A Baseball Conversation

April 8, 2016 between Ben Nicholson-Smith and Andrew Forbes

Spring has arrived, and for proof you need look no further than Toronto, where the Blue Jays are preparing to host their first home game of the 2016 season. Baseball, as surely as green grass, new buds, and birdsong, is a door slammed on winter, and an ironclad guarantee that summer is on its way. To celebrate we’ve invited a couple of baseball writers to talk baseball and books.

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Spring has arrived, and for proof you need look no further than Toronto, where the Blue Jays are preparing to host their first home game of the 2016 season. Baseball, as surely as green grass, new buds, and birdsong, is a door slammed on winter, and an ironclad guarantee that summer is on its way. To celebrate we’ve invited a couple of baseball writers to talk baseball and books.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is the baseball editor at sportsnet.ca, where he writes about Major League Baseball with a focus on the Blue Jays. A lifelong baseball fan, he appears regularly on Sportsnet 590 The FAN and co-hosts  At the Letters, a weekly Blue Jays podcast.

Andrew Forbes is the author of the recently published collection of baseball essays,  The Utility of Boredom (Invisible Publishing). His sports writing has appeared at Vice Sports and The Classical, and he’s published fiction in The New Quarterly, This Magazine, PRISM International, and Found Press, and has been nominated for The Journey Prize.

 

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Andrew Forbes: I want to start, Ben, by picking your brain for the answer to a question that I’ve spent untold hours and countless words attempting to answer: what is it about baseball? Which is to say, why are so many of us moved to write so much about it, and what makes it such a unique game?

Ben Nicholson-Smith: For me, the daily nature of baseball has always been one of its biggest selling points. Growing up I’d have a game on the radio every night and baseball in the newspaper the next morning (for half of the year at least). Still, before the internet, there was essentially no way to satisfy my interest in baseball.

Even if many of the mid-summer Blue Jays and Tigers games I listened to had little or no consequence on the playoff picture, they were part of a broader pattern that played out gradually each summer. Every inning offered context on seasons past or players to come, regardless of that day's final score. And when the teams I followed were actually playing for something, the nightly fix couldn't come soon enough.

On some level baseball’s a form of entertainment and that’s definitely what drew me in from the start.

AF: On the level of ritual, there isn’t much that beats baseball, for just the reason you suggest: it’s there every day, April through October. I had an attachment to radio broadcasts, too, and still do. I think in the young me it helped fuse the relationship between baseball and language. It was an easy leap from there to reading about baseball, which I quickly began doing in abundance. Eventually that led to writing. Were there writers or books that made an impression on you as a kid?

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BNS: Definitely. I was a big Baseball Weekly reader, for example, but I think I was more focused on the subject than the authors at the time.

Now we’ve all got carefully-curated reading lists because there’s a volume of quality baseball writing out there than no one person could possibly consume. Growing up it was almost the opposite. If I could find a baseball book, I was basically going to enjoy it.

You make a related point about baseball cards in your book, pointing out that they were often our way of connecting with the sport. On a larger scale, I’m guessing baseball books made a big impact on you growing up?

AF: Books, magazines, blurbs on the back of baseball cards… everything I could get my hands on. I ate up baseball periodicals. I’d get the annual Street & Smith guide and read it cover-to-cover, then go back and read it again. Eventually I’d take the best pictures, cut them out, and put them up on my wall. I’d do the same with the Blue Jays’ roster. Stick it up right next to my bed so I could memorize it. At some point my parents bought me a set of storybooks, I don’t remember the name of them, but basically they presented historical figures’ biographies in vastly simplified form, usually giving the figure in question an anthropomorphized object as a sidekick. Each one was meant to illustrate a virtue: tenacity, courage, etc. I know there was one about Beethoven, another about Harriet Tubman. The only one I remember in any sort of detail—because I read it again and again—was Jackie Robinson’s. He had a talking bat.

Eventually that all gave way to more text-heavy stuff. The baseball fiction of WP Kinsella was big—not just Shoeless Joe (the basis for Field of Dreams), but The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, and The Dixon Cornbelt League. I read trivia books, biographies, everything. Then I discovered Ring Lardner, and spent a few of my teenage years in his thrall. I think the cumulative effect of all of this was to suggest to me that there was more than one way to write about baseball. I’m happy now to know that a lot of other people see it that way, too. The vast array of perspectives now trained on the game is comforting. It promises a fuller picture of how and why people give a damn about it.

When did you start writing about the game?

BNS: Your description actually reminds me that I did my share of cutting up magazines and writing my own baseball ‘annuals.’ I think I still have them, in fact. But it wasn’t until I started working for MLB Trade Rumors in 2008 that I started writing about baseball seriously.

In a way it was a jarring transition, since the subjects we covered at MLBTR—contract talks, trades, salary arbitration—were decidedly on the business side of the game. No one starts following baseball because they’re interested in baseball’s luxury tax, and that certainly wasn’t my experience. But even if it was a challenge to start viewing the game from a completely different perspective, I still find the business side of the game extremely fascinating. Books like John Helyar’s Lords of the Realm opened the sport up for me, showing how the strategy off the field can be nearly as compelling as the action on it.

Like you say, there are so many ways to write about baseball. Within your essays we hear about your family, your childhood, your chance run-in with Ted Lilly at an Ottawa strip mall. I’m guessing it’s safe to say writing about baseball can be a personal experience for you.

AF: You’re not wrong. I guess this is a good a place as any to admit that, despite what the cover says, the book doesn’t contain baseball essays; it contains personal essays that share the common theme of baseball. It’s a game rich with parallels to real life—struggle and redemption, morality, history, and on and on---all of which make it a good lens through which to look at the world. Writing that deals with baseball as the world’s drama played out in miniature has always been my favourite sort of baseball writing. So I set out, when I began writing regularly about baseball, to emulate that. I don’t foresee ever writing a detailed statistical analysis. That’s not my strength, and not what most interests me.

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BNS: I agree: baseball’s definitely an effective lens for viewing the world. I can’t think of another way to explain why cliches like hitting a home run and striking out are over-used in everyday life to the point of becoming meaningless.

But I still get the sense that this lens works especially well for you. As soon as I opened The Utility of Boredom, I read a compelling case that there are quasi-religious elements to baseball. A few pages later I was nodding along as you described baseball radio broadcasts as “unfailingly comforting.” The ballpark itself seems to be a powerful equalizer in your experience. Baseball’s more than just a backdrop in these essays.

At times, it seems to take on a life of its own and printed pictures of Jim Eisenreich stare back at you from the cardboard. It’s clear that your relationship with baseball has changed since you were a card-collecting kid, which makes me wonder where you see it going from here.

AF: My relationship with baseball, like my relationship with the world, will likely continue to evolve, though at a slower rate. It seems to me that change, like a lot of things in life, decelerates the further you travel from those tumultuous early years. Baseball will continue to exert its grip on me.

If anything it might get stronger; I might get weepier in its presence. I’ll have more stories. Can’t complain about that. I will still find myself drawn, almost siren-like, to anything baseball-related, any scrap or artifact or souvenir, and still unable, as in a recent attempt to clean out and declutter my office, to discard just about any of it. I have twenty-five year old newspaper clippings and box scores. They’ll get older and yellower. And I’ll hope that baseball will continue its efforts to teach me patience, even as the lords of the game persist in their efforts to legislate patience out of it.

As for baseball as a subject of writing, who knows. Maybe this is it. Or maybe I’ll find the subject too tempting, too story-laden, to avoid, and I’ll return to it every few years, like George Bowering. I guess we’ll see.

 

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