Monday, July 4, 2016

Reviewing a Baseball Reading Odyssey: Some Thoughts on Ten Baseball Books Consumed This Year

My baseball literature cup runneth over.

Every year with the return of baseball, I indulge in a period of fairly intensive baseball reading. This year it got a little out of control. My excitement about the game combined with an insatiable reading habit and a batch of new (or newly acquired) books leading to a gluttonous binge that began in late January stretching into the summer with ten books polished off and a few more lingering. Somehow, after absorbing so much information about baseball through this stack of books (in between watching baseball games and reading baseball articles), my appreciation for the game stands as heightened as ever.

Without further ado, here are my thoughts on this year's baseball reading binge.

Baseball Prospectus 2016

A recent trip home to the isle of Staten in New York where my full baseball library resides reminded me that I've been picking up the Baseball Prospectus annuals since 2003. During that time I've become a fairly obsessive and very particular reader of these gigantic info-dense texts, always closely scrutinizing their quality and making comparisons to the book's glory days. Like every other organization, the BP conglomerate of writers has experienced plenty of transition over the last 15 years so the book has inevitably evolved. There was a distinct fallow period leading to the abominable 2013 edition that had diehard readers like myself flipping out. Since then, a new crew of overseers has guided this unique annual book back to prominence.

This latest edition of the BP annual is one of their finest books ever. I love just about everything about it down to the physical presentation and quality of the paper. What we diehard readers tend to look for in this book is a perfect blend of intelligent insight and witty levity. When executed correctly, this combo can propel a reader straight through the 600-page behemoth and that's exactly what happened for me this year. The book arrived earlier than usual in late January and I was through the entire thing in a few weeks. The great thing about the BP annual is that, even after you've read it all, it becomes an essential reference book for the next six months.

My favorite aspect of the book has always been the team essays. I've also become extremely fastidious about these precious and highly sought-after pieces, insisting that they live up to a certain quality. Traditionally, these essays have been sources of objective insight into the current state of each team, often delivered through world-class quality of writing. Each essay always seemed to have its own angle, style, or point of focus. In an attempt to recapture what made the essays unique and special, the new crew of editors decided---starting in 2014---to bring in a different outside writer for each chapter, typically beat reporters, bloggers, or writerly fans with a close relationship to the team.

This approach has been hit-or-miss for me. I find it especially disappointing and antithetical to what BP stands for when they have newspaper beat reporters writing the team essay. And sometimes the writers they've assigned to a chapter seem to really struggle with it or choose one specific topic that provides little insight into the outlook of the team as a whole. Again, after 14 years of reading these books obsessively I've become pretty dang persnickety about them. I've even developed a criteria for evaluating the team essays: a) the writing quality must be at a level that I can't achieve, in other words, I don't want to read something I could've written and b) there must be some fresh insight, tell me something significant (big or small) that I don't already know. In some cases this year the essays failed miserably at that criteria (specifically the Padres, A's, Blue Jays, and Dodgers essays), in some cases the essays held up half their end of the bargain (Braves, Nationals) but otherwise the essays were pretty good overall.

My favorite team essays were: the Angels (David J. Roth is one of the best sports writers working), Marlins (extremely well-informed, great writing), Mets (fantastic writing), Yankees (fresh insights), and the Rays (great analysis of a fascinating team). Also loved the Phillies (William Blake epigraph? Yes please), Astros, Brewers, and Pirates chapters for various reasons.

The baseball writing market of 2016 is extremely oversaturated. It amazes me how much high quality baseball content proliferates on the web. Many of the writers who originally made BP so wonderful are still practicing their craft somewhere (Joe Sheehan, Steven Goldman, Jonah Keri, Jay Jaffe, Keith Law, etc) while the BP flagship continues to produce new writers and a formidable and entirely worthy competitor in FanGraphs does the same. The baseball blogosphere is also completely inundated with excellent writers and thinkers. It's impossible to keep up with all the insightful and informative pieces that are produced now on a daily basis. This oversaturation of info has made it increasingly challenging for the BP annual to provide fresh insights but, conversely, as the ultimate book to which all great baseball writers strive to contribute every year, it has the potential to embody the absolute finest contemporary printed baseball coverage imaginable, all bundled into one enormous paperback telephone-book-sized textual slab. I do think that ultimate gold standard is what the book's overseers are striving for and, despite some noticeable swings-and-misses in their bold and still developing approach (in which they ought to strive for a larger ratio of in-house writers covering the essays), this latest edition comes very close to achieving that.

