What April Suggests about the Baseball Season

May Days, May Days

April is a cruel month for baseball fans, as anyone who has sat through a game north of Atlanta can attest. (Full disclosure: I support a shorter season.) April is also a prankster that can make dandelions look like tulips. (Last year's Diamondbacks, anyone?) Here are some thoughts now that about 18 percent of the season is behind us.

The Real Deals:

Right now there are just two sure things: the Dodgers and the Astros. Each has a powerful lineup—Bellinger is white hot right now–but more importantly, each has a pitching staff that should hurl them deep into the postseason.

Stick a Fork in 'Em; They're Already Done:

Compost the putrid Marlins and call a taxidermist for the once-proud Orioles. The Royals are more like a deposed monarchy and the Angels are bound for hell once again. What was Mike Trout thinking when he signed a long-term contract with Anaheim. Do you see any hope in the next 4-5 years? I don't.

How are those Sonny Gray, Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp acquisitions working out for the Reds? You can probably stick the tines in San Francisco as well. The Yankees AAA players just blew them out of the water and made the Giants look like midgets in the process.

Not as Bad as You Think:

The White Sox probably won't make it .500, but they won't embarrass themselves. Some of their younger players–like Anderson and Moncada–are figuring things out.

The Rangers might have the most potent lineup of any lousy team. They will score a ton of runs, but they'll give up a ton and a half. The Padres are the NL West equivalent of the Rangers. Machado isn't hitting much right now, but he will, as will Hosmer and Tatis. Myers will continue to tantalize and disappoint, as will any pitcher not named Yates. 

The Tigers are in rebuild mode and need to shed some onerous contracts, but they're not pushovers. These cats are starting to flex their paws.

Wait Until Next Year:

We already know about Vlad Junior, but he's not the only thing to like about the Blue Jays. They are just an arm or two away from making the AL East a four-horse race. It won't happen this year, but you do not want to go to sleep on these guys or they'll lay some hurt on you.

Call it a hunch, but the Braves look as if they are going to take a step backward this year. It's a team dependent upon a handful of vets to close the holes of youthful inconsistency. That might happen, but I'm not seeing a pitching staff that can take them to the Promised Land. This needs to be redressed before some of those vets (Freeman, McCann, Markakis) reach the end of their productiveness. Next year?

I Don't Believe In You:

The Diamondbacks are playing above their pay grade right now. You know–just like 2018. It won't last.

I said it last year and will say it again: the Cubs pitching isn't very good. Plus Bryant and Rizzo aren't hitting their weight. I'd not be surprised if they miss the playoffs.

Never bet on the Pirates. You get the team you pay for and Pirates' ownership keeps its riches buried in a bank somewhere far from where the three rivers join.

Parsimony and young players who fuzzed out but never blossomed are the reasons I don't believe in the Twins. They're not a bad team, but in the long run they'll struggle to rise above mediocrity. Even if they click on all cylinders, they simply can't match the Indians' pitching.

I'd be remiss not to mention the perpetually tightwad Oakland A's. Look down their roster and tell me how many names you recognize other than Khris Davis. (Semien is good, though.)

They'll Probably Break Your Heart:

The Phillies spent like drunken gamblers to sign Bryce Harper. He's hitting .250, which is just about right for a player who might be the most overrated in all of baseball. The Phils should have bought some pitching. Arrieta is on the downside and Nola and Elfin have yet to rise.

The Mets are the opposite: potentially great pitching but if McNeil and Alonso cool off, where's the offense?

The Mariners are on fire at present, but I'd be higher on them had they not traded their best pitcher (James Paxton) to the Yankees. Their lineup consists of a lot of castoffs, has-beens, and late arrivals. I think this holiday will soon sink back to workaday tedium.

Don't the Nationals always break hearts? They show signs of sorting things out, but when you look at their roster, you'd think they should be great. The Nats are like brilliant students content to earn a C. 

Waiting to Catch Fire

The Brewers have too much in the bank in addition to Yelich to be playing penny ante baseball. In fact, without Yelich they'd be in serious trouble by now. Time to man up in Cheesehead Town.

Exchange the cheese for bad beer and the same is true for the Cardinals, who plucked Goldschmidt from Arizona and Ozuna from Miami. (Did I mention the Marlins should be in the Eastern League?)  About half of the Cards' pitching staff needs to step up or move out.

The Indians have been only middling good in a bad division. Cheapskate management is a problem in Cleveland as well, but the Indians should be fine when Kipnis, Naquin, and Lindor heat up. There's really no reason in the world why the Tribe shouldn't waltz to another division crown.

