BEHIND THE GREEN (AND YELLOW) DOOR
Despite the fact that baseball season is upon us, we somehow manage to find the time, between games on the radio and coverage on the net and newspaper, to loaf on our unmowed lawn and indulge in a good book on the sport. Although there's a ton of great titles out there, rare is the occasion when one captures your attention and alters your perception of the world. When you find one of these rare books, you read it, read it again, and emerge both bewildered and excited, feeling perhaps like some nut who just stumbled on Jesus, ready to beat on the world's door and shout the gospel.
Since the world we're concerned with is baseball, Michael Lewis' Moneyball (W. W. Norton, $24.95) is the book in question. In spite of its bland cover and ho-hum title, this slim volume stands out as the most significant publication of the year, quite possibly as importantand at least as entertainingas Ball Four. Like Bouton's diary, Moneyball takes you inside the locker room, and follows one team, the Oakland As, through their almost-triumphant 2002 season. The focus of the book is, as everyone who's not under the proverbial rock knows, Billy Beane. Perhaps even more important than Beane's character is, as Rob Neyer called it, "the idea": namely, of looking at the numbers that actually count in baseball (on-base percentage for batters, strikeout to walk ratios for pitchers), as opposed to the highly subjective methods scouts are known to rely on (a player's "tools"). Like Ball Four 34 years earlier, Moneyball manages not only to tell a ripping-good story, but capture the beginning of a movement, the dawn of a new era.
For the most part, Michael Lewis left himself out of the pages of Moneyball, but he is as fascinatingand perhaps opinionatedas Billy Beane. Mudville editor Peter Schilling Jr. was fortunate to be able to sit down with Lewis to discuss the Moneyball story and to examine what Billy Beane's revolution might have in store for baseball.
MUDVILLE: You wrote that you fell in love with this story. But specifically how did you come to write about this subject? By 2002, there had been a few so-called small-market successes, such as the Twins. So were you an As fan? Had you followed Bill James before?
LEWIS: I didn't even know who Bill James was. My interest was in the first instance, financial. The As had seen more successif you look at the beginning 2002 season and go back the previous few years, they really distinguish themselves from other franchises. Remember, at the beginning of the 2002 season it looked like the Twins might be out of business, so the idea that I would include them seemed like folly. If another team would have been included as the small-market team that's doing well and why, it would have been the Twins. There's no one else who deserves to mentioned in the same sentence.
"It alerted my antenna that $40 million dollars of baseball players were going against $120 million dollars of baseball players (in the case of the Rangers), and the As were the favorites."
I didn't think I was going to write a book; this was on the level of a magazine article. I was kind of curious how the As were winning, because they weren't supposed to be doing winning. It alerted my antenna that $40 million dollars of baseball players were going against $120 million dollars of baseball players (in the case of the Rangers), and the As were the favorites. But when I got in, what really hooked me were two things: one was Billy Beane as a character. I thought this guy is someone who can be made to swing on the page. The second was the notion, expressed best by Paul DePodesta, is that for a guy to become an Oakland A he had to be defective in some way. With only a couple of exceptions they were people who were told that they didn't belong in big league baseball. The As welded together this great fighting force out of these people who were supposed to be inadequate. I thought that was just wonderful. And it was a story I hadn't heard. I didn't know how I was going to do it as a book, and had cold feet for months. Finally I said "screw it, it's too good a story" and called my publisher in a fit of ambition, and said: it's not one book, it's two books. There's a sequel about the kids they draft. That is going to be called Underdogs. It won't come out for six yearswe have to see what happens to thembut I've come to know them all and am following them through the minor leagues.
MUDVILLE: When you decided to write the book, how hard was it to get into the Oakland As?
LEWIS: I was already in. What happened was that I had personal relationships with them. They have an interest, for reasons that are obvious when you think of how they're run, to have conversations with people that are outside baseball. They're looking at it from such a different angle. And my background in Wall Street, and the obvious analogies I could draw from what they were doing and what I had seen on Wall Street, was very interesting to them. So a dialogue and a relationship started. By the time I said there's two books here I was so boiling with enthusiasm I think they thought "just let the guy just do what he wants. He's been here two or three months and he obviously gets the story and is interested in it." But they took a big risk, because they had no kind of control. Billy couldn't have been better about when I banged on the door during tense moments and said "Look I've just got to see this!", like before the trade deadline or during the 20th win. So I got to be a fly on the wall.
MUDVILLE: Some of this stuff is just mind-blowing. One thing that struck me about your book was the part where one of the scouts thought that Billy Beane should succeed because he had "gone out with all the prettiest girls". How could this be an argument for whether or not someone is capable of being a baseball player? That doesn't strike me as one the "tools" a player is supposed to have.
LEWIS: It's the sixth tool!
MUDVILLE: Incredible. If, down the line, baseball will take Beane's approach, do you think they will eventually stop taking high school players and go right into college? That it'll be like the other sports, where you have players that get scholarships out of high school to go into collegiate baseball?
LEWIS: It makes complete sense to me. One of the consequences of the way the As do business is that high school players will be a lot less likely to get drafted.
MUDVILLE: Would this impact the minor leagues?
