BOOK REVIEW: “Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution”, by Brian Kenny

Note: I was provided an early review copy of the book by the publisher.

Anybody who has watched MLB Network (or ESPN before that) is likely familiar with Brian Kenny. And if you are familiar with Brian Kenny or any of the shows he hosts on MLB Network, you know that he is one of the biggest champions of new-school thinking at the network, often butting heads (in a friendly way) not only with ex-players and old-school writers, but sometimes even other new-school sabermetricians and thinkers who just aren’t as radical as he is.

His crusades and pet peeves are familiar to anyone who has seen his shows on MLB Network: the win needs to be killed as a statistic, the Triple Crown and batting title are overrated, the way that pitchers are used makes no sense for the modern game, and, of course, the sacrifice bunt is used way too damn much and statistically hurts your team’s chance of victory (he has the probability charts to prove it!). His book, Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution, is about those… and more. It’s part history, part autobiography, part manifesto, and part behind-the-scenes peek, and it’s a good book that I’d recommend to people regardless of where they lie on the spectrum of baseball analysis.

The reason for this is because the book is not so much about the nitty-gritty parts of sabermetrics and new-school thinking, so much as it is about the why (both as to why the status quo has survived so long and why a change may be in order) and the how (as in, how sabermetric analysis has grown over the years). In essence, it’s a mixture of inertia, tradition, and the fear of failure (and, attached to that, the need to pass failure to others if something does go wrong). Tradition and inertia have slowed new ways of baseball analysis and strategy almost since the start of the game. For example, things like the win and error are relics of when pitchers went the entire game and gloves were either non-existent or bare-bones. However, since they were important in those early days, they stayed important as time has gone on. Even though everyone today knows that the win is a deeply flawed stat (at one point in the book Kenny recalls Clayton Kershaw saying it should be de-emphasized) and that the best fielder isn’t necessarily the one with the most errors but instead the one who gets to balls that others wouldn’t, baseball as we know it continues to emphasize them.

While such a topic could easily have tumbled into the written equivalent of rambling, Kenny keeps everything very organized and with a good flow. Each chapter covers one or two topics. One, for example, focuses entirely on the quest to “kill” the win. Another is about the flaws of the Save stat. Still others focus on things like the Hall of Fame, various MVP votes, bullpen usage, the Astros “Decision Sciences” division, and the like. Along the way, he weaves in pieces of his own history and experience. The usual suspects such as Billy Beane and Bill James all put in appearances, but so do some unexpected sources of baseball unorthodoxy… like Tommy Lasorda of all people, who agrees with Kenny’s assertion that many managers are afraid to try new things so that they can protect their jobs if something goes wrong, and points to his many Rookie of the Year winners as proof that success can come by not being afraid to go against the herd.

While I will admit I do not agree with all of his conclusions and assertions (the idea of having a closer serve as a starter to avoid the first inning jitters makes sense on paper given that the first inning is when the most runs are scored, but it makes me wonder if it would merely delay the first-inning runs into the second or third inning), it definitely provides a good look into the revolution that has hit baseball this century. So, I recommend that you pick up a copy of Brian Kenny’s Ahead of the Curve at your nearest bookstore, e-book store, or library.

A Short Book Review: “Breaking Ground: How Jackie Robinson Changed Brooklyn”, by Alan Lelchuk

Note: I was provided a review copy of this book by it’s publisher.

In “Breaking Ground: How Jackie Robinson Changed Brooklyn”, author and teacher Alan Lelchuk tells the familiar story of Jackie Robinson from a different perspective: that of the people of Brooklyn, especially his family, including his parents, Jewish immigrants from Russia. It’s a short book, more of an extended essay of 117 pages, and it’s an overall mixed bag.

First, the good. It is a unique look at Jackie’s time in Brooklyn told by somebody who was growing up there as it happened. While obviously colored by nostalgia and the passage of time, Lelchuk’s stories of how the diverse people of Brooklyn identified with Robinson are poignant. After all, many of them had suffered discrimination and persecution, and now their team had a similar outsider who was suffering from discrimination. There are also good stories about the effect Robinson had elsewhere in America, but it’s mainly about Brooklyn. You can really tell how much Jackie meant to them and Lelchuk.

