Saturday, July 12, 2008

More Baseball Books

An update on the baseball books I've read since my last entry on the subject.

Rickey and Robinson by Harvey Frommer
Frommer's book is a great look at the relationship that erased the color line in major league baseball. It's an excellent introduction to the subject, and a good short biography of each man as it relates to their combined efforts in the game.

The Bill James Gold Mine 2008 by Bill James
I was looking forward to this book, hoping it would at be, at least to some extent, a throwback to the Baseball Abstracts. Instead, it's a bland collection of numbers that you can mainly find in other places, with very little in the way of original analysis or insight. There might be a few shiny nuggets in the book, but it's no gold mine.

The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers by Bill James
This was an essential read, as it's really the only book that tries to examine the role of a manager in terms of what he does, rather than who he is. It goes beyond wins and losses to give us a good idea of what each manager was like, in terms of strategy and tactics, as well as the background on their playing and/or coaching career, and what their influences were. The book is arranged in chronological order, so that you can see the evolution of the role of the manager, as well as the changing on-field tactics. Required reading.

Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends by Rob Neyer
Neyer is probably my favorite baseball writer, but it's get drawn into this book. Neyer discusses so many legends (or more accurately, old baseball stories) that it gets monotonous after a while, especially since his methodology is almost exactly the same for each story. He checks Retrosheet and then tries to narrow the story down to a certain time when it could conceivably have happened. This takes up most of each entry.
Fact-checking is necessary, especially for this book, but it's not neccessary to take the reader along for dozens and dozens of fact-checking exercises. I'd have been far more interested in getting more background on the story and the storyteller, as well as some insight into why some false legends spring up.
The most notable part of the book is probably Bill James' introduction. James decries the fact that the great storytelling in baseball has been almost entirely replaced by numbers and a dedication to accuracy. That's not to say that accuracy isn't important; but rather that it's fun to have these legends, even if we all know they're not true. Baseball journalism has changed, which is good for the most part, but the mantle of baseball storytelling hasn't been picked up by anyone else.

Cobb by Al Stump
I agree with Roger Kahn's blurb, that this is the most powerful baseball biography I've ever read. Stump's experiences with Cobb provide an uncommonly close relationship between biographer and subject, which is made even better by Stump's great insight and storytelling skill. Stump does a pretty good job of separating Cobb's lies from the truth and appears to have done his homework in verifying the basic facts as best he could.

But the most captivating feature of the book is the character of Ty Cobb. Cobb is far more fascinating than any number of fictional creations, which makes it all the more impossible to believe that he actually existed. I came into this book with a pretty dim vision of Ty Cobb, yet somehow I left with an even dimmer vision.
Note: This book was made into the 1994 film written and directed by Ron Shelton, of Bull Durham fame. Unlike the rest of the baseball universe, I didn't much care for Bull Durham. And I wasn't a big fan of Cobb, with Tommy Lee Jones playing the title role. The main problem with putting Ty Cobb on film is keeping the audience engaged despite having to watch an aging, despicable tyrant for two hours straight. The film focuses on Stump's time spent with Cobb, which is fascinating, but there's not enough conflict or really any sort of charm to keep us watching, even though Jones and Robert Wuhl (as Stump) do a good job.
Another problem is that Tommy Lee Jones is just too charming to play Ty Cobb. Yes, he's believable as a rough-hewn son of a bitch, but he's far too comfortable with himself, even though he is belligerent. The real Cobb was basically impossible to like or to get along with, and while he could be charming, most of that was gone by age 70. It's hard to describe, but Jones has a certain ease as an actor that just doesn't translate to Cobb. The only thing Cobb did easily was play baseball, and even that wasn't without its own trauma. I personally think a great choice for Cobb would be Chris Cooper -- who appeared as Cobb in Lee Blessing's play of the same name -- who can be a despicable, paranoid and obnoxious asshole and still be interesting and captivating.
But that's just my two cents. Rob Neyer's Legends book includes a hilarious anecdote from the filming of Cobb, in particular the scene where Roger Clemens, as Ed Walsh, faces off against Jones/Cobb.

