How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue

How Beautiful We Were is a soft single to left field with two outs and a runner on 2nd where the left fielder charges hard but takes his eye off the ball and makes an error on the play, not only allowing the runner to score, but letting the batter trot into 2nd base. It may not have been perfect or gotten there exactly how you thought in the end, but it got there nonetheless.

How Beautiful We Were is set in a fictional village in Africa where children are sick and dying as a result of the pollution and destruction caused by the effects of drilling on the land by an American oil company. None of this, nor the author’s name, lends itself to an easy baseball card choice. The first thing that jumped out at me, and this didn’t happen until probably 100 pages in, was the name Austin, possibly the first American name in the book. So I quickly replaced a Fergie Jenkins card from the 2016 Topps subset “100 Years at Wrigley” with a 2021 Topps Austin Meadows.

Austin, the character in the book, is seen by the villagers as a possible savior, someone who can alert powerful people to the evil of the American oil company. The Tampa Bay Rays are hoping Austin Meadows can be a savior for the team in their quest for a return trip to the World Series. Just as the villagers of Kosawa are both helped and let down by the attempts made by Austin, the Rays have experienced a roller coaster of performance from Austin Meadows. In 2019, he hit 33 home runs, slashed .291/.364/.558, made the All-Star team, and finished 14th in the American League MVP voting. During their push towards the 2020 World Series, however, Meadows could never find his groove. He hit just .205, had an OPS 250 points lower than his All-Star season, and hit just .188 during the World Series.

Meadows improved some in 2021, hitting 26 home runs and boosting his OPS back above .700, but the Rays will be hoping for even more in the postseason. Austin from the book disappears from Kosawa’s dreams temporarily just like Meadows’ disappearing act during the 2020 season, but makes a return later in the story. The children of Kosawa struggle to pronounce Austin and call him “Us-Things” instead, which I think would be a great rallying cry for the Rays during the postseason. They could print t-shirts, “Us-Things Did It Again.”

The Tampa Bay Rays are the Moneyball team of the past decade, consistently winning despite one of the lowest payrolls in the game every year thanks to being among the bottom three teams in attendance every season since 2011. I used to say, during the Moneyball A’s years, that if Oakland general manager Billy Beane called you to propose a trade, you should immediately hang up the phone because he was going to fleece you even if you were dead sure it was a fair deal. All signs point to the same need for caution when dealing with the Rays, and the deal that brought Austin Meadows to Tampa Bay is a perfect example. Chris Archer was an All-Star starting pitcher for the Rays in 2017, but regressed slightly to a 4.30 ERA during the first half of 2018. Despite the warning signs, the Pittsburgh Pirates gave up three prospects in exchange for the fading All-Star only to get the same 4.30 ERA throughout the tail end of 2018 and a 3-9 record with a 5.19ERA in 2019. In return, the Rays received future All-Star Austin Meadows; pitcher Shane Baz who has a 1.69 ERA down the stretch in 2021; and Tyler Glasnow who has gone 16-4 with a 2.80 ERA since 2019. If Rays general manager Erik Neander calls you up today proposing a trade, hang up immediately.

How Beautiful We Are alternates between the narration of many of the characters, and it’s Imbue’s ability to fully inhabit the voice of each of the characters that pulls this book through in the end. Some of my favorite parts were the unique perspective of some of the characters, especially the grandmother who loses both her sons and says what a shame it is to only find out so late in life that life is so funny in how ridiculously contradictory it can be. Similarly, the only line I wrote down from the book was a lamentation of the persistence of hope despite all odds: “Why do we hope on when life has revealed itself to be meaningless?”

I think we hope on because hope springs eternal, because every spring you begin again on your quest for a World Series, and because as Ted Lasso says about the idea that it’s the hope that kills you, “I disagree, you know? I think it’s the lack of hope that comes and gets you.”

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