LEWIS: They'll become more sober, because they're older players. And minor league statistics are going to become an analysis of minor league players. Its going to be a lot more sophisticated. I bet five years from now there will be some place you can go where you can take a guy's single A, double A and triple A stats and have someone make rational projections about what the numbers imply and what he'll do at the next level. Like SATs imply grades in college. It will be rough, but it will be done.
MUDVILLE: It's important to have these statistics in the first place, so you can look at the right ones and make a judgment. One of the so-called tools' the scouts utilized is the ability of a player to drive the ball out of the park. But it's common knowledge to many baseball fans that power can be taught. You always hear about players bulking up to increase their power.
LEWIS: Hit with power should just be ignored. You certainly will develop as you get older. If you're 20 years old you'll get bigger and stronger when you're 23. Jason Giambi is a great case study. This guy didn't have any power when he came into the As organization. Didn't hit home runs. Look at him now! God knows what he's doing to generate that, he does look a little bit like he's been [motions like he's jabbing himself in the arm with a needle]
still, he's a moose! By the same token, you've got Billy Beane. He did seem to have incredible natural power, but went exactly the other way. He had seemingly less power by the time he was 25 than he had he was 18. He never really learned to hit a baseball and he got more and more defensive at the plate as opposed to harnessing his natural power.
MUDVILLE: If the Beane model is implemented, do you think we'll see the end of scouts as we know it?
LEWIS: I put it to the As that here is the rational scouting department: Today you have these guys who go out and look at players. But my scouts don't just look at them, they talk to them. You have scouts who have good social skills and who understand what a young person is like. Because there is a psychological trauma in becoming a professional baseball player. You're away from home, it's grueling beyond belief, there's lots of failure. Some characters are just not suited to that.
MUDVILLE: Like Billy Beane.
LEWIS: Like Billy Beane. Some people are psychopaths! And you'd want to ferret out the guys who aren't mentally suited to the game. I think the scouts would also be collectors of raw data.
Here's an interesting little case that illustrates this: Jeremy Brown. They had his stats from Alabama, but what they didn't know, and I found out because I went down to talk to Jeremy, is that when Brown was a freshman he hit 19 home runs. That's a lot, a huge number for a freshman in college. And then they went down. He hit ten or twelve. He said that after his freshman year, no one pitched to him. The As didn't know that. The reason was because the pitchers had already seen that this guy was someone you had to stay away from. The As would have valued Jeremy even more if they'd known that. He was perfect. They don't pitch to him, he doesn't swing outside the strike zone, his walks go up. He responds just the way a big league hitter needs to respond to guys that won't pitch to him. And he has even more pop in his bat than we know. Things like that you could find with my scouts. It's almost journalists you want. I hate to put it that way, but you want people who will go into these kids' lives, get to know them, find out any kind of relevant information that isn't in the impression he makes on the baseball field.
MUDVILLE: What was it that made the As even know that Jeremy Brown was there?
LEWIS: They looked over the college stats around the country and sent one of their scouts down to look at him. One said he didn't even want to go.
MUDVILLE: Kind of like Willie Mays and the Red Sox. Although that was a racial issue. But still, it's similaryou're looking at something that doesn't have anything to do with a player's ability. He's fat, so he's not our guy.
LEWIS: It's funny you say that because while I wrote this I did think I was watching mini Jackie Robinsons. In a very scaled down way, this is the Jackie Robinson story. Someone's appearance is being used against them and his true merits as a baseball player are being overlooked. That's why I'm going to follow these kids. They're the victim of an unthinking prejudice. I thought it was a joy to watch that prejudice being chipped away, or at least challenged. God knows when it will be overcome and to see someone say "it doesn't matter what he looks like." You don't have to look good. A lot of fat guys have been great. Babe Ruth. This is a very strange prejudice when you think about it, because it ignores what actually happens on a baseball field.
"In a very scaled down way, this is the Jackie Robinson story. Someones appearance is being used against them and his true merits as a baseball player are being overlooked."
MUDVILLE: It's interesting that you didn't spend much time with the celebrities in your book. You don't need toBeane is a fascinating character and a reader can get caught up with all the smaller characters in this little world.
LEWIS: In the choice of the characters, I wanted to underscore the fact that these are guys you haven't heard of. These are guys who have been plucked from potential obscurity. If I took the guys who have become stars, Zito or Tejada, it would have been more obvious, and it wouldn't have made the point as well that baseball players can be dramatically undervalued. I wanted the reader to experience the sensation of "I never heard of this guy" and then learn that he's really good and why he's really good. The stars wouldn't have been useful. Zito was great: he's a perfectly good character. I could have moved into Zito's life. But on the surface that would have been more sensational, but less in service to the story.
In fact, while working on Moneyball, I thought that there's a wonderful piece to be done that sort of dissects Tom Hicks and how he thinks about baseball. This idea that you pay a shortstop $250 million bucks and that's the way to build a good team.
MUDVILLE: The opposite of the As.
