THE LAST REAL SEASON
By Mike Shropshire
244 pages. Grand Central Publishing. $25.99.
I've got a stack of books this high that I need to review and I've decided to start with one primarily about the Texas Rangers 1975 season. If you're the type of person needs to know exactly what any of this has to do with the Padres, the short answer is "nothing" and the long answer is "really not much". Jerry Coleman gets a reference and that's about it.
However, being a Padres fan since '76, this is a book about how much changed in baseball from the time before I existed to the time just after I existed, so maybe that's important to you as well. Get to the jump for my review.
I read through the book (rather leisurely) over the course of a couple of weeks and, as it happened, during that time, Buzz Bissinger had his now infamous panel session with Will Leitch from Deadspin, where Bissinger seemed to suggest that truly great sports writing would never go so far as to delve into an athlete's personal life and, heaven forbid, profanity should only be used when berating someone on a talk show about how foul the internet is. But I digress.
The other thing that was happening as I was reading this book was a string of Padres losses and a sense in my gut that Bud Black really is not impressive as a motivator or a manager of ballclubs. I found myself really wishing that Buddy would just yell at somebody at a semiappropriate time so that we all could be fairly certain that he was actually watching the games as well.
The third and final thing that was happening in my mind was the fact that Chase Headley had yet to be called up and it was for the, in my mind, dual ridiculousness of the reserve clause and the attempt to avoid arbitration, which is really an attempt to avoid paying a player what he's worth.
So imagine my delight as I read Shropshire's book. Here it is (was). A book about the last baseball season before free agency. One writer's account of how it was (is) to be alive in a time when players were (are) being paid ridiculous sums of money to play baseball. Of course, in 1975, by "ridiculous", I mean the fact that most major leaguers had to carry second jobs in the offseason and by some valuations of Gaslamp Ball, we could theoretically own the Kansas City Royals.
Really, this is also a book about Billy Martin who would literally kick a player's ass from here to right over there if said player was getting out of line. A manager who hated losing so much that he attempted to win every single game. A raging bull in comparison to Bud Black's apparent meekness.
This is also a book about ballplayers being ballplayers like we all imagine them to be and the real quotes that sportswriters get from athletes and coaches. To wit:
"Reggie Jackson," Martin decided on the airplane to California, "is as useless as tits on a Chinaman."
Now, look at that quote. That is amazingly offensive while simultaneously hilarious. First, you have the whole "chinaman" reference. I know some of our less cultured readers might not realize it, but "chinaman" really is a derogatory term. Even if it wasn't, the whole quote is presuming that Chinese men are generally useless and that giving them womens' breasts is even more useless than that. It's so descriptive of how much Billy Martin disliked Reggie Jackson. I wish we could get more quotes like that from current managers. I can only assume that the Corey Brocks of the world still do get those kinds of quotes, but for all I can tell, everybody's been spitshined to say just the righ things.
Overall, the book is very good. It reads very much like the diary of a beat reporter, which will be interpreted in various ways. Some days are better than others. The language is crass and the stories are very funny. Once the book hits August or so, the team's fired a fun manager and ends up just looking to finish out the season. It makes me realize both how much fun and how lame being a beat writer must be. The season's both too long and not long enough.
If you want to get a taste of what life was like before ballplayers were "overpaid" or if you want to read about Sean Burroughs' dad make a reference to a "double-[vagina]", I heartily recommend a trip through Shropshire's '75.