However, this is far from a perfect book. At times, Lelchuk turns on the schmaltz a little too high or enters into “back in my day” ramblings, and still other times the English scholar kicks in a bit too much as he enters into comparisons of Robinson to fictional characters and other notable figures. It’s a bit too thick, given the subject matter, but thankfully they aren’t too numerous. Still, at times, it feels as if he is just filling space to make it long enough to justify being a book instead of an unusual long article.

Those cons are enough to keep this from being far from a must-purchase. Instead, it’s likely just for the Jackie Robinson completists out there. It’s not a bad book, but it most definitely isn’t for everyone.

Book Review: The Essential W.P. Kinsella

W.P. Kinsella is best known as the writer of Shoeless Joe, the book that Field of Dreams was based on. However, that just scratches the surface of the many short stories and novels he has written over the years, not just on baseball, but also on others subjects, such as those related to the “First Nations” of his homeland of Canada.

And for Kinsella’s 80th birthday and the 25th anniversary of the release of Field of Dreams, many of his short stories have been put together in Tachyon Press’ The Essential W.P. Kinsella.

While I, of course, was most interested in the baseball stories within and only skimmed some of the other works, rest assured that this is a big and comprehensive collection of many of Kinsella’s works, and while some are better than others, you cannot deny that this is a big and diverse assortment of stories that Kinsella clearly put a lot of care into.

So, without further ado, here are some thoughts and reviews on some (not all- I’ll admit two or three of the stories just sort of failed to stick with me) of the baseball stories within Essential W.P. Kinsella:

The first baseball story in the collection is “How I Got My Nickname”, a strange fantasy tale where a dream-version of W.P. Kinsella talks about playing with the 1951 Giants, who all share his family’s love of books and languages. A weird story, but kind of cute when you think of it as a childhood fantasy.

In “The Night Manny Mota Tied The Record”, a writer (again likely a thinly-veiled Kinsella) is given the opportunity by some sort of cosmic arbiter to die in Thurman Munson’s place, and that such a opportunity is given to people anytime a well-known figure dies a premature death. An interesting concept, and in some cases it feels like something that would be better suited for a individual bigger than Thurman Munson (they off-handedly remark on presidents and civil rights leaders that had been spared or condemned due to how their cosmic substitutes decided). I wasn’t sure what to think about this story, and the ending was pretty corny. Still, a neat concept.

“Searching for January”-which runs with the fact that no trace of Roberto Clemente was ever found- is about a man in the late 1980s who discovers a time-lost Clemente drifting onto a Latin American beach, having apparently not aged a day since his fateful flight and thinking it’s now January 1973. This set-up actually ends up being much better than it sounds, and this is arguably my favorite baseball story in the collection, although the ending is just like an episode of The Twilight Zone I remember seeing. Despite that, it’s a great little gem of a story, and I’m somewhat surprised it hasn’t been made into a short film or anything.

Oh, and if anybody wants to make this into a short film, call me, I’ll write the screenplay.

“Distances” is about a old pitcher with the uncanny ability to remember the distances between major city who convinces a Iowa high school team to let him pitch for them in a game against a company team. It’s alright, I guess, but is a bit plodding at times.

“How Manny Embarquadero Overcame” is a twist on the the tale of a Latin American player lying about his age or identity, except it also involves voodoo, Detroit, and an ugly dog. It has a great first line that pulls you right in, but sadly the story doesn’t quite pay off the good lede.

Whether “K Mart” is a story about baseball or merely a story that involves baseball is a question the story itself asks. It’s more about the growing up and regrets of a guy who returns to the town where he played pick-up ball for the funeral of his first crush, if you ask me.

