Are We Winning?: Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball
Will Leitch's new book, Are We Winning? Fathers and Sons in the new Golden Age of Baseball, is the wonderfully ambitious work you'd expect from a man whose credits include Deadspin founder, New York Magazine writer, and one-time Win Ben Stein’s Money contestant. But one of its best aspects is a subtle one: the characters painted with quick strokes that James Wood praises in Guy de Maupassant, who once described a minor character as "a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.”
Are We Winning? Is certainly about baseball, and while the baseball talk is engaging and exciting for fans and non-fans alike, it is his wonderful characterization of his father and his always smartly told and relatable story of their lives together that elevates the book above others of its kind.
It is the passages in which Leitch helps us get to know his father that he most closely resembles de Maupassant. With sharp sketches, Leitch introduces us to his dad Bryan, a man that is abrasive at times, quick to ignore rules and mores and yet committed and loving despite appearances. In the bathroom at Wrigley Stadium, the setting of the book’s primary story, men line up at a urinal that looks a feeding trough stolen from the old stockyards; Leitch recalls “As I wash my hands—and my dad breezily coasts straight from the trough to the exit—my father calls out behind him, ‘I ain’t seen that many peckers since Langley’.”
A couple innings later, in the stands, Leitch’s father returns to their seats with beers for himself, Will and Will’s friend, despite the stadiums strict two beer limit. “It’s probably his years of experience, but somehow my father flaunts any alcohol rule wherever he’s at. Two beers per person? Not for Bryan Leitch!” And finally when they arrive after the game at a packed Chicago Cubs bar, “Dad returns from a restroom sojourn—how he made his way through the 900 people in this bar, I have no idea—he’s got some dude with him, a Cubs fan who got to talking with Dad while waiting in line for the bathroom and now just can’t wait to buy this guy a beer.”
The economical characterizations reach well beyond the writer’s father, though: “My grandfather, name William Franklin Leitch, like me, worked on the railroad and at Howell Asphalt road paving, smoked three packs of unfiltered Pall Malls a day, and sired eight children.” Charlie Manuel is introduced as “a lifer who once managed the Cleveland Indians with a colostomy bag next to him after undergoing treatment for cancer.” The reader meets these characters so quickly and yet with minimal time invested knows all there is to know about them.
All this is not to say that Are We Winning? is devoid of straight-forward baseball talk. Leitch is quick to drop little-known nuggets of baseball knowledge on the reader that will satiate any sports fan’s desires (“In Pujols’s first game, he pulled off an unassisted triple play and hit a grand slam. Something was there.”). Leitch even includes a full chapter based on the events delineated by specific games Leitch finds in his library of baseball scoring books from every single game he has ever attended. However, despite his success as a pure “sports writer,” Leitch is at his best when he writes with confidently understated and occasionally sucker-punching honesty and insight,about the way men relate to their fathers, and how others related to his.
Early in the book, he recalls his childhood little league baseball team, coached by his father, that inherited a “gangly, shy” neighborhood boy, forced to play by his mother. The boy had to be coaxed from the family’s car before every practice because he was so scared to play. Leitch’s father would go sit with this boy, eventually convincing him to take the field, and after two practices, began to call the boy “Bulldog” out of the blue. After two weeks, this name inspired the boy to have his mom embroider “BULLDOG” across his jersey, and eventually he become the team’s best hitter.
While there are countless other stories told about Bryan Leitch, two of the more wrenching passages in the book focus on other men. The first being an inspiring chapter dedicated to exonerating, and eventually idolizing, Steve Bartman, the Cubs fan made infamous for interfering with a fly ball that could have sent the Cubs to the World Series. Leitch sympathetically equates himself to Bartman. He details the lifelong baseball fan, who wants nothing more in life than to see his team win but is tragically vilified by an entire fan base for a reactive decision made in the stands that, in the end, may have had no impact whatsoever on the outcome of the game.
The second passage describes when Leitch meets a friend, who recently lost his father, for a drink. After the conversation tiptoes on ice for a while, Leitch finally decides that he has to be thoughtful enough to ask his friend how he’s doing with the loss, to which his friend replies, “‘You know, they say it’s the worst thing that can happen to you, that you never can be prepared for it no matter how much you think you are,’ he said. ‘They’re completely fucking right.’”
In the end, what Leitch so precisely depicts in Are We Winning? is a wonderful irony. Men can live a life of outspoken, heart-on-their-sleeve love for baseball, full of expressive acts and unbridled emotion, and yet more often than not, the love these same men show to one another finds its most powerful and essential moments in quieter, often inexpressive moments. Towards the end of the book there is a scene in which Leitch, home from college, goes to his father’s work to meet him for lunch. He ventures into the empty office to find clippings of stories he wrote for the college newspaper and photos of his sister cheerleading plastering the wall. Will quickly exits, knowing full well that his father wouldn’t want his son to have seen it. Leitch writes in this chapter, “I’ve never told my father I love him,” and when the book ends, that remains true. But that is the great irony. Baseball fandom, a pastime that Leitch would surely say means to him a fraction of what his father does, requires of its denizens time, emotion, and action unequaled in almost any other endeavor. Yet the love between a father and a son simply requires a series of intentional, and often tiny and silent, interactions to reach fruition.
Leitch distils this sentiment in conclusion, “Those meals he paid for? That roof over your head? That college tuition? Those phone calls to check in? The big Christmas tree he insists on chopping down every year? The stocking with the name of the cat on it? The way, after you say good-bye to him and get on the plane, you always find a $100 bill he hid somewhere on you? The way those newspaper clippings and cheerleader photos surround his desk even though he never told you about them? That’s ‘I love you.’ Every day is one big “I love you.” No need to say it. No fucking need.” And every father and son reading nodded their head.
Ben Sharbaugh lives and writes in Somerville, Massachusetts.