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.

18 June 2007

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15 May 2007

Game Review: Grand Slam Trivia - Yankees & Red Sox Editions

Grand Slam Trivia: Yankees and Red Sox Editions
Snap TV Games, Inc.
$24.95/each ($19.99 from Amazon)

Snap TV Games would like you to know about their new Yankees and Red Sox Editions of their Grand Slam Trivia games, available on DVD. I was able to review one of each of these editions in my home, and thought my readers might be interested to know about them.

Packaging: Each game is a DVD that comes in a normal-sized DVD case, and that comes within a board-game sized box. It's a bit more packaging than you probably need, but since you're buying it through the mail, it's probably just as well, to make sure the disc doesn't get damaged in transit. The packaging itself does look very nice, though, with slick looking graphics and Yankees or Red Sox insignias emblazoned on the box, the DVD case and the disc itself. There's nothing else in the box at all. No board, no instructions, no small pieces to lose. Just air, which means there's no reason to keep the box and packaging other than the DVD case afterthe first time you open it. Make sure you remember to recycle, kiddies.

Game Setup: Nice and easy. (New Yawk Translation: Fugghedaboudit!) You put the disc in the DVD player, it boots up and you can start playing right away (the "Grand Slam Trivia" option). The game also has an option for practice (the "Batting Cage"), and of course for the Rules, but nowhere are there any printed instructions to read, which means that the other players don't have to sit through listening to you reading the tedious list of rules, and you don't have to get annoyed if they don't listen. This was a particular bonus for me, as I hate it when people don't pay attentio...HEY! WAKE UP!!

Game Play:Anyway, in the "Batting Cage" (practice questions) there are several lines of questions, ranging from the basics of baseball rules and equipment up to specific questions about current and former players, the teams' postseason histories, legendary players (Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, etc.), ballparks and other subjects. When you play the game, of course, you can't select the subject of the question, only the difficulty, but when you do the practice mode, you get 10 questions from each category, with generally increasing difficulty, so that's a good way to prepare for the game. For questions you easily already know, you can select the answer before the voice is finished asking it, which helps to speed the game up. But don't wait too long to answer. If you're having trouble and pondering (or more likely, if your team is debating the correct answer), you only get a few seconds after he finishes asking the question to answer before the game "buzzes" and you're out.

The Boston and New York versions each have a man's voice with a city-appropriate accent to tell you what to do (check the Snap TV Website to hear the obnoxious accents, if you like), ask the questions and recite the answers. It's a nice touch, even if they are each a bit over the top with the accents at times, but it's still better than some generic, nondescript, midwestern accent, anyway. I wonder if they'll come up with a Twins Trivia Game and have someone with a Minnesoooota eaccent, dontyaknow?

Play occurs as a three-inning contest in which two sides take turns trying to answer the trivia questions. Pretty standard, so far. You get up to four "hits" (correctly answered questions) per inning, but you only get one "out" (wrong answer) and your turn is over. It seems kind of backwards, that you can get four hits but only one out, but I think if you did it the other way around, giving three outs per inning and allowing the player to answer questions until they got one wrong, they could make it extremely boring for the othey player(s). As it is, a typical game might take 15-20 minutes or so, and you're usually not sitting there doing nothing for more than a couple of minutes, which is not so bad.

You can try for a single, double, triple or home run, with difficulty increasing as the number of total bases does. The "Single" questions are almost ridiculously easy, but since you only get up to four hits in an inning, taking singles questions only gets you only one run per inning, maximum. I found that for my level of knowledge, I could correctly answer the "Double" level questions about 80% of the time, but that "Triples" and "Home Runs" were quite difficult, even for the Yankee stuff, which I like to think I know pretty well.

If you end up tied at the end of three innings, you go to (surprise!) Extra Innings. In this mode, the computer selects the difficulty level of the question, and you have to get a question right in the same inning in which your opponent answers one wrong in order to win. This goes pretty fast, which is also a good thing. Getting an inning or two of free baseball for the ticket on chich you spend $30 or $40 or $50 or more is one thing. Sitting there waiting for a computer/DVD game to end can be positively boring, so the way they've set this up definitely helps.