The final story of the collection is “Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes To Iowa”, the story that was later expanded into Shoeless Joe and then adapted into Field of Dreams. It is roughly (if I remember Shoeless Joe correctly) the first chapter of that book, in which Ray Kinsella builds the field and then Joe Jackson shows up, eventually asking if he was in heaven (“No, it’s Iowa.”). It’s a good read and you definitely could see why it was ultimately made into a full book and then the movie, although you can’t help but look at some of the parts that are dated or different from the movie that eventually was made from it (for example, in the story, it’s mentioned that Wrigley Field doesn’t have lights, but in the movie, it’s specifically mentioned that even Wrigley Field now has lights).

Speaking of which, at the end of the collection, there is a short piece by W.P. Kinsella about that story, the book, and the movie adaptation, and I learned some things from it. For example, his working title was The Kidnapping of J.D. Salinger (Salinger would become the Terrance Mann character played by James Earl Jones in the film), and the voice in the film that speaks to Ray was Ed Harris.

Overall, I found The Essential W.P. Kinsella something of a mixed bag. Kinsella’s writing is great when it’s on, but can be a bit grating and hokey when it isn’t, and while there are a lot of good ideas in his stories, not all of them are always followed upon. Still, I’d recommend this book, especially if you liked Field of Dreams and the semi-magical properties it ascribes baseball.

Note: I was provided a review copy of this book.

Book Review: “The 34-Ton Bat” by Steve Rushin

The 34-Ton Bat: The Story of Baseball as Told Through Bobbleheads, Cracker Jacks, Jockstraps, Eye Black, and 375 Other Strange and Unforgettable Objects isn’t the first book of it’s kind. By which I mean, it is not the first book to look at baseball based on how things related to it- helmets, hot dogs, and the like. For example, there were two books called Game of Inches that not only looked at off-the-field innovations, but on-the-field ones as well.

However, 34-Ton Bat is one of the best written- in this case, by journalist Steve Rushin. While Game of Inches covered more, Rushin ties together the many pieces of baseball miscellanea into something of a story, connecting both personal experiences- such as working at Metropolitan Stadium as a kid- and old stories- such as the long-forgotten shooting death of a man in the Polo Grounds seats- to objects connected to them, and the history of those objects.

The death at the Polo Grounds, for example, leads to a discussion about the seats themselves and also some more tangential developments. For example, as time has gone on and Americans’ weight has increased, seats have become wider. In addition, the NYPD were the ones who investigated the fan’s death, and starting in 1877 that same police department had been handing out medals for valor that included a charm in which the letters N and Y were interlocked- providing the likely inspiration for the Yankees’ logo.

The book is filled with such wonderful connections, and for the most part they flow and fit perfectly. You would think it strange to somehow connect urinals, radio broadcasts, beer, naming rights, and the national anthem, but in one chapter Rushin does just that, not making it seem forced at all. In fact, he makes such leaps seem logical in nearly every chapter of the book.

This isn’t to say the book is perfect. At times, it will feel like Rushin is spending too much or too little time on some subjects. In other cases, it feels like some interesting things that could have been covered weren’t (for example, I don’t recall seeing much on catching masks and how they have slowly evolved into the goalie-like masks of today). Still, those are just small nitpicks. If you like baseball, and especially are interested in the history of some of the objects and traditions connected to it, you should give 34-Ton Bat a read.

The reviewer received his copy of the book as a holiday gift from family.

Book Review: “The 25 Greatest Sports Conspiracy Theories of All Time” by Elliott Kalb

Another book I’m reviewing in eBook form, this is 2007’s The 25 Greatest Sports Conspiracy Theories of All Time, by Elliott Kalb. While not just about baseball, at least ten of the “conspiracies” that Kalb talks examines are focused on baseball, and another (the “Michael Jordan’s first retirement was actually a gambling suspension” theory) involves baseball.

