Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: Hardball Retrospective (2015)

By Derek Bain

I wonder if Derek Bain has seen the sun in the past few years.

He obviously has put a lot of work into his book, "Hardball Retrospective." It's 435 large pages, and he apparently didn't get much help putting it all together. It's obviously quite a piece of work, and he deserves a great deal of credit for his persistence.

As for the book itself, it's unique ... and will take some explaining first.

Bain went back through baseball history and assigned players to the team that originally signed them. That could include the draft or signings as free agents. Today that would mean international players; in the old days it would be straight signings or purchases from minor league teams. Rob Neyer once wrote a book that had the all-time best signings by position for each team in the majors; it's an interesting list.

Then, Bain magically outlaws trading in baseball and creates major-league rosters for each year. In other words, Nolan Ryan was a Met at the start, so he's placed on the Mets' roster - with the same statistics as he had elsewhere - for the next couple of decades plus. The rosters, by the way, aren't included here.

Then it's time to get out the calculators and computers. Win shares and wins above replacement are totaled for each team, and Bill James' Pythagorean records are calculated. Eventually, Bain came up with season records for each team from 1901 to 2013. I told you it was a lot of work. For example, if only signed players were included, the best team in the American League in 2004 would have been ... the Cleveland Indians. The Boston Red Sox would have gone only 87-75, perhaps because Manny Ramirez was an Indian and David Ortiz would have been a Mariner, instead of the actual 98-64.

Bain also takes the time to look at how teams have drafted over the years, and what clubs do a better job in drafting early and late.

Add it up, and there's plenty of interesting data here. The issue comes with how it is all presented. If you don't pay attention to advanced baseball statistics, this may send you running in the other direction. The book has many tables, numbers and anagrams.

If you can jump past that hurdle, there are several questions that come up along the way. The biggest is how it is presented. Much of the book is a team-by-team breakdown of the numbers, with comments of the highlights of some seasons. (Just asking: Why weren't the teams put in alphabetical order?) For example, Roger Maris' MVP seasons of 1960 and 1961 are mentioned, but in the Cleveland section since that's where he started his career. A question follows - would Maris have duplicated those statistics in Cleveland, in a different ballpark and with different teammates? Tough to say. If he didn't hit 61 homers in 1961, as seems likely, he probably wouldn't have been the MVP either.

That made many of the team comments a little irrelevant, even if they are designed as a "what if?". I think there was a better way to structure the book, by concentrating on the "revised" year-by-year standings. It seems like you could have a lot more fun with that. Interestingly, Bain has started to write up some of those very yearly reviews for websites; a quick search will turn them up.

The other possible flaw with this is that we don't see a year-by-year roster, so we don't know what goes into the year-by-year statistics. Does every player who had more than a cup of coffee in the majors in a given year get assigned to a team? What happens if a roster had 30 such contributors in a given year? (There is a bottom in terms of plate appearances and batters faced, so that teams who don't have many players contributing to the numbers - think expansion teams - aren't counted.) And what happens if, say, five San Francisco Giants outfield "originals" all have big years in the same season? It wouldn't seem fair to credit them all to the Giants, since they couldn't all play at once and some statistics would have to suffer. This issue should have been explained.

"Hardball Retrospective," then, is a difficult book to rate. The concept and effort are fine; it could have been executed in a more interesting way. On the other hand, there's a simple test to determine whether you should buy it if you are a baseball fan. Take a look at the publication, or at least check out the online articles. If you have an interest in it, you'll know right away. My guess is that this will fit a small but appreciate niche in the baseball-loving audience.

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review: The Phantom Punch (2015)

By Rob Sneddon

The most unlikely place for a heavyweight boxing championship match is no doubt Shelby, Montana. Jack Dempsey took on Tommy Gibbons in 1923 in a town that was essentially a collection of railroad crossings in Big Sky Country. A stadium was constructed for the bout, the fight was held (Dempsey won), the stadium came down, and a few people left with some money. The site is now partially occupied by a Burger King. I've been there; it (the location of the fight, not the Burger King) was odd then and it was odd now.

The second-most unlikely place for a heavyweight boxing championship match just might be Lewiston, Maine. Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston to retain the title in an unlikely finish.

"The Phantom Punch" is the story of that unique event, when an odd set of circumstances put one of the jewels of the sporting calendar in a small town in Maine.

And after reading the book, you might come to the same conclusion that I did. This is a movie, waiting to be written and filmed.

