Let’s get the pun out of the way first thing: This is not a damn near perfect book.
OK, now that we’ve powered through the obligatory groaner, we can talk about Joe Kelly’s new book (written with Rob Bradford), A Damn Near Perfect Game: Reclaiming America’s Pastime. The first thing about the book anyone notices, obviously, is the title. My daughter asked why I was reading a book with “the D word” on it, and I think it’s a fair question because the title is a bit vexing.
Aside from the bad joke in my lede, the title raises the question of why and from whom does the game need to be reclaimed if it is damn near perfect? The answer is laid out over the next 200-plus pages, and I found myself agreeing with most of what was laid out and scratching my head at some. Most of all, the title served as a provocation to read, and in that way, it really mirrors the somewhat surly, edgy (maybe annoying) reputation Kelly has built for himself as a major league player.
So much of the persona Kelly has built centers around one moment: when he made a pouty face at the Astros. This moment comes up repeatedly in the book. It’s the first thing he writes about in the prologue, and then it comes up in every other chapter or so. Amazon categorizes A Damn Near Perfect Game as a biography, and really there’s not a better way to categorize it, but this book is not a biography like you’ve read before. Kelly shares some of his personal experience — relating the fact that his father had addiction problems and that he liked skateboarding more than baseball for a long time as a youth baseball player — but he steers far clear of memoir territory and keeps those issues surface-level.
What A Damn Near Perfect Game goes deepest into is what Kelly sees as the best and worst parts of baseball. In this way, he holds true to the premise of the title, and he continues finding ways for me to agree with him and shake my head at what he’s writing.
A short list of things Kelly wrote that felt like a roller coaster of emotion:
- He’s pro-bat flips and celebration, writing “If you really want to respect baseball, understand that we need more of that personality”... and then later in the book, he gives actor Rob Lowe a few pages to glorify throwing at players intentionally.
- He makes great points about how minor league players need the experience of screwing up or struggling in low-stress environments and he adds that the living situation and food scarcity for MiLB players is not great…but then he writes that it “was a test” to “make me stronger” and he “ultimately became grateful,” which is an entirely privileged thing to write with no recognition of said privilege.
- He calls out the commissioner’s office and owners for their attitudes, writing “it’s hard not to feel like MLB and its clubs are viewing the players more and more like property”... but then prints a full chapter of back-and-forth with Rob Manfred — OK, this was actually really good, I just can’t handle the cognitive dissonance of thinking positively about Rob Manfred.
The biggest problem I had with A Damn Near Perfect Game, though was that Kelly repeatedly calls out the Astros for cheating, including calling them whiny four times and mentioning their lack of remorse three times in the roughly seven-page prologue, but not once in the book does he mention that his 2018 Red Sox team was also guilty of cheating.
There are certainly qualifiers to be included about what the Astros did versus what the Red Sox did, but that’s really not the issue. Kelly writes in the book “If I know something is right to say, I’m going to say it,” but then completely omits any mention of the fact that his team was also cheating. That lingered with me and colored my whole perception of the book.
Overall, I think Kelly writes some great things in the book and I found myself appreciating not only his opinions but also his willingness to share insider information. He prints a suspension letter from MLB headquarters to show how ridiculous it was, he provides first-hand experience with the PitchCom, he shares intimate details of life in the clubhouse — all awesome and worth reading. But the fact that he stakes out moral high ground and then refuses to acknowledge his (or at least his team’s) own shortcomings is a real bummer.
Still, I would still recommend the book to baseball fans. If you come into it knowing Kelly is not going to own up to anything, you can still find it really enjoyable. It’s certainly full of character (if not biographical details) from Kelly, too, including the totally on-brand, totally Tom Sawyer move of having the last chapter written by other players and famous people. That chapter is a great kiss-off, though, as it provides a nice cross-section of things to remind you why so many people also feel like baseball is just about perfect, damn near even.