14 March 2011

ScoreCasting, by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. John Wertheim

ScoreCasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won
by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. John Wertheim

This is one of those books.

It's the kind of book you needed to read.  You just didn't know it. It's not just a baseball book, but there's no shortage of baseball in it.  It's not just a numbers book, but it's got plenty of numbers.  It's not just a psychology book, though it addresses several ways in which human psychology plays into sports (and life) decisions.  In short, it's a fascinating summary of how money, psychology and statistics - and the misinterpretation of them - can drive the sports you enjoy far more than you might have suspected.

Granted, some of this stuff is not exactly groundbreaking.  The chapter on why the Steelers are so good while the Pirates are so bad is an appropriately brief four pages.  Anyone with even a rudimentary comprehension of how television plays into the business ends of the NFL and Major League Baseball, and how differently these two sports benefit from that medium, could have written this chapter nearly as well, and almost as succinctly.

For that matter, even the more interesting stuff isn't groundbreaking in the strictest sense of the word, but that's a good thing.  The authors frequently refer to studies and papers and books that have been out for years, sometimes decades, to help bolster their contentions.  Their reliance on the work of others - not exactly standing on the shoulders of giants, as Newton once said in an uncharacteristically humble moment, but at least using peer-reviewed research - helps to lend credence to their claims in a way that doing their own work never could.  You can still wonder whether they draw the appropriate conclusions from their study of the facts, but you really can't criticize the facts themselves when the study the use has been out since 1982, or whatever.

Among the more interesting topics addressed in the book are:

  • That the desire to avert a loss - rather than to gain a victory - has a much greater effect on the decisions that athletes and their coaches make than you would imagine.  It seems to characterize almost every sporting feat you've ever seen, and you never even knew it!
  • That the decision of one NFL team, 20 years ago, to think outside the box changed the face of the NFL draft, forcing the other 29 teams eventually to follow.  And that the smart teams now are taking advantage of that change in the present day, to the dismay of those teams who had only just figured out the last change, it seems.  
  • That the MLB drug testing system is inherently racist.  (OK, not really, but it sure looks that way!)
  • That selfishness in team sports can be a virtue.
  • That the best thing you can do when one of your teammates on the basketball court "gets hot" and makes four or five shots in a row...is to give the ball to someone else for a while. 
  • And most shockingly: Umpires are human.  No seriously, it turns out that the "home field advantage" in baseball and almost every other high-level sport is due almost entirely to the fact that the umps (or refs, or judges or whatever) don't want to get lynched. And they probably don't even know it!
The book, in short, is eye-opening, sometimes jaw-dropping but extremely informative, well written, fast paced and fun to read.  The two guys who wrote it are friends who grew up together - one an economist, one a sportswriter - and got back together just to write this book, and you can almost hear how much fun they had writing it.

It's got the kind of information in it that would be a lot of fun to bring up in a discussion at a bar or while watching the game in your living room, though it might also be the kind of stuff that gets you beat up, so make sure you have a large friend with you if you bring these issues up in public.

But regardless of how you use the info, make sure you read it.  If you're in intelligent sports fan, you need to read it.  Now you know.

02 March 2011

Willie Mays - The Life, The Legend, by James S. Hirsch

"Mays would have made a splash no matter when he entered the major leagues, but 1951 served him unusually well. His skills shined brightly on a sluggish team in a plodding league in a big-stage city that was about to lead a communications revolution. He was a game-changing catalyst in a storied rivalry about to embark on a historic pennant race, a radiant contributor to an era forever consecrated as the golden age of baseball."
- James S. Hirsch, from Willie Mays - The Life, the Legend, p. 100
The eponymous subject of James Hirsch's new book is quite possibly the greatest player in baseball history. You can argue for Ruth or Aaron or Mantle or Cobb or Honus Wagner or even Barry Bonds or A-Rod, if you can look past the steroid thing, but there's no question that The Say Hey Kid is right in the thick of that conversation.

It stands to reason, then, that a book about such a player as Mays, especially a landmark work given the unprecedented access the author had to Mays the person, should be pretty darn interesting at the least. And the potential is there for this to be a truly great work, wouldn't you say?

Well, don't hold your breath.

I don't mean to disparage either Mays the man or Hirsch the writer, as this book makes it clear that both men are excellent at their respective professions. But somehow the combination of the two leaves me wanting.

It's not the writing, per se. As you can see from the above quote, Hirsch is a wonderfully eloquent writer when the situation falls for eloquence, and he's no slouch at simply getting his facts across when brevity is the order of the day. He tells the story beautifully, thoroughly and very well.

From Mays' humble beginnings in Alabama, through his school days, his travails in the waning Negro Leagues, to the minor leagues and eventually the majors, then to the Army, then back to the majors and an incredible career and a life of superstardom, Hirsch doesn't miss a beat. Because of the "authorized" nature of the book, we also get an unprecedented look into Mays' personal life, his relationships with family, mentors, teammates, friends and of course women, including both of his wives.

But Mays himself is hardly the only source of material for the book, as is clear by the 25 pages of end notes and five pages of bibliographical references. There were two previous biographies of Mays, as I understand it, but neither could boast the opportunity to have compared notes with the man himself, who has always been reticent to talk to anyone he doesn't know, especially reporters and writers.

But there's the rub, perhaps.  Because it's an authorized biography, Hirsch had to get the approval of Mays for whatever he wrote.  He boasts, in the epilogue, that Mays asked him to change only one thing in the entire tome, all 628 pages of it.  (He wanted Hirsch to include the fact that, after a fight with a teammate - Orlando Cepeda, i think - that they made up.  Well isn't that special?)  But then after reading those 628 pages, I can kind of see why Mays didn't feel the need to squelch anything: According to Hirsch, the man almost never did anything wrong.

Not that Hirsch says he's perfect, exactly, just that even his "faults" were sort of strengths in disguise, like saying that you "work too hard" or "care too much" at a job interview.

His bouts of exhaustion that sometimes required hospitalization, for example, were because he tried too hard, not because he didn't have the discipline and self-awareness needed to pace himself when the situation called for moderation.  His inability to hold down a regular job as a teenager to help support his poor family gets spun as his father's sacrificing to help him concentrate on baseball, rather than his own selfishness.

His dismissal of the advice of friends who warned him not to marry the older, twice-divorced, more worldly woman who would surely take him for all he was worth - which she did, by the way - well, he doesn't even bother to explain that one.  His refusal to support - or even try to understand - Curt Flood's case against the MLB owners and the Reserve Clause is billed as "not wanting to get involved" rather than an acknowledgment that Willie Mays clearly didn't care about anyone who wasn't, well, Willie Mays. 

To his credit, Hirsch does explain that Mays' famous "Say hey" catch phrase had more to do with his inability to remember his teammates' names than with some kind of giddy schoolboy enthusiasm.  But really, when you compose 600+ pages on a man who's been in the public eye for more than six decades, who was famously curt and often sulky with the news media, got himself into an ill-advised marriage, couldn't manage his own finances, rarely gave any real credit to his contemporaries like Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle, well, somehow you shouldn't close the back cover of the book feeling like this guy was just a victim of his circumstances, you know?

I wish I could explain it better than that, but I can't.  Somehow the book just left me feeling used, or like there was more to the story, but I couldn't scratch below the surface of the facade that Mays allowed Hirsch to create. 

None of this is to disparage Mays' incredible talents, which were many, nor his accomplishments, which were great and are given their due in this work.  But Mays the man

In any case, it is an interesting book, and I recommend reading it, but I also recommend trying to read between the lines a little, because I think you can learn almost as much from what Hirsch doesn't tell you as from what he does.


13 December 2010

Book Review: Strike IX - by Paul Lonardo

Everybody loves an underdog. Paul Lonardo has brought you the compelling story of 25 of them in his new book, Strike IX: The Story of a Big East College Forced to Eliminate its Baseball Program and the Team That Refused to Lose.

The background on the book is that Providence college, despite having fielded a baseball team since 1923, found itself in the midst of an era in which a myriad of colleges were scrambling to comply with Title IX regulations - the US laws against gender discrimination by colleges receiving federal funds - or risk being sued. Providence, like most colleges,decided that it was simply easier to eliminate some existing mens' sports, especially those with large rosters, than it was to support additional womens' sports teams, and a 25-man baseball team seemed the perfect candidate.

The twist comes when the 1999 Providence College Friars decide to fight back, not by actually saving the team - that only happens in Disney movies, folks - but by playing so well that everyone would know exactly what they're missing when the Friars depart. It's not exactly The Bad News Bears or Major League, but you definitely get the impression that the athletes kind of think of themselves that way.

