Three Baseball Books

As I write, the 2006 MLB season is just around the corner. This coincides with the upcoming NHL playoffs, so itís my favorite time of the year sports-wise. Regarding baseball, Iím looking forward yet again to what the Cubs might do, and Iím also curious to see if the Blue Jays might irritate the usual AL East hierarchy. And will the NL East behave themselves this year? Weíll see. Here are three things Iím not looking forward to:

Anything Barry Bonds* does.
Anything George Steinspender says.
Joe Morgan.

Needless to say, discrimination when viewing ESPN and/or browsing the sports websites will be necessary.

I dug into three baseball books during the off-season, each great in their own way. I got a real kick out of A Tale of Two Cities by Tony Massarotti and John Harper, which follows the Yankees and Red Sox through the 2004 season. The majority of the book omnisciently details the wheelings and dealings of both teams, and for the head to head matchups throughout the schedule, the two authors break into separate perspectives (oneís a Yanks fan, oneís a Sox fan). Thereís plenty of entertaining material, like the A-Rod acquisition, Manny being Manny, Jeterís fall into the seats, Nomarís fall from grace, Bostonís self-proclaimed idiocy, Steinbrennerís ridiculous persona, and A-Rodís fairy slap (pictured on the cover). The hard-ankle emotions behind the rivalry reach at least one peak with the mid-season physical clash of Jason Varitek and Alex Rodriguez. The climax comes in Bostonís resurgence during the ALCS in what I have to say is one of the most amazing sports happenings Iíve witnessed in my lifetime. That they then went on to sweep the most fearsome NL team in 2004 is something I reckon Sox fans will remember in every detail until the day they die. In case any portions of the season have slipped from memory, A Tale of Two Cities comes to the rescue, and it provides a heck of a lot that youíve probably never known otherwise.

Second, I finally got around to reading Moneyball by Michael Lewis, an expose of how the Oakland Aís have focused on undervalued ballplayers in order to get the most from their limited funds. A paradigm shift takes place first in the ideas of GM Sandy Alderson and then carries over to the insanely driven Billy Beane. Moneyball: outs are valuable, so donít squander them on bunts or stolen bases. Find guys who are patient at the plate, who can and will take a walk, and who can hit that home run when they see the right pitch. Lewisí excellent writing takes us from Beaneís background to a peek at Bill Jamesí statistical world, then into the draft, the trade deadline, and real-game applications. I knew something about how general managers operated, but Moneyballís behind the scenes peek at least doubled that. I thought I knew something about baseball as well, but again, the book rocked my world. How much is a playerís defensive skill worth compared to his offense? And how much are the various offensive components worth? If you had a team of nine Scott Hattebergs, would it be more productive than, say, the Yankees? How much value should you give an ace closer? Moneyball asks these and many more questions and gives enlightening answers.

The strangest thing about Moneyball is the reception it received. From most, praise, but from some baseball insiders, outright rejection, even antagonism. Lewisí afterword in the paperback edition is an admirably restrained rebuttal toward those lifers who bristled at the suggestion that maybe there was more to learn about the game. (From statistics, a surprisingly hot issue.) Foremost among the naysayers was and is Joe Morgan, a Grade A ballplayer in his time and currently a boneheaded ESPN announcer. Morgan never even read the book (and thought Billy Beane wrote it!!) yet led the anti-Moneyball crusade in a haphazard, bitter fashion. I remember a broadcast where he tore into the Moneyball concept apropos nothing, and it carried all the weight of someone not knowing what theyíre talking about. I canít begin to understand why some people actually took offense to the ideas in the book. What with baseball essentially being so simple and so goddamn slow, you might think that those involved might be curious about alternate perspectives on the game, but no, the foot came down hard from some people. Ignorance is bliss.

(For a sample of Morgan's stubbornness, check out this article.)

Following on from Moneyball, I got The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, a massive look-see into over a century of players and teams. Decades are summarized one by one, then comes a list of the hundred best players, then the hundred best at each position. All of this is spiced with Jamesí insightful and well-written essays on various sub-topics. Yes, Bill James is the epitome of a stat-head, but a lot of those statistics are of his own creation and come from theoretical necessity, i.e., wouldnít it be more enlightening if we measured this or that in conjunction with the usual numbers. James also comes up with his own Win Shares system that puts a more accurate value on historical ballplayers than you get from the standard numbers or legendary hearsay. Along with the statistics, James also focuses on the human element of the game that has nothing to do with box scores. In fact, the book is filled with enough anecdotes and between-the-cracks observances to give lie to the stereotype of statisticians being digit crunchers and nothing more. Jamesí love of the sport is never in doubt (otherwise, why bother with all the arcane mathematics?) and the book strikes a great balance between the statistical and the personal. Even trivial stuff like uniform changes and Jamesí charming ďretro-BermanismsĒ are included.

I have no complaints yet of the James Historical Abstract, because a) I havenít enough of a statistical background to argue with any of his conclusions, although they are all logically presented, and b) itís going to be quite a while before I ďfinishĒ this monster. At nearly a thousand pages (I got the hardback edition, a steal at a used bookstore), itís the kind of volume you browse for months or years on end. In the first two weeks of owning it, I spent at least an hour a day buried somewhere in its pages. Iíve learned a lot and also laughed quite a bit, and the sheer comprehensiveness of Jamesí examination of historical records is staggering. A must for any student of the gameís history.

Incidentally, since I mentioned the NHL above, the ice analog to the James book is The Hockey Compendium by Jeff Klein and Karl-Eric Reif. The authorsí excellent prose is laced with biting humor, and they present both an historical overview of the sport along with rankings of teams and players based on unique, smartly conceived statistics. Again, the ďcoldĒ numbers enrich oneís perception of the game and of certain players, and there are memorable anecdotes throughout.

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