pulp, and stood over the corpse and sneered.”

There is something in Top of the Order for everyone, even non-fans of the game, but Eig’s words are sure to touch the hearts of those who feel betrayed by what was allowed to happen to the sport for so many years, depriving the true greats of their records and cheapening those very records forever.

Rated at: 4.0
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