Lonardo covers the story predominantly from the perspective of the student athletes, though he does a good job of creating context for the reader, including the history of Providence College, the culture of baseball programs in the northeast, and the pros and cons of the Title IX law and its results in more general terms, particularly with statistics demonstrating the law of unintended consequences.

But he mostly gives you the story of the players' feelings and experiences, including some of their game feats, which were many for a team that went 47-14 and came within one game of playing for a national championship. Still, he manages not to bore you with gory details from game stories (unlike some other books I've reviewed), striking a nice balance, at least in terms of sports vs. human interest.

The book is not, however, terribly balanced when it comes to telling the school's side of the story vs. that of the players and coaches. That's acceptable, I suppose, as most people don't want to hear about the trials and tribulations of a large corporation, or even a modestly sized college. Guys in dirty baseball uniforms make for more sympathetic figures than a bunch of middle aged white men in business suits.

Providence, being in Rhode Island instead of Georgia, Arizona, California or Florida, is hardly a breeding ground for major league talent. In fact, journeyman infielder John McDonald is the second best player ever to come out of Providence, and he wasn't on this team. So you likely won't recognize any of the players' names, and that somehow helps them to feel even more like underdogs. And the fact that they did things like hitting .342 as a team and winning almost 75% of their games can only add to your admiration of them.

The writing itself is not bad, but nothing special either, and Lonardo's use of profanity in his own prose comes off as unprofessional and distracting, at least to me. Because the book is self published, and this is the first edition, there are some errata in it that can also be distracting if you're as nitpicky as I am, but hopefully you're not.

Still, the book's real appeal is its compelling, underdog story, and in that it truly delivers. The 1999 Providence Friars may not have won it all like the Cleveland Indians in Major League, but they made such an impressive run and turned so many heads in the process that they assured their legacy along side some of the great Cinderella stories in history.

Carl Spackler would be proud.

01 March 2010

Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend, by Larry Tye

"History binds Josh [Gibson] and Satchel at the hip as the two towering figures of the Negro Leagues, but nature left them as mismatched as yin and yang. Josh was a hitter who mashed pitches, Satchel a pitcher who undid batters. Josh's power emanated from his huge arms and torso, Satchel's from his string-bean legs. The differences, however, went deeper. Josh steered clear of the limelight. Satchel lived in and monopolized it. Josh was eaten up by the limits of his ravaged knees and his Jim Crow world, consoling himself with booze, which had been legalized, and opiates, which had not. Satchel learned to cope and triumph. Josh was a player's player with a bench full of friends. Satchel played to the crowd, which made his teammates admire more than love him."

- Satchel, by Larry Tye, p 73

King Arthur. Davy Crockett. Paul Bunyan.

There are individuals throughout history who so inspire us that their legends grow well beyond their actual stature, becoming so entangled in the stories of their lives that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to determine where the man ends and the lore begins. Such is the case with Leroy “Satchel” Paige, about whom Larry Tye has penned a new biography, simply entitled, “Satchel”.

For a man who may have been seen in person by more spectators than anyone else in history, there was precious little written about Satchel Paige, at least little that can be called 'reliable', anyway. Perhaps the task of unraveling the mystery surrounding the man appeared so daunting to so many. Perhaps many felt that clearing up those mysteries would take something away from the man himself. Tye has managed to do the former without sacrificing the latter, though it took him two years to accomplish it.

Having pored over every available reference on his subject, Tye sifted and sorted and deciphered all of the available information on Satchel and weaved it into not only a coherent whole, but a telling, endearing and interesting story as well. It’s well written without being pretentious or excessively verbose, making for a very accessible and easily read narrative that flows well. Tye provides sufficient background on people and places without boring you and without feeling the need to inform the reader of every possible nuance about a given individual or situation, and most important, without making the reader feel that he's gotten off track.

He manages to point out and discuss the various social injustices of Satchel’s day without sounding condescending or sanctimonious, something too many who have written about the Negro Leagues seem to feel is their duty. This makes it possible for the reader to enjoy the narrative for what it is, to appreciate the charming, nostalgic aspects, to react with distaste when he discusses racial slights and slurs, but not to become so overburdened with guilt that the reading becomes less than enjoyable. Indeed, few would read such a book if they had to fear being scolded for long-past wrongs they never committed on every other page.

Tye begins at the beginning, which is not as easy at is sounds in the case of Satchel Paige, whose birth name was Leroy Page and whose birth date was virtually anybody’s guess. I won’t ruin the surprise, except to say that part of Satchel’s mystery included the fact that throughout most of his professional life, nobody knew exactly how old he was. The birth date mystery was such a part of his legend that there was even a Trivial Pursuit card that included three possible birthdates as the clue to "Satchel Paige".

Tye describes Leroy’s difficult youth in Mobile, Alabama, one of many children in a very poor family, beholden to an alcoholic father who died young. Leroy had trouble with authority even then and spent a third of his youth in a reform school, which helped shape him into both the man and the ballplayer he would eventually become. Upon his release, he almost immediately took up with a local semipro team, was given his famous moniker (though there are even more stories as to how he became Satchel than there are potential birth dates, it seems) and as he realized that his skills could take him much farther, he began to hone them.

Trips through the minors of Black Ball in the 1920’s took him all over the South, to Mexico, the Caribbean, and eventually to Pittsburgh, to the Black major leagues, where he would become a star. Not that he stayed there long. Contracts in the Negro Leagues were looked at as something to do until something better came along, and for the likes of Satchel Paige, it frequently did. He hopped around North America, playing in Pittsburgh, certainly, but also in North Dakota, California, Colorado, and Kansas City, as he felt inclined.

Effa Manley bought his rights twice for the Newark Eagles, though he never suited up for them. He also went back to the Caribbean, playing in the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Puerto Rico, and even Venezuela, where he was nearly killed by natives, if you believe his story. It was probably Satchel, not Babe Ruth (or, as James Hirsch would have you believe, Willie Mays) who was baseball's first true international superstar, and this before he ever suited up for the major leagues.

But believing Satchel’s stories is exactly what makes writing his biography so difficult. There are lots of stories that have trickled down from Satchel Paige and other stars of the Negro leagues, and many of them, if they are true at all, are only slightly so. But they’ve been told and retold so many times that few know the difference anymore.

Part of the charm of the Negro leagues, it seems, was that in an industry that either did not have the money or did not have the interest in recording every event meticulously, the history became entangled with the tall tales, and everyone was basically OK with that. The men who played there lived their lives and spun their fables, never with malice in mind, and they made for good stories and good story tellers, which was what people wanted anyway. Why bother to point out that Satchel never really struck out Babe Ruth in a barnstorming game at Yankee Stadium? He could have, everyone knew, and that was all that counted.

Along the way, Tye describes interactions and exploits with some of the greats of both black and white baseball, Josh Gibson, Buck O’Neil, Double Duty Radcliffe, Oscar Robertson, and Cool Papa Bell, to name a few, but also Bob Feller, Dizzy Dean, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, and many of the barnstorming stars of Major League Baseball.

Satchel eventually made it to the major leagues, the first pitcher to break the color barrier. He had been more than a bit irked by the fact that Branch Rickey did not come calling for him, rather than Jackie Robinson, who had played barely one year in the Negro Leagues, whereas Satchel had paid his dues for almost two decades. But Satchel, besides being over 40 years old, was never one to honor a contract or turn the other cheek, so Rickey deemed that he was something less than an ideal candidate for his grand experiment.

Instead, Indians' owner Bill Veeck took a chance on Satchel and made him the American League's first black pitcher. Satchel, at 41, became the oldest "rookie" in major league history, and four years later, its oldest All Star, and then in 1965, he became the oldest pitcher in MLB history, throwing three scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics against the Boston Red Sox, at the age of 58. The Los Angeles Times story on the game called it, "A gimmick, yes. A joke, no."

Veeck and Paige would enjoy a life long relationship, and Paige could thank Veeck for giving him second and third chances when he wore out his welcome with previous employers, as he seemingly always did. Veeck brought Paige in to pitch for the St. Louis Browns and then later on for the Miami Marlins, a minor league team for whom Satchel pitched in his 50's.

Because he'd never saved any of his money and didn't have the kinds of sponsorship opportunities afforded to either today's athletes or white stars of Satchel's heyday, Paige never did stop pitching, really. He just kept going, barnstorming in places like Alaska, North Dakota, California, and Missouri, just to make ends meet. Even after he was finally inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971, Satchel kept on making appearances and pitching. He was paid as a consultant when a film was made about his life, but otherwise, he rarely had the luxury of not pitching if he didn't feel like it.

