Posts Tagged ‘random house


When Canada Had Just One MLB Team: Up, Up and Away – Jonah Keri

Up, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal ExposUp, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos by Jonah Keri

For a while, Montreal was the baseball capital of North America: a state-of-the-art stadium, a core of bright young talent and the base farm system in baseball. And then, on a cold and rainy afternoon, it all started crashing down.


But the Montreal Expos are so much more than crushing heartbreak. They’re a team with a colourful history and even more colourful roster, and Jonah Keri’s newish book Up Up And Away is as definitive an account of them as we have.


When the team departed for Washington in 2005, the Expos were a shell of a franchise. They’d been owned by Major League Baseball for a couple of seasons and had traded away whatever assets they possessed. Their stadium was an empty shell, a boondoggle that still wasn’t paid off nearly 30 years after it’s completion. It wasn’t always that way: at two different times, they’d been the best team in baseball. With a rich stock of young talent, they’d been called both the team of the 80s and the 90s. It just wasn’t meant to be.


Up Up and Away is a fun history of the team, charting it’s auspicious beginnings in less-than-stellar confines of Jerry Park through a last-gasp 2003 pennant run in a decaying Olympic Stadium. Keri tells of early Expos stars like Rusty Staub, famously known as le grand orange, and their auspicious beginning, with a no-hitter thrown just a handful of games into their existence.


After a few dry years, Keri dives into the first glory years when the Expos farm system developed a bevy of talent: Ellis Valentine, Warren Cromartie, Tim Raines and Carter, currently the only Expo in Cooperstown. These were the glory years of the team, but they were ill-timed: their peak coincided with two of the best teams in baseball history: the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates and the 1980 Philadelphia Phillies.


While 1981 brought their first NLCS appearance, it also brought in their biggest heartbreak: Blue Monday. Keri departs from his narrative to offer an oral history on the Expos most infamous game, where they lost a heartbreaker at home in the deciding game of the NLCS. It was as close as the Expos would ever get to the World Series and arguably the team’s high-water mark.


As far as heartbreak goes, the Expos had a lot of it: crushing late-season collapses, team-clearing firesales and clubhouse issues. Sometimes it was outside forces: in 1994, they were the best team in baseball, thanks to stars like Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez and Marquis Grissom. But when Bud Selig cancelled the World Series on September 14, their 74-40 season was killed.


With his status as a die-hard fan, Keri’s book is littered with personal memories: trips to games, hand-painted signs and nearly innumerable heartbreaks. It gives the book a sense of personality but also strips it of objectivity. Call it the Bill Simmons effect: it’s closer to Now I Can Die In Peace than Summer of ’49. Truthfully, though I appreciate his feelings, even if they occasionally distract from an interesting history.


Indeed, the book’s best moments come when Keri delivers little asides. These range from how pitcher Steve Rogers remembers Gary Carter to recounting a memorable basebrawl to a history of Expos mascot Youppi!. Unlike the asides in Crazy 08, these add colour to his story, filling in gaps a more traditional approach may overlook. In a nice touch, cartoons from Terry Mosher, Montreal’s resident wit and political cartoonist, are throughout the book.


While Aslin’s a nice touch, I can’t help but notice Mordecai Richler’s conspicuous absence: not only was the late novelist one of Montreal’s most distinctive voices, but he was a big baseball fan to boot. Instead, Keri often quotes sports columnists like Michael Farber or Jeff Blair, both of whom haven’t been based in Montreal in years.


Some readers may remember Keri’s old sports writing gig at Baseball Prospectus and its worth remembering it when reading this book: Keri never relies on generic statistics like pitcher wins or batting average, preferring to provide a deeper look into the numbers. Hitters get the full triple slash treatment of batting/slugging/on-base while pitchers get ERA and innings pitched.


Still, some months after finishing this, I can’t help but question the conclusions Keri reaches for the Expos demise. While the most popular opinion blames Jeff Loria for the team’s rapid decline, as an owner who stripped the team to the minimum, refused to get games on local media and took everything with him when he left, Keri points to other, larger factors. He blames losing a lucrative southern Ontario TV market, a corporate base with no interest in the team and a lack of provincial support for a new stadium.


These arguments reframe the debate along the larger issues between Quebec and the rest of Canada. Thinking about it now, I can’t help but think of Barney’s Version, and Barney Panofsky’s bitter memories of the once-great Montreal Canadiens. As Keri lays blame at the Parti Quebecois for driving Montreal businesses out of province, he also sees nothing wrong with Loria’s cash calls that increased his control of the team against cash-strapped co-owners.  These increases allowed him to flip the Expos on the cheap without interference from co-owners. Loria’s conduct with the Marlins has been up the same alley: spend a little as possible, sell high and maximize profit. If baseball is a business, Loria’s a master. And remember, Keri’s not just a baseball fan, he’s also a guy who wrote for the Wall Street Journal.

And while I generally agree with Keri’s arguments, it’s worth comparing Loria to former Canadiens owner George Gillett. Between the time when Gillett bought the Canadiens in 2001 and when he sold them a little over eight years later, he didn’t have nearly the same issues as the Expos did: no cash calls, no stripping everything to the bone, no firesales. While this was a time where the Canadian dollar was at it’s weakest, between 2001 and 2009, the Canadiens went to the playoffs five times. Somehow the same issues that plagued the Expos – losing the Ontario TV market, the PQ, etc – didn’t doom the Canadiens.  But then again, Gillett didn’t have his sights set on getting a team in the US. Funny how that seemed to make all the difference.


