Click here to watch my celebration of legendary sports broadcaster Vin Scully in: My Homage to Vin Scully
Selling books is not an easy task, especially when no one knows who you are. People will gab with you, find out all about you, learn what your book is about, and even laugh at the funny parts in your sales pitch. They’ll tell you how great your book sounds even going so far as to say, “I’m gonna buy it!” just before walking away without a book. Uh, it’s right here. . . in this stack of even more copies of the book I’m sitting next to. . . Sir? Sir??
Yes, at various times in my life, I have hawked books. The first was an idea I came up with and co-wrote, a humor book observing the rabid nature of baseball fans called “How to Talk to a Yankee Fan.” It was mainly for fans of the Boston Red Sox, but also worked as a gag gift for Yankees fans with a sense of humor. And so I sat for hours in bookstores, bars, charity events, baseball card shows, even on street corners in Boston’s Kenmore Square. If there was a crowd, I was there trying to eke out a sale or two.
It was encouraging to learn from the Barnes & Noble Community relations manager at the Manchester, New Hampshire store that the turnout for one of my signings was not as sparse as that of another writer. Dan Brown of “The Da Vinci Code” fame only had sold three. . . his first time there. There with my writing partner, Rick, we sold nine books that one evening — six if you exclude the ones our friends bought. (Of course, once Oprah got a hold of Dan’s little book, there was a line around the building. But still! What a chump he must have felt like. . . upon looking back on his meager sales years later aboard his private jet sitting atop stacks of hundred dollar bills.)
So the question looming over things — How to sell more than nine copies, and make more than the standard bookstore profit of seventy-seven cents per book, which I had to split equally with Rick? I saw the spring training baseball crowd of vacationers and snowbirds in Florida as the ideal market for our demographic and I got on the phone with ballparks where the Red Sox would be playing throughout March. Rick scheduled some stand-up comedy shows while I planned book signings at sports bars, Barnes & Nobles, and two days at Edison Field, the spring facility of the Red Sox, during the first week of our tour. (Solid sales there would mean we wouldn’t have to lug over 300 books around with us for the final three weeks of the trip.)
The park was more than agreeable to us coming down and selling books. Doreen, the events manager, signed me up for a game day plus a non-game day where we could remain in the concourse for those guests who came for a tour of the place.
It was all set. . . and then, my grandmother passed away. So I had to postpone the dates and attend her funeral. Flash forward three weeks. The trip had been a great struggle, with lots of mileage put on the car, sluggish book sales, deceitful comedy club owners, and a publisher we could not rely on.
Monday of the last week arrived. This was the off-day aimed at selling to fans on a tour or meandering through the gift shop. Books that could be had at a bookstore for $15 were raised to $20 where we would get a commission of $9 per. (Isn’t that sweet of them?) Nine books and two hours later, we closed up shop.
So far, the trickle of sales continued. My plan of bringing the book directly to the fans was not looking as wise as I had hoped. It built to a Tuesday morning at Edison Field, where the Red Sox faced the Pittsburgh Pirates and we faced the thought of driving back home with more than unsold 200 books. But on this game day, would be allowed to sell in the concourse of the 8600-seat stadium only until first pitch.
Usher Joe (our liason at the park) told us to get there an hour before the gates opened and he’d take us on a tour of the press box. In the press box, we met Carl, the public address announcer. Carl was about 5’2″ (both ways) with white hair and a white beard, but when he spoke, you knew exactly what he did for a living. We gave him a book and he surprised us by saying he’d give us a plug during the game. (We told him we’d be signing all game, though I knew our marching orders were to close up shop when the first pitch was thrown. Usher Sal, tasked with taking the money for us, would be reassigned to a section in the park at that point).
Two and a half hours later, twenty-eight more books had left our hands. And that was that, our last scheduled book signing for the trip. (Sigh.)
We got our cash, stored the rest of our books and were allowed to watch the game from SRO (standing room only) seats. There was only one main aisle stretching from left field to right field with three rows of seats between the aisle and the field and many more in the “upper deck” area. The park was not big and it was easy to find people. (I mention that now because it’ll come back in a moment.)
Rick went off to find a spot along the left field side while I made my way toward right field and stood alone next to two gentlemen — one in a Cubs hat, the other a Brewers hat — and i started to watch. I overheard these guys ask who was pitching so I answered that it was knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.