As far as Tye's book goes, it is a joy to read. It's his first baseball book, I believe, and he gets a few of the minute details wrong, such as referring to Joe DiMaggio as "Jumpin' Joe" or indicating that the number of games in the baseball season was 151, rather than 154, but these are minor and forgivable offenses. Tye gets the main and plain things very right, and goes above and beyond the call of duty in writing this book (as attested to by the fact that he has almost 80 pages of notes and bibliography).

Satchel Paige was the kind of interesting, incredible, lovable, frustrating, talented but flawed character that we all wish we could have known or could have been. The stories of his life, such as they are shared in Tye's book, fill out the holes in the legend probably more than Paige would have wished, but no less than his legend deserves.

09 May 2009

Book Review: The Yankee Years, by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci

As the field manager of the New York Yankees from 1996 to 2007, Joe Torre epitomized class and dignity on the baseball field, so it's fitting that even his book's title and cover are classy. A simple title, with no ridiculous subtitle that's four times as long as the title itself. The authors should really be listed as TomVerducci with Joe Torre, as it's clear that Verducci does the writing in this relationship, and that Torre is mostly there to narrate and provide quotes.

The front cover is graced by a simple, dim picture of Torre in the corridor at Yankee Stadium, en route to the locker room, his well known number six on his back, shoulders slumped a bit with age and all the years of turmoil in Yankeeland, but still proud and determined.

The back cover shows him being carried off the the field by his players, presumably after the 1998 World Series, waving to the crowd, recent tears still wetting hisdeep set eyes. The photo, a little out of focus, hints at the fleeting nature of this one-of-a-kind run in Yankee history, this one-of-a-kind manager's tenure there, and suggests that perhaps there was more to Torre and those great Yankee teams than we knew.

And there certainly was.

Not that this is a tell-all book. For one thing, Torre has too much class to dish out juicy details of other people's personal lives, or compromise people's standing in the game, or otherwise make a quick buck at the expense of others. There's no shortage of interesting anecdotes or good quotes, both from Torre and others, but this is not a ground-breaking tome like Ball Four was 40 years ago.

Verducci starts the book with the story of how Joe became the Yankees manager, the idea that he was the Yankees' fourth choice, and that even after he was hired, there were rumors thatGeorge Steinbrenner was still trying to convince Buck Showalter to return. What a way to start a new job, right?

From there he moves on to how Torre helped inspire a work ethic, a "desperation to win" in those players in the late 1990's, how he got them to play ball the right way and to work at winning, every day. His young shortstop, DerekJeter , was a big part of that, leading by example right from the start, teaching everyone around him how to play baseball the Yankee Way, how to carry yourself, how to act, and how not to. Torre andJeter naturally became very good friends, and Jeter earned the respect due a team captain even before he bore the official title.

The following paragraph, about the famous "Flip Play" in the 2000 playoffs against the Oakland A's, demonstrates both Jeter's amazing baseball instincts and Verducci's writing prowess:

"Jeter made a play that only could have been made by a player with supreme
alertness, the mental computing power to quickly crunch the advanced baseball
calculus needed to process the trajectory and speed of Spencer's throw and the
speed and location of a runner behind his back, and the athletic and
improvisational skills to actually find a way to get the ball home on time and
on target while running in a direction opposite to the plate."

OK, so it's kind of a run-on sentence, and he lays it on a little thick, but it's still solid, informative, colorful writing that paints the picture he wants. Besides this, the run-on nature of the sentence conveys the urgency of the play much better than more traditional punctuation choices would have.

For Torre's part, of course, teaching a bunch of guys how to win consistently is a lot easier when you've got so much talent with which to work. Teams that includeJeter, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams, David Cone, David Wells, Roger Clemens, Mariano Rivera and others ought to win all the time. Right?

But even at that, they never seemed to consider themselves entitled, never rubbed it in their opponents' faces, never took winning for granted. As BillyBeane said,

"And one thing about getting beat by the Yankees: They did it with class. It was
as if they beat you in rented tuxedos." (p. 51)

Torre also addresses some of the controversies of that era, specifically the steroid issue and how it affected the Yankees' clubhouse. Because TomVerducci is really the one writing this, he can paint a picture of the era with broader strokes than Torre could have by himself. He discusses the happenings in baseball as a whole, how records were falling both left (homers) and right (attendance), how everyone was making money, and how nobody took the issue of performance enhancing drugs too seriously.

Though I don't remember ever having heard of this at the time, apparently former Texas Rangers pitcher Rick Helling was one of the first to blow the whistle on the steroid issue, at a players' union meeting in 1998. He challenged his fellow players to crack down onPEDs , to help make sure the game was played the right way, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. He repeatedly stated that, at least in his opinion, the increasing prevalence of steroids in baseball was forcing some otherwise clean players to consider usingPEDs themselves, just to remain competitive.

Which of course was exactly what was happening. Unfortunately, Verducci includes three nearly identical quotes from Helling on the same page to make this point, despite the fact that they read like a skipping record. And Major League Baseball and theMLBPA ignored Helling and others who were sounding the PED alarm at the time, and we all know how that turned out.

For his part, Verducci states, Torre was innocent of the whole thing. "You had two guys from New York doing all the talking in the Mitchell Report. That's why you have more information on New York players."

"Steroids?" Verducci asks, innocently, "He [Torre] knew nothing about them. He never saw them." Torre indicates that he didn't want to go probing, uninvited, into the players' lives, and so he never asked those questions, presumably content that whatever they were doing was working, and decided to leave "well enough" alone.

You can believe that if you want to, and it's Torre's privilege to present himself how he wants to in his own book, but he and Verducci must take the baseball watching public for fools if they think many of us are buying that explanation. Even if it is true, it makes Torre out to be a little toonaive , a little too "hands-off" to truly be an effective manager. The players would never respect and follow someone they thought could be so easily duped.

The book contains a great many anecdotes about the normally private and confidential rituals of the clubhouse, including this gem about Roger Clemens'pre-game preparation:
Clemens lost himself in his usual pregame preparation. which typically began with cranking the whirlpool to its hottest possible temperature. "He'd come out looking like a lobster," trainer Steve Donahue said. Then Donahue would rub the hottest possible liniment on his testicles. "He'd start snorting like a bull," the trainer said. "That's when he was ready to pitch." (p. 132)
Listen, I'm as open minded as the next guy, but if I never have to read another story about one man rubbing liniment on another man's balls as long as I live, it will be too soon. Some things just shouldn't be shared, OK? Like balls.

In addition to all the material from Torre, Verducci mines a wealth of information from bullpen catcher Mike Borzello, pitcher Mike Mussina, and several other players to whom Torre was close. He discusses the ways in which George Steinbrenner would try to micromanage and manipulate people, how different people on Steinbrnner's staff, such as Randy Levine or George's sons, behaved toward Torre, how Brian Cashman, in the end, chose to cover his own ass rather than go to bat for Torre.

He also relates not a small number of stories on Torre's dealings with different players. He talks about how Gary Sheffield's efforts on the field varied with his mood, how David Wells was constantly causing trouble of one kind or another, and how the Yankees were warned about CarlPavano:

"Tim Raines told me, 'Pavano? He's never going to pitch for you. Forget it.' Borzello said. I said, "What?" He said, 'The guy didn't want to pitch in Montreal. There was always something wrong with him. In Florida, same thing. He didn't want to pitch except for the one year he was pitching for a contract. I'm telling you, he's not going to pitch for you." (p. 319)

The Yankee Years, while not entirely chocked full of these kinds of tidbits, certainly has no shortage of them either, plenty to make the chapters interesting. There's not much earth-shattering stuff here, not any really, but there's plenty of inside gossip and other information that we all wish we could have known at the time.

We all know the baseball side of things. What happened is in the record books for all to see. But a book like this offers us some rare insight into the reasons for why things happened or didn't happen, at least in one manager's opinion. The Yankee Years is a worthwhile read for this reason and more, for Yankees fans and Torre fans and anyone who rooted against them all those years.

28 September 2008

Remembering Yankee Stadium: An Oral and Narrative History of the House That Ruth Built, 1923-2008, by Harvey Frommer

Remembering Yankee Stadium: An Oral and Narrative History of the House That Ruth Built, 1923-2008, by Harvey Frommer

Harvey Frommer has outdone himself this time.

The Ivy League professor and celebrated and accomplished author of such works as Rickey and Robinson, Growing Up Baseball and A Yankee Century was humble enough to admit he could not tell the story of Yankee Stadium all by himself. An edifice of this magnitude, an icon of this importance, and a history this varied would require several voices to weave the tapestry of its lifetime. Frommer knew that the story of Yankee Stadium would best be told by the people who lived it, and not just by the writers and players, but by fans, hot dog and ticket vendors, broadcasters, coaches, executives, and even bloggers, though sadly none of my stories appear in the book.

