Richard Grossinger’s book, The New York Mets: Ethnography, Myth, and Subtext, is unlike any I’ve read. It’s not one you can curl up with in your favorite armchair for a leisurely escape from life’s travails. You have to work your way through it. Not that Grossinger couldn’t write a leisurely book. It’s just that, in this case, he chose not to.
My problems with the book began with its subtitle: “Ethnography, Myth, and Subtext.” Even after reading the dictionary definitions of those terms, I was unclear how they applied to the New York Mets.
Despite its title, the book’s focus isn’t only about the New York’s National League team. Grossinger used the book’s page to recollect other teams that captured his fancy during his youth, such as the New York Rangers. And even within sections on the Mets, he strayed from the team.
By the time I reached page 151, on which began another named, but unnumbered essay, I realized that the only way I was going to finish the book in a reasonable amount of time was if I skipped over those sections in which either substance had to walk in style’s shadow or the author focused on his personal experiences.
For example, during his writings about ex-Mets pitcher Terry Leach, whom Grossinger knows personally, the author embedded four and a half pages of his personal baseball-playing experiences. Their inclusion disrupted the book’s flow. It was like watching a Mets game on television that was frequently interrupted by home videos sharing one of the announcer’s amateur ball-playing experiences.
Another stylistic element that I found disruptive was the author’s idiosyncratic use of semi-colons.
In recounting the Mets history in the book’s first 41 pages, he “semi-colons” the reader into submission with lengthy paragraphs laden with sentences terminated with semi-colons. One such paragraph began near the middle of one page and ended near the bottom of the next.
When Grossinger set aside both his style idiosyncrasies and his personal involvement with baseball and other sports, and focused on the New York Mets, his writing improved.
For example, one of his more interesting sections began with these words: “Most baseball games are routine. Most seasons in a team’s history are humdrum and indifferent. For a franchise only twenty-five years old, however, the Mets have found themselves in a couple of centuries’ worth of bizarre games and unlikely season.” That’s when his writing’s at his best: When it’s at its simplest.
Another instance of such writing occurs in his two-page description of Rod Kanehl’s playing days; but then he detoured into the details of his first prom. It was like driving down a paved road and suddenly finding it transformed into a dirt one that you couldn’t wait to get off. If only those “roads” had been paved before the book went to press.
Grossinger’s autobiographical insertions did serve one purpose: They reminded me of the Mets’ organizational failures. It seemed almost as if Grossinger was subconsciously trying to write about the Mets in a way that emulated the team’s foul-ups that he was writing about. If that were his unstated goal, he succeeded. In fact, in that regard, his book is masterful.
Among the foul-ups Grossinger wrote about were those made by the Mets management. Referring to the current ownership, Grossinger wrote “The Mets of Fred Wilpon were and still are a coward’s imitation of the Yankees, no heart or soul, no loyalty to their employees, a mere pretense of a family shop.”
Reflecting back upon the book, there’s also something I wish he would have elaborated upon. He wrote that “The New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s were created after the rest of their National League brethren spent a year burying their top players under any obscure rule they could find” without revealing what the obscure rules were or who was buried. Answers to those kinds of questions would really have made the book more interesting to me.
In conclusion, Grossinger never seemed to have decided upon what kind of book he wanted to write, and his paragraphs echo that.
Ethnography, according to the online version of the American Heritage Dictionary, is “The branch of anthropology that deals with the scientific description of specific human cultures.” I can’t answer how that definition applies to the book’s content. So I’ll skip on to the second word in the subtitle, “myth.”
If the book was about the myth of the Mets, I missed that entirely.
Finally, “subtext.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines that as “The implicit meaning or theme of a literary text.” The word “literary” caught my attention. Was Grossinger writing a literary book? That’s possible.
It’s unfortunate that an editorial knife wasn’t available that was sharp enough to cut those sections out and either relocate or eliminate them.
That probably didn’t happen because of who edited the book. In its Prefatory Note, usually called its Preface, Grossinger confirmed that the book was self-edited. That’s like a defendant in a criminal trial representing himself. When an author self-edits, he risks leaving intact words, sentences, and paragraphs because he’s attached to them rather than because they aid the book’s readability. As a result, the reader must bear the brunt of the author’s idiosyncrasies, a burden that readers must bear.
If he could have stuck with that approach, he would have had a winner. Unfortunately, too often substance had to walk in style’s shadow.