Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Baseball Books

I have gotten several emails, blog comments and girly chats asking about what books I am reading now, and for the first time in a long time, that list is not dominated by poker books. I will admit that my standard work-commute book is still "Farha on Omaha", and I am taking my time getting through it as I've been reading some other things as well, but Sammy Farha's Omaha text is good enough. It presents the basic strategies of the most common forms of Omaha out there today, and Sammy throws in enough tidbits from his own personal experiences and stories that he has actually lived through that it stays pretty interesting. I wouldn't exactly call this book a detailed treatment of the finer points of Omaha, but for someone who already knows the basics of the game quite well, it's a decent read.

But the thing that is taking up most of my attention these days is not poker books at all, but rather books about sports, and in particular, about baseball. This all started fro girly chats some bloggers in the wake of Your World Champion Philadelphia Phillies nabbing their first World Series title since 1980 late last year, and that was when I first got the recommendation to read Michael Lewis's 2004 national bestseller "Moneyball", in addition to a few other books on America's Pasttime. So I actually went and ordered a bunch of baseball books from my favorite retail outlet (one of my favorite stocks, too),, and when they arrived they found their way to my top drawer and hadn't made much headway in getting out of there until just recently.

A couple of months ago, Tom Verducci's opus "The Yankee Years", co-written with former Yanks' manager Joe Torre, caused quite a stir in advance of its release when it was leaked that the book, among other things, revealed that Alex Rodriguez's Yankee teammates had called him "A-Fraud" since he arrived in New York a few years ago. That in turn caused the book to be written about and talked about all around the sports world, which led to Mike Francesca, easily my favorite New York sports radio host, to say on his radio show several weeks ago that the book was very well-written and all-around a good read. This happened to be one of the books I had ordered from Amazon, so long story short, I took it out and started reading. And you know what? I couldn't put it down.

And don't get me wrong, I am no kind of Yankees fan here. Not by a longshot. I am a Philly sports guy through and through as I have made painfully obvious and public here on the blog, and I feel no love for the Yankees at all. I see them as the Evil Empire of all of the sports world, I think they have made a mockery of the sport over the last decade or so, and really the only positive thing I can think to say about the Yankees is that at least they're not the Mets. So it's not like I've been yearning to read the memoirs of the skipper of the Yankees during their incredible championship run over the past decade-plus. Quite the opposite -- I did not expect to be particularly interested in the book, but I figured I would give it a try after hearing Francesca's recommendation of it, and I have to say, it was a really well done book. Verducci does the actual writing, with many passages clearly supplied directly from Torre's experiences and full of Torre quotes as well, and the combination provides what feels like an insider's view on what went down with the Yankees from 1995 to 2008, in more or less chronological order.

But what I found most interesting about "The Yankee Years" was not the pure Yankee anecdotes so much as the insight it provides into the way the team made many of its decisions related to the game, playoff strategies, and especially personnel decisions. As a total outsider like all of us, I have absolutely no clue who is making the player personnel decisions for a team like the Yankees, and more than that, how those decisions are being made remains an absolute mystery to me. Well, "The Yankee Years" gives some really interesting insight into all of that, starting from the interaction between George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' intractable owner, and team GM Brian Cashman, in planning who would be on the team year to year, discussing what holes the team needed to fill, and how best to fill those holes. Then throwing in the manager into the mix, I found it really fascinating to read about the interplay between Cashman and Torre, Cashman and Steinbrenner, and especially the direct relationship between Torre and Steinbrenner themselves. Verducci also does a great job integrating his chapter on A-Rod, a chapter on steroid use in baseball generally, and most of all, the notion that the Red Sox had somehow figured out an "inefficiency" in the game of baseball that enabled them to quickly staff their dugout with players who were undervalued in terms of salaries compared to their ability to contribute to the team's success. One of Verducci's central themes in "The Yankee Years" deals with just that, how the team easily surpassed the Red Sox in the early part of Torre's time with the team, and then what exactly happened after the year 2000 that caused the Red Sox to rise and the Yankees to simultaneously head in the other direction. All this talk about secular trends in the game of baseball and new innovations in the way a team could be built and managed really got my mind working, and for that I have to say that I really enjoyed "The Yankee Years" and would probably give it, overall, a B+ grade. It is worth reading in my view.

Moreover, as I mentioned, "The Yankee Years" really got me thinking. I don't think I waited five minutes after finishing that book before I immediately grabbed "Moneyball" out of that top drawer and dug right into it. Moneyball, it turns out for those of you who have not read it, is all about how Billy Beane and the Oakland A's in the 1990s managed to "beat the system" and find a way to field a team that could win 90 games, 100 games or even more in a season while maintaining one of the handful of smallest payrolls in the game. The book essentially takes many of the ideas I mentioned above that I loved about "The Yankee Years" -- how the owner and the GM interact, what the manager's role is, and how the selections are made about which players can best help the team -- and really makes that the central focus of the entire book. It details the new kinds of statistics that were considered important and even made gospel by the Oakland organization, from the GM all the way down to the farm system and even draft day decisions. In a nutshell, "Moneyball" really is the story of how the Oakland A's redefined what building a baseball team was all about, and in the end this movement led directly to the Red Sox's changes in the early 2000s that eventually won them their first World Series in fifty billion years in 2004. For anyone out there who considers themself a baseball fan and who has not read "Moneyball", I am almost through with it and so far it is looking at a solid B+ / A- mark as well.

The Yankee Years


For anyone who's ever wondered how baseball decisions really get made, how teams decide who to draft, what team chemistry is really about, these books are for you.

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Blogger spritpot said...

Loved Moneyball. For anyone who liked Moneyball and wants to follow the development of sabermetrics (statistical study of baseball), is the place to be. Although the teams themselves have private metrics that they obviously don't want to share, BP has a ton of good info and analysis.

While front offices are now I would say universally hip to the breakthroughs of sabermetrics, baseball announcers and TV analysts are still in the Stone Age. It gets really frustrating listening to them sometimes.


4:36 AM  

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