Along with following the NHL this winter, I found time to tackle a few baseball tomes. Nothing like reading about spring fever in January.
First up was the recent Fantasyland, a chronicle of author Sam Walker’s participation in a high profile fantasy baseball league called Tout Wars. Flanked by two assistants, one focused on human elements, the other on numbers, newbie Walker reconciles the old and new factions of player evaluation. Along with just being a fun tale, this book makes one of the best cases you’ll find for mutual dependence of statistics and personal observation. The motley cast of characters reminds me somewhat of Word Freak, in which author Stefan Fatsis immersed himself in the competitive Scrabble world. The level of obsession is the same in both fields, although none of the Tout Wars players mooch off their parents. Some come from outside professions, while others earn a living from baseball writing and player projection. (And one of Walker’s assistants is a NASA employee who aspires to the baseball world.)
The other central axis of the book runs between fantasy and reality. Walker uses his press cred to gather clues from players firsthand, some of whom acknowledge his fantasy team “problems” with polite patience, while others make their lack of concern very clear. It is just an imaginary game, after all, and Walker seems to cross the line to me, especially when he stages a public “protest” over the suspension of his player Jose Guillen. Well, it’s not his player to begin with; there’s a real world out there that the fantasy players lose sight of, or ignore altogether. This whole thing takes place in the season the Red Sox came back in the playoffs and won the WS. You can’t beat that for a real story, but Walker only gives it the briefest mention. I suppose this is why I’ve never gotten involved in fantasy sports myself. Real teams provide enough drama and I don’t want to lose that connection. But I digress. As a window into the top-level rotisserie world, where participants take their endeavor seriously, Fantasyland is a fascinating and darn enjoyable read.
I then cruised through Bill Simmons’ Now I Can Die In Peace, a collection of columns about the Boston Red Sox from 1998 through their 2004 WS victory. I liked Simmons when I first started reading his contributions to ESPN’s clusterfudge website, but it wasn’t long before I got off his wagon. (By the way, is a website considered user friendly if you have to wait a small eternity for all the ads and video clips and pop-ups to load on every page?) Simmons’ obsession with pop culture wears thin pretty quickly and at times reeks of desperation. In this book, baseball insight drowns in TV shows and actors and whatever else Mr. Bill can namecheck from the passive potato world. Why not just focus on the games and athletes and ditch the irrelevant contextual similes? And isn’t it alarming that somebody mentions porn with such frequency? Reading Simmons is like slumming through People magazine, and this book was soon back at the used bookstore where I found it.
Next up was Play Ball by John Feinstein, a widespread narrative of the 1992 season. Yeah, it’s an “out of date” book, but very entertaining and informative nonetheless. Feinstein examines the trials and triumphs of various teams, players, GMs, managers, umps, announcers, and one famous mascot. Despite the subtitle “The Life and Troubled Times of Major League Baseball,” the book doesn’t paint a depressing picture. It simply details the concerns that accompany the marriage of sport and business – personal pressures, ambitions, teamwork, and the occasional black mark. The biggest underlying trouble is the financial concern that either distracts certain players or governs owners’ directives, which can sometimes tank an otherwise competitive team. (Of course, these things would get worse in later years.) The book mostly focuses on performance on the field or in the standings, buoyed by biographical and/or historical tidbits. Feinstein does a good job capturing the season’s emotional roller coaster; the text provides many chuckles and perhaps a few tears, too. Reading it got me thoroughly stoked for the next season. Prescient stuff includes Leyland and LaRussa wanting to manage against each other in a World Series, the breakups of successful rosters, and young guys named Barry and Deion acting like jerks. No whiff of performance enhancers, though.
Couple of others, briefly. Curve Ball: Baseball, Statistics, and the Role of Chance in the Game by Jim Albert and Jay Bennett spends a lot of time illuminating the intuitive principle that without a hefty sample size, it’s difficult to separate signal from noise. Well, you’d think that’s intuitive, but plenty of knee-jerk fans are always ready to lynch someone in a slump. The authors glean some interesting info from plotted numbers, like a player’s true ability, offensive values, and a few projections here and there. More of a selected examination than a revelation, I don’t feel like my perception of the game was radically altered having read it. I took another historical jaunt with Pennant Races by Dave Anderson, who revisits several races from 1908 through the early 1990s. From Merkle’s boner to the “shot heard around the world,” Anderson retells lots of classic baseball lore, although his writing style doesn’t always match the dramatic scope of the subject matter. He did a lot of good research, though.
Drafting this page, I originally had a mini-rant in this space about the steroid issue, McGwire, the HOF, etc., but it got a little heavy so I abandoned it. I do want to say something regarding these ridiculously overpaid pitchers like Zito, Matsuzaka, et al: they’d better deliver this season. I don’t mean throw some solid wins; I mean they should each have historically dominant seasons. I’m talking complete games, shutouts, no-hitters, outstanding WHIPs, utter unflappability such as we have never seen before on the mound, etc. If their performance is not in proportion to the staggering sums they will receive for working one or two days a week, baseball is going to risk alienating even more fans. Either way, the check-signers look foolish to me.
Finally, I’ll dig into my fictional archives to end things on a lighter note...
CHICAGO (AP) - Mitch “The Oracle” Crystal, aka “The Prophet E” or “Three Pitch Mitch,” was thrown out of his thirty-seventh game this season during a late afternoon match-up against the Mets. New York manager Willie Randolph urged home plate umpire Zaz McCormick to inspect The Oracle’s glove after his second pitch, a self-titled “Hockey Puck” that zoomed in low to batter Paul Lo Duca and then rocketed upward into the stands just before crossing the plate. McCormick confiscated The Oracle’s glove, which had a metal file built into its heel, and he then issued a stern warning to the reliever, who was allowed to stay in the game on condition of using a different glove. The Oracle’s next pitch, after much suspicious legerdemain on the mound, was a physics-defying “snakeball” that veered from left to right and back again before settling dead center into the catcher’s mitt.
The Oracle is known for his doctoring techniques, all of which are practiced in plain sight, usually resulting in the pitcher’s dismissal from every game. Slow motion cameras have caught his baseballs flinging off lubricants as they spin through the air, and an ump once described a Prophet-filed ball as looking like Pac-man. Among The Oracle’s more notorious pitches are the Slippery Slider (which breaks four feet in a curlicue), the Not-So-Fastball (aka Vaseline Sundae), and the aforementioned Snakeball that despite its probable illegality continues to amaze rival pitchers. (Not to mention hitters; Alex Rodriguez famously swooned when he first saw one.) Nevertheless, The Oracle has gotten the job done this season. He may only get three pitches, but when they’re all strikes, his manager does not complain.