“Great Expectations” by Shi Davidi and John Lott: A More Esoteric Review

 

Great Expectations

 

With so much coverage of the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays coming into the year, getting a book so quickly after the conclusion of the season is not a surprise. The surprise comes from how the season played out so differently than how we expected it to go. I sat down to read “Great Expectations: The Lost Toronto Blue Jays Season” this weekend and, as someone who follows this team in a very in-depth way, I thought it would be necessary to actually write two reviews of the book. I highly recommend that you head over to Jays Journal to check out my review there before you keep reading.

 

 

I’m hoping that you’ve read the book before you come here because this review tries to dissect some of the more philosophical thoughts that came to me as I was reading the book. My review of “Great Expectations” by Shi Davidi and John Lott that I’m publishing simultaneously with this one over at Jays Journal is a very different sort of thing that tries to provide a more typical book review. There is a major fundamental difference between what I wrote there and what I’m writing here. The review at Jays Journal is a review of what the book is. What you’re reading here is more of a review of what I wished the book had been.

 

In my eyes, the limitations that I found with the book came from its pedigree; “Great Expectations” is written by journalists. I’m certainly not saying that journalists shouldn’t write books. Both of the authors are very fine reporters whose work I read and enjoy regularly; however, I felt that there was a certain sense of grace and elegance that could have enriched the storytelling and overall cohesion of the book had it been more present.

 

For me, this fact is what kept the book from becoming something more than it is. It’s a light, enjoyable, interesting read about a season gone wrong. Davidi and Lott were likely planning a book soon after the offseason trades were made (if not earlier) as interest in and hype surrounding the Blue Jays started to pick up. I’m sure the publisher (ECW Press, a fine Canadian publisher) saw the opportunity to have a book that could be released shortly after the season ended and everyone involved was hopeful of having a well-documented chronicle of a successful season. The fact that the season went so wrong will probably hurt the bottom line but it offers an alternative, still-interesting storyline.

 

The unprecedented access to the team that Davidi and Lott have comes from their “day jobs” as beat reporters for the Blue Jays. Davidi writes for Sportsnet and their online and print publications and Lott covers the club for the National Post. The nature of the beat reporter’s job is to provide daily stories that cover the team. They’re around the team every day, giving them long histories with the players, staff, front office and coaches but it also has them thinking in short, easily digestible pieces.

 

One of the two major structural and content issues that I had with the book comes from this journalistic mentality of providing stories. I was hoping for stories that had more cohesion with each other throughout “Great Expectations.” The one, overarching narrative is simply a fact of history (the failed season) and the authors use this frame to provide some kind of linear thread to organize the book. Unfortunately, their focus on player’s life stories and vignettes throughout each chapter not only takes away from this already weak thread (that most readers probably are already aware of and probably don’t need to enjoy the book) but served to make me feel as if they were there to pad the story to book length.

 

I wish that the authors had connected the dots of some of these stories and had provided readers with some larger narrative threads that I felt were there for the taking. When I read about John Gibbons‘s first experience as a catcher — he got hit in the head by a bat — I felt that there was a narrative thread about perseverance and determination that could have been picked up in telling not only R.A. Dickey‘s back-story but also how he was undeterred in his search for a way to throw a successful knuckleball at home in the homer-happy Rogers Centre.

 

R.A. Dickey’s harrowing swim across the Missouri River as a minor leaguer could have been tied in with Mark Buehrle‘s decision to take the leap and try out for his varsity baseball team one more time in his junior year after being cut in his first two attempts. The authors do a great job in making Buehrle’s heartbreak palpable after being cut from his high school baseball team twice and both Buehrle’s and Dickey’s acts represent a decision to take a risk and face the anguish of failure. Additionally, Jose Reyes and his family’s risk to have him leave his small town and travel to another city in order to further his baseball dreams could have been associated with both Dickey and Buehrle’s moments of truth to show how for every player there was a moment when they faced giving up but kept going and took a chance on the future and his dreams.

