Canadian authors Mark Kingwell and Stacey May Fowles were in Calgary on June 21st to talk baseball at Memorial Park Library. Ian Wilson caught up with both writers recently. Here’s his Q&A with Mark Kingwell, author of Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters, who talks minor league ball, baseball books and, yes, failure.
Q: First of all, congratulations on the book! Great concept. And welcome as well to Calgary and Alberta. Have you spent much time in Alberta? If so, any thoughts on this part of the world as it relates to baseball, or failure for that matter?
A: Thanks! I tried to write a book that I’d like to read myself, or maybe one I would have wanted to read about 25 years ago, when I was in my early 20s. I realize it’s not a baseball book for everyone, with some fairly big asks about (philosophers) Kant and Wittgenstein and so on, but I hope it is unique and welcome on the long baseball bookshelf. It’s a heartfelt thing as well as an intellectual exercise. Readers will relate to that, with any luck. I’m pretty unforgiving about my own lack of skill at the game, for one thing. That’s pretty relatable.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Alberta over the years. Many visits to Calgary, fewer but still lots to Edmonton. I like both cities, especially for their negotiation – not always easy – of the respective natural sites. Camping trips, road trips, and conferences have brought me out this way pretty regularly too. When I lived in Winnipeg, my father dragooned us into a punishing camping trip that traversed the Prairies and ended with a Calgary-Edmonton-Regina spin. So I have driven across the province a few times and also gone north-south. I’ve stayed in Banff many times, also Jasper and Lake Louise, inevitably. I have never, but for no good reason, fished here – soon to be remedied, I hope, since the Bow is an excellent dry-fly trout river.
I’ve enjoyed a number of ball games in both Calgary and Edmonton. One year, I skipped almost all of a dreadful academic conference to watch three games in a row of a Cannons home stand, and I remember going to a Trappers game one time and having a nice afternoon. I love Triple-A and Double-A baseball, much more than MLB games, in fact. When I was in grad school – I think I mention this in my book – we used to organize trips to the Double-A Red Sox park in New Britain, Connecticut, about an hour from New Haven. Those were my favourite baseball nights ever.
Q: Competitive baseball in Alberta is a bit of a study in failure. We have never had much of a sniff of MLB action here and the nearest teams are more than a day of driving away (Seattle and Minnesota). The highest level of baseball to exist here was Triple-A but the Calgary Cannons left in 2002 and the Edmonton Trappers left in 2004 – and even when those teams were here they didn’t receive great fan support. Currently, the highest level of baseball available to fans who want to go and watch a game is the WMBL, which offers an entertaining – but not an affiliated –
collegiate product to the fans. Even with that, Calgarians don’t have a team! They need to drive south to nearby Okotoks to watch. So, what I’m wondering is this: what should baseball fans in this province take away from this failure to maintain strong competitive live baseball teams? What can we learn from the state of baseball in our neck of the woods?
A: The Dawgs! I have not been to a game, but I am suitably impressed that there is a team in Okotoks, and I’m told the stadium is excellent. Collegiate baseball can be pretty great. In New Hampshire, where I spend part of every summer, there is a New England League team in Keene called the Swamp Bats. Swamp Bats! Come on, so great. The Fisher Cats, over in Manchester, are in the Jays farm system, but we’re too far away to go there for a night game without staying over.
It’s sad about both the Cannons and the Trappers. I realized the teams were in jeopardy when I saw how small the crowds were, but baseball has a tough time in Canadian cities generally. Many people love the game, but not at the consistent level that sustains major-junior hockey, for example. I guess that’s just obvious. You can go to a sold-out hockey game in Red Deer any weekend, but good luck getting even a few hundred people to a baseball game. Plus, the summers feel short and the culture not so immediate. Calgary and Edmonton will probably always be hockey towns first, football towns second, and then a big drop down to whatever else.
Still, the tradition of Canadian baseball is long and illustrious, and I wish Albertans would – just as I wish Ontarians would – celebrate the game more.
Q: In a similar vein, Alberta has not produced many local heroes when it comes to baseball players. There are currently no Albertans playing in MLB and historically, we have not contributed a large number of major-league calibre players. That said, we have some excellent baseball academies in Alberta. What should we read into our lack of baseball success at the highest level of the game? What should our expectations be for baseball players here? Is baseball a failure in Alberta? Or as you’ve said are “timing and waiting the essence of baseball”?
A: Well, look, I don’t want to be in the position of chiding Alberta for not producing more major leaguers. All of Canada has generated only a small handful, considerably under-representing the general population compared to many Caribbean or Latin American countries. I was told that the Dawgs training program is very popular, so who knows, maybe there’s a future all-star somewhere in there. I do think there ought to be at least one Double-A or Triple-A team in the province. Maybe mayor Nenshi can get on that?