Mysteries Wrapped Inside Enigmas

In a sense, the Red Sox were destined to disappoint. They had a season for the ages in 2018, and no serious fan expects them to duplicate a .667 winning percentage. But to be a tick above the Orioles? I can't imagine that will last, but there's got to be concern that signing Sale to a big contract instead of re-signing Kimbrel was a bonehead move given that Sale hasn't been brilliant since the middle of 2017. Porcello thus far has been in the "other" side of his every other year effectiveness, and there is also concern that Moreland, Pearce, and Bradley had career years in '18. Commonsense says that Bogaerts ought to be moved to third and Devers should become a DH. Devers' glove is simply B-A-D. But if you ask me if the Red Sox will finish below .500 this year I'd reply, "Are you nuts?"

The Yankees are a mystery in the sense that one wonders how in the hell they are winning with 15 players on the disabled list. LeMahieu was a great signing, Voit was a steal, and getting Paxton a fleecing, but the only way you make any sense of their early success is to concede that their minor league system was every bit as good as touted. Nonetheless mystery surrounds the Bronx Bombers. Will Sanchez figure out how to catch and hit consistently, or is he a bum receiver who is all or nothing with the stick? Will the Yanks go on a roll when the big guns return? Logic dictates they should, but baseball has a habit of making fools of the Stat Heads. The biggest mystery of all is why the team hasn't fired every single one of its conditioning coaches. It baffles my mind how MLB thinks launch angles and pro wrestling sized muscles are more important than flexibility and durability. For the record, Detroit has the deepest fences of any stadium: 420 feet to dead center. So who gives damn if a homerun travels 470 feet?

The Rays are also an enigma. I like Pham and Diaz, but I don't see enough bats on this team to justify their otherworldly record in April. Morton and Snell are proven pitchers, but are Glasnow and Chirinos for real? I don't think the Rays have enough, but if the Red Sox don't start winning, the Rays might steal a playoff spot.

Let's end with the yearly mystery team: the Rockies. The hitting is there, but the staff has an ERA the size of Mount Elbert. I think they'll be in the middle of the pack, but it seems that nobody really knows how the Rockies will fare until the season is over.


Layover is Pulp Fiction. In a Good Way.

Layover (2019)
By David Bell
Berkley/Penguin Press, 416 pages.

If you enjoy psychological thriller movies that make you bolt upright and shout, "Oh no! Do not open that door!!!" David Bell's novel Layover is like that. No matter what the medium–movies, novels, campfire tales, TV shows–such works rely upon building tension to a level where you are fully immersed in the moment. Alfred Hitchcock famously remarked, "Logic is dull." He meant this in the sense that effective melodrama goes for the gut, not the brain's logic center.

Or is it the heart? Or the gonads? Joshua Fields is pretty much the poster child for the well-scrubbed All American lad. He's considerate, altruistic, clean-cut, attractive, smart, and successful. That's not to say he doesn't have his crosses to bear. He was raised by a doting father and went into pop's real far-flung estate and development business right out of college. Joshua is making lots of money, but he's never really stretched his own wings. His job is dull, but he soldiers on because he doesn't want to disappoint his father. This takes its toll, as Joshua is a nervous flyer who needs Xanax and airport booze to get onto an airplane. He also has a longtime girlfriend, but the fire of that relationship is (at best) on smolder.

One evening he's in Atlanta waiting to change planes–the titular layover–when he meets Morgan Reynolds, an attractive young woman in her twenties. The two have a drink  and part ways, but not before Morgan surprises Joshua with a body-grinding kiss that practically makes him jump out of his khakis. On impulse, Joshua decides not to meet his dad in Florida and instead finagles his way onto a flight to Nashville, which is where Morgan said she was bound. Yet when he surprises her on the airplane, the same woman claims she is not Morgan Reynolds, rings the flight attendant, and asks her to make Joshua stop harassing her.  

Bummer! But when Joshua looks up her profile on Facebook–hey it's the 21st century!–there she is, along with various postings that say she's missing. Joshua tries to explain this to airport police in Nashville, who basically say she's an adult and has the right to go missing if she wishes. A rational person would move on, right? Well, that wouldn't make for much of a novel, would it? Instead, Joshua decides to investigate on his own.

Meanwhile, in (fictional) Laurel Falls, Kentucky, Detective Kimberly Givens is under pressure to locate a missing local businessman, Giles Caldwell. The mayor is up for reelection, Giles' aggressive brother Simon is raising a stink, and the mayor has pretty much ordered Givens–who was already passed over for promotion once before–to work around the clock to find Giles. That's hard to do if you're divorced and have a (barely) teenaged daughter.

The two stories will, of course, intersect. At each step of the way Joshua is warned to go back home and leave the investigation to professionals. Instead, he continues to open doors he shouldn't, even when each new one brings him more grief and places him in greater danger.

