Friday, February 23, 2018

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2018

Edited by Aaron Gleeman and Bret Sayer

The list of items that I buy faithfully every year probably is pretty small. I guess ant traps qualify. Holiday cards. Auto insurance. Magazine renewals.

Then there are books. Every fall, I order the latest Best American Sports Writing book. And every late spring, I get Baseball Prospectus. This year's copy of the latter just arrived in time for the start of spring training, and after finishing it I'm ready for exhibition games to begin.

I'm sure the staff of Baseball Prospectus, which also has a website, exhales a bit when the book comes out. There's a ton of work that must go into this, even in the age of computers, and it's remarkable that it comes out so quickly. No, J.D. Martinez isn't listed with the Red Sox, but the staff worked hard to get it as up to date as possible.

What's old? The format, for those who have never picked it up, remains the same. Every team gets a chapter of about 16-18 pages. The first three pages have an essay of some sort, surrounded by some charts and graphs about a few standard areas (farm system rankings, park dimensions, etc.) Then we're off on a review of every significant player in the organization. They are roughly laid out four to a page, so each player gets a good-sized paragraph and a long stat line. I should mention that, as usual, the type goes all the way across the 8.5-inch page, which can be a little daunting after a while. The layout does allow more information to be printed, though. After more than 500 pages of such team breakdowns, the back end is highlighted by a list of the top prospects in the game and an index.

The usual precaution - don't feel as if you have to read every player description. I usually skip over the minor league players from teams other than my personal favorites. But you're free to go back to it during the course of the season if something of interest comes up. 

What's new? The most obvious addition is that players from leagues in Japan and South Korea have gotten the Baseball Prospectus "treatment" this year. It's impressive that the information has been collected, although I'm not sure how many readers will plow through it. Many American readers probably will wait until a player is poised to jump over the ocean for baseball employments. But it's there if you need it.

Baseball Prospectus first caught my attention because of its writing style. The various authors, and there are bunches of them, always have been given wide latitude to come up with fun and different ways of coming up with descriptions of players. That's not easy to do, and my unscientific viewpoint is that fewer people approached it this year in such a way as opposed to past years' books.

Overall, it felt as if this year's ratings were more serious. That cut down my enjoyment level of the 2018 edition by a shade. It seemed like every middle reliever in organized baseball - and there are a bunch of them - gets the same sort of review. However, there are exceptions. The writers of the Texas Rangers were the best example of that. Others may disagree that the attempts at humor work, but there's a lot of material to go through - let's have some giggles along the way.

Most of the complaints on Amazon.com this year center on the fact that the price on the Kindle edition of the book went up by quite a bit. I don't buy many books that way, but the list price is the print edition did go up a couple of dollars. That happens, but it's still worth the purchase price.

After finishing the 2018 edition, you'll feel ready for the upcoming season to start - even if all of the free agents haven't signed yet. Then keep Baseball Prospectus 2018 handy for when you watch a game on television during the upcoming season.

Five stars

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review: Alou (2018)

By Felipe Alou with Peter Kerasotis

The name "Alou" isn't quite specific when it comes to a baseball book.

Which one is it about? Felipe Alou, who was a very solid player throughout the 1960s and then became a successful manager? How about his brother Matty, merely a former batting champion? Or another brother Jesus, who had a good-sized career too? Finally, there's Moises, Felipe's son who had several fine seasons in the majors.

The answer of the question, if you didn't look at the byline or the photo, is Felipe. He's come out with his second autobiography, "Alou." The first one was written back in the 1960s, so it's fair to say this baseball lifer has an update coming to him.

Let's get one point straight here. Felipe's mother had a maiden name of Alou, while his father was a Rojas. The mother's name came last in the Dominican Republic, where the family resided, so Felipe was an Alou as a baseball player. A relative, Mel Rojas, avoided that little problem, and eventually was a pitcher on one of Felipe's managed teams in Montreal.

You might not think of Felipe Alou as a pioneer, but he truly fits that description. Alou was one of the the first major league players to come from Latin America, which is quite an achievement. Adding to the luster of that statement was that he grew up quite poor in a small town in the D.R. The living space was about the size of a typical bedroom by American standards, and some of it had a dirt floor. There wasn't much money for fun and games, so Felipe had to improvise. He was good at the baseball part of it, but thought he would become a doctor. However, when the Giants waved a little bonus money at him, the family could not afford to turn it down.

The best part of the book concerns Alou's struggles in the early years of his career. He was first sent to Louisiana, where in the late 1950s it was more important to segregate the team than it was to win. Alou was sent to Florida from there, and took out his frustrations on opposing batters. Baseball readers know the drill - separate houses, less-than-equal opportunity to play, etc. But it still hurts to read such material, even from a distance of 60 years.

Alou had more such problems once he got to San Francisco. Manager Bill Rigney never gave him a chance either. When Alou looked around the Giants' roster, he saw it overflowing with talent in the early 1960s. Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey were just coming into their own, and Alou's brothers were following him to the majors as well. Oh, some guy named Willie Mays was patrolling center field, and it's fair to say no one was going to get playing time at his expense.

