Saturday
Mar292014

The Devil's Snake Curve

By Josh Ostergaard


 

Coffee House Press
April 2014
978-1566893459

Reviewed by Justin Thurman


 

This past season, the Boston Red Sox won their third championship of the 21st century. Eight major league teams have never won a World Series; the Seattle Mariners have never appeared in one. But in the grand drama that is baseball, the Red Sox are the perennial scrappers in the shadow of an empire. They danced with the devil of big market economics and lost, so the story goes, and 2013 was to be their year of penance and rebuilding. The year before, they fired their celebrity manager and sent the cumbersome contracts of their underperforming free-agent mercenaries to Los Angeles. To regain their identities as giant slayers, they grew the bushy beards of folklore lumberjacks. These Red Sox, like the two championship Red Sox teams before them, were not villains or representatives of baseball's large-market 1%. Ignore the top-shelf payroll and at least one admitted steroid user on their roster; love them and receive them as heroes. 

Why? Because they aren't the New York Yankees. And everyone really hates the Yankees.  

Although he descends from a long line of Midwestern Yankee-haters himself, Josh Ostergaard begrudgingly revokes this narrative logic—or any narrative logic applied to baseball's twisted plot—in The Devil's Snake Curve, an obsessively researched collection of disparate fragments that coalesce into a cogent history of America's dark imagination. Ostergaard, a "bleeding Kansan" and fan of flyover-market clubs like the Kansas City Royals, Chicago Cubs, and Minnesota Twins, seeks to reconcile the shadow histories of both baseball and America. Like the characters and mythologies it celebrates, The Devil's Snake Curve comes from a left field where shirtless father-son teams beat down elderly first-base coaches and Dock Ellis can pitch a no-hitter on LSD. From where Ostergaard sits, baseball is America's pastime not because of its romance, but because no other sport better reflects our country's complex gray areas and its infuriating inequities. 

Ostergaard describes his authorial duty as curatorial in nature, an exercise in collecting and arranging vital facts and phenomena. Indeed, perhaps the most impressive aspect of The Devil's Snake Curve is its exhaustive investigation of baseball's rarely swept corners. We learn Mark Twain umpired a game but lasted only a few innings: he couldn't resist the urge to make up rules as the game progressed. We learn of the Yankees' goodwill mission to Tokyo after the Second World War. Here, Ostergaard assembles a masterful drama from foraged newspaper clippings, little-seen film footage on loan from the Hall of Fame, and archival work in the special collections of the Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

In this chapter, simply entitled "War," the book's political sub-text steps to the forefront. Our curator takes special issue with Japanese internment camps and this shame snowballs into full-blown rage by the time George W. Bush, the former owner of the Texas Rangers, oversees a mass deception that morphs the United States into a model of the fascistic state it purports to loathe. The American experience, like baseball, is a "complex game […] within a country that loves freedom but demands uniformity." As players, we must adapt, shift our allegiances, or risk being steamrolled by the machine.

The Devil's Snake Curve deconstructs these types of conversions, particularly the elective ones individuals make for the good of the team. If major league baseball is a big money locomotive, its players shovel coal into the furnace. The Yankees are the model corporation, the first of many organizations that come to "approach their teams like they were a complex piece of industrial machinery." Their infamous grooming code is part of a bloodless dehumanizing process and their most famous players are tamed animals: Babe Ruth is the proto-mercenary who runs on booze and an all-buffalo-meat diet. Billy Martin is the wild man at odds with the constant demand to conform, "the gasoline" that can fuel the machine but can also make it explode.

As if juggling American historical data and baseball legend wasn't enough, Ostergaard also intersperses asides from his own life. These moments provide a reprieve from what could be a deluge of information, but some disrupt the drama evoked by the interplay of the fragments. He suspends the espionage and scientific intrigue of the post-atomic age with a scene in which his own team subjects another to the Little League slaughter rule. Conceptually speaking, the move makes sense. Yet, a sheltered kid of the 1980's realizing his appetite for the shame of his peers feels trivial in comparison to the machinations of pending nuclear holocaust.

Other collisions between his research and his memoir work quite well, however. When the Royals acquire George Brett, our narrator for the first time sees his favorite team contending with the Yankees. Ostergaard's approach provides a prism through which we witness 1983's infamous pine-tar incident, the most stunning televised example of baseball's elastic relationship with the rules and the bizarre personalities who enforce and break those rules.

In the end, The Devi's Snake Curve succeeds as an experiment in both political and cultural commentary. In the book's final third, we catch up with the steroid scandal and Ostergaard closes the gaps between baseball, the personal, and the political. He writes:

I had believed so many good things about our nation that had proven untrue once we began to use torture, imprisonment without trial, and domestic spying as tools in the War on Terror. I realized the steroid scandal was just another window into the problems of America: fake home run records, illusory weapons of mass destruction, economic bubbles hyped by Wall Street. All symptoms of the same syndrome. Ballplayers bloated by steroids, fans bloated by corn syrup and sloth. Both rotten with greed and hubris.

Ostergaard frames the scandal as an orchestrated distraction that shifted the blame for our bloating to baseball players. Rather than put the powerful and corrupt before Congress, we tried athletes, employees who cheated to keep pace with the powerful and corrupt. He ultimately figures America is nothing less than the endless push and pull between the rich and the poor, the unkempt and the clean, the Sox and the Yanks. Remaining a fan is hard, but it is worth it.