Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review: Marvin Miller - Baseball Revolutionary (2015)

By Robert F. Burk

At one point in Robert F. Burk's on Marvin Miller, there's a comment from Red Barber about how the three most important people in the development of baseball have been Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Miller.

That's a rather high bar to pass, but Burk makes a rather good case for it in his biography, "Marvin Miller - Baseball Revolutionary."

Miller led the first professional sports union to have any clout. That may sound impossible in a day when owners and players are essentially partners in the operation, but that's a tribute to just how far the relationship has come. What's more, both sides have gained, and Miller was the catalyst.

If there's a theme here, it's that Miller was the right man at the right place at the right time. Oddly, though, this was hardly always the case for him.

After graduating from college, Miller fell into a variety of jobs that saw him bounce along the East Coast for several years. World War II played a role in that, although he didn't see military duty because of a shoulder issue. Eventually Miller landed with the Steelworkers Union in 1950, and moved up the executive ladder.

This section of the new book contains some information and insight into Miller that's not too common. Miller himself was told to downplay it in his own autobiography, with the publisher no doubt thinking that most people buying such a book wanted to read about the baseball years. Burk goes into Miller's family background at length, and covers Miller's personal political views - which were quite left of center. When you consider the times of the late 1940s and early 1950s, it wasn't exactly a career boost to be outspoken about such stances.

Miller spent more than 15 years with United Steelworkers. It's difficult to turn labor negotiations in that industry into riveting (sorry) material, and it's a little tough to get through this without some familiarity with the subject. Still, it's interesting to read what happened to the business in that era. Very short version - America was the king of steel after World War II, because the rest of the world's plants were in ruins. But as production in Europe and Japan started to ramp up, American business shrank - and conflicts grew on how best to handle that ever-changing situation.

By 1966, Miller was ready for a new challenge, and he found one when he was named the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. It was a group that had virtually no rights in the workplace, starting with the freedom to choose an employer. As the book details, Miller slowly built up support within the union and took on management on a variety of issues. He was helped by the fact that he was good at this, and those on the other side were simply awful at it. Baseball owners were outflanked at virtually every opportunity during Miller's time on the job.

Along the way, owners predicted doom after every step, and they were proven spectacularly wrong. Arbitration arrived, the reserve clause died, free agency became a reality, and revenues, salaries and franchise values spiraled upward. Burk gives most of the credit to Miller for this, which matches what most sports historians say.

After Miller stepped down from a formal role with the MLBPA in 1982, he remained in the picture in one way or another. Miller did do some advising of the association at times for the next few years, formally and informally. After that, he was always willing to give his views on a labor situation to anyone who called. You could count on him to be consistent, a fact that led him to being an outsider when the steroid problem reared its head in the late 1990s and the 2000s. In fact, Burk unleashes some rare criticism of Miller in the book, pointing out that baseball had to do something about PEDs in order to maintain good will with its fan base. Miller died in 2012 at the age of 95, equal parts confident, articulate and defiant until the end.

Burk had several long interviews with Miller for the book, and he also did a few other interviews as well as mined print sources for information. There aren't too many fresh quotes from outsiders here that may have added some perspective, but this still is a substantial biography.

Books on the business side of sport can be a tough sell for many. They only want to know about what happens between the lines. Still, off-field developments in baseball over the half-century are interesting in their own light, and have influenced the game greatly. Those wishing a course in how we got to where we are now will find "Marvin Miller - Baseball Revolutionary" quite helpful in that sense.

Four stars

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Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2015

Edited by Sam Miller and Jason Wojciechowski

We've hit the 20-year milestone in the publication history of the Baseball Prospectus. In that time, it has become a welcome sign of the approach of spring. Along the way, the series has taught us much about baseball, how it's played and what might happen in the months and years to come.

So what do people want to talk about when it comes to reviews on Amazon.com? The layout of this year's book. That's a new one, for this book and almost every other published volume.

Two points do come out rather quickly when taking the quickest of glances at this year's book. It's smaller than the 2014 edition by around 100 pages or so. When it comes to data, this is sort of like going from the Los Angeles phone book to the Dallas phone book. Huge to very big. There are a few players dropped from the sum total, but the 2015 version still has more than 2,000 players ranked. Someone who turns out to be significant might have slipped under the cracks, but the odds are against it. It's not a major problem for most.