Three innings later, we’re on our third beers having a great time, we three new best friends, laughing, and watching some pretty good baseball. I barely even noticed the announcement over the loud speaker for our book which coincidentally came around the time Mike and Bob (my new drinking buddies) asked me what I did for a living.
A few minutes later, Joe comes over with three of my books in his hand. (He found me simply by walking the aisle until he saw me.) He said, “Three people just came by and bought books, but want you to sign them.” I said that I’d be down in a few minutes and continued drinking and having fun. Mike and Bob were now intrigued at this guy who has an usher coming up to him. Then, another announcement over the loud speaker and Mike asks, “Wait, is that you?”
NOW, Rick comes over to me and says, “You gotta get downstairs. there’s a line of people that want books.” He explained that Joe was now taking the money so that would be okay. I had to leave. Mike and Bob playfully ribbed me, “Oh, now that it’s your round to buy drinks, you gotta go,” but they waved me on and said they’d stop by later.
I returned to the concourse to find we’re in code red with all the people around the table with books. (It’s like the final scene in “Field of Dreams” when all of a sudden, hundreds of cars are driving up the road to Ray’s farm to see the baseball field. Now we didn’t have hundreds, but…)
With regular announcements over the loud speaker, we sold another 52 that day for a total of 80. Doreen wasn’t happy with the fact we were selling during the game . . . until she saw the final tally. The souvenir stand was happy. And we were happy. A good time was had by all.
And that was that. A good haul, but still, there was work to be done. We had a comedy show the next night in Winter Haven and then on Thursday in Alabama before beginning the drive back to the left coast, books in tow. So we enjoyed our dinner with proceeds from books sold and planned to sleep in for it was only a two hour drive to Winter Haven.
HOWEVER, that next morning, Rick was awakened by the club booker in Winter Haven screaming at him for missing the show. Turns out, the show was the previous night, while we were at dinner.
Going back through the e-mails, I found one several months earlier where my partner had inadvertently shifted the Tuesday and Wednesday shows to Wednesday and Thursday. And from there, it went into our calendars. Ooops. Not only was he no longer welcome in Winter Haven, but that meant the Alabama show was in nine hours. . . and it was an eight hour drive.
Dealt a whole bushel of lemons, I had to get the sugar and a citrus press in order to churn out a ton of lemonade. A Wednesday show meant we could now make it back to the ballpark for the team’s season finale on Thursday. (Given the nearly $900 we brought in for them, they were only all too helpful to set up an encore.)
The only obstacle remained driving to ‘bama, performing in an hour and a half comedy show, then getting right back into my car and driving back in time for the gates to open at 10:30 a.m. With Rick taking the graveyard shift in my car, while I slept, we actually made it.
Arriving back to our friends at the ballpark, we were told there was an article in the paper just above the previous day’s box score advertising our book. PLUS Carl kept pitching it over the loud speaker. (I think people just wanted to buy it to shut him up, God bless him.) By the seventh inning, we had sold another 125, the last of our supply, basically paying for my trip. (Underestimating sales are better than overestimating them, which, I’ve learned far too many times, happens more often than not.)
Technically, we didn’t sell 200-plus books in a day. It was more like 30 hours. But the moral of the story is that unless your name is Dan Brown, it’s a battle, one where you should take what comes to you and enjoy the experience. Though it is good to know that Dan Brown may have done better than us in Barnes & Noble bookstores, we still outpaced him in ballparks. . . probably.
Exactly ten seasons have passed since the Red Sox were defending champs for the first time since the Woodrow Wilson administration. (Nine if you completely disavow the Bobby Valentine fiasco.)
It was an entirely different environment for baseball fandom back then. Fans born today have no idea of the suffrage endured, the “better luck next year” anguish, the torment at the hands of Yankees fans. Oh, how times have changed. The greatest rivalry in American professional sports has gone stale (save for a fight between a drunk fan or two, but that’s all in a day’s game).
Sure, there have been long periods of calm before, interspersed by periods of violent conflagrations — Billy Martin and Jimmy Piersall fighting each other in the tunnel underneath the stands in the 50s; Fisk and Munson rolling around on the ground in the 70s; 2004, when Jason Varitek taught A-Rod about the health benefits of leather taken orally. I mean, this is a rivalry that once reached DEFCON 1, when Pedro was hitting Yankee batsmen as if he was playing “Duck Hunt” on his Nintendo Entertainment System. But this feels different.