Baseball Maverick: How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets 
by Steve Kettmann

Incredibly, Kettmann originally published this book prior to the Mets 2015 season in which they shocked the world by advancing all the way to the World Series. Prior to that, to the untrained eye it would seem there was no place for a book like this. When it was initially published, general manager Sandy Alderson had yet to steer the New York Metropolitans' ship over the break-even mark even once! By the time the expanded paperback edition was released a year later, Alderson had won the MLB Executive of the Year award.

As a diehard Mets fan, I was excited to snatch up the paperback edition and discover the story behind the mysterious wizard who'd led the Mets through the rough trail of financial restraints and #LOLMets memes to the Promised Land of a division crown, NL pennant, and fecund farm system producing one pitching star after another.

Baseball Maverick was an enjoyable, informative read. Kettmann is a smooth writer and effective storyteller. He provides ample background on Sandy Alderson's career, starting off with stories of a young Alderson, son of an Air Force pilot, posing as a journalist in order to enter the Vietnamese warzone and ride his bicycle around exploring. The military background stories were surprisingly fascinating. How his impressive gathering of totally non-sports-related credentials---Marine officer, Dartmouth alum, Harvard Law school grad---eventually led to Alderson landing in a major league front office was something I was always interested in reading about.

The stories surrounding that transition were extremely fascinating. As a young lawyer in 1980, Alderson found himself having to help negotiate the sale of the Oakland A's away from notoriously kooky character Charlie O. Finley, among the most colorful team owners in baseball history. Soon Sandy was working full-time for the early-80s A's and getting thrown to the wolves by the front office to suffer the wrath of rambunctious manager, Billy Martin. Opening a career in baseball having to tussle with Billy Martin and negotiate with Charlie O. Finley can prepare one for absolutely anything. It really does not get much wilder than that.

The whole section covering Alderson's years with the A's was one of my favorite parts of the book. Kettmann covers it quite well. It reads just like a Moneyball prequel, as Alderson scooped up stats guru Eric Walker (after hearing him talk baseball stats on NPR during a morning commute over the Bay Bridge---loved that scene), introduced Apple computers into baseball ops, and hired a full-time psychiatrist for the organization, among other cutting edge moves. Under Alderson's watch the A's won three straight pennants and a World Series. Of course, he also eventually nurtured Billy Beane into the GM role that would make him so famous, bringing the failed position player Beane into the front office as a scout before taking him under his wing as assistant GM. Alderson is clearly portrayed as the Obi Wan Kenobi to Beane's Luke Skywalker here.

As a Mets fan, I found the large portion of the book dealing with Alderson's career in New York enthralling. Lots of behind the scenes details on transactions and depicting Sandy's reactions to games. My favorite parts of the book were the descriptions of Alderson's excitement about Jacob deGrom prior to his first major league season. Kettmann isn't an amazing writer per se, but he describes the uniqueness of deGrom very well. Here's a snippet:
We watched a Grapefruit League game together, and I tried to get Alderson to show me some excitement over Syndergaard. He wasn't biting. Again and again, he wanted to discuss a pitcher named Jacob deGrom, who sounded to me like some Flemish painter I should have heard of but hadn't. Come to think of it, the gangly young pitcher even looked like a Flemish painter, with his shock of long dark hair, the intellectual-in-a-coffeehouse facial hair (was he trying for a goatee? a Van Dyke?), and the pale, thoughtful expression. DeGrom was a converted shortstop who had started pitching only a few years earlier, so it was hard for me to take him very seriously. How many six-foot-four beanpoles remake themselves in short order to go from infielder to a big-league rotation? What were the odds? But Alderson was excited telling me about his potential.
Of course, deGrom would proceed to have an out-of-nowhere Rookie of the Year season and has been the Mets' ace ever since. As of this writing, he's now amassed 417.1 innings with a 433 strikeouts and a 2.61 ERA in the majors. (And Mets fans will never forget his first All Star appearance, 1 inning pitched, 3 swinging strikeouts.)

