Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: Great Expectations (2013)

By Shi Davidi and John Lott

The first point to be made about the new baseball book, "Great Expectations," concerns the title, naturally. Someone else got there first.

In other words, don't go to the nearest bookstore and ask for it by name without saying, "It's in the baseball section." Otherwise, you'll be directed to the work of Charles Dickens, who is not a go-to person when it comes to baseball. And don't do a search just for "great expectations" on the computer, either.

With that obligatory joke out of the way, let's start by saying what "Great Expectations" is. It has to be the fastest season review in baseball literary history. Authors Shi Davidi and John Lott, who both cover the Toronto Blue Jays, collectively have written something of a summary of the 2013 season. These books usually come out just in time for the season opener, so it's odd to read it before American Thanksgiving.

The title works because everyone who followed baseball thought the Blue Jays were poised for a great season in 2013. They completed a couple of huge trades that brought them such players as Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and R.A. Dickey, and added free agents like Melky Cabrera. Clearly, the Blue Jays management saw weakness for a change in the American League East, long dominated by the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and struck in an attempt to become relevant again in baseball circles.

Simply stated, it didn't work. The Blue Jays got off to a poor start, lost Reyes to injury, rallied with a long winning streak in June to get to .500, and then collapsed mostly under the weight of a pile of injuries - particularly to the pitching staff.

Give Davidi and Lott credit for a good start. They dug into the mess that the Blue Jays were in at the end of the 2012 season, which eventually led to the trading of manager John Farrell to the Red Sox for a shortstop. (That one worked out pretty well for Boston.)

The Blue Jays didn't immediately think of such a massive remodeling. But general manager Alex Anthopoulos saw opportunity arrive when the Marlins decided to have a fire sale on some of their veteran talent. After receiving permission from ownership to raise the budget, Anthopoulos went to work and put together a team that was a favorite to win the division.There are some good details here about the negotiating process in the trade and in the discussion to extend Dickey's contract.

When the season starts, the coverage is less comprehensive and interesting. The chapters are split between on-field developments and extended profiles of some of the star players, such as Jose Bautista, Mark Buehrle and Brett Lawrie. Munenori Kawasaki even gets his turn in the spotlight, as he became an unexpected fan favorite despite backup status. The mini-bios aren't boring by any means, but there's no sense of urgency involved.They more or less float in space, unattached to the season around them.

And perhaps that's the biggest problem with the book. It reads as if everyone had big plans for the Blue Jays in 2013 and decided to capitalize by planning on publishing this volume. Even when the team disappointed, people were bound and determined to make sure the book still was going to come out at its scheduled time. The writing does feel a little rushed in spots, with some duplication of material. The deadlines must have been oppressive.

Davidi and Lott do review the year to a certain extent at the end of the book. There is some discussion about leadership problems - always tough to get a handle on in a team sport - and "the little things" that are difficult to quantify. But there are few signs of huge problems on the Blue Jays, such as a lost of respect of manager John Gibbons or an unhappy clubhouse.

Sometimes teams simply have off years, as there are no guarantees to success in baseball. That's what makes it a little maddening to those involved, but it also makes it so much fun to watch. "Great Expectations" will be of interest to Blue Jays fans who want to know more about this particular set of players, but the rest probably could do better elsewhere.

Three stars

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