Monday, October 30, 2017

Book Review and interview with author Rich Cohen on The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse

What if something happened that not only invalidated everything you had come to know and accept, but also ripped out the very core of your existence? And what if that event was the one thing you had been hoping for your entire life?

This is the dilemma faced by long-term Cubs fans after their team won the World Series in 2016, after a drought of 108 years. Rich Cohen addresses this deftly in his thoroughly enjoyable new book The Cubs: Story of a Curse.

A lifelong Cubs fan who spent many childhood afternoons sitting in the Wrigley Field bleachers, Cohen mines the rich history of the Cubs to help the reader understand the "stinking heartbreak of history" and "what a hundred years of losing does to your psyche." 

In examining the dreaded curse and all its impact--on players, management and fans--Cohen leads the reader on an entertaining tour of  "years of blown leads and late-season collapses." He also reminds readers that long ago the Cubs were actually one of the best teams in baseball for more than a decade. It's all there, the good times and the bad: Tinkers, Evers and Chance, Mordecai Brown and his three-fingered curve ball, the great pennant race of '08, Babe Ruth's called shot in the 1932 Series (against the Cubs in Wrigley Field of course), the long years in the nether regions of the National League cellar, Ernie Banks, Leo and the collapse of '69, Joe Pepitone, Dave Kingman ("it's strange how a player who hit so many home runs . . . can leave such a bad taste in your mouth), the San Diego ground ball and the Bartman episode. And he does so with an unmistakable flare that makes the book a very easy and enjoyable read.

In analyzing the pathos that inevitably afflicts those rooting for a bad team, Cohen's words ring true for fans of other long-suffering teams. His examination of the past half-century for the Cubs begs the question: did the actual curse cause the drought or did the fear of the curse, like belief in voodoo, cripple the organization and its members?

Cohen includes a lengthy interview with Theo Epstein which provides insight into the equally difficult tasks of dismantling the curse and building a championship team then takes the reader through the thrilling 2016 postseason that changed everything.

Due to connections from his famous father (negotiator extraordinaire and author of the best-selling book You Can Negotiate Anything Herb Cohen, who incidentally grew up with Sandy Koufax in Brooklyn) Cohen had access to the playing field and stars as a child and he includes anecdotes of meetings with Ernie Banks, Bill Buckner, Joe DiMaggio and Koufax. These experiences give added perspective and color to the narrative. Although Cohen is non-sports writer in his day job (contributing editor for Vanity Fair, former contributing editor at Rolling Stone among other gigs), he has written frequently about the Cubs in the past for Sports Illustrated--including one of the last major interviews of Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks--and wrote an extended piece on the Cubs curse for Harper's in 2000. So he comes with the necessary credentials to do justice to this subject.

Cohen is a great writer and shows it early and often. The guy can turn a phrase as well as Bryant and Rizzo can turn on a fastball. When he writes of the well-known habit of Cub fans throwing back home run balls hit by opponents, he says they, "vomit it back, reject it like a bad kidney."

For all those Cubs teams with no hope of postseason, "Autumn was storm shutters pulled over outfield grass."

"Hitting well is like being cool in high school. The more you want it, the harder it is." And during a Cubs World Series rally, "the piƱata had been busted open, the candy was spilling across the floor."

I recently caught up with Rich Cohen to discuss his book, his thoughts on the Cubs, the infamous curse and its affect on its fans.

What made you decide to take time out from your busy regular writing jobs to write this book?

"I've been a Cubs fan longer than I've been a writer. It's a primal relationship. Most of my sports stories have been about the Cubs. A significant part of the book I did about the 1985 Bears [Monsters] was about what the Cubs did to us all in 1984. There is such great material with the Cubs, such a great history. It's fun to dive deeper into that history. And, finally, when they won the World Series last year I knew it was the end of something we had come to know. This story is real. It's deep to me. This is my life."

You mentioned fun. You seem like you enjoyed writing this.

"I did. It was just so much fun to go back through the history of the Cubs. And to read about Eddie Waitkus and The Natural and to examine all these connection that wind the story of the Cubs together. There are a lot of things you've known forever as part of the culture being a fan, but when you dig deeper you get a much greater appreciation and understanding of the strategic structure of how it all fits together."