Rating: 8/10.  Before this past season started, the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets played a short preseason series at the Big O, the first time in years pro baseball’s been played in Montreal. By all accounts, the games were a success. Maybe someday, with a little luck, those crowds will come a little more regularly and Keri will need to write a second volume. But for now, I’m glad to have this.

Editor’s note: originally written in May 2014 for The Good Point, but never published. Thanks again to Random House for providing me a review copy!


3000 Years in 500 pages: Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson

Ancient history is an interest of mine and earlier this year, I made the trip to Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum to get a look at some stuff first-hand. After all, it’s cool to read about Ancient Rome or Greece, but actually getting to look at statues of the Caesars and pottery decorated with the exploits of Heracles is something else completely.

It was a fun experience, but I was blindsided by something there: the sheer breadth of materials and knowledge of Ancient Egypt. I knew I didn’t know much about the period before I went there, but I was shocked at how little I knew, like how Cleopatra actually lived closer to our time than to the construction of the pyramids. This was the kind of thing I needed to remedy, so I started looking for a good volume of history to tackle. I’d hoped the ROM’s giftstore would have something, but the only books there generally went along these lines.

After a bit of looking around, I came across Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. It promises the nearly unthinkable: to distill over 2000 years of Egyptian history into a single, highly readable volume. It pulls it off, too, which is a remarkable achievement and not just because of the total number of years covered. Ancient Egypt had several wild changes of fortune, ranging from the early years under kings like Djoser and Khufu, to years of imperial power under Ramesses to subject rule under the Ptolemaic dynasty. Here, Wilkinson is able to lucidly go from one age to another, carefully showing how and why things changed, be it repressive taxation, the influence of the army or priesthood or foreign invasion. More importantly, he explains the human cost too: his history presents a sober look at a dictatorship, where the commoners were often worked until they died, the rich schemed to keep money and grain for themselves and the king used whatever means necessary to keep power, even if it meant skinning people alive and displaying the results to scare people into line.

Wilkinson’s specialty is the early years of Egypt and in the first half of the book, his scholarship shines. He spends a lot of time on the early kingdoms, detailing the construction of the pyramids, the growth of Egypt’s writing and religions and the reign of each line of kings. There’s a ton of information here on the first half of the Egyptian dynasties, especially on people like Narmer, who unified Egypt and was it’s first Pharaoh. He gives each of the early kings a detailed look, such as Khufu, who built the Great Pyramid and lost the support of the people: even centuries later, when Herodotus visited Egypt, Khufu was hated. Of him Wilkinson writes:

“So if the pyramid was not exactly a national project in which the whole country could take part and feel pride, what was it? The uncomfortable answer is that it was the ultimate projection of absolute power. Despots throughout history have been attracted to colossal buildings, from Nicolae Ceausescu’s Palace of the People in Bucharest to tin-pot dictator Felix Houphouet-Boigny‘s vast (and ridiculous) basilica in the jungles of Ivory Coast. The Great Pyramid of Khufu is merely the most audacious and enduring of such folies de grandeur.” (pg 71)

As Wilkinson moves along in Egyptian history, the pace picks up and less time is spent on each dynasty. His coverage of people like Thutmose III helps give lesser-known Pharaohs their due; indeed, Thutmose is called “the greatest of all pharaohs.” I’d wager his name isn’t familiar to the average person. But the pace keeps up and accelerates throughout the book. By the final couple of chapters, Wilkinson covers centuries in a matter of pages. But this mirrors the collapse of Egypt, too. By the time of the battles against the Sea Peoples, Egypt was a spent force. Eventually, it fragmented and was ruled over by the Nubians. By the time of Alexander the Great and the Ptolemys, it feels like Wilkinson is working at a record pace,  glossing over stretches of time, although it should be noted that he doesn’t have a ton of information to work with, thanks to fragmentary evidence.

His book ends with a section about Cleopatra, who he thinks ruled over a dead empire and unsuccessfully hedged her bets with Mark Antony. It’s interesting to compare his brief overlook with Stacy Scheff’s: Wilkinson is less giving of praise, all but brushing over how successful Cleopatra’s domestic politics were in favour of a pragmatic look at her disastrous foreign policies. Of Antony’s exchange of lands and collections of books for her support, he writes:

“Phony title deeds and a collection of books in return for real troops and supplies was hardly a fair exchange. In the far-off days of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Egypt had been respected and feared as the mighty bull of Asia; now, it was Rome’s milk cow.” (pgs 477-78)

Egypt ended with a whimper: after a succession of defeats, Antony fell on his sword and died in Cleopatra’s arms. Alexandra fell and Cleopatra shortly followed, most likely by her own hand. Egypt would be ruled by foreign powers for much of the next millennia: Rome, Byzantium, Ottomans and eventually the British. With it, interest in the Pharoahs dimmed and fell out of common knowledge; as Wilkinson notes, it was only revived by the French, when Napoleon visited the country.  But ever since, it’s rarely left us; at the ROM, their Egyptian section dwarfed their section on Rome.

Rating: 8/10. This is an interesting read that never feels especially bogged down in details and goes out of it’s way to provide visual evidence: besides a bunch of colour photographs, black-and-white images are interspersed throughout. And it’s supplemented by extensive notes and a bibliography that’s dozens of pages long. If you’re looking for a history of Ancient Egypt, I don’t think you can go wrong with this. They should sell copies in the ROM’s giftshop.