LEWIS: It's a repellent idea. It's in violation of the truth that baseball's a team game and one guy's not going to make that much difference. It's something I'm sure Hicks picked up in his life as a businessman. Businessmen in this day and age have really become wedded to the idea of a star, because they can then become the big shots who can get paid these obscene sums of money. It's a spilling over of an idea from business into baseballin his mind, I bet. I'm sorry to lose that story, it's a good stand-alone piece.
MUDVILLE: Is it an oversimplification to think that that guys like Tom Hicks step into this thing thinking that it's a easier than what they've been doing? That he thinks that this is the fun part of what he's doing in life, he's running a business, he understands the complexities of it, obviously he's successful in it. Maybe he thinks "I've always loved baseball, I'll try my hand at it."
LEWIS: I don't think it's an oversimplification. But I think that they think they know baseball. "I'm a smart guy, I can move in this world, too." I don't think they're dummies who look at this as just a toy. I think their egos are invested in this and they're going to waste a lot of money on it. It was a great moment of triumph in the newspapers for Tom Hicks when he signed Alex Rodriguez, for which he's now going to have to pay for the next ten years. It's not that Alex Rodriguez isn't a great player, he's a great player, but no one is worth that. And if you allocate your resources stupidly, it's going to affect the long-term future of the team. I think that there is maybe a dawning awareness just about now that there actually is such a thing as expertise in building ballclubs. And it is much more complicated than the casual fan who is the owner of a team understands. And if you don't want to look like a fool, you better hire someone who has this expertise or can acquire it. I think the Oakland As are almost single-handedly responsible for this. They've taken all this stuff outside of baseball, the Bill James, the Baseball Prospectus, the understanding that there is this thing called knowledge and you can create it. That whole spirit was imported into baseball by the As. It never found a home anywhere else. And because the As have had so much success with this approach, they've infected the Blue Jays and the Red Sox, and who knows who else.
MUDVILLE: Do you think there will be a lot of teams that will be able to co-opt this success?
LEWIS: That's a great question. How much of it is sui generis? Is it just the ability of Billy Beane to do this?
MUDVILLE: Right. Because you also have to be able to take the idea and make it work within your system. Other teams might be say this is a great idea, but they're not going to make the proper changes to see it to success.
LEWIS: It's so messy remaking an organization. It means remaking your minor league system, it means remaking your big league coaching staff. You have to fire a lot of people and bring in a lot of people and no one likes to do that. For a team to take this on they have to understand that it is a multi-year project before they are likely to see any real benefits. They'll see some benefits: they'll see lower payrolls. But they need to build their minor leagues in a different way, draft players in a different way, and you don't see the fruits of that for several years. You need people at every level who believe in the idea and those people don't exist, so you have to create them. That's just hard. What Billy would say is "Knowing what we know about baseball is maybe half the battle. At least half the battle is our conviction about what we know." This is why I show him the way I show him, constantly inflamed, emotional, taking a bat to things because that's really what he has to do to keep the organization behaving itself. There's an atavistic tendency to go back to old baseball wisdom. The As way is about remaking your attitude toward the game. Saying we're just going to buy some on-base percentage isn't going to do it.
"What Billy would say is 'Knowing what we know about baseball is maybe half the battle. At least half the battle is our conviction about what we know.'"
What taking on this idea would do is eliminate some of the inefficiency in the market. It would make it a little harder for the Oakland As to function. It would hurt them if everybody wanted on-base percentage, just as it would hurt them if everyone said "it doesn't matter how hard a guy throws, let's go buy strikeout to walk ratios." These are specific things that would impact the As. But for those organizations to be successful they have to do more than that.
MUDVILLE: Wouldn't this way of looking at ballplayers affect salaries?
LEWIS: The natural consequence of what's going on in the market, thanks to the Oakland As and now the Red Sox and the Blue Jays, is to depress salaries. There are a lot of guys who are making seven or eight million dollars a year who are replaceable with triple A players, and you're not losing very much. The market doesn't recognize that.
MUDVILLE: The union's not going to be pleased with that.
LEWIS: No, of course not! If the players union seriously thought about this book, and thought and believed that a book could have influence, which people in baseball don't believethey really don't, they don't read books, they don't think that a book's going to do anything. And maybe it won't right? But people who own baseball teams do tend to read books, and if someone says "You've got to read this book if you're going to own a baseball team" it could have that real effect on the way owners regard player salaries. The Oakland As front office could tell you that if everybody was behaving rationally, players wouldn't be paid as much. There'd be a handful of players like Barry Bonds who would be paid as much. The only beneficiaries in this system are players like Scott Hatteberg, who's value is not appreciated, who might be paid more. But for the players, the losses would dramatically outweigh the gains in salary.
MUDVILLE: Because Hatteberg won't be making Alex Rodriguez's salary, while you'd lose, say, the Mo Vaughns of baseball.
LEWIS: One of the insights that drops out of the As way of doing business is that players are more replaceable than you think. Even when you take a dramatic example like Jason Giambi, who isn't himself exactly replaceable, what you can do in refiguring your team is that you can overcome losing, so it becomes a less desperate scramble for individuals. It's the desperate scramble that drives these salaries and make bad decisions.
MUDVILLE: But won't the union someday challenge this current rules that state that drafted players must stay with a team seven years in the minors then six in the majors? This is probably the best way the so-called small market teams can compete.