 

A parallel could have been drawn between Brett Lawrie‘s need to fail in order to be able to accept advice and make adjustments and the team’s overall season of failure and the acknowledgement of Alex Anthopoulos that he needs to reassess his priority on talent to the exclusion of clubhouse cohesion. While it may be clich├ęd, baseball has a culture of failure (a great hitter fails seven of ten times) and how the players and management deal with those deficiencies could have been a recurring theme in the book. Ricky Romero merited only a passing mention in the book but a chapter on his trials compared to others who had been more successful in overcoming their challenges would have been a fascinating study.

 

There’s also an apparent lack of reasoning for why certain players were chosen to be highlighted and other weren’t. I noticed that players like Josh Johnson and Emilio Bonifacio, key components in the trade with the Miami Marlins, are barely mentioned in the book while other players like Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle feature prominently. Is the dearth of information about the former two due to the fact that they’re not going to be returning to Toronto in 2014? Were players who are no longer with the club cut from the book in order to keep fans interested in the 2014 edition of the team?

 

I know that this is a rather cynical way to look at the book but I feel that these are legitimate questions to ask, mainly because there does not seem to be any rhyme or reason to the selection of players for the in-depth vignettes throughout the book. They simply don’t connect to each other at all.

 

What do some of the players have in common? While both the backgrounds of Jose Bautista and Jose Reyes are explored, there authors don’t put them side by side and show the vast differences between the two Dominican players’ upbringing. Because his family was better off, he could turn down offers to sign as an international free agent while in his teens in order to further his education whereas Reyes, who came from a poor family, jumped at a $13,500 signing bonus, a relative fortune that could provide for his family who had made sacrifices to do simple things like afford a proper baseball glove for Jose.

 

Reyes played for the champion Dominican World Baseball Classic team while Bautista stayed behind in Dunedin to remain under the Blue Jays’ watch since he was coming back from season-ending wrist surgery last year. Did this do anything to their chemistry? What role did having Moises Sierra, who played in Triple-A Buffalo for most of the season, also play for the WBC Dominican team? What about the entire Dominican contingent featuring seven Blue Jays including Bautista, Reyes, Sierra, Esmil Rogers, Emilio Bonifacio, Edwin Encarnacion and Melky Cabrera? Was there not a story there? Perhaps more could have been written about how someone like Munenori Kawasaki served to bridge the gap between the Latin American players and the North American players.

 

J.A. Happ featured prominently in the chapter on Spring Training, discussing his displeasure at being the sixth starter and slated to begin the season in the minors. After this chapter, we don’t check back in with Happ, except to hear about his near-catastrophic injury at the end of April. I would have loved to have read about Happ’s state-of-mind as he was settling into a groove, somewhat vindicated as the club’s best starting pitcher in April, how he was likely frustrated with his injured knee and what he was thinking when he returned to the club towards the end of the season.

 

Little is written about Melky Cabrera, his struggles and the discovery of the tumour in his spinal column. Is there not a parallel anywhere else with his determination to play through the pain and not let down his new teammates? As you can see, there’s no shortage of fodder for storylines on the 2013 Blue Jays team.

 

In fact, it seems to me that, by not focusing more on Josh Johnson, the authors missed out on a tremendous opportunity to give the reader a tragic hero that mirrored the team’s calamitous season. Johnson, the man that Alex Anthopoulos was targeting from the Marins all along, came to the Blue Jays with incredible hope attached to his right arm. When he faltered and then became injured, everyone was looking for answers. The same types of questions were being asked when the Blue Jays faltered out of the gate (and again after their 11-game winning streak came to an end) without any satisfactory answers. The parallels between Johnson’s and the Blue Jays’ season are clear and obvious and could have provided a poetic narrative thread for the authors and yet, Johnson barely appears in the book.

 

Perhaps these things struck me because I do follow the team so closely and am so familiar with the Toronto baseball club and all of the story lines that came up throughout the year. However, I felt that the authors missed several huge opportunities, even within the stories that they included in the book, that could have made “Great Expectations” more than just a timely reportage on the season that was. The journalistic mentality of cranking out daily stories for newspaper and online readers appeared (at least to me) to serve as a type of “habitus” that blinded the authors to greater possibilities.

