Saturday, January 21, 2006

Book Reviews: "Idiot" and "You Never Forget Your First"

I finished reading both of these books this week in tandem (you'll understand why in a second), and since I'm trying to do book reviews to also keep myself updated on my "what I've read" list, I figured I should write something about them.

Idiot, by Johnny Damon (with Peter Golenbock)

I am sure you've all seen or heard of this book already. The paperback edition even contains COOL PICTURES FROM 2005! Since, after all, this book was originally written and published in the winter of 2004 following the Red Sox winning the World Series.

Anyway, I found this book to be pretty entertaining, although it's not necessarily a "you absolutely must read it" sort of book outside of Red Sox fans, and even then, due to his new uniform, maybe not even then. As you'd expect, only the first 1/5th of it is about pre-Red-Sox Johnny Damon -- growing up, getting drafted, playing for the Royals and the A's, and then, BOOM, free agency, here we come Boston. After that, aside from bits and pieces of personal life details, the rest of the book is pretty much all about the Red Sox, mostly about 2003 and of course 2004. So, if you're a Red Sox fan, you still would probably enjoy reading this book, because it's sort of like re-living those seasons and championships, just through a different perspective. And if you aren't a Red Sox fan, you might enjoy reading this book anyway just because Johnny Damon's got crazy stories to tell about all the guys on the team (well, mostly he makes fun of Kevin Millar for being a loudmouth).

However, the biggest irony I must mention is that Johnny Damon spends a good half of the book always interspersing little details about how "We have to beat the Yankees" or "The Yankees and George are always trying new things to foil our plans" or "We're just proving that the Red Sox are not second fiddle to the Yankees", etc, etc. Lots of anti-Yankee stuff... and where's Johnny Damon playing now? The Yankees! Hee! So it's definitely pretty funny to read some of his sentiments during this book (and about his hair) now that we know where he'll be playing in 2006. On the other hand, he does spend a good chunk of time talking about how awesome Jason Giambi and Derek Jeter are, so I guess he's covered there.

You Never Forget Your First, by Josh Lewin

Now this IS a "you totally should read it" sort of book.

Also, as far as being a bus book, this is about as perfect as they get.

Basically, Josh Lewin (one of the TV voices of the Texas Rangers) went out and interviewed a ton of baseball players, asking them about their MLB debut, what was going through their head, what strange circumstances led up to it if any, what were they thinking when they got the phone call saying "You're going up!" and so on. So in a 250-page book, you have 120 players covered, each around 2-3 pages. Each player's section has a couple paragraphs summarizing who the player is and the highlights of their career, then has a couple paragraphs from the interview about their MLB debut, then has the box score of that game, plus little random factoids about the date, usually connected somehow with the player. (For example, Jamie Moyer's is "Also on June 16, 1986: Simply Red begins its rise on the pop charts with their hit single 'Holding Back The Years'. AUTHOR'S NOTE: 'Holding Back The Years' is precisely what Moyer has been doing since his mid '90s renaissance, pitching into his forties for Seattle.")

Almost all of the interviews are really interesting and entertaining, like Torii Hunter telling how he was put in a pinch-runner and Terry Steinbach messed with him pretending he wasn't going to get off base, and Hunter started running back to the dugout, only to have Terry yell "No, man, I'm just kidding with you!" as the stadium's all laughing like "Ahh, rookie." Or did you know that Mike Hargrove is the first person Roger Clemens ever struck out? And then there's Justin Morneau talking about how Larry Walker was such a big hero to him as a Canadian player, and his first game he happened to be playing against the Rockies, and Walker sent over an autographed bat for him saying "Welcome to the show. Make Canada proud." Joe Nuxhall (the youngest player ever, during WWII) mentions coming home the day of his debut like "School was fine, and oh, by the way, I pitched to Stan Musial!" And Eric Byrnes talks about how in his debut, he was doing okay, getting a few hits, then Steve Reed took offense at something and beaned him, which started a big brawl -- "Welcome to the big leagues. Two veteran teams going at it, and just because I had taken a big swing against Steve Reed, I guess. Whoops."

The biographies of the players are pretty cool too, with random trivia. Byrnes can name all 43 US Presidents in order. Tony LaRussa got his law degree the year before he became the White Sox manager. Kevin Millar himself described his bearded look as "Amish Porn Star". In addition, Millar trivia includes that he was never drafted for baseball, not in highschool or college, and worked his way up through the independent leagues, with the St. Paul Saints. Steve Stone is proud that he and Sandy Koufax are the only Jewish winners of the Cy Young. Alan Trammell snuck into Jack Murphy Stadium when he was a kid to watch Roberto Clemente take batting practice. Juan Samuel named one of his kids Samuel Samuel. And how did I never notice that the Tigers great Al Kaline's name spells out "alkaline"?

As if this wasn't enough to be fun reading, even just looking through the box scores of all the debuts is really awesome, and seeing names of players you'd totally forgotten about. Since this book features people who debuted anywhere from 1944 to 2004, there are all kinds of crazy lineups to see. Seeing the players who debuted in the early 80's either for the Phillies or against the Phillies just brought back a shock from lineups I hadn't seen since my childhood. A shocking number of people in this book, including Jamie Moyer, debuted against Steve Carlton. Heck, even A-Rod's debut in July 1994 made me think "whoa!" as he mentioned that the Mariners pitcher that day was Dave Fleming, a man I'd never heard of until a USSM post this week. And actually, the craziest Mariners-related debut featured in this book was that of Ron Wright, who basically appeared in exactly one game for the Mariners, managed to produce 6 outs in three at-bats by way of a single, double, and triple play -- and never got into an MLB game again.

This book is pretty fantastic, especially if you're the sort who's really interested in players' rookie cards and years and all. I happened to pick it up in a bookstore one day and read through a couple of the players' stories, but thought, "Gah, I don't want to pay $25 for this in hardback" and put it down. A week or two later I saw it in another bookstore, picked it up, read a few more players' stories, thought "Awesome! But ugh, $25, I wonder when it'll come out in paperback?" A week or two after that I was in yet another bookstore, saw the book again, picked it up, read it for ten minutes, and thought "You know, I'll be saving myself a lot of trouble if I just BUY THE DAMN THING ALREADY", so I did that. And I don't regret it -- this was not only a great bus book but also hugely entertaining.

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