New Yorker piece on Scott Boras.

Several friends within MLB told me that the New Yorker profile of Scott Boras was a must-read, but I just stumbled upon it today. They were right – it is a must-read, and I give Ben McGrath credit for being balanced on a subject that (who) unbalances a lot of people.

I’ve never been down with the demonization of Boras. He’s serving his clients’ interests, and if he wasn’t doing so and there was no other agent filling this role, then MLB owners would be making a lot more money and the game would be no better off. The so-called haves/have-nots structure has nothing to do with Boras or with players in general trying to earn market salaries. And people who demonize him seem to forget that his aggressive strategies work, and that there are no style points in negotiations.

Couple of quotes that stood out:

At one point while I was in his office, Boras took a phone call, and explained afterward, “The draft is looming.” I asked if he planned to travel to Orlando, where the draft was being held. He smiled. “I think the draft is here,” he said. “It’s not in Orlando. We’re in the room”—he pointed up, toward the war room—”and we’re telling teams who they can draft, who they can’t. That’s basically how the thing goes.”

I would bet that the folks at MLB headquarters went apeshit when they saw that. But Scott’s not exactly wrong here, as I wrote before the draft, saying he was “the one man who might have the most say in how the first round unfolds.”

“The scouting director for the Twins was a very abrupt man,” Boras recalled in his office, referring to George Brophy, who died a few years ago. “He went public, saying, ‘It’s disgusting that these kids are being represented. They’re draft picks.’ All these antiquated thought processes. I kept on saying, ‘He’s a young man in a negotiation against a system, which requires him to sign a professional sports contract, which is governed by a collective-bargaining agreement. Why wouldn’t he need a lawyer?’ I said, ‘Why do your teams have lawyers who draft all these things up? You’ve unilaterally imposed all these rules.’ He sat there, looked at me, and goes, ‘I’m not a lawyer. I’m just talking to you about baseball. That’s not how we do things.’ I said, ‘Well, we’re changing. We’re changing for the betterment of the game. The great athletes aren’t going to come to baseball if you keep the bonuses at this level, because some owner will pay for that talent. It just happens to be in a different sport. Baseball players play football and basketball, too.’ “

I’m sorry to say that Brophy’s mentality still exists within the industry. There’s a sense that these kids should just be honored that anyone is willing to pay them to play baseball. Needless to say, I think that’s bullshit.

Critics of Boras call him a “compulsive liar,” or a “congenital liar,” while also granting that he, at least, seems to believe what he says. I prefer to think of it primarily as optimistic, adversarial embellishment…

I’m with McGrath here. I have talked to Boras a handful of times and don’t think I’ve ever felt that he was lying to me or caught him in an inaccuracy. He pushes the truth, which is one way in which he is like every other agent I’ve ever met, but I’m comfortable with that because it’s part of an agent’s job.

A Death in the Family.

James Agee’s A Death in the Family is praised as an American classic, as a lyrical account of the death of a 36-year-old father of two and the effect this has on his family. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1958.

I hated it.

Yes, there is an inherent sorrow in the event at the book’s center, based on the death of Agee’s father when Agee himself was just six years old (the age of the older child, Rufus, in the book). Jay Follet gets a call in the middle of the night that his ill father is nearing death, and he races up to try to get there before the old man dies. It turns out to be a false alarm, and on the way home, Follet dies in a one-car accident. I think we can all agree that that’s a pretty awful turn of events.

What Agee does from there – and in his defense, he had not finished working on the book at the time of his own death at age 45, with publication and a Pulitzer Prize coming two years after he died – left me cold. The constant changes of perspective, flitting from one character’s mind to another’s and back and forth in time, break any emotional connection the reader might have with the thinly-drawn characters. Follet’s wife/widow, Mary, is depicted with broad brush strokes as a staunchly Catholic woman drawn deeper into her faith (which isolates her from the rest of her agnostic family, who didn’t approve of her marriage to Jay in the first place) but with little voice of her own. Rufus gets the best material in a passage that describes his first meeting after the accident with the neighborhood toughs who pick on him daily, but by that point, I’d checked out emotionally. As for the lyrical prose, I must have missed it; there wasn’t a phrase or a passage that stuck with me for more than a few seconds, and I often found myself skimming paragraphs (Agee could have stood to shorten those) to try to get back to the dialogue. Yet somehow, this book won the Pulitzer – okay, I suppose I should stop pretending that means something, because it doesn’t, and being dead absolutely helps your chances of winning – and made the TIME 100, which has been a much more reliable reading guide. I suppose everyone’s entitled to a miss every now and then.

