Throughout the century-plus existence of professional baseball, most boys have experienced their first trip to the ballpark with their fathers. It was dad who taught them how to throw a curve or stand tall in the batter's box, dad who coached their little league teams --- dad living vicariously as a child again through his children.
Tom Stanton's moving THE FINAL SEASON is about the relationships of fathers and sons just as much, if not more, than about baseball.
The author, a journalist and Michigan native, took up the task of chronicling the last season of Tiger Stadium, attending each home game. To him the story was not just on the field, but in the stands, in observing the reactions of those around him --- particularly the "regulars," those faithful fans who had been attending the games for many years, as well as several stadium workers. The games, it seems, are only incidental to the narrative, and he devotes only a few paragraphs to them. "If I've learned anything [from all his years in journalism], it's that our lives aren't about the big stories that shape history; they're about the little tales that play themselves out in the places we treasure --- homes, schools, and ballparks --- and with the people we hold dear."
THE FINAL SEASON is also about kin. With his own father and sons, Stanton recounts baseball's past and, to a degree, its future as he ponders the meaning and importance of family, regaling the reader with tales of his own average clan that is anything but boring. "Though we rarely realize it as children, the gifts we will come to cherish the most are rarely boxed or wrapped or bought. They are the gifts of time."
According to one of Stanton's Tiger Stadium regulars, "What makes the old parks distinct are their features. If you fall asleep watching a game from Cincinnati and you wake up in the Pittsburgh or Philadelphia park, you wouldn't know. They are ashtray stadiums. Here it's like a living history museum."
Stanton is part Charles Kurault, part W. P. Kinsella, as he writes of the old stadium as if it was home, which in a way it was. "Our ballpark feels like Detroit. It carries no airs. It's blue-collar and industrial...You're greeted by cement and steel, strong, riveted girders that thrust upward and serve a purpose, holding the deck above in place. There are no architectural flourishes: no cornices, no fancy tile work, no aesthetic touches...It's plain and simple, no scent of pretentiousness. It doesn't yearn to be something it's not.
"It's only here," he writes, noting his lack of experience in other ballparks, "that I've felt the bleachers shake during a foot stomping-rally and smelt the blend of cigars and sausage and held my dad's hand as a boy and braced his arm as a man."
As the games dwindle down to a precious few, Stanton's remarks remind one of watching a beloved family member on their death bed. And, indeed, it is a deathwatch. The parallels are unmistakable: "If we live long enough, we reach the stage where our parents are no longer the first couples on the dance floor, where the weddings are for our children, not theirs, and we see their friends and the brothers and sisters disappear..."
He notes with sadness that his sons don't share the same passion for the game that he did as a child: "They don't scrape together neighborhood kids for summer-morning games or rearrange their schedules to see the Tigers on television or refrain from swimming for fear of tightening their throwing arms."
"It's not the baseball at this point," a fan tells Stanton, "it's about the stadium. Baseball's an afterthought. It's all the history that's here."
The parallel between the loss of the stadium and human mortality makes THE FINAL SEASON a bit more philosophical than your average baseball book. This distinction, both thought-provoking and bittersweet, makes for a welcome change.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (email@example.com) on June 18, 2001