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The International Pastime

Alum's complicated love for baseball leads to a first book

Josh OstergaardWhen the New York Times Book Review’s thoughtful piece on his book debut described him as “the young author,” 37-year-old alumnus Josh Ostergaard (MFA 2011) wasn’t about to complain. Just the fact that the august Manhattan newspaper would cover his baseball essay, The Devil’s Snake Curve, was thrilling. Especially given that it’s a book in which Ostergaard denounces the wealthy, self-confident, and mighty New York Yankees to further, as the reviewer recognized, a larger critique of American hegemony across the globe. The “young” descriptor probably was used to distinguish him from previous baseball writers such as George Will, Ostergaard points out: “Even though I love the game, I’m less reverent.” In a previous life, before he enrolled in the Creative Writing Program’s MFA program, Ostergaard was an anthropologist—he had a job conducting research at Chicago’s Field Museum. He threw it over to find more time to write, and his three supported years at the U, he notes, “enabled me to push forward with several writing projects, not just The Devil’s Snake Curve” (published by local press Coffee House). What does all this have to do with BBQ and handlebar mustaches? Read on.

1. You've been doing some unique book readings since the publication--including a BBQ event at Grumpy’s Northeast involving a Frank White ribs recipe. What's the story?

The writer Brad Zellar had a baseball book sale last year, and at the sale I found a 1976 Royals team cookbook. I’ve always loved cooking, and I thought it would be fun to try to combine baseball, food, and literature, since The Devil’s Snake Curve uses the Kansas City Royals as a subject. The Minnesota State Arts Board gave me a grant to host public and private dinners this year, with all the food coming from the Royals Recipes book. It’s been great fun. As part of the grant I set up a website where I’m gradually posting stories about each of the dinners.

Cover of Devil's Snake CurveWe held the BBQ rib dinner at Grumpy’s on the day of the baseball All-Star game. There’s a group of fellas who meet up there (me included) on the occasional Friday to watch and talk baseball—the group is the Minneapolis Association of Base Ball Enthusiasts. Grumpy’s seemed like the ideal place to hold a rib dinner. It’s true that the 10 slabs of ribs we made were inspired by Frank White, the great second basemen from those ‘70s and ‘80s Royals teams. But his recipe called for using a bottle of Kraft barbecue sauce. That was unthinkable! I was inspired to avoid his approach to making ribs. So I scoured the recipe book and found ingredients listed by Dave Nelson, an infielder from Oklahoma (a marginally legitimate BBQ state) who’d contributed a recipe for sauce, and from John and Bonnie Helm, two fans from Kansas City. I studied their approaches and created three different barbecue rib rubs. It was my first time making ribs, so I was terribly nervous, but they were excellent! A great group of people showed up—I think we fed 30 or 40 people that night.

The underlying idea is that by taking literature into off-beat spaces, like Grumpy’s, we’re enabling the public to “consume” literature and creativity in new ways.

2. Hair hair hair. One reviewer argued that you were obsessed with it. I loved how your tale of baseball's obsession with controlling it reaches an apotheosis with steroidal hirsuteness. When did you realize hair was going to be an important thread in your book?

George Steinbrenner (the late owner of the Yankees) was famous for decades for his dislike of long hair and beards, so it kept appearing in newspaper articles as I did my research. As I looked back further in time, I noticed that baseball columnists had paid attention to it for at least a hundred years. Another thing I noticed is that even when not writing about facial hair, baseball writers—especially on the daily beat—often resorted to likening players to animals in one way or another. For reasons I find mysterious and incomprehensible, humans don’t like to admit their membership in the animal kingdom. Social control and domestication are threads in the book, and hair was an interesting tool I used to dig into these larger themes.

3. What has been the most surprising response to the book?

I’m continually surprised and intrigued when people tell me their favorite passages in the book. It’s made up of a couple hundred short segments, so it’s easy for people to isolate vignettes that they really liked. Toward the end of the book there’s a short segment (“But Really I’m Just as Susceptible as Anyone Else”) about the time I met Bob Feller, an old fastball pitcher for the Cleveland Indians. People seem to really respond to that, and I think it’s because of where I placed it in the book. It’s after a lot of political and cultural critique, and I deliberately used it as a way to complicate the overall tone and temper my own stance as the narrator: Despite it all, I’m still capable of being in awe of a great ballplayer.

4. So, yes, a couple hundred short segments, grouped within five parts, and building toward a knockout finish where one after another section thrillingly unites and amplifies the book’s themes. Can you describe the process of organizing the book's fragments?

The process of writing and organizing the book was similar to organizing anthropological field notes. I drafted countless small sections and then looked to see what themes were emerging: politics, religion, domestication, capitalism, war, etc. All the while I was continuing my research by consuming old newspapers, books, television commercials, movies, etc. Once I had a rational understanding of my unique angle of vision, whenever I encountered new information I knew immediately whether it had potential for the book. After I had a full draft, I physically cut it into pieces, placed them on my kitchen table, and experimented with various kinds of organization by moving them around. [Professor] Trish Hampl suggested I do it again, and roughly a year later I did. Once I had a basic structure that worked, I focused on finessing the sections so they would speak to each other and propel the reader forward.

5. The last piece, where you describe yourself finishing up the manuscript for delivery to your publisher, appears to strike a more conciliatory note---what inspired that addition?

In the short epilogue I describe a dream I had, and you’re right, the tone is different from the book as a whole. I included it because it was literally true, and it surprised me. The weekend I was finishing the book for Coffee House, I had a joyful dream about playing for the Royals. I was startled by the dream, and it opened my perspective a little bit—it dissolved some of my cynicism about a team I thought I’d come to hate.

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