07 August 2006

Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders

Mr. Wrigley [...] announced [...] the College of Coaches. The idea was that eight top coaches would rotate through the organization, from Class D all the way up to the big club, ensuring that players at every level were taught the same way to botch rundowns, miss cutoff men, ground into double plays, and so forth. [But...]

Who would manage the Cubbies?

Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders

by Rob Neyer (duh)
c. 2006, Simon & Schuster, NY
Paperback, $16.00 US/$22.00 Canadian

The newest book from ESPN's Rob Neyer, the self-named Big Book of Baseball Blunders, follows on the heels of last year's Big Book of Baseball Lineups. I don't know if Neyer is planning a while series of such works, (Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Managers, Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Equipment, Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Ballparks, Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Bubblegum...maybe not.) but you can count me in on the rest of the collection.

In this book's introduction, Neyer makes a particular point of defining the difference between a blooper and a blunder. Bloopers, i.e. on-field, spur-of-the-moment mistakes, happen all the time, and while they make the game more interesting, there's not really any way to second-guess a blooper. They just happen, and if you could prevent them, you would do so. But blunders, pre-meditated, well-thought out decisions that somehow go horribly, horribly wrong, those make for some pretty good conversations, and a pretty interesting book.

Neyer runs (mostly) chronologically through baseball history, starting with some bad decisions made by the Sox (the White ones in 1917 and the Red ones shortly thereafter), and goes straight through to Joe Torre's failure to use Mariano Rivera in a tied, extra-inning game during the 2003 World Series. He examines some of the best-known, so-called "classic blunders" (the most famous of which, is "never get involved in a land war in Asia"), but only slightly less well known is this: Never sell your best player to your biggest competitor (like the Red Sox did with Babe Ruth in 1919)!

Most of the blunders fall into one of three categories:

1) Use and/or mis-use of certain players, especially during the playoffs.
These blunders include Walter Johnson being left in too long during the last game of the 1925 World Series, Leo Durocher's failure to calm down Hugh Casey after Mickey Owen dropped what would have been the last out of the 1941 World Series, Casey Stengel's failure to use Whitey Ford three times in the 1960 World Series, and the aforementioned 2003 World Series relief pitching blunder.

Some of these types of blunders are much-debated, well-known, long-term mistakes, like Don Zimmer's mis-use of his bench (and other assorted mistakes) during the Red Sox doomed 1978 pennant drive. The St. Louis Browns' playing of a one-armed outfielder, Pete Gray, in 1945 stands as one of the more interesting stories in the history of major league baseball, an encouragement to handicapped people everywhere, I suppose. But Neyer details how Gray's presence on the team may (or may not) have cost the team the pennant.

B) The sale or trade of a great player prematurely.
Babe Ruth to the Yankees. The Pirates trading away Kiki Cuyler and Joe Cronin. The Tigers trading away a young Carl Hubbell. The Red Sox selling Pee Wee Reese to the Dodgers. Roger Maris. Steve Carlton. Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas (for Christ's sake!) Larry Anderson for Jeff Bagwell. There are, in fact, two whole chapters on bad trades, interspersed throughout the other sections, most of which are entire chapters detailing only one such tremendously bad decision.

These particular types of decisions make for some of the most interesting discussions. Some of the most famous trades/sales of players, like Babe Ruth or Pee Wee Reese or Fred McGriff, are well known for how the seem to have afflicted their former organizations for such a long time, but one of Neyer's best attributes as a writer is his penchant for analyzing both sides of an issue. He looks intently at some of these transactions, and many of them, it turns out, were not such a detriment to the franchise as you might expect. In most cases, teams that jettissoned players were either so far out of contention that the player would not have made a difference, or they had an established player in the same position and couldn't have used him anyway. Of course, that wasn't always the case, but you'll have to read the book to find out which ones

iii) Ill-considered organizational choices.
The owners naming a former military bigwig to the position of Commissioner. Collusion. The owners refusing the Charlie Finley Option of annual free agency for every player. Collusion. Candlestick Park. The Cubs' College of Coaches. Collusion.

Man, the owners have made a lot of poor choices over the years, haven't they?

These blunders, without necessarily having the debate and the local flavor of some of the bad trades or poor managing decisions, often have much more far-reaching consequences. Old time Dodger fans probably still debate Walter Alston's many poor decisions during the last game of the 1962 World Series, but very few baseball fans of any team stand around discussing how the owners' short-sightedness cost them millions of dollars, both when they missed the boat on perennial free-agency, and when they boarded it on Collusion. All three times.

There are other types of blunders, of course. Amongst those he discusses, Neyer also includes interludes on various other types of mistakes. Bad drafts. Managers who should not have been managers. Numerous instances of teams missing the playoffs by the smallest of margins, where the decision to use or not use certain players made a real difference in the race.

Baseball's long, rich history offers many opportunities for second-guessing. Managers, owners, players: nobody is immune from criticism, and Neyer doesn't pull any punches in his critiques of people and organizations. As a writer, his skills cater well to most people, with a plain-spoken tone that makes you feel as if you're having a conversation about the book's subjects over coffee and a doughnut, rather than reading them in a book. His wry humor shines through in his writing as well, as do his intelligence and thorough research, his unique insights and his even-handedness when looking at both sides of the issues.

As a long-time reader and fan of Rob Neyer and his work, I never doubted that I would enjoy this book, and I was not disappointed. But I severely underestimated how much baseball history I would learn from it, and I was pleasantly surprised at how entertaining it would be, even in its discussions of business, politics, and attendance numbers.

Neyer's writing, and the brief nature of each discussion, most chapters lasting only three or four pages, makes this an eminently readable book. If you've only got ten or fifteen minutes, sit down and read a chapter, but you won't get bored if you prefer to read four or five in a sitting. Even shorter periods of time will still allow you to read one of his three or four paragraph sidebars in most chapters, some of which play "devil's advocate" to the chapter's main point, others of which simply outline some other blunder made by that person or organization around the same time. Coffee table, bookshelf or back of the toilet, Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders will be at home nearly anywhere you decide to put it.

The worst blunder you can make is not reading it.

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