Sunday, May 10, 2015

Reviewing a Recent Baseball Book Reading Binge

The end of winter each year inevitably brings with it a rekindling of my intense passion for baseball and 2015 was no different. I've been on a steady binge of absorbing baseball books for a few months now so here are some reflections on what I've been reading.

Baseball Prospectus 2015

Now in its 20th year of existence, this annual guide (featuring essays covering all 30 teams plus analysis/commentary on over 2,000 players) has undoubtedly faded a bit from its glory days but the 2015 version is the best one they've produced in many years. With editors Sam Miller and Jason Wojciechowski taking over in 2014 there were significant changes made to the format in an attempt to recapture what made the BP annual so special in the first place. Last year's edition was the first one ever to have by-lines on each of the 30 team essays while they brought in a bunch of recognizable baseball scribes to write each one. This experiment continued with the 2015 edition and works mostly for the better, but the luster of this fresh approach is starting to wear off. Bringing in a bunch of outside writers to cover each team has begun to feel rather gimmicky. I'd prefer to see BP make greater use of their own impressive stable of writers.

That complaint aside, BP 2015 is a terrific read that I'll be going back to throughout the baseball season. They've really revved up the wit, snark, and silliness (witness the emoji in Clay Buccholz' comment, the poetry for Hiroki Kuroda, and the oddity of Didi Gregorious' channeling of Derek Jeter) with an abundance of impressive, extremely creative writing while not sacrificing anything in the way of hardcore statistical analysis. That is what's always made this book so special after all; the extreme amplitude of information and heavy analysis held up by the light-hearted, creative, humorous writing style. I love the BP annual not so much for its acute baseball insights as for its stats-based writing about the game. This edition certainly provides that.



Among the highlights for me were Adam Sobsey's essay on the Tampa Bay Rays (Sobsey is a phenomenal writer whose work I'd like to see more of), the always excellent David Roth covering the always terrible Colorado Rockies, and the snappy, sharply written player comments in the Yankees, Orioles, Mariners, and Diamondbacks chapters. And the Bartolo Colon comment is, like all things Bartolo Colon in 2015, a thing of beauty.


The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2015

Now in its eleventh edition, this book has evolved considerably over the years. Everything from the size of the book to its format and contributors has changed, mostly for the better, but the cover art is extremely bad and physically it still feels like a cheaply produced, self-published text. It's odd because The Hardball Times Annual has been co-opted by the FanGraphs writing conglomerate which is known for its high-quality writing and presentation. While the outward appearance ain't so great, the content is certainly very good. What was once a book that was half essays and half stats has now become a 400-page batch of essays on a wide range of baseball-related topics. There's a timely focus on the game's ongoing era of increased strikeouts with an essay by baseball history expert Steve Treder covering the historical development of this trend; beloved analyst Jeff Sullivan discusses whether the rise of big data in baseball has contributed to the decrease in scoring; Craig Wright tackles the unprecedented explosion of Tommy John surgeries and what could be done about it; and Tony Blengino awards a "Power Pitcher Championship Belt" for every year in history, with Randy Johnson, Walter Johnson, Nolan Ryan, and Sandy Koufax fairing especially well.

I always enjoy Carson Cistulli's writing and here he provides a brief guide on how to identify possible standout prospects in the minor leagues, while Bradley Woodrum analyzes the Cubs upcoming onslaught of young talent. There's a thoughtful essay from David G. Temple on the demise of Minnesota's hometown hero Joe Mauer entitled "The Descension of Baby Jesus". One of my favorite pieces was Warren Corbett's story of the "Marathon Men" who each pitched 26 innings in a game back in 1920.

There's plenty to satiate the hungry baseball fiend in this book but there is something about The Hardball Times Baseball Annual that feels a bit awkward. Aside from its unattractive production qualities, it's usually published a month or two after the baseball season has ended which is when fan interest would seem to be lowest (mine certainly is). I've been buying the Annual since its inception, but I typically wait until the end of winter to pick it up. It's also becoming increasingly overloaded with intensely mathematical research and analytical essays whose charts and graphs appear so arcane as to turn me away completely. Maybe that's ignorant of me. This research certainly reflects the current state of baseball analytics as a whole, but as someone who's followed the rise of sabermetrics right from the start I can say the complexity of much of the work has really started to lose me.


