Monday, February 27, 2017

Review: One Nation Under Baseball (2017)

By John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro

Now, here's an interesting subject.

You have have heard that America sort of blew up in the 1960s in any number of ways. All sorts of changes came to the country, and they were packed into the decade. It was hard to keep up with the way the rules seemed to change by the hour.

In contract, the game of baseball remained relatively unchanged. People who had come from 1895 in a time machine still would have recognized it in 1965 - nine innings, three outs, and so on.

For some, that was good. They could go to the ballpark and see decades of tradition on display. Heck, most of the players weren't allowed to wear long hair, so every day was turn back the clock day in that sense.

But there were all sorts of changes taking place in the game, even if they might have been relatively subtle. Looking at the decade in that sense is the premise of "One Nation Under Baseball."

After an excellent introduction by Bob Costas about how important and interesting those changes were, authors John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro jump right into a fascinating anecdote from pitcher Jim Grant. He was in Detroit in 1960 on a road trip when he got a call from aides of Senator John F. Kennedy, telling him that the Presidential nominee wanted to have breakfast with him the next morning. It took some convincing, but Grant did make it down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. The two men had a frank conversation about civil rights, and Grant was impressed that Kennedy bothered to seek him out.

And away we go through the 1960s, covering a variety of topics and presenting some stories. Some are familiar, but several are pretty fresh because of interviews done just for the book - even from the perspective of about 50 years later. That helps make it at least interesting.

Even so, this bogs down a bit in relatively short order. The baseball stories will at least interest those picking it up, but the book goes in a variety of other directions. Before we know it, we're reading about a New York City newspaper strike, or the Beatles, or Muhammad Ali, or New York major John Lindsay. In addition, some times the stories don't match the overall theme of changes in society changing baseball. There's a portion of the book on the 1969 New York Mets, who pulled off one of the great surprises in baseball history by coming from nowhere to win a World Series. Forests have been sacrificed to tell that story, but it doesn't seem like a particularly good fit in this book. Denny McLain's 31-win season gets a look here, but it's hard to figure out where that fits in with the narrative. At least we can guess why he never came close to repeating that big season (arm issues were bothering him by the end of 1968).

What's more, I'm not sure all of the anecdotes go anywhere. We see how the road to free agency started, and how the sport became more color-blind, but there isn't much analysis given along the way. I would guess that most people picking this up might not want to read a sociologist's view of baseball, but this went a little too far in the other direction. Even a final chapter summing up what had happened would have been good.

The bibliography here is very impressive, and it's almost surprising that the authors got this down to only 200 or so pages of text. "One Nation Under Baseball" will at least interest those who want to learn more about the Sixties, but they might be disappointed that there's not more to the story.

(Footnote: I found out after writing this that Shapiro was one of the interviewed people in the fine HBO documentary on the Boston Red Sox of 2003 - revised after 2004.)

Three stars

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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2017

Edited by Aaron Gleeman and Bret Sayre

I've been reading and reviewing the Baseball Prospectus for more years than I can remember. That means I might be running out of things to say.

The constant is that I really wouldn't want to start following the baseball season without reading what the experts at BP have to say.

The 2017 edition is out, and as usual it's full of worthwhile information. This year's book checks in at 576 pages. That's an enormous project to finish in an offseason, considering how much information is included. It takes a big, talented staff to turn that around, and BP obviously has that.

The format follows the usual pattern. Each team gets an essay - usually different from what you might read elsewhere, but generally an interesting take. Then comes a description of player after player after player. I guess they always miss a few players who had an impact on the season to come, but very few. The basic statistics are there along with some other "new age" numbers. If you are new to the book, it will take a little time to TAv and WARP, but not long. Those new readers also should know that the stats don't go back very far (2014/2015/2016). I saw a comment on amazon.com complaining about that, but it's not a record book designed for that purpose. This year's book adds some fancy stats for catchers. It's nice information to have if you study such stuff. Finally, there are a few essays in the back on general baseball topics, plus a ranking of the top 101 prospects in the game.

The writing is good and sometimes quite funny and fresh. It certainly feels like the player comments are a little more upbeat now than they used to be. Few players are out and out trashed, and the guys who have a chance to hang around a major league roster seem to get a little more respect than in past years. The authors seem to know what they are talking about; many wind up in the front offices of major league organizations. The book has started to print each team's BP alumni.

