Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Review: After the Miracle (2019)

By Art Shamsky and Erik Sherman

The blitz of books about the 1969 World Series Champion New York Mets continues, with a contribution in this case by someone who is well qualified to write the story.

Art Shamsky already had one book on his resume when the Mets outfielder decided to put some memories down on paper. The result is "After the Miracle," which ought to satisfy any fan's curiosity about what it was like to live through that season as a participant.

Shamsky spent that season splitting duties in right field with Ron Swoboda (who by the way has his own book on the '69 Mets coming out this year). He obviously had been thinking about such a project for a long time, because the bookends of the text are devoted to a mini-reunion of players staged in 2017.

In between is a review of the season. For those who are too young to remember or haven't studied their baseball history, the Mets were the laughing stock of baseball from their birth in 1962 through 1967. They showed improvement in 1968 but still finished ninth in a 10-team league. It all made their nearly worst to first rise in 1969 that much more unexpected and spectacular. Sometimes sports fans from other parts of the country don't like New York sports teams because they received an outsized amount of attention for their efforts. But, trust me, everyone fell in love a bit with those Mets if you weren't a Chicago Cubs fan. (Every story needs a villain, and the Cubs filled that role nicely.)

Shamsky spends most of the time reviewing that season, of course, and he throws in plenty of stories about the players, coaches, etc. on the roster. The big games, including everything in the postseason, are covered in detail, and it's nice to here about what players were thinking at the time. By the way, a Baltimore Orioles fan will be a little angry when they read what really happened during a controversial play during the World Series. (No spoiler from me on it.)

It was one of those great years in sport when everything seems to fall into place. Obscure players did heroic things on a regular basis. It was all nicely put together by Gil Hodges, the former Brooklyn Dodger hero who managed the team with skill while commanding complete respect in the locker room.

The author does spent plenty of time talking about how close the team was and how it eventually expected to win. Such an overwhelming experience surely drew the team together for life; they'd be thrown together for the rest of their lives, giving everyone a chance to relive the experience over and over.

It would have been very interesting to hear Shamsky's perspective on what happened after that championship season. The Mets slowly sank from the heights of '69, as some of the inevitable roster changes didn't pan out. Hodges died in 1972, which obviously had an effect on the organization. New York was lucky to reach the postseason in 1973 with a record a touch above .500, and that was it until 1986.

While the season is covered in a satisfactory way, the book picks up steam at the end. Shamsky arranged to have Jerry Koosman, Swoboda, Bud Harrelson and co-author Erik Sherman join him on a trip to see star pitcher Tom Seaver at Seaver's house in California. Seaver was suffering from the effects of Lyme disease, but the group caught him on a good day and obviously enjoyed the get-together. You might recall David Halberstam's book, "The Teammates," on some 1940s members of the Boston Red Sox getting together to see Ted Williams. This has some of that same nostalgic sweetness in it, although it comes in a smaller dose. It's sad that Seaver is unable to participate in what will be a season-long celebration of that team because of his health problems.

It's tough to say how much an interest a 20-something might have in reading about a team from 50 years ago, no matter how universal some themes are. But "After the Miracle" ought to be a great fit for those who lived in the first time.

Four stars

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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Review: The Team That Couldn't Hit (2019)

Edited by Steve West and Bill Nowlin

I am back in the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) after more than 30 years, and during that time the organization has prospered. This is a group of dedicated baseball fans - and that's an understatement - who deeply care about such matters as Joe Jackson's eligibility for the Hall of Fame so many years after he was banned from baseball.

SABR always had some interesting publications, and now they are able to issue them in an up-to-date form. In other words, the group can put out its books in an e-format such as Kindle, and give it away. In this case that's a $30 savings over an actual paperback copy of it, so it's a nice bonus.

