Baseball season is coming to a close (well, until all the playoffs and World Series and such). So it’s fitting to bring you the tale of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds, aka the Big Red Machine. My boyfriend Mike is an ardent Minnesota Twins fan but is equally ardent about Joe Posnanski, a baseball writer whose star is on the rise. Posnanski, now a writer for Sports Illustrated, recently published The Machine, and Mike has some thoughts about it.
I discovered Joe Posnanski thanks to Minnesota Twins bloggers’ repeated praise of the Poz’s writing. After sampling his blog last year, I managed to work through about a year of posts over the course of a few months. This feat (and it is a feat – Posnanski is prolific in his writing) converted me into one of his many blog readers excited about his new book about the 1975 Cincinnati Reds.
I grew up building an epic baseball card collection, so I recognized all of the names in the Cincy lineup from that year: Rose, Morgan, Bench, Perez, Foster, Griffey, Geronimo, Concepcion. Four Hall of Famers, plus a Hall of Fame manager. I knew the stars best, of course, and only through the eyes of someone who read the epilogue to the story. Pete Rose’s downfall, Ken Griffey playing for the Seattle Mariners with his son, Joe Morgan becoming a broadcaster.* The Machine brings out the personalities through anecdotes giving dimension that baseball cards never could. Knowing that Rose collected 4256 hits does not tell you how willing he was when manager Sparky Anderson asked him to move to third base to help the team. Quotes from Tony Perez (“Doggie”) show a sense of humor that I couldn’t get from the Donruss rendering of his smile that I saw years ago.
* I think the tremendous and now-defunct blog Fire Joe Morgan clouded my view of one of the personalities, though not his dominance in his playing days. Posnanski mentions the FJM blog at one point, as it (like Morgan’s baseball announcing career) has likely had a significant effect on Morgan’s legacy for some baseball fans.
Posnanski’s style tends toward the conversational, with asides and interjections thrown in that give the writing an informal tone. In his blog, Posnanski takes this a step further – his “pozterisks,” like the footnotes used by Dave Eggers and others, often lead to interesting tangents.* For The Machine, Ponasnaki excised the pozterisks and many of the corresponding minor tangents.
* The pozterisks can end up being longer than the text itself, as in this post detailing the hall of fame qualifications of shortstops Omar Vizquel and Dave Concepcion.
The voice I enjoy so much in Posnanski’s blog is lost to some degree (by necessity, I think) because of the distance to the characters in the book. Rather than interviewing a pitcher about that day’s performance, Posnanski has to piece together a world based on quotes and box scores. I appreciated the detail provided on each game and the players’ perspectives, but I lacked the connection I have with the players he writes about now.* Scenes such as Joe Morgan on the basepaths do overcome this distance:
Then something happened, something even Joe Morgan with his brilliant sense of language had a hard time explaining. The game slowed down. He had this feeling of destiny. He knew what was going to happen before it happened. Joe watched San Francisco pitcher Charlie Williams throw the ball in the dirt, and the ball bounced off rookie catcher Marc Hill. It was a wild pitch, and Joe took off for third base. Only then, suddenly, he slowed, no, more, he almost stopped about twenty feet from third base. He watched Hill grab the ball, and he watched him look toward third, and then he watched him throw the ball. It was exactly as he saw it. Hill’s throw was wild, and it skipped past third base and into left field. Morgan raced around third and scored the winning run.
As an apparent effort to counter to the historical distance, Posnanski reviews the cultural landscape regularly throughout the book. After wrapping up the game in the quote above, Posnanski turns to the world outside baseball: “Saigon fell as the Reds began their game in San Francisco. South Vietnam surrendered.” From the origin of baseball to Evel Knievel, he manages to lead the reader into a side conversation, only to relate it back to the Reds’ style of play.
* Of particular interest was the short-lived daily update on Joe Mauer, the Minnesota Twins catcher who leads the major leagues in batting average. As a Twins fan, it was wonderful to have one of the nation’s best baseball writers cover the team’s best hitter every single day. Especially on days when that hitter nudged slightly closer to batting .400.
The book conveys the length of the baseball season by following the manager and several of the lesser-known players on the team. Manager Sparky Anderson initially fears losing his job when critics begin to ask whether he’s the reason the Machine appears to be broken. Anderson tinkers by rearranging players and fiddles the lineup until he finally finds one that works. For the players being moved, it isn’t always easy, as Posnanski describes through meetings between Anderson and the players, as well as Ken Griffey’s silent fuming. Those types of details give more narrative meaning to the game-by-game vignettes that initially seemed like too much (do I need to hear about April 7 and April 9?).
Unlike the six-month baseball season, The Machine is quick. I read it in an afternoon while in an airport and on two planes. (The subtitle, I think, might be the longest part.) In that one afternoon, Posnanski packed in details and characters that are engaging and intriguing, and he even threw in some lengthy quotes from Pete Rose in his current role as autograph-signer in Vegas. With Posnanski, even knowing how the team ends up doesn’t take away from the writing.