What are you're thoughts on the curse, was it real?
"Cubs baseball has really had a long tragic history. The great Chicago fire in 1871 actually destroyed the ball park of the Chicago White Stockings, who were the precursors to the Cubs. It destroyed their park and all their equipment and uniforms. They were battling for first place at the time, but had to finish the season on the road wearing piecemeal borrowed uniforms and they lost. It sort of set the trend for Chicago baseball as we've come to know it. And even when the Cubs had those great teams in the early part of the century, they should have won a lot more Series, but they didn't. Things just happened, to the team and its players. So the curse was there, even though it didn't actually happen or become formal until 1945. Once you know about the curse and look back you recognize that the team had a tragic history long before that but they didn't recognize it as a curse. So I think the curse identified something rather than caused it. But later, the weight of all those things, of history, caused more pressure on the team. Everyone knew the Cubs always lost in the end. Each time the team got close, they almost were waiting for something to happen."

What now, that the curse is broken?

"Winning the World Series changes the persona of Cubs fans. Forever Cubs fans have had this thing--believing in lost causes. They weren't ever going to win so they became baseball purists, they could cling to the beauty of the park, the game itself, the bleachers, appreciate all the little things. Now that they've won, we've entered a new era. That's good and bad. This group of players and front office broke the curse and they look like they're going to enter an era in which they will be competitive for a long time. But an entire generation will grow up not understanding how we felt."

Overall, this is a well-written, entertaining book that is not just for Cubs fans. Anyone who enjoys baseball will understand and appreciate the history of the game and the thoughts on losing teams and their fans. This is quite possibly the best baseball book of the year.

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Natural: When Hollywood Meets True Literature

Sometimes strange things happen on the journey from paper to the silver screen. That certainly was the case for Bernard Malamud's classic novel The Natural.

Both the book and the movie are very good; and perfectly appropriate for their intended venue. But despite sharing a title, basic plot and every single character, they are two completely different stories.

The difference between the book and the movie is perhaps best explained by the difference between literature and Hollywood. I have always followed a simple test to tell if a written work is true literature: the reader spends the first two-thirds taking interest in the plight of the characters while marveling at the author's use of literary devices such as metaphors, foreshadowing, similes and symbolism; then, often quite suddenly, the story shifts and something very bad happens to the main character, frequently due to some self-inflicted failing, and once completed, the reader feels miserable about himself and the general state of mankind.

Of course Hollywood can not dare follow the same formula--no one would buy a ticket (it's a strange human phenomenon that someone will willingly invest $4.95 in a book to feel miserable but will balk at plunking down twelve bucks for a movie ticket for the same treatment--we want to feel good walking out of the theater). No one in the movie industry can risk an artistic triumph that is a box-office failure. And therein lies the conundrum faced by the producers of the movie The Natural.

The book, definitely a downer, was written by Bernard Malamud in 1952 and was his first published work. Malamud went on to a distinguished literary career and is recognized as one of the top American authors of the 20th century (if there was an American Literary Hall of Fame he wouldn't be a first-ballot shoe-in like Hemingway and Steinbeck but would easily get in with the later ballots or by the veteran's committee). Malamud, 38 years old in 1952, was raised Jewish in Brooklyn during the Great Depression and this heavily influenced his work. He was the master of the antihero whose ambitions were constantly derailed and he often wrote about the sufferings of lower class Americans and immigrants.

We see this theme prominently in The Natural. The protagonist, Roy Hobbs, is a young baseball player of immense physical talent whose sole ambition is to be "the best there ever was." His dream is side-tracked, however, when he is shot by a mysterious woman in a hotel before he ever gets started in professional ball. Roy later appears in a major league dugout at the age of 34, still possessing the talent and ambition but, unfortunately, also still possessing the same poor judgment and character flaws that got him into trouble the first time around.