My only quibbles with the book are that it seemed to be too detailed at times, bogging the reader in minor details and slowing the story down. I also think Kettmann too often resorted to a journalistic, reporter-esque style of writing that can get boring in a book-length text. His forays into more thoughtful prose were terrific, I just wish more of the book was written that way. There also could have been more information about Alderson & Co's team-building and strategic efforts as opposed to details of individual ballgames.

But that's all nitpicking about minor imperfections. It's a great book, well worth a read for any baseball fan and a must read for any Mets fan.

Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game 
by John Sexton

I went through an odd sequence with this book. When I'd first heard of it, it sounded appallingly corny and I brushed it off not knowing anything about it but the title. Eventually I read some reviews, learned more about the author, and listened to an intriguing interview with the author who I came to like and relate to. A fellow New Yorker, he's the former president of NYU and was a diehard Brooklyn Dodgers fan as a kid just like my dad.

So eventually I was convinced to pick it up. And boy, was I disappointed.

For a book of only 220 pages it felt way too long and overwritten. It was a chore to read.

Baseball mysticism is admittedly not an easy topic to write about, and Sexton does bring plenty of valuable elements to the table, they just don't mix very well. At all. It reminds me of the time I tried to make a peach cobbler. I had all the right ingredients and the best intentions, but when I took it out of the oven nothing had combined and it was just a bowl of uncoagulated mush. That's what this book is.

The writing was especially unsatisfying---a bland, PBS-style of prose that, when talking baseball, condescended down to readers who knew nothing about the game and, when discussing religious concepts, often failed to communicate in a relatable manner. The many instances of theological jargon and history were frequently unbearable.

I've reached a point in my baseball reading where, with a few exceptions, if a writer isn't at least a little bit educated on sabermetrics and the Bill James canon, or at a minimum amenable to both of these, I find it hard to take them seriously. Sexton mentions sabermetrics only once in the book and it is with contempt. While attempting to give the statistical advancements of the game their proper due, he also describes it as "reminiscent of medieval theologians debating the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin" and flat out states "the most important elements of baseball cannot be measured." The most important elements of baseball are runs scored and runs allowed. We've got a pretty good grasp of those as well as the component elements that lead to them.

I really wanted to like this book. Plenty of stuff within it was right up my alley like the concept of the "ineffable" or Mircea Eliade's term "hierophany" describing the sacred manifesting in the elements of the mundane. Sexton mentions the axis mundi (a topic I was heavily into for a recent piece) in relation to the ballpark. He even uses one of my favorite quotes from Ulysses: "Any object intensely regarded may be a gate of access to the incorruptible aeon of the gods." And the core of the book, the need for balancing the religion-vs.-science divide, is a topic that's been of utmost interest for my entire adult life.

But I think he botches discussing the religion-vs.-science balance, his disdain for sabermetrics exemplifying this most clearly. In the real world, I think it is key for us to understand modern science and view the world through a scientifically-informed perspective while also understanding that science is only a model, it is prone to adjust. It is a framework outside of which spans infinite mysteries. Science shouldn't dull the senses but encourage more capacity for wonder.

I feel the same way about baseball. It's essential to understand the stats, understand the true performance measures of players and teams and gameplay. So much in baseball is in fact measurable and definable. With a basic understanding of those things then the truly unmeasurable mysteries, the intangible, undefinable, ineffable magical qualities of baseball that make it so unpredictable elicit an enhanced sense of wonder and, for me at least, an obsessive interest in watching it all unfold every day.

Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76 
by Dan Epstein

Last year, I read Epstein's previous book that covered the entire decade of the 70s, Big Hair and Plastic Grass, and enjoyed it immensely. This is a sort of sequel, another enjoyable read informing me of many things I was not aware of about this period and expanding on some of the things I'd learned from Epstein's previous book.

For the most part, it's a straightforward month-by-month account of the 1976 baseball season, covering the stories and schedules of each team with a particular emphasis on some of the most interesting characters and teams like Billy Martin's Yankees, the Big Red Machine, Mike Schmidt and the Phillies, the end of Charlie Finley's dynastic A's, the Red Sox of  Carlton Fisk and Bill Lee's heyday, Bill Veeck's return to the south side of Chicago, Mark "The Bird" Fidrych (what an incredible story he is), the Dodgers right before Lasorda, Randy Jones the junkballing Cy Young winner for the Padres, Ted Turner and his whacky antics with the Braves, the Dave Kingman-era Mets, Reggie Jackson in his lone season as an Oriole, and all the players-vs.-owners drama surrounding free agency in its infancy. It was definitely a season and a historical time period rich in stories with important shifts in the landscape. Epstein details all of it in very clear, easily digested prose.

