May 01, 2014
(+++) DWELLING ON, AND IN, THE PAST
Down to the Last Pitch: How the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time. By Tim Wendel. Da Capo. $25.99.
The Time of My Life: A Righteous Brother’s Memoir. By Bill Medley with Mike Marino. Da Capo. $26.99.
What possible importance could there be in anyone’s life today because of a sports event that occurred more than 20 years ago? The question is absurd – but it speaks to the sort of fanaticism that produces books such as Down to the Last Pitch. Tim Wendel is a sports journalist, so his entire stock-in-trade is making competitive games played by multimillionaires against other multimillionaires, involving teams often owned by billionaires, appear of some sort of relevance to the lives of non-participants. The ridiculous notion of relevance is the whole point: making the games seem important provides tremendous escapism for millions of people and makes it possible to sell those millions all sorts of products, whether through television ads or through luring them to ballparks to spend hundreds of dollars watching the rich guys on one team interact with the rich guys on the other. Of course, this is a very cynical view of professional sports, but it takes a degree of cynicism to dredge up games played 20-plus years ago and turn them into a breathlessly paced, isn’t-all-this-just-wonderful book. Down to the Last Pitch is intended strictly for baseball fanatics who want to relive, in excruciating detail – or detail that would be excruciating to anyone but those fans – the entire 1991 World Series between the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves, which the Twins eventually won in seven games. The story of the series is easy to find online, but the breathlessness with which Wendel tells it is not; nor is the importance he assigns to it, to the point of including two appendices, one called “Aftermath” (of the “what happened to them later” variety) and one of other “great World Series moments.” And then there are the 16 pages of black-and-white photos, which will thrill fans with a closeup of a player blowing a bubble-gum bubble and a posed picture of a young Ted Turner (the Braves’ owner). The writing is exactly what fans will expect and want: “By the time Steve Bedrosian replaced David West in the bottom of the seventh inning, Game Five had turned into a laugher for the home-town team.” “Somewhat shaken, [catcher Brian] Harper walked slowly to the home dugout. Thanks to a base-running miscue for all time and some real bad luck, the game remained scoreless heading into the bottom of the eighth.” Again and again, Wendel tries to make this long-ago sports occurrence seem important; and even when he acts as if he is trying to put things into some perspective by comparing baseball then with baseball now, he cannot quite bring it off: “If some careers are as regular as tomorrow’s dawn, then [Roger] Maris’s was like a comet flashing overhead. For a few months it filled the night sky with brilliance, and then it was gone. …But what he accomplished, though it was so fleeting, had a certain solidness and even class to it. Too many ballplayers today seem to gaze a bit too long after the ball is sent soaring toward the fence, acting as though they were atop of the world when, of course, nobody enjoys such a vantage point for very long.” And, also of course, nobody really cares about what happened in some for-profit competition more than two decades after it has ended – except for people like Wendel and others who prefer a vicarious fantasy existence to real life, and seem to have some difficulty distinguishing between the two.
The fantasy elements of the pop-music world are as obvious as those of professional sports, and the two fields inspire equal amounts of excess and fanatical devotion. The idea of The Time of My Life is to tap into all of that. This is a typical music-world memoir by a typical looking-back-on-my-life pop musician, Bill Medley, who along with Bobby Hatfield (1940-2003) made up the Righteous Brothers. It is certainly understandable that aging pop stars would like to write their own autobiographies (often with help, provided here by Mike Marino); and just as the aging baby-boom generation is presumably the audience for 20-plus-year-old sports stories, it is the group expected to enjoy Medley’s very straightforward and unsurprising revelations. “Even though I’d not always walked the narrow path, my family had been very involved in the Presbyterian Church, and I knew the basics. John [Wimber] was just exploring Christianity, and once he pulled me aside and asked when I knew about the Christian faith. I told him what I knew. …Until the day he died I always loved and respected John. He was one of the few guys I knew who did more than talk the talk, he lived it.” “I hired Dean Martin’s comedy writer and a band with backup singers and put together a show. Everybody who was anybody in Hollywood was there opening night. It was unbelievable. Sammy Davis, Jr., was supposed to introduce me but at the last minute he had to drop out so they called in Bobby Darin. …Pretty soon the whole crowd was [shouting]. I looked down and saw Bobby Darin jivin’ and clapping, and I knew I was going to be okay. It was a thrill.” This cliché-ridden reminiscence writing is the whole point of Medley’s book, along with the persistent name-dropping – presumably a main attraction for the book’s intended audience. Medley helpfully includes a chapter called “Relationships” in which he talks about Kenny Rogers, Kim Basinger, Waylon Jennings, Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones, Whoopi Goldberg, Sylvester Stallone, Johnny Carson, Glen Campbell and others. And there are the expected 16 pages of black-and-white photos, the last of which shows the much-older Righteous Brothers and is captioned, “From a relationship standpoint, my last years with Bobby were my best years.” The book is not free of heartache (expected) and heartbreak (also expected); it is, after all, about someone in the entertainment industry. And it does contain some offhand remarks about that industry that are rather interesting, as when Medley says that a new recording of Unchained Melody “inspired us to re-record a whole ‘reunion’ album of our hits. Honestly, it was shit. It was a stupid thing to do because you can never really remake those records. It was just that we’d given away all of our rights and this was a way to get them back. Artistically, a stupid ideal; financially, a wonderful idea. The album went platinum.” A similar if somewhat milder comment seems accurate about The Time of My Life: artistically, there is not much here, but financially, it may do well for Medley (born 1940) at a time when he, his fans and his music all seems to grow fainter, each in its own way, every day.