Malamud comes through with the requisite prose and tricks to punch the book's ticket as genuine literature. He heavily leans on the Arthurian Legend and the idea of the sports hero as a knight of old. It is no coincidence that the team for which Roy plays is the New York Knights. Roy wields a special weapon--a bat made from a tree destroyed by lightning (anointed by the gods)--named Wonderboy, which is as powerful and magical as Excalibur ever was. The manager, Pop Fisher, is similar to the long-suffering Fisher King of legend who yearns for the Holy Grail (the pennant). Young Roy defeats the great Whammer in a joust in front of the young maiden. An enemy pitcher is terrified by the sight of Roy at the plate, "In full armor, mounted on a black charger . . . with a long lance as thick as a young tree."

And it's always nice when the author throws us an easy one: when Roy is frustrated by the continued refusal of his amorous advances and mired in a horrendous slump, "Wonderboy resembled a sagging baloney." It doesn't take a Freudian scholar to see the symbolism in that.

I think it is important to note that Malamud grew up in Brooklyn in the '20s and '30s. Every kid in that time and place knew baseball and Malamud shows this clearly. He also cribs numerous real-life baseball players and events for his book. The Whammer is obviously Babe Ruth. And as everyone knows, the chick-shooting-the-ballplayer-in-the-hotel is eerily similar to the Eddie Waitkus shooting that happened only a few years before the book was published. The gamblers, bribe and little kid saying, "Say it ain't so," are taken directly from the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

One less obvious baseball reference comes when Malamud needs a quick way to get rid of Bump Bailey, Roy's rival for the femme fatale. Being from Brooklyn, Malamud was familiar with the unfortunate career of Pete Reiser--the 1941 NL batting champ and one of the most promising young stars of the era. Reiser, who Leo Durocher once said could do everything that Willie Mays could, had one flaw in his game--he simply couldn't avoid brick walls. Thirteen times in his short career he was carried from the field. In the most serious incident, he sustained a skull fracture and was actually administered the last rights in the clubhouse by a priest (he was in a coma for two weeks). So, with Reiser in mind, Malamud has Bailey plow face first into a fence at full speed and, presto, no more romantic rival.

The book is a realistic, dirty look at the business of sports and hero worship. Malamud takes pains to poke holes in the shroud of purity and innocence with which the game had encased itself--one of the first authors to do so, well ahead of guys like Mark Walker, Jim Brosnan and Jim Bouton. Malamud allows the reader insight into Roy's thoughts--which often differ drastically from his words--and makes it clear that he cares little for the team or anyone other than himself. His selfish ambition, greed and lust prove to be his undoing.

In going to the woman's hotel room at the beginning of the tale, Roy goes not as a wide-eyed innocent, but as a guy who knows exactly what he wants--a guy who has already gotten to second base on the train and fully expects to be waved home by the third base coach in the hotel. Upon joining the New York Knights, Roy shares a bed, and intimacy, the first night with the beautiful and cursed Memo as the result of a practical joke set up by Memo's ne'er-do-well boyfriend and resident leftfielder Bump Bailey. Roy spends the rest of the book recklessly pining for the siren Memo--obsessed with obtaining that which he has already had.

The fact that Roy's hubris will be his undoing is foreshadowed when the amiable coach Red offers him advice to be careful: "There is a short life in baseball and we have to think of the future. . .  try to protect your old age." Roy, intent on charging full speed toward his destiny, replies, "To hell with my old age . . . I will leave my mark around here."

The night before the potential pennant-clinching series, Roy is felled by a bellyache courtesy of Memo. He gobbles four plates piled high with ham, rolls, shrimp, fish, lobster, cheese and potato salad, chugs three bottles of lemon pop and three more of lime and still "felt as if he had hardly eaten." He then goes down to the hotel grill and wolves six hamburgers and two tall glasses of milk and is again "astonished at how hungry he felt." He wonders,"What must I do not to be hungry?" Malamud makes it clear that Roy's appetite for food is quite insatiable and is easily seen to be equaled by his appetite for Memo, pleasures of the flesh, fame, glory and money.

