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Not long ago, Doug Glanville, system engineer/New York Times columnist/former major-league outfielder, found himself talking to the Cubs legend Billy Williams. Glanville mentioned in passing that he was about to publish a new book, The Game from Where I Stand, due out in mid-May. “Who wrote it for you?” asked Williams, titular author of Billy Williams: My Sweet-Swinging Lifetime with the Cubs (written for him by Fred Mitchell, the Chicago Tribune sports-section mainstay). “No one,” responded Glanville, explaining that every word contained therein was his own—an almost unfathomable concept in the notoriously ghostwritten realm of ex-jock autobiography. (Next week’s Onion headline: “Athlete Writes Own Book!”) “I believed from the get-go that I needed to write the book myself,” Glanville says. “I had an editor, but I didn’t want someone else translating my thoughts.”
Such is the incongruent life of Doug Glanville, where everything makes sense to him (including—but not limited to—writing, the French horn, astronomy, and the musical genius of Hall & Oates), but nothing is what everyone else expects. The stereotype of the professional athlete holds that brawn has knotted his synapses and bewildered his moral compass. Yet here stands Glanville, 39, his lank, six-foot-two-inch, 180-pound frame firmly tethered to the ground: a University of Pennsylvania graduate in systems engineering, doting father and husband, and contributor to arguably the nation’s most revered media entity. “It’s now official: I have a man-crush on Doug Glanville, who has somehow managed to connect the World Series and Halloween beautifully,” confessed the respected baseball thinker Rob Neyer on ESPN.com after reading Glanville’s October 2009 Times op-ed column, “My World Series Ghost,” a sweet reminiscence about his adolescent obsession with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Even Glanville’s rooted presence in Chicago—the Bucktown neighborhood to be exact—confounds. He grew up in suburban New Jersey and played the majority of his nine-year career for his beloved Phillies, among whose fan base he is equally beloved. In two short stints with the Cubs, who selected him in the first round of the 1991 draft, Glanville is best remembered for his howitzer-launched triple in the 11th inning of the third game of the 2003 National League Championship Series against the Florida Marlins. The three-base hit scored the game’s winning run and would have made him a local god if not for the unfortunate Bartman debacle three games later. (Glanville returned to Chicago for practical reasons a few years ago—mainly to tend to a flagging real-estate venture.)
Overall, though, he was never the kind of player favored by the modern baseball connoisseur—another incongruent piece of Glanville lore. He swung too much and walked too little, resulting in too many outs and rendering ineffective his one truly transcendent baseball talent—speed. Glanville’s sole stand-out season came in 1999 with the Phillies, when he finished second in the National League in hits and stole 34 bases. He retired a few months after the Yankees cut him during spring training in 2005.
And so, his is a cerebral legacy. Glanville’s 120-page senior thesis at Penn, a study of the railways surrounding a potential new Phillies stadium (since built), resides at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. (“Why don’t you design a stadium you can hit in?” a creative Phillies fan once taunted him during a prolonged slump.) A former teammate dubbed him “cinco-lingual,” but Glanville vows that he is fluent only in English and Spanish. “I dabbled in Greek for a month or so,” he says. “I do admire people that can speak five languages, though.” And, after that 2003 postseason with the Cubs, he traveled to South Africa at the behest of the transportation systems guru Vukan Vuchic, his former professor at Penn, to assist him in untangling domestic transit lines intended for segregation rather than for ease of travel. (Glanville’s wife, Tiffany, 33, an associate at Miner, Barnhill & Galland—Barack Obama’s old law firm—possesses a similarly big brain, with degrees from Brown University and Penn. They have two children together—a nearly two-year-old son and an eight-month-old daughter.) “He is the only player I have ever heard use the phrase ‘time-space continuum,’” says the ESPN.com senior baseball writer Jayson Stark, a close observer of Glanville for more than a decade. “To describe a ten-game home stand where it poured every day, he stood at his locker and said, ‘We’re all caught in this time-space continuum.’”
Twice a week or so, Glanville descends into his basement home office to ponder his next column. (For roughly the past two years, his pieces have appeared on the Times website biweekly, though that will soon change. Glanville plans to leave the paper in late May to work for ESPN as an analyst on Baseball Tonight, a blogger at ESPN.com, and a contributor to ESPN The Magazine.) About his column, Glanville says, “I want to be the bridge from the professional athlete’s world to the boy next door. I was raised in a house on a cul-de-sac. I probably broke your window playing Wiffleball. I’m still that same guy. That’s what I want to share with people.” And because baseball has always been merely another facet of life to him, he uses it to plumb race, relationships, and psyche—occasionally all at once. “When I played, I was always inspired by the fact that my teammates of nearly all walks of life prayed together, won together, lived together, traveled together, cried together, rose above together—and we did it every single day,” he wrote in an April 2009 column. “Once you taste the power of pooling global, cultural, and economic diversity, it is almost impossible not to have a new understanding of how much people really have in common and how much further we can go together when we respect that power.”
“His pieces are so human,” says Stark. “You don’t need to be a baseball fan to relate to them or to understand them. That’s what separates Doug from other ex-players who have written about baseball. Sure, some of them have been good with words. But they mostly tell a bunch of entertaining baseball war stories. Doug goes to another place altogether.”
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Video by Esther Kang & Ezekiel Binion