For those of you who haven't bought your Festivus gifts for the TWT crew, there's still time. And, as a service, I'm going to help you out by discussing a few literary treasures to consider and some travesties to avoid. I'm not limiting myself to baseball, because all baseball and no hoops make Smitty a dull boy, all baseball and...
I also want to talk about baseball movies, since DVD's make perfect stocking stuffers, though certain baseball films better serve as coasters, these especially. Quick 5 underrated baseball movies:
5. A League of Their Own - Decent baseball stuff, except for Lori
4. 61* - Yeah, it's about the Yankees. But in my mind's eye, from about Jackie Robinson to Bucky &*^@ Dent, the Yankees weren't really the MFY's. Plus Billy Crystal is a true Yankee fan from way back, not some band wagoneer who couldn't tell Sparky Lyle from Sparky Anderson. Good stuff about the pressures and stresses on Maris as he chased Ruth.
3. Little Big League - yeah, it's sort of a kids movie, but A) it's a reasonably grownup kid's movie; B) the baseball sequences are about the best anyone has ever done in a movie, (I could watch the end credits with highlights set to Taj Mahal's version of Fats Domino's "I'm Ready" about a hundred times); C) Best. Hidden Ball Trick. Ever. My roommate claims his high school team used the same play. Though he was the catcher and the opposing teams cleanup hitter took his embarrassment out in the ensuing home plate collision. D) It's about the TWINS.
2. Inning 7 of Ken Burns's "Baseball." Just for Buck O'Neill singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." I'm not sure I'll ever really forgive the powers that be for not putting him in the Hall of Fame while he was still alive.
1. The Sandlot - Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez! I struggle to describe just how all around kickass this move is. Consider. 1) James Earl Jones. 2) Denis Leary. 3) Kids doing chaw, then puking on a carnival ride. 4) Phenomenal, chill-inducing 4th of July "night game" scene, with Mr. Ray Charles prominently involved. 5) Little Scotty Smalls was in both "Black Hawk Down" and "Mystic River". And of course:
"You play ball like a girl"
Anyway, on to a few of the sports books I perused this year. Y'all probably hate soccer, but I'll still throw out a recommendation for The Miracle of Castle di Sangro and Brilliant Orange.
On the more 'Merkan sports tip, first of all, you can probably skip both "The Devil Wears Pinstripes" and "Blood Feud" unless you've never ever read anything making fun of the Yankees. If that's the case then this blog might, in general, not be your cup of tea. If you want to get your hate on, (especially since my co-bloggers here are rabidly anti-Duke) go with this one. I'm a Duke guy*, but I loved every page of it.
Michael Lewis's "The Blind Side" is not as revolutionary as Money Ball, but is quite good. I'd even suggest that every reads it and then we can do a book club, especially given our recent exegesis on race and class. Anyway, it's about a rich white family who sorta adopted a poor black kid. Who happens to be an athletic marvel and turns into the best O-Line prospect in the land. And also about how left tackle has become the second most valued position in the NFL.
This was mildly diverting, if repetitive. But it's a bout hockey, so I've probably already devoted more time to it than necessary.
As to the meat and drink of this here, collective baseball, and how it has been very, very good to me. First let me direct you to my reviews of "Baseball Between the Numbers" and Mind Game for two offerings of wildly varying quality from the folks at Baseball Prospectus. "Mind Game" is an illustration of the old adage about "Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics," while "Between the Numbers" is a solidly analytical anthology.
Similar, though not quite as wonkish as BTN is Scott Gray's "The Mind of Bill James." Part interview/biography, part hagiography and part Baseball Abstract Light, MBJ tells in short version James' rise to prominence. It is fairly wide ranging with Jamesian views on everything from education to geopolitics. Most intriguing were the descriptions of how James has mellowed to a degree. Whereas earlier in his career, he would bombastically declare that there is no such thing as clutch hitting, he's prepared to back away and opine that there is such a thing, but it generally accounts for at most, 2 to 3 % of performance in those situations. I.e., the primary reason why Papi is a clutch beast is that he's good in general, though he might be slightly better than an 'equivalent' player in that spot.
My favorite sports book of the year was probably "FantasyLand" by Sam Walker. Walker, a baseball fan, but fantasy sports neophyte, somehow wrangles an invitation to the most cut-throat Expert's league in the country. Going head to head against people who are largely professionals (in that the League is more of an advertising venue for their draft guides and previews), Walker's goal is to use hard-core data analysis (he actually hires a NASA rocket scientist to be his numbers guru) while "re-humanizing" fantasy baseball by using his press credentials to gain access and insight into 'his' players. (He goes so far as to make up uniforms which he proceeds to distribute.) Hilarity/insanity ensues.
Finally, and more lyrically is Stephen Jay Gould's Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville. While Gould is something of a fuddy-duddy, (though one of the few people to be able to successfully combine Yankee and Sawx fandom with dignity reasonably intact - being a longtime Harvard professor from the Bronx might do that I suppose...) he was one of the first establishment types to look at baseball scientifically. His essay on why no-one hits .400 anymore (basic thesis, absolute skill levels are better now, but as the difference between the best and worst Major Leaguers has shrunk, in large part because the pool of potential players has grown far faster than league roster space: first was the color barrier, then the beginning of recruitment in Latin America, and now we see the inroads into Asia) must have been mindblowing at the time. It seems so conventional now, but he wrote in 20+ years ago. There were also bits I disagree with - specifically his hatred of the Wild Card for 'cheapening' the regular season. Funny how the only people who make this sort of argument are fans of, well, teams like the Yankees which are going to be in the playoffs or thereabouts every year anyway. All in all, a quality collection, very handsomely written.
So, go forth and give wisely.
* The Alaskan Assassin, baby, we go back...incidentally, my high school is on Wikipedia, how cool is that?
FWIW, this years team is going to be terrible to watch all year. Their best two players (one of whom is Greg Paulus, who, uhm, sucks) either can't or don't like to shoot - I love Josh McRoberts. It's like you took Luke Walton, made him taller, stronger, more-athletic, left-handed and a better ball-handler, yet he was still slightly worse. How does that work?