The Good: The packaging is compact, and the game play is easily understandable. The game itself frequently incorporates video highlights of players and games, both in the questions and the answers, so if you like watching some of the highlights on ESPN Classic and haven't the atience to wait for them to do a special on Jim Rice or Ron Guidry, then you can get a little fix here. And if you're a know-it-all trivia buff like me, you can show off by telling your friends about the answer to the question before the game has a chance to do it. Then, while the game plays the video and the obnoxiously-accented narrator explains the answer to the question, which is of course different from what you just said, you can feel silly. Or at least I can.

The Bad: They tell you that there are over 500 questions in each game, and there are about 10 or 12 categories in the practice mode, with 10 questions per session, which means that there should be 4 or 5 different sessions for each category, on average. "Five hundred" is a lot when you're talking about home runs or sacks of money, but when it comes to trivia questions, it's really not so much. For comparison, some of the Trivial Pursuit DVD games have 400-500 questions on the DVD alone, plus another 1800-2000 or more on cards, and even those start to repeat after you've played the game 4 or 5 times.

The Ugly: It's a bit nit-picky, but the $24.95 price tag seems kinda steep for a single-disc game that has 80% fewer questions than its competitors from Trivial Pursuit, which have boards and pieces, play up to six players, and are generally just more fun and engaging. However, you can get it for about $20 from Amazon, and it's still better than sitting around on the porch challenging your friends to answer obscure questions about your favorite baseball team, if only marginally better.

27 April 2007

Oasis Media Blitz

Spreading the word about a new worship service at First Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem, PA, starting on Arril 28th at 6PM. That's me doing the Chris Farley thing in the beginning and showing off the cards and posters, and my wife next to me, saying that we'll hand these out to "anyone we see". For the record, she promptly chickened out when faced with actual "anyone"s, but did very well at convincing shop owners to put the posters up in their windows in downtown Bethlehem.

24 January 2007

Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts and Nerve Took a Team to the Top

Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts and Nerve Took a Team to the Top
by Seth Mnookin

Hardcover, $26.00 US ($36.00 Can.)
c. 2006, Simon & Schuster

"...by the middle of November, they had a $20 million per year left fielder who wanted out, an $11 million shortstop so offended by the team's offer for an extension that his agent had told the Red Sox to trade him, and in Pedro Martinez, a $17.5 million per year starting pitcher who was already warning the team that if they didn't sign him to an extension before the season began, he wouldn't even speak with them once it was over. In the midst of all this, the Red Sox decided to pursue one of the most outspoken pitchers in all of baseball."

Any baseball fan with a modicum of intelligence (and who hasn't been under a rock for the last three years) should be able to deduce that this quote refers to the Boston Red Sox, in the autumn of 2003. In the wake of yet another heartbreaking defeat at the hands of the Hated Yankees(TM), the Sawx threw caution to the wind, stockpiled the best talent available, and set out to win themselves the championship that had eluded the franchise for 86 long years.

It worked, of course.

Author Seth Mnookin, in his mnew (sorry, I couldn't help mnyself) book Feeding the Monster, chronicles not just how "Money, Smarts and Nerve Took a Team to the Top", as the subtitle indicates, but how ignorance, cowardice, mistrust, mismanagement and bad luck had kept that team down for decades at a time.

Money was rarely a problem for the Boston American League franchise. Smarts and nerve? ...not so much. But even with all the money the Yawkeys had, as Mnookin tells, ownership did not always understand how best to use it, and when they did, there always seemed to be something holding them back. Usually it was the Yankees, of course, but other times it was just a bad hop by a ground ball, or a somewhat less than enlightened manager, or a gaggle of divisive beat reporters, or players who seemed selfish, overpaid, or just strange. There seemed to be no end to the misfortune that this franchise could suffer, to the point that some people thought they were Cursed. Whether you believed that or not, it made for an intriguing story. However, the decision to sell the team in the early part of this century brought about the possibility that it was how business was done, not where, that would make the difference for the Red Sox. New owners could overcome the so-called Curse, if given a fresh chance at it.

