by Jim Collins, reading at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside, Sunday April 25, 7:30 pm
Great books about baseball have strong narratives connecting their obligatory threads of players, statistics, and sports jargon. Jim Collins' The Last Best League follows one season of the Chatham A's, an amateur team in the renowned summer Cape Cod League, where some of the most talented college baseball players in America get to play against others of their ability and be scrutinized by Major League scouts. The book is a true story, but Collins structures it like a novel, chronicling the lives of real people with a fiction writer's eye for nuance.
Though the Cape Cod League does involve 10 teams playing a 10-week baseball season complete with playoffs and a championship game, the final outcome is important only to a few small towns on the East Coast. To the journeyman fan in Portland, the only note of interest is that some of these young men might one day be playing in the pros. Under these circumstances, Collins still concocts a riveting read. His secret is to find three talents on the team who have yet to be swept up in the web of professional contracts and sleazy agents. Jamie D'Antona is an obnoxious, chaw-spewing, yet good-natured oaf who also happens to be one of the best pure hitters in the world. Tim Stauffer is a cool, controlled Christian with a preternatural dominance on the mound. And Thomas Pauly is a deceptively intelligent surfer/pitcher from Princeton who hides his insecurities 'neath a goofball facade.
Collins spent the entire summer tailing these kids, and the resulting profiles attain a level of detail rarely seen in sports writing. The reader, along with Collins, is introduced to them, endures their initial nervous bravado, and by book's end roots passionately as their maturity starts to catch up with their athletic talent.
All this makes it easy to forget that League is Collins' first book. It's an astonishing debut, and if it doesn't catapult him into the Last Best League of great sports writers, we can feel confident that future endeavors surely will. JUSTIN WESCOAT SANDERS