Don't get me wrong: I had my chance. Frommer solicited help from anyone who would offer it, including anyone on his email list, and I could have submitted something. Alas, the book is probably better without my self-absorbed, incoherent rambling anyway. That's why I have a blog!

Remembering that I'm supposed to be writing a book review...Remembering Yankee Stadium is truly a wonderful book. For one thing, it's huge, an inch thick and 10" x 11" hardcover, with lots of photographs, many of which span both pages, meaning that they're almost two feet across when the book is opened flat. Some of these are team photos, or panoramic views of crowds in the stands, or of crowds out of the stands, rushing the field after a playoff victory. One shows Reggie connecting for his third homer of that 1977 World Series game, but the best is a full, 2-page shot of Mickey Mantle's follow-through on a home run swing. Simply classic.

There are lots of smaller photos as well, of course, from Ruth and Gehrig and Muesel to DiMaggio and Gordon and Heinrich to Martin and Mantle and Maris and Ford to Nettles and Chambliss and Reggie and Gator and Donnie Baseball and Bernie and Rocket and Pettitte and Moose and Jeter and A-Rod. Some of the famous and/or controversial plays are detailed four images on a page, showing the play in question as it unfolded. World Series programs and tickets are shown, including ones that have been blown up to make the inside front and back covers, not to mention all of the "inside" shots from the clubhouse and behind the scenes.

But my favorite from the whole book is on page 87, and it's this one:

It's from the archives at Cooperstown, in the chapter on the 1950's, and it's a full-page image looking southwest across Yankee Stadium to the Polo Grounds. The one in Frommer's book has about an inch and a half rip in the photo on the far right, on the edge of the page, traversing the road behind the left field grandstand, with another wrinkle below that, and another small, jagged tear along the third base line. The photo is reproduced so clearly that it will actually look like that page in the book is ripped.

Seeing those imperfections and knowing that this one came from the Hall of Fame makes me wonder who took it, and when, and who's had it for the last 50 or 60 years. Where did that tear come from? Was this in a shoebox in some reporter's closet, forgotten for 30 years? Did somebody's kid rip it accidentally, or did it happen in transit? Did Harvey do it? Was Cooperstown pissed? These kinds of questions come up, not just with this photo, but with nearly every one of those old photos and ticket stubs and programs, and that's most of the fun of paging through this book: Pondering who else has seen these images, who helped to create them and what they were thinking at the time.

And if those were not enough, the stories that have come from more than three quarters of a century in perhaps the most famous sports venue in history, as told by the people who lived them, make this book that much better. Frommer weaves the hundreds of stories shared by dozens of people into his own narrative of the history of the ballpark, to give you a personal feel for a myriad of moments throughout the history of this storied franchise and its famed home.

There are stories from Bobby Richardson and Brooks Robinson, Rollie Fingers and Whitey Ford, Jon Miller and Bob Wolff, Michael Dukakis and Rudy Guliani, Jim Bouton, Roger Kahn, Ralph Houk, Frank Howard, Don Larsen, Phil Rizzuto, Rod Carew, Bill Lee, Dick Groat and Monte Irvin, just to name a few. There are dozens of others, including some you've never heard of, because they're just fans, like you and me. All these varied viewpoints help to paint a broad, detailed, multidimensional picture of this hallowed ground and the men and women who've walked and run on it. For Frommer, the master painter, this must be considered his masterpiece.

15 September 2008

Things to Know and Things to Do

Observations from an insider
by LB Valentino

Boston Red Sox tickets are probably the most popular baseball tickets in demand this season. This Beantown team has had a loyal following since they began playing in the early 20th Century and their millions of fans are always the first in line at the box office and on the Internet.

But fear not, you can always get a great selection of tickets for all sports, concerts and theater events at www.tickets3D.com. They have exclusive 3D venue maps that let you see a view from your seat and buy your tickets at the same time ' all in under a minute. Don't be fooled by imitators. You can also pick your own price and search for tickets by city, artist, team or venue. It's the best place to buy tickets on the web!

New York Yankees tickets are also in high demand from fans across the nation. This legendary team is probably one of the most high-profile, popular teams in the history of the sport. From Babe Ruth to Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees have been thrilling fans since 1901 with their spectacular feats of athletic prowess and their personalities.

As far as East Coast teams go, Chicago Cubs tickets are another hot commodity all year 'round. When they play on their home turf, at Wrigley Field, the stands are jam-packed with fans; and when they're on the road their fans are right behind! They are known as bounce-back kings, having been down-and-out early in their seasons only to come back and show everyone what tenacity really means. With some of the greatest players in the league, they never disappoint.

There's no shortage of excitement on the West Coast either. Los Angeles Angels tickets are always a great way to bond with your buddies or your girls. There's no place better to see baseball live than underneath the California sun ' so close to the Pacific Ocean that you can smell the sea air. Palm trees, sports and fun in the sun ' it doesn't get better than that.

Take a short drive north along the Pacific Coast Highway and you'll find one of the most legendary cities in the world, Los Angeles. From Hollywood and the Sunset Strip to the celebrity residences of Malibu, there's no shortage of LA attractions to pique your interest. World famous restaurants and museums are just the tip of the iceberg. LA has fantastic theme parks that are fun for the whole family, and some of the best shopping on the planet. So make sure to bring your sunglasses for all the glitz and glamour ' and feel free to stay awhile.

On the outskirts of Los Angeles is the place that created the phrase, 'valley girl.' Of course there are plenty of other things to do in the San Fernando Valley besides stand around talking like a teenage girl. You may want to check out their exciting nightlife and club scene, which includes hotspots in Studio City and Burbank ' cities that are also magnets for Hollywood movie types.

If you're in the mood for a drive through the desert, you'll find plenty of things to do in Las Vegas, Nevada. Just a 5-hour drive from the City of Angels, Las Vegas may not exactly be considered the Eighth Wonder of the World, but it has electricity that can be felt all through the Rockies. Spectacular casinos, shows, restaurants, clubs and the pulse of a million heartbeats make this a popular spot any season of the year.

But if you like something a little earthier than bright lights and the big city, there are plenty of things to do in Seattle, Washington. Seattle may be known for its rainy weather, but it's also well-known for its hospitality and as the birthplace of the grunge music scene. It's also the birthplace of perhaps the world's most famous coffeehouses, Starbucks. From music to fishing to coffee and major sports teams and concerts, Seattle offers a wide variety of fun for the whole family.

01 July 2008

Review: Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends

by Rob Neyer

“Because only a good story well told is worth all this effort.”
- Rob Neyer in “Big Book of Baseball Legends”

The latest release from Rob Neyer, Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, the Lies, and Everything Else, follows in several of his traditions, but also explores some new ground. This is the third “Rob Neyer’s Big Book of…Something” though alas, he opted not to go with my suggestion of “Bubblegum” for the subject of his next work. Perhaps that’s still to come.

More important, Rob keeps with his traditions of seemingly endless and in-depth research, sharp, focused writing and an interesting subject matter.

As its title suggests, this book explores some of the legends of baseball history that we may have heard through the years. Babe Ruth’s famous “Called Shot” in the 1932 World Series against the Cubs is perhaps the biggest of them, but many and varied are the legends in this book, and they range from the commonplace to the obscure.

Most of us know about the rivalry between Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson, about Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson. Maybe you know about how George Steinbrenner foolishly releasing Johnny Callison on a whim, or about Steve Dalkowski scaring the hell out of the Splendid Splinter. Maybe you’ve even heard about how Paul Waner was actually a better hitter when he was a little drunk, or of the impostor who kept Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak alive when he was laid up.

But what do you really know? The very nature of “legends” is such that there’s almost always a grain or two of truth wrapped up in a fanciful, entertaining, but largely untrue tale. Rob Neyer (and a guest or two) help to investigate, and in many cases, de-bunk, some of the more famous legends and tall tales from the history of baseball.

Rob doesn't get into exploring the allegations of baseball betting by folks like Pete Rose or Hal Chase, sticking instead to the fun stuff, like who hit a game winning homer off of whom on which date, or whether or not an event had the life-changing impact that was claimed by certain players. And these, it turns out, are the best sorts of legends to investigate, because the eventual outcome of any investigation is mostly of academic and human interest, having no impact on either the law or the record books. Well, mostly.

As is always the case with Neyer’s books, this one is eminently readable. Neyer’s prose is always solid, personable and fluid, with well chosen but not overly elegant words, and he makes no effort to impress you with his vocabulary. Some of the best writing in the book actually isn’t Neyer’s, but rather that of Scribbly Tate, who does the remarkably interesting chapter on the so-called impostor who replaced the ailing Iron Man to keep his 2,130-game streak alive. To be fair, though, this is more a credit to Tate’s unique written voice than it is a knock on Neyer, who’s no slouch as a writer himself.