A pop culture historian, Epstein also effectively provides perspective of the larger cultural backdrop of the events of 1976, including popular songs of the period, the ongoing presidential primary, social upheaval, and especially and most prominently the American Bicentennial Celebration of '76 which I'd previously had no idea was such a huge event. With the presence of the Liberty Bell, Philadelphia became an epicenter for the Bicentennial celebration and so the '76 Phillies are well-covered in the book, a fascinating team with the borderline Hall of Famer and controversial slugger Dick Allen returning to the team he'd started with for a late career surge.

Speaking of Allen, one of the things that really stuck with me from this book was the persistent tension of racial strife persisting from the '60s Civil Rights era. Most notably, on the last day of the regular season, Hal McRae contested in the middle of a game that the opponent was letting George Brett's hits fall in so the white Brett could win the batting title over the black McRae. The two teammates were in a close race for the batting title going into that game. This was one of many such instances where tensions about racial inequality manifested right onto the playing field around that time, 30 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line. Now, 40 years after that '76 season, it seems we still haven't progressed very far as a society when it comes to these issues.

A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of A. Bartlett Giamatti

Glory, glory! Inject the baseball right into my veins!!!

That's what A Great and Glorious Game felt like. After making my way through a string of different baseball books, whatever minor trace of baseball fatigue may have appeared was completely and entirely washed away by the enjoyment and stimulation I received from this wonderful little book.

Giamatti (father of actor Paul Giamatti), a former president of Yale and briefly commissioner of baseball before his untimely death, wrote as eloquently, as poetically, and with as much reverence as any writer on the game aside from Roger Angell.

This book gathers nine of his pieces, encapsulating his enlightening view of the old ballgame. The perspective he shares through his polished prose reminded me a bit of Kurt Vonnegut's signature viewpoint, describing commonplace earthly events from the view of an outsider, an alien. Giamatti details the dimensions, laws, and dynamics of the baseball diamond in such a way as to refresh one's outlook on the game itself.

In his essays he frequently returns to a few core concepts, his favorite things about the game of baseball and what makes it so aesthetically and vicariously pleasing. For one, the concept of home, a place you leave and strive to return to. I can't possibly sum it up as beautifully as he can:
Baseball is about homecoming. It is a journey by theft and strength, guile and speed, out around first to the far island of second, where foes lurk in the reefs and the green sea suddenly grows deeper, then to turn sharply, skimming the shallows, making for a shore that will show a friendly face, a color, a familiar language and, at third, to proceed, no longer by paths indirect but straight, to home.  
Baseball is about going home, and how hard it is to get there and how driven is our need. It tells us how good home is. Its wisdom says you can go home again but that you cannot stay. The journey must always start once more, the bat an oar over the shoulder, until there is an end to all journeying. Nostos; the going home; the game of nostalgia, so apt an image for our hunger that it hurts.
(That's from his essay "Recall as the Series Ends, the Afternoon of the Fall" which is about sitting inside the Austin airport watching the World Series conclude. As I read this beautiful piece mere hours after I'd traveled from the same Austin airport for a vacation, I had a rush of brain-tingling endorphins.)

He frequently rhapsodizes on the elegant symmetry of the game, its laws enclosing the bursts of wild freedom that are always threatening any hope of perfection, all of it revolving around 3s---3 strikes, 3 outs, 3 sets of innings, 9 men in the lineup, 90 feet between bases, 60 feet 6 inches from pitcher's mound to home plate. While there are always 4s rebelling against the 3s trying to create scoring and prolong the game, delay the passing of time---4 balls to walk, 4 bases to travel to score a run.

Reminiscent of Angell, he ruminates on the other geometries of the game, the parabolas, sharp cutting or curving spinning balls, sharp-angled slides or turns, the impromptu assembly lines of a relay throw, etc, etc. Baseball is a beautiful game. This is a book that reinvigorated my appreciation for it. I look forward to re-reading this over and over again.