This offering is about the 1972 Texas Rangers, and it is very accurate to say that they were "The Team That Couldn't Hit." Toby Harrah had the best batting average among the regulars at .259. There was one other starter who cracked the .250 mark - catcher Dick Billings. Three regulars were under .225. If you were thinking there might be some talent on the bench, well, 10 players who suited up in Texas uniforms that season were under .200. So they got the title right.

And who was the manager of that team? The answer is a rather unlikely one. Ted Williams is considered one of the greatest hitters of all time, maybe the single best hitter. Yet he couldn't do much to help this team hit more than .217, one of the worst such numbers in history. Some of the players on that roster with name recognition to a certain degree were Frank Howard, Lenny Randle, Elliott Maddox, Don Mincher, Dick Bosman, and Don Stanhouse.

At first, it's easy to wonder how a book on this team and its poor season filled up 404 pages. But pick it up and start reading, and you'll figure out why. After a couple of introductory chapters on the team's past, the book starts to go through the roster, one by one, with good-sized biographies of every player and coach. Other people, such as front office staff, ownership and the media, are covered as well. My guess is that this is part of the SABR biography project, which tries to compile as many bios as possible of those in the game. It doesn't stop at 1972, but rather covers an entire career and in some cases life.

That means a bunch of different people wrote for this book, since the workload for a solo effort would be staggering, and the results are naturally uneven. The stories that feature long interviews with a given person in the biography are easily the best; I'd bet a long-forgotten reserve from the past was happy to be remembered at this point. But some of the stories are rather dry, coming off as more scholarly rather than written for a mass audience.

The book also contains other features devoted to the team, such as chapters on big games and a listing of every game of that season with a couple of sentences of recap. It's nice to have them here.

This sort of book is really difficult to rate, because much of the material in the biographies has little to do with the '72 Rangers. Therefore, most people will not have much interest in reading so much about that team. However, if you followed the Rangers closely back then, there is little doubt that you will thoroughly enjoy "The Team That Couldn't Hit" and have it on your bookcase forever. In either case, the amount of work and scholarship that went into this publication is admirable. We will see what else is coming down the road from SABR in the future, and look forward to its arrival.

Three stars

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Review: The Phenomenon (2017)

By Rick Ankiel and Tim Brown

Rick Ankiel had a gift, one that he came to use in a path toward a better life. And then that gift left, in a sense, never to return.

That's the Rick Ankiel story in two sentences. Naturally, there's a lot more to the story, but it's something of a starting point for his autobiography, "The Phenomenon."

The gift resided in his left arm. He could throw a baseball hard and accurately. The gift made sure that Ankiel attracted attention from professional baseball scouts, who eventually would come along with seven-figure contracts from him. It was also a ticket out of where his life was headed.

Ankiel was born out of wedlock, and his father sounds like he'd be a first-round draft pick of people you wouldn't want to have as a parent. The father dropped in occasionally to see his kids, delivering all kinds of abuse on to the kids and mother whenever he had the chance. Then he went back to his life with another family when he wasn't dodging the authorities for illegal activities. The surprise, I guess, isn't that Rick's brother wound up in jail. It's that Rick avoided that fate.

He signed a $2.5 million contract, sailed through the minors with the St. Louis Cardinals, apparently landed in St. Louis for good in 2000, and was the starting pitcher for the team in a playoff game.

Then the wheels fell off, and the story becomes much more uncommon and interesting.

What's it like to forget how to throw a strike in front of a sellout crowd and a national television audience? Ankiel is about the only person who knows. All of a sudden, he couldn't throw a pitch within range of the catcher's glove, let alone the strike zone. Ankiel made a quick exit from that particular postseason game, and discovered the gift had gone away because something inside had gone very wrong.

It's called "the yips," mostly in golf, when you just can't pull the putter back and make it follow orders to develop a smooth stroke to put the ball in the hole. Others call it "the Thing" or "the Monster." The most famous case of it happened to 1979 World Series hero Steve Blass, who shortly after that magical moment caught the bug. Naturally, the malfunction is called "Steve Blass Disease." No one knows what causes it, or how to cure it. It comes, and usually stays.