"...baseball is very slow to change. In fact, Bud Selig is a machine for preventing change."
LEWIS: I'm astonished that they even allow it. Thirteen years could be a guy's whole career. It seems kind of criminal. You're really locking up a guy for an awful long time. The only reason I can think this is legal is that it's a restraint of trade made possible by their exemption from the anti-trust laws. It just amazes me that that hasn't been taken to court and thrown out. But baseball is very slow to change. In fact, Bud Selig is a machine for preventing change. He's very good at stopping things from happening.
MUDVILLE: This story flies in the face of what's happening right now in baseball. At the bottom of Moneyball is the notion that, instead of whining that you need a new stadium or that you're too poor to field a good team, you have smart people saying let's figure out a way to succeed now. If all that stuff happens down the line, we'll benefit from it then.
LEWIS: Let's roll up our sleeves, a little Yankee ingenuity. That's the delight of the story. You step back from baseball and you look at how it's run, all you need to know that it's screwed up is to know that the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers has been put in charge. That the owner of one of the worst run teams in baseball is the Commissioner. It's bizarre. If you look at any other industry that had to put someone in that kind of position of authority, they would naturally look to the leader of the industry, not to the one of the dregs. You can't say, based on the evidence, that Bud Selig understands his game. If he did, the Brewers would not be in the state they're in. That man has not availed himself to state-of-the-art information. It is such an indictment. It's an insane world.
MUDVILLE: Is there a particular reason for this?
LEWIS: I don't think it's a conspiracy. It's driven by the internal politics of big league baseball, rather than any kind of rational analysis of what would be good for the game. But it's appalling. If I was Bud Selig I'd be ashamed. I would say, "Look, I cannot accept this position because I clearly do not know how to run a team. So how on earth can I run the whole game?" But he obviously thinks some other way.
MUDVILLE: Beane and Company said to themselves "this game is run poorly, and we need to look elsewhere." You have this guy named
LEWIS: Voros McCracken!
MUDVILLE: Here he is, sitting in his mother's house
MUDVILLE: That's right, unemployed! But his ideas are valid! For so long, baseball has been saying that they know how to run this game, but they're entrenched. And here Beane looks outside, to other people, who actually have the best interests of the sport in mind.
"It's one of the curiosities of baseball that the great souls have been outside the game. And the inside doesnt want to acknowledge that."
LEWIS: They're thinking about the sport in a broader way. It's one of the curiosities of baseball that the great souls have been outside the game. And the inside doesn't want to acknowledge that. It's a wonderful story. It's the best story I've ever walked into, I still can't quite believe it existed. It is because baseball is such a curiously screwed up enterprise that this story is possible. There are not many enterprises like this in American life.
MUDVILLE: You could have just criticized baseball, but you didn't.
LEWIS: That's right! You have someone to root for. It's a positive story, made possible by the idiocy around it, that's the key to Moneyball.
Special thanks to Alex Belth for his help.
ONCE THEY WERE KINGS
As most people know, Washington, D.C. used to field a team called the Senators, a club so bad that they wrote a musical about them. The Senators, of course, moved to the colder (and whiter) climes of Minnesota, were reborn a year later, then moved again to the dustier climes of Arlington, Texas. Now, no one plays baseball in the nation's capital and won't unless the Expos move there.
Thing is, the Senators weren't the only game in town. Brad Snyder's entertaining new book, Beyond the Shadow of the Senators (Contemporary Books, $24.95) takes us back to Washington, D.C., when noble sport captured that city and the Homestead Grays were king for a few glorious seasons. In taking us there, Snyder not only sheds light on the racism that kept many of the greats from the big leagues, but he also raises some disturbing questions about the nature of baseball today.
If there's one thing we dig in baseball histories, it's that feeling of actually falling back in time. Where most Negro League histories have a tendency to try and cover the whole story from Genesis to the Revelation, thereby diluting the story, Snyder focuses his eye exclusively on the nation's capital. Now, one might think that D.C. is a bleak location for a book on baseballthe Senators were dull bad, not Mets badand, as far as we knew, the city never fielded an official Negro League team. But the Grays, watching their attendance decline in Pittsburgh (of which Homestead is a suburb), decided to try a few games barnstorming in Griffith Stadium. Clark Griffith, with an eye on the almighty dollar, acquiesced and the Grays marched on in, bringing with them some of the finest talent in history to a town starving for good baseball.
Snyder burrows deep into Washington baseball in the 30s and 40s, revealing some startling developments. "I wrote an article about black baseball in Detroit," Snyder told us, "and it was almost the same story you found in Philadelphia, with Connie Mack, and Boston, with Tom Yawkey. These stodgy old white men had no use for black fans or black athletes. The difference in Washington is that you had the Homestead Grays: exhibit A proving that segregation was wrong, and their thinking incorrect." Griffith Stadium was located in LeDroit Park, the city's affluent black community, and right across from Howard University, one of the leading African-American Universities, then and now. Although Griffith wouldn't integrate, in the 20s, African-Americans attended Senators games en masse, moving their loyalties to the Grays only when the white team slid to the lower division. "What shocked me about this story," Snyder said, "is that even though blacks were segregated into the right field pavilion, even when the team fielded no black players, they still supported the Senators."