Up, Up, & Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos
by Jonah Keri

Devoured the newly released paperback version of this book in a matter of days during a recent Florida trip (featuring an outing to a Spring Training game). This is the book Jonah Keri was born to write. A Montreal native and lifelong Expos fan, Jonah has gained a reputation as one of the finest baseball writers around today. Starting his career with Baseball Prospectus before a brief FanGraphs stint gave way to a prominent post with sports journalism giant Grantland, Keri's work is undoubtedly numbers-based but with Up, Up & Away he eschews stats-based analysis to focus on delivering a narrative. The tale is infused with passion and personal stories of attending games while providing a detailed and engrossing chronological history of the colorful Expos. Much like his first book, The Extra 2%, there's a ton of information here but it's all presented in a smooth, digestible manner.

It's really a fun book. The Expos had many characters over the years and as they built up a strong team in the 70s and 80s the Montreal fan base exploded, the European-flavored French Canadian city providing a fervent baseball atmosphere unlike any other. Montreal drew more fans than the Yankees in some years, Keri informs us. The organization became a player development machine, churning out stars like Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Larry Parrish, Steve Rogers, and Tim Raines with astounding consistency but, despite being one of the game's best teams throughout the 1980s, never experiencing any playoff success. Their painful NLCS defeat at the hands of Rick Monday and the Dodgers in 1981 would be the franchise's sole postseason appearance.

The story grows increasingly somber as the 1994 season-ending player strike cut short perhaps the best Expos team ever, a stacked roster dominating the league at a 105-win pace into August featuring young stars like Pedro Martinez, Larry Walker, and Moises Alou. An unfavorable TV deal (the Expos were essentially shut out of broadcasting games in Ontario thanks to a dick move by MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn) combined with a change in ownership to a stingy consortium of Canadian companies would lead to the once proud franchise's demise. New ownership sought to cut costs at the expense of talent, leading to homegrown superstars like Pedro, Walker, and Randy Johnson getting shipped out. The team became less competitive, fans grew sick of the heartbreak, and eventually a super shady ownership swap orchestrated by that super shady car salesman (acting as MLB commissioner) Bud Selig and a despicable art dealer named Jeffrey Loria led to the organization leaving Montreal for Washington, DC.

In their final years the Expos were pawned off by Loria (who somehow exchanged them for ownership of the Florida Marlins) to be run by MLB itself on a stingy budget with a makeshift front office as they dangled on the precipice of death. During these years I became a big Expos fan, couldn't help but root for them as they were so badly screwed over yet continued to compete. My brother John and I roadtripped up to Montreal for a weekend series in 2002 when Selig was on the verge of shutting down both the Expos and Twins (did I mention Selig was a shady slimeball?) and by a matter of luck I ended up witnessing the final two games of the franchise's history on a memorable autumn weekend at Shea Stadium in 2004.

We're talking about a baseball team that never won anything and ceased to exist ten years ago, yet it's a fascinating story and Keri presents it all in page-turner fashion. It's a highly entertaining book, even has hand-drawn Expos cartoons from Terry Mosher interspersed throughout. I loved it.


Can't Anybody Here Play This Game? by Jimmy Breslin
Zipped through this old classic on the 1962 Mets. It's written in a style that I found reminiscent of Vonnegut with short, economical prose featuring lots of dry humor as Breslin presents the story of the historically terrible but irresistibly lovable Mets. Was mostly interesting as a time capsule for New York City during that time period as Breslin spends much space discussing Mets matters away from the field. (There's also plenty about the team's manager Casey Stengel which made me eager to re-read Steven Goldman's excellent Stengel biography Forging Genius.)


