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July 30, 2002
The most enjoyable new baseball book of this season is Neal Conan's Play By Play. Like many of us whose childhoods predated cable TV, Neal Conan grew up with a transistor radio glued to his ear, listening to the great play-by-play men like Mel Allen, Phil Rizzuto and Red Barber, and dreaming of a big league career for himself. Instead of major league baseball, though, Conan wound up in major league radio news as a broadcast journalist with National Public Radio. He is currently host of NPR's "Talk of the Nation," heard locally each weekday afternoon on WHRV-FM.
In the year 2000, at the age of fifty, Neal Conan had a self-described "midlife crisis." After twenty-three years with NPR, he accepted an offer to be the radio voice of the Aberdeen Arsenal, a startup team in the independent Atlantic League, a league unaffiliated with any of the major league teams. With the support of his wife, fellow NPR journalist Liane Hansen, he took a leave of absence and "abandoned wife, children, yard, cat and a career inside the Washington Beltway to punch my ticket to the small time."
Play by Play, subtitled Baseball, Radio and Life in the Last Chance League, chronicles that season in the sub-minor leagues. Making $75.00 per game, Conan broadcast the team's 144-game schedule as the Arsenal battled the Bridgeport Bluefish, Atlantic City Surf, Nashua Pride, Somerset Patriots and Long Island Ducks. Along the way he got to know about the hopes, dreams and lives of the ballplayers, managers, umpires and owners. He also learned a lot about himself and his own life. We get to go along for the ride in this well written, "can't put it down" book. I literally couldn't put it down, reading its 242 pages in one daylong vacation reading session. I didn't want it to end.
There's opening night, when all the brand-new, fancy-schmancy radio equipment refuses to work. No matter what Conan and the station's engineer try, there's nothing, no signal. At the last second, the engineer has Conan use the press box phone to call the on-air studio, where he holds a microphone up to the speakerphone to provide listeners with "the worst audio quality ever broadcast on FM radio."
There are players like Danny Perez, who says "you always want to win on travel day," because "anybody who seemed to be having too good a time after a defeat would attract a withering stare from the front of the bus." Like several of the ballplayers in the Atlantic League, Perez had a lot of talent, and played a few games in the Major Leagues several seasons back. But there's a reason why they're where they are:
"'A lot of making it,' Danny said, 'is desire. That's true whether you're in high school or college or the pros, but in pro ball especially. When you get there, everybody's good and there are some who are just phenomenal. There are some guys who make it, they have the heart and the desire, they'll do whatever it takes. Then there are guys with ability who lost focus, who strayed. Like me. And that's why a lot of us end up here.'"
There's pitcher Zac Stark, a once-promising hurler who was cut by the Florida Marlins because he wasn't quite fast enough; Gil Martinez, a former Red Sox prospect whose name is misspelled "Martienz" on his Arsenal jersey; Tyrone Horne, who entered the record books in 1998 when he homered for the cycle---one-run, two-run, three-run and grand slam homers in the same game---and won the MVP award in the double-A Texas League, but still went unnoticed in the bigs because he'd been a forty-fourth round draft pick.
We get to know Aberdeen manager Darrell Evans, a former slugger for the Atlanta Braves and Detroit Tigers, one of only two players to have a 40-home run season in both major leagues, who hit 414 homers in his major league career. And T. R. Lewis, the "heart and soul of the team," a guy who had once been a bright hope in the Baltimore Orioles organization but whose big league hopes ended with shoulder surgery.
There's the Dyno-Mite Lady, the female umpire, the Ripken family who are part owners of the Aberdeen team. And the forty-one year old dreamer whose "experience consists of thousands of afternoons, alone, throwing baseballs at a wall and taking swings against a pitching machine," who keeps going to tryout camps and hoping against hope because "God is with me."
Finally, there's the author himself. Between innings, Neal Conan shares the harrowing story of his captivity in Iraq during Desert Storm in 1991, and tells us of his early days in radio. Most of all, he shares his own season-long journey, "the chance to use the surge of conflicting emotion that we refer to as midlife crisis to rethink what I've done and what I'm doing."
It's a journey worth sharing, a great summer read.
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