It is this community's love of baseball that fuels Beyond the Shadow of the Senators. Snyder brilliantly captures the mood of a city on game day, the smells, the sounds, taking you from the little stucco booths where you bought a ticket, right into the weird dimensions of Griffith, including a centerfield fence that jutted inward to make room for a tall oak tree. Washingtonians, black and white, adored baseball. Perhaps no one embodied this more than Sam Lacy, local African-American sportswriter, who was eventually enshrined in the Hall of Fame (and who passed away last May 8 at the age of 99). When the Grays came to town, Lacy used them to provoke Griffith to desegregate, ultimately a losing cause. This became especially poignant during World War II, when the major leagues claimed they had no talent to put on the field, all the while Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson were crushing towering home runs out of the park.
Odd characters people this book, from Lacy, who often lied about (or misremembered) his athletic past, to Griffith, an adamant segregationist who was respected by Lacy (and, strangely, met often with the reporter to sound off on the uncomfortable subject). We see Buck Leonard, the great first baseman who didn't take to big city life and kept his brother Charlie from the sport, either due to jealousy or to attempt at keeping the kid on the straight and narrow. And of course you have Josh Gibson and the great Satchel Paige to liven things up. While we know that Sam Lacy did not succeed in forcing Griffith to be the first to integrate, Snyder keeps you turning the pages, for these characters drive the story down weird little back roads and alleys, such as Grays owner Cum Posey defending segregation, to the Calvin Griffith's inability to keep his big mouth shut. In fact, it is Calvin that brings us directly into the present, and the examination of his character helps give Shadow some of its considerable weight. For the troubles of the past continue to this day, both in Washington, in Detroit, and reminds us that the Minnesota Twins own history isn't especially bright.
Calvin Griffith brought the Twins to Minnesota because he was, to put it bluntly, a racist. "In the owners meeting at the time," Snyder argues, "you have Calvin pleading with the other owners saying Look where my ballpark is. There's no parking. There's black people all around. I can't make any money here. Let me go.'" The Senators had a history of missing the boat on integration (which was perhaps even more of a slap in the face considering their past), and essentially drove away that fan base. Snyder acknowledges that Griffith Stadium was outmoded, and that the team needed a new ballpark. But it was racism that brought our Twins to town. "Look at the Waseca Lions Club speech," Snyder said. "The fact that he drove off Rod Carew, even his sister corroborating the fact that he moved because of the predominance of African-Americans. The Griffiths wanted to get as far away as they could from a black fan base." But what about Griffith's signing black superstars such as Puckett and Carew? "Calvin was a great judge of talent, a great scout. He signed black players in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of them, like Carew, left the club because Calvin's racist attitudes. Calvin wasn't around long enough to alienate Puckett because Griffith sold the team in 1985 or 1986. Signing those players doesn't excuse the Griffith family's history of discrimination in Washington."
This alienation is something that Major League Baseball should address if they bring the Expos to the capital. It might be wise to also cast their eye on the failures of the Detroit Tigers, a team whose attendance continues to decline while doing nothing to attract African-Americans, who make up a majority of the city's population. Why would you ignore the largest segment of your fan base? Since Ernie Harwell just retired, wasn't that a great opportunity to hire an African-American broadcaster? Of course they didn't, and to this day haven't had any radio, television or PA announcers that aren't white. Much has been made of the return of the '84 Tigers to the coaching staff, and yet Lou Whitaker and Chet Lemon weren't even included in the discussion. While it would be foolish to suggest that baseball hasn't changed since the time of the Homestead Grays, it is equally foolish to suggest that baseball's done all it can to attract African-American customers.
Beyond the Shadow of the Senators can be purchased at most bookstores, or you can check out its handsome website, which including ordering information.
STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
Jim Bouton is still stirring up trouble. Bouton, whose Ball Four is a fixture in the baseball firmament, has just published Foul Ball (Bulldog Publishing, $24.95) a book about his attempts to save Wahconah Park, a quirky minor-league stadium in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Bouton sums it up this way: "It's the same old story you see all over the country: build us a new stadium or you'll never see your team again." What makes the Foul Ball story even more intriguing is that publishing the book has become as controversial as saving the park.
"I've only felt compelled to write about two experiences in my entire life," Bouton said. "The first was what it was like to play on a baseball team in the major leagues, and that was the diary I kept in 1969 and became Ball Four. The next was my experience trying to save and restore Wahconah Park and put a locally owned baseball team there." Wahconah Park is an little old wooden shack that used to house the Pittsfield Mets, a single A affiliate of the New York team. The place has a number of weird little quirks, not the least of which is the need for a sun-delay', in which the game halts for about twenty minutes to allow the sun to drop just low enough to get out of the eyes of the batter. But as we've been seeing in every town with a old stadium and a ballclub, powerful forces decreed the old place run-down and worthless, despite the fact that the public felt exactly the opposite. The Mets demanded a new stadium, the votes didn't come through, and the team moved to nearby Troy, New York in 2001. That's when Jim Bouton stepped in. Along with Chip Elitzer, an invest banker, and Eric Margeneau, owner of a number of minor-league franchises, Bouton tried to get a team from either the Northeast League or the Atlantic League.