Then there's the matter of design. The player capsules have been redone, so that there is less white space between lines and it might be a point of type size smaller. (OK, you try to tell the difference between 8 pt. and 9 pt.) It's a little bit more difficult to read. That's particular true because the line of type goes across almost seven inches of the page. It might work better to make each comments fit into two columns, with a little canyon of white space in between. Yes, it would expand the size of the book, but that could be attacked with slightly shorter comments or moving a few more players into the list of other players covered at the end of each team chapter.

Speaking of those catch-all sections, the type size and leading definitely has been reduced, making it somewhat intimidating to read. Personally, I glanced over the list looking for familiar names, and then moved on quickly. That's not the best idea in a book.

Otherwise, everything works out nicely. The writers obviously know what they are talking about, and there's a major effort to make the writing of each player capsule filled with fun and information. The team reviews, a couple of pages that serve as the introduction to the chapter, are for the most part well done.

The group at Baseball Prospectus have adopted the new statistics that have entered the game with zeal. There are all sorts of figures that come out here, and not just anagrams. There's good information on a variety of aspects of the game, and how that might affect future performance. In other words, there are such things as FIP and FRAA calculated, but they won't hurt your enjoyment of the book. If there's a lesson to be learned out of such work, it's that it's a reminder how athletically we all start declining in the mid-to-late 20s, and a typical player doesn't get very long to prove he should be or can stay a major leaguer.

As I've said before, "Baseball Prospectus" gets read here when it comes out, and then put away for reference during the course of a season. If there's a trade involving prospects, it's a primary resource for background information. It's a must-read for the major baseball enthusiast. Just make sure your glasses are clean before you start reading.

Four stars

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Review: If These Walls Could Talk - Detroit Tigers (2014)

By Mario Impemba with Mike Isenberg

Let's start this with a personal observation. I've had the chance to meet a variety of play-by-play announcers over the years, and they have a great many similarities.

They generally have worked their way slowly up through the ranks after dreaming of doing exactly this job when they were children. Therefore, they tend to enjoy just about every minute of the workday, no matter how many curveballs can be thrown (bad teams, technical difficulties, ridiculous travel, etc.)

Radio and television broadcasters also tend to have an outgoing personality. Not many shrinking violets last in the business. They make friends pretty quickly, mostly because they are generally nice people.

This brings us to "If These Walls Could Talk - Detroit Tigers." Mario Impemba is a television announcer for the Tigers, and he's teamed up with writer Mike Isenberg to present some recollections of his career. It's part of a series from Triumph Books designed to offer a backstage look through some of those who are around sports teams.

Impemba certainly follows the pattern described above. He grew up in the Detroit area and was a big Tigers fan. After graduating from Michigan State, Impemba tried his luck at announcing minor league games. He obviously paid his dues - you have to do so at that level - and he bounced through such places as Peoria, Quad Cities and Tucson.

Finally, Impenda got called up to the majors, as he joined the broadcast team of the California Angels in 1995. That's a pretty good job, and he could have been pretty well set working in the Los Angeles market. But when the Tigers called about a television position, Impenda couldn't resist the chance to head home. He's been there since 2002.

As the cover says, this is more or less a collection of stories about Impemba's baseball experiences. It starts with the time he used a roll of toilet paper to help him with a broadcast in the minors, and goes right through the 2013 American League playoffs. Since he's a television announcer, Impemba won't get to actually describe a World Series title for Detroit. But he will call many of the games of such a team and work on the cable pregame and postgame broadcasts in the playoffs.

Also, Impemba has gotten the thrill of seeing some major events. Some involve the Tigers and Angels, including Miguel Cabrera's Triple Crown season and some no-hitters, and some don't, such as Cal Ripken's breaking of the consecutive games record. Impemba even called Mariano Rivera's first big league save, although he didn't know it would be the start of a run that surely will put Rivera in the Hall of Fame.

Impemba goes through a variety of other subjects along the way. He writes about managers and players he's known over the years, his workday, his scorebook (don't touch!), working a little with Ernie Harwell, etc. This all goes down rather smoothly and easily. There's no controversy to be found here, and the only reading problem is that a few of the tales are more or less repeated along the way. It's not an indepth story, but this isn't designed to fit that description.

I don't have any connection with the Tigers, and I found "If These Walls Could Talk - Detroit Tigers" to be a pleasant reading experience. Fans of the Old English D, as they say in Detroit, ought to enjoy it.

Three stars

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