Phil-Literature: “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

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This week, we pluck from the shelves another piece of Phil-Literature, most commonly seen on the display table at the Rittenhouse Barnes and Noble.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments from Philadelphia Phillies History

by Todd Zolecki

You’d have to be in a pretty ugly state of denial if you didn’t know the Phillies were, for a period, rotting in the basement of th standings.  You’d have to suffer through several devastating blows to the head to forget that the period in question lasted for many of the years in their history.  And you’d have to be a mole person to not realize that their several brief resurgences through time have tried to create a brand new image of the franchise.

Here, we have a book neatly separated into tales featuring each of these three facets of our Phillies. 

For the first 5o or so pages.  The rest is a scrapbook of various Phillies memories, pieced together from Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News articles, as well as Zolecki’s own work.  As usual, there are new stories I’d never heard that were entertaining, but the overuse of certain storytelling maneuvers and the repetition of the same facts over and over really start wearing down an amateur Phillies historian (They really stress how skewed Chuck Klein’s career numbers are because he played in the Baker Bowl all throughout the book; the strange part is that every time they are about to tell you again, they act like it is a big reveal of new information).As I said last week, somebody reading this book is probably a Phillies fan, and therefore, there’s a lot in it that they already know.  I’m not sure how much new material will be leaked out about the 2008 team that isn’t already everywhere.  Many Philly-area writers know the impact that team had on the fanbase and have exhausted the angles in telling and retelling the story just plenty.

But at least Zolecki doesn’t dwell solelyon the 2008 squad.  The history lessons touched on in “101 Reasons to Love the Phillies” are expanded and livened up in this book with personal anecdotes and researched descriptions.  There are a lot–a lot–of quotes, from several select characters who lived through the most significant eras of baseball in Philly.  Some entries are the occasional sentence to keep the story going, sprinkled between paragraph after paragraph of players’ and coaches’ dialogue.  You could argue Zolecki leans on this too hard, especially by the end, but if somebody who didn’t live through most of the eras he’s trying to write a book about is telling their stories, then I would rather just have it come from the mouths of people who were actually there anyway.

There are always plenty of stories I’ve never heard in these anthologies of Phillies lore, like the time Greg Luzinski punched John Vukevich in the face while taking a swing at Larry Bowa, or the time the Phillies were so racist Jackie Robinson considered going “Greg Luzinski” on Ben Chapman.  But there are a couple of writing techniques employed that read very much like writing techniques. One that continuously stood out the most to me was the one-sentence little bow Zolecki tries to put on top of every story; throwing a quick  summation of what has just been said at the end of a chapter or section.  It’s like somebody in an audience always trying to clap last.

A story ends when it’s over.  It can be instinctive for a writer, or especially a journalist, to try and stir all the points or the main theme of an article into a single thought at the conclusion (“Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them.”)  But in this case, these feel like superfluous comments that don’t add anything to the story, and wouldn’t even be worth mentioning if they weren’t all over this book.  The clearest example is the finale of the “10,000 Losses” saga:

"“It was just one more mind-boggling event in 127 years of sometimes-mind-boggling baseball.”"

It feels like all of these “In conclusion…” afterthoughts were thrown in on the same night, after the rest of the book had already been written, in an attempt to up the word count.  Besides… they really couldn’t come up with a better adjective than “sometimes-mind-boggling?”  Some of these moments are garnished with outright cheese.

Therefore, it came as no surprise that this book, just like “101 Reasons…” isn’t an original idea; it’s part of a series of books with the same title.  This one just happens to have “Phillies” in it.  And while the legends of the team never get old, the narrative writing isn’t strong enough to meet the stoic grandeur of the personal accounts and the iconic status they’ve built.  Chapter by chapter, the same formats are used, the same stories are told; and in the end, it feels like this book was assembled with a very rigid set of instructions.

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