Everyone’s drawn to sports for different reasons. For some people, it’s a thing to watch at the bar while waiting on friends, but for others it’s something they hold close to their heart. Maybe you know the type: they live and die with the team, attend every match they can, and own a closet full of jerseys. Stacey May Fowles is that kind of fan.
But she’s much more than just a fan. She’s a sharp observer, a talented writer and is able to transmit her love for baseball into her collection of essays, Baseball Life Advice. It’s likely the best collection of sportswriting you’ll read this year and the one most unlike it’s neighbours on the bookshelf.
In 33 essays, Fowles covers baseball fandom from just about every angle: the nerve-wrecking tension of playoff baseball, how it feels when a favourite player’s traded, and the joy of watching someone else fall for the game you love. When she writes about Marcus Stroman pitch, about Jose Bautista swatting a home run, or just the way a random spring training game can connect two strangers in Florida, her love for baseball comes through.
Compared to sportswriting peers like Steve Simmons and Cathal Kelly, Fowles’ writing stands out. Not only for her genuine passion, but because her prose shows a complete lack of cynicism, lacks clichés, and she never positions herself as an insider. Indeed, I’m reminded of the early Bill James books, when he distinctly positioned himself as an outsider; Fowles also writes from a fan’s perspective, albeit without James’ caustic wit.
But where Baseball Life Advice really clicks is when Fowles reflects her own experiences and relates them to the game. For example, in a well-reasoned essay on the politics of booing, Fowles writes: “We all get excited and emotional sometimes, and we can be forgiven for that. But generally, I find the act of booing, especially your own team, the worst kind of fan entitlement.” (pg 100) It’s groupthink, she argues, and is often done by fans who either haven’t thought about why they’re booing or just don’t care. It’s another way for them to punch down.
Indeed, throughout the book Fowles calls out a toxic bro-culture surrounding sports, and the kind of entitled, arrogant attitudes it fosters. It can be as simple as booing a slumping player or as vicious as threatening female journalists. But all the same it’s there: an attitude that female fans aren’t welcome, and neither is anyone who questions the sports’ byzantine unwritten rules.
As she points out in her piece on pioneering sportswriter Alison Gordon, it’s deeply engrained in culture of sports. “With every snide comment and instance of bad male behaviour, women are either told to ‘take a joke’ or accused of not being able to hack it.” Examples of said ‘jokes’: harassment on twitter and comment sections, patronizing attitudes from people at the park, and a sport whose idea of connecting with women is pink jerseys or Wine-And-Cheese nights.
Don’t misunderstand me: although there’s a decided feminist bent to Fowles’ essays, this isn’t something to stack alongside Whipping Girl or The Second Sex. At its core, it’s a book about baseball, how the sport’s for everyone, and how Fowles wants everyone to love it as much as she does. And her passion for the game comes through on every page.
And with good reason. “This game pulled me out of a ditch when I was at my lowest point,” she writes, “and gave me something to focus on day in and day out, while I got better.” In a powerful essay, Fowles describes her experiences with PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder and panic attacks, and how baseball helped her find her bearings. She continues: “It made me believe in magic again, reaffirmed my faith in others, and helped me see hope when I thought there was none.” (pg 269)
With this collection, Fowles establishes herself as one of Toronto’s best sportswriters, writing with a joy and honesty the daily papers all lack. However, people who’ve already been turned on to Fowles writing will have read most of this before. The essays collected here appeared in outlets like Vice Sports, Blue Jays Nation, and The Globe and Mail, not to mention her weekly newsletter. But for everyone else, this is the place to start and maybe learn a thing or two. After all, it’s not called Baseball Life Advice for nothing.
All in all, recommended. Pair it with polish sausage and a seat in the bleachers.