The Black Prince of Baseball: Hal Chase and the Mythology of the Game by Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella
This is an excellent biography of Chase that also serves as an excellent snapshot of baseball from the early 20th century through the Black Sox scandal. The essential message of the book was that while Chase most certainly bet on baseball, he by no means alone among baseball players, and his actions were just a reflection of a plethora of moral issues facing the game in his day.

There are two other books about which I have more to say. I'll start with the book I just finished, Built to Win: 
Inside Stories and Leadership Strategies from Baseball's Winningest GM by John Schuerholz with Larry Guest.
Schuerholz's book isn't great, but it's worth reading if you want an insider's view into a GM's life, or that of the Braves and Royals this past 25 years. As for the "leadership" mentioned in the subtitle, Schuerholz's book is also intended as a leadership primer for managers and executives. I can say that this portion of the book is incredibly dull, but then I find all manager-speak dull and lifeless. I'm a Dilbert fan, so it's hard for me to take this stuff seriously.
Schuerholz treats all of his subjects will incredible class and a fair amount of candor. It's very difficult not to believe his version of events, as they are presented even-handedly, usually without a great deal of blame being thrown about, and with him usually accepting some responsibility. Because of the large amount of purely "leadership" material, we don't get a comprehensive view of Schuerholz's baseball career, which would have been a much better story for my tastes. He does discuss his entry into the baseball world as a low-paid secretary with the Baltimore Orioles and discusses some issues from his years in Kansas City. But most of the book is about the Braves, and his work alongside team executives Stan Kasten and Terry McGuirk.

As for the baseball stories, there are many fascinating ones. I'll begin from the beginning . . .

Barry Bonds is traded to the Atlanta Braves
Schuerholz (and Guest) do an excellent job of hooking the reader's attention, starting the book with the tale of the Braves' trade with Pittsburgh to acquire Barry Bonds in 1992. Not only did the Braves and Pirates discuss the deal, the deal was done -- according to Schuerholz. He and Pirates GM Ted Simmons had agreed on the deal over the phone, which is considered pretty sacred among GMs.
The Pirates, strapped for cash, wanted to get something in exchange for Bonds, who was eligible for free agency after the 1992 season and was almost certainly going to be leaving Pittsburgh. With that in mind, and considering Bonds' salary, the Pirates looked for a deal and got one with the Braves: Bonds to the Braves in exchange for relief pitcher Alejandro Pena, Keith Mitchell, and a player to be named later.
Hindsight may be 20/20, but that would surely have gone done in infamy as one of the worst trades of all-time. Now, it wasn't as bad as it looks; remember, the Pirates were only trading away one year of Barry Bonds. And Keith Mitchell was a pretty good-looking outfield prospect; he was just 22 years old, coming off a season where he started in Double-A and hit his way to the majors (318/392/409 in 48 games). He didn't have much (if any) power, but no one knew then that his major league career would be so disappointing (260/353/380 in 4 seasons).
But it's still hard to understand why the Pirates were making this trade. They already had a very good closer, Bill Landrum, who had done a fine job for them from 1989-1991. But the team released the 33-year old Landrum at the end of Spring Training, perhaps because he was due to make nearly $1 million that year (he landed with the Expos but struggled). But age couldn't have been an issue, since Pena was also going to be 33 in '92, and Pena ended up slumping that season as well.
But the real reason the Pirates shouldn't have traded Bonds is that they were coming off back-to-back division titles, and without Bonds, it was very unlikely that they would repeat. As it was, the Pirates won the NL East in 1992 by 9 games. Without Bonds, they likely wouldn't have done it; Bonds was in the middle of a banner year. Baseball Prospectus credits him with 14.6 WARP, or about 14 and a half wins above what a replacement-level player would have done. Even if they were going to lose him to free agency (which they did), why not try to win while he was still there? They were still competitive, of course, making it back to the NLCS (where the lost again). Not only that, but the team that had defeated the Pirates in the NLCS in '91 (and would again in '92) was the Braves! Their erstwhile trading partners! How would that have played in Pittsburgh?

