Sunday, May 17, 2009

Everything Happens in Chillicothe by Mike Shannon

[It's almost time for the Frontier League season to start again, so what better thing to post than this?]

Subtitled "A Summer in the Frontier League with Max McLeary, the One-Eyed Umpire", this book somewhat haphazardly follows McLeary around some of his Frontier League games in the 2000 season, from opening day through the first level of the playoffs. Shannon was originally just looking for some fun quotes when he met McLeary but the focus soon changed as he realized that not only was McLeary an interesting person beyond the obvious (a one-eyed ump?) but the Frontier League had a lot going on for it if you were a person who liked watching people who have no guarantees play the sport hard.

Soon, they were on the road together, drinking after games, following the two teams Max umpired most regularly (Chillicothe and Richmond), and getting a feel for this baseball league that got nothing from the Major Leagues except the occasional signing or former player coming in as a manger.

This book's high points are reading the periodic game summaries and quotes from things that have either happened to Max or to players in the Frontier League. Max handing his eye to an outraged coach and offering to let him call the game is just one of fun ones. The story of trying to make it as an unaffiliated minor league team is also a very compelling read. One owner-manager slowly cracks as the season progresses while another manager complains of incompetent umpiring at the same time Max and his friends say the league treats the umpires poorly (only 2 take the field each game to save money, for instance, and raises for playoff games are a pittance).

Players come and go throughout the season and injuring yourself is probably fatal to your career. A player who struggles just doesn't get any time to right himself, with so many people jumping at the chance to play ball and when they do play well, their teams suffer because they are signed to a big league's squad instead. (This actually harms one team's chances quite a bit over the course of the book. It's both a happy moment and a sad one--exactly the type of thing Bill James was arguing about when he said baseball's minor league system is unfair to the cities that house them.)

I really enjoyed reading about all of the above, and not just because I've gone to a few Washington Wild Things games, a team that is now in the Frontier League that was not when the book was written. I prefer watching people play hard to watching people get a paycheck and I actually prefer going to see a minor league game nowadays for that reason. Had this book solely been those topics, it would have an unconditional recommendation.

But Shannon, for reasons I don't understand, has to talk for pages at a time about what *he* was doing over the course of the year--a getaway with his wife, his relationship to his father, the need to go to church every day, etc.--and they stop the book cold every time. It's one thing to mention going to the baseball hall of fame and cornering Carlton Fisk about an umpiring accident. It's quite another to relate how you went mountain climbing with your wife in a book about struggling baseball teams and a cyclopsian umpire. The frequent insertions of the author into the text hurt the book in my opinion. Between that and the overt religious references, this book could have been about 50 pages shorter and more cohesive overall with the digressions removed.

Max is a very interesting fellow--he made some mistakes over his life, and a more religious person than I would say he was humbled by the experience of losing an eye and either way has worked hard to overcome that disability. He doesn't get every call right, but we do get inside the minds of the umpires in this book--why they might call a close play a certain way, for instance, or that they really are hurt when people don't think of them as human. I wish Shannon had tried to get inside Max's head a bit more and left some of the religion-based commentary to himself, but I'd still recommend this to any baseball fan as a great read for the off-season, when you need your baseball fix.

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