As the book's dust jacket tells, Mnookin was granted "unprecedented access" to the Red Sox inner workings, their front office personnel, players, history and records, almost all normally out of reach to researchers and journalists working with any organization, so much more so the Red Sox. Of course, until recently, "unprecedented access" could have meant that a Sawx beat reporter actually got some answers about some a prospect from the team's Double-A manager, or a quote from one of the team's players about a tough loss or a bold trade. The team's need to perpetually "feed" the Boston media "monster" with new stories, juicy details and lurid gossip about whatever was (or was not) going on with the team at the time, as much as anything, probably led to the paranoia surrounding the pre-Henry/Lucchino front office, and the Boston media were ready for a change. The Dan Duquette-led former regime in Boston operated under such a cloud of suspicion and mistrust that its relationship with the media was akin to a hijacker conversing with the bomb squad's chief negotiator. The main difference was that instead of a bank or an airplane full of people left wondering their fate, it was all of Red Sox Nation that felt like the information they craved was being held hostage by Duquette and Company.

After years of treating information like it was gasoline in a Mad Max movie, Feeding the Monster represents a frank and refreshing departure from that mindset, one that allowed Mnookin to write a book chocked full of quotations from key poeple in the organization, and to provide details of the Red Sox history that have too often been overlooked or ignored entirely. He dispels some of the myths that surround the Red Sox, like the one about how then-owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919 in order to finance a play called "No, No Nanette" for exaple. A play that did not run until 1925. The popular notion of owner Tom Yawkey turns out to be a little naive as well. According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, "The popular owner was a generous man and a leader among big league owners." and his HOF plaque lists among his qualifications, "RATED ONE OF SPORT'S FINEST BENEFACTORS. " That may be true, but he was also a petty, brash, brooding alcoholic who owned the Red Sox more as a way of vicariously living out his own failed athletic dreams than as some kind of altruistic service to the people of New England.

Fortunately, like Mark McGwire (and unlike the Red Sox for much of the last century), Mnookin doen't want to talk about the past, or at least he doesn't want to dwell on it for very long. He provides these facts as a background for the reader, to understand from whence this franchise has come, so that the reader can appreciate how difficult it was to enact such changes as they did when Tom Werner and John Henry bought the team and hired Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein to be the faces of the team's front office.

Exorcising the Curse of the Bambino did not happen overnight, of course. But careful planning, well-considered free agent acquisitions, and some clever trades brought together a team that could compete, year-in and year-out. The offensive juggernaut they assembled, based largely on a Bill James-led statistical paradigm that valued on-base percentage and power above all else, set several records between 2003 and 2005, including becoming the only team in baseball history to score at least 900 runs in three straight years. In 2004, as you know, the stars aligned perfectly, and all the statistical analysis and gutsy moves (like picking up Curt Schilling, and trading away Nomar) paid off, as they won a championship for the first time ince the end of World War I.

But success, while it does seem to breed good team chemistry within a season, also seems to breed in-fighting and primadonnas the year after. Egos enlarged, but the clubhouse didn't, and the team's management suddenly found itself with a bunch of players who though more of themselves than was appropriate, simply because they'd been present when the Curse was broken. On the field, the pitching fell apart, but the offense was still very good, and they managed to hold on to win the Wild Card again in 2005, this time getting swept by the eventual World Champion Chicago White Sox in the Division Series. Worse yet, the Dan Shaunnessy-led Boston rumor mill made Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein wonder about each others' loyalties, and their strained relationship eventually led to the boy-wonder GM refusing to return to the team after the 2005 season. That decision essentially hamstrung the team for the 2006 season, during which the Sawx finished lower than second place in the AL East for the first time since 1997, though that all happened after Mnookin published his book.

Without a working crystal ball to predict that result, Mnookin's book ends on a high note, projecting and predicting good things for the Boston franchise in 2006 and beyond. While he may have missed the mark a little on his 2006 prediction, Mnookin's general principle is spot-on: The Red Sox are under new management, with a new management style and a new approach to running the franchise that should consistently yield positive results for the Red Sox and their fans. If they keep to this model, there's no reason it should take another 86 years for Red Sox Nation to celebrate another World Championship.

And you would be a fool to wait even 86 minutes to read Feeding the Monster. Mnookin's fluid writing style and remarkably interesting subject matter make it almost impossible to put this book down, and his insightful quotes will help to offer you new perspectives on people you thought you understood already. Even if you're a Yankee fan, like me, you'll appreciate reading the opposition's game plan, if only so you can be prepared to counter it.