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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Book Round-Up: Baseball Edition

Seasons in Hell: With Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog and "The Worst Baseball Team in History"-The 1973-1975 Texas Rangers, by Mike Shropshire:The advent of baseball season put me in the mood for this, an account of the absurdist 1973-1975 Texas Rangers team.  When your team has no hope of hitting .500, you might as well embrace the egotistical and talentless hitters, the pitcher who deliberately shot himself in the hand, the other pitcher who called a press conference to announce he just threw spitballs, the outfielder given a whistle to blow because he couldn't remember to shout "I've got it!", the long-suffering manager with no illusions, the greedy owner coming up with ridiculous schemes to generate revenue, scarily blunt groupies, and the booze.  Oh my God, the booze.

Ball Four: The Final Pitch by Jim Bouton:Seasons in Hell was fun, but Ball Four is the superior book, and the original baseball "tell-all."  Bouton is a former ML pitcher, and the book covers the year he spent pitching for the one-season Seattle Pilots (plus three addenda for each additional decade).  Bouton's status as an insider and as a pretty smart and insightful guy result in a fascinating account of what baseball was like for the players in the years before free agency.  Although a lot of the stories he relates are fairly tame by today's celebrity-scandal standards, the book was hugely controversial when it was released; management had invested a lot in the idea of baseball players as Wholesome American Heroes, and finding out that they were often underpaid and mistreated, used drugs, drank a lot, played jokes on each other, chased women, and cussed would result in fans abandoning baseball! (Ha.) Some of the players, too, weren't too happy with the exposure, although to Bouton's credit he is never mean-spirited or cruel to his fellow players.

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, by Michael Lewis:Math + Baseball = Awesome.  This is the story of how one general manager, Billy Beane of the Oakland A's, defied baseball's conventional wisdom by using sabermetrics to build the best baseball team on the cheap.  It's a fascinating account of how some obscure but crucial baseball skills are completely undervalued, because people (agents, scouts, managers, owners) are too focused on flashy statistics like batting average and win/loss records.  This book was especially enjoyable for me as a Red Sox fan, because at the end of the season depicted, 2002, Beane turns down an offer to be the GM of the Sox.  Instead Theo Epstein took the job, determined to bringing sabermetrics to Fenway, and had some success.

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