Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Book Review: Benchwarmer by Josh Wilker By R. Lincoln Harris

It’s Father’s Day as I sit down on a windswept evening in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and there’s no better day to try putting Josh Wilker’s new book into perspective.

It is thanks to Josh Wilker that I know about Zisk. Three years ago, in early 2013, I worked with Josh at an office in the western suburbs of Chicago. He doesn’t name the place in his book—although he does mention it a number of times—and there’s no reason for me to do that, either. Suffice it to say that it could be anywhere at all, and that’s the appeal of it, on some level. While athletes travel around, playing children’s games in front of thousands of cheering (not to mention paying) fans, those of us who follow their exploits generally have to put up with drudgery that we can tolerate, at best. Josh Wilker is just like you and me in that regard.

I was aware of Josh’s blog,, and the book he had recently written by the same name, and was duly impressed by both. But even more than being impressed, I was heartened by his love for baseball cards. The little cardboard rectangles that had once served as my entryway into the game mattered to Josh, too. And that meant a lot to me.

My own baseball cards had been lost in the mists of adolescence, but Josh had held onto his. What’s more, he had examined them, discovered deeper meanings in them, and found a way to put them into words for others to contemplate, as well. It was nothing less than miraculous that such writings had come to exist in the first place, and somehow made their way into my consciousness.

Thanks to eBay and thrift shops and estate sales, I started rebuilding a baseball card collection of my own around the turn of this century. Sorting through all the newer cards and players and sets that I didn’t care about was a necessary step for acquiring a 1978 Topps Dave Kingman, wearing an airbrushed Cubs cap against an avocado green backdrop. Or a 1981 “Pete Rose in Action” card, before all of the unpleasantries that forced him out of the game. Or anything at all from the weird and wonderful construction-paper set that Topps unleashed back in 1975.

I stopped by Josh Wilker’s desk one day (or his cube, if you prefer that imagery), and Josh handed me a copy of Fan Interference, the book that the editors of Zisk had compiled and published. Josh had written the introduction to the book, and received a couple of free copies for his efforts. He told me that he thought I would appreciate the angle that Zisk takes on the national pastime, and I am always looking for a good baseball read. I found Zisk to be an antidote for my increasing disaffection with a game that had been overrun by the Bill James school of invented statistics. Here was the game that I first fell in love with, back in the days when Baseball Digest was delivered to my house once a month.

In an attempt to repay Josh for his kindness, and to nuture an all-too-rare personal relationship rooted in baseball, I shared my burgeoning baseball card collection with Josh on several occasions in the office. He was looking for things he hadn’t seen before, and unless a card had a connection with the Chicago Cubs in some form or fashion, I was happy to let them go.

Giving baseball cards to Josh Wilker seems a bit like giving pencils and brushes to Picasso. Josh is a virtuoso with words, and providing him with the materials to help make his artistry happen was a privilege for me. A 1980 Win Remmerswell Topps card became fodder for a piece that he wrote online, and another card—a 1989 Bill Bene Topps heralding him as a “#1 Draft Pick”—formed another online piece, which made its way into the book.

Josh recently became a father for the first time, at an age where the men and women who got on with the childbearing process in their 20s are now becoming empty nesters. I started my own fatherhood journeys in my early 30s, so Josh’s experiences with diapers and crying and baby’s first steps are close enough that I still recall them, but far enough in the past that I don’t exactly miss them anymore. But however long ago you went through this process—or if you haven’t yet done so, but still wonder what all the fuss is about—Josh’s take on fatherhood will bring nods of recognition or laughs, and possibly both at the same time.

At the end of the book—which skips over the thrill of victory in favor of exploring the agony of defeat (and I’m being quite literal about that)—there’s a rather incongruous moment. After presenting hundreds of pages filled with losing and despair and all manner of self-flagellation, there’s a picture of Josh on the inside back dust jacket, and he’s actually smiling.

It’s very telling that after all the disappointments Josh has experienced, he still presents a smile to the world. And it leads me to believe that more of his work will be on the way in the future, as his two sons continue to grow up. I am looking forward to reading whatever comes next.

No comments: