What I’m Reading: 11 in ’11 by Benjamin Hochman

Early in Benjamin Hochman’s 11 in ’11: A Hometown Hero, La Russa’s Last Ride in Red, and a Miracle World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals, a thought struck me that I couldn’t get out of my mind.

The marketing blurb for the book had ended with the line that, “This is the definitive account of a championship run no Cardinals fan will ever forget,” and while I agreed that no Cardinals fan could forget the 2011 world championship, this wasn’t shaping up to be a definitive account of that season. Instead, it felt as though someone else had written the definitive account, and had tasked Hochman with writing a book using all the extraneous information that had been cut from the final draft. As a result, much of the book felt strangely like a sequel to a better book on the same topic.

Part of this may be due to the people Hochman relies upon to tell his story. While he clearly interviewed Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday, Chris Carpenter, Skip Schumaker, Allen Craig, and Nick Punto, I can’t say for sure whether he interviewed Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, or Tony La Russa (though he quotes extensively from One Last Stand) for this book. Moreover, Hochman packs the book with stories from fans who either watched the games from the stands or on TV. While some of the stories are interesting, they’re more the sort of tales you would enjoy hearing from someone in a bar outside the stadium or on Facebook than the sort of thing you’d want to pay $15 to read (or, heaven forbid, $28 for the hardcover edition).

At the time of publication, it has only been 10 years since the 2011 World Series, so most of us reading this book have similar memories. The names and situations were different, but Game 6 was a shared experience of surprise and relief and elation – that’s what makes it such a special moment for Cardinals fans. These stories may be more interesting in another 15 or 20 years when there will be generations of Cardinals fans who won’t know what it was like to feel the ups and downs of Game 6, but to me at least, it doesn’t feel like we’ve reached that moment yet. Others’ mileage may vary, but since I lived the emotional rollercoaster that 2011 provided, I didn’t particularly need to read about it through the eyes of other fans. Hochman obviously wanted to capture the feeling of the fan experience, whereas I came to the book far more interested in the players’ experience.

As if to immediately declare that the book will feature outside-the-box perspectives, Hochman opens with quotes from Police Sergeant Jeff Swatek, who arrested David Freese for driving under the influence in 2009. It sounds like Swatek’s lone encounter with Freese was a relatively run-of-the-mill traffic stop, and he really doesn’t have anything interesting to say about Freese’s arrest or his World Series heroics two years later. It was a weird way to start the book, bordering on disrespectful, but it’s hard to believe there was any ill intent given the fact that the rest of the book is largely a love letter to St. Louis, from its restaurants to its sports fandom.

There also were some moments early in the book where I hoped for more in-depth reporting and didn’t get it. In one instance, La Russa recalls someone telling Chris Carpenter, “I’m sorry, Mr. Carpenter, I won’t do it again,” and I immediately wanted to know more about this. Was it a teammate? If so, who? What wasn’t he going to do again? To me, this was an opportunity to illustrate Carpenter’s leadership and role in the clubhouse rather than simply telling us about it, but instead the story is left frustratingly incomplete.

Later, Hochman includes a quote from John Mozeliak about how he learned from La Russa that he planned to retire at the end of the season. Mozeliak makes an interesting remark about putting together a list of 28-30 potential candidates, but I was hoping for more details here. What did Mozeliak think the meeting was going to be about? Did he have any inkling that La Russa was nearing the end of his Cardinals tenure? What was his immediate reaction? What did La Russa say? I wanted Hochman to bring me into the room when Mozeliak learned La Russa was retiring, but instead he skimmed past the moment, and I don’t think he mentioned La Russa telling the team at all. Admittedly, some of this was covered in La Russa’s autobiography, One Last Strike, but Hochman missed the opportunity to get some different perspectives on these historic moments.

Anyone who reads the book will need to wade through a ton of fan perspectives on the World Series, as every chapter ends with multiple pages dedicated to viewing the World Series through the eyes of a different Cardinals fan who usually had a major life event taking place at the time. Your mileage with these stories may vary, but I found these portions of the book extremely skippable.

However, Hochman really picks things up in the second half when he chronicles the pennant race and playoffs. This is where Hochman really has some interesting details that I hadn’t heard before. Among them:

  • Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who knew Punto from his days with the Phillies, told him prior to their division series that the Phillies’ best-case scenario was to face the Cardinals in the playoffs.
  • Roy Oswalt’s response after the rally squirrel ran past home plate and umpire Angel Hernandez called the pitch a ball.
  • Mozeliak writing down notes during Game 6 of the World Series about what he wanted to tell the team when it learned about his retirement, notes that he wouldn’t need that night due to the Cardinals’ victory.
  • Berkman’s sense of tunnel vision during Game 6, including what he called “the one at-bat of my life where I feel like I had just total concentration.”

While I’ve already been critical of the frequent fan perspectives in the book, I’ll admit that the story of the restauranteurs who posed as caterers so they could get a behind-the-scenes look at the Cardinals’ clubhouse celebration following Game 7 was pretty cool.

By the end, I’d found that my opinion of 11 in ’11 had somewhat softened. While I hope that someone writes a book about the 2011 Cardinals that dives deeper into the roster and the team’s path to the playoffs, the postseason coverage offered a lot of great anecdotes. I just wish I had to wade through less filler to get there.  

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