Q: We shared a story recently about the 1988 Medicine Hat Blue Jays (former affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays). They started their season with a 16-game losing streak (a Pioneer League record) and finished the year with 58 losses (also a Pioneer League record). During the opening 16-game losing streak the team’s GM Dean Linden began sleeping at the team’s ballpark on the field as a publicity stunt. Camping out on the field worked as a promotional event (drawing media attention from across North America and certainly in Medicine Hat) but the team never did perform better that season. Is this an example of how a GM or a team might “Fail Better” or did they just suck?
A: Ha! That’s a pretty good publicity stunt. It makes me think of Homer Simpson’s hunger strike in support of the Springfield Isotopes. Sort of.
Failure in baseball is a mysterious thing, and streaks can become self-renewing. The Blue Jays started this year with a terrible run and they haven’t really recovered yet – every time they get within a win of going .500, they fail. Nine times so far, I think.
The game is forgiving in one way, a daily affair with 162 opportunities to be decent, but so, so cruel in others. It’s a hard thing even to get on base, obviously. And then scoring runs when you need them? There is nothing I know in sports more excruciating than a close late-innings ballgame. Other sports have nail-biting moments, but you know that the clock will, with its remorseless authority, eventually resolve them. Not so in baseball.
I’m sorry to hear that the Medicine Hat team fared so poorly. But let me just take this opportunity to say, if anyone reading this has a Medicine Hat Jays cap for sale, please let me know.
Q: I know you’re a big Simpsons fan. I just wanted to point out a few tenuous Alberta links to the epic Homer at the Bat episode. The MLBers featured in that episode included Steve Sax and Ken Griffey Jr. Sax began his career playing rookie ball for the Lethbridge Dodgers. Griffey Jr. broke the hearts of Calgary baseball fans by skipping over Triple-A baseball and instead of playing for the Cannons going straight to the Mariners. What does missing out on Griffey Jr. tell us about failure and baseball – particularly when it comes to missed opportunities, which are a hallmark of baseball?
A: Near misses of the Griffey type are just basic to baseball, and life. Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run during a game at Hanlan’s Point Stadium, on Toronto Island, not to mention delivering an outstanding pitching performance, and was called up to the big club (the Red Sox) the very next day. It was the only homer he hit as a minor leaguer. Imagine the heartbreak of all those Providence Grays fans who never saw their most famous player actually play.
Baseball is a game full of missed opportunities – wild swings, errant throws, pitches that fail to touch the strike zone. It’s a spectacle that never tires of putting us in our place, the playthings of contingency.
Q: On the writing front, I am partial to W.P. Kinsella – not just because he’s from Alberta but also because of how he wrote about baseball. What baseball books do you like? What’s on your recommended reading list?
A: I like Kinsella, he’s canonical. In fiction, I’m a huge fan of Malamud’s The Natural, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, and – least known but maybe best – E. R. Greenberg’s The Celebrant, which traces the career of Christy Mathewson and the man who invented the idea of commemorative rings for athletes. It’s a great book. Bang the Drum Slowly, by Mark Harris, is heartbreaking, and was adapted into a very good film with Michael Moriarty and Robert De Niro. But the opening section of Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld, “Pafko at the Wall,” first published as a long short story in Harper’s, is probably my favourite piece of baseball fiction. It just doesn’t get better than that. I quote it at least twice in Fail Better.
In non-fiction, anything by the Rogers – Angell and Kahn – is worth reading. Jim Bouton’s Ball Four is essential for understanding the game as it’s played, on and off the field. I’m a big fan of Bart Giamatti’s Take Time for Paradise, a lovely and sad book about the game. And like many others, my single favourite piece of baseball writing is John Updike’s Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, a casual tour-de-force by a writer who could do anything, and here defines what it means to leave a game as he watches Ted Williams’s final trot as a Red Sock. Compare this, in my view very unfavourably, with the extended farewell tours of players like Mariano Rivera or Derek Jeter.
Q: Also related to baseball writing, how can authors and reporters “fail
better” when it comes to writing about the sport?
A: The whole point is learning from your mistakes. To do that, you first have to acknowledge that you made them. But then, you need to find the right interior voice to heed – not the one of self-recrimination, but the one that spurs you on to be better. Sometimes you have to fight to get it right, and sometimes the opposition is yourself.
In general, I think all writing is about being good at noticing things – speech patterns, facial expressions, connections between things, changes of state, fallacies, and so on. It’s way more important than being a fancy stylist. As Yogi Berra said, “You can see a lot just by observing.” So true, so true.
Q: Last question: I’m a Seattle Mariner fan. For much of their 40 years of existence, the Mariners have been a punchline. They have few playoff appearances, they have the longest active post-season drought (15 years and counting) and they have never appeared in a World Series, let alone won one. Any message for me as I continue to navigate their past failures and – presumably – their failures in waiting?
A: But the Mariners have enjoyed two players of true genius, Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro Suzuki in his transcendent prime, and had Randy Johnson for a decent chunk of his outstanding career. Also, maybe the best modern stadium in the majors. Great chowder! In fact, possibly the best food anywhere in the game. More than all this, though, these days, any Jays game there is like a Toronto home-opener. Sorry, that’s my own punchline for Mariners fans, especially Canadian ones!