Sunset at Safeco Field, June 7, 2016

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Book Review: Summer of Shadows by Jonathan Knight (via Goodreads)

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Summer of Shadows: A Murder, A Pennant Race, and the Twilight of the Best Location in the NationSummer of Shadows: A Murder, A Pennant Race, and the Twilight of the Best Location in the Nation by Jonathan Knight

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading three lengthy histories and Margaret Atwood’s depressing dystopia, all I wanted was to relax with a baseball book from the pre-DH era when baseball was truly the national pastime, when the sun shined on men and women in hats and bleacher seats were under a dollar.

Summer of Shadows gave me so much more! First, it is a great baseball book about the 1954 Cleveland Indians, the team that set the American League record for wins prior to flaming out in the World Series. Jonathan Knight captures the essence of the team and its journey, giving us enough in-game action without burying us in statistical detail. The author’s gift for making scene and character come alive in tightly-written paragraphs is truly exceptional; the two chapters devoted to the doubleheader conquest of the evil Yankees are baseball writing at its best.

But Mr. Knight does not limit his talents to the ultimately disappointing history of the Indians. That summer also featured the murder of the young wife of a physician by the name of Sam Sheppard, whose story gripped Cleveland as tightly as the pennant race. Knight uses this tragic but compelling tale of “newspaper justice” to draw attention to the elements that drove a once-great city (“The Best Location in the Nation”) into moral and physical decline. The goal is ambitious, the challenge significant, but Mr. Knight pulls it off with aplomb. Never once did I feel that he was stretching too hard to weave these three superficially disparate themes together; instead, his mastery of narrative provides us with a tight, page-turning story that is difficult to put down and consistently stimulates thought and emotion. We enter a time of both innocence and naiveté at the start of 1954 and leave it with a greater understanding of the cultural causes behind Cleveland’s tragic decline, much of which lies in the darker side of human nature.

There are few books I bother to re-read, but Summer of Shadows will definitely make that exclusive list.

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Baseball

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I took this picture in 2006 at Fenway Park. 19...

When people look at pictures of me as a small boy, they’re always surprised at how dark my skin is. In all the school photographs from first grade to seventh grade, when puberty dramatically shifted my trajectory, I had a dark chocolate complexion as if I’d spent my entire life in the Caribbean soaking up the rays.

That’s because from the age of seven to thirteen I spent all my waking hours outdoors in Santa Clara Valley sunshine, playing baseball.

Being indoors wasn’t much fun. My father was a chronically unemployed drunk, my mother worked her tail off to keep us barely above water and our home was full of stained and broken furniture. The shitty surroundings and the random appearances of my unpredictable, forever angry father made it impossible to have friends over due to the terror of embarrassment.

So I immersed myself in baseball. It was a time when every kid played baseball; it didn’t matter if you were any good or not. You could always find someone to play catch, or a couple of kids to play pinky or three flies up, or even enough kids to field a team if you agreed that right field was foul territory. When the kids on the street were inside eating dinner or doing their homework, I’d play by myself, throwing a tennis ball against the garage to create all varieties of grounders that I’d scoop up with an old Rawlings glove that was a bit too big for my genetically small hands. When I had to go inside, I’d scour old baseball magazines and re-read the box scores I’d already scanned that morning. At bedtime, I’d crawl into bed with my mitt and bat, and try to fall asleep on the lumpy, saggy mattress they called my bed.

Fortunately, my parents were both baseball fans, so whenever the Giants were on radio or TV, I could always listen and watch. During those times, we were all on the same wavelength, losing ourselves in baseball to forget about our dreary circumstances.

I played Little League, Pony League and Colt League; I played baseball in school all the way up to my sophomore year in high school. After starting my career as a second baseman, I moved to the outfield, where my speed and so-so arm turned me into a singles-hitting center fielder. My mom always came to my games, no matter how tired she was, and baseball seemed to lift her spirits for a while. My father came when he wasn’t on a bender, sometimes shaming me by badgering my manager in a drunken rant. These moments only affected me when I was sitting in the dugout between innings, for when I was on the ball field, I was completely immersed in the game. It wasn’t the immersion of a great baseball mind, however. Often I didn’t even know the score. It was a Zen-like focus on the particular moment: runners on first and second, the count two-and-one, left-handed batter up . . . better shade him a bit towards right field . . . react to the ball.

I remember one game where I was batting with runners on first and third, one out. I stepped out of the batter’s box to check the signs from the third base coach. He wanted me to bunt, so on the next pitch I faked a swing and eased my bat into the ball, placing it in no-man’s land too far for the third baseman and too awkward for the pitcher to reverse his motion after delivery. I tore down the first base line, made it to first easily and then found myself being mobbed by my teammates. I didn’t realize that I had just driven in the winning run. Rather than feeling like the hometown hero, I felt sad that the game was over and we weren’t going to play any more. It was still light out!

I didn’t want to go home.

I remember my first major league baseball game. Giants and Phillies, night game at Candlestick Park, final score 4-2 Giants. I guess the famous Candlestick wind and fog were creating frostbite symptoms throughout the crowd, but I didn’t notice. I had made it to the big leagues! Afterwards, my dad, in one of his rare nice-father moments, took me to a coffee shop nearby and bought me a maple bar that was probably left over from the morning donut pile but tasted like heaven to me. On the rare moments today when I indulge in a maple bar, I eat it very slowly, savoring every sweet and sticky bite, reveling in a rare, wonderful memory from childhood.

My last wonderful memory of baseball happened sometime in the early 1990’s, before the strike. I’d become a road warrior, and to alleviate the boredom of business trips, I resolved to visit every baseball stadium in the major leagues. I did Yankee Stadium, Wrigley and the abomination that they called The Metrodome.

This particular moment occurred at Fenway Park, before the luxury boxes sapped the ambiance. It was a day game, but began under overcast skies. Then, sometime in the top of the fourth, the sun came out, revealing the intense contrast between brilliant green grass and soft brown dirt. As the pitcher worked through the count, I took in everything: the emerald grass, the infielders in their still-clean home whites bending forward to get into position as the pitcher started his wind up, the light chatter among the fans, the left-field shadow from the Green Monster, the warming, glowing sun. A sense of tradition and history mingled with feelings of absolute enchantment with the beauty of this simple, inconsequential scene. I was entranced.

Baseball today is but a shadow of its glory. The 1994 strike pretty much ruined the game for me, with the ongoing steroid scandal delivering the coup de grace. There are too many teams and too many players in the major leagues, leading to a diluted talent pool and making it impossible to develop an intimate knowledge of player tendencies. Both owners and players are consumed with greed; the game isn’t played as much as it is played out. The World Series is now played at night, darkening the green grass and removing the sense of innocence that is somehow rekindled by the presence of sunshine.

I’ll still watch a game every now and then, searching for something that may be lost in the real world but will always exist in my soul. Baseball will always be connected with the sunshine that made my skin dark every summer and gave me hope that the world was not as dark as it seemed inside.