Neyer’s digressions are always interesting and well informed, and he rarely goes of on a Posnaskian tangent, though those can be fun, too. The chapters are brief, usually no more than three to six pages, so the book can be easily read in small chunks whenever you have a moment to spare.

The main strength of the book, painstaking research, is also its one weakness. Or, if not a weakness, perhaps just a downside. The whole point in each chapter is to get at the truth behind the stories told by players, journalists and other baseball people, and that takes time and effort. Some of it could be done with Baseball-reference.com or Retrosheet, while other information had to be sought from the Hall of Fame archives or other out-of-print books.

This is all fine, but in a few cases it seems that the research goes a little too deep, exploring things that are beyond the scope of a particular legend, just to make sure that no stone is left unturned. In a few cases, by the time we get to the bottom of the story, Neyer has nearly forgotten what he was looking up, and so we find him looking for a strikeout when the story referenced a pop-up, or getting the names mixed up a little. These are few and far between, but they’re there.

The other downside to the painstaking research is, well, I’ll just say it: Most of the legends are not true. Almost every referenced story in the book is wrong in one or more detail, and most of them have either gotten various incidents mixed up with each other or are almost complete fabrications. If you’re ultimately looking for the truth, this is not a problem for you, but those of you who really like a good story, and want to keep believing in it, will have some of the wind taken out of your sails. Of course, you get warned about that right in the introduction, so if you’re upset about it, you’ve nobody to blame but yourself.

In all, the book is really a tremendous amount of fun. Neyer has done all the dirty work for us, spending hours and hours poring over the internet, old books, and even (get this) something called "microfiche", which it turns out is how they used to store really old information before Al Gore invented the Internet. All the leg work is already done, so you can relax with the book and a beverage in the comforts of your own home instead of in front of a big, flat screen with crusty old knobs in some dusty old library. Not that there's anything wrong with libraries.

So the next time a friend tries to tell you about how Fred Lynn always hit better against the good teams, or how Billy Martin turned the 1965 Twins into a running machine, or how Lou Boudreau turned Ron Santo from a nondescript catcher into the greatest thirdbaseman of the 1960’s, you can tell them they’re all wet.

And better yet, if you hear or read a story that’s not in this book (and there’s no shortage of those) you have a framework for how to find out whether that one’s true or not, too. Finding out the truth of these matters, it turns out, is almost as interesting as the embellished story itself. Sometimes, even more so.

15 June 2008

Major League Baseball is something of an anomaly in American sports. It is by far the most pastoral of games. This has obvious roots in the summer time game being played in fields when the ground was not rock hard, but goes beyond that.

Sports like football and basketball, which are the only other two that actually matter here (hockey used to but the NHL shot itself in the foot again and again and again…), are by far more physical. If you ever jogged to meet a pass in football you would be met by a safety that will drive his shoulder through your chest cavity. Basketball, as much of a non-contact sport as it is supposed to be, takes incredible strength to block out the other team on rebounds and band with jumping bodies as they drive toward the lane. Yes, baseball players run toward grounders and after fly balls, but apart from an occasional collision with a wall, the sport is quite contact free and includes an awful lot of standing around.

There is nothing wrong with baseball. The sport is part of the national landscape. The stands are still filled with fanatics who might harm another human being for Yankees tickets, but the game itself is more complex of a fascination than any other game. The fields are all different shapes and sizes. We may not have the ruins of Greece, the overpowering palaces of Louis XIV, or even the historic Globe Theatre of London, but we have our ballparks.

The Red Sox play with the Green Monster in left field because the park was built in an extremely confined space. The ingenuity that went into designing one of the most recognizable parks in the league is amazing. The Green Monster sits 310 feet from home plate and center field extends to 420 feet because of the odd geometry of the park. Half the reason many go to the park at sometime in their lifetime is to go a classic American structure.

Wrigley Field is not as much an oddity as Fenway, but the field itself is noted for its ivy covered outfield wall and its basket making that deep shot just that much more likely to go out of the park. It also discourages outfielders from running and jumping into the brick wall. Cubs tickets are purchased as much for the game as for the experience. The field evokes an escape to years before when people think of things as being less complicated (even though in reality they were…got to love nostalgia), from the small seats to the trough in the men’s room.

The game of baseball offers Americans and fans all over the world a chance to relax with play that is much skill play as much as it is a display of athletic prowess. Baseball builds slowly through the hot summers giving fans a chance to relax and remain competitive at the same time. Things begin to heat up in the fall as the few teams that are worthy advance closer to the World Series. This also allows things to cool off at parks where teams are out of it, of course then they have football season to keep them preoccupied.

- Guest written by David

08 June 2008

The Greatest Game: The Yankees, the Red Sox and the Playoff of ’78 by Richard Bradley

“It felt not just like a singular moment, but a fragile one, a rare convergence of tradition and rivalry and timelessness that would not be easily, if ever, re-created.”
- Richard Bradley in The Greatest Game

You know the story: The Yankees storm back from 14.5 games down in July to overtake the Red Sox in September, only to end up tied at the end of the season, forcing a one-game playoff at Fenway Park. The unlikeliest of players hits a home run to put the Yankees on top to stay, and then they sweep through the ALCS and the World Series to become world champions for the second consecutive year.

This might have been the shortest book ever written. I mean, Peter Gammons and Murray Chass probably summed it all up in about 1000 words the next day, right? But don't bet against Bradley. Thirty years later, with most baseball fans (especially those of the Yanks and Sox) having heard the story hundreds of times, Richard Bradley managed to find more. A lot more. He has put together a book that tells you not just about the game, but about the histories of the teams, the circumstances and events leading up to the game itself and background on many of the personalities involved.

And what personalities they were. George Steinbrenner. Mike Torrez and Ron Guidry, Reggie Jackson and Carl Yastrzemski, Bill “Spaceman” Lee and Goose Gossage, Billy Martin and Don Zimmer, Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk, George Scott, Mickey Rivers, and of course, Bucky (F-ing) Dent. There are fewer characters at a Loony Tunes convention, and Bradley does each of them justice, in their turns.

The book gives some background, but then goes into the game itself, following pitch-by-pitch, an inning at a time, discussing personalities and histories of each of the players as they come to bat. In the alternate chapters, he goes into more detail on some of the more prominent people involved in the game, so the reader can have a better sense of the meaning and experience of the game from various perspectives. It’s an approach that works very well, as you really do find yourself identifying with each of these people, in turn, but the story of the game itself retains its tension, even though you already know how it turns out before you ever pick up the book.

Bradley’s prose is excellent, as you should expect from someone who has written a bestselling biography of JFK, has written for some of the best known periodicals in the country, and is a former executive editor of George magazine. About Billy Martin, he says, “Martin carried that me-against-the-world attitude, a combustible mix of courage and insecurity, pride and fear, into his play on the baseball diamond.” About the Reggie Jackson chocolate bar fiasco, he writes, “…and Reggie! Bars were raining from the sky like some high-calorie biblical plague.” Describing the aging, out-of-shape Bob “Beetle” Bailey: “…Bailey’s stomach pressed enthusiastically against his uniform.” The writing is very good, tight but descriptive, expressive without being verbose, and a pleasure to read.

If there is a problem with the book, and really, there aren’t many, it’s that Bradley mixes up a few of the minor, baseball related details. He’s written often and well before, but never about baseball, and it shows, though just barely. He gets a statistic wrong here and there (baseball fans are notoriously sensitive to this sort of thing), mixes up right and left field at least once, and gets a few other details wrong.

He mentions that the regular season tie in 1978 was the first such occurrence since 1948, but that’s only true for the Junior Circuit. He did not realize that since the National League’s by-laws were different, the regular season ties that happened in 1962, 1959 and 1951 (ending in Bobby Thompson’s famous “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”) were resolved by 3-game series between the two tied teams, rather than the American League’s one-game playoff.

Still, such qualms are relatively minor for such an otherwise excellent book. Bradley’s composed a volume that should be of interest to not just fans of the Yankees or Red Sox, but of baseball and history in general. OK, so maybe just baseball.

28 April 2008

FOX broadcast the Saturday afternoon Yankees-Indians game, so I got to watch some Yankees baseball on my television instead of MLB.tv, which was nice. These kinds of games are of course blacked out from MLB.tv as well as the MLB Extra Innings package you can get on most satellite and some cable systems. fair enough. But on Thursday night, I was blacked out of both the Yankees-White Sox game and the Mets-Nationals game, neither of which was being broadcast natioanally.