As it turned out, it played pretty poorly. Upon hearing of the trade, manager Jim Leyland (according to Schuerholz) stormed into the office of team president Cal Barger and raised hell over the Bonds trade. Also, the morning of the trade announcement, a Pittsburgh paper had run an article criticizing the team for cutting payroll. What would the papers (and the fans) say after this?
Barger and the Pirates didn't want to find out. They had Simmons call Schuerholz back and call the deal off, hours before the press conference that would have introduced Barry Bonds as a member of the Atlanta Braves. Schuerholz was stunned that Simmons would go back on his word and place the Braves in such an awkward position, but his guess was that the decision was made above him. Schuerholz didn't have any hard feelings for Simmons, and uses the story to illustrate how lucky he's been during his Atlanta tenure to have an ownership that didn't undercut his authority.

So we're left to wonder what would have happened if Bonds had become a Brave. Maybe they would have won the '92 NLCS against the Phillies, and even the World Series against Toronto.
But there's one important thing that wouldn't have happened, if the Braves had traded for Bonds and signed him to a contract extension: they wouldn't have been able to afford Greg Maddux, who would be a free agent after the '92 season. So maybe it all worked it, anyhow.

Bo Jackson
Schuerholz reiterates the fallacy that Bo Jackson would have been a historic baseball player if it weren't for his hip injury playing football. The problem was that Bo was not even a very good baseball player in the years before the injury. Bo could hit home runs like nobody's business, but that was the only good thing he did at the plate. He hit .235 in his first full season, and his best batting average with the Royals was .272 in 1990. His OBP was below .300 his first three seasons in the majors, with his best mark (.342) again coming in 1990. And I should also mention that he struck at least 120 times in each of his first four seasons, topping out at 172 in just 135 games in 1989 (against 39 walks).
Bo was basically an infinitely more athletic version of Dave Kingman. That's not a bad thing, and it can certainly be valuable on the baseball field, but Schuerholz has made the same mistake everyone else made about Bo: they saw an excellent athlete first and foremost, never bothering to notice that he never came close to becoming an excellent baseball player. You could perhaps chalk this up to Schuerholz's old-school scouting philosophy, in which great athletics skills are targeted, sometimes without regard for actual baseball skills. Great athletes often become great baseball players. But it doesn't happen as much as you'd think, and it appears to be a blind spot for Schuerholz, as well as most of his generation in the scouting/baseball ops world. Which brings us to . . .

Schuerholz hates Moneyball as well as everything it stands for. He does not hate Billy Beane, whom he respects and mentions as a favorite trading partner. But he hates Moneyball and anyone associated with it, which means that the rest of the book is full of shots at stat-heads and what he thinks we sabermetricians are like. (There are numerous anecdotes praising the human qualities of his employees, and he invariably ends them with some remark like, "Let's see a computer do that!" or "And we did it without calculators."
The trouble with Schuerholz is that, like nearly everyone else on the face of the planet, he completely misinterprets Moneyball, which is embarassingly obvious from his first remark to his last. He sees Moneyball as an anti-scout, anti-human tract praising on-base percentage and mathematics and discounting any human element in the game or any concept of team chemistry.
That's a clear bastardization of Moneyball. The book does have its faults, but if Schuerholz would just read the darn thing (he never says whether he has or hasn't done so), he'd realize that what the book is really about is finding undervalued ideas and players and using them to win. The book doesn't praise OBP as the be-all, end-all of statistics, but rather as a tremendously undervalued stat. Ironically, the publication of Moneyball has essentially changed this, as OBP is now correctly valued, if not a bit overvalued.
The book exposes the flaws of the traditional major league scouting system, which was biased toward raw athletes (remember Bo Jackson?) and placed more emphasis on character and "intangibles" than on true baseball skills. Even though the book takes a lot of shots at scouts, it is not an anti-scouting book. It rather suggests that the first-hand observations of scouts should be weighed against statistics and models for projected performance. The A's didn't fire their scouts and replace them with computers. And yet everyone (including Schuerholz) seems to think that's exactly what Michael Lewis, Billy Beane, and every sabermetrician wants to do. He couldn't be more wrong, and his gross misunderstanding of the attitudes of a growing number of passionate baseball fans is perhaps the biggest flaw in his thinking illustrated throughout the entire book.
Schuerholz should also take note of all the research that's been done since Moneyball. It supports the theory that better athletes are more likely to be better baseball players. First-hand scouting is necessary, and no serious sabermetrician would argue otherwise. Statistics alone can be misleading, and we in the stat world have never disputed that. Context is just as important as raw numbers, so none of us want our favorite team to conduct their entire draft via a computer algorithm (despite Schuerholz's thoughts to the contrary).

