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
This is Doug Glanville on steroids: “Many of [the players who use steroids] deal with a nagging inadequacy,” he writes in The Game from Where I Stand, a blend of recast Times columns and new baseballcentric ruminations filed under broad chapter headings such as “The Stresses of the Game” and “Bridging Differences in the Game.” “They believe that to cope with challenges of their profession and to hold on to what they love to do, they need something from a bottle. They may or may not realize that every time they pop that pill, they lose an opportunity—one that could have bestowed the gift of self-awareness. With that gift comes empowerment and peace, for you know what you are truly capable of when facing challenges with raw, honest vulnerability.”
Here is the irony: While Glanville steadfastly refused as a player to inflate his praying mantis–like build via chemicals, his nuanced thinking on steroids established him as a writer. “It was truly one of those inspirational moments,” he says. “I was just frustrated with the dialogue. There was so much more to it than ‘Bring me the head of ——’ or ‘Do whatever you want.’” The inspiration officially struck in December 2007, when the outcry about performance-enhancing drugs in baseball was particularly clamorous. In a single sitting, Glanville wrote his 1,807-word take on the game’s drug-induced tumult and sent it off to Jayson Stark, who forwarded it to his editors at ESPN.com, where it appeared soon thereafter—more or less the first opinion piece Glanville had ever gotten published. Almost immediately, The New York Times called; his web column debuted a few months later. “[In that ESPN.com article] he mentioned the concept of players doing steroids partly out of fear,” says Alan Schwarz, a longtime friend and a Times sports reporter who also covered Glanville at Penn for the school paper. “As soon as I saw the word ‘fear,’ I called him and said, ‘You have to explore this for us.’”
Glanville’s subsequent exploration, which continues throughout The Game from Where I Stand, has focused on player psychology. Of particular interest to him: deconstructing the paranoia, self-doubt, and isolation he believes have contributed to the choice to use steroids by players such as Alex Rodriguez and (allegedly) Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. For instance, when we first meet, Glanville offers the following about Jose Canseco, who is quite possibly more steroid than man: “I read Canseco’s book, Juiced, and I found a bunch of underlying themes. He talks at length about his relationship with his family and his father. He had a lot of things he needed to prove. At his mother’s deathbed, he was like, ‘I will be the greatest athlete ever!’ Those types of statements make people do many things.” About Rodriguez, perhaps the most infamous confessed steroid user, and Glanville’s teammate during a brief stay with the Texas Rangers in 2003, Glanville has written, “Alex’s need for approval and his search for a likable image had likely contributed to the insecurity that led him to the choice to go down the chemical path.” (After “Understanding A-Rod,” Glanville’s February 2009 column, was posted on the Times website, Rodriguez sent an appreciative note to the Glanville residence by FedEx.)
Not surprisingly, Glanville is serenely self-aware of every nook of his own mind, the themes of his life thoroughly investigated, parental influence most especially. His mother, a retired math teacher who now lives in suburban Washington, D.C., shielded him from pro scouts in high school so he could concentrate on his academic interests. “He wanted me to teach him algebra before his time,” she told the Cubs press corps stalwart George Castle when he interviewed her for his 2003 book, Throwbacks. “It was sixth grade. He was too young, but he really wanted to do it.” Glanville’s father, a psychiatrist (explaining nearly everything else above), immigrated to the United States from Trinidad at age 31. In the final hours of the Phillies’ 2002 season, as his father was dying, Glanville collected career hits 999, 1,000, and 1,001; the ball complicit in hit number 1,000 is buried with his dad. The dedication in The Game from Where I Stand—“To my father, the angels’ therapist, still counseling from the heavens”—is attached to a poem he wrote in memory of his dad, himself a prodigious poet.
And so, Glanville’s latest natural talent (“I do feel like I’m probably a better writer than I was a player—at least in the sense of comfort,” he admits) has been entirely nurtured. “I think metaphorically,” he says. “Part of that is my parents. My dad being a psychiatrist meant analyzing situations at another level and bringing them into terms someone else is comfortable with. And my mom being a teacher meant she had to translate concepts for her students in ways they understood. So I constantly was around this filtered way to communicate.”
“The bastard is a much better writer than I am a baseball player,” jokes Alan Schwarz, “which I find patently unfair.”
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Be forewarned—most recently Glanville has set forth to master the piano. “I wrote this just messing around,” he tells me while sitting at the tan Steinway and Sons piano in the front room of his Bucktown walkup, riffing from a white composition book he has filled with pencil markings. “My teacher said it kind of sounded like Fiddler on the Roof.” He endeavors mostly to sound like Daryl Hall and John Oates—“the greatest music duo in history,” per the acknowledgements section of The Game from Where I Stand, a place where sarcasm is not permitted. (The number of Hall & Oates mentions in the book: no fewer than six.) He can now proudly tap out the notes to their songs by ear. “I took lessons from the age of 4 until the age of 14. But I was always playing the classical stuff. I was annoyed that I couldn’t play my favorite pop songs. So I started taking lessons again as an adult because I wanted to understand why I like the music that I like.”
Before I leave—and after a Daryl Hall–inspired serenade—Glanville muses that he would like to become skilled enough to play background music at a homeless shelter during a holiday dinner, unbeknownst to anyone else. When I relay these furtive concert plans to Jayson Stark, he marvels, “Doug is never going to be the kind of guy who will do what you think a guy like him ought to do.”
Photograph: Joe Wigdahl