To be honest, baseball remained on my periphery until fairly recently. Growing up in the South, I cut my teeth on college football—my dad played for South Carolina—so I could never understand the appeal of watching guys stand around spitting tobacco, waiting to see if one of them could hit something. (I can hear the howls of protest now.)
But the seeds of interest were being planted. My grandfather, who we visited each summer, exemplified true team loyalty: He faithfully watched the Atlanta Braves for decades despite the fact that they were terrible. I picked up a few minor league games here and there, and took in a Yankees game in college with my New Jersey boyfriend. And then a few months ago, my husband and I moved to Chicago, a city not content to have merely one baseball team. The day we made an offer on our condo, we went to our first Cubs game, and for the first time in my life, I found myself solidly focused on the game.
So when Jim Collins’ The Last Best League arrived in the mail, I was intrigued. Collins has written about college baseball’s premier summer league—the Cape Cod League, from which one of every six major league players have come—including Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Albert Belle and Tino Martinez. To form the 10 teams in its two divisions, the CCL culls the very best college players, and both agents and Major League talent scouts come to watch them play ball. Ultimately, though, the book is far less a Moneyball than a literary version of A League of Their Own.
Obviously I knew none of this when I began reading. But one of Collins’ strengths is providing exactly the information a reader—newbie, expert or somewhere in-between—needs. The author follows one particular team in the CCL, the Chatham A’s, during the summer of 2002, through the ups and downs of the 44-game season. Into his narrative he skillfully weaves colorful scraps of both the league’s and team’s long history, particularly concerning John Schiffner, the team’s coach, and one of Chatham’s most successful managers in his then nine years with the A’s.
But Collins’ ability to get close to the players—the boys who come to the Cape from schools all over the Eastern Seaboard—results in the book’s potency. He neither venerates them as future sports gods nor tries to diminish their talent because of misplaced envy. He writes without sentimentality but with empathy and passion—passion for the game, and for its people. And since more team failures and individual moments of self-doubt than triumphs occur throughout the season, Collins’ prose sometimes turns painfully personal. When Wake Forest’s Jamie D’Antona hit his early season slump, he had an especially bad game. Afterward, Collins relates, D’Antona’s house-mom found the A’s brilliant but erratic third baseman/power hitter shaving his yellow-bleached hair while repeating, “I suck, I suck, I suck.” (By the way, D’Antona doesn’t; he’s currently in his rookie season with the Arizona Diamondbacks.)
If one word describes The Last Best League, it’s balance. Collins tries—and generally succeeds—to be evenhanded and does so without boring the reader. The characters never become cardboard; the games never lack intensity; the outcome never loses any of its ultimate meaning—what will happen to these kids in the future? He makes you care, right up until the very last page. There was something more, though, that a less skillful writer couldn’t have achieved. I finally glimpsed why people call baseball America’s pastime, what—behind all the science, superstition and synchronicity—about the game seems so golden and synonymous with summer. It’s an indescribable feeling, but The Last Best League manages to capture a bit of this intangibility:
“No one went home early. The crowd seemed to swell as the innings marched on. Kids got a bedtime reprieve from their parents. The game was going to extra innings, the summer refused to end.
“And that was the heart of it. The game had the awesome ability to stop time. There was no clock in baseball. The players out there on the field were twenty years old, just as they were last year, five years ago, ten. Nothing had changed—that was the illusion. The generations blurred…. Johnny Schiffner watched from the dugout. These were the same kids out there, chasing the same dream, giving the same gift.”
I’ve been to more baseball games since arriving in Chicago—both White Sox and Cubs. But that first Cubs game converted me completely: The stadium was packed, the fans were loud, collegial (and increasingly drunk, but the camaraderie only heightened). And when the notes for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” began during the 7th-inning stretch, everyone—and I mean everyone—stood up and sang. Summer can’t come fast enough. I can’t wait to go to a day game in flip-flops and shorts, sunscreen slathered on, drinking beer and sweating in the heat.
So slap a Cubbie Bear hat on over my ponytail and call me a fan.