Schuerholz and Guest should have stopped to a) check their facts, since their hilarious misinterpretation of the book that they discuss for an entire chapter hurts their credibility, b) consider the impact their bad-mouthing would have on those of us in the sabermetric community who would otherwise want to read this book, and c) just talk to some of the leading lights of the sabermetric community, so you can actually speak from an informed standpoint. This chapter (and the snide remarks referencing it throughout the book) are the book's weakest point, even weaker than the generic management platitudes that plague the book.

Tom Glavine leaves to join the Mets
This section of the book was actually the most contentious when it was released, with Tom Glavine taking exception to Schuerholz's depiction of his exit from the team to join the Mets as a free agent. Unfortunately, Schuerholz seems to be firmly in control of the facts and also manages to elicit them without taking personal shots at Glavine. Unless Glavine disputes the actual facts, as Schuerholz recounts them, then the book is basically accurate, and readers will likely lose some respect for Glavine.
After the 2002 season, Glavine was eligible for free agency. He was negotiating a new contract with the Braves, and the sticking point was that the Braves were offering a 3-year deal with one option year, whereas Glavine wanted 4 years guaranteed. Schuerholz balked at the fourth guaranteed year; Glavine was still a fine pitcher, but he would also be turning 37 before the 2003 season. Schuerholz didn't want to take such an expensive risk on a pitcher, even a very good one, in his age 40 season. Schuerholz tried to entice Glavine by calling the option year an "evergreen clause;" it would automatically kick in if Glavine met certain performance levels over the course of the contract. So if he pitched well and stayed healthy, then the fourth year would be guaranteed.
Schuerholz doesn't go into details, but he says that at one point in the negotiations Glavine and team president Stan Kasten were shouting at each other. It was after this that Glavine announced that he had signed with the Mets (who did offer a fourth year). Schuerholz was disappointed to lose him, none the less. Days later, Glavine spoke about the negotiations in the paper, referring to the team as "unprofessional" and making several allegations that Schuerholz says were groundless. So Schuerholz and Kasten had a press conference with the press and gave a blow-by-blow account of the negotiations in order to refute Glavine. This was a break with company policy, but Schuerholz didn't want Glavine's public posturing to make the Braves look like the bad guys when he left town. He felt that by going public with private team discussions, it would call Glavine's bluff.

But in spite of all this, Schuerholz soon got word that Glavine was having second thoughts. He was doing some soul-searching and wanted to meet with the GM. According to Schuerholz, he drove all the way out to Glavine's house to talk with him and his wife. It was a very emotional discussion, with everyone baring their all, and Glavine agonizing over a difficult decision. In the end, he decided to stay with the Braves.
Soon after he left, Schuerholz got a call from Glavine's agent, Greg Clifton. Clifton was livid that Schuerholz would meet with Glavine without his agent present (this despite the fact that it was Glavine's meeting). He threw a lot of vitriol at the GM and accused him of tampering (which was bogus, since Glavine was not yet a member of the Mets). Schuerholz didn't hear from Glavine for a couple days, so he called him. Glavine said that he was going to the Mets. And he did.
Schuerholz's take on this (which seems perfectly reasonable) is that Clifton, as well as the player's union, put a lot of pressure on Glavine to take the higher-paying contract. Schuerholz feels that Clifton had his interests and the union's ahead of Glavine's own wishes. And even though Schuerholz admittedly hates dealing with agents, it sounds like he's exactly right. Clifton wouldn't be the first (or only) agent to hijack the free agent process from the player in order to get the most money, period.
Schuerholz also mentions something that I (in my naivete) had never heard of before; the player's union pressuring players to take higher contracts. And even though Schuerholz hates the union almost as much as he hates agents, he seems to have the facts to back it up. I wonder why the union's meddling isn't discussed more often, if it's that obvious to the GMs and players. When people complain about skyrocketing salaries, why don't some sporstwriters step up and implicate the union, which is putting its finger on the scale of the free market and in the process working against (or in spite of) the wishes of the players themselves. I worry more and more about the overpowerful baseball union, which seems to have lost most (if not all) of the integrity they earned the hard way under the leadership of Marvin Miller.

