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Book Reviews Mark Kingwell’s Fail Better and Stacey May Fowles’s Baseball Life Advice, reviewed: Perfect game

Baseball Life Advice.

Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters

By Mark Kingwell

Biblioasis, 278 pages, $22.95

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Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game That Saved Me

By Stacey May Fowles

McClelland & Stewart, 304 pages, $24.95

Why do writers love baseball?

For whatever reason, they always have – Mark Twain and Stephen Crane were early boosters of the "game of base" in the decades after it evolved from cricket, Mark Kingwell informs us in his discursive, erudite new book, Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters. Since then, many of America's greatest authors – Whitman, Fitzgerald, Updike, DeLillo – have turned to the game for material.

Kingwell is dauntingly well-read and often at his best as a curator of other people's thoughts – his friend Lauren Oliver, a writer herself, is quoted as calling baseball "the art film of sports: no plot, anticlimactic, beauty in slow-motion and repetition, and the sounds of wood cracking and leather hitting leather" – but he is a gifted noticer, too. In his quest to understand what makes the game so compelling, he points out the "basic stillness of baseball, the constant renewal of tension out of pause, of action exploding from an apparent standstill" and equates this, inimitably, to the Japanese aesthetic concept of ma, meaning "the quality of negative space," like the pause between two notes in a piece of music.

This is pretty high-level stuff – about par for the course from the University of Toronto philosophy professor. That's not to say the book is pretentious or dull – Kingwell is a lively writer and cites The Simpsons as often as Immanuel Kant. But any tome this pointy-headed will struggle to explain the game as it's experienced by most people. In a common enough fallacy, Kingwell tends to mistake his writer's sensibility for something more universal, trying to explain the appeal of baseball when all he can hope to do is explain the appeal of baseball to writers.

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Without really meaning to, he has produced a fascinating answer to that puzzle. Baseball, he notes, is a game that leaves spectators time to think, to mull, analyze and daydream – as writers love to do (and most people, frankly, prefer not to). It is, for the most part, a gentle and even sedentary game, two traits in which writers exceed the general population (this is a craft that involves a lot of sitting down to type, when it doesn't involve lying down to read). And it's a sport that consists mainly of atomized individual performances requiring intense concentration, rather than group co-operation and all-out physical exertion – an obvious draw for the serious-minded loners who largely make up the writing caste.

Because it attracts writers, baseball also attracts its share of sage-sounding bunk and Kingwell is not entirely immune to the tendency. When he writes that baseball, a lovely and diverting pastime, "is the Sabbath, the soul-saving time out of time, the space of sacred observance," he's holding the religious analogy together with hyperbole and Big League Chew.

Still, the book's earnest ambition is its greatest strength. Readers willing to follow Kingwell's occasionally winding trains of thought are rewarded with neat, unexpected insights such as his conclusion, after a survey of baseball's disputed foundation myths, that the game is served by such confusion, the better to establish the near-mystical sanctity of its conventions. "It is as well that the rules of the game should be shrouded in misty disputes," he writes. "The game, after all, must be larger than the humans who contest and adjudicate its actions."

Any book that contains this much wit and wisdom is hard to begrudge – it can be read in a day, with time out to catch a few innings of an afternoon Blue Jays game. But amid all the professor's élan, there seems to be a gap in understanding – an element of wishful thinking, really – that is hard to overlook: Kingwell's apparent belief that baseball isn't fundamentally about winning and losing.

In a late chapter titled Beauty, he even suggests that among baseball's values is the pursuit of "elegance as an end in itself." A reader is tempted, in donnish style, to write in the margins, "Precisely not." No baseball play, no matter how spectacular, is made as an end in itself. Even a fielder as elegant as the Chicago Cubs' Javier Baez, whom Kingwell cites as evidence of baseball's aesthetic purism, is trying to win. That's what makes his famous slap tags so dazzling: They get the guy out. If Baez were twirling around an empty infield, bringing his glove down on phantom base runners, the gesture would look as if it were some third-rate interpretive dance routine. The tag is beautiful because it's effective.

That's not to say failure in baseball is unedifying or that it nullifies the value of the attempt – only that winning and losing are the poles that give the game its charge, compelling the players to do what they do. Winning and losing are the forces that set ballplayers apart from ballerinas, who only want to put on a show.

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Most fans realize this implicitly. Much as we may love baseball for its own sake, our affection is usually channelled through a particular team and our desire to see it succeed. To be a sports fan is to be some combination of reality-TV addict, boy-band fangirl and wartime patriot. Quavering aesthete and chin-stroking philosopher may sometimes be mixed in there, but they are rarely the larger part of a fan's identity.

If Kingwell is the exception that proves the rule, Stacey May Fowles exemplifies the rule. In her writing on baseball over the years, now collected as Baseball Life Advice: Loving the Game That Saved Me, she has revealed herself to be a true Blue Jays addict, arranging summer outings with her baseball-agnostic husband around access to cable TV, checking the score on her cellphone during dinner with the in-laws and falling to pieces during playoff runs.

It would be obnoxious if it weren't in fact rather brave – a strict regimen of baseball is the only source of relief she's found for post-traumatic stress brought on by "life events that started with a sexual assault I endured as a teen," she writes. Years into her fandom, its significance redoubles when she struggles to conceive and baseball again comes to the rescue, helping to soothe "the silence and loneliness" of that period. Her willingness to lean into this obsession – and write about its healing power – gives the book its most affecting material.

Like so many baseball writers, Fowles is at her strongest when she's at her most personal and granular. There are some wonderfully vivid scenes, such as when she retreats to the bathroom during the near-riot that erupted at Rogers Centre in the operatic seventh inning of Game 5 of the 2015 American League Division Series, only to find "angry people smoking," a detail that comes closer to capturing the vast emotional strain of that moment than any highlight reel.

In a more disturbing vein, she describes encounters with drunk misogynists in and around the ballpark that have a real edge of menace. The persistent sexism she faces as a female fan – from condescending assumptions about her level of expertise to pink-themed ballpark promotions and serious verbal abuse – provides a dark counterpoint to her overwhelmingly joyful experience of the game.

Fowles is sharp and passionate on the subject of baseball's toxic culture of machismo, decrying the game's tradition of payback violence and casual homophobia. It's disappointing, then, that she doesn't probe deeper into the enduring appeal of this mindless jock code, even when conceding she fell in love with superstar third baseman Josh Donaldson the moment he vividly instructed an opposing bench to fellate him (beyond the comic understatement of acknowledging it as a "perhaps personally incongruous reason to be drawn to a player").

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The truth is, probing isn't what the book sets out to do. At its best, it's a catalogue of feeling, from enthusiasm and anger to anxiety and heartache – which is to say it's a book about love. If that emotional intensity is the beating heart of her writing, it also leaves her vulnerable to the occasional fortune-cookie clunker, as when she writes about beloved players being traded away that "true love always wants the best for those who come into our lives – even if that ultimately means saying goodbye."

Bromides such as this – and the whole escapist, emotionally adolescent tenor of sports fandom that they represent – helped Fowles during a harrowing time in her life and continue to help her manage the mental illness she courageously discusses here. But what about the mentally healthy majority? Why do we allow the trite "lessons," ginned-up narratives and one-sided lover's pangs offered by professional sports to consume so much of our time? Consider that ubiquitous stadium figure recently described by the Financial Times columnist and soccer journalist Simon Kuper, "men who would never tell their wives that they love them [but] sit in the stands singing of their love for a club." Not everyone nestles into the fantasy world of pro baseball for therapeutic, or particularly attractive, reasons.

Fowles has written a highly personal book, a book about recovery, so it's no surprise she fails to grapple with the fundamental absurdity of diehard sports fandom. As a woman who has had to fight for her place in baseball culture, and a survivor of assault and mental illness, she has every right to embrace the game with her characteristic blend of political zeal and over-the-top emotion. As for the rest of us – neither serene connoisseurs nor in acute emotional need – we might do well to look in the mirror before walking out the door with our faces painted blue and ask ourselves not why baseball matters, but if it matters at all.

Eric Andrew-Gee is a Globe and Mail reporter and diehard Toronto Blue Jays fan.

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