What Can We Steal From Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out?

Title of Work and its Form: Take Me Out, play
Author: Richard Greenberg
Date of Work: 2003
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The play is performed across the world and the script is available from Dramatists Play Service and in trade paperback.  The prestigious Public Theater shepherded the play through its American debut, first Off-Broadway and then On.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Scope

Mr. Greenberg’s Tony-winning play is based upon a fascinating hypothetical: “What would happen if the best-loved player and the captain of the most popular baseball team came out of the closet?”  Well, some of Darren Lemming’s teammates are not too pleased to be so close to a homosexual.  (Now that they know he is one, that is.)  Shane Mungitt, an outspoken closer, ends act one with some statements that are politically incorrect.  So the Empires are not having a good season.  Not only must the team do their best to win games, they must contend with being at the center of a huge news story and the new pitcher from Japan accidentally kills Darren’s close ballplayer friend with a pitch.  As the play concludes, Darren and his teammates have learned about themselves and about life.

Isn’t it fun to get a rise out of people by telling them shocking news?  Think of the joy a hippie would have felt upon telling his stodgy, square uncle about Watergate.  It’s titillating to consider the “gay angle” of the play on its own, but Mr. Greenberg has put far more drama into his play.  The shock value of a coming out is powerful, but fleeting.  Instead, it’s clear that Mr. Greenberg has much bigger ambitions for the play.  Darren is not a “stereotypical” homosexual (not that there really is one).  He’s a human being.  He loves being a ballplayer, but there’s much more to the character; just as there is more to a person than just being gay or straight.  Mr. Greenberg treats the complicated issues in a complicated manner.  This is a variation on the sage writing advice: show, don’t tell.  Instead of TELLING you that Darren is a complete human being and TELLING you that the Empires’ season was complicated, he SHOWS you these things by trying to capture life in all of its messy glory.

Did you know?

  • A few former Major League Baseball players have publicly disclosed their homosexuality, but Glenn Burke was the only one whose sexuality was known to his teammates.  (This lifelong Tiger fan can’t help but send a shoutout to Billy Bean, former Tiger outfielder and current businessman/motivational speaker.  Bean came out in 1999, serving as a role model to other gay individuals.  This act also helped some straight sports fans understand that it’s not a big deal to have a gay player on the team you love.)
  • John Rocker, Atlanta Braves relief pitcher, made some offensive comments to Sports Illustrated in 1999.  Rocker apologized (many times), but the ensuing public backlash derailed Rocker’s career.
  • Carl Mays, then a star pitcher for the Yankees, was an aggressive hurler with a deceptive submarine movement.  During a 1920 game against the Cleveland Indians, Mays hit Chapman in the head with a pitch, fracturing his skull.  Chapman died in a few hours.

Guess what?  Mr. Greenberg stole all of these ideas and put them into his play.  Each of these real-life cases generated a lot of public controversy; by fictionalizing them, Mr. Greenberg is attracting attention for his play while empowering himself to make his own comments.  Take Me Out is very much Mr. Greenberg’s own composition, but he picked and chose real-life events to use in his play, just as a shopper selects produce in a market.

What Should We Steal?

  • Avoid dealing with big issues in an exaggerated, maudlin fashion.  Is it interesting to consider what the reaction would be if a big-time current ballplayer came out of the closet?  Sure.  Mr. Greenberg has bigger ideas.  Instead of focusing on one part of Darren’s life, he deals with a number of big issues.  Racism, the guilt we can feel after accidents, the pain of unrequited feelings, the strength of friendship…they’re all in the play. A person may buy a ticket because of an intriguing premise, but you’ll earn an audience if you care more about the aftermath of the premise.
  • Appropriate and fictionalize real events.  Think of the last time that your jaw dropped at a news story.  You obviously cared about what happened; why not work the story into your fiction.  Best of all, you can take the elements of the story that you like best and smooth out whatever parts you like least.

What Can We Steal From Sparky Anderson and Dan Ewald’s “Sparky!”?

