Play By Play: A Book Review
- Updated: May 6, 2011
Neal Conan’s voice is known by many across the country due to his coverage of political issues on National Public Radio’s show Talk of the Nation, not for baseball play calling. Despite his popularity and the security of employment gained through being with NPR, Conan had a chance to do what many baseball fans dream of doing, and didn’t turn it down. In Play by Play: Baseball, Radio and Life in the Last Chance League, Conan chronicles the season he spent as the lone radio voice of the Aberdeen Arsenal of the Atlantic League.
On the surface, Conan’s tale is about a bunch of men playing a kid’s game, but he shows that this is just the tip of the ice burg when it comes to the lives of players in Independent League Baseball. Conan tells the story of a franchise that seemed like it had staying power, but only ended up lasting one year.
The main theme throughout the work is Conan’s experience behind the microphone at the park as he goes from calling a few innings with the Bowie Baysox to being the full time play by play man with the Arsenal. This story alone would have been interesting enough to spawn a book, but this work has so much more than that. Conan tells the stories of men who were trying to make a living playing the game they love, and while the stories of those in the Major Leagues are surely interesting, the tales of those in international ball are certainly engaging.
Among these men is the manager of the team, Darrell Evans, who played for the Atlanta Braves for a number of years and was well known for being a power hitter. Many would assume a man with his stature was destined for years of success as a coach in the professional baseball circuit. This was not the case for Evans, though, as he was able to catch on as a hitting coach, but found that too boring. He made the decision that he wanted to manage in the Big Leagues, but knew this could mean starting from the bottom as he had as a player. While he imagined coaching in the minors for a few years, he never thought he would find himself on a team such as the Arsenal with no history or future. Evans’ managing style is one of the recurring stories of the book, and the fact that his style, and reluctance to change it, may be the reason he wasn’t in the Majors.
Evans’ story is joined by those of the players he tried to coach. Generally, these players fit into two categories. The first would be the young kids still striving for a shot at a career in baseball and hoping their time in the Independent Leagues was just a stepping stone in a long, successful, career on the diamond. The second type was made up of players who had already made it to the Majors and were essentially on their way back down. They may have been playing for one last call-up; but most of them were just trying to see how long they could hang on in the game because they didn’t really know what else to do.
Included in these players were the stories of a tall, blonde, reading addict trying to make it as a pitcher, a 40-year-old Mormon who had been trying to play professional baseball for a decade and had seen action in less than ten games, a couple of players on loan from the Italian professional league and many who thought they were better than they actually were.
Conan’s work is a fascinating read and is one of the best books on the game you will read this year. From the players’ stories to his wife asking him if he needed permission to have sex while on the road, every page sheds a new light on a part of the game most aren’t aware even exists.
Overall Grade: 4.75/5