Somebody had to go, and Felipe went to Milwaukee - which eventually headed to Atlanta. Alou was good there too, as he received some MVP votes and was a part of some good but not Braves teams. Injuries eventually slowed him down to the point where he bounced around a few teams and retired in the mid-1970s. Some of the statistical comparisons are made to rank him with Amos Otis, Chet Lemon and Dusty Baker, and those work pretty well.

Even so, he never would have had a second book had his baseball career not had a second act. Alou worked his way up the ladder as a minor league manager and major league coach. Just when you thought he'd be out of chances, he landed the Montreal Expos' job in 1992. There he guided the most unlucky team in history by some standards. The Expos of 1994 were a great squad, apparently headed for a championship when labor troubles stopped the season in early August. There was no World Series that year, no chance to prove how good the team was. Montreal broke up the squad over the winter, leaving us wondering. Alou is wondering himself - that team might still be in Montreal had it not been for that labor dispute.

Alou managed the Expos through 2001, took a year off, and went back to the Giants as skipper at the age of 68 in 2003. The Giants had two good years and two bad ones, and finally he was done. Here he has some stories about some of his players, such as Pedro Martinez and Barry Bonds. You can tell that he earned the respect of his players, treating them like men but was no pushover. In a different set of circumstances, Alou probably is in the Hall of Fame - but he had to play the hand he was dealt.

Those circumstances will prevent some casual baseball fans in America from reading this. There aren't many stories of great triumphs. Still, "Alou" ought to be a big hit in baseball-crazed sections of Latin America. He has an inspirational story to present, and he has tales of such Latin baseball heroes as Roberto Clemente and Juan Marichal - not to mention the rest of the family - as well. Those who specialize in Latin baseball or in Expos history should give this an extra star. But it's a comfortable read for the rest of us.

Three stars

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Friday, February 2, 2018

Review: 99 (2016)

By Wayne Gretzky with Kirstie McLellan Day

Hockey fans could have guessed who wrote this book just by the title.

After all, no one else in the game ever will be associated with the No. 99 in the future - unless you are one of the handful of people who remember a couple of other 99s who played in the NHL - such as Rick Dudley and Wilf Paiement.

Wayne Gretzky is the 99 in question here. He's written a book that's a combination of facts and memories called "99." It came out in the fall of 2016, which was the start of the - you guessed it - 99th season in NHL history.

I'm not sure I need to say much about Gretzky here. He's the greatest scorer in hockey history, of course. He might be the greatest player in hockey history, although arguments could be made for Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr. Come to think of it, Gretzky might argue for Howe himself.

But Gretzky might have had the biggest impact on the sport. When he arrived, the NHL was stumbling along. It was nearly bankrupt after a costly war with the World Hockey Association, and it still had an image problem left over from the days where fighting was a regular event at games - and thus was not taken seriously by large segments of the sports-minded public.

Gretzky arrived in the NHL in 1979 after a short stay in the WHA, and had a spectacular career. Not only could the league not ask for a better player, but it couldn't ask for a better spokesman and role model. Wayne was right out of central casting.

Gretzky wrote his autobiography about a quarter-century before this book, which fills something of a curious niche. It's something of a short, anecdotal history of the NHL mixed with his personal viewpoints. The book goes through a variety of topics early on, with Gretzky's views and stories mixed in a bit with historical background.

That's truly the odd part of the book. It's difficult to think of Gretzky going to the library to work on finding stories for the volume. The acknowledgments credit co-author Kirstie McLellan Day as well as a researcher, writer and fact-checker among others.  It works reasonably well although obviously a bit superficial, as there are better places to get a detailed hockey history lesson. But Gretzky's name still can attract attention, so if he can lure some readers in - great.

Once we get past Howie Morenz and Sprague Cleghorn (a name I can't type often enough) as well as the 1940s through 1960s, we land in what you could call the modern era of hockey. The second half of the book belongs to Gretzky and his tales about the great moments of hockey that he experienced. Some of that centers on the international competitions, including the 1972 series with the Soviets and some Canada Cups and Olympics. (The 1980 American win in Lake Placid is included.) Gretzky also has some stories about the Oilers' great dynasty in the 1980s.

Gretzky doesn't reveal too much about his life story after the point where he was traded to Los Angeles, which is a little disappointing. That includes the time when he coached in Phoenix. Gretzky also doesn't settle any scores here, taking the diplomatic approach. That includes, for example, his treatment of Bruce McNall, who went to jail for conspiracy and fraud and who drove the Kings to bankruptcy. Even so, Gretzky's anecdotes generally work well in this format, as the nearly 400 pages go by relatively quickly.

"99" isn't a ground-breaking book by any means, but it is a pleasant one and accomplishes its goal. It would be a good read for young people who want to learn a little of hockey's history, or for Gretzky's many fans who want some inside stuff on his fabulous career.

Four stars

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