For that was when we were frustrated and our buttons could be pushed. Now, we’re riding in duck boats on Easy (Boylston) Street. We’ve all seen that kid with the sign that reads “6 years old and 40 parades” or something like that. He will never know true hardship, that borne of shattered dreams and broken bat flare singles; the anger that comes from leaving a pitcher in the game too long like a turkey on Thanksgiving, or diminutive shortstops hitting one just over the monster. We were a nervous, sad sack of tears and regret back then, but it bred many of our best qualities — bravery, resilience, optimism, probably a little foolishness, but most of all, loyalty.
There are few remnants of those traits in the newest generation of Red Sox fans. It comes too easily for them whereas for us, the only ticker tape we ever saw came when a Telex factory dumped their refuse out the window. (This new generation doesn’t even have to deal with telex machines!) But regardless of the disappointment, I kept watching my team!
At one time, Boston executives couldn’t even get onto the same hotel floor as a Cuban import and now all flights to Boston seem to include a layover in Havana.
Gone are the days when the Red Sox would claim ex-Yankees off the scrap heap — Elston Howard, Rick Cerone, Ramiro Mendoza — and now we’re happily allowing them to overpay for our players — Stephen Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury. Heck, we’ll even cover the Amtrak fare down I-95.
I miss those days. I feel like I had an edge then. I was close to the borderline, baby! Don’t push me with your “19-18!” chants and your brags of 20-some-odd championships (most of which occurred before you were born).
Every hero needs a villain. Who do we root against now? A-Rod? Ha! Expecting anything from him is like expecting a glorious spring lawn once the snow melts and then remembering all the dog poop that’s still there.
Do the fans still bother us? (Well, yes, of course they do, they’re Yankees fans and verbal abuse is in their cholesterol-clogged arteries. Disregard the question.) I just don’t feel the same animosity for them that I once did. Their taunts don’t have the same bite anymore since the Red Sox have tripled the Yankees output of championships during this century. Those numbers they used to spew are now insignificant to an entire generation of fans.
Could it be that we’re the villains now? Nah. I know many teams don’t like us, but that never bothered us before. Did it? To be honest, I don’t even know who I am anymore. I enjoy the winning, that’s true, but it was more the thrill of the victory, which allowed the thrill of rubbing it in the faces of Yankees fans.
This week, we start a new season where the Yankees lineup is peppered with players either on the downward slopes of their careers or pulled from the FBI’s Witness Relocation Program softball team. There are no future Hall of Famers left, no MVPs, no Red Sox killers. They’re not going to put up much of a fight.
The nineteen games where the two squads will square off this year will not lead to seven more in the postseason. They’ll lack the drama, they’ll lack the sense of relief and joy after a victory, the kind we used to have. How do we stoke the fire and make the rivalry fun again?
Maybe Wade Miley starts head hunting since he doesn’t have to bat anymore. Perhaps Pedroia slides in spikes up to his old double play-mate Drew. We’ll be happy to take our cue from any of the guys on the field.
There’s a new league commissioner and maybe that signals a brand new day in this rivalry. But until then, we only have YouTube videos and Ben Affleck-narrated documentaries to teach our children what it means to be decent and hard-cheering fans, and to rekindle old feelings of a rivalry gone bland.
Andy Wasif’s “Red Sox University” (Triumph Books, 2009) will be mentioned in “501 Books Baseball Fans Must Read Before they Die” by Ron Kaplan (due out in April 2013). Ron Kaplan reviews books and interviews authors for his site Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf.
Presumably “Red Sox University” will be among the top 501.
As Fenway Park celebrates its 100th birthday, a day when the Boston Americans beat the Highlanders of New York by a score of 7-6 in eleven innings while scores of other people were being unceremoniously tossed off a cruise ship in frigid waters, we see that there is still a cold war between the two rivals.
Though the past few years have been rather innocuous, New York City (a city with a fanbase that routinely goes on Red Sox fan sites to criticize Boston backers about caring so much about what New York is doing, while at the same time, explaining how they don’t give Boston a second thought) has sunk to a new low. (Ironic because Boston is the city that’s built on landfill.)