Objectively speaking, Layover is pulp fiction that frequently demands that readers suspend disbelief. Who knows? The news is filled with tales of those who have done more illogical things than Joshua, so maybe there's more verisimilitude to Bell's novel than we'd like to admit. I can say, though, that Joshua wiggles out of a few legal situations from which he'd be unlikely to walk away in real life. This is a 416-page book that feels like it's barely half that long. In otherwise, this is your proverbial page-turner. It releases in July, and I can imagine it will be a popular beach read.

David Bell is an English professor at Western Kentucky University with eight previous novels to his credit. Layover is no Woman in White. It's not even Gone Girl. But let's give Bell credit for writing a novel with great mass appeal. Sometimes all a reader wants is good juicy thriller.

Rob Weir  

Note: I received an advance copy of this book from Berkeley and NetGalley to review. I note, however, that it seems to be available on Kindle.


Revisiting A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)
By John Kennedy Toole
Grove Press, 405 pages.

From time to time I like to re-read favored books from my youth to see how well they hold up. Recently I decided to give A Confederacy of Dunces another whirl. After all, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. Here’s some irony to consider. The book was written in 1963, could not find a publisher, and its author John Kennedy Toole, committed suicide in 1969, allegedly feeling misunderstood and rejected. The book’s posthumous award notwithstanding, A Confederacy of Dunces probably would not find a publisher today, as it is one of the most politically incorrect novels of the past hundred years.

The book takes its title from a Jonathan Swift epigram: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” The open question is whether Toole’s protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly is that genius, or whether we are supposed to believe that Toole is the genius and Ignatius is among the dunces. He is certainly one of the more unique main characters you’ll ever encounter.

If you crossed a street bum with Oliver Hardy, Don Quixote, Falstaff, and Boethius, you’d still be a few weirdnesses short of Ignatius. He fancies himself an erudite man on all subjects and has contempt for the masses, whom he sees as destroyers of good taste, morality, and ancient wisdom. He is also a compulsive eater who is grossly obese and whose pyloric valve opens and closes when he is annoyed, which is pretty much all the time. I won’t make you run to your medical dictionary; a malfunctioning pyloric valve means Ignatius belches like a junkyard muffler and farts like a church bean supper. Food nests in his unkempt mustache, crumbs hang from his clothing, and he seldom ventures out without stuffing himself into a parka, donning a green hunting cap with the flaps pulled down, and a heavy scarf wrapped around his neck. Did I mention that the novel is set in New Orleans?

Ignatius has fewer social graces than a rutting hog, but he does have a big vocabulary and such an unusual way of expressing himself that others often assume he’s well educated. Not that it would take much; A Confederacy of Dunces isn’t populated by the brightest bulbs in the socket. Ignatius lives with his widowed mother, Irene, who still hopes her “boy”–he’s 30–will fulfill his potential. She also has a small drinking problem, which might explain why she thinks Ignatius has potential. He is, to put it mildly, vocationally challenged, as we see in hilarious stints as an office manager at a pants factory and an inventory control and motivationally challenged hotdog vendor.

Toole’s novel is a hoot that’s comedic in ways inspired by slapstick, farce, and bawdy medieval tales. But let’s cut to why this book would disturb those of delicate sensibilities. Among the other characters are a jive-talking black man, Burma Jones, who is street smart but not any other kind, and whose speech Toole writes in exaggerated dialect. There is also Ignatius’ pen pal and sparring partner, Myrna Minkoff, a Jewish beatnik and sexual libertine whom he met in his brief time at LSU and whom he berates as a “whore;” a pair of swishy gay men and several aggressive lesbians; Lana Lee, who purveys porn from her sleazy bar; Darlene, a would-be exotic dancer trying to teach her cockatoo to rip her dress off; Trixie, the dementia-suffering “project” of a factory owner’s wife; the widower Claude who rants about the “communiss;” and patrolman Mancuso, whose captain punishes him by making him wear ridiculous getups and look for perps in places such as bus station bathrooms.

So how did A Confederacy of Dunces hold up for me? I found it even funnier now than when I first read it sometime around 1982. It is safe to say that there simply aren’t many novels that can rival it for surrealism and absurdity. However, I’d advise anyone thinking of teaching it not to touch it with a ten-foot pole. Not unless you want to face a pitchfork brigade made up of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, fat rights activists, LGBTQ warriors, and maybe even sex workers and weenie stand promoters! I would argue–though I would get nowhere–that it’s a great book for the Age of Trump in that Ignatius’ world contains more phonies and bloviatrs than geniuses. The safer route, though, would be to buy a used copy, cover it with a cut-up shopping bag, and howl in the privacy of your own home.

Rob Weir