Yep, these are my readers…

A new feature here at the dish: Insulting emails from ESPN readers. Our first entry is high comedy, indeed:

Your a dousche bag if you think the Astros are not a better team than when Wade took over. POOPura ran this team into the ground and is the main reason they team was in the shape it was. Quit writing you suck at it.

Three words in and we’ve got two language errors. And there’s no argument so convincing as referring to another adult as “poop.” There’s also a severe reading comprehension problem here, since I never said that the Astros weren’t better – I’ve said that they’re not contenders, but I’m pretty confident that’s not the same thing.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

I often come across books that are marketed as remarkable achievements for their young authors – Chris Paolini’s Eragon, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – but such books always leave me thinking, “Pretty good for someone that age,” instead of just “Pretty good.” I’ve now found an exception.

Carson McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when she was 22 years old, and there is no trace whatsoever of immaturity or short life experience anywhere in this book. It is filled with a deep sensibility of isolation and alienation, of spiritual voids and societal oppression. It seems to me that given her understanding and empathy for all of the characters around whom the novel revolves, McCullers would have to have been black and white, exalted and condemned, religious and irreligious, hopeful and hopeless, a witness to tragedy, a widow and a widower, a member of the underclass, a holder of a Ph.D. in literature, a mother, a father, and a drunk. Few authors ever show this level of understanding of the human condition; McCullers did it at an age when many authors are busy writing their theses.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter dissects the lives of five people in a small Southern town that is forever teetering on the precipice of financial ruin: Mick Kelly, a world-weary twelve-year-old girl whose family is squeaking by; Jake Blount, an angry, alcoholic drifter; Biff Brannon, the town’s bartender, who becomes a widower early in the book; and Dr. Copeland, an educated black man whose atheist/Marxist views and uncontrollable temper have alienated him from his own children. The fifth man, John Singer, is a deaf-mute whose life partner (it’s not made explicit whether the two are homosexual, but that detail is irrelevant – their relationship is that of a married couple) loses his marbles and is committed to an asylum. Singer becomes the somewhat-willing audience for the private thoughts of the other four characters, often responding with nothing more than nods and smiles, occasionally writing down a more detailed answer, and sometimes saying nothing at all. Is he a priest receiving confessions? A God or Jesus figure? Or the personification of an uncaring world? McCullers gives hints but no firm answers to these questions or to the question of what the other characters symbolize, leaving just enough room for the reader’s imagination and for a host of differing interpretations of her work throughout the ensuing years.

McCullers also had an unusual gift for prose and sits as a sort of bridge between the lyrical but difficult style of Faulkner and the plain but still sparkling text of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Her words are seldom superfluous, yet her descriptions are evocative, especially when discussing the thoughts or feelings of characters, as when one of the five characters above gains some measure of emotional advancement towards the novel’s close:

For in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and of valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and of those who—one word—love. His soul expanded. But for a moment only. For in him he felt a warning, a shaft of terror… he was suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith.

I could see a criticism of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter‘s plot as thin. Very little happens in the book to move things forward, and there’s nothing to resolve at the end; the book’s climax is a little out of nowhere, with one event setting off a trigger of smaller events, petering out towards the story’s conclusion. However, the lack of narrative greed doesn’t stop the book from flowing because McCullers’ prose is so strong and her characters so well-developed. It’s a remarkable achievement for an author of any age.

If you’ve already read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Richard Wright wrote an excellent review in New Republicwhen it was published, but if you haven’t read the book, bear in mind that his review contains significant spoilers.

Hall of Fame.

