Smile Politely

Book review: Are We Winning? by Will Leitch

Will Leitch has come a long way since his last book (and his last book tour, in February 2008, when he filled the Author’s Corner at IUB to overflowing). As the founding editor of Deadspin, Leitch labored as the designated whipping boy for the rise of sports blogs, even getting a quasi-sensical tongue-lashing from Buzz Bissinger on national TV that brought the phrase “pisses the shit out of me” into our national lexicon. Now, as his book-jacket bio describes, “He is the sports columnist at New York magazine, and a contributor to the New York Times, GQ, Fast Company, and Esquire.”

Leitch’s previous effort, God Save the Fan, will always have a special place in my heart, because the review of it was the first thing I wrote for Smile Politely. That tome was basically a collection of columns and essays on various topics around sports fandom and media. Are We Winning?, on the other hand, is built on a framework of Will, his father, Bryan (both Cardinals fans), and Will’s friend Mike (a Cubs fan) attending a Cards-Cubs game at Wrigley Field in September 2008. The historically woe-begotten Cubs are preparing to clinch a division title, while the storied Cardinals franchise is closing out a disappointing season as also-rans. And, as the sitcom creators say, hilarity ensues.

The book is broken into half-innings instead of chapters, using the events on the field as a jumping-off point for excursions into: drinking while driving in central Illinois (it’s cool! everyone does it and the cops don’t care!), the nerdiness of keeping score at baseball games, Steve Bartman, and The Media, among many others.

But the prevailing theme of Are We Winning? is the relationship between fathers and sons, and the sport that provides them with the common ground for — rudimentary, at least — communication. Tellingly, the book’s publication date falls conveniently between Opening Day and Father’s Day. Each half-inning opens with a short piece from sons (and some daughters) sharing a baseball-related moment from their lives with their fathers. These short, often-poignant entries nearly upstage the rest of the book, as they provide a broad-based perspective on father-child relations in what can be a claustrophobic subject.

Leitch’s trademark self-deprecatingly effete style gets a workout, from the tongue-in-cheek summaries at the end of each half-inning addressed to his hypothetical unborn child to his recollections of his unfailingly awkward younger self. One of Leitch’s greatest strengths as a writer is his brutal honesty about himself, and in this case it’s nicely matched to his reverence for his father. But he also doesn’t sugar coat some of the old man’s failings either, which makes for a well-rounded portrait.

I won’t spoil the ending, but for you Cubs fans out there, it might be heartening to buy the book just to recall the halcyon days of division titles and first-round flameouts. It’s something we Twins fans are well-accustomed to by this point.

If you’re headed to Chicago for the weekend, consider checking out Leitch’s appearance (details below), and if you’re hard-up for a Father’s Day gift for the dad that you have trouble talking about anything but baseball with, this book should say everything that you want to, but can’t.

Are We Winning?: Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball by Will Leitch (Hardcover, 304 pp., $24.99, Hyperion)

He’ll be appearing tomorrow, Friday, May 28 at 7 p.m. at the Book Cellar, 4736 Lincoln Avenue in Chicago for a talk, book signing, and Q&A.

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