"We thought it would be a no-brainer," Bouton argued. "We said that the city should call the shots to control their own baseball destiny; they should give us the lease and allow use that valuable asset as leverage to get the best deal for Pittsfield. Our plan was to come in, invest our own money to clean the place up and field an independent team from either the Northern or Frontier Leagues. No tax increases, a city owned team, and we'd take care of the stadium." But the city fathers had other ideas. A group called Berkshire Sports Events wanted to spend 18.5 million dollars on a stadium. According to Bouton, "the people who run the town, who I call the gang of four: the Berkshire Eagle (a local paper), Cain Hibbard Meyers and Cook, Berkshire Bank and General Electric" influenced the city of Pittsfield to gave Wahconah Park to Jonathan Fleisig, a commodities trader from New York. Why him? "Because he'd effectively block us from getting it. Fleisig wanted a new stadium. The city owned the park, so the parks commissioners voted unanimously to give Fleisig the park. He has a lease through 2003, and whether he renews or not is an open question." Last season, Fleisig's first as owner, the Berkshire Black Bears (of the Northeast League) finished last in the standings and last in attendance. "It was a disaster," Bouton said. "He made minimal improvements. Already they're making arguments that his failure is because it's a lousy ballpark. But the fight is over. We lost the fight." The result of that lost fight is Foul Ball.
Normally, that would be the end of the story: Bouton publishes his book, maybe the stadium is saved, maybe not. But it doesn't stop there, for last winter Bouton suddenly ran into controversy with his publisher, Public Affairs.
When he finished the manuscript in early 2002, Bouton shopped it around and in the end chose Public Affairs. "They had a reputation for publishing socially relevant books, so I took it there. They loved the book. It was to be the lead book of their catalogue this spring. I had recorded an audio tape to help promote Foul Ball and we had a sixteen city reading tour." Then, last October, trouble began. The book was in its final stages when the president of Public Affairs, Peter Osnos, invited Bouton to lunch and asked him, out of the blue, to get balancing comments' from General Electric, to give them a chance to respond. "In my book I speculated that one of the reasons that the Gang of Four wanted to place the stadium in its downtown location was that GE might be trying to cover up a toxic waste dump. It turned out I was right." According to Bouton, what troubled Osnos, was that one of his best friends, Ben Heineman, was a lawyer for GE and soon to be an investor in Public Affairs. Bouton refused to talk to GE. "I told Osnos that I didn't get balancing comments' from Major League Baseball [for Ball Four] I wasn't going to do it here. Besides, this wasn't a book about General Electricthey're on maybe ten pages."
A week after that lunch, Bouton's editor at Public Affairs, Paul Golob, told him that references to pollution would have to come out of the book. Again, Bouton refused. He asked out of his contract, but Public Affairs took three months to let him go. By then it was too late for Bouton to go to another publisher and release it by June. Now he's publishing the book himself, under the Bulldog Press label.
Gene Taft, Director of Publicity at Public Affairs, disagrees with this assessment. "We had an impasse with Jim over content in the book. He had some material in the book that didn't add to the story, some dangling subplots, and we asked him to bring them to a resolution or get rid of them. He was not interested in that. We said, OK you're free to go your own way, but if and when you publish the book, please pay back our advance. We left on what were amicable circumstances." When asked about holding the book for one year, and delaying Bouton's release, Taft's reply was curt: "We're not particularly interested in rebutting his points. In the end our statement on this is integrity: we're positively happy to put Peter Osnos' integrity against Jim Bouton's anytime." Paul Golob, Bouton's editor at Public Affairs, now at Henry Holt, declined to comment.
Probably the truth sits somewhere in between Bouton and Public Affairs, although the publisher's disdain for any plausible explanation is puzzling
not to mention GE's tendency to make sure its information arms (the NBC family) walk the straight and narrow.
At press time, we have yet to read the book, which is due out this month, and will be available at most bookstores or at JimBouton.com.
SIGN, SIGN, EVERYWHERE'S A SIGN
Ah, June! When the Hallmark Corporation rears its ugly head and orders us to champion the cause of our fathers on a certain Sunday (as opposed to, say, their birthday) and little children beat their collective heads trying to come up with the perfect gift. Clichés include Old Spice, ties, gift certificates from the Home Depot, hard liquor if you're from that type of family, or, if you listen to the publishing houses in New York City, baseball books. Dear old Dad would probably give us a look of yawning indifference at receiving the latter (or any items on that list); for unless Kurt Vonnegut takes on the nation's pastime, the old man would probably rather have a can of lukewarm celery tonic than a baseball book. Now, custom has it that Father's Day requires heartwarming gifts as opposed to edgy ones; we hear that The Teammates is a good father's day gift, while Moneyball is not.