This ballot counts for nothing except the Hall of Fame in my head. I’d vote for:

Tim Raines
Bert Blyleven
Rich Gossage
Alan Trammell
Mark McGwire

That’s it. Post your hypothetical ballots – remember, yours count as much as mine does! – in the comments.

I weep for our language (part 2)…

This one’s interesting, from a Newsday review of The Kite Runner film:

“The Kite Runner” is the latest in a spate of smash bestsellers that have been transferred to the screen with a cautiousness usually reserved for the conveyance of holy relics and eggs. It’s generation-spanning plot combines one of the season’s favorite themes (the guileful acts of children) with one of its trendiest (turmoil in Afghanistan). And it premieres on the heels of nettlesome publicity involving stage-parent outrage and threats of bodily harm targeted at its youngest stars. … Like it’s author, “The Kite Runner’s” morose protagonist is the son of a Kabul diplomat who relocates to California as the Russians begin their incursions into Afghanistan.

I deleted one paragraph in the middle, but in the span of five sentences, Jan Stuart manages to use the correct “its” twice and the incorrect one twice, even though every instance called for the same word (“its” without its apostrophe). This has to be one of the easiest grammatical rules to remember, and I see it screwed up all the freaking time. All Stuart had to do was remember Strong Bad’s helpful song:

If you want it to be possessive, it’s just “I-T-S.” But, if it’s supposed to be a contraction then it’s “I-T-apostrophe-S,” … scalawag.

I weep for our language (part 1)…

From an Associated Press story on the death of Ike Turner:

But over the years they’re genre-defying sound would make them favorites on the rock ‘n’ roll scene, as they opened for acts like the Rolling Stones.

Who the hell wrote this? A third-grader?

Appointment in Samarra.

I’ve said many times that my favorite American-born author is F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tender is the Night is still the best American novel I’ve ever read, and of course The Great Gatsby belongs near the top of any rankings of the most important novels ever written. Fitzgerald’s literary output was short – four completed novels and forty or fifty short stories – so when I find an author who counts Fitzgerald as a major influence, he gets an automatic five-point bonus. John O’Hara is one such writer.

Appointment in Samarra was his masterwork, a cutting FSFesque look at the destructive effects of alcohol and small-town society on one man and his marriage. It was controversial in its time for its harsh language (tame by our standards) and frank treatment of sexuality (same), and that seems to have led reviewers even to this day to denigrate its quality as a novel.

The book opens with an epigraph from W. Somerset Maugham, which provides the novel with its title and the reader with a clue as to how the plot ends:

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, “Master, just now when I was in the market place I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go on to Samarra and there Death will not find me.” The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?” “That was not a threatening gesture,” I said, “it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

The novel tells the story of the self-destruction of Julian English, a happily married man who owns the Cadillac dealership in his small Pennsylvania town, but whose temper and tendency to drink to excess lead him into a three-day spiral where he destroys just about everything in his life. By limiting the scope to just 72 hours, O’Hara gives us a deeper level of detail into the lives of English and some of the book’s secondary characters, and his dialogue crackles, bringing life into mundane conversations, where every phrase seems to open the window into its speaker’s character just a few millimeters more.

Comparing O’Hara’s prose to Fitzgerald’s is unfair; the latter was a master of using beautiful phrases to describe even the most harrowing sequences, unparalleled in American fiction. O’Hara works with a greater economy of words, and his prose is often more jagged, in line with the plot but not up to Fitzgerald’s impossible standard. Appointment in Samarra would otherwise fit comfortably in Fitzgerald’s canon, right alongside the similar story in The Beautiful and Damned (another marriage on the rocks, but a much longer tale), with the same alcohol-drenched setting and unflinching look at how we treat each other and how we respond to our environments.

BBWAA redux.

I have closed comments on the prior thread and they’ll be closed on this one as well.

I’ve had the opportunity to speak to several people involved in the BBWAA’s decision. It appears to me now that there is (are?) a lot of politics involved in that group and I’m just not aware of all of the angles people are playing. I intended my last post to try to calm things down, and instead, I have clearly inflamed matters. At this point, I think it’s best for everyone if I close this part of the discussion.

