Sunday, November 8, 2015

Three Books for the Off-Season

Baseball is over and the wait for the next season begins, but that doesn't mean we have to stop thinking about the game. Along with the APBA replays that we can carry on through the off-season (and in some cases a few off-seasons for a long replay), there are plenty of books to read to maintain our fixes.

I delved into three this year that provided looks at the business behind baseball. It's fun reading about players during the actual season, especially those who may starred in the past and during an old replay we are engaged in. But there are other parts of the game that bear study as well.

So, I offer three books that may help carry us through the downtime between that last World Series out and the first pitch of the 2016 season. These were published earlier this year; obviously, there will be plenty more published in the near future including the expected myriad of books on the Kansas City Royals' success, retiring players and new looks at historical events — such as the latest look at the 1919 Chicago White Sox's World Series scandal.

Here are three books I read this summer:

Big Data Baseball, Travis Sawchik

Who would have thought a book about math and statistics would be so entertaining? Granted, there is the baseball element that's always good, but reading about math and probabilities and ratios is not a high selling point for some books.

 But Travis Sawchik does an amazing job of incorporating the mathematical principals used by the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates to turn their team around and end a 20-year losing season streak into a dramatic story. He writes of how manager Clint Hurdle got his players to accept the changes.
A lot of the book focuses on defensive shifts made popular when the Cleveland Indians are (wrongly) first credited for moving fielders to one side of second base to deal with Ted Williams. He also writes of pitch-framing by catchers and the changing pitcher's motions for different release points of the ball. Hurdle even debated about going with a four-man rotation rather than a five-man one.

Baseball fans all remember 2013 and how the Pirates began hot and held on. In the past, Pittsburgh teams, if they were decent in the spring, usually faltered by August and resumed their position well behind St. Louis in the Central.

There will be comparisons with Sawchik's book to Moneyball. I felt the writing in Big Data was far more engaging. While Lewis' book was good on stats and written, well, Sawchik is a fan from Pittsburgh, and his heart comes through in this. His writing about Pittsburgh clinching its first winning season and then its playoff birth are very good and entertaining.

The Game, Jon Pessah

How can you write a gripping narrative about the business of baseball? Jon Pessah knows how. This book, which covers Bud Selig's career as interim commissioner and commissioner from 1992 to 2010, is a must-read for any baseball fan. It chronicles in full detail the negotiations of the 1994 strike — Selig's first real crisis — labor issues, television contracts, exorbitant salaries, George Steinbrenner's life, talks of contractions, Milwaukee's stadium heist and steroids.

At first glance, this book seems only suited for the real baseball fan. But Mr. Pessah writes in such a compelling, drawing-in way, that the 580-plus pages of copy is not deterring at all and in fact is written with drama, pacing and flow that a good novel has.

He doesn't exalt Selig in The Game, nor does he slam him too much. In the end, he argues that Selig should have a place in the Hall of Fame which, despite my personal feelings of his tenure, totally agree.

Mr. Pessah offers a lot of behind-the-scenes looks at the negotiations during the 1994 strike. Donald Fehr, in my opinion, comes across as a turd. Also, Rob Manfred is foreshadowed as the new commissioner. There is also the blind eye toward steroid use and how the belief of the 1998 home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire brought fans back to the game. However, their records were tarnished by later admissions of PEDs. Mr. Pessah also delves into Selig's dilemma of if he should attend Barry Bond's games as he neared breaking Henry Aaron's career home run record. Selig eventually attended a few games in San Diego, but fortunately for him, Bonds did not hit the coveted homer there. And fortunately for Selig, Pessah notes, the commissioner returned east for Hall of Fame inductions and was not able to attend Bonds' games in San Francisco where he hit the record.

All that to say, The Game has a lot of information that enhances what we remember during his tenure as commissioner. A companion book that may be interesting to read before this is Marvin Miller's A Whole Different Ballgame to set sort of a precedent to the salaries and times that Selig oversaw.

Mr. Pessah hits this one out of the park with his fine reporting on a subject that many would not be able to so deftly write about.

The Best Team Money Can Buy, Molly Knight

Put aside Molly Knight's huge crush on Los Angeles Dodgers' pitcher Clayton Kershaw for a bit while you read this, and you'll see the bigger picture on how the team became an annual playoff contender. Knight spent the 2013 season with the team and provides the behind-the-scenes looks that baseball fans crave.

She writes of the personalities of that team. Zach Greinke and his anxieties and medications, Yasiel Puig and his ups and downs during the season, Kershaw's contract workings, Shawn Kemp and Andre Ethier both tangling for outfield positions and the Dodgers' 42-8 run that took them from last in the National League West to first place.

I got to go to Game 2 of the 2013 NLCS when the Dodgers played in St. Louis. Puig struck out four times and the Cardinals' fans razzed him. I saw him angrily slam his bat down and head to the dugout, but I didn't realize until reading Knight's recount of it that Puig broke down into tears of frustration and shame. It's little nuggets like that that carry this book along.

Knight also uncovers the insanity that was the Frank McCourt ownership of the Dodgers at the beginning of the book and the divorce settlement that wracked the team. It reads as a soap opera that's really hard to believe.

Sullen players, egos, big bankrolls, playoff baseball. It's all in this book. Whether you like the Dodgers or not, Knight's book is an interesting read to see how a team is formed.

These are just three books. There are plenty of others out there as well.. Hopefully, they'll help carry you through the winter months and into spring before the next season starts.

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