This spring has brought a cluster of books challenging accepted baseball wisdom and strategy, using statistics and sophisticated analytical tools to constructively criticize the clichés trotted out so often by sportscasters and scouts. The courage to defy the status quo not only wins ballgames. It sells books, proven recently by the astonishing success of Michael Lewis' Moneyball about the maverick establishment-defying ways of our own Oakland A's.
One of the greatest influences upon A's general manager Billy Beane was Bill James. Though James' books started as self-published documents for fellow baseball obsessives in the 1970s, by the 1980s they were big-selling controversial volumes, and these days James gets to put some of his theories into practice as a consultant to the Boston Red Sox. Scott Gray's The Mind of Bill James: How a Complete Outsider Changed Baseball (Doubleday, $23.95) is certainly not as much fun as when James, in his own words, tears apart a respected clubhouse leader for his inability to draw walks, or asserts (with an army of backup stats) Mickey Mantle's superiority to Willie Mays.
But as Gray notes, "Bill's influence among readers of baseball books can be compared to, say, Lou Reed's in popular music." Though they once seemed off-the-wall, James' deductions have been adopted and accepted by the most forward-thinking fans. Among the Jamesian principles: On-base percentage (which takes into account walks as well as hits) is far more meaningful than batting average (a tenet applied with particular success by Beane in Oakland); the plays a fielder makes are far more important than the errors he commits; there's no such thing as clutch hitting; and batting order makes little difference. As many James devotees in both the front office and the stands make clear, the effect of his work has been to inspire them to challenge accepted wisdom in all areas of life and business, rather than swallow half-truths and untruths that have become entrenched through generations of repetition.
One of James' ex-assistants, Rob Neyer, has gone on to become a noted baseball author and pundit himself, using similar methodology. As entertaining as it is iconoclastic, Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders (Fireside, $16), like James' books, excels at distilling the heavy analysis into a very witty, opinionated, and readable text. We're not talking famous on-field blunders, like the grounder through Bill Buckner's legs that helped the Red Sox lose the 1986 World Series or, closer to home, Jeremy Giambi's failure to slide (and Eric Byrnes' failure to even touch home plate) in recent A's playoff losses. Instead, the book targets off-field blunders by managers, executives, and owners that cost their teams just as or more dearly in the win column, though they've been subject to far less ridicule and in many cases remain downright obscure.
For local fans, almost the whole history of the San Francisco Giants franchise was clouded by the massive blunder of moving into legendarily inhospitable Candlestick Park in the first place: a decision made, some say, because the site was not surveyed during windy afternoon hours, and because the parking area "had to be filled by earth that some critics believe was taken off a hill which in turn was what kept the wind from blowing when the area was first surveyed." In the mid-'70s, in Neyer's estimation, all of major-league baseball goofed by not taking A's owner Charlie Finley's recommendation that all players be made free agents every year which, according to players' association leader Marvin Miller, might well have prevented the exact sort of astronomical salary escalation the owners were trying to prevent. As for a more sacred cow, beloved Giants ex-manager Dusty Baker gets skewered for fielding creaky veterans instead of younger talent.
If you want the number-crunching behind the sort of analysis that James and Neyer have popularized, Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong (Da Capo, $24.95) has more than four hundred pages of it. It's not much more inviting than a math textbook at points, however, and a little like listening to all 83 CDs of the January 1969 outtakes from the Beatles' Let It Be sessions: instructive for those who want the painstaking effort that makes the end product possible, but not nearly as enjoyable as the actual results.
If you'd rather take refuge in baseball as we knew it rather than the warts-and-all behemoth it's become particularly with Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams' best-selling Bonds-and-steroids study Game of Shadows (Gotham, $26) the march of more conventional National Pastime homages continues unabated in such new releases as Jim Reisler's A Great Day in Cooperstown (Carroll & Graf, $26) and The Little Book of Baseball (Welcome, $24.95). The former, a typo-filled history of the not-too-exciting origins of the Hall of Fame, is padded out to book length with historical context and thumbnail career sketches of the original inductees; the latter mixes trivia, recipes, poems, and brief essays by noted baseball lovers such as Dave Barry for a two-hour read that's as warm and fuzzy as it is unilluminating. That's enough for some fans, but that's not saying much.
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