Several emails to MLB.tv customer service have done nothing to explain to me

1) Why this happened, or

B) if I should expect it to happen again.

According to their website, MLB.tv only has me blacked out of Phillies games, since my hometown (Bethlehem, PA) falls in their broadcast area. I live over 100 miles from New York city, and while I get some of the NYC broadcast stations, we do not get the YES network out here, not Sports NY, which does most of the Mets games, so it's not like the Yankees or Mets think of eastern PA as their broadcast area.

When I emailed MLB.tv customer service, they sent me the obligatory confirmation email, followed up by another one in which they asked me to provide more information (like my IP address, zip code, and where I was trying to watch the game from) which they said had been "previously requested". When, or by whom it had been requested, they did not say, but the remark had a distinctly snotty tone to it, like one of those teenagers who works in the computer store at the mall and gives you attitude because you don't already know the difference between DDR RAM and SODIMM.

I don't think I was supposed to respond directly to the email, but they did not provide clear instructions as to how I should furnish this information to them, so in my view, that's a failing on the part of MLB.tv as well.

They also suggested that I should make sure my "wallet preferences" were up to date and accurate. For the uninitiated, this means that I should make sure the credit card they have on file for me is accurate, though this should not matter either. For one thing, I bought the MLB.tv package for the whole year, and for another, even if I was paying for it monthly, We're still in the first month of the season, so there's no reason that I should be out of date on that front either. And besides, it's not as though the whold MLB.tv module wasn't working. I could watch the Reds game or the Padres game or the Mariners game if I so desired. Just not the Mets or Yankees.

All I know, at this point, is that I'm not supposed to be blacked out of any of these games, which I already knew, and that if I have troubles in the future, I can contact them through their website, which as it turns out, is pretty useless.

MLB.tv's product itself is pretty darn good, but on the whole, its customer service interface leaves a lot to be desired. An MLB betting man should not wager on getting a helpful response.

22 April 2008

Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid, by John Rosengren

The word "skeptical" barely begins to describe my demeanor as I was asked to review John Rosengren's new book, Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid.

First of all, I'd never heard of its author, so how good could the book be, right? Well, I'd never heard of Michael Shapiro before I read his excellent book on the Brooklyn Dodgers a few years ago. Before I happened upon A Dirty Job in the Allentown airport last summer, I'd never heard of Christopher Moore either, and he's now my favorite author. So I didn't give that particular prejudice too much weight.

More important, the book's subtitle "The Year That Changed Baseball Forever" kind of put me on my guard. And not just because it referred to 1973, and therefore happened before I was born. I had to take the title with a grain of salt, mostly because I just read a book last year about a team that (allegedly) changed baseball, just two years before this book supposedly did the same thing, and that, frankly that was a crock. And a really boring book.

Rosengren's book is neither.

This well-written, insightful and intriguing tome relates how the events of the 1973 baseball season, and several events that unfolded around it, really did change the game, and perhaps the country, for all time. Think about it:

* You had Hank Aaron chasing babe Ruth, right down to the last day of the season, contending not only with his aging body and racist death threats, but also the ambivalence of the baseball establishment (read: Commissioner Bowie Kuhn) and the people of Atlanta, who mostly ignored him right to the end.

* Willie Mays, the once great Giants centerfielder, was linping along in his last year as a player with the Mets, who somehow managed to get to the World Series despite winning only 82 regular season games.

* Reggie Jackson was trying single-handedly to not just win the AL pennant again, but to become the superstar that we all now know him to be, and while he was at it, he was also trying to change the way players dealt with both management and the media. He succeeded at all three.

* Pete Rose (this was before he bet on baseball, we assume) collected his 2,000th career hit, won his third batting title and his only NL MVP award.

* Charlie Finley was an odd juxtaposition of both progressive and traditional baseball values. For example, he lobbied for the Designated Hitter rule, which was accepted, as a way to improve offense levels in the attandance-challenged American League. He also suggested orange baseballs for night games, though these were only used in exhibitions. At the same time, he was a world-class cheapskate, losing his players' loyalty (and ins ome cases their contracts) over comparitively trifling sums because he simply could not stand to give up a dollar if he didn't absolutely have to.

* George Steinbrenner bought the New York Yankees for a song from CBS, and despite promises to keep building ships for a living, it was not long before he started meddling...and winning.

At the same time, America was still trying to get out of the Vietnam War, and the Paris Peace Accords were signed, though it would not be the end. By the end of the year, both the President and the Vice President were forced from office over separate political scandals, though Nixon made significant inroads with both China and the Soviet Union, helped to start the DEA, the Alaska Pipeline, and signed the Endangered Species Act, before he was forced to leave.

The World Trade Center, the CN Tower in Toronto and the Sears Tower in Chicago, the Bosporous Bridge in Istanbul and the Sydney Opera House all opened. The SkyLab launches mark the next step in manned space flight and exploration. Thalidomide settlement. The Stockholm Syndrome. The American Indian Movement standoff at Wounded Knee. Roe v. Wade. The Yom Kippur War. The Arab Oil Embargo.

Tie a Yellow Ribbon was the biggest selling single of the year. Elvis: Aloha From Hawaii was seen by over one billion people, and they didn't even have YouTube. Dark Side of the Moon was released. The Miami Dolphins became the first (and still, only) team in NFL history to finish a season undefeated. Secretariat won the Triple Crown. O.J. rushed for over 2,000 yards. Bobby Riggs and his big mouth were beaten (easily) by Billie-Jean King. Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!

It was a tumultuous time, you have to admit. And I hadn't even been born yet!

To his credit, Rosengren doesn't try to cover all of that stuff in his book, but he does touch on some of the bigger issues (like Watergate) and how the baseball world could never be wholly insulated from the larger culture. Steinbrenner's illegal campaign contributions to Nixon in 1972 were given special attention in the book,as was the effect of the investigation, and his eventual conviction, on his business with the Yankees). Rosengren also discusses the ways in which Steinbrenner almost immediately renegs on his promise to practice "absentee ownership" and "stick to building ships", and apparently had no shame about the way he wanted to run things. When Mike Burke, the general Manager of the team under CBS's ownership, was forced out, George simply explained that, "[he] didn't agree with everything I wanted to do, so I fired him." (p. 82)

Speaking of contentious and controversial owners, the Oakland Athletics, despite their success in 1972, were a wild bunch, and hated their cheapskate owner. "They disregarded authority with exhuberant contempt." (p. 29) Moreover, they nearly mutinied during the World Series when Finley's meddling forced secondbaseman Mike Andrews to agree to a false medical report in order to get someone else on the roster. Finley eventually forced out his manager, Dick Williams, lost his best pitcher, Catfish Hunter, and the AL MVP Reggie Jackson, once free agency took hold.

Finley's brainchild, the DH, was proposed essentially as a gimmick to improve attendance, which, it was though, would increase with increased offense. The American League in 1972 had averaged just 3.47 runs per game, 13% lower than the Senior Circuit, and almost exactly as low as the anemic 1968 season. Run scoring (and attendance) increased dramatically in 1973, and everyone was so pleased after only the first season of what was supposed to have been a three-year experiment, they decided to make the DH permanent. Hard to blame them.

With that said, I do have to take issue with Rosengren's contention that, "The experiment had improved offense, no question." Offense improved, sure, but how much did the DH have to do with it? Plenty, but not everything. The AL scored 4.28 runs per team per game in 1972, a 25% increase from the previous year, but only about half of that was due to the DH. The rest of it was due to the fact that the League as a whole just hit much better, and much more in line with historical trends. Designated hitters scored 0.58 runs per game in 1973, compared to only 0.14 runs per game by pitchers and pinch hitters in 1972, but everyone else in the American League jumped from a paltry 3.17 R/G up to a much more palateable 3.56 R/G. In short, it looks in retrospect like 1972's pitcher's paradise was just a fluke, which would likely have reverted to the mean anyway, at least to some degree.

Anyway, I'm off-topic. Back to the book.

Rosengren manages to relate some of the social and historical implications of the DH, the ways it was perceived and who actually embraced the role and succeeded at it. Ron Blomberg may have gotten his name in the record books as the first player to serve in the role, But Orlando Cepeda was the one who made the DH look like a good idea. Cha Cha was basically washed up at 35, but got a second chance in Boston in 1973 due entirely to the DH rule, and probably owes his Hall of Fame induction to it. (Rosengren mentions that Cepeda won the inaugural Outstanding DH Award in '73, though he fails to include the fact that Frank Robinson had a much better season. Baby Bull only got the award because it was started by a newspaper in New Hampshire, which is obviously in Red Sox Nation.)

