Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Substitute Blogger

Whenever the subject of pretty much anything comes up, there is always the request of “Name your top five….” Then we have to listen to somebody’s boring analysis on his or her list. I’m going to mix things up a bit here and do it differently. I’m going to jump right into the boring analysis without your request.

Baseball Books:
A subject that has been done to death, but no one ever gets it right… until now.

5. The Wrong Stuff by Bill Lee

I think it’s been mentioned before here on this very blog, but it needs another mention even if it has. There is very much a New England bias here. If you suffered brain trauma and root for some other team, by all means skip this and exchange it with Ball Four by Jim Bouton. But for the rest of us, this is it. There have been a lot of books about seventies baseball but the information gets lost by the end of the book. By connecting players to stories and anecdotes, The Spaceman makes that information stick. Oddly, considering this is supposed to be a hip and funny book, I’m not a huge fan of listening to what he has to say (I think he is ridiculous and mostly roll my eyes to be honest) but from a pure baseball book about the seventies, he nails it.

4. Clearing the Bases by Allen Barra 

Settling those pesky baseball disputes once and for all. Willie, Mickey, or The Duke? Was Babe Ruth overrated? What the heck happened to the 1986 New York Mets? And it has my favorite best of all time argument. (I don’t want to give it away, but years ago I used to always say this guy. I got laughed at. No wonder I like this book.). Dimaggio vs. Williams. Clemens vs. Koufax. Even for the weirdos that like football, there is a section on Don Shula and Walter Payton. But, the section on pitching is what really takes it to the next level. First off, there was a book called “The Diamond Appraised” in which the stats geeks took on the eyeball test people when it came to pitchers. It was groundbreaking (and yet teams STILL don’t follow it) in its way of showing how to keep pitchers arms from breaking down. The book, under review here follows that, but condenses it for normal people. Like The Davinci Code, each chapter is thankfully very short (“So you can feel smart” as Lois Griffin would say). One of the few books I won’t lend out. This is one of the most important books you’ll read if you are a baseball fan. Plus Tim Raines gets lots of love in it.

3.  Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Okay, Let me put on my helmet and protective gear. Here goes: THE MOST IMPORTANT BOOK ABOUT BASEBALL EVER WRITTEN. Yup, May not be the best, or even close to the first about sabermetrics but the term "moneyball" is now a term like Kleenex. People on a message board I frequent bash it “We’ve known about the importance of on base percentage for years”. No kidding. Me too. But 90% of the country didn’t. People complain about how The Red Sox and Yankees are ruining baseball because of their payrolls. Sorry to report, it’s always been this way. The only difference is they don’t have idiots running the front offices anymore. Give a team unlimited resources AND knowledge, and they will win. The Red Sox had wheelbarrows full of money for close to 100 years and couldn’t win. Nothing has changed EXCEPT they now use numbers and can avoid what Bill Lee (I told you his book was good) called “The Curse of Fenway”. For years the Sox tried to get right handed power hitters to hit homeruns over the left field wall. ANY major leaguer can do that. It was a stupid way to go about things. There are 82 games in bigger parks to worry about. Moneyball is a great read in addition to teaching something. The story of the amazing small market Oakland A’s of the early 2000’s is the easiest book to read nonstop on this list.

2. Over the Edge by Jay Johnstone

I know, 1980’s comedy doesn’t hold up very well (see Piscopo, Joe) but this book, his second, is a better book than his first. I knew nothing of 1960’s baseball when I read this book. Even though it was written in the 80’s, now when I read it, I see names from my Strat-o-Matic 1960’s retro league popping up throughout the book. He tells stories about being in the military, his childhood, and his minor league and winter ball days. Plus it’s really short. One of my favorite baseball childhood sports memories was “Fernando Mania”. This captures enough early 80’s Dodgers stuff to bring some of it back. It is the 1980’s equivalent to Bill Lee’s book (I really should move that up the list) in the subjects written about. If you like one you will like the other. Any book with light bulb fights in it has to be good. Be warned, it’s corny in its humor.

1. Dodger Dogs to Fenway Franks by Bob Wood

This never gets listed and I don’t get it. This is easily my favorite baseball book of all time. It is a story of a schoolteacher who takes a summer in his little Toyota hatchback and visits all of the major league ballparks. It is funny enough, sad enough, and has enough of his childhood memories to make it a good read even if you are not a baseball fan. The “Pride of Kalamazoo” grades all of the stadiums based on different categories like food (Dodger Dogs get an A+, while Fenway Franks get a D) and atmosphere (the grades get reversed). The traveling is written simply (unlike newer ballpark excursion books where it has to be filled with catch phrases and other nonsense, this flows because it is a well written novel). I think it is out of print (it was written in 1986?) but it’s worth looking for.

Thanks for reading and I apologize for leaving, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning off the list. It to me is more than a baseball book. It is a time capsule of a subject I love (1970’s New York). If you haven’t read it, read it before any of these.

(That was the first installment of "The Substitute Blogger" with Brian Smith.  I hope you enjoyed it, because I know he worked really hard on it.  He'll be back in the future with more views on a variety of other things.)

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