I see baseball everywhere. It’s almost a curse. I can’t help but associate everything that happens to me with some fleeting statistic or apocryphal anecdote.
Playing baseball has taken me many places—to pristine ball fields in Egypt and to the diamonds of Breezy Point that Hurricane Sandy later destroyed. I exhibited some small modicum of athletic prowess on the field, and now I spend countless hours dissecting those memories. Recollecting, my past experiences become legend. Nostalgia grips me tighter as I drift farther and farther away from the time in my life when I actually played the game.
Many writers have explored this wistfulness. The table of contents of Baseball: A Literary Anthology from The Library of America makes it clear that baseball writing is as much a national pastime as the game itself. From Don Delillo to Roger Angell, Phillip Roth to Bernard Malamud, a certain type of author—he tends to be a man—can’t help but address the performance of baseball when making sense of the American experience.
A new addition to this cannon is Josh Ostergaard’s The Devil’s Snake Curve. Ostergaard considers baseball’s relationship to social progress as well as our ugliest forms of tribalism. To quote Ostergaard quoting Noam Chomsky: “This stuff (Sports) is a major part of the whole indoctrination and propaganda system, and it’s worth examining more closely.” Throughout the book Ostergaard explores his classically liberal sources of discomfort—America’s propensity for war and Wal-Mart’s business practices, to name a few—and links them to our national pastime.
Ostergaard aligns baseball and history so that wonderful coincidences arise. Roth, Delillo and Phillip Dick all produced alternate histories where losers become winners, and Ostergaard is in conversation with these works, but at no point does he make up facts. Rigorous source notes conclude the book. Ostergaard writes, “The result is my subjective retelling of the sport’s history. In this project, my interests, methods, and aims have more in common with a curator in a wax museum than a historian in a university.”
Even at 90 MPH, Ostergaard establishes a zany but irrefutable link between baseball and history. An example:
Two days after Osama Bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, members of his extensive family living in the United States secured reservations for a charter plane, pilot, and crew to evacuate them from America. On the nineteenth of September, the Bin Ladens boarded a Boeing 727 that took them to Europe. Among the plane’s previous passengers were the Baltimore Orioles.
As the work progresses, connections form between different fragments. When a section about a father and son attacking the Royals’ first base coach quickly follows a section about 9/11, it makes profound if not poetic sense. Ostergaard quotes Carlos Beltran, a former Royals outfielder who later played for the Yankees: “We think we’re safe at the ballpark. What happened today, that tells us no matter where we are, we’re not safe.” Is Beltran talking about two nuts assaulting his coach or the terror-filled climate that followed 9/11? This essayistic and de-contextualized form builds meaning in the blank spaces—in those moments when the reader associates two anecdotes that seem unrelated.
Interspersed are the author’s personal recollections of a youth spent on dusty diamonds with a “pink wad of Big League Chew.” His character in the book has pledged allegiance to a series of perennial losers—most avidly the Kansas City Royals, but also and not as passionately the Chicago Cubs. “Their name, the Royals, made it seem as if the cow town with a crappy major-league history was desperately clinging to outdated notions of inherited nobility, the proper entitlement of the rich, and endorsing the subjugation of the common person by a class structure that once served the monarchies of Europe.”
The author pits his scrappy hometown squad against their far more successful enemies: the New York Yankees. The Yankees and their clean-shaven professionalism become a vessel that Ostergaard packs full of explanations about American life. Fans in between America’s coasts tend to hate the Yankees and their wealth and their 27 World Series titles. But it’s too simple to say that the author hates them as well.
At this point I should mention that the Yankees, which some have likened to an “Evil Empire,” is my favorite team. They have been ever since my Dad shunned the club that his mom loved—the Dodgers. That organization followed Whitman’s advice and moved west in 1957. Famed urban planner Robert Moses— the shaper of the modern city whose impact New Yorkers still feel today—wanted to build a parking garage instead of a new stadium for the newly relocated Dodgers. But I digress.
The [Royals’] logo was a blue-and-gold crown, as if by pretending their roots stretched to some vague ancestral title, Kansas City could trump the Yankees simply through the power of a name. But in calling themselves the Royals, they forgot what happened in 1776.
For Ostergaard—a fan of the perennial loser—this fascination with the perennial winner feels ripped from a high school movie. The Bronx Bombers are famous for luring players from teams like the Royals with large paychecks and championship rings. And like the four-eyed protagonist in a high school movie, Ostergaard’s feelings about those fancy, corporate Yankees evolve over the course of the book, as Ostergaard adds observations and vignettes about facial hair, Japanese internment camps and the flimsy arguments for a war in Iraq.
The larger context of this book took a great left turn during this summer and fall as the Royals made an improbable run to the World Series. They lost by the narrowest of margins. But when I considered their success and the odds of it happening the year Ostergaard published this book, it’s as if he willed them there. How else could someone write a book about the Royals’ futility the year they reached the World Series for the first time since 1985? It’s as if the baseball Gods divined it. As I entertained this magical happenstance I kept returning to this book’s dedication, a quote from The Wit and Wisdom of Yogi by Philip Pepe:
It wasn’t true. But nobody cared. They all laughed. They thought it was true. They wanted to believe it was true.
– Ben Oreskes