Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Angst of Winter

This year, Colorado's winter is relentless. We opened with 33 inches of snow the week before Christmas, and we've suffered through at least a half-dozen snow storms since. Valentine's Day was cold and miserable, and yesterday, one of the nicer days of 2007, featured wind gusts of 75 miles per hour. It would be a great time to hibernate with a good book. Unfortunately, hardly anyone can get themselves into the book store to find one in this miserable weather.

We've had a few brief thaws over the last few weeks, most notably Elizabeth Gilbert's appearance to promote Eat, Pray, Love. Almost 300 people (290 women) were crammed into our ballroom, and while a storm raged outside, the temperature inside soared up to 80 degrees as Gilbert told of her trips to the warmer climes of India, Indonesia and Italy. In the audience, coats were removed, sweat was wiped from brows and books were clutched in moistened palms.

But for the most part, it's been a harsh season. The back story of the past two months in publishing is even worse than the gloomy weather. One of the nation's top wholesalers, Advanced Marketing Service, has declared bankruptcy, and a look at their list of creditors is almost a complete roster of American publishers. Random House is at the front of the line with more than $40 million owed to them. HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster also have a lot of money sitting out there. Further down the list are dozens of small and medium sized publishers that might not be able to stay afloat if they are forced to write off large invoices.

All of this has made for a squeamish buying season. The books we have aren't exactly flying off the shelves because we've made a habit of closing the store early due to ferocious storms, the publishers are getting skittish about their marketing funds and author tours because they are out millions of dollars, and to top it all off, Advance Marketing Service owns Publishers Group West, which is the distributor and sales force for hundreds of key small presses. It was sad to page through the PGW catalog the other day while my sales rep was trying to put a dignified face on the impending doom of the company as she told me which books were "postponed" because there wasn't enough money to print them.

I'm looking forward to spring in a way that I have not done since moving out to Colorado and learning to ski 15 years ago. Only one thing really keeps me going these days:

Pitchers and Catchers Report

Spring training opened on Thursday for most Major League teams. My favorite squad, the Philadelphia Phillies, is hoping to improve upon last season's second-place finish with an influx of new pitching, an emphasis on fundamentals and perhaps a few prayers thrown in. This is the Phillies' 125th season, and the team has managed to win only one championship. But here in the chill of February, I feel optimistic that number two is possible.

To prepare for the season, I read Baseball: A History of America's Favorite Game by New York Times reporter George Vecsey. I actually read this out loud with my wife. She did most of the reading while I closed my eyes and imagined sun-dappled Ebbet's Field in 1954 or Babe Ruth slicing a line-drive homer through the humidity of Yankee Stadium in 1927.

It's a miracle that my wife read a baseball book. She's not really a sports fan, although she has grown tolerant and even a little fond of college basketball after being dragged to the University of Colorado games for the last six years. [Editor's Note: I beg to differ. More than just "a little fond," I have become quite a fan of college basketball. I am even looking forward to March Madness with great anticipation.] The baseball book arrived in the mail one day last summer, and as I was cooking dinner (there is a price to pay for taking your wife to countless sporting events) she started reading the preface about Stan Musial. She was hooked by Vecsey's poetic language, his gift of storytelling and his description of Musial's bizarre corkscrew batting stance.
Vecsey, in chapters that read almost like perfect self-contained essays, recounts the history of baseball from its pre-Civil War roots, to the 1919 Black Sox scandal, to Jackie Robinson's breakthrough with the Dodgers in 1947, through today's steroid-plagued summers of Barry Bonds. My wife would frequently look up from the page to comment on the writing or the colorful history of baseball and ask me an insightful question about interleague trades or the designated hitter. In those moments, it almost seemed that she understood the mania that takes hold of me every spring when I know that we are on the verge of a new chapter of baseball history. Perhaps she will come to forgive me for never failing to point out, whenever our wedding is mentioned, that the Phillies were in first place on the day we said our vows.

I am also reading Donald Honig's Baseball: When the Grass was Real. Honig's book is a series of first-person narratives of Major League players from the 1920s through the 1940s. Written in 1975, when astroturf fields were the norm, the title seems curious now that every park in the National League is back to real grass. Honig owes a debt to Lawrence Ritter's classic, The Glory of Their Times, which was written in the 1960s and features players talking about their experiences during the turn of the twentieth century.

The most touching story in Honig's book is told by Wes Ferrell, a great pitcher from the 1930s. Towards the end of his career, Ferrell was traded to the Yankees, and he was in spring training when Lou Gehrig's body began to fail him. Gehrig was known as the Iron Horse, the strongest player in all of baseball, a player who never missed a game in 14 seasons.

"In workouts you'd see him straining and huffing and puffing, running as hard as he could, and not getting anywhere. The fellows would laugh and kid him. 'Hey, Lou, you're getting old.' That sort of thing. Nobody knew the truth." By the end of training camp, as the players begin to realize Gehrig just wasn't the same, Ferrell writes of seeing Gehrig walking across the grass in tennis shoes rather than cleats: "he was sliding his feet as he went along, instead of picking them up and putting them down. Looking back now, I realize why. His muscles were so deteriorated that just the effort of lifting his feet a few inches to walk had already become too much. God, it was sad to see -- Lou Gehrig having to slide his feet along the grass to move himself."
Almost every year baseball breaks my heart. I don't mean little disappointments, like a summer romance falling apart because the sweethearts are headed off to two different colleges. I mean the kind of hurt where you lie awake half the night for weeks, replaying how things went wrong. Either the Phillies don't make it to the playoffs, or if they do, they meet some dramatic ending like Joe Carter's series-ending homer in 1993 for the Blue Jays that gets replayed over and over again in highlights shows every year.
In the cold days of winter, as the players start playing catch in Arizona and Florida, it makes you feel young and vigorous just to watch them whip the ball back and forth in a perfect line. But by the end of August, when teams are scraping by day-to-day just to stay in the pennant race, half the pitchers hindered by nagging injuries, some even lost for the season, and a favored aging hitter can't catch up to some minor leaguer's hotshot fastball anymore, you realize what a fantasy it all is. We are all destined to shuffle along the grass eventually.

It's that realization that always sends me scurrying back for a good novel as the leaves begin to fall and I need an escape from the physical realities of the world. It's what makes winter so peaceful and almost healing. All those pitchers will come back with fresh arms, and maybe the aging slugger, who is actually a few years younger than I am, just had an injury he wasn't telling anyone about. His swing will be as good as new, now that spring training is here again.

1 comment:

Dylanfly said...

Hard to believe the snow. We had a relatively light and mild winter until the last month. Now it's pretty dern cold up here in Toronto. We've got excellent subways and light rail here, which make getting around in the snow fun and warm. We expect a visit soon. And/or open a bookstore up here.