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play it again

30 December 2006

Jim Bresnahan's Play It Again is a collection of brief essays in question-and-answer form devoted to the great what-ifs of baseball history. Bresnahan assembles a panel of experts – sportswriters, SABR members, and former ballplayers – and asks them to produce the saddest of all sad words of tongue or pen. What might have been, indeed, had Grady Little not stood transfixed and watched Pedro Martinez squander a three-run lead in Game Seven of the 2003 ALCS?

Well, I guess they might have been celebrating the end of the Curse in Boston a year earlier than they actually did. That's the problem with all the "what if the game had turned out differently" questions in Play It Again, and there are many of them. If Mickey Owen had held strike three, or Kubek had fielded Virdon's grounder, those games would have turned out the other way (and in the latter case, so would the 1960 World Series). One's reaction to these miniature alternative histories is pretty much "so what": somebody else would have won; tell us something we don't know.

More meaty, of course, are Bresnahan's big-picture alternatives. What if the Player's League, or the Federal League, or the Continental League had become going concerns? What if baseball had integrated earlier, or World War II not taken the hearts out of several great careers? What if the 1903 World Series was never played, or the 1904 Series was?

The panelists' answers to many of these larger-scale questions are so judicious and balanced that much of the fun is drained out of reading the answers. If the 1903 Series hadn't have come off, the leagues would have made peace soon thereafter anyway. Expansion was inevitable by the mid-20th-century (if the Dodgers and Giants had never left for California, the first expansion teams would have surfaced there). Earlier integration would have rewritten the record book and punched some Cooperstown tickets sooner. And, in one of the quirkier what-ifs in Play It Again, the Yankees would have dominated the early-1960s American League even if Kansas City hadn't traded them a rosterful of useful players.

The best piece in Bresnahan's collection is a six-page cross between short story and speculative history, written by Jeff Katz. Katz imagines a Sandy Koufax, patched up good as new by 21st-century surgical techniques. Alter-Sandy pitches on well into the 1970s, and ends up altering not only his own destiny but that of several of the other great what-ifs of the game. Only in Katz's prose do any of the distinguished panelists have much fun with what should have been a much more entertaining task: to imagine futures that stray from reality but not plausibility. It's harder than it looks, but Katz pulls it off with brio.

Bresnahan, Jim, ed. Play It Again: Baseball experts on what might have been. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006.