A controversial New York subway ad tells Big Apple commuters not to give up their seats to a Red Sox fan, even if she is pregnant.
This seems a waste of some good money, the need to recommend this behavior. You’re talking about a fan base with members who, twice in the past decade, have literally killed Boston fans. Believe me, pregnant Boston fans are grateful when your greatest crime is simply not getting up on a crowded train.
In fact, we’re taught to be wary any time a Yankees fan makes a sudden movement, such as standing on a crowded subway. So don’t worry, the edict itself isn’t what’s so disturbing. It’s the fact that this ad is an act of blatant fanism!
That’s right, fanism! Who would’ve thought that in an age where we have a White Sox fan in the White House that we could still be subjected to this type of treatment. All fans should be created equal. Yes, I’m a Boston fan, but if you prick me, do I not bleed? If you feed me, do I not burp and undo my belt? If you tickle me, do I not laugh and then very quickly summon a policeman because, seriously, we’re grown men, why are you tickling me?!
It all begins with Rosa from Hyde Park, in her third trimester, being forced to stand on the subway until she can’t take it anymore and edges into a seat just ahead of a Yankees fan, thus earning her a citation for refusing to relinquish her seat to a non-pregnant Yankee fan.
Where does it end? First, you don’t stand for a pregnant Red Sox fan, then you don’t allow Red Sox fans to use cabs, celebrate the Macy’s Day parade, buy M&Ms at the giant M&M store in Times Square. (That place is like a playground for me! Please, God, no!)
I know there are some New Yorkers out there who will risk alienation to do the right thing and let the pregnant Red Sox fans have a seat, societal customs be damned! But this is about the authority behind the ad.
Yes, we’ve all heard the anecdotes about how Yankees fans refuse service to someone wearing a Red Sox hat in a coffee shop. Or the deli worker who skips the number of the guy wearing the Jeter jersey. These are individual acts and isolated. But for an edict to be decreed by the MTA, this is too much.
You might be saying to yourself, Boston fans are just as bad as New York fans. In many ways, they are. They can get in your face, wreaking of peppers and onions, and fail to cover up all their bodily creases. But listen to what they say. . . when they’re not slurring:
Boston fans hate the Yankees, as in “Yankees Suck!.” Yankees fans hate Boston. They mean the entire city! “Boston Sucks” is what they scream.
Boston fans are arrested for climbing a pole or lighting a fire. New York fans are as well, plus, uh, y’know. . . there’s also the murder charges.
Boston fans take credit for the number of championships they’ve won in their lifetime. New Yorkers take credit for championships that were won before their grandparents were born.
(Have you ever had a six-year-old brag about the 27 World Championships his team has won and then blow cigarette smoke in your face? It’s not fun.)
C’mon, New York! It’s bad enough some people consider Boston to be a suburb of you.
Look at all Boston has done for you! First off, the Red Sox and former owner Harry Frazee gave you half of their team, including Babe Ruth in exchange for a bucket of chicken and some donuts, which in turn brought you your first few championships.
Lest we not forget what city’s residents selflessly traveled the 180 miles down route I-95 during the tragic times of 2011. You said you’d never forget. Well, that lasted just over 10 years. You certainly won’t be confused with elephants. (Although from a distance… maybe just try a light beer every so often.)
Let’s go back even further and remind you that if it wasn’t for the good people of Boston, we, as a nation, might be drinking tea and watching cricket at the merry ol’ ballgrounds. Some of those pregnant women to whom you want to give blisters gave birth to the revolutionaries that spawned this great nation; the same revolutionaries that fought for your freedom; the same freedom that allows you to decide whether or not to stand for pregnant women or not without consequence.
Show Boston that you’re leaning in the direction of right over wrong and don’t give them any more ammunition that proves their already deeply-stilted opinions of you. You’re the bigger city. Act like it!
I’ve met Yankees fans who don’t appreciate Boston fans and never will. And vice versa. That’s why they’re around, so that we, the more reasonable fans, can mock them openly on shows like “The Real Housewives of South Boston” or “So You Call that a Lougie?!” on cable access in the Bronx.
The rivalry ebbs and flows dating back before Fisk and Pinella got into it or, more recently, Varitek showed A-Rod the stitching in his glove. Steinbrenner 2.0 tried to pick up the slack when he took over, but the fans weren’t as interested. Nineteen games against each other every year put a simmer on things. But someday, the fire on the field will reignite, and those players will feel the same resentment as their forebears did. But then, they get paid a lot of money to participate in the fighting.
Let’s leave the pregnant ladies and other Boston fans out of it. Isn’t riding on the subway torture enough? Let them ride the No. 4 Train to the new Yankee Stadium, so that you may bilk them out of their hard-earned money with your ridiculous prices for beer and bag check.
It wasn’t long ago that we were all Yankees. And we battled the Confederates. I have a dream! That one day all Red Sox and Yankees fans can come together in peace and harmony. . . to gang up on Philly fans. Seriously, those folks don’t deserve a seat anywhere, pregnant or not!
The baseball playoffs are well underway, on a quest to find the last team standing in 2011. Are you glued to your set? Are you still wearing the same clothes you were wearing when your team entered the playoffs? Can you name the team’s best hitter against left-handers after the seventh inning when facing a deficit of two or more runs?
There are many people who are obsessed with baseball. Chances are you know one of them. But there are comparatively few who can honestly claim to be obsessed with the baseball. Zack Hample is one of those people.
He’s the author of “The Baseball: Stunts, Scandals, and Secrets Beneath the Stitches,” a truly fascinating look at the game’s most important element, the one constant since the very origins of a field game from the mid-19th Century. Players have come and gone, but the baseball has seen it all.
Though writing is his vocation, Zack could just as easily be called a “professional fan.” For he is a ballhawk, someone who spends his time at the ballpark collecting as many baseballs as possible.
The New York native took time out of his 12-city, 13-ballpark tour to talk to me about what makes this little round piece of cowhide so special. “The baseball is the object that’s at the center of the national pastime,” he began. “The game can’t be played without the ball.” He calls it a “cultural artifact.”
I think about that for a moment. Baseball consists of bases and balls. The ball is called a “baseball.” The game is called “baseball.” Without the baseball, there would be no baseball. The sport might then have to be called “basebat” or “cleatcup” or something else related to the props on hand, no doubt diminishing its allure.
From reading the thoroughly-researched tome, you’ll find that the controversy of the juiced ball is not a modern construct, but has survived longer than any accomplishment housed in the record books.
In fact, it’s been criticized for being juiced longer than the leagues have been in place. In 1867, when the ball could flop around, the Nationals of Washington were accused of “juicing” the balls by the Cincinnati Red Stockings.
The term “tear the cover off the ball” used to be taken literally (due to the flimsy construction of it) and not simply as a hyperbolic statement describing a steroid-enraged (allegedly) Roger Clemens arguing a balls and strikes call.
Another little known fact, prior to reading Zack’s book – the baseball used to be the prize. Winning teams were allowed to keep the ball as they were expensive and hard to come by. “Hey, you won! Here’s the ball.” (That’s nothing like today’s World Series trophy.)
Over the years, Zack has amassed a collection of official major league baseballs well into the thousands. “It makes me very happy just to own so many baseballs.” At press time, he claims it to be 5792 – “That kid’s got balls,” one might say – but that could change as games continue within travel distance.
This (Pittsburgh) pirate’s booty resides in several locations. “They are mostly at my mom’s place,” he tells me, “in my old childhood bedroom, and she wants them the hell out.” There are eight 32-gallon recycling bins that hold about 400 balls each. Then he’s packed balls snuggly into five filing drawers. He knows that each holds precisely 144 balls; no more, no less. “It’s almost as if they built them for baseballs.”
Who’s to say they didn’t? Finally, he estimates close to a thousand sitting in various duffel bags, and maybe a hundred more in some plastic shopping bags.
What is he saving them for? Someday, he hopes to have children. “I’d like to pass these along to them. It’d be fun to dump them all out and then jump in them, play around in thousands of baseballs.” He pauses for a moment, then proudly adds, “I like doing that now and I’m supposedly a grown-up.”
All this for a little piece of cowhide stitched together with some yarn. (Which one might think it’s as rudimentary as that.)
The stitching process itself is interesting, an exhaustive and precise undertaking. It recruits Canadian thread, Rhode Island yarn, a metal detector, a numerical code, a stamping machine, invisible ink, and the Costa Rican climate (though produced indoors with air conditioning so as not to affect the materials).