Title of Work and its Form: Sparky!, autobiography
Author: Sparky Anderson with Dan Ewald
Date of Work: 1990
Where the Work Can Be Found: I believe the book is out of print; you can find it at many of the fine secondhand bookstores around you or on the Internet.  Mr. Ewald has written a few books about Mr. Anderson; Sparky and Me: My Friendship with Sparky Anderson and the Lessons He Shared About Baseball and Life was released in 2012.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Voice

As a lifelong Detroit Tiger fan, I grew up with Sparky Anderson and Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and Jack Morris and all of those guys.  They were good—very good—in 1984 and broke my heart in 1987.  (I don’t want to talk about what the team was like between 1995 and 2003.)  Sparky Anderson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000, fitting recognition for his work as a major-league manager.  Mr. Anderson reached the majors as a player, but knew that he wasn’t exactly good enough to make a life that way.  He began managing the Reds in 1970, winning four pennants and 2 championships with the Big Red Machine.  In 1979, he was removed as manager of the Cincinnati club and went to the American League’s Tigers.  The 1984 Tigers started the season 35-5 and rolled to a Series victory over the Padres.  (Sorry, Tony Gwynn.)  Mr. Anderson ended his managerial career in 1995 at the age of 61.  He died in 2010, having reached the top of his chosen profession.

Sparky reveals Mr. Anderson to be a very thoughtful man.  The book begins with a confession: “My name is Sparky Anderson.  And I’m a winaholic.”  Mr. Anderson briefly describes his life and how it was influenced by his desire to win and then goes into detail about an interesting incident.  The 1989 Tigers were 13-24 and Mr. Anderson had something of a panic attack/identity crisis.  He went home to Thousand Oaks, California to take stock of his life.  (Don’t we all have occasional dark winters of the soul?)  After working out his problems, he returned to the Tigers, refreshed.  What should writers steal from the first chunk of Sparky!?  Mr. Anderson delves relatively deeply into issues of identity.  He describes the difference between George and Sparky.  Sparky was the fiery man who would yell at umpires and brood over losses; George was married to Carol and loved visiting children in the hospital.

The most striking part of the book (to my mind) is the voice that Mr. Anderson and Mr. Ewald employ.  Mr. Anderson was certainly a very smart man, but he wasn’t the most formally educated man on the planet.  You can flip to any page of Sparky! and find sentences with the same kind of diction.  The sentences are short.  The paragraphs add up to big ideas that could have been condensed into one sentence.  Most of them begin with nouns or names.  Here’s a representative section:

How does a person attain success?

Longevity.  Because success is for the moment…and only that moment.  So it must be aqcquired moment after moment after moment.  That’s the difference and that’s where a lot of people make a mistake.  In baseball, for instance, some guys think if they win one year that they’re automatically successful.

They’re wrong.  That’s not success.  All that happened was the blind squirrel happened to find an acorn.  They could never repeat because they don’t have it in them.  They were for the moment.  But only for one single moment.

Mr. Ewald didn’t coax Mr. Anderson into longer, more complicated sentences.  And that’s fine.  Why?  When I picked up the book, I wanted to feel as though I were spending an hour with George “Sparky” Anderson, a man with whom I’ve long felt a connection!  Mr. Ewald traded the beauty of complicated diction for the simple poetry of authenticity.

I can’t help but interject with respect to a cause that means a great deal to me.  Alan Trammell belongs in the Hall of Fame.  Plain and simple.  He was easily better than Ozzie Smith and Barry Larkin.  Sparky agreed with me!

I’ve seen some great shortstops—Dave Concepcion, Ozzie Smith, and Cal Ripken, just to name a few.

I’d take Trammell because of everything he can do.  Smith is a wizard in the field and can do more with the glove.  Ripken is stronger and hits with more power.  But Trammell does everything.

Trammell hits 15 homers a year, knocks in 90 runs a year and always plays around the .300 mark.  In the field he never botches a routine play.  People take that for granted, but that’s the sign of a great shortstop.  If he gets a ground ball, it’s an out.

I’ve seen Trammell carry us in a pennant race after we lost a couple of key people like Lance Parrish and Kirk Gibson.  That takes a special kind of player.

