- The book: “Nine Bucks A Pound”
- The author: James Bailey
- Vital stats: Sun Field Press, 338 pages, $13.95
- Find it: At the author’s website, at Amazon.com
- The pitch: We’ll come clean here: Baseball novels are as tough to review as baseball movies.
(What, did you expect some personal PED revelation here? I only go as far as what my pharmacist recommends on generic versus name brand.)
Naturally, you want authenticity as much as entertainment when baseball is portrayed in fiction (like, in “The Natural.”)
You appreciate creativity as long as its believable.
Otherwise, it kinda drives us nuts.
We’ve been careful to pick and choose the novels we want to include in this annual series over the years — Joseph Shuster’s “The Might Have Been” from 2012 was in, but Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding” in 2011 wasn’t, mostly because of the timing of getting a copy despite all its publicity).Bailey’s first effort, “The Greatest Show on Dirt” in 2012, was worth taking a chance based on our respect for the depth of storylines from the minor-league game that he lived through, and we enjoyed giving the first-time author some swings in the cage.
With “Nine Bucks,” Bailey has hit it on the screws again.
The premise involves steroid use, which can be dicey to an unforgiving audience that may not understand enough about the topic to have personal context. But the more basic human reference point is: What would you do if you felt you were playing fair, but someone taking your job wasn’t?
Del Tanner is a Minnesota Twins’ good-glove, nice-hitting left-handed first baseman who isn’t hitting the long ball (pay attention, James Loney). Or, not long enough. Apparently. He has an ultimatum once he gets a shot at the big leagues — go deep, or go home.
What follows is a tale that some may seem to have some similarity to Ryan Braun’s journey from NL MVP to sitting out most of 2013 with a suspension to finally coming clean. Tanner ends up after winning the AL Rookie of the Year to seeing his name on a list of 11 players investigate by the commissioner’s office for PED use. The rest, you’ll have to read for yourself.
- An excerpt from Chapter 28:
“(Agent Ian) Wicker stared at the screen of his phone, watching his Twitter feed blow up. Major League Baseball was on the warpath. No names had surfaced yet, but the estimates had anywhere from half a dozen to twenty five players suspected of using a variety of performance-enhancing drugs. Peter Gammons had pegged it around ten. John Heyman of Sports Illustrated went on the high side. Most of the other reports Wicker saw fell somewhere in between. The union was allegedly fighting to keep the identities secret, but with this many people digging it was only a matter of time before something surfaced.
“Del must not find out at all costs. Not tonight. And preferably not before he and Dana left for Hawaii tomorrow. Not that he was likely to be named. His past was past. But he was nervous enough already without this.
“Wicker had already coached him through one panic attack today. That was just pre-game jitters in the vestibule of the church. How could the kid calmly face Roy Halladay in front of 50,000 people yet nearly shit himself at the thought of standing up next to the woman he loved before a crowd of 200? That psycho Edsell hadn’t helped much, either. Some best man. He kept trying to get Del to drink from a think flask of whiskey, which only seemed to agitate him further. …
” ‘Del,’ Gunnar called, breathing hard. ‘Thar’s a bunch of reporters oteside.’
” Wicker traded a nervous glance with Edsell. …
” ‘I didn’t fail anything.’ Del struggled against Edsell’s hold, as if he meant to challenge his attackers. ‘I was clean.’
” ‘It’s all a bunch of crap,’ Wicker said. ‘Not sure where they’re getting their info, but it’s way off base.’ …
Bailey, who takes Tanner’s path from 2003 to 2010, isn’t off base at all in how he lays all this out, saying in the acknowledgements that he got help along the way from players who have described to him the way drug testing in the minor leagues was done, as well as some information from trainers. Bailey’s previous experience again around the game and how it works is one part of. The other is how he uses realistic dialogue to connect with the reader in a way to make it real.
As ESPN.com’s Jayson Stark writes: “Bailey hasn’t just given us a great read. He’s given us an important window into a topic we can’t seem to stop talking about.”
You kind of wish a guy like the late Ken Caminiti was still around to read this and take it to heart.
- More to know:
== From Bob D’Angelo of the Tampa Tribune: “It’s easy to dismiss those players who use performance-enhancing drugs as cheaters who will do anything to get an edge. And Bailey, in ‘Nine Bucks a Pound,’ is not trying to make heroes of those who crossed the line. But it’s hard not to sympathize with Tanner, who makes it to the majors, becomes the American League rookie of the year, and then has to face a firestorm when his denials about steroid use begin to unravel. The decision he makes in the end shows his courageous side. In other words, a clear conscience is the softest pillow.”