 

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002)

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002)

 

“Habitus” is a concept put forward by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) in his work Outline of a Theory of Practice (1979). The gist of the idea is that we are all constrained by our upbringing and education to consider only what we are conditioned to believe is possible. Journalists are conditioned to think a certain way in order to succeed at their jobs (which is why Davidi and Lott were in the position to write this book in the first place: they are extremely good at their jobs) but because these “dispositions” (as Bourdieu calls them) are so deeply ingrained, they they make it difficult to work in other media because they limit the way in which a person sees the world and their job within it.

 

This brings me to the second issue that arose in my mind while reading. Because Lott and Davidi are journalists, they are slaves to two important and sometimes conflicting masters when doing their jobs. They need to walk the fine line between telling a compelling story to their readers and protecting their sources. Because both of the authors are active beat reporters, they are going to need to go back to the players from whom they got some sensitive information for the book. They want to be able to use their sources again as the years go by and thus, need to draw a line between what they can tell the reader and what they can’t.

 

Even as a blogger, I consider myself a journalist when I’m interviewing players and covering teams. I have been in the same situation where I’ve overheard something, been told something “off the record” or observed something that I don’t feel right about reporting. While I certainly sympathize with Davidi and Lott in this situation, I feel that this duty to protect their sources (and the ability to do their jobs as reporters in the future) holds back the amount of insight that the authors are able to provide the reader when it comes to discussing the recent past.

 

The authors are able to provide much more detailed information about events from Gibbons’s first go-round as manager of the Blue Jays because most of the principals from that time are no longer around the Blue Jays (and several are no longer playing professional baseball). When it comes to closed doors meetings from the 2013 season, the authors are light on the details and it seems to me that the reason is that they are protecting their sources who the authors will, in all likelihood, have to face in 2014.

 

The authors’ good relationships with Toronto Blue Jays personnel, past and present, are part of the reason that book is able to offer so much insider information into the running of the club. Their journalistic integrity and meticulousness is what leads to their backing up their statements with sources beyond just the players involved in the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays season. However, I frequently had the feeling that Davidi and Lott were holding something back and I, for one, felt the absence of specifics when they described players meetings or the clubhouse atmosphere in generalities. Perhaps the players didn’t want to go on the record with more damning statements against their teammates but perhaps the authors were also trying to protect the players would have to return into that clubhouse in 2014.

 

It’s a fine line to walk and, for a book marketed towards the mass audience that isn’t so obsessed with minutiae as I am, it’s probably more than enough to provide an insightful and interesting overview of the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays season. I couldn’t help but read this book and repeatedly wonder what was being left out.

 

The fact that Davidi and Lott were serving two conflicting masters when writing this book, for me, led to a marked decrease in its power to satisfy my hunger for all things Blue Jays. The information that they, as insiders who are around the club on a daily basis, are able to obtain and provide to the reading public is outstanding. Their journalistic integrity allowed them to make use of their contacts and go much further afield to provide corroborating and fascinating sources (like former coaches, scouts and family members of the people discussed in the book). On the other hand, I felt that the authors’ journalistic habits led to a disjointed book without a clear narrative that tied all of the players’ vignettes together. While the book features interesting stories, there is nothing other than the fact that all the players, coaches and front office personnel worked for the same employer that ties it all together.

 

While reading the book, I frequently felt that there were details and people who were left out of the book. While I understand that there is limited space and that the intended audience wouldn’t want to read a 400-page tome, I was left with the impression that details that, had they leaked, might have jeopardized Davidi and Lott’s ability to do their work as beat reporters were omitted in favour of generalities and anonymous sources.

 

As I wrote in my other review, I did enjoy this book and there are definitely some fascinating behind-the-scenes anecdotes that help to add depth to the understanding of this failed 2013 season, particularly dealing with Alex Anthopoulos’s trade discussions and his relationship with Paul Beeston. I’m also conflicted in that I felt that this book could have been more elegant had there been a little more time to put it together and find more cohesion and connection between the vignettes. For most Blue Jays fans, “Great Expectations” will be an excellent addition to their baseball library although I’ll always wonder what it could have been.

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