Monday, January 18, 2010

Book Review: Strike Three

By Rick Morris

As was the case with my recent review of LOVING MADLY, LOSING BADLY ... HOW ZIGGY SAVED MY LIFE, the outstanding memoir penned by second-generation Ziggy cartoonist Tom Wilson, I have to plead guilty in advance that I’d be hard-pressed to want to say anything bad about the new book STRIKE THREE!” – A PLAYER’S JOURNEY THROUGH THE INFAMOUS BASEBALL STRIKE OF 1994, available electronically right now through You see, the authors of the book are the player named in the title, Nikco Riesgo, and our good friend Russ Cohen of Sportsology.

Now, because Russ is one of the best friends of FDH that you will find anywhere, I would not bury this book under any circumstances. However, professional credibility would demand that I at least offer only faint praise if I did not believe that the book merited more than that.

Fortunately, I was spared that moral conundrum; I love this book.

Ironically, Russ is covering some ground here that overlaps at least in small part with a self-published book that FDH Dignitary Nathan Noy and I wrote back in 2001, STRANDED: A GUIDE TO LIFE WITHOUT MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL. At that time, we examined baseball’s labor situation on the verge of what was to become the next big labor stoppage (but turned out not to be at the last minute, thanks to players and owners reconsidering in light of 9/11). Immodestly, I believe that this qualifies me to uniquely assess the preparation and approach for this book. I find both to be outstanding.

The book has an interesting structure, weaving between Nikco’s story and the larger dynamic at play as baseball approached disaster. Right off the bat, we are reminded that the conventional wisdom about steroid-fueled home runs “saving” baseball in the aftermath of the strike in the late ‘90s was completely flawed. The foreword from Michael McDonald of Fox Sports Radio establishes that the damage was permanent for some; McDonald was a huge Expos fan and his love of the game was forever tainted by his favorite team being denied their chance to compete on the game’s grandest stage in the very year that their young talent was ripening and developing the squad into an unstoppable force. Russ also hits upon his lifelong love of baseball and how it represented a return to the mainstream of childhood life for him after early years of being physically handicapped. Many other perspectives of great interest are weaved in and out during the tome, including that of huge Expos fan and NHL goalie Martin Biron. He documents the sadness of seeing his favorite team wither away and, a decade after the strike, eventually end up in another city.

Inasmuch as I always love to learn about a subject from a fresh perspective, the most interesting part of the book for me was the part about the Montreal-Toronto dynamic prior to the strike. The two cities form a historic rivalry that permeates many facets of national life in Canada. With the Blue Jays having culminated their excellent run in consecutive World Series titles, in 1992 and 1993, the heat was on for the sport’s other team north of the border to step up huge. Montreal seemed just about ready to do just that, but their status astride the National League at the time of the strike marks them as one of the singularly sad “what-if” stories in the history of the game.

The other half of the book deals with Riesgo’s story leading up to the strike and the fateful decision he would make. He was a big-time prospect who was down on his luck by the spring of 1995.

Two bad breaks characterized the early part of his career: a story in the Philly press that twisted his words to portray him as cocky rather than confident-but-respectful – one that poisoned the well irretrievably for him in the clubhouse – and his victimization by Tom Foley in Montreal when the veteran crossed the line from hazing to full-on jerkdom the next year. These stories must be read to be believed in terms of how the cruelty of others can help derail a man’s dream.

As somebody who had been on both sides of the baseball divide – hot prospect and subsequently, a journeyman – he had a unique perspective on the responsibility of the player’s union to ballplayers at all levels of the game and he found it quite lacking by 1995. Minor league players were not valued at all, and actually, given the union’s obsession with avoiding any salary restrictions, they seemed to be most concerned with the richest stars least in need of protection. So while apologists for the player’s union wish to cast his story in the usual unsympathetic “scab” terms, his tale deserves anything but that label.

After the strike ended, he played many years in the independent leagues, where he could escape harsh judgments and find a welcome level of acceptance, and today he operates a baseball academy and helps keep the dream alive for other young players. The book also describes some positive, productive potential solutions to pressing and ever-ongoing financial issues in baseball.

To mix some metaphors, STRIKE THREE is actually a home run, a worthy purchase for any baseball fan you know as a new season looms. By examining the 1994-95 strike from both a macro and micro level, the authors succeed in delivering the best all-around perspective of the time that we have seen yet.

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