The book: “Top of the Order: 25 Writers Pick Their Favorite Baseball Player of All Time”
The author: Edited by Sean Manning
The vital stats: Da Capo Press, 240 pages, $15.95 (paperback)
Find it: Powells has it (linked here)
The pitch: Who you connect with as your favorite player probably, somehow, tells a lot about your personality, what makes you tick. Even if you don’t realize it until you start to list their qualities.
My first love was a Valentine.
This cool looking guy who’d played baseball and football at USC kept coming up and finally stuck with the Dodgers in 1971. Bobby Valentine played everywhere — shortstop, third, second, center field … where ever Walter Alston could fit in him. His was probably one of the first Dodgers baseball cards I ever got, too — and that’s a big deal, seeing it pop out of the nickle machine after you crank it and have a couple cards spit out.
It was probably the way he made himself someone who could be used anywhere. It killed me when the Dodgers traded him to the Angels in that strange Frank Robinson-Bill Grabarkewitz-Bill Singer-Andy Messersmith deal.
Then Bobby V tore up his leg in the wire outfield fence at the Big A and was, of course, never the same. But he kept coming back. With the Padres. And the Mets. He somehow signed with the expansion Seattle Mariners in 1979, he was a freakin’ catcher by then.
He had to retire at the age of 29. And, you know, he became a manager — should have been Lasorda’s coach at some point — and now dabbles at ESPN ….
But that get to the heart of this book.
It starts with that simple question: Who was your favorite baseball player? Now, tell us.
For Roger Kahn, it was Jackie Robinson. For Buzz Bissinger, it’s Albert Pujols. Jonathan Eig had Lou Gehrig — even wrote a biography of him. Pat Jordan takes Tom Seaver.
Then there are people like L.A.-native John Albert, former drummer for Bad Religion who wrote the brutally honest book, “Wrecking Crew” a while back. He took former Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent. There’s a weird pairings we needed to find out more.
Kent was, at first, “my least favorite player on my least favorite team (the Giants, in the late ’90s). … When Kent was traded to the Dodgers I vowed that I would continue to loathe him regardless. As far as I was concerned, his only worthwhile accomplishment in baseball had been physically attacking (Barry) Bonds in the Giants’ dugout.”
But then Albert started to admire Kent’s mustache. Then he liked him more “not despite his faults but because of them. I liked that he said whatever he wanted … He may have been joyless and combative, but he was forthright in an arena of rampant insincerity.”
King Kaufman, whom we used to read religiously on Salon.com, took Neifi Perez, the former White Sox-Tigers-Royals-Giants-Cubs infielder. “It began as a goof,” Kaufman admits. Then, as admiration, for a player so marginal a major leaguer that he stayed employed somehow. “To last a dozen years in the big leagues, start more than 1,200 games, get caught stealing an astonishing 45 times in 102 attempts, you have to be a hell of a ballplayer … The worst player in the major leagues is a hell of a ballplayer. Neifi Perez was a hell of a ballplayer. … I’ll never forget Neifi Perez. He was the greatest lousy player I’ve ever seen.”
One player picked here isn’t even real. Carry Rickey, a film critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer who grew up a Dodgers fan, understandably (because of her job) picked Crash Davis, writing: “I believe in the chick flick and the dick flick and that both are better when in the same movie. I believe in unprocessed bran, single-malt Scotch and Jersey tomatoes. I believe that ‘Field of Dreams’ and ‘The Natural’ are such shmaltzfests they could elevate cholesterol to risky levels. I believe that the dramas of Kevin Costner are self-indulgent dreck. I believe in Title IX, ninth-inning hustle and that catcher Crash Davis, although fictional, is as motivational a figure as Lou Gehrig.”
Rickey goes on to explain how Davis, played by Costner in “Bull Durham,” reminds her of going to her first Dodgers-Cardinals game in 1963 at Chavez Ravine as a 10 year old, and her dad explained how Sandy Koufax and Johnny Roseboro were working together to try to outsmark Curt Flood.
“Thanks Papacito,” she writes about her dad, “and gracias, too, to Vin Scully … for sparing me the fate of the stats slut, the kind of fan more preoccupied with the numbers a ballplayer (or a movie) racks up than in what happens on the field (or on the screen).”
As editor Manning writes in the intro: “Essays such as these (are) all the more necessary, meant as they are to restore some of the faith in and love for the game you may have lately lost, to serve as a reminder that there’s a hell of a lot more about it to cherish than to deplore, and mos tof all to celebrate those players who won us over and made us fans in the first place.”
How it goes down in the scorebook: There’s only 25 who made this first one. We’d love to see another 25 write their essays next year, and 25 more the year after.
Also: In the fall, Manning has a book scheduled called “Down Off the Shelf: 25 Writers on the Stories Behind the Most Meaningful Book on Their Shelves” (linked here).