Again, I tend to stick to the major league players when reading it at this time of the year, and then refer to it during the season. Otherwise, I might be reading straight through until May. If my favorite teams make a trade, especially involving some prospects, I go straight to it for reference. Sometimes I'll even grab it while watching a game, especially if unfamiliar teams are playing. It increases my interest.

I'm not sure how many ways I can say "if you are a big baseball fan, you should be buying this." But it is true. I might not bother to say it next year, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.

Five stars

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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Review: Macho Row (2017)

By William C. Kashatus

The 1993 Philadelphia Phillies were one of the great "fluke" teams in recent baseball history.

If you look at the team's all-time record, year by year, you'll get the idea. The '93 team won 97 games to capture the National League East title. Philadelphia hadn't had a winning record since 1986, when it finished about 20 games behind the New York Mets in the division. The team didn't have a winning record again until 2001, when it won 86 games again.

That's part of the reason why that Phillies team was so popular, and remains so in to this day. It was all so unexpected. Another part of the reason. is that the squad had some good-sized characters. They were loud, brash, profane and fun-loving, and they all sat together in the home locker room.

That part of the room became known as "Macho Row," giving us the title for William C. Kashatus' book on that team. There were six occupants of that part of the room - Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk, Mitch Williams, Dave Hollins and Pete Incaviglia. They set the tone for the team, that took advantage of an opening at the top of the division.

Those on "Macho Row" get special treatment in this book. The six get their own chapters, and their exploits are fully covered on and off the field - sometimes in rather raw terms. (I'm not sure the kids will want to read about a baseball team from 24 years ago anyway.) Dykstra was the catalyst of the offense, Daulton was the power-hitting catcher, Kruk was the pure-hitting first baseman, Williams was the erratic relief pitcher, and Hollins and Incaviglia were good-sized pieces in the lineup.

Some of the boys on Macho Row might have had another connection: Performance Enhancing Drug (PED) use. Dykstra certainly bulked up in an attempt to improve his performance, and some of the others are at least under suspicion.  There was no testing done on PED use back then, so it falls under the category of possibly unethical rather than illegal behavior.

But other members of the team and organization are covered as well, if less thoroughly. Special attention goes to Curt Schilling, who became the ace of the staff with a 16-7 record in a breakthrough year. He was won of five starters who won at least 10 games, which is impressive. Schilling's personality made some waves along the way, but the man could pitch.

Kashatus certainly did his research. He talked some members of that Phillies' organization, and went through all sorts of newspapers, books and magazines. Once the stage is set by introducing the characters, the author goes through the season month by month. It's a little difficult to make the year interesting in hindsight on a game-by-game basis. There wasn't much drama, as the Phillies got off to a good start and more or less stayed in first place for much of the season. The Expos put on a challenging burst for a while, but fell short. Then the tale moves into the playoffs, and such games are always memorable to fans.

Speaking of fans, Kashatus qualifies as one such person when it comes to the Phillies, and that's a drawback here. One odd moment comes when the playoff series with Atlanta comes up. After discussing the Braves' alleged arrogance because of their run of success, the author writes, "It was that same arrogance coupled with the belief that the Braves could dispatch the Phillies in four straight games that resulted in Atlanta's downfall." That doesn't really ring true, and doesn't give Philadelphia enough credit.

Then Toronto, the World Series opponent, is described as "the best Major League baseball team that money could buy." Kashatus paints the Series as a battle between the free-spending Jays and the frugal Phillies. Philadelphia didn't have a big payroll in 1993, but that probably was due to a lack of success in the preceding years that led to poor attendance and small revenues. It's tough to call Philadelphia a small-market team.

Along those lines, Philadelphia is cited as the original model for Billy Beane's "Moneyball" philosophy with the Oakland A's. There's about an eight-year gap between those teams, and the analogy seems to be a bit of a stretch.

Meanwhile, one of the themes of the book is how the Phillies followed the sport's unwritten code in terms of behavior. That includes such actions as sticking up for teammates, whether it be throwing at opponents when the situation calls for it to not airing dirty laundry in the media. That part of the book feels a little forced too.

Still, I can see how lifetime Phillies fans cherish some of the memories of the '93 teams. The year provided a season of head-shaking joy, in spite of the abrupt ending in the form of Joe Carter's walk-off homer in the World Series. Those fans are the obvious target audience for "Macho Row," and they will find some rewards here.

Three stars

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