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.