For a time, Gwendolyn Oxenham, who had been an accomplished soccer player at Duke University, thought she might have a future in the game as a professional. When that didn’t work out, she decided to make herself a writer. The proof that she was successful is “Finding the Game,’’ an engrossing account of what she and three companions discovered when they traveled the world looking for pick-up soccer games.
Though Oxenham characterizes herself and her fellow explorers as “naïve idiots,” it is their innocence that leads them to believe not only that they will find amateur players happy to kick a ball around with American strangers in unlikely places but that they will attract folks who’ll fund their adventure as it bumps along from continent to continent.
Of the adventure, she writes, “The best part of this trip around the world is witnessing the motivations” of the players. She plays soccer with prisoners in Bolivia, with businessmen on their lunch hour in Japan, and with young and not-so-young men in a Kenyan slum when they take a break from manufacturing moonshine on the banks of a polluted river. “We don’t have water, we don’t have sewage, we don’t have lights,” one of the Kenyans tells Oxenham. “What do we do?”
She doesn’t know what to tell him. “[W]e aren’t doing anything to change the world,” she writes. “We come here and then we leave.”
But she is doing something. She witnesses conditions that should be sufficiently terrible to crush the people she meets, yet she reports that they are not crushed. They join her on the soccer field. They laugh together, and she tells us about it. Nobody who reads “Finding the Game’’ will doubt that these stories are precious and necessary.
Tim Crothers also found an inspiring story in an unlikely place. Katwe is a vast slum in Uganda where “happy endings are as rare as snow.” The young woman at the center of “The Queen of Katwe,’’ which began its life as an ESPN magazine article, is Phiona Mutesi, who begins learning how to play chess when she is 9. She is drawn to the hut where a man named Robert Katende is teaching the game to some boys because she has heard that Katende feeds his students, and, as always, she is hungry.
But within a few months it becomes obvious to Katende that Mutesi has an uncanny knack for the game. Shortly thereafter, she is beating the boys, who are so humiliated that they weep. Katende brings his prodigy to neighboring slums, where she wins consistently. Eventually he arranges for her to travel to a tournament in Sudan, and then to one in Russia. Her first plane ride is traumatic for Phiona, and more traumatic for her mother, of whom Crothers writes: “Harriet would later admit that she didn’t believe she would ever see her daughter again.”
Phiona’s talent and drive may earn her sponsorships that will enable her to lift at least some of the members of her family out of Katwe. But chess cannot save the world any more than soccer can, and part of Crothers’s achievement is his presentation of the terrible circumstances millions of people battle every day to sustain themselves and feed their families, nearly all of them lacking the bright, improbable possibility provided by Mutesi.
Tony La Russa will one day enter the Baseball Hall of Fame as a manager. In “One Last Strike,’’ he presents an exhaustive account of 2011’s come-from-behind pennant race and post season for his St. Louis Cardinals. They beat the odds, won the World Series, and then La Russa, one of the most successful coaches in professional baseball history, retired.
Besides offering up the inside story of the season La Russa also discusses his approach to managing, which combines a belief in the importance of team play over individual talent and a focus on process over mere results.
Perhaps the beginning of the exceptional run can be traced to a game the Cardinals lost to the Tigers, 10-1. In the clubhouse, La Russa forbade players from eating the arrayed food. “Since you didn’t compete during the game,’’ he told them. “I want you to have to compete to get a reservation in a really nice restaurant.”
This is not the most exciting story from a dramatic baseball season, but it may be the most revealing. Which is sillier? The idea that a manager would try to motivate a room of wealthy alleged adults by sending them off without dinner, or the mad notion that he would inconvenience them by forcing them to return to their four-star hotel and call room service?
FINDING THE GAME: Three Years, Twenty-five Countries, and the Search for Pickup Soccer
By Gwendolyn Oxenham
St. Martins, 304 pp., illustrated, $25.99
THE QUEEN OF KATWE: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster
By Tim Crothers
Scribner, 240 pp., illustrated, $26
ONE LAST STRIKE: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season
By Tony La Russa, with Rick Hummel
Morrow, 432, illustrated, $27.99