I’ve recently noticed a seasonal trend in my fiction reading. My genres of choice tend to be science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I’m likely to read horror any time of year, but as for the other two I tend to read fantasy in the fall and winter while turning toward science fiction in the spring and summer. Maybe there is something about fall and winter which lend themselves to the nature-type tropes that abound in fantasy; and maybe my summertime science fiction tendency is a holdover from my childhood, when each third summer was marked by the arrival of a Star Wars movie. I haven’t noticed any remarkable seasonal tendencies toward my nonfiction reading; my interests tend to be all over the map, and thus I tend to grab whatever looks interesting and jump in.
Anyhow, I finished a couple of books this weekend, one SF and one about baseball.
The Price of the Stars by Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald is the first book in a series of space operas called Mageworlds. (For those unfamiliar with the various sub-genres in science fiction, “space opera” denotes those types of stories with larger-than-life heroes, staging that is galactic in scale, and generally concerned with the classic struggle of good versus evil. Star Wars is pure space opera, as is — in many of its episodes — Star Trek. The classic example of a space opera from the standpoint of literary SF is E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen Chronicles.) At first glance, Mageworlds appears to be a riff on Star Wars: scoundrels and space pirates abound, toting weapons called “blasters”; there is an order of warriors called “Adepts” (read: “Jedi”) who tap into the universe’s lide energy (read: “The Force”) and fight with specialized weapons (staffs, but in the Adept-fight scenes my mind kept substituting lightsabers).
The story involves a female space pilot, Beka Rosselin-Metadi (one of the most cumbersome names I’ve ever encountered in a novel), who is trying to make her way in the Universe despite the fact that her father is a prominent military officer and her mother some kind of Very Important Person. Beka’s life is changed forever when her mother is assassinated and her father presses her into finding those responsible, promising in exchange to give her his personal spaceship: the Warhammer, an apparently circular-shaped freighter that has been equipped with souped-up engines that make it the fastest hunk-of-junk in the Galaxy. (Yes, I kept picturing the Millennium Falcon.) As she pieces together the trail of the assassins, Beka assembles a motley crew of allies — her hulking brute of a brother, a kind-hearted medical technician whose skills extend greatly into non-medical areas, an Adept who suffers from a lack of self-confidence, and a mysterious elderly figure known only as “The Professor” (and whose voice sounded, in my reader’s imagination, a bit like Sir Alec Guinness).
The book is enjoyable as an action-romp, although the two main action set-pieces tend to ramble, and the characters are fairly interesting. The problem I had with the book was this: it feels like a rough draft for a longer work, with character motivations too often left unexplained and historical events constantly referred to but never explored. Just a day after finishing the book I couldn’t explain why Beka’s mother is killed even if I wanted to, and the “Mageworlds” named in the series title are never explained. We are told that a war with the Mageworlds has just ended, with the defeat of the Mages, and we gather that the Mages are a people to be greatly feared — but we never know why. Maybe this is all explained in subsequent novels in the series. I do plan to read them, but I’m not making that a high priority. I recommend The Price of the Stars as a quick, entertaining diversion.
The other book I read was Joe Morgan’s baseball volume Long Balls, No Strikes: What Baseball Must Do to Keep the Good Times Rolling. Joe Morgan has been my favorite baseball commentator for years (he generally provides the color commentary for games on ESPN, while Jon Miller provides play-by-play). This is because Morgan not only conveys his immense love of the game, but he also communicates his immense knowledge of it as well. I learned a great deal about the game by listening to Joe Morgan, and I learned some more by reading his book.
Baseball may be the most troubled of the four major professional sports in the United States. While only the NFL has avoided a labor-related work stoppage in the last decade (the last NFL strike was in 1987), baseball is the only sport to have actually forced the cancellation of its playoffs and championship due to a strike. It happened in 1994, when the owners and the players’ union collided mainly on the issue of a salary-cap, which the owners insist will restore financial sanity to the game and which the players reject as foolish and unfair. In the years following that strike, which forced then-acting Commissioner Bud Selig to cancel the World Series, baseball saw its attendence plummet and the sales of MLB-related merchandise suffer a related drop. Only in 1998 did baseball begin to show signs of recovery, and Morgan’s book outlines his thoughts on what baseball must do to build on the successes of that amazing season.