What Should We Steal?

  • Confront the identity issues that are inherently wrapped up in your story.  If you’re writing non-fiction, you’re writing about identity in some way.  At the very least, you’re trying to take a person and paste them onto sheets of paper.  What are the dilemmas that confront your characters, even if that character is you?
  • Employ simple diction when appropriate.  Mr. Anderson was brilliant, but he was no Gustave Flaubert.  If Mr. Ewald had made Mr. Anderson sound like Shakespeare, the reader would not have such a visceral reaction to the book.

1996 Upper Deck #480 - Sparky Anderson CL - Courtesy of COMC.comSparky Anderson (1934 - 2010)


What Can We Steal From Denny McLain and Eli Zaret’s I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect?

Title of Work and its Form: I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect, autobiography
Author: Denny McLain with Eli Zaret
Date of Work: 2007
Where the Work Can Be Found: The book can be purchased at any independent bookstore or on Powell’s.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Structure

As a lifelong fan of the Detroit Tigers, I was excited to meet Denny McLain. The 1968 Tigers won it all, in large part because of McLain’s 31-6 record. I bought I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect before a Syracuse Chiefs game and had the man himself sign it for me. I knew that Denny McLain had a far rockier life than many baseball heroes. He won the Cy Young Award twice, but was suspended by Major League Baseball in 1970 because of his involvement with bookmaking. He had stretches with other teams, but was out of the game by the time he was thirty. In the 1980s, he went to jail for crimes including drug trafficking. Ten years later, he went to jail because he was convicted of raiding the pension fund of a company he bought. (He denies that crime.)

See why his book is called I Told You I Wasn’t Perfect? McLain tells his life story in the book and, it seems to me, is fairly honest. He owns up to a lot of mistakes and spends a lot of page space describing what his prison life was like. (He signed mug shots for the guards.) McLain is an interesting figure in baseball. A lot of folks are upset at him for wasting the tremendous talent he had. The Peet workers who lost their pensions are certainly angry with him. McLain and Zaret seem to have understood that many of their readers may not approach the book with a fair or sympathetic view.

That may have been why the book begins with the very sad death of McLain’s daughter, Kristin. Chapter 1 opens with McLain receiving that late-night visit every parent dreads. A police officer knocks on the door and tells him that he needs to get to the hospital as soon as possible. Over the next couple pages, McLain and his wife Sharon learn that Kristin was in a terrible car accident. A tractor trailer was backing into a space without its lights on when Kristen drove into it. Another car hit Kristin’s…that was the worst blow. The fuel in Kristin’s car ignited, sending flames “fifty feet into the air.” She was trapped inside as witnesses “screamed at Kristin to wake up.” Kristin “was still alive as they strapped her to a gurney and rolled it toward the helicopter that was waiting to take her away. But Kristin went into cardiac arrest. The gurney stopped. After two collisions and a fire, a tech announced that it was over.”

Even though the reader may not want to forgive McLain for his transgressions, boy oh boy, does he get your attention with the description of this horrible time in his life. He and his wife Sharon (who is pretty much a saint) endured a nightmare and we get to learn about it vicariously.

What Should We Steal?:

  • Start with the big personal drama. McLain could have described winning that thirty-first game in 1968 or what it felt like when his team beat the Cardinals in Game Seven. Instead, he involves you in his personal story. It can be hard to remember at times, but there is more to an athlete’s life than the sport they conquered.
  • Address the concerns people have about you (or your characters) in an honest manner. The book would have seemed fake fake fake if McLain had glossed over his brushes with the criminal justice system. Instead, he seems to have some measure of self-understanding as to what people feel about him.
  • Confront the unpleasant scenes in life head-on. Whether or not you are writing your own story, you are likely going to end up writing scenes about unpleasant experiences. (After all, why would you write only about happy times?) I am guessing that McLain doesn’t like thinking about the nasty details related to his daughter’s death. He and Zaret understood, however, that it was their sacred duty as writers to make the experiences as visceral as possible for the reader.