I want to thank all those of you who’ve offered your support. As I said in the last post, I’m confident this is all going to work out at some point down the road. But I’m not comfortable with the turn the discussions have taken, to an “us vs. them” mentality. The comments I’ve been getting on the prior thread are getting slightly more nasty with each turn, and I don’t want that here. I’ve also been told by a few people that some supporters of Rob Neyer and myself are emailing BBWAA members with some strident and occasionally nasty comments. Please, please, don’t do this. It helps no one. And since I don’t like it when readers are nasty with me, I don’t want to encourage anyone to be nasty with anyone else.

Let’s hope the next time you hear from me on the subject, it’s a post with a photo of me holding a BBWAA membership card. Until then, I’m not saying anything more on the subject.


I was not inclined to comment on this whole mess, but I think at this point it’s probably a good idea to set a few things straight.

First and foremost is that yes, I do attend MLB games on a regular basis. I couldn’t do my playoff advance reports without actually going to see the teams play live; on the season’s final Saturday, I hopped in the car and drove from Boston to Philly because I hadn’t seen the Phillies play and wanted to get at least two games with them before writing them up. I’m not even sure why this was in question, since I mention being at games all the time. (Seriously, did they think that I sat at home and pointed the radar gun at the television?) I watch games from the scouts’ section, not the press box, because the view is better, and I usually eat before going to the park, not in the press dining room, because the food is better.

Second, Bob Dutton, the president of the BBWAA, has said this:

Some board members informally contacted folks at ESPN with this question and were told neither Rob nor Keith regularly attend big-league games and do not need to do so in order to do their jobs.

To the best of my knowledge, this isn’t accurate. Jack O’Connell, the secretary of the BBWAA, has my full contact info (including cell phone #), and he has the contact info for the baseball editor, who submitted the list of nine names. Neither Jack nor anyone else on the seven-member committee contacted me or the baseball editor to ask if I attended big-league games regularly. We were also both in Nashville in the hotel at the time of the meeting, but again, we weren’t contacted. In fact, we can’t figure out who the board members “informally contacted” at ESPN, because there was no one else with the authority to speak about Rob and myself. I have expressed this concern to Bob, although I won’t reprint any of his private responses to me here.

There are various statements out there on blogs and in blog comments (by the way, thank you all for your support) saying that ESPN somehow told the BBWAA that I didn’t need to be a member. This is false.

Third, the rank-and-file were presented with a binary choice on the motion to admit these Internet writers: Yay, which admitted the 16 who got in and rejected Rob and myself; or nay, which would have admitted no one. There was a little floor debate, but the names could not be unbundled, and I was told by more than one member that they felt there was “no room for discussion.” Given that scenario, I would have voted “yay” as well. Better to get Gammons and Stark and Verducci and Passan and the others in than to get none in at all.

I only know two members of the committee: Dutton, whom I just met for the first time after the vote and who seems for all the world like a great guy; and Bob Elliott, whom I’ve known since 2002 and whom I respect as a person and a writer. I do sort of know Tracy Ringolsby, who isn’t about to nominate me for the Spink Award, but I’d like to give him the credit to think that his personal feelings about me didn’t affect his professional judgment here. I’m told he also voted against the general proposal to admit the 16 who did get in, so this is probably as much about the Interwebs as is it about me. I’ve only exchanged emails with O’Connell and with Phil Rogers (the latter exchange coming years ago), and have never had any interaction with Paul Hoynes or David O’Brien. I’m not sure if any of them would recognize me if they saw me at a ballpark or at the winter meetings or anywhere. Would it have helped if anyone on the committee besides Bob Elliott was more familiar with how I go about doing my job? Perhaps. (NOTE: Ringolsby disputes the accuracy of parts of the preceding paragraph. His objections are in the comments below.)

Either way, I’ve been encouraged by a steady stream of positive comments (support, sympathy, righteous indignation) from the BBWAA’s rank and file to reapply next year. It has now been brought to their attention that I do attend games regularly, and I’ll be going to more games next year anyway. Bob Dutton explained to me that this was the obstacle, and he was one of those encouraging me to reapply. So while I appreciate all of your support, the best course of action for all of us is to just wait until next year. Thanks.