I like the writing of Bill Simmons for a couple of reasons: First of all, I think he's got a biting, witty, easy-to-read style. Second, he's a Boston sports fan who's redeemed of his crime of being a Boston sports fan by virtue of knowing just where Boston sits on the great pantheon of tortured sports cities. Third, he's the best basketball writer I've ever seen, which is important to me because after years of fringing it, I'm finally starting to understand the appeal of the NBA and getting into it. I'm learning a lot about the league and the game by reading Simmons. Fourth, he seems to have a firm grasp of why following baseball is getting so difficult. He admitted in a column a couple of years ago that he hated the team his beloved Boston Red Sox were fielding that year, and I know the feeling. I recently wrote in my other blog that my natural team, the Yankees, were boring me to tears and admitted that I've hated the automaton Girardi/Sabathia squads from the last few years. I'm firmly in the corner of my adopted Chicago White Sox.
Since the Boston Red Sox were one of those star-crossed teams that could never seem to catch a break when they needed it, a thousand different fawning odes were written to them being the scrappy underdogs during the so-called Curse Era. After the 2004 Exorcism of the Bambino, the number of fawning odes and sappy tributes shot up by about a square root of ten, and almost all of them observed the Red Sox from the view of the torture goggles Boston sports fans always seem to be wearing.
Now I can Die in Peace was one of those odes. It's a book of some of Simmons's previously published greatest hits about the Red Sox, from 1998 to 2005. It basically goes from the twilight of Dan Duquette to the crowning of the Red Sox. Saying there's work from 2005 is a wee bit misleading; there's one column from 2005, on Opening Day. But it's there, so I'm counting it.
Simmons writes frequently in frustration or in waiting frustration, even in the good times, like he's always waiting for the ball to drop. Of course, more often than not in Red Sox history, the ball HAS dropped, so it can be excused in his case. But often, Simmons is able to maintain a sense of perspective about the suffering of Boston sports fans who, before a team title drought of 15 years, enjoyed the Big Bad Bruins and the Boston Celtics of Bill Russell, John Havlicek, and Larry Bird. He also throws in a lot of helpful footnotes which put things in context, or if he's fascinated with how much has changed since the time he wrote out a particular thought. His most drastic thought evolutions come at the expenses of Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez, both of whom swept into Boston and appeared for the great pantheon of Boston Sports Heroes to take their rightful places alongside guys like Russell, Bird, Bobby Orr, or Ted Williams. Garciaparra was hated by the end and was traded to the Cubs, and Martinez lost his former dominance.
Given the nature of what the book is, there are times when Simmons appears to contradict himself. He hated Dan Duquette, but in the beginning of the book, he writes that Duquette will be remembered as the guy who changed the way the Boston Red Sox build their teams. I can hear Red Sox fans laughing as I write that, because The Duke is still widely hated, or at least he appears to be. But one of the things I like about Simmons is that he's able to (mostly) maintain a sense of the things that work and things that don't, and he credits Duquette for giving Red Sox fans hope again, and even lets him off the hook for getting rid of Roger Clemens. (At the time Boston let go of Clemens, Clemens had put on a ton of weight and lost a lot of his stuff, being resoundingly average the previous few years.) In Faithful, when Garciaparra was traded, Stephen King whined that it was a business move to ship him out of Boston. Simmons came out with the truth of the matter: That Garciaparra was a washed-up and unmotivated hitter who was costing the Sox a couple of spots on their defense, creating some gaping defensive holes.
Throughout the book, Simmons constantly denounces the idea of The Babe spending his free time in the afterlife making sure the Red Sox never win again, and he says that Boston fans don't believe in a curse. That's a rare viewpoint these days, given how prominent the Curse of the Bambino is to baseball's mythology. Still, I believe him, mostly since I read The Curse of the Bambino, the book by Boston sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy that started the whole thing. The version of it I read was a reprinting in about April of 2004, and in it, Shaughnessy seemed a little flabbergasted by the Curse mythology himself. He apparently never expected it to take on such a mindless life of its own.
Of course, there's the usual Boston fan obsession with the New York Yankees. Yes, Simmons hates the Yankees and obsesses over them, but keeping in tune with his sense of realism, he writes against the popular mythology of the Red Sox being some kind of small-market wunderkind. He is apparently well aware of the truth of the situation, that the Red Sox aren't a whole lot better than the Yankees when it comes to spending, and it appears to be a huge part of the reason he was upset about the Alex Rodriguez deal. (I've often said the Red Sox purposely keep their payroll lower than the Yankees nowadays because it allows them and their fans to maintain a sense of virtue in the face of the Evil Empire. I mean it only with my tongue partially in my cheek.)
It's pretty impressive to watch the way Simmons evolves from a death and destuction, woe-is-us doomsayer into an optimist. Simmons includes a column about the New England Patriots's first Super Bowl victory. It reads like Simmons has an enormous burden lifted from his chest, and from there Simmons begins to feel a lot better about the future of sports in Boston, especially once John Henry takes over ownership of the Boston Red Sox. Simmons has a lot to say to the new ownership and a lot of requests to give them, and he marks in the footnotes that the ownership comes through on almost all of what he wanted.
Simmons uses a number of different formats in his columns, including quizzes, bullet points, and lists. He also tackles a lot of interesting subjects: One of his columns says the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry is barely a rivalry because it was mostly so one-sided. (My home for most of my life has been upstate New York, with the exception of a substantial few years in Chicago. Upstate New York is a solid Yankees fanbase - probably around 65 percent of the people here are Yankees fans, with probably another 25 percent cheering for the Red Sox. The Rivalry upstate is very subdued and, since almost everyone also cheers for the NFL's Buffalo Bills and NHL's Buffalo Sabres, the Sox had so much sympathy from upstaters that even most of the Yankees fans were cheering for them.) Simmons also writes about how it felt watching his longtime football team win the Super Bowl, why people hate Roger Clemens, and what went wrong with Pedro and Nomar to deny them pantheon status. A recurring theme of his is his relationship with his father and how the Red Sox play into it.
Now I can Die in Peace is a smooth and easy read, and it's also the most brutally honest book I've seen about the Boston Red Sox 2004 championship season.
Bill Simmons book is a walk down memory lane with a completion of his various writings and columns from the late 90's to the raising of the World series flag. Unlike other compilations the action takes place in the margins. Little notes on the side commenting on the things he has said and wrote and little stories about the events. it is those marginal writings that are the real meat and potatoes of the book. It is an odd thing to read this book and to … more