The story is irresistible. Cassius Clay had just knocked out Sonny Liston in 1964, and prompted changed his name to Muhammad Ali to reflect his religious viewpoints. America at that point knew it was scared of Liston, a man not unfamiliar with the nation's law enforcement system. He was something of "The Boogie Man" to many. But some Americans preferred that image to the one portrayed by Ali at the time, as he had joined the Black Muslims. As a result, no one was too anxious to try to host the rematch. When Ali had an operation for a hernia just before that second bout between the men, it gave forces in Boston time to come up with enough power to ban it from that Massachusetts city.

The date for the rematch was set, but where should be held? Maine promoter Sam Michael stepped up and offered an arena in Lewiston. Since the backers were more interested in pay-per-view sales than attendance at the bout itself, the offer was accepted.

It's tough to imagine what Lewiston must have been like in the days around the fight. It was a small, almost all white, working-class town that had seen tough times. Suddenly, two of the most famous black men in the world turn up for the fight. The dynamics are fascinating, and the book is at its best when describing what went on. For example, Liston - who had a weak spot for kids - spent a morning at an elementary school on a night's notice. He didn't just visit someone's son (who had asked for the visit), but made the rounds of every room in the school. According to all, Liston couldn't have been nicer, and is still well-regarded in Lewiston for his behavior.

Then there's the fight itself, which instantly became legendary. With rumors of fixes and murder attempts everywhere, Liston was knocked down by a punch that a lot of people at ringside didn't even see - hence the title of the book. The referee botched the count badly, and the fight resumed ... only to be stopped and declared over.

The movie could almost write itself - media members and celebrities arrive in Lewiston, Ali driving a bus down the main streets of the city, residents grabbing a case of soft drinks in order to pose as a delivery person and sneak into the arena.

"The Phantom Punch" probably lingers a bit much on the story of the promoter and the business deals involved in the fight. It's a little difficult to make that interesting. But author Rob Sneddon knows the boxing business, and makes a good case that Liston at that point in his life was no match for Ali under any circumstances. It's the background story, though, that supplies some charm.

It makes for a worthwhile, if a bit short, book. Let's hope Sneddon can sell the movie rights.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Review: Two Hours (2015)

By Ed Caesar

Every once in a great while, a magic number comes along in track and field that seems to capture the public's imagination.

Back in the 1950s, the number was four, as in four minutes. Could someone run a mile in under four minutes? Some thought it impossible, but Roger Bannister showed everyone that it could be done. Then, with the psychological barrier gone, others followed in his footsteps, so to speak. High school athletes were breaking the number by the 1960s.

That brings us to what might be the next magic number, two, as in two hours. Could someone run a marathon - 26 miles, 385 yards - in less than two hours? We're getting closer.

That's the subject for Ed Caesar's very good book, appropriately named "Two Hours." More than that, the story covers the state of men's marathon running in the world at this point in time.

Caesar does it for the most part through the eyes and legs of Geoffrey Mutai, a Kenyan runner. He is best known for running the Boston Marathon of 2011 is 2 hours, 3 minutes and 2 seconds. It wasn't recognized as a world record because of the downhill nature of the Boston course, but it was still a very quick trip by foot over more than 26 miles. Caesar obviously spent a great deal of time talking with Mutai about what life for a world-class marathoner is like. Mutai did a good job of describing it, even if English is his third language.

Caesar deals with other issues as well. One of the great mysteries of distance running is that most of the world's best runners for long distances come from the same region in Kenya. Even though this sort of fact seems ripe for scientific study, no one has come up with a particularly good reason why it happens. Is there something in the gene pool? Diet? Altitude? Relative poverty? A combination of all of them? We're working on it.

Then there's the matter of drug use, which has been discussed for the most part in whispers. Certainly when there's a mix of athletes coming from poverty, life-changing sums of money to be won, and available performance-enhancing (if illegal) drugs, then there will be a temptation by some to cheat. Some users have been caught, but suspicions remain.

Still, it's the 1:59:59 marathon that draws us in. The current is less than three minutes away from that number, but the arithmetic is more daunting than you might think. After all, a current world-record holder would have to run more than six seconds per mile faster to break two hours. That's quite daunting, even for the world's best.

Caesar, a freelance writer with a number of impressive credits, obviously put in his homework here. He went to Africa to watch training sessions, and attended the biggest races in the world. Caesar also has a nice way with words. A runner doesn't just increase his lead, he stretches the margin "like a torn shirt."

This isn't the type of book that will reel in the casual reader who goes for a jog every once in a while. There are a few sections that are necessary but a little less than compelling. Even so, "Two Hours" offers a fine overview of the sport at its highest level. It's an impressive literary effort.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.