Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

October 2, 2012

All of the Parts, None of the Glue

Eric Davis could've been an all-time great, if he could have added a sixth tool to the coveted five core baseball tools: staying healthy.

Michael Gluckstadt

If you were designing a baseball player from scratch in 1984, you'd probably start with Eric Davis. A legitimate five-tool player, Davis had raw skills that were compared to those of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. But potential still has to be realized for it to count, and Davis's injury-riddled career—he maxed out at playing 135 games in a season—kept him from the game's highest levels.

Craig Fehrman
"All you want is a good story, and Davis definitely has that."

Craig Fehrman

With mountains of baseball literature having been devoted to players who put their skills—often skills lesser than Davis's—to their full use, one wonders who will write the appreciation of what could have been. Marc Normandin and Sky Kalkman's The Hall of Nearly Great, an e-book collection of profiles of those players who fell short of making it to Cooperstown, is just the right venue. So when writer Craig Fehrman found out a Kickstarter donation had been earmarked for writing about Davis, a former Reds phenom, the Midwest native jumped at the opportunity.

In the following interview, which was conducted over email and has been edited for clarity, the occasional Gelf contributor tells us about the Reds players of his youth, his interest in independent minor-league baseball teams, and when it's OK to compare baseball players across different eras.

Gelf Magazine: What are the criteria for inclusion in the Hall of Nearly Great?

Craig Fehrman: It seems to me that it's easiest to define this by what it's not—i.e., the Hall of Fame. There's a well-known tier of players who are this close to the Hall of Fame, and sportswriters debate them and retell their stories all the time. But what about the next tier? What about their stories? That, to me, is what this book's all about. And that means the criteria are pretty loose. All you want is a good story, and Davis definitely has that—the story of a guy who possessed every single skill a ballplayer could except one: staying healthy.

Gelf Magazine: What prompted your involvement with the book?

Craig Fehrman: I heard about the book's Kickstarter on Deadspin and sent Marc an email making the case for a chapter on Eric Davis. He wrote back and said I was in luck: The perk for the $250 pledge was that you could pick a favorite player for someone to write about, and someone had done that and nominated Davis.

Gelf Magazine: How has it been received so far? Have you learned anything about the marketing and economics of e-books?

Craig Fehrman: Well, I haven't heard whether the essay was worth $250! But I have received some nice emails from fellow Reds fans, including a couple of people who grew up with Davis (I grew up with, uh, Pokey Reese) and said I got him right. That's the best feedback I could hope for.
I haven't done much marketing myself, but I have been watching how Sky and Marc handle it—the Kickstarter, excerpts in all the right places, and so on. I've actually got a Kindle Single coming out next year, and I'll try to steal some of their ideas.

Gelf Magazine: Did you attempt to contact Davis?

Craig Fehrman: I didn't, but only because I knew I wanted to focus on something else: a memoir Davis wrote with Ralph Wiley called Born to Play. It's a pretty good read, and I'm always fascinated by jock memoirs. My other big resource was a Sports Illustrated cover story that ran in 1987—and was written by none other than Ralph Wiley. Everyone should read it, because Wiley's great and because it gives a good sense of how unbelievable Davis could have been.

Gelf Magazine: Is there something unique to baseball that lends itself to a Hall of Nearly Great?

Craig Fehrman: Probably the sport's love of nostalgia and of analogies. Wiley's SI story compares Davis to Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, and baseball fans excel at this. Sometimes it can get tedious (when George Will does it, for instance), but I think it feels fresh in our book since a lot of the players discussed are overlooked.

Gelf Magazine: Any future books planned?

Craig Fehrman: Well, I continue to work on a long-term project on the history of presidents and the books they've written. Other than that, there's the Kindle Single, which is coming out next year. I can't say much about it, yet, but it's half a profile of a prominent rock band, half a look at the town they grew up in and helped turn into a terrific music scene. The only reason it worked out was that the band liked the idea and gave me great access, but this gets at your question about interviewing: When you're doing this digital stuff on your own, you're even more at the mercy of your subject than usual. That can be good or bad, in several different ways.

Gelf Magazine: You recently wrote an article about Venezuelan catcher Luis Rodriguez. What drew you to him specifically—and to the Atlantic League more generally—as a subject?

Craig Fehrman: I picked the Atlantic League because its Bridgeport franchise was a train stop from where I live. The team said I could come and go whenever I wanted and write about whatever I wanted. It's hard to beat that kind of access, and minor-league baseball—and especially independent-league baseball—has long fascinated me.
As for Luis, I knew I wanted to profile at least one player, and I first talked with him back in April, at the Bluefish's media day. Any writer would have decided to write about him; he's got a warmth and charisma you can't miss. It didn't hurt that he was Manny Ramirez's ex-roommate, but I think those stories served as a kind of window dressing—a way to lure readers into Luis's own incredible story.

Gelf Magazine: What surprised you most in your reporting on the Bluefish?

Craig Fehrman: Two things stood out: the passion on the field and the jadedness off it. I knew there were guys like Luis who'd played in the minors for 15, 20 years, but seeing what that commitment had cost him, in terms of his family and his lifestyle, hit me in a way that "two decades of service time" couldn't. There were lots of guys like Luis, and they never seemed cynical— frustrated, maybe, and tired, but still happy to be playing the game.
Where I found cynicism was behind the scenes. The Bridgeport situation turned out to be really strange in that it's currently owned by the guy who founded the league and its franchise in Long Island. It seems to me that he's keeping the Bluefish alive more for the league's benefit than the city's, and the lack of fans—I went to games where there were 50 fans in a 6,000-seat ballpark—supports that theory. I didn't get to do as many Bluefish stories as I wanted to, but I'm hoping to write a couple more this off-season about the off-the-field dynamic.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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