The book, in fact, is really quite good. The author seems to be one of those select few people who can look at an array of information from various and sundry sources and not only see the big picture, but relate it to others as well. It seems that a lot of things really did change in 1973, and Rosengren weaves all the intricate parts of that season together for you, presenting the tapestry and explaining how it all fits, and what it all means.

How he managed to do this is beyond me. His bibliography lists over 50 different books, plus numerous websites, periodicals, audio/video sources and more than a dozen personal interviews with players and other personalities who lived the events in the book. And talk about meticulous! After the brief first chapter, every chapter has at least 29 end notes, and most have at least 60! The man obviously paid enormous attention to detail, working his butt off to verify and cite his sources.

The result is an interesting, well-researched, well-written and comprehensive work that tells the tale of a season that really did change the world of baseball forever.

08 April 2008

Somewhere along the way I became obsessed with statistics and baseball. Ever since I was a little kid I would take the box scores for the previous days games and line by line go through each game. The sport, with its highly structured play, makes it the best candidate of all sports to be continually dissected by numbers.

Basketball players are remembered for their dunks and three pointers, football players are remembered for their amazing side stepping moves and grit, and baseball players are remembered for the number of home runs they hit and the number of players they struck out.

In a sport where getting 25 more hits over 162 games can improve your hitting from .250 to .300, making you an All Star and saving you from the minor leagues, statistics rule the sport. The entire genre of fantasy sports has become a multi-million if not billion dollar industry because of baseball.

Using the simplest of numbers a lay person can predict the second half of baseball after the All Star game. Seeing that the St. Louis Cardinals are with in 3.5 games of the Cubs may worry some, but seeing that the run differential is only +16 while the Cubs are at +102 tells fans that the Cubs are blowing a lot of teams out while the Cards are scraping by.

Looking to the American League, the same thought process can be used. In the East, Tampa Bay has shocked everyone and many would doubt their ability to maintain that lead over the Red Sox and even the Yankees, but with a run differential of +75 they are just as solid as the Red Sox who are +77. That divisional race will be interesting to watch.

Looking at the numbers is not going to stop fans from buying Yankees tickets, but will tell fans that the Rangers are not as good their record indicates. They are actually -26 which means they have weak pitching and will eventually fade away.

The numbers also give a good overview of the strength of a division. The numbers are not good in the National League West, where the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers are tied for first place with sub-.500 records. Both teams have run differentials just over even, justifying their records.

Baseball will continue to be a game of little details and little numbers, but the game itself remains popular with just about everyone. Of course the caveat is that all the numbers go out the windows once the World Series rolls around.

- Guest written by David

04 February 2008

Harvard Boys, by John Wolff and Rick Wolff

I wanted to like this book.

I was offered a chance to review Harvard Boys back in November, and I finished reading it weeks ago, but I'm just getting around to reviewing it now. That should tell you something.

John Wolff went to Harvard, like his father, and was drafted in the later rounds as a secondbaseman, like his father. So, like his father, he decided to write a book about his experiences in the minor leagues. (His father's book, What's a Nice Harvard Boy Like You Doing in the Bushes? had a much better title.) Like his father, he's going to have to make a living doing something other than playing baseball, because he hit .207 in the Frontier League in 2006, and did not do much when he got signed by the Mets for the 2007 season.

John does have some interesting experiences here and there, and meets a few interesting characters. He has some successes and failures in his rare opportunities at playing time. He has a lot of ups and downs: getting signed by the White Sox and reporting to Spring Training, then getting stuck in extended Spring Training for two more months, getting assigned to a Rookie League team in Virginia...and then getting released two weeks later. He then got signed by an independent team in Michigan, and was doing pretty well when his shoulder got injured. Trying to play through the injury trashed his stats and eventually ended his season, though he did get signed by the Mets (as noted in the epilogue.)

But none of that, or almost none of it, is anything we haven't heard or read before. Another review of this book (I won't embarass its author) suggested that Harvard Boys was interesting because there aren't many other books that give insight into the lives of professional baseball players, besides Ball Four, of course. But really there are lots of books that do exactly that, and most of them better than this one. Pat Jordan's A False Spring, and A Nice Tuesday, and Jim Brosnan's The Long Season and Pennant Race, are classics of the genre. Newer variations on the minor league, "prespective of a nobody" theme incude Brett Mandel's Minor Players, Major Dreams, Steve Fireovid's The 26th Man, and Neal Karlan's Slouching Toward Fargo. On the major league level, Sparky Lyle's The Bronx Zoo gave unprecedented (and much more irreverent and biting) access into the clubhouse, and there are autobiographical books by Goose Gossage, Bill Lee, Mickey Mantle, Robin Roberts, Carl Erskine, Jim Kaat, Bob Gibson, Don Zimmer, John Kruk, Dick Allen, and Jose Canseco, just to name a few. Harvard Boys has nothing that these books did not have, John Wolff's personal feelings notwithstanding.

I tried to like Harvard Boys. I really did. John Wolff and his dad went to Harvard, a college with an academics-first mentality, much like my own (though I make no pretense that Lehigh is anywhere near as good a school as Harvard), so I had a soft spot for them before I ever picked up the book. I read the whole thing, cover to cover, unlike many book reviewers. I kept thinking that I must be missing something, that it would get better, but it never did. I tried and tried, gave it my best shot and all that, but alas, Harvard Boys never rose much above "mediocre" on my Book-o-Meter.

It's written reasonably well. No problem there. John Wolff has a Harvard education, a degree in psychology (at least he does now, having returned to finish his degree after his first stint in pro ball). So he can write. His style is mostly proper, though informal, but it's not terribly clever or interesting. He doesn't have many creative turns of phrase or quirky expressions or other literary goodies that make a book enjoyable to read. The book was compiled as a series of journal entries that John sent to his father, Rick Wolff, via email during the 2006 season, and it reads exactly that way: like he was sending emails to his dad, with no need to impress anyone with his mastery of the English language, no efforts to wax eloquent in any way. In and of itself, this might not be a bad thing, except that his subject matter does not make up for it either.

John Wolff repeatedly tells us, on almost every page, it sometimes seems, than minor league baseball is boring. The long bus rides, the long practices, long rain delays, long games with obscure players, the long waiting between chances to play, long nights and days off in cities and towns of which you've probably never heard, where there isn't much to do...yep, sounds pretty boring. You've got us there, John...but do you have to keep telling us so? The minor leagues are bad enough without being constantly reminded of how bad they are, don't you think?

One of the major differences between John's book and the one his father, Rick wrote (with Phil Pepe's help) about his time in the Tigers' minor league system back in the 1970's is that John's book includes his father's reflections and insights as well. Most of John's journal entries are followed by a brief response from his dad Rick, and some of these are interesting stories about amusing or odd things that happened to him back then, but sadly, many of Rick's insights aren't all that insightful. Some selected observations from Rick Wolff:

"Playing baseball is all about...playing." (p. 68)

"Even minor leaguers have to pay rent and buy groceries." (p. 127)

"Travel in the minor leagues is not glamorous." (p.184)

"John's right." (p. 202)

"Bottom line? It's boring." (p. 242)

"Nobody cares that you tried hard. All that matters are the results." (p. 245)
Unfortunately, that last one is also true of this book. It was, to be sure, a very good idea for a book, but the execution left a lot to be desired. Generaly speaking, I'd rather not review a book than give it a bad one, but with this book, I felt that it would be a disservice to my readers (the six or eight of you who regularly tune in here), not to tell you of my disappointment with Harvard Boys.

19 September 2007

3 Yankees vs Blue Jays Main Box 327 Tickets Sat 9/22/07

I've got three tickets for sale for Saturday's Yankees/Blue Jays game at Yankee Stadium. It's "The Bronx is Burning" DVD Sampler Day, and the game starts at 1:05.

You can buy them on eBay here.

I have another commitment and need to get rid of them, but of course I don't want to take a loss. The $200 minimum bid covers my expenses only, though if I can make a profit, all the better.

Happy bidding!

02 July 2007

Book Review: The Stark Truth, by Jayson Stark

The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History
by Jayson Stark
C. 2007, Triumph Books, Chicago, IL
206 p., $24.50 US/$32.50 Canadian

Jayson Stark has won me over.

Not that he's necessarily convinced me that he's right about some of the things he thinks, and not that I automatically believe that anything he says is gospel. But I've decided that I like him, faults and all, if only for the simple fact that he's willing to discuss and defend his position, even with the likes of, well, me. It's that trait that separates Stark from the myriad of journalists who pontificate from their positions of power, safely protected by their editors, publishers, and the fact that they don't have a publicly known email address, spewing whatever they like without thought of reaction, retribution or repurcussions. Stark's very willingness to discuss his views, to debate and disagree without taking (or giving) any of it personally, makes him a fun guy to read and respond to, whether you think he's full of crap or not.