(A bit of recent baseball history is in order. In 1998, the New York Yankees won 115 games, nearly eclipsing the all-time record for regular season victories en route to their second World Championship in three years. David Wells pitched a perfect game. Cal Ripken Jr. ended his consecutive-games streak. And most memorably, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased each other into baseball immortality as both eclipsed Roger Maris’s 37-year-old record by hitting 70 and 66 home runs, respectively.)
Morgan’s suggestions for improving the game on the field are fascinating. He is wary of the current trend toward over-reliance on the home run, noting that where it once took a player more than one hundred stolen bases to lead the league in that category over a season, in recent years base-stealing has fallen off to where season leaders in SBs now post numbers like 65 or 70. He believes that restoring base-stealing as a key to offense will liven up the game, and it is hard to disagree with him. Morgan also advocates elevating the pitcher’s mound and requiring umpires to enforce the official strike zone, which would tilt the balance-of-power back toward hurlers.
Morgan also writes about improving the game’s financial problems, arguing convincingly for comprehensive revenue sharing. Baseball’s lack of revenue sharing, a staple in the other major sports leagues (and handled with particular brilliance by the NFL), is the largest reason why teams like the Yankees can compete every year by putting forth whatever payroll they need to win, while teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates can never hope to enter into bidding for players like Ken Griffey, Jr or Greg Maddux. Contrast that to the situation in the NFL: in 1992, the most coveted football free agent was defensive end Reggie White. He ended up signing with the Green Bay Packers, the NFL’s smallest market. That would be utterly impossible in Major League Baseball, where the richest teams can pay one player more than some teams pay all of their players combined. However, Morgan doesn’t let the small-market teams off the hook, pointing out instances where the teams have made very bad decisions — such as the Pirates’ signing a few years back of B J Surhoff, a decent but unremarkable player whose salary would have been better spent on young talent and prospects for a moribund farm system.
These are all good ideas, and Morgan writes them engagingly. The book’s last chapter, though, is both remarkable and depressing. It is the book’s longest chapter, and it deals with baseball’s problems with race. Minorities are almost never hired — or even interviewed — for front office positions in baseball today, and it is a travesty. Morgan writes with barely-contained outrage that white men who have no managerial experience in baseball have been made major-league managers in recent years, while Cito Gaston — who managed the Toronto Blue Jays to four division titles and two World Championships between 1989 and 1993 — has been relegated to once again “proving himself” as a hitting coach or wherever he is right now. And it isn’t just in the front office or managerial ranks that baseball’s quiet racism rears its head. The Arizona Diamondbacks, in their inaugural season, had Devon White — a black man — as their centerfielder. White is one of the finest fielders ever, and his presence in an expansion team’s outfield — plus his experience as a member of two World Series champions (the 1992 and 1993 Toronto Blue Jays) — should have been invaluable to a group of young players. But after their first year, the Diamondbacks refused White a contract, saying they couldn’t afford him. They then proceeded to sign as his replacement the white outfielder Steve Findley for twice the amount of money for which White had asked. I found that anecdote rather saddening. Morgan further sees baseball’s treatment of African-Americans in general as a reason why so few blacks are now entering baseball, instead turning toward football and basketball.
I enjoyed this book, and I wouldn’t mind hearing what Morgan has to say on these same topics now that more than three years have passed since that great season. He has a chapter where he compares the 1998 Yankees to the 1975 Cincinnati Reds (“The Big Red Machine”), and of course he finds in the Reds’ favor. (He played for them, after all!) But then he says something interesting: for the Yankees to be truly considered great, they would have to win not one championship but two in a row — because that is a much more remarkable feat. Well, Joe, the Yankees won not one more championship but two more, and they nearly won a third. So how do they match up to the Big Red Machine now?