Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Book Review: THE MACHINE by Joe Posnanski (William Morrow, 2009)

I've had good fortune of late regarding "whim" pickups at the library. While getting the Ayn Rand biography, I saw this "story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds" on the "new books" shelf and picked it up for some light reading. It turned out to be much better than it had any right to be -- almost as good as THE FIRST FALL CLASSIC, in fact, though somewhat more casually written.

The '75 Reds (who repeated as World Series champs in '76, sweeping my Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS) were one of the legendary baseball teams of my (relative) youth. With free agency disrupting the game in the late 70s, some even ventured to argue that the Reds would be "the last great team." Of course, the late-90s Yankees put paid to that presumptuous assertion, but the '75 Reds were plenty good, with one of the best eight-man lineups ever, a colorful (if somewhat unorthodox) manager in Sparky Anderson, and an underrated pitching staff of interchangeable parts which anticipated the "relief-pitching revolution" that has gifted us with so many 3 1/2-hour games in these latter days. Featuring such stars as Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, and Tony Perez, the Reds entered the '75 season as a formidable but flawed team: they had lost two World Series and one NLCS between 1970 and 1973 and seemed to have been eclipsed as an NL West power by the Dodgers. They got off to a poor start in '75, splitting their first 36 games, but then rocketed to the best regular-season record (108-54) since the 1906 Chicago Cubs. The upstart Boston Red Sox gave them all they could handle in one of the classic World Series -- winning the most famous game of the affair as Carlton Fisk's histrionic homer settled Game 6 in 12 innings -- but Cincinnati clawed back from a 3-0 deficit in Game 7 to take the title.

Posnanski, a writer for the KANSAS CITY STAR, provides us with the expected tidbits of back story and gossip that has accumulated over three decades (ending with the pathetic sight of a banned Pete Rose selling, if not his soul, then certainly a large portion of his dignity in a Las Vegas casino). He goes beyond the expected, however, by weaving cultural events from the year 1975 into his narrative. '75 was a difficult year for America, with South Vietnam falling, inflation roaring, Watergate a painful recent memory, and Jimmy Hoffa vanishing. The Reds, who stuck to a strict dress and hair code as a matter of organizational policy, represented a conservative portion of the country that literally felt under siege. Even Sparky Anderson found himself challenged when his son refused to cut his hair. The Reds could at least take some solace in the fact that, thanks to their World Series battle, interest in baseball -- that most traditional of American sports -- was revived after a long period of quiescence. Reading the book brought back many memories of those days. Posnanski deserves credit for injecting some real quality into what could have been your standard "where are they now?" pot-boiler.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.