Friday, July 17, 2015

Review: The Game (2015)

By Jon Pessah

At the start of 2015, Rob Manfred took over as baseball commissioner from Bud Selig, thus ending an eventful run of more than 20 years.

It's a natural time, then, to look back on that era. That is the primary goal of Jon Pessah, who takes on the job in full with "The Game."

And when I say in full, I mean in full. Pessah checks in with about 600 pages of text, with a long list of interviews and other sources for material.

That's a little overwhelming, but almost all of it is interesting.

Selig took over the job under unusual circumstances. Fay Vincent was his predecessor, but the baseball owners - also known as his bosses - thought that Vincent kept forgetting who was paying his salary. That independence cost Vincent his job.

But who should replace him? Selig, who owned the Milwaukee Brewers at the time, seemed to be something of a consensus-builder in the owner's ranks. He was given the job on an interim basis, an appointment that eventually became permanent to the tune of a couple of decades.

It was, as baseball fans know, a lively time. The 1994 World Series was cancelled due to labor issues, but the sport rebounded to set records in attendance and revenues. Selig deserves some of the credit for that, even if he and other members of baseball management turned a blind eye to the increasing use of steroids by those in the sport. Selig even is shown to have tried to rewrite history on that last subject, changing his public statements on what he knew and when he knew it.

If that weren't enough to fill a book, and it probably was, Pessah made the decision to add a large subplot to the story. During that period of time, the New York Yankees were sometimes hated, sometimes loved, usually winners, and never boring. For the most part, George Steinbrenner took care of that last part while he was still in charge of the team. Steinbrenner may have been the world's worst boss at times, and whether the team's results justified his behavior probably depends on the reader's point of view. But our fascination with his actions remain strong, even a few years after his death.

The stories of Selig and the Yankees run concurrently here, and naturally overlap once in a while. Still, it's easy to wonder whether Pessah would have been better off writing two different books.

What's in this big book, though, is frequently fascinating. The story delights in putting the reader on the scene of events, whether it's in a meeting room among owners, in labor negotiations, or even with movers and shakers as they hear about the attacks on 9/11. There's plenty of "inside stuff," such as details on Joe Torre's relationship with other members of the Yankee organization (it was rocky), to put the events of that era in perspective.

In addition, it's great to have all of the events of this time period put into chronological order. Some developments in the steroid scandals came out immediately, but others dribbled out well after the fact. For example, the government's seizure of drug testing records - held to be illegal years later - didn't receive much publicity at the time.

Pessah doesn't shy away from jumping to some conclusions here. He thinks Selig was a little too consumed with his legacy to act correctly in some cases. And, inevitably at this point, Alex Rodriguez takes a bit of a pounding. Most of the time, he seems to be on the right track.

"The Game" can be a little overwhelming, and it's easy to wonder if the Yankees' story was a bit overtold. But it's hard to argue that all of this didn't deserve to be read somewhere. Baseball fans seeking a good look at the recent past would be well served to dive into this one.

Four stars

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