The movie, which was released in 1984, is generally viewed as one of the best baseball movies of all-time. It was very well cast in almost every character. The producers, shrewdly deducing that most guys need help in getting a date to see a baseball movie, gave Robert Redford the lead.  Redford is aided by some talented camera work that sets the baseball in aging Buffalo Memorial Stadium, turning it into a beautifully-set 1930s baseball palace. The baseball scenes, with the overlaid radio commentary, are stirring.

While the movie stays remarkably close to the book in almost every aspect, it is drastically different. By making a slight change in Roy's quotes and offering no insight into his thoughts, Roy's character is completely changed and, ultimately, the story as well. Roy becomes the idyll, mythic baseball hero that Malamud tried so hard to avoid. Movie Roy cares little for his own fame, personal needs and health; he is only concerned about winning a pennant for Pop, his fans and especially the kids. We can also assume, though it's not stated specifically, that Movie Roy is in favor of  truth, justice and the American way. The movie is basically a baseball fantasy--Roy Hobbs is a superhero on the diamond.

Film critic Roger Ebert panned the movie: "I got the idea that God's only begotten son was playing right field for the New York team." Ebert obviously missed the point. That is exactly why the movie is good. We don't go to the movies to watch a great hitter make an out seven out of ten times. Yes, some of the lines are corny, but Redford manages to  pull it off, especially if the viewer checks his sense of reality at the front door and accepts the fact that this is Hollywood's version of altered reality. We know a real life baseball player can not show up at 34 years of age, knock the cover off the ball and bring down the stadium lights with a home run any more than a group of dead baseball players can walk out of a corn field and help a farmer who constructs a perfect ball field in one growing season. But that's what we pay our ticket-price to see.

Movie Roy is appalled at the suggestion of a bribe to throw the big game. Book Roy eagerly embraces the idea, pausing only to negotiate a better price for himself.

Book Roy climbs to the evil owner's lair atop a crooked tower to ask for more money and is turned down. Movie Roy is offered extra cash by the owner, but triumphs in his test of purity by refusing to even consider it.

Movie Roy shares none of Book Roy's unhealthy and unsavory (dare we say even carnal) appetites away from the field. Whereas Book Roy does himself in with a massive indulgence of gluttony, in the movie Memo, with a sinister side glance, slips a small bite of food--obviously tainted--into the pure Roy's mouth while he is enjoying simple revelry with his beloved teammates.

Movie Roy's only thought while in the hospital (after being given a much more dire prognosis by the doctor than Book Roy) is to get out to play in the big game to help his team (which incidentally all crammed around his bed to wish him well as opposed to Book Roy's teammates, none of whom bother to visit him). Movie Roy even gushes the line, "God, I love baseball," with a straight face--and we eat it up!

Of course Movie Roy will not dare fail in the big game, even without his trusty Wonderboy which cracks under a bolt of lightning (I guess back then they didn't cancel games for mere electric storms). Book Roy has a late-inning change of heart and tries to win, but still strikes out, completely losing his confidence after his Wonderboy breaks in obvious metaphorical rejection of his moral failings. As poor Roy awaits the final pitch from a flame-throwing youngster, he feels his lifeforce ebbing: "It felt like winter. He wished for fire to warm his frozen fingers."

Movie Roy concludes the story in happy familial bliss, having a catch with his son in a farm field while his adoring wife looks on. Book Roy wanders from the park in the dark of night, a forgotten man, alone in his failure. He learns from a newspaper headline that his deceit has been discovered and he will be excluded from the game and his records forever destroyed. "I never did learn anything out of my past life," he admits. "Now I have to suffer again," and, finally realizing that, he weeps "many bitter tears."

The movie is a baseball movie, pure and simple. It is unlikely to be enjoyed by those who are not baseball fans. The book, however, can stand alone in a room of intellectuals who have never tried to hit a pitched ball in their lives--very little action in the book takes place at the ballpark. Literary types who understand little about the game can enjoy deconstructing Roy's character and the symbolism in the story.

When viewed together, the movie and the book are two completely different stories that share similar characters. Each is very good, and appropriate, for it's venue. Had the book been like the movie, it would have been dismissed as teenage sports drivel. Had the movie been like the book, no one would have watched it and it would have been quickly forgotten. The change in Roy's heart and the ending made all the difference.