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Book Reviews

Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters

by Mark Kingwell

Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game That Saved Me

by Stacey May Fowles

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When Roger Angell started writing baseball essays for The New Yorker in the 1960s, he knew he’d need a fresh angle on the beloved game. He found it right where he was sitting: in the stands. Instead of analyzing trades and plays like all the other sportswriters, he wrote from the vantage point of a spectator, became the game’s best writer, and, in 2014, was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. When writing about sports, it can pay to remain, first and foremost, a fan.

In Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game That Saved Me, journalist, novelist, and essayist Stacey May Fowles conveys the sheer joy of the game even as she challenges its (mostly white male) orthodoxies. She makes herself vulnerable at the outset by referring to the sexual assault she endured as a teenager. Baseball became her church, a place of solace where she began healing from PTSD, anxiety disorder, and depression.

This is the recurring theme throughout the book’s 33 essays: baseball as lifeline, a place to belong and be made whole amid the painful messiness of life. “Each spring, without fail, it offers renewal,” Fowles writes. “As everyone’s stats roll back to zero, we’re all given the opportunity to begin again.” Never morose, Baseball Life Advice – named after the author’s e-newsletter of the same name – brims with hope and optimism.

Fowles is a persuasive baseball evangelist. Better still, she’s an inclusive one. All are welcome in her Church of Baseball, especially the marginalized. Fowles incisively takes on the toxic undercurrents and gatekeepers of sports culture, including those who sideline women from fandom and sports journalism, or include them in the most patronizing of ways (see MLB’s pink on-field Mother’s Day uniforms). Taken together, these essays call for a higher level of sports culture – one that’s more welcoming, empathetic, and joyous.

Blue Jays fans will find lots to savour here, with chapters on Marcus Stroman, José Bautista, Josh Donaldson, and (yes!) Dioner Navarro. Entries from the 2015 and 2016 playoff runs reflect the euphoria and eventual heartbreak of those days. Fowles captures just the right amount of detail to bring the diamond to life, never bogging down her reader in too many facts and stats. This is a delicate balance for any sportswriter, one she navigates deftly.

“Every day, this sport has something new to offer,” Fowles writes. “Some new lesson or perspective, a new rule to unpack, or a new piece of historical knowledge to pick up.” One hears echoes of Angell, who, after he’d written about baseball for a decade, marvelled that “I have not yet come close to its heart.”

Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters, by University of Toronto philosopher Mark Kingwell, is a wide-ranging collection of reflections and philosophical ruminations on the game. In previous books, Kingwell interwove philosophy with subjects as diverse as Glenn Gould and trout fishing. His newspaper writing, in The Globe and Mail and elsewhere, often brings philosophy to current affairs in an accessible way.

Fail Better is a mixed bag. The chapters aren’t essays per se, but what Kingwell calls “linked interventions.” The book oscillates from the personal and humorous (his experience playing on a hapless Globe slo-pitch team in the 1980s) to the densely academic (a tedious examination of the differences between territorial and linear games). There are interesting tidbits on legendary Blue Jays announcer Tom Cheek, the art of keeping score, and the short-lived Winnipeg Whips, an early-1970s Expos farm club.

If you are really into both philosophy and baseball, this may be the book for you. But for a layperson, Fail Better often feels like a slog, more lecture hall than summer game. “The game is ordered by the rules, but it is not contained by them,” begins one chapter. “More mysteriously still, it is not constituted by them: baseball is so much more than the rules laid out to govern its play.” The book crawls along too often in this dry manner, stating the obvious with no new twist.

Kingwell’s prose gets engaging when he is personal and even polemical. His rant on TV sports as fascist is entertaining. “The medium itself is authoritarian,” writes Kingwell. “You must sit there, watching.” Of course the philosopher prefers an oral medium over the visual: “Baseball on radio is pure summer joy, three hours spent in outs and innings, in the company of those voices and ourselves.”

Later, Kingwell analyzes the Jays’ World Series wins in the 1990s as a “truly critical colonial response to strategic cultural envelopment” by the U.S., similar to India and Australia one-upping their colonial British rulers in cricket. This is vintage Kingwell, using his formidable smarts to bring insight from the academy to a broader audience. Unfortunately, in Fail Better, these flashes of originality are too few and far between.