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(JUMP)

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A Quick Book Review: “Cellar Dwellers” by Jonathan Weeks

So, I finally broke down and started reading eBooks. I dunno how I’ll do with it, since I so much like the feel of the paper page and reading things on a computer always seems to lead me to getting distracted a lot, but, hey, it’ll let me read some books I otherwise wouldn’t have read, such as this one: Cellar Dwellers, by Jonathan Weeks

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As the name suggests, this book is about the crummiest teams in baseball history, ranging from the 1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys to the 2003 Tigers. Each chapters is about a team, and gives some background on how the team became so crummy, some bright spots (for example, a 21-year-old Walter Johnson went 13-25 on the 1909 Senators despite a 2.22 ERA) and particularly bad players, while also spreading in some color about how baseball was at the time.

Overall, it’s a good breezy read, full of little anecdotes (some of which may be apocryphal, given old-time baseball writers love of exaggeration) and horrific statistics that further show how bad some of the teams covered were. There is even a bit at the end that features “dishonorable mentions”.

However, there are some sins of omission, with some of my favorite stories or bad teams not making the cut. For example, Weeks does not include Eddie Kolb of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, who was a clerk and semi-pro player who was hired from a local tobacco shop to pitch the final game of the season. Seriously, that really happened, and I was kind of disappointed it wasn’t included.

That is a small quibble, however. Overall, while hardly a groundbreaking work by any means, I’d recommend Cellar Dwellers to anybody looking for a quick read about bad teams.

This book was reviewed using an eBook from my local library’s website.

BOOK REVIEW: “Baseball Is Just Baseball: The Understated Ichiro” by David Shields

The most famous baseball player since 2001 is almost certainly Derek Jeter. But perhaps the most interesting player of the time period is Ichiro Suzuki. Or, rather, Ichiro… no last name needed. The first and greatest Asian everyday-player in MLB, Ichiro has dazzled with his quick baserunning, excellent defense, and the hitting that will lead him to be the first Japanese player to make it to Cooperstown.

And along the way, he’s amused and inspired baseball fans with his wit and wisdom. Perhaps it is because of his unique perspective on our culture, perhaps it is because of the way his translator interprets what he says in his native tongue, or maybe he just has a good way with words. But no matter what, through the years, Ichiro has been giving the world some great quotes. They have ranged from profound life-mottoes like “Failure is the mother of success,” to insults, such as “If I ever saw myself saying I’m excited going to Cleveland, I’d punch myself in the face, because I’m lying.” {sic}

(Ouch!)

For that reason, Baseball Is Just Baseball: The Understated Ichiro, by David Shields, is a book that, had it not existed, somebody would have had to create it. Originally published in 2001- Ichiro’s debut year on our shores- this new edition from Blue Rider Press (part of the Penguin Group) adds more quotes (bringing it up to his arrival with the Yankees) and a introduction by the author.

And, overall, it is a great read, providing the reader with bite-sized amounts of Ichiro wisdom. Starting with Shields’ introduction, which talks about how he first came to love watching Ichiro play, Baseball Is Just Baseball is a non-stop love letter to the outfielder, almost entirely made out of quotes by him, with some anecdotes here and there to provide context.

If the quotes had been simply placed in a random order, or even in some type of chronological order, the book may have seemed disjointed. Thankfully, however, Shields instead collects the quotations in a somewhat flowing style, where each quote is connected to those around them. The quote about Cleveland, for example, comes immediately after a quote about a time he missed a fly ball in Cleveland. This gives it something of a “plot” to follow, watching many of the quotes merge into each other and connect, showing how Ichiro’s opinions have shifted or have remained the same and also providing some humor to the proceedings (such as the aforementioned Cleveland quote).

However, it isn’t perfect. For one thing, it is heavily weighted towards quotes from Ichiro’s early years, likely a result of how this book was originally written in 2001. In addition, those who expect it to be a biography would end up being greatly disappointed- although Baseball Is Just Baseball makes no claim to being such a book.

However, all-and-all, I would recommend this book, especially for fans of Ichiro or of good baseball quotes.

FULL DISCLOSURE: THE COPY OF THIS BOOK USED FOR THIS REVIEW WAS PROVIDED TO ME BY THE PUBLISHER.