It is in this spirit, the spirit of debate and discussion, that Jayson Stark has written his first book, The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History. It's a fun little book, easily read in a few sittings over the course of a week or two, if you want, and provides an excellent source for stirring up (what else?) debate. It's not likely to become a classic, like Boys of Summer or Ball Four, but it is a landmark book in that nobody's really ever written something quite like it before. (Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo, of WFAN in NY, wrote a book entitled "The Mad Dog 100: The Hundred Greatest Sports Arguments of All-Time" a few years ago, which was similarly designed to spur debate, but it of course focused on all kinds of arguments in various sports.) Stark's work, focusing on overratedness and underratedness in baseball, makes it unique.

I do wish that he had chosen a title for the book that didn't have his own name in it. It comes off a little presumptuous, but it also starts a dangerous precedent. I mean, how many book titles can you come up with that have "Stark" in the title? Stark Raving Mad, Stark Contrasts, Battle Stark Gallactica...the list soon gets pretty thin. Still, it's tough to come up with something pithy and clever when the subject of the book does not lend itself to being explained in any sort of clever or pithy fashion.

The book seeks to explore and describe, position by position, the most overrated and underrated players of all time. He looks at right- and left-handed starting pitchers, relief pitchers (without regard to handedness), designated hitters, and then each position around the field. Each position is examined first for overratedness, then underratedness, with the #1 player of each type at each position getting three or four pages of type, whereas the #2 through #5 playersgetting only a half page to full page synopsis. The players' key stats are listed for reference, and much of Jayson's writing goes into some of the more in-depth analytical tools, like RSAA, WARP, offensive winning percentage, etc. to help make his points that the players in question are really more or less valuable than general public perception would suggest.

This is where Jayson does very well. He uses these stats, and even introduces of them to the unitiated, to show that he grasps the fact that the traditional stats, like batting average, RBIs, and stolen bases, don't always show a clear picture of a player's value and skill. He makes use of the new-fangled stats to support his points, but for seam-heads and sabermetrics buffs, well, you're going to be disappointed. He doesn't have the room (or at least doesn't take the time) to go into the kind of depth you'd probably like to have to describe, for example, why Babe Ruth was a better pitcher than you probably know, or how it is that Steve Garvey was not nearly as good a firstbaseman as you may have heard. Just a taste of the more sophisticated metrics is all you get, and then it's on to the next player on the list. For most readers, though, that's enough, so you won't really find it a problem. Any more than a sampling of those kinds of numbers can get tedious, especially when you're talking about a book of a few hundred pages rather than a blog post or a 2,000-word column on ESPN.com, so Jayson does well to limit that sort of thing.

In the same vein, one of my issues with his book is that he writes it more or less exactly the way he writes his columns. He uses a lot of truncated, terse sentences, with irreverent little comments and such thrown in liberally. That's just his style. Whatever. But after several dozen pages of that, it get's a little old. In a column or especially a blog post, that kind of stream-of-consciousness writing seems fitting, but in a book, I personally expect a bit more eloquence. Another writing strategy you see a little too much is the use of parenthetical comments (something a good writer should not have to do) and while an occasional set of parentheses can be helpful (for colorvor clarification) having six or seven of them in a paragraph can get a bit annoying (as you can imagine) or at least choppy. Jayson is a good enough writer to compose a tome without such faults, and I hope that his next work will use them more sparingly.

Another aspect of the book that seems somewhat excessive is his feeling that, with every new chapter on the most overrated such-and-such, he needs to reiterate that just because he thinks a player is overrated does not mean that he thinks he sucks, just that he thinks that people may think a little more of him than he deserves. This is a helpful and important distinction to make, but I'm not sure he needed to make it a dozen times or more. I guess he's just a little overly sensitive because of all the belligerent e-mail he gets from easily-offended people who feel the need to CAPITALIZE EVERYTHING and can't spell porperly properly. Hard to blame him.

With that said, I am going to argue a little bit about some of his choices, or at least about some of his arguments on their behalf.

In naming Edgar Martinez the most underrated Designated hitter of all time, Stark has this to say:

"...if Edgar Martinez wasn't the greatest hitter alive during those 13 seasons [1991 to 2003], he was certainly the most dependable great hitter alive."

Well, that isn't remotely true. Barry Bonds racked up almost twice as many homers (575 to 284) and 211 more Win Shares than Edgar in those 13 years. Edgar finished a distant 4th in Win Shares, with 364, well behind Bonds, Jeff Bagwell (415), and Frank Thomas (414), and not much better than Rafael Palmiero (361) and Gary Sheffield (344). While Jayson does acknowledge the fact that certain players did have a few more doubles or a slightly higher OBP than Edgar, he entirely omits the fact that Martinez averaged fewer than 22 homers a year in that span, or that his total of 284 was exactly as many as Robin Ventura, good for only 25th place on that list. Edgar had a lot of hits, and a lot of doubles, but at a time when records for homers were being set everywhere you looked, Martinez somehow misplaced his invitation to that party. In addition, Frank Thomas gets nary a mention in the chapter on the DH, even though he's likely to own many of the career records as a DH by the time he retires. And as far as dependability is concerned, well, Edgar missed an average of almost 28 games per year in that span. Even accounting for the 70+ games lost to the strike of 1994-95, that's still about 360 games not played by "...the most dependable great hitter alive".

Anyway, enough on Edgar. Back to Jayson's book.

If you're a Yankee fan, you may not be pleased with many of Stark's choices, even though he goes out of his way (again, on several occasions) to make it clear that he has nothing against the Yankees in particular. His #1 overrated DH, secondbaseman, shortstop, thirdbaseman and right fielder are all players who played some significant portion of their careers in Yankee pinstripes, and many of those are most likey thought of as overrated because they were Yankees. Even so, you could do a lot worse than to start a team with Steve Sax, Phil Rizutto, Graig Nettles, and Dave Winfield, though I can definitely see his point on Ron Blomberg. In addition, among the #2 through #5 most overrated players in their respective roles we also see David Wells, Tommy John, Dave Righetti, Reggie Jackson, Steve Balboni, Cecil Fielder, Bobby Richardson, Bucky Dent, Mickey Rivers, Darryl Strawberry and Bobby Abreu, Yankees all, at least for a while. However, in fairness to Stark, he also calls several Yankees underrated, including the #1 catcher (Yogi Berra) and #1 reliever (Goose Gossage), and gives a little love to the likes of Chili Davis, Oscar Gamble, Joe Gordon, Tim Raines, Bobby Bonds, and even goes so far as to call Derek Jeter the second most underrated shortstop in history!

Personally, I'm a huge Yankee fan, and I almost crapped my pants when I read that! Derek Jeter? Underrated? Saying that people don't realize how good Jeter really is like saying that most people don't realize how crazy Tom Cruise is, or how hot Jessica Simpson looks coming out of a nightclub. Is it even possible for us to hear any more than we already do about Derek Jeter? I can't imagine how. Maybe if they started getting him to sell watches and perfume and peanut butter and giving him a chance to host SNL once in a while...wait a minuite, too late. OK, so what if he practically had his own personal announcer during Yankee broadcasts on national TV, who would, no matter what he does in the field, fawn over his every move? Oh, wait, Tim McCarver. Never mind.

Well, in spite of my vehement disagreement about this particular issue, I can see Jayson's points for most of the other players he names, and won't quibble with them beyond what I've already said. Stark knows his baseball history, and many of his Lamentations of Underratedness stem from the fact that the general populace has largely forgottten most of the men who played before 1990. Guys like Stan Musial, Yogi Berra and Warren Spahn were extremely well regarded in their day, but because they played so long ago, when thigs like the All-Century Team or the DHL Home-Town Heroes voting come around, they're not given the acclaim they deserve, and Jayson is right to point that out. Granted, the fact that the voting for those things is done mostly, if not entirely, on the InterWebs means that the average age of the voters is about 14, so it's hard to take those kinds of votes too seriously. Nevertheless, the results of those votes are very public events, held during the All-Star Game or the World Series, so maybe it's MLB that needs to re-evaluate how they do these promotions, not so much the average baseball fan who needs to reevaluate his opinions on the great players of the 1950's and 1960's.

Regardless of that, Jayson's book is a worthwhile read. It's just barely over 200 pages, and broken down into lots of easily managed chapters and sub-chapters, so you can find your place without much trouble again if you have to put it down for something. Like to have a fistfight with the guy who's trying to tell you that Nolan Ryan was the Greatest Pitcher Ever when in reality you know, like Jayson, how overrated he was. If you can, just enjoy the book, and the conversations it will generate, and try not to get beat up.