I saw something like that happen in the minor leagues one time. Darrell Miller was a Double-A catcher who simply couldn't throw the ball back to the pitcher after each pitch. Oddly, Miller had no trouble throwing to second on a stolen base attempt. It was incomprehensible at the time and painful to watch. By the way, Miller made it to the majors for a few years, and played about half of his games as a catcher. Maybe he found a way to cope with it.

It's easy to feel the emotion involved from Ankiel, who was on the verge of having it all - only to have it snatched away without any notice. He tried everything. Ankiel talked to coaches, teammates, fellow victims, and psychologists. He stopped throwing for a while, and threw constantly. Ankiel tried alcohol, drugs, etc. - even pitching in a game with shots of vodka in his system. Nothing helped.

Finally, Ankiel made it back to St. Louis at the end of the 2004 season, and retired the next spring - only to come back the next day as an outfielder. Yup, an outfielder. And by 2007, he was back in a Cardinals' uniform. In his first game as a starter, Ankiel hits a storybook home run late in the game - which is where the movie version of this book no doubt will end.

It took a while for Ankiel and co-author Tim Brown to find a rhythm in their writing. Sometimes the sentences go on too long, featuring 20 words when 10 would have gotten the point across. In addition, there are stretches of the story that hardly receive any words at all, such as the climb up the ladder to reach the majors the second time. It feels in those spots like someone put space limitations on the story, and something had to go.  

On the other hand, Ankiel fully explores one of those issues that is never discussed much in the macho world of pro sports. We're not supposed to talk about something connected to mental health there, and the permanence of the ailment's sentence would scare anyone.

It couldn't have been easy to go over this subject all over again, so Ankiel deserves credit for writing about it in "The Phenomenon." Maybe people will be a bit more understanding the next time someone can't find the strike zone, and that's a step forward.

Four stars

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Friday, March 15, 2019

Review: K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches (2019)

By Tyler Kepner

It would seem that Tyler Kepner has been doing some work on the side for the past several years, and I'm not talking about trying to perfect his curve ball.

The New York Times national baseball writer has done a variety of stories in that time on many different subjects. But it seems that when he had the opportunity to talk to a pitcher about the various types of pitches, he jumped on it .Multiply that by a few hundred interviews, and you have the makings of a book. Then throw in plenty of research on the subject, and some time to put it together, and you have that book.

It is called "K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches." It probably sounds by that earlier description as if Kepner knew what he was doing, and reading the actual book will back up that claim.

You probably didn't realize there were 10 different pitches out there. After all, most pitchers use three at most. Let's count them off, in order of their appearance in the book. There's the slider, fastball, curveball, knuckleball, splitter, screwball, sinker, changeup, spitball and cutter.

All of these pitches didn't appear on the scene at once, of course. Certainly the game started with the fastball, and then someone in the 1800s threw a pitch that curved to fool the batter. (It's tough to resist a book that includes references to Candy Cummings from that era, a man who may not have invented the curveball but who certainly helped perfect it by all accounts). Then came the variations. Pitchers threw a slightly slower fastball with a bit of break to create the slider. A really slow fastball became the change-of-pace, or changeup. The splitter is wedged between two fingers, and drops suddenly as it nears the plate. The cutter is a fastball with a different grip, so that the ball makes a sudden horizontal turn.

No one masters all of these pitches. What's more, if you aren't really good at throwing them on the major league level, some baseballs will be deposited in the bleachers rather quickly.

We hear stories and voices of the best pitchers of their generations here. Pedro Martinez, Madison Bumgarner, Mariano Rivera, Gaylord Perry, Greg Maddux, Roy Halladay, Tug McGraw, Charlie Hough, Trevor Hoffman and Bruce Sutter all come up in the text. It is interesting just how many pitchers learned a new pitch at some point in their careers, and suddenly they were much more effective. Rivera might be the best example of that; he was fooling around in a game of catch when an altered grip changed the flight pattern of the baseball drastically. Before long, he had a cutter that was essentially unhittable for almost 20 years. It made him the first unanimous choice for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Admittedly, this is a book for people who are good-sized fans of learning how the game of baseball is actually played. It's very specific and detailed in that area, and a few people no doubt are going to be overwhelmed by all of this information. Still, the subject is handled as well as it can be.