The 34-Ton Bat: The Story of Baseball As Told Through Bobbleheads, Cracker Jacks, Jockstraps, Eye Black, and 373 Other Strange and Unforgettable Objects 
by Steve Rushin

Super long titles are in these days, I guess. This 2013 release is one of the best and most original baseball books I've read in a while. Longtime Sports Illustrated scribe Steve Rushin has always been a favorite of mine for his elegant and intelligent writing style. Here his skills are on full display as he digs into baseball's rich past, detailing the history of the game's many unique objects in smooth, easily digestible, often humorous and extremely informed prose. I was astounded at the wealth of historical nuggets contained within this book. Rushin weaves an array of fascinating stories and interconnected lineages (both personal and historical) while detailing the history of the baseball bat, the glove, the ball, the uniform, the helmet, the protective cup, and even ventures into the bathrooms of old stadiums (Ebbets Field had abysmal toilets, apparently), the proliferation of beer and hot dogs at ballgames, the rapid evolution of marketed memorabilia, the expanding seats for Americans' inflating posteriors, the pipe organ (which actually originated at Madison Square Garden to play during hockey games), and even the various versions of checkered pattern grass. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for baseball fans, young and old. I think it's now an essential for any baseball library. (I have to be an annoying pedant and point out a minor but noticeable error in here, though: when discussing the death of Indians shortstop Ray Chapman who was killed after being struck by a pitch in 1920, Rushin writes that pitcher Carl Mays was playing for the Giants. He was actually playing for the Yankees, though the game was at the Polo Grounds. I'm sure 1,000 other baseball nerds already pointed it out.)


On deck...

Benchwarmer: A Sports-Obsessed Memoir of Fatherhood by Josh Wilker
Wilker, author of Cardboard Gods (the book and the blog) is one of my favorite living writers and I've been eagerly awaiting this latest work, published just last week.


Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging 70s 
by Dan Epstein
The enjoyment I got from reading Jonah Keri's book, so heavy on 70s and 80s baseball, inspired me to pick up this intriguing 2010 release.

6 comments:

  1. I was thumbing through Epstein's book in my local library just yesterday, and I'd forgotten that, in 1976, the Anaheim Stadium groundskeepers found hundreds of pot plants growing in the outfield just before the season started, because of a Who concert from a couple months before. I plan to read that one soon. I also noted that, just on the shelves of one branch, there were entire books devoted to 1.) fastball; 2. curve; 3) knuckler; 4.) change-up: there's a PLENUM when it comes to baseball books!

    Baseball books I've read recently that I liked a lot:
    _The Devil's Snake Curve_, by a poetic prose writer Mark Ostergaard. He has an intense love/hate relationship with baseball which I appreciated.

    _Baseball Babylon_, by Dan Gutman. A 1992 book I'd just gotten around to. Subtitled, "From the Black Sox to Pete Rose, the Real Stories that Rocked the Game." All this before steroids.

    _Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud_: Joe Pepitone's autobio. He loved gangsters, was the sorta guy I'd stay away from if I was a GM. I'd heard about this book for years; it was supposed to be a real page-turner. And it was. I found it impossible to find. Used copies are going for way too much, so I got it via a complicated Interlibrary Loan.

    _The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubblegum Book_, which I'd read when it came out around 1974? It's still funny in a quaint sorta way. After I finished it, the main character in the book, Symour "Sy" Berger of Topps, died.

    _Baseball I Gave You All the Best Years of My Life_, ed. Richard Grossinger and Lisa Conrad. A compendium of poetic and dreamy baseball writing. Donald Hall is in it, for example. Grossinger, who also wrote a book on alchemy that I found very interesting, at one point knew Robert Anton Wilson in Berkeley. I think a book like this must have influenced the people who did the Cosmic Baseball Association:
    http://www.cosmicbaseball.com/

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  2. Thanks for commenting Michael! You always bring the goods.

    There's undoubtedly an overabundance of baseball books (and online content) these days. You can read nothing but baseball books for the rest of your life and barely scratch the surface of great baseball literature. Your library browsing experience cracked me up.

    I read the first chapter of Epstein's 70s book tonight and LOVED it. Great interweaving of American history and baseball history. He's also just written a book solely devoted to the 1976 season which seems peculiar and intriguing. That Anaheim story is funny, fitting with what I've read so far.

    Thanks for sharing this list, interesting stuff. Always heard great things about the Card Flipping book. And that last one sounds really cool. Baseball inspires writers and artists like no other sport ever has.

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  3. Very helpful, thanks! I tried to pry open the baseball as well but found your great blog before I broke anything.

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  4. Hi ,
    Thanks for sharing this nice post. "Baseball
    Prospectus 2015" is still good on current players for source, but not real scouting report, very opinionated by one man. Not as great like the old Baseball Scouting Notebook that was discontinued after 1996. Thank you...

    ReplyDelete

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