In keeping with this odd behavior, we'll recommend The Hidden Language of Baseball (Walker Books, $22.00 even). Hidden is a swell diversion, full of little stories such as Bill Veeck's using telescopes to steal signs (and perhaps the pennant). We don't think you get enough of that nowadays. Dickson traces the secret art from its humble beginnings during the Civil War (where they were an extension of battlefield signals) on up to last year's playoffs, when St. Louis snuffed out the Johnson/Schilling tandem, perhaps because of tipped pitches. While it doesn't decode the cryptics on the field today, The Hidden Language of Baseball offers up a little dessert buffet of anecdotes that should keep the fathers of America feeling tender and warm in their easy chairs.
Without question the greatest disappointment this season is David Halberstam's The Teammates (Hyperion, $22.95). This is a bad book, reading as if were knocked off in a matter of weeks and not worthy of its intriguing subject. What could have been a touching story about three friends visiting Ted Williams in his last days instead turns into a tedious, often misguided attempt at jerking tears from readers. As in Summer of '49 and October 1964, Halberstam heaps on the backstory, which works in narratives that try to capture the pieces of a pennant winning club, but fails miserably here. For example, there's a whole chapter on Johnny Pesky that doesn't even include the other players that make up this fabled friendship. The Teammates seems to struggle for meaning and grasp at misused anecdotes, and even slips into the outright bizarre (such as Halberstam's guess that if Ted Williams hadn't played ball he would have been a brain surgeon). It is a great shame that the camaraderie between these players, unique in baseball then and probably impossible today, has been given such a short shrift by so talented a writer.
OUR FAVORITE YEAR
Step into our Wayback Machine and join us as we revisit our favorite team of old: the 1976 Detroit Tigers. Never in recent memory has such a mediocre team fielded so many fascinating characters. Of course, the capstone was Mark Fidrych, who, as Rob Neyer put it, was "the most famous player in the world" that year, capturing the Rookie-of-the-Year award, hauling in record crowds and these amazing numbers: 19 wins, 9 losses, 24 complete games, and a 2.34 ERA. What is often forgotteneven by Tigers fansis that the team as a whole was just as fascinating. You had John Hiller, the ace reliever who five years earlier suffered not one, but three heart attacks; Aurelio Rodriguez, quite possibly the worst hitting third baseman in the majors, who managed to take that year's Gold Glove; and Ralph Houk, former Yankee manager and target of many of Jim Bouton's best anecdotes, who led the team. While the Tigers didn't come close to contention, they had three starters in the '76 All-Star game: Fidrych, Rusty Staub (who fell on his face chasing a ball in the first inning), and Ron Leflore.
Leflore's would have surely been named the craziest man on the team had it not been for the Bird. Ron never played ball until he was 23, and then in Jackson Prison, where he was locked up for armed robbery. It wasn't until two years later, at age ten, that we read Jim Hawkins' Breakout and discovered the full extent of the Ron Leflore story.
Breakout was a birthday present. If our dear aunt knew what she'd handed us, well, she'd either have fainted dead away, or ripped it from our hands and torn the thing up. Jim Hawkins is one of the most mediocre, simplistic writers ever to sit at a typewriter, and Breakout almost seems to be written with a ten-year-old in mind. Boy, did we enjoy it! While the baseball side of Leflore's story is truly inspiringin '76, his second year in the majors, the guy hit .316, stole 58 bases and had a 30 game hitting streak, the longest in the American League for 27 yearsit's his road to the majors that kept the pages moving. Read in two days time, during the day, right after dinner and even after midnight (by flashlight) in the ratty little Bay City apartment next door to the raging alcoholics. Why, Ron's old Detroit neighborhood almost sounded like our own
except without the prostitutes, which, the way Ron described them, seemed disappointing. Here was Ron stealing, drinking, shooting heroin and screwing his brains out at age twelve (just two years from our age at the time!). Later on you get to see how one can make a living in Jackson Prison selling "spud juice", refusing to pick potatoes, sitting in solitary confinement, and some graphic scenes of inmate sex. For a ten year old, Breakout is a little bit different than The Cricket in Times Square. Weird little tidbits pepper the book, such as Tigers owner John Fetzer coughing up the money to send his players to Transcendental Meditation and the photo of a tomato plant in the Tiger Stadium centerfield that Ron took care of. At book's end Ron has learned his lesson from his bleak life, admitting that he still smokes some grass, loves his girlfriend and his daughter, but still messes around on the road.
You can imagine that Breakout remained a secret from the adults in our life. Reading it again, these twenty-five years laterand wondering if Ron would ever have made it in a Billy Beane worldleaves us in soft melancholy. Bill Veeck once wrote that baseball is a game for beer drinkers, as opposed to football, which was for those inclined to cocktails. The difference, he suggested, was education: baseball fans came from all walks of life, while football fans tended to be well-educated, ivy-league types. Nothing wrong with the ivy-leaguer, but sometimes it seems as if baseball has lost its grip on whatever working class exists in America, be it factory workers or fast-food employees. Although no one probably cares anymore, would baseball scouts come and check out prisons? Players don't visit the lockups any more (neither do country music singers, for that matter), and it's unlikely that they even play ball in Jackson. When scientists look for trouble in the ecosystem, they start in the ponds; maybe baseball's rejection of the poor and working classes will someday be recognized as a portent of a bleak future.