The David Cone Trade
Schuerholz eats some humble pie by referring to the trading away of David Cone as his worst trade ever. While he does admit that it was terrible, he tries to justify his reasoning by saying that Kansas City needed a catcher with a great throwing arm, and his scouts like Ed Hearn. But after the trade, Hearn's arm was injured, while Cone won a Cy Young with the Mets.
I'm sorry, but even John Schuerholz knows that a pitching arm like David Cone's is more valuable than any catcher's throwing arm. Cone was already in the majors and pitching well when the trade was made.
But then there's not a whole lot in the book about his time in Kansas City. He talks about his great relationship with the other executives, and his fawning admiration for owner Ewing Kauffmann, and the World Series Championship of 1985. What he doesn't discuss is the Royals' subsequent fall from grace, where a team that had been very good for ten years became an afterthought, all of this with Schuerholz at the helm. He does talk about his "decision" to go to Atlanta after 1990, and the Royals' executives letting him go. He doesn't mention this:

KC Royals
1985: 91-71, World Champions
1986: 76-86, 3rd place

1987: 83-79, 2nd place
1988: 84-77, 3rd place
1989: 92-70, 2nd place
1990: 75-86, 6th place

Schuerholz had a legitimate World Champion and, under his watch, it was basically pissed away, and the franchise has never recovered since. The team made some terrible trades (the Cone deal at the top), failed to develop its own hitters to replace the aging core of the '85 team, and saw Bret Saberhagen's career go off the tracks. It did develop David Cone, Kevin Appier, and Tom Gordon, but of the three, only Appier would pitch well for the Royals.
Schuerholz side-steps discussion of those later years in Kansas City, which don't reflect well on him at all as a General Manager, and may help explain why the Royals didn't fight to keep him after the '91 season.

At the same time, Schuerholz takes great pride in the young players developed by the Braves during his tenure: Glavine, Smoltz, David Justice, Ron Gant, Steve Avery, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, etc. And while he doesn't explicitly take credit for them, it should be said that Bobby Cox was responsible for drafting and developing the first five players on that list when he was GM. Andruw Jones wasn't drafted, but signed out of the Caribbean. In fact, for Schuerholz's entire career as a GM, his drafts have been pretty darn bad until just recently.

This isn't related to the entry above, but I have to mention this quote, referring to the 2005 season:

"Suddenly, the holes in our rotation left by the free agent departures of Russ Ortiz and Jaret Wright were not only filled, but we had aces #1 [John Smoltz] and 1A [Tim Hudson] to go with Mike Hampton, John Thomson and Horacio Ramirez, any one of whom would have been considered the staff ace on some teams."

Horacio Ramirez . . . a staff ace?! I'll allow Schuerholz some bias in favor of his players, but this is just laughable. And what team would want Mike Hampton or John Thomson as their ace, even back in 2005?

TutelageWhen Schuerholz first entered baseball, it was with the defending World Champion Baltimore Orioles of 1966. The team president was Frank Cashen, Harry Dalton was running baseball ops, and his supervisor (and "mentor") was Lou Gorman. These are three very talented and influential baseball executives working for an excellent organization, so Schuerholz started right off learning from the best.

Leo Mazzone and Healthy PitchersA short quote that says a lot:

"[Bobby Cox] will just not let a guy continue who says he doesn't feel right or can't go another inning. Bobby will not abuse a pitcher.

It's perhaps the firmest statement in the whole book. Are you listening, Dusty?

Coping With Baseball Economics and Agents
This is the title to Chapter 8 of the book. I'll summarize: He hates them both.
Schuerholz actually takes time to decry the Messersmith decision that established free agency in baseball. I know that John is old-fashioned and all that, but does he really want to trash the very concept of free agency? He never says so, but that's what he seems to think.

He also bemoans the economics of baseball, with the Yankees spending money and all that. I'm sorry, John; nobody buys that argument anymore. Especially when you make a dishonest argument.
Schuerholz makes all the usual arguments about the Braves being at a competitive disadