The Last Nine Innings: Inside the Real Game Fans Never See
by Charles Euchner $22.95, 2006, Sourcebooks, Inc.
Charles Euchner is not a baseball writer. Unlike the Frank Defords and Dan Shaughnessys and Roger Kahns of the world, Euchner came from outside the sports writers' Old Boy Club, and yet he somehow managed to pen a book almost every bit as good as any from the hand of David Halberstam or Roger Angell. Like Michael Lewis of Moneyball fame, Euchner took his outsider's perspective and kept delving deeper and deeper into the soul and mind of baseball, peeling away layers of time, emotion and analysis to explore the causes and effects of a single game. And not just any game, but the last game of the 2001 World Series, perhaps the most thrilling baseball championship in a decade. The result, The Last Nine Innings: Inside the Real Game Fans Never See, should stand the test of time as one of the most poignant and comprehensive studies of baseball ever written.
Unlike my Double Play partner, Ben Kabak (whose review appears here), I do not continue to have nightmares about Luis Gonzalez fisting a broken-bat single over Derek Jeter's glove into baseball immortality. I am and have always been a Yankee fan, but I can also detach myself from that emotional bond, especially four and a half years after the initial pain. So while it wasn't necessarily pleasant reading a book that I knew would end badly for my favorite team, I could still recall the gravity and excitement of the game being discussed from my own memory, and Euchner's analysis of that game only served to focus those memories more.
The book's 23 chapters each concntrate on various factors that had an effect on that game. Inning by inning, out by out, Euchner looks at the game from the perspectives of the players, managers, coaches, fans, and even the family members thereof, in some cases. His narrative ranges all over creation, from the humble beginnings of some of the players, their struggles in the minor (and major) leagues, a brief personal history for nearly everyone who played that night. He accomplishes this with countless personal quotes form the players and others involved in the franchises and the game itself. Many of these likely come from personal interviews, as few of them are recognizable as "off the shelf" quotes, and this therefore is perhaps the best aspect of Euchner's work.
Avid, long-time baseball fans will find that some of the more notable details of the players' histories are already familiar to them, such as Curt Schillings' early struggles with his attitude in Baltimore and Houston, Randy Johnson's wildness as a young Montreal Expo, or Roger Clemens' grueling training regimen, but there is something here for everyone. Even the most ardent readers of baseball books and magazines will find something about which he can truly say, That was interesting. I didn't know that."
Euchner covers the physiology of training to play in the major leagues, and addresses different schools of though on the subject. Mercifully, he does not spend much time on the issue of steroids, dor does he bore the reader with endless references to arcane medical terms. Nevertheless, he manages to give the reader an idea of how far physical science has come, the approaches that baseball people are now taking to understand the impact that playing profesisonal baseball has on the human body, and what scientists are doing about it. He looks at the philosphies and sciences behind pitching and hitting, ways different players prepare to perform their respective tasks in the game, physically, mentally and emotionally. He focuses especially on Schilling's personal approach, his laptop computer, personal scouting reports and quasi-scientific efforts to prepare for any game situation. He looks at in-game managerial strategies, the split-second decisions that players must make during a game, and the effect that "luck" has on the outcome of certain plays and ultimately, the game itself.
Naturally, no event happens in a vacuum, even in baseball, where the sanitized and distilled box score from the seventh game of the 2001 World Series looks almost exactly like that from any other game played in the last 100 years. So no discussion of this game would be complete without making reference to the fact that America, and specifically New York City, had been attacked by Islamic extremist terrorists only two short months earlier, and less than 10 miles from where three of the seven games in the 2001 World Series were played. Every player and every fan was keenly aware of that fact throughout the Series, and Euchner provides some insight into the influence that event had on the series and the game at-hand.
Statistical analysis forms a significant part of Eucher's discussion as well, whether it's the issue of Derek Jeter's defense or how well pitchers perform at various points in the game, and he does a reasonably competent job of covering this diverse and complex subject. One of my few qualms with the book, however, lies in his discussion of the meaning and role of stats in baseball, as I think he tends to oversimplify things quite a bit. He calls OPS (On Base Percentage + Slugging Percentage), "Probably the best single measure of offensive production..." but of course "best" is a very subjective word. OPS is certainly a useful, "quick and dirty" tool for determining a hitter's overall effectiveness, but it doesn't take baserunning into account, and it inappropriately adds different types of units together, "apples and oranges," if you will, a cardinal sin in mathematics. Furthermore, it implies that slugging percentage and on-base percentage share the burden of offensive production equally, when in reality run scoring relies much more heavily on the latter than the former.
Other places where I take exception to Euchner's claims involve his tendency to ignore the influence of a small sample size on the stats he sites. He provides numbers to indicate how the players performed in various situations that year, especially for Clemens and Schilling, who started the game, but the numbers come only from 2001. Both of these men have been pitching since the 1980s, and it seems misleading, at best, to ignore 10 to 20 years worth of history and performance, making inferences based on one only year's worth of data.
With that said, my little quibbles about Euchner's misuse of statistics are no reason not to buy this book. Whether you're a fan of the Yankees, the Diamondbacks, or just baseball in general, The Last Nine Innings will make you want to go out and watch the next nine innings of baseball, anywhere you can, to keep an eye out for newly-discovered nuances and enjoy the game like you never quite could before.