FROM THE SMALL PRESSES
Bill Ballew has been covering baseball for smaller publications for over ten years, from Baseball Digest to Fan to the Greenville Braves 1999 Yearbook. He's collected his articles in a fun little book called Rounding the Bases (Old Norse Publishing, $18.95). This book's strength lies in Ballew's articles on the smaller players and personnel who orbit this crazy game, from Bill Clark, scout and devoted bird watcher, to the Pisciotta brothers' anxiety on draft day
Arcadia Press wins the award for the most beautifully packaged books of the small houses. Our favorite is the simply titled Tiger Stadium, by Irwin J. Cohen (Arcadia, $19.99). This handsome paperback is nothing more than photos the author took of the grand old dame during his years as a writer and photographer employed by the front office. Some of the photos aren't greatwe could care less about Tom Selleck taking his cuts during batting practicebut Cohen made sure to capture as much of the place as he could, from the press box to the girders to the low ceiling of the dugout. For those of you who miss the intimacy of the old place, this book should put a tear in your eye
Finally, McFarland and Company has been laboring for years to provide a) scholarly baseball books for an audience who has difficulty finding, say, a narrative of the 19th century's most thrilling season, b) employment for writers interested in these subjects or c) both. Much of the writing in the McFarland library is as dry as zwieback, but they also fill an important niche. Believe us, if there's a well written biography or historical narrative on any subject in baseball, there's a McFarland title in the bibliography.
AROUND THE HORN
For those of you familiar with this site, you'll know that radio is king in Mudville. But the senior medium is growing more and more difficult to stomach as of late. Doesn't it seem like the Twins advertising department running on fumes? This season's ads"Gotta See Em"seem like pale imitations of the past. The songs are insipid, the jokes flat. Then after suffering through the Torii Hunter song (not funny), the Corey Koskie song (grating) and the Ron Gardenhire musical number (so unfunny it almost sucks the air out of the room), you find yourself listening to Dan Gladden ignoring the game in favor of Mankato Harley-Davidson, or John "Touch em all!" Gordon rambling on about his golf game, or how he wishes that he'd been able to join Gladden in a plate of barbecued pork. At first, we were taken in by this pair, who do show the occasional flash of brilliance, especially Gladden's grumblings about lackadaisical play. Local fans claim that Herb Carneal used to be a charmer: what the hell does he think working next to this unprofessional crew?
Don't weep for Tigers fans, for at the very least this club now seems as if it has a modicum of direction under Alan Trammel. This club is the laughingstock of the nation, with a record worse (at this writing) than any of its predecessors. And yet the team appears loose, untroubled by the usual strife that has them in such a funk that the season seems worthless by Memorial Day. Whatever improvement this batch sees will appear as a victory, and if these players remain with the club for a few years, at least we'd have someone to follow on their rise (we hope) to stardom, as Twins fans enjoy today. In the recent past, we had to endure the trigger-happy methods of Randy Smith, who seemed to trade players just as soon as you got to like them. At least Dave Dombrowski has some patience. Then again, after what we read about Dombrowski in Moneyball, it might be a long, if not eternal, wait.
Baseball Digest takes the prize for giving us the bizarre quote of the month. Tom Seaver, speaking on the art of pitching, makes this bizarre analogy: "No matter how much you prepare, some obstacles develop that you can't anticipate, and you still have to have a way to escape. And sometimes you find things you didn't know were still available. It's almost impossible to explain. It's like pornography. I can't define it, but I know it when I see it. I sense it, I smell it." Fortunately for us, when visiting the local Schinder's, we have never sensed, nor smelled, the presence of pornography.
Although we admire Rob Neyer's work, his Big Book of Baseball Lineups is a disappointment. Neyer, or Simon & Schuster, claim that this is "an unparalleled reference for settling the debates". While it is well written and fun to read, it's surprisingly frugal with statistics, which is fundamental in settling anything. For instance, if Yankees fans were turning to Neyer to answer the question as to who was the greatest second baseman in that club's history, the answer is Tony Lazzeri. He "just edges Willie Randolph here." Why? Apparently, because Neyer says so, don't worry about it. There's not a number in the book to support that claim, nor one to back up the argument (our favorite in there) that George Kell's doesn't deserve to be in the Hall of Fame plaque. Oddly enough, one need only to look at Neyer's recent list of the greatest post-WWII pitchers to see how well he usually handles these claims. Brevity is not the soul of argument, and Neyer's book, hardly big, forces the reader to look elsewhere for evidence.
The May 25th edition of The New York Times Book Review covers even more books than we did, and it looks as if they didn't dislike a single one. Another beef: baseball fans, people who don't like our sport don't like baseball books. If your friend or wife or girlfriend doesn't like baseball, they won't like Moneyball, they won't like Game Time, the new Roger Angell collection, they won't like The Teammates. If you don't like the sport, you won't like the book.
Alex Belth's Bronx Banter is always an interesting read. Alex is the man with connections, and his interviews, with Neyer, Roger Angell, and others, make his blog a stand-out. Intriguingly (for a baseball blog) he just interviewed Ethan Coen, who believes, as we do, that baseball movies are typically mediocre. And yes, we include "Bull Durham".