Monday, July 31, 2006

Hungry Again Only An Hour Later – A Review of “Feeding The Monster” by Seth Mnookin

It was with much anticipation that I picked up my copy of “Feeding The Monster – How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top” by Seth Mnookin. After all, this award-winning author had been given unlimited access to behind-the-scenes goings-on at Fenway Park during the entire 2005 season. Early excerpts from the book held the promise of several hundred pages of juicy revelations of what really goes on behind the Wizard’s Curtain on Yawkey Way.

So, I made my way expectantly through over 400 pages of Red Sox related material, and came to the last page feeling as if I should cue up on my stereo an early rendition of Peggy Lee’s classic hit, “Is That All There Is?” And I was not sure why I was so disappointed. There were tidbits that were fun to read. Mnookin makes it clear in this book that he does not have much respect for Dan Shaughnessy and the whole “Curse of the Bambino” boondoggle. Nor does he harbor much admiration for Dr. Charles Steinberg, whose over-eager passion for ensuring the Red Sox ubiquitous and ever-expanding press coverage ultimately pushed Theo over the edge and played a large part in the contretemps that led to Theo’s decision to resign.

Listening to Bill Simmons of ESPN last Friday helped me to begin to put a finger on my disappointment with Mnookin and his writing. Simmons made the observation, while talking on WEEI, that in reading this book, he could not figure out what audience Mnookin was trying to address. If he were targeting diehard Sox fans, then why spend over 100 pages rehashing well-known Red Sox history and the "Curse of the Bambino" nonsense? Add, why feel the need to explain in a footnote what “OPS” is all about!

As I thought about my disappointment with this book, I came up with a gastronomic metaphor. Assume that I had learned that a great chef, with unlimited access to live lobsters of enormous size and to the finest ingredients in the world, after a year of working on a secret recipe, was going to be selling lobster rolls to the public. I would line up to have a chance to sink my teeth into one of those lobster rolls – anticipating the subtle spices, huge chunks of fresh lobster meat from the tail and claws – served on a freshly baked bun with some unexpected special twist thrown in. Then, imagine my disappointment when the lobster roll is actually served on a stale hotdog bun, and the bun is stuffed mostly with filler – limp chopped celery, gobs of Hellmann’s mayonnaise – and the meat has clearly been previously frozen and consists of small, stringy pieces from the body of the lobster. It does not taste bad, but it is a far cry from what I expected the gourmet chef to serve up. The anticipatory "licking of my chops" had been in vain!

Having laid out my sense of disappointment at the paucity of “claw meat,” let me hasten to add that the book offers some insights that make it a worthwhile read for those who love the game of baseball. Mnookin offers a fascinating peak into the tortuous behind-the-scenes process by which the John Henry group was ultimately awarded the right to purchase the Boston Red Sox from the Yawkey Trust and a bevy of limited partners.

He offers a wonderful paean to the glories of Fenway Park – worth sharing here:

“Fenway Park was, inarguably, a gorgeous monument to American baseball. It still used a manual scoreboard, and scoreboard operators could sometimes be glimpsed peeking out from behind the numbers to catch the action on the field. The very same steel beams that blocked some patrons’ views allowed the second deck to be built almost directly on top of the infield grandstand, creating an intensely intimate setting. Unlike most stadiums, Fenway didn’t have an upper deck, and first-time visitors could not help but be struck by how Fenway allowed fans to gaze out onto the Boston skyline, with the Prudential and the John Hancock buildings rising behind right-center field and the famous Citgo sign blinking over the Wall in left. The odd triangle of grass that was delineated by the end of the Red Sox bullpen and Fenway’s centerfield wall was as inexplicable a patch of outfield territory as exists in baseball, and a point of stubborn pride. The Green Monster rose majestically over the outfield grass, where it turned screaming line drive shots into harmless singles and transformed breezy pop flies into home runs. It was here that Carlton Fisk had willed his walk-off home run in the sixth game of the 1975 World Series. It was this field Babe Ruth and Ted Williams once roamed. ‘The ballpark is the star,’ Globe columnist Marty Nolan wrote in 1999, trying to explain the Red Sox’s – and Fenway’s – sway over New England. ‘A crazy-quilt violation of city planning principles, an irregular pile of architecture, a menace to marketing consultants, Fenway Park works. It works as a symbol of New England’s pride, as a repository of evergreen hopes, as a tabernacle of lost innocence.’ Baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti compared Fenway to ‘Mount Olympus, the Pyramid at Giza, the nation’s Capital, the czar’s Winter Palace, and the Louvre – except, of course, that it was better than all those inconsequential places.’ Pitching great Tom Seaver said simply, ‘Fenway is the essence of baseball.’” (Page 67)

So, read the book and enjoy it, but don’t expect Mnookin, graduate of Newton North High School and Harvard University, to be Todd English or Ming Tsai! The fare he offers up is more pedestrian and mundane, but it still contains some tasty chunks of meat - some fresh and some previously frozen!


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