Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Zisk Book Review Corner by Mark Hughson and Steve Reynolds

Book Review (In Real Life Form) By Mark Hughson
Just before Opening Day, I attended a meet and greet with Jason Smorol, the new GM of the Syracuse Chiefs. He candidly answered questions about the business (going into this year the organization was $1 million in debt) and his plans for improving attendance. Someone in the audience piped up, “How about putting together a good team? People might come to games if we had a contender.”

Smorol’s answer was frank. “There are two things you can’t control in minor league baseball. The first is the weather. The second is how well your team plays.” He goes on to explain how every time the Washington Nationals call him they talk about all the talent coming through the system, and how they are going to make sure the Chiefs have a great season. The Nats know, Smorol knows, everyone knows that’s just blowing smoke. The Nationals only care about one thing, and that’s Washington winning, not Syracuse.

Flash forward to mid-summer, and John Feinstein’s Where Nobody Knows Your Name is fresh on the library shelf, and I decide to give it a go. Much of what Smorol shared with us that night is reflected in the book, and so much more.

Feinstein gives us several case studies, from honest to goodness real nonames to former stars like 2005 World Series hero Scott Podsednik and 2003 NL Rookie on the Year Dontrelle Willis, both of whom ended up back in the minors after their days in the sun. He jumps around from player to team to situation, but if the layout is supposed to mimic the hectic life the minor leagues, he succeeded in that regard.

There is a lot of good stuff in the book about the athletes—working together, forming bonds that only fellow ballplayers can know, congratulating a teammate on getting sent up, while at the same time being gnawed by a “Why him and not me?” feeling.

However the best part of the book is about the managers. The joy sending a player up to the bigs is offset by the unfortunate responsibility of telling a player he is cut. Envision being in the clubhouse office with a guy in his mid-twenties. “You’ve made it this far, kid. You’re good. Better than 97% of the rest of the crowd. But you’re just not good enough.” Harsh! On top of all this, imagine the frustration you would feel when your rotation gets screwed up because the major league team calls up the guy you scheduled to pitch that day.

One might think that player movement is not such chaos, after all, those transactions you can (barely) read in the newspaper are in such tiny print. Feinstein makes a strong case however, with Danny Worth being called up and sent down 11 times in four seasons with Detroit, Brett Tomko playing in 25 different cities (10 in the majors, 15 in the minors) over his 18-year career, and Charlie Montoyo, manager of the Durham Bulls who helped facilitate 112 transactions (players going up and down) in 2012—and that was just through July!

The book also goes on to explain the huge gap in major and minor league life, and how it affects players physically, financially, and most interesting of all, emotionally. Imagine being called in as a relief pitcher in a major league game. You step out of the bullpen and 30,000 people are there, all looking at you. The lights are bright, applause fills your ears, and even when that subsides there’s a dull roar around you. The air is crackling with energy. Now imagine being sent down a week later and being called into a minor league game. A fraction of the people are there (the average attendance of at a Chiefs game this year was 3,700 people). No one is watching you because they are too busy watching a hot dog race a newspaper down the sidelines. I can attest to this myself, as I definitely was watching the antics of Scooch rather than warm-up pitches at the game I attended this summer. It’s so quiet you can practically hear someone cough in the third row. Now that’s gotta take some heart outta ya.

Details like these piece together to give us a great picture of minor league life. Feinstein profiles guys that are underdogs even compared to the regular MLB nobodies, so my attraction to the book is understandable.

As chance would have it, the Chiefs had a great season, posting the best record in the International League and making the playoffs for the first time in 16 years. However, even as the team was clinching their playoff spot, there were still a bunch of empty blue seats in the stands. Such is the reality at this level, at least in this town. Read the book for more heart warming/soul crushing tales of our beloved game.

Mark Hughson lives in Syracuse, NY and roots for the Oakland Athletics. He is currently working on books about astrology, time-travel, and how to unjinx your favorite sports team.

Ron Kaplan’s 501 Baseball Book Fans Must Read Before They Die by Steve Reynolds

Every April (and around Father’s Day in June) bookstores around the country engage in a placement ritual that always catches my eye — a big display of new baseball books. The start of a new season leads to publishers trotting out tomes by well known former players (this year Mariano Rivera’s The Closer was the most publicized of the lot), ex-managers, authors with a track record (like John Feinstein, reviewed by Mark Hughson in this issue) and people that have come up with what they think is a fresh angle on the game. Invariably so many books are published in this start of the season window that no one could have the time to digest them all. There are plenty of books that have caught my eye and I’d like to read yet I never get to them. At best they’ll make my Amazon wish list, which as of this moment has 10 different books from the past two years. Once I get this 800 page Beatles book done, I’ll be tackling that list...which means sometime in 2019.

Ron Kaplan seems like a person that anxiously awaits the start of baseball book season. One would have to be pretty passionate about baseball writing to pen a book called 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die. It’s an audacious task that Kaplan has taken on and he delivers throughout. He smartly divides up the books into 15 different categories which makes it easy to pick out one’s favorite genre. (The first chapters I read were “Pop Culture” and “Business.”) But this isn’t simply just a book of lists. Kaplan spends two to three paragraphs per entry, breaking down what’s worthy about each choice. His comments and analysis about each entry are just as entertaining as many of the books that he mentions.

Kaplan sets out a goal in his introduction to the book—“I make no claim that the five hundred (or so) titles you will find herein are necessarily the best baseball books; that’s too subjective. But I hope they provide an entry into the fascinating world of baseball literature, with its connections to other areas one might not normally associate with the game; fiction, history, science, the arts, music, and many more.” He more than achieves that goal here.

Reading through Kaplan’s book reminded me of some of my favorite baseball works sitting on the shelf in my home office. So here are three of my favorite baseball books (in no particular order) that Kaplan covers.

1) Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy.
One of the best ever written. Her hook of using Vin Scully’s broadcast of Koufax’s 1965 perfect game against the Cubs is thrilling.

2) Fantasyland by Sam Walker
The peak of my fantasy baseball obsession was from 2006 to 2008. This book was published in 2006 I enjoyed this tale of diving deep into the alternate baseball reality so much that I reread it at the start of the following two seasons. And then again in 2010 when I needed to make sure I wanted to keep fielding a fantasy squad.

3) The Bad Guys Won by Jeff Pearlman
I knew the ’86 Mets were not the best acting guys on the planet. But damn, who knew they were all such scumbags? An essential book about one of the craziest teams to win a title.

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