#16: 90% of the Game Is Half Mental and Other Tales from the Edge of Baseball Fandom by Emma Span

90% of the Game Is Half Mental and Other Tales from the Edge of Baseball Fandom by Emma SpanLet us be up front about this. You know I’m going to love any book where the acknowledgement section ends with, “I’d like to close by thanking Mariano Rivera. Not because he helped with this book or anything … just for existing.” The book is a series of autobiographical essays by Span, some about her experiences as a sports writer covering the Yankees and the Mets, but most are more generally focused around being a baseball fan. (Span is a Yankees fan, who is Mets sympathetic, and the book actually spends more time on the Mets.)

I loved this book for a bunch of reasons, the first of which is that I giggled aloud almost the whole time I was reading it, and kept stopping to read sections to my sister. The anecdotes are delightful — trying to interview Pedro Martinez, but waiting for him to put on pants first, only to have him never put on pants, for example — and there were plenty that made me laugh out loud while reading on the subway (the look back at the Mets’ them “Our Team, Our Time,” if only because I remember listening to that the first time and laughing so hard I cried).

It’s also the only baseball book I’ve ever read where I actually identify with it. That’s mainly two reasons: Span focuses mostly on the teams starting around 2003, which was the year I actually started watching baseball, so I’ve got a much better idea what she’s talking about than in most baseball books I’ve read — I remember Kevin Brown breaking his own freaking hand after a bad start — but also because the way she describes watching baseball is something I identify with:

When I first got interested in baseball, and stopped treating it as background noise and actually focused on it, it was the characters that drew me in, the personalities, and the drama, more than any inherent beauty of the game. I didn’t really care what kind of pitch someone threw or whether a batter had shortened his swing; I just wanted to see if Paul O’Neill was going to beat himself up all night, cursing his perceived failures in the dugout, terrorizing innocent water coolers. I wanted to see how the rookie replacing Tony Fernandez might overcome what I assumed had to be a bad case of nerves and succeed in the big leagues. I wanted Bernie Williams to do well because I wanted a shy, awkward dude with glasses to win one for sky, awkward people with glasses everywhere.

And just, yes, that’s it exactly. People complain about the slow pace of baseball, but for me, watching my first game when I was 20, it was perfect. The fact that it’s one guy batting at a time makes it much easier to figure out who’s who, and gives plenty of time for the announcers to speculate wildly about his mental state, personal life, and whatever else seems interesting. The moments of human drama were more interesting to me than the game at first, and gave me an entrance point that got me watching and kept me interested.

Finally, the book is also basically a love letter to New York. My hands-down favorite essay is “Frankie Furter, Chorizo, and Guido,” in which Span travels to Milwaukee to see a Mets-Brewers game. The thrust is that it’s lovely: the stadium is nice, and cheap, and the people working there are helpful and friendly. The Brewers fans were also nice, and totally welcoming to out-of-town fans, happy to give directions, and cheerfully inviting Mets fans out for drinks after the game. And, as she enjoyed herself there, Span realized that she wouldn’t trade in the hurried, rude, dirty, crowded New York experience for anything:

Let me just say here that I understand why people from other parts of the country get annoyed with New Yorkers’ refusal to see their city as anything other than the center of the world. It’s obnoxious and dismissive, this attitude towards the rest of America, grudging respect for L.A. and (maybe, sometimes) Chicago aside. There are lots of great cities in the United States and plenty of sophisticated people between the coasts.

That said … come on. If New York isn’t the center of the world, what is?

And you know I’ve been a New Yorker for awhile, because of my nodding agreement. (Sorry, entire rest of the country.)

Span touches on lots of other subjects, ranging from the near-and-dear-to-my-heart topic of being a female fan (and female sportswriter), to watching broadcasts of American baseball games while staying in Taiwan, to stats and why people are still arguing over how accurate they are, and so on. It’s a short, quick read, extremely smart, and extremely funny. It’s going right on to my reread list, as soon as I’m done loaning it to everyone I know.

2 Comments on #16: 90% of the Game Is Half Mental and Other Tales from the Edge of Baseball Fandom by Emma Span

  1. Jennifer
    April 18, 2010 at 8:46 PM (10 years ago)

    Lovely review. I especially like that quote about the human element — sports have never really worked for me as something to watch, largely due to the lack of verbal narrative, but as I’ve recently become interested in figure skating, it’s been for largely the reasons in that quote — an attraction to the PERSONALITIES involved, and an investment in them as people, rather than an actual interest in the technical elements of the sport. (I still cannot tell you the difference between various jumps.) I don’t think I’ll ever be a real sports fan, but that’s an angle on sports fandom I can suddenly understand.

    And I’m glad the book made you happy!


  2. Jenn (From the Mixed-Up Files)
    June 15, 2010 at 6:58 AM (10 years ago)

    Wonderful review! This is a book I would have never considered reading because I’m not a baseball fan, but after reading your review it’s on my list. I can identify with being a fan for a sport because you come to “know” the people playing the game (for me that’s how it is with basketball), and I also can identify with feeling an allegiance to a city (for me it’s San Francisco). And I always love a funny book. Thanks for the recommendation!



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