Posted by: cedarsurf | February 12, 2010

Spring Training is Just Around the Corner!

Review of George Bowering Baseball Love (Talonbooks)

From the Sports Crap Desk

Growing up around the pocket deserts near Oliver, B.C. George Bowering figures the spring training warm weather explains what he considers a very Canadian passion for baseball. “I never thought that baseball was a U.S. game,” writes Bowering in Baseball Love (Talonbooks). “It was a birthright. In the Okanagan sun you got your baseball stuff out as soon as the ground got softer in, say, March, and you played the summer game till apple season was over in October.”

In Oliver Bowering worked as a baseball scorekeeper and covered baseball for the local newspaper – he didn’t play much baseball though. “I was afraid to try out,” writes Bowering. “I had an inferiority complex, and I had developed a superiority complex to protect it.”

It wasn’t until he reached his thirties that Bowering began to play baseball in Montreal where he was a teacher “of sorts” at George Williams University and attended Parc Jarry to watch Le Grand Orange and les Expos. Bowering’s baseball teammates included novelists Clark Blaise and Hugh Hood whom he enjoyed swapping sports trivia with.

Fortunately drug testing was not around in those days. “As an avant-garde poet, I felt it my duty to experiment with the available resources… One Saturday I played shortstop for the York Street Tigers shortly after consuming something called “speed.” …You never saw such a hyper shortstop. I was all over the field diving for balls I had no hope of reaching, backing up the play at every position you can think of.”

In the early 70s Bowering moved to Vancouver and became involved in his grand passion, the Kosmic Baseball League. The league was loaded with artists and writers and true to form they managed to get a grant during the swinging era of Trudeau’s Liberals for softball equipment and playing time on baseball diamonds. “That, I thought, was wonderful-some civil servants in Ottawa thought a bunch of softball players were contributing as much to the local and national culture as any childcare builders or folk-music-facilitators.”

The league included teams with names such as the Afghani Oil Kings, Flying Dildos, and the Napoleons, an activist group who represented the Mental Patients Association and dressed in uniforms complete with an image of a hand tucked inside at waist level. Bowering played for the Granville Grange Zephyrs, a collection of poets and painters from the west side of Vancouver.

Eventually the Kosmic League would evolve into the Twilight League where Bowering “grew old.” At “Needle Park” in Woodland chasing balls between dog kaka, discarded condoms, high heel pumps and undies, outfielders had to keep their eye on the ball and the grass. At the age of sixty Bowering stopped playing in shorts after his daughter, playing at second base asked: “Are those your legs, or are you riding a chicken?”

Riding in a Volvo, Baseball Love is Bowering’s memoir of a road trip and a road trip that serves memoir. In July of 2003 Bowering “a retiree in shorts and ball cap” went on a baseball road trip with his love Jean Baird to plunk himself down on unluxurious planks in the hot sun, to cheer on the efforts of Latino-American infielders a half century younger than he. The trip provides him with an opportunity to recall his passion for a game he has rarely written about but “thought about every day of my life.” The book alternates between chapters recalling he and Baird’s 2003 road trip and Bowering’s life in baseball and its related ephemera.

Bowering and Baird travel both Canada and the United States to follow these games with a distinct preference for the minor leagues. As Bowering notes: “In the twenty first century the minor leagues are becoming more interesting to everyone. The main reason for that is marketing: the major league teams are marketing themselves out of business, and the minor league teams are marketing themselves in.”

The baseball road trip also provides the reader with Bowering’s own Air-Conditioned Nightmare. “We did not know that Riggins, Idaho, would be our first and last site of any idiosyncratic colour, our last old cabin in the wild, or last non-chain accommodation. From now on it would be Comfort Inn or Red Roof or Holiday Inn Express at some highway exit cluster, where the eateries too, would be signaled by tall poles with billboards on the top: Aries, Red Robin, McDonalds. Not an apostrophe in sight.”

Baseball, and writers have had a long relationship, William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, Philip Roth, Ring Lardner and Bernard Malamud, have all taken swings at the bat and Bowering ‘s chapter on the subject is a neat job of baseball crit lit. Bowering provides one theory as to why baseball occupies the mind of the writer: “When I was a kid growing up in the Interior of British Columbia there was no television, so Mel Parnell and the guys at Fenway Park were fiction to me.”

This is a charming book about one man’s love of baseball, and exhibits the same even and humorous tone that Bowering employed in his fine memoir Magpie Life. Bowering displays all the hallmarks of a baseball fanatic’s love of ball caps, statistics, names of players, minor league parks and where to find the perfect hot dog (which he claims he had at a ball game in Switzerland of all places).

What makes this book Humm Baby – to remember Roger Craig, the manager of the San Francisco Giants pronouncing on the forkball – is its rootedness in place as real as apple picking season and as sweet as the imagination.

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