Book Reviews

A bold, no-holds-barred memoir from one of the most dominant and dynamic pitchers to ever play the game

Before Pedro Martinez was the eight-time All Star, three-time Cy Young Award winner, and World Series champion, before stadiums full of fans chanted his name, he was just a little kid from the Dominican Republic who sat under a mango tree and dreamed of playing pro ball. Now in Pedro, the charismatic and always colorful pitcher opens up for the first time to tell his remarkable story.

Martinez entered the big leagues a scrawny power pitcher with a lightning arm who they said wasn’t “durable” enough, who they said was a punk. But what they underestimated about Pedro Martinez was the intensity of the fire inside. Like no one before or since, Martinez willed himself to become one of the most intimidating pitchers to have ever played the game.

In Pedro we relive it all in Technicolor brightness, from his hardscrabble days in the minor leagues clawing for respect; to his early days in lonely Montreal, where he first struggled with the reputation of being a headhunter; to his legendary run with the Red Sox when start after start he dazzled with his pitching genius; to his twilight years on the mound as he put the finishing touches on a body of work that made him an icon.

Bold, outspoken, intimate in its details, and grand in ego and ambition, this new memoir by one of baseball’s most enigmatic figures will entertain and inspire generations of fans to come.

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TOP TEN ALL-TIME? (What do you think?)

summer game

1. The Summer Games by Roger Angell.  From spring to fall and from decade to decade, baseball changed in the mezzo years between 1962 and 1972—the hot summer when leagues were expanding, franchises were moving, owners were getting richer, players were getting bigger, and television was altering the game. The New Yorker writer’s pitch-perfect essays from the 1960s gave birth to modern baseball writing, the way that A.J. Liebling was the heavyweight of boxing literature. Read Angell, and you can practically feel the summer breeze blowing through the outfield bleachers. The smell of spring is in the air.

moneyball

2. Moneyball by Michael Lewis.  Quick. Name one book about baseball. Chances are you said Moneyball. You’ve at least seen the movie, or heard about it. How do you spend $41 million and compete against the New York Yankees’ $125 million payroll? What Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, had “was a willingness to rethink baseball: how it is managed, how it is played, who is best suited to play it, and why.” That’s not easy for a game synonymous with “tradition.” Alongside the mentions of on-base-percentages and sabermetrics is a very human story of (relatively) strapped underdogs up against flushed elites. Whether Beane’s sabermetrics works is almost beside the point—this is a story about the nature of competition.

the natural

3. The Natural by Bernard Malamud.  The most divisive book on this list isn’t so much a baseball novel as it is a novelby a man who didn’t consider a book to be a book unless it can be used to procure a Pulitzer. There’s something about baseball that mesmerized post-war immigrants, and Malamud nailed it with the mythical tale of Roy Hobbs, a “natural” of such star magnetism that he gets shot by a woman for mysterious reasons, and then must climb out of the recovery abyss. One swing of his bat (the Excalibur-like “Wonderboy”) could mean redemption—or ruin. Baseball purists find this allegory dark and over-the-top. But Malamud, who didn’t let so much as a fly buzz by without writing about it as long as it passed through Brooklyn, showed us what Jews living blocks away from Ebbets Field must have felt: awe and hope in the shadow of an ugly new world.

bang the drum slowly 4. Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris. The four-part story of Henry Wiggen begins with The Southpaw, which was published a year after The Natural. It, too, has the tendency to knock big hitters out cold, since Harris likes the vernacular so much it can look as if he’s throwing nothing but fastballs that blow by you. But true to its title, Bang the Drum Slowly stays the flash of the high heat and centers on the poignant life of Bruce Pearson, Wiggen’s catcher and roommate, who’s dying slowly of cancer.

october 1964 5. October 1964 by David Halberstam. The premier journalistic chronicler of the ‘60s was also one of the greatest reporters to have written on sports. (He was killed five years ago in a car crash on his way to interview the quarterback who led the New York Giants in “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”) It should come as no surprise, since to understand America you must take note of its sports, so deeply are they woven into the national psyche. Like Moneyball, the narrative of the 1964 World Series pitted the upstart underdogs St. Louis Cardinals against the Goliath New York Yankees, and Halberstam painted vivid portraits of every member of the teams, from Roger Maris and Micky Mantle to the determined young buck Lou Brock. This is how American men acted, thought, and felt.

you know me al 6. You Know Me Al by Ring Lardner.  Read this book out loud, or don’t read it at all. The Southpaw did not invent the colloquial baseball novel. Lardner did. And it is pitch-perfect. Virginia Woolf never saw a single baseball game, though from what I gather, she could probably toss a no-hitter, no sweat. But she read You Know Me Al, and called its letter-writing hero, the plainspoken bush-leaguer Jack Keefe, a character through whom “we gaze into the depths of society.” Never mind that the society she so wanted to gaze into was a foreign land populated by people she’d deem savage and subhuman—to Woolf, no one is sophisticated enough, except maybe Lardner.