The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. 
by Robert Coover

Picked up this amusing little novel after hearing it mentioned on the "Effectively Wild" daily baseball podcast (plenty more about that below). It's a very quirky novel about a middle-aged accountant named Henry who obsesses over a dice-roll baseball game he's created.

For the most part, I found Coover's writing to be a revelation. One of the blurb reviews had described the book as "a Joycean world" and I first thought this had to be hyperbole, but the prose carrying the main character Henry through the urban landscape did indeed have a Joycean feel to it. Lots of stream of consciousness with many astute everyday observations as the veil between the character's inner world and the outer world constantly shifts, much like Bloom's ponderous wanderings in Ulysses.

Oddly enough, the baseball parts of the book were boring to me. Most of it was along the lines of sophomoric banter between the imaginary baseball players rather than accounts and descriptions of gameplay but even the latter had limited appeal because, well, it's all fictional baseball, fictional teams and fictional players existing inside the head of a fictional character within a fictional novel.

As a baseball-obsessed accountant myself, the character sort of hit close to home. Although one of the most striking parts of the book was when Henry admitted he didn't care at all about real baseball. Coover's gift for prose kept me engaged, but the story was pretty bleak. I hope I don't end up like pathetic old Henry. (Although here I am in my pajamas writing thousands of words about the ten baseball books I've read in the past six months...)

The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Wild Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse 
by Molly Knight

Simply an excellent baseball book. Anyone who enjoys reading anything about baseball will get sucked right into this book. Tough to put down at times. Its engaging, attractive writing style made reading it easy, fast, and pleasureful. Felt like watching a well-edited and narrated documentary on the inner life of the modern LA Dodgers, the most expensive baseball team ever created, who rose from the ashes of the morally, intellectually, and financially bankrupt garbage heap that was the McCourt ownership (Frank and Jamie whose profligacy and lunacy knew no bounds, who'd somehow acquired the Dodgers franchise for $430 million worth of debt in '04 and ran it straight into the ground). A transition of team ownership from broke to wealthiest (the moronic McCourts to the multibillion dollar Guggenheim Baseball mothership by way of Bud Selig and Major League Baseball) leading to three straight division titles won by an eclectic band of complicated, often prima donna baseballing individuals. Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig, Zack Greinke, Don Mattingly, Andre Ethier (who doesn't come across well here), Hanley Ramirez and lovable characters like Juan Uribe and the young legend Clayton Kershaw. Oh and of course there's Vin Scully featured here, too.

Knight provides minute-to-minute coverage of the negotiations that led to the enormously shocking blockbuster trade of August 2012 with the Red Sox, the Guggenheim conglomerate's heavy pockets taking on the bloated contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett off Boston's hands in exchange for a couple prospects and James Loney.

The last quarter of the book sort of fades off but perhaps that's to be expected in the story of a team that hasn't advanced through the playoffs. Although, like the 2002 A's in Moneyball, they did run off a historic string of regular season success for a couple months in 2013. But, the Giants have already won two championships since the Guggenheim group took over.

Above all, Knight deserves accolades for her engaging storytelling on what makes this team such a perfect mess.

The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team 
by Ben Lindbergh & Sam Miller

As a devoted listener to their daily "Effectively Wild" podcast, I'd been highly anticipating this book for months. The two authors, Ben and Sam, respectively the former and current Editor-in-Chief of Baseball Prospectus, have also been two of my favorite baseball writers for many years now, indeed two of the best in the biz. No matter what the topic of their book would be, I had sky high expectations.

The Only Rule ended up being my favorite of all the baseball books I read in 2016's literary seamhead odyssey. It's a fascinating story in which the two creative baseball thinkers are given the opportunity to run a low-level independent league team, the Sonoma Stompers, for a season, building the team from scratch at the start and given free reign to institute as many statistical bells and whistles as they could while implementing unorthodox strategies into a very archaic league. The book is filled with satiating baseball minutiae and statistics, made extra interesting by the fact that they had to set up statistical models and technology entirely on their own from scratch. Indy league ballparks don't have PitchFX tracking, for instance, but Ben & Sam got to set it up (literally) for the Stompers. As a stats nerd and fantasy baseball addict, I also loved discovering what measures they found important and meaningful in this tiny four-team league with its short schedule and small sample sizes.

