Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review: Up, Up and Away (2014)


By Jonah Keri

You might remember "The Extra 2%," in which Jonah Keri took a very indepth look at the Tampa Bay Rays. Not only did it show how the Rays figured out a way to compete with the Big Dogs of the American League East, but it was insiders' view of what the baseball business is actually like these days. If you haven't read it yet, go do so. It's still relevant.

The book was a big success commercially, and gave a major boost to Keri's career. He's done a variety of writing since then, and is one of the many members of the Baseball Prospectus Alumni Association (if they don't have one yet, they should) to become quite successful. Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com should be the honorary president of the group.

For his next major project, Keri turned to an affair of the heart. If you've ever lived in a city in which one of the major league teams moved to another location, such an action can be an emotional experience. Many never get over that emotional attachment. Ask any big fan of the Buffalo Braves (NBA), for example. (Guilty)

Keri had that sort of relationship with the Montreal Expos, stretched out over 30 years. It's been 10 years since the Expos moved to Washington. Now he's gotten the entire story on paper with "Up, Up, & Away." In case you don't hail from Montreal, that refers to announcer Dave Van Horne's home run call.

The Expos had a very odd history. They came into the league for the 1969 season, without a great deal of time to prepare on and off the field. Montreal didn't have anything close to a major-league stadium ready, and had to play in tiny Jarry Park - mostly known for the pool in right field. Willie Stargell deposited a baseball there one day. The Expos also lost a lot, which was sort of expected of expansion teams back then.

Montreal couldn't rely on those excuses after a while, but developed some new ones. They got a new stadium after the 1976 Olympics were held, but it was not exactly a quaint ballpark - and the roof never worked well either. When the Expos got good in the years to come, industry labor troubles got in the way. Montreal made the playoffs for the only time in its history in 1981, a strike-shortened season in which the team just fell short of the World Series. Then 13 years later, the Expos looked to have a team that could go all the way ... only to see the season cancelled by a players strike before it ended. Ouch. The team never really recovered, in part due to ownership woes, and played out the string for the most part for the next several seasons through 2003.

The Expos did have some stars along the way, like Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Vladimir Guerrero and Steve Rogers. They also had trouble keeping them and some others around for the most part, due to finances.

Certainly Keri threw himself into this project fully. He talked to dozens and dozens of people involved with the team over the years, many of whom were happy to give uncensored answers to all of Keri's questions. Therefore, the book contains a variety of stories about the drug use of some of the players, which explains a few things about the outcome of careers. The story about how one front office employee was fired because of an affair with another staffer's wife isn't exactly typical baseball writing, but it fits in nicely to the hijinks surrounding the franchise history.

Still, it's not the gossip that's the highlight here. Keri brings an analyst's eye to the proceedings. He looks back at player moves that worked out well and not to well, using such modern statistical tools as OPS along the way. It's a fun way to examine the past with a current toolbox.

There's basically only one catch in all of this. Keri can't resist the chance to put in some references to his own fandom here, mentioning games that he saw along the way and friends that he saw those games with. Usually, personal stories are just that - personal - and it's tough to make points about such experiences in a larger contest. The tales are a little cute, but I think they could have come out for the most part without much damage. After all, this book runs almost 400 pages.

Then again, without that passion "Up, Up, and Away" probably would never have been written. Most baseball fans certainly will thoroughly enjoy the full story of a franchise that always appeared to be playing with some sort of handicap. For those who lived through the Expos' experience up close in Montreal, they'll understand what Keri was doing. So those people should give this an extra star. It will stay on your bookshelf forever.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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