The stitching process is done by hand where warehouses filled with slouching people hunched over balls lining fourteen rows of 25 chairs each at the Rawlings Factory in Turrialba, Costa Rica (which is of no relation to catcher Yorvit Torrealba of the Rangers.)
Read the book and you’ll discover all you wanted to know and things you didn’t know you wanted to know. It’ll open your eyes to one part of the game you love that has been taken for granted all this time.
The book, Zack’s third, is broken into three parts – historical and factual stuff, baseballs in the news, and, of course, snagging the ball. The final section highlights some of the most successful ball hawks in the stands. “Even though major league baseball is huge and spread out all over the continent, it’s still kind of a tight-knit community of guys who do this, at least to this level,” Zack explains, as one who is unique, but not nearly alone.
Pick up “The Baseball” and become a ballhawk yourself. It’s something I’ve been sorely in need of. I’m perpetually haunted by memories of near-misses, my thumbs and forefingers still scarred from baseballs glancing off them time and again.
As I tell of my most recent failed attempt at snagging a ball, I am hoping he absolves me of my feelings of shame. “Most people are just passive about catching balls,” he says. “I think most people would love to catch a ball. Very few people make it happen.”
I feel a little better at my success rate. After all, Zack’s the expert. He is a hawk and can spot other hawks at the ballpark easily. “I can tell pretty quickly who has a clue of what they’re doing, just by the way they’re standing, how he looks, what they’re wearing. . .”
He’s just very good at it. By the time he was in college, he’d snagged his first thousand.
Growing up as someone who wanted to play the game, this gives him the feeling he’s part of it, a way of connecting to the sport he loves. “It makes me feel like I’m part of the game.”
The hobby leaves him a bit misunderstood which he seeks to correct. “I think a lot of people assume I don’t appreciate the sport, that I’m just interested in catching balls and if I can’t do that, I don’t really care about the game, but that’s far from the truth.” He doesn’t participate in fantasy baseball, but still reads every box score.
A lot of the time, he’ll go to games alone because he’s not interested in the typical leisurely passive viewing habits of the average fan. There are not many companions that fit his criteria. “The few times that I tried to take people, they either bitched about moving around from seat to seat or they were competing with me for baseballs.”
Now, when he attends with friends, Zack explains, “I don’t ask them, ‘Is this okay with you?’ I just say, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’ But they’re my friends and they know how it goes, so they want to come and witness what I do, willing to switch their seats over the course of the game.”
He’s experienced the glory of catching a home run ball held seconds earlier by the pitcher and inspected by the ump. But he’s had his share of injuries as well. “I was on crutches this season for three weeks because I sprained an ankle at a game. I’ve cracked a rib in the past at a game, broke my nose slightly.” Ah, the dreaded BDL (ballhawk disabled list).
This last one is a sore subject. “It’s not that I can’t catch. If I’m camped underneath a homerun ball and some idiot comes flying out of nowhere and deflects a ball, sending it off course by an inch just over the tip of my glove into my face. . . I’ve learned my lesson.”
The pursuit has spawned a philanthropic effort as well as he is dedicated to a charity called “Pitch in for Baseball” that provides baseball and softball equipment for underprivileged kids all over the world. “I’m getting people to pledge money for every ball that I catch.” Since he started in 2009, he’s raised over $20,000. “It’s my way of giving back to the baseball world and not being a doofus in the process, running around and catching balls.”
And as the season goes into hibernation, while those obsessed with baseball will go through withdrawal symptoms, you can be sure Zack will experience a much different sensation as he will no doubt marvel at the spoils of this year’s hard work. (He collected 1110 balls during the regular season, continuing with nine at Philadelphia’s Citzens Bank Park, for Game One of the NLDS.)
Perhaps this is a good time to dump out a barrel and do some rolling.
[If you would like to donate to “Pitch in for Baseball,” please go to www.zackhample.com.]
Here is the podcast from the panel at the Boston Book Festival on October 16, 2010 entitled “Baseball: Writing About America’s Favorite Pastime.” It featured authors Howard Bryant, James Hirsch, and Andy Wasif, and was moderated by NPR’s Bill Littlefield.
[featured image by: digitalart]