Despite the fact that I am always fascinated by whatever Michael Lewis writes about, I had not planned to read Coach. In the bookstore, it looked like one of those "inspirational" books they stock at the checkout counter, next to the gift books about angels and cats.
But then I heard an interview with Lewis on NPR radio. The book was originally a magazine article in the New York Times Magazine. He summarized the story in a few minutes. A coach he had at his prep school (I didn't even catch what sport Lewis was playing) had changed his life by treating him, in a critical moment in a must-win game, as if he was the clutch player Lewis and every other kid dreams of being. Lewis rose to the occasion and the confidence he gained from the experience radiated to his academic work and beyond. But now, twenty-some years later, the parents at the private school are pressuring the headmaster to oust the coach. They say his heavy-handed ways are hurting their kids' self-esteem. Lewis ended his radio summary by revealing that publicity from the New York Times article had resulted in the coach keeping his job, although the school was now looking for a new headmaster.
What a great story. It was short and had conflict as well as a satisfying ending. But then I read the book, which is simply the article, unchanged.
In it, the coach has a temper that seems uncontrolled and frightening, even to the adult Lewis. Coach takes a second-place trophy his team won and smashes it on the locker room floor, indicating his disgust at not winning first. He refuses to drive home when the team has lost, obsessively walking miles through New Orleans at night (yikes) to punish himself for being a loser. When the team doesn't hustle enough, he makes them practice sliding headfirst on concrete-hard dirt until they are bloody and bruised.
Lewis's interviews with former students of the coach sound like Stockholm Syndrome sufferers, people who've been kidnapped and held hostage but come to sympathize with their captors. The former players speak with admiration as they describe how Coach intimidated them. Lewis tells of being on the mound in another clutch situation as Coach shouts ridicule at him from the dugout, distracting him enough so that he misses a grounder that hits him in the face, causing him to black out. But when Lewis regains consciousness, he loves Coach, just as Winston loved Big Brother.
Lewis mentions that when he was a young pitcher, the coach had him put Ben Gay on the bill of his cap, to use for spitballs when his fastball wasn't doing the trick. I'm not familiar with prep league play, but isn't throwing a spitball against the rules? The more I read, the less I admired the coach.
As usual, Lewis's writing is compelling, and once you start Coach, you won't be able to put it down. You just may not find it as inspiring as Lewis meant it to be.