There's little doubt that "K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches" is going to pick up some awards at the end of the year, and it's a worthwhile read as another season gets started. And if you have a current or former pitcher on your gift list, by all means pick this up for him.

Four stars

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Thursday, March 7, 2019

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2019

Edited by Patrick Dubuque, Aaron Gleeman and Bret Sayre

The gang from Baseball Prospectus has been hard at work evaluating players and teams for almost a quarter of a century. At some point, the writers probably have looked at some typical player and said, "What am I going to write about this year?"

That's the quandary that a reviewer must face with trying to evaluate a new edition. Luckily, there are a couple of points to be made about "Baseball Prospectus 2019" that are worth discussing - particularly if you are familiar with the book.

Just to review this series for those who need an introduction, Baseball Prospectus is broken into chapters for each of the major league teams. Those chapters have an essay about some aspect about the team (not necessarily a preview by any means), followed by comments on the top players in the organization. I would guess it hits close to almost 70 players per team. The book supplies the traditional stats that are on the scoreboard at the local ballpark, but also some numbers that aren't exactly common. There are explanations of each of those statistics in the book if you care to find them. If not, it won't get in the way. There are a few essays in the back for the deep thinkers in the statistical crowd.

Now let's get to the changes. The first is something of a throwback. A few years ago, BP reduced the point-size of the type of the player comments slightly. This no doubt cut down on the number of pages and thus saved on printing costs. It also was noticed and was the subject of some complaints, which led to a bigger size of type the next year.

But this year, the type is again smaller. And it's tougher to read. After reading some of the player comments in the 2019 edition, I grabbed last year's book for comparison, and the difference is obvious. That may not sound like a big deal, but I found my attention span lessened with the small print. This is not the way to engage a reader, of course. Could some of the players been reduced to one-line comments in the back of each chapter, joining several other fringe prospects in order to create more room? You'd have to think so.

I should mention that both the 2018 and 2019 books are about 596 pages, yet this year's edition checks in at a quarter-inch thinner even though according to the covers it has fewer player profiles. The printing business sure can be complicated.

The second may have something to do with the announcement at the front of the book. In the foreword, Rob Mains reveals that a group from the BP's senior staff has bought the operation - which includes the book, a busy website, and any other projects that come along.

The owners may have put out an order to be a little more professional in the writing, and be a little less, well, snarky. Some of the comments over the years have had a little bite, and the "tone it down" order wouldn't be a shocker. The person who wrote about the Texas Rangers' players still has a "colorful" writing style this year. Otherwise, the comments frequently are written in a non-traditional way, but lack some of the bite that previous descriptions have contained. This may make a reader happy or disappointed, depending on the viewpoint, but the fact that it has happened is worth noting. Me, I miss the old way a bit.

Otherwise, though, this is a solid effort as usual. BP does an excellent job of identifying top prospects before you've heard of them, and offers an impressive dose of realism about where almost everyone on the organizational roster stands entering 2019. It's a great companion piece for watching a game on television (it's a little heavy to carry to the park), and naturally comes out of the bookcase whenever your favorite team makes a six-player trade with someone like Baltimore. (Sorry to pick on the Orioles there, but most of the guys I knew on that roster are gone.) I still wouldn't call it essential for preparing for a fantasy draft - there are better resources in those limited areas - but that's fine.

It's tough to give this a perfect rating under the circumstances, but every serious baseball fan should take a look at this for purchase. The BP staff continues to fill up the front offices of major-league teams, and it's always good to learn from the observations of such smart people.

Four stars

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