Beyond that stats geek stuff, the human aspect of the story, the interaction of personalities, was very revealing here and has made me watch baseball a little differently ever since. It served as a reminder that baseball players are all young dudes whose livelihood stems from their athletic prowess. They're like most other 20-something dudes in that they love weed, beer, pussy, videogames, etc. Many are kinda dumb, kinda bro. Nobody reads (the only book spotted in anyone's locker being Three Nights in August by Buzz Bissinger, incidentally a man with seething contempt for the Ben & Sams of the world). They eat terrible food and have lots of bad habits like every other 23-year-old but they also just love playing baseball and strive to achieve their dream. Reading about Ben & Sam's integration into this culture and especially their attempts to gain trust and acceptance so as to implement their arsenal of data-based strategies and approaches was what made the book so special. Their clash with the team's firecracker manager was engrossing, page-turner material. "The closer is the closer because he's the closer" is probably the most memorable line from the book, the manager's moronic tautological defense of his ignorant misusage of the team's best pitcher. Again, it's the kind of thing that makes one view the dynamic of major league baseball differently, as in "oh that's why the managers do dumb stuff."

Even the setting where this all takes place is fascinating to read about. The whole league is situated in wine country, just north of San Francisco with teams in Sonoma, San Rafael, Vallejo, and Pittsburg. The Pacific Association is an extremely low-level league unaffiliated with any major league organizations, the talent level perhaps equivalent to A-ball. The business side of things is small potatoes, very much a hands-on, GM-selling-hot-dogs-and-working-turnstiles type enterprise. Other, higher indy leagues or low-level affiliated minor league teams are eager to snatch away any good players from the Pacific Association and it's a struggle to try luring quality ballplayers out to Sonoma for low pay in the first place.

My favorite chapter was "Spreadsheet Guys" wherein Ben chronicles the spreadsheet-led approach to team-building, identifying undrafted under-the-radar college baseball stars and trying to convince them to resume their careers in Sonoma. Also loved Sam's chapter "No Feel" on the early season training and Sam's amusing intimidation amongst a crew of alpha dudes. The structure of the book was very effective, with alternating chapters written by Ben and Sam, journaling the season chronologically through their occasionally divergent viewpoints. The two obviously clashed at times and since they were still recording semi-regular podcasts during this period, I'd be interested to go back and listen to those episodes again to see if their tension was noticeable.

Overall it's an absorbing, compelling baseball tale written by two excellent writers about their firsthand experiences. It's been called Bull Durham meets Moneyball and that's a perfectly accurate summation, maybe with some Little Big League mixed in. I'm proud of my favorite podcasting baseball nerds. They've produced a classic that I'll surely be coming back to.

Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles, and the End of a 20-Year Losing Streak 
by Travis Sawchik

After attending a Pirates spring training game in Bradenton, FL this past March and reading an excellent Sports Illustrated piece on the Bucs, I finally decided to pick this one up. While the subject matter was fascinating---the storyline of an increasingly open-minded baseball lifer in manager Clint Hurdle guiding the ; bridging the dugout/front office divide; under-the-radar free agent pickups, etc---and I'm excited for the forward-thinking Pirates organization, the writing style here felt so bland and occasionally clumsy that I was in a hurry to get through it.

The Hidden Language of Baseball: How Signs and Sign-Stealing Have Influenced the Course of Our National Pastime 
by Paul Dickson

Stumbled upon this fun little book at The Strand in Manhattan (possibly my favorite store in the world). It's very short, barely 150 pages excluding the glossary of sign terminology, but it's an extremely fascinating topic that I'd always wondered about. Dickson writes with a very practical, straightforward style, weaving together stories and details of the silent communication that constantly goes on among the men on a baseball field, from the game's inception all through the halcyon days of sign language subterfuge and code-breaking in the middle of the 20th century. With the modern game so heavily skewed toward home runs and strikeouts, it seems perhaps signs and sign-stealing aren't quite as integral anymore.

Although, as is well-explained by Dickson, opponents trying to pick up on a pitcher's tells, the subtle physical queues that could reveal a certain pitch is coming, or a baserunner signaling to a hitter the location of a pitch, or especially the complexly coded sign language that goes on between catcher, pitcher, and infield when runners lurk on base---these fascinating but subtle elements are constantly taking place in every baseball game today. I loved this book because it enhanced my enjoyment of watching baseball.


