July 27, 2010
Andy Van Slyke
Andy Van Slyke always was something of Renaissance man among ballplayers, a bright light in a clubhouse that sometimes was filled with little more than burned-out bulbs. As a player he was flawless, until Mike Scott, whom he never could hit, was on the mound. However, Van Slyke was even better after the game when he would fire off one-liners that could match anything Jay Leno or David Letterman ever could come up with.
His most famous, perhaps, was this one: "Every season has its peaks and valleys. What you have to do is try to eliminate the Grand Canyon.”
When he played for the Pirates back in the late 1980s and early 1990s it certainly was a peak, but if you go to PNC Park these days the sign should perhaps read: “Welcome to Pittsburgh, the Grand Canyon of baseball.”
There have been 17 losing seasons in a row and counting since Van Slyke left, nursing a sore back that would drive him from baseball, winding up a first-base coach with the Tigers with his former manager, Jim Leyland, in Detroit until the end of last season when he left “to pursue other opportunities.” Translated, that means he was fired.
So it was that it was something of a surprise to hear him being interviewed on a national radio sports talk show this week, talking about, of all things, a novel he has just written. It is entitled The Curse: The Cubs Win, the Cubs Win, or Do They? Considering that Van Slyke was now muscling in on my occupation, and considering that never once had I told him how to hit Scott, it was time to get reconnected.
"The book was something in my mind," Van Slyke said. "Obviously, I like to think and use my imagination. My shortcoming is typing. I use my two index fingers. I wasn’t able to type down what I was thinking very clearly."
Because of that, Van Slyke brought St. Louis sportswriter Rob Rains, a superb typist and one of the nicest people you will ever meet, to help him make his way through what was his second book. The first book was written with Detroit sportswriter Jim Hawkins, who just by chance replaced me when I left my first job in Wilmington, Delaware, and you can put that in the “small world, ain’t it?" department.
Anyway, that book was called Tigers Confidential and became something of a controversy, for it was an inside diary of a not-so-great 2008 season that led to Van Slyke being called on the carpet by Tigers general manager David Dombrowski.
"He wasn’t happy I didn’t ask his permission,” Van Slyke said. “I didn’t think I needed permission. I’m trying to write about our season, which, of course, was terrible. I did a good job of painting it better than it actually happened.”
Van Slyke says he doesn’t know if he lost his job over the book, but that led to him having time on his hands. Anyone who knows Van Slyke knows that’s dangerous. It allowed him to realize that the Cubs had not won a World Series in more than 100 years, and he felt there was a story to be told there. The story is an interesting one, not a typical sports book at all.
“Historically it’s about the Cubs and it’s correct," Van Slyke said. "I’m trying to educate the reader historically about them. But the story lines are fictional. The Cubs are in first place (obviously fiction). The owner’s son is a big part of the story. He has to decide if he wants to be a son-of-a-bitch like his dad or take the high road. I think at one point every son looks at his father and tries to emulate him and takes all the positives, but we all have his sins passed on to us, too. We end up with a lot of our father’s faults, and this kid has to decide what to do about them.”
This is a synopsis of the plot from the Barnes & Noble website: "Something terrible has happened to the Chicago Cubs, turning a promising season into a sorrowful summer in the Windy City. Leading their division, and sporting the best record in the National League a week before the annual All-Star break, the Cubs come crashing back to earth … literally. A plane crash changes their season—and the future of their franchise—forever.”
It goes on from there, with Van Slyke rehashing the Curse of the Billy Goat, the 1969 collapse of the Cubs, Leon Durham missing a routine ground ball in 1984, and the Steve Bartman foul ball incident that cost them the 2003 pennant. Sometimes, as they say, the truth is stranger than fiction.
I recall my first season of covering baseball full-time, 1969. The Cincinnati Reds went into Chicago in late August to plays a Cubs team with three Hall of Fame players—Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, and Ferguson Jenkins, who won 21 games that year—and a Hall of Fame manager in Leo Durocher. The Cubs led the National League East by five games and Dick Selma was clicking his heels in the bullpen. The clubhouse was closed prior to the first game as the players met with agents, talking about merchandising themselves as they went to the World Series. The Chicago Tribune was running a contest to guess the date the Cubs clinched the division title. The winner was to receive World Series tickets.
Cincinnati won the first three games of the series before Jenkins outdueled Jerry Arrigo. That cut the Cubs' lead to 2 ½ games. Within two weeks they were out of first place. Wonder if the Tribune’s contest winners had to pay their way to Shea Stadium to see the Amazin' Mets in the World Series?
Van Slyke could never make something like that up. Writing the book, Van Slyke admitted, was not easy.
“It was hard to keep the story line going," Van Slyke said. "A lot of successful authors don’t know what the next chapter is going to be. I had in my head what the story was. It was a matter of filling it up."
And just how do you do that? Van Slyke, as usual, had his own way of describing this business of writing a book.
“You have to take a black-and-white story and turn it into color,” he said.