There aren’t a lot of classic baseball books out there, relatively speaking. This isn’t to say that there aren’t a lot of great baseball books; it’s just that the genre is temporal, and not many works last from one generation to the next. Unless the subject is a legend or the author’s writing style is groundbreaking, the names of the players and their personalities eventually fade, the ideas fall out of fashion.
So it goes with Daniel Okrent’s 9 Innings, a Proustian voyage through a single June 10 game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Baltimore Orioles. As the tale begins in the clubhouses before the game and winds its way through the ninth, Okrent pauses to reflect on the players, transactions, and history that brought that particular game into its state of being. Between these anecdotes, the author weaves in the game, continuing on in the background.
9 Innings isn’t the kind of book that ranks among many people’s list of favorites, and that’s sad. Okrent’s writing is thorough and honest, although his touch is a little heavy, not quite unable to escape the journalistic plodding of the beat writers of the time. The book is primarily failed by the players themselves, particularly the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers. The most famous players of that team, Paul Molitor and Robin Yount, are perhaps its driest characters; Okrent pointedly summarizes Yount as “cooperative and patient, but also singularly unexpressive, inarticulate, even dense.” Jim Palmer appears in the dugout and Cal Ripken, in the middle of his rookie season, is present but unformed.
Meanwhile, the most interesting characters in the book have largely been forgotten: names like Vuckovich, Oglivie, Gorman Thomas, and even Ted Simmons have faded into semi-obscurity, their statistics remembered but their faces forgotten. And because of this, in the end 9 Innings becomes more of a Milwaukee Brewers book than a baseball book, and an indication of how difficult it is for any author, no matter how talented, to make fans care about other team’s ballplayers.
So how is it done? Obviously, it can be; Ball Four is hardly a Seattle Pilots book, although Bouton engages in a similar bevy of character studies and anecdotes. But there’s something more to it, something that goes beyond the players, and something with which everyone can identify.
In my mind, what makes the great baseball books so compelling are that there is conflict in them that goes beyond the diamond, and employs the game as metaphor for the condition of the people who play it. Early classics like Ball Four and Jim Brosnan’s Long Season depict outsiders as protagonists; both, as intelligent men and known writers, continually fight a sense of alienation with their teammates even as they work together to beat their opponents. Bill Veeck battles against social conformity; more recently, Dirk Hayhurst goes through the identity crisis that’s so popular with the literary kids these days.
In each of these cases, the game becomes a lens we can use to examine the humanity of a single soul. Okrent is more concerned with the game at large, and in his dizzying pace to cover a team’s 25-man roster and its construction (and with the disadvantage of examining it from the unfortunate perspective of the omniscient narrator), we never quite get there. He comes closest in his appraisal of the nervous, passionate, obediently loyal owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, one Allan H. “Bud” Selig. His depiction of the Man Who Would Be Acting Commissioner, and his discussion of the fate of that position over the years, is fascinating.
9 Innings is a book that’s certainly worth reading, particularly if you consider yourself a serious fan. Mr. Okrent is a first-rate historian, and the perspective he brings on the state of baseball in 1982, the game still wracked by the convulsions of free agency and the 1981 players’ strike, makes for a valuable comparison to today’s game. Unfortunately, there’s little else to compare it to, unless your memories of Stormin’ Gorman and his mustache are still sharp and bristly.