My grandpa gave me the only relic from his baseball past; a black hardcover book called The Pittsburgh Pirates by Frederick Lieb. It sat on my shelf for many years without ever being opened. I never sat in bed by candlelight watching shadows creep across its pages. I never liked to read. I played outside or watched TV.
But the book never moved and I brought it along wherever I roamed. It was there when my internal wiring rusted and I had no choice.I forced myself to labor through the early Pirate years of the 1880’s, the player profiles of names I can’t remember, World Series details, conflicts, contract negotiations, Barney Dreyfus, the Waner brothers, Honus Wagner. I don’t remember too many other details.
There was no mention of Steve Blass or Roberto Clemente. No Willie Stargell or Dock Ellis. Not even Bill Mazeroski or Dick Groat. The book covers the Pirates inception up to the middle of the 20th century. It’s chronological. I’d rather read “Nine Innings” by Daniel Okrent or “A day in the Bleachers” by Arnold Hano, but the black hardcover Pirates book is always “the book” in my mind and I don’t know why.
There’s been a reissue since the 1948 printing. It features a colorful head shot of Honus Wagner with smaller photos of Ralph Kiner and I think Pie Traynor and one of the Waner brothers or maybe it’s Fred Clarke. I don’t want it. I got the black hardcover. Maybe that’s why I call it “the book.” The faceless cover makes me wonder.
Or maybe knowing the book was my grandpa’s and wondering where he got it from is the reason? He grew up in Pittsburgh and claimed to be the bat boy for Honus Wagner, but he also claimed his mother danced with the Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Maybe his embellishment and far-fetched double talk stories is why.
It’s not the kind of book I would ever read three or four times. And I’m not into collecting first editions or old books and displaying them as decorations. It wasn’t my first baseball book either. That was probably the Baseball Encyclopedia or “Greatest World Series Thrillers” by Ray Robinson. The Pirates book didn’t fill me with curiosity. I didn’t scribble notes in the margins and find clues about what book I should read next.
Then I learned about Todd Helton keeping his own book and I began to understand or at least my perception about “the book” shifted a bit. Helton began his own book during the 1997 season as a rookie with the Colorado Rockies. He jotted down nuances and tendencies of opposing pitchers; probably been doing it since Little League. He must have learned a little more of what to expect. He’s earned over 90 walks in 8 out of 17 major league seasons, career .414 on base percentage.
Ted Williams and hundreds of other players probably kept similar books in their back pockets. But whether it was Williams, Helton or Mario Mendoza, their books were blueprints to becoming more efficient at their jobs rather than some vague and magical inspiration or whatever.
Baseball is a job to Todd Helton and all players, not a leisurely pastime. Ichiro’s father telling his young boy “the only way to succeed is to suffer and persevere” still echoes in me. I don’t subscribe to the sugar-coated saying “I love what I do for work.” It may be true to some degree. A good attitude makes the daily grind go faster or at least it alters our perception. But a job is a job is being forced to labor under conditions not dictated by our own free will. There’s no escaping it.
Oh, but there is…. I open the black hardcover Pirates book in my mind or stare at its cover when at home and I’m reminded of the buoy; of an endless distraction that solves the 10,000 year old existential question of what to do. I like baseball and all it entails and therefore the odds of me suffering boredom and depression diminish exponentially. I don’t suffer hamstring pulls, groin strains or blisters on my fingers.
Todd Helton’s book is no magical dream. It’s science. It’s toil and strain and frustration and erasing and crossing out and perfecting and tinkering and experimenting. It probably looks like the notebook of a music composer writing scales and notes and what not.
There’s a line that’s crossed when you walk onto a major league field for the first time. I don’t know how it feels and don’t want to. I’ve heard too many tales of awe getting sucked from the air after the initial wow am I really here fades. The grind kicks in and for most a whole lot of frustration and bitterness at a bar rail.
Not for me. Baseball remains mint in my mind. “The book” reminds me of this.