Flip Flop Fly Ball: An Infographic Baseball Adventure 
by Craig Robinson
What a fun book. So many long-pondered questions about baseball (distribution of righties/lefties among pitchers & hitters, pie chart percentage of Hall of Famers among all players ever, the orientation of every MLB park, and countless more) are answered by these beautiful infographics from Robinson, an Englishman who fell in love with baseball late in life and provides a unique view of the game. It's a visual-informational feast for baseball lovers.

It also features this amazing graphic, from a section called "Really Fantasy Baseball" pitting nine-member musical groups against each other:

Gotta love the alignment here. RZA and Ghostface as the battery is perfect.

The Baseball Book 1992 
by Bill James


The Ultimate Baseball Book 
edited by Daniel Okrent

My aforementioned trip home to my parent's house in Staten Island had me digging into the full baseball library that resides there. James' Baseball Book series was short-lived but the books are overflowing with interesting articles from a variety of angles. The 1992 version kept me occupied during my 10-day sojourn in Staten, it's a book so filled with content (with contemporary coverage for '92 and tons of essays on historical players) that I'll probably still be thumbing through it 20 years from now. The Ultimate Baseball Book is another treasure trove, filled with photos from every decade of the game's existence, with essays summarizing each decade interspersed with thought pieces from some of the century's best baseball scribes.

Lastly, while I picked up the most talked-about new book of the season, Jeff Passan's The Arm, I haven't read it yet. May actually sell it off and then wait for the paperback. Also, Brian Kenny has a new book being published tomorrow that I'm excited to read. (That he starts the first chapter with a quote from Edward Bernays tells you all you need to know about Kenny. He's an intelligent, incisive character.) Again, I may hold off until a paperback edition appears because all of the above is probably way too much baseball literature for a person to consume in a six month span. Or is it?


  1. Not since the days of Cookie Lavagetto or Vinegar Bend Mizell have I read such a wonderful post about baseball books. You're some sorta wunderkind-reader, PQ. You should get some votes for Blogger MVP this year - you're a 5-tool reader, what with the Joyce stuff, etc ...and I don't know which of the books you discuss here I wanna read first. Probably the Giamatti. I've read the Epstein and Coover but no others.

    What do you make of the Cosmic Baseball Assn?:

    I really liked The Devil's Snake Curve, by Ostergaard. I tend more toward the poetic in baseball writing, and not the stats, although I concede every point you make about stats and James and all things SABREmetric.

    There's an old book called Baseball I Gave You the Best Years of My Life, by Grossinger (who knew RAW!). It was long ago, but I remember liking it.
    My Angels are really horrid, and with every loss I'm reminded of the title of Grossinger's book.

    During every March/April I read 2-3 baseball books I haven't read. Your baseball reading puts me in the shade, or feeling like I just got DFA'ed.

    I wonder if the Cubs can finally do it this year. I saw them play the Pirates a few weeks ago and they LOOKED like champs in the making...but fer crissakes: it's the Cubs we're talkin' about here.

  2. Michael, your comments are always entertaining and appreciated. Thank you for the kind words. I really went headlong into the baseball reading plunge this year, to the detriment of many other activities I'm afraid. And you'd be right up there in the Blogger MVP voting as well, I've really enjoyed your OG posts, really glad you're back in full effect over there.

    Had not heard of Cosmic Baseball Assoc. until now. Very odd but certainly interesting.

    Devil's Snake Curve looks really cool, added it to my wish list.

    The title of that Grossinger gives me pause as I realize my first 30 years have been disproportionately spent watching and reading about baseball (Mets game is on while I type this).

    The Angels are in pretty bad shape. Their fate was determined when Scioscia won a power struggle with GM Jerry Dipoto last year it seems. And now Dipoto has the Mariners in pretty good shape. Unfortunately, my Oakland A's and your Angels will most likely be battling to stay out of last place for the foreseeable future.

    Cubbies certainly look like a powerhouse. The legend of Theo Epstein continues to grow. Will be very interesting to see what they do at trade deadline and October promises to be full of drama on the north side of Chicago. Can't overlook the Giants though in an even year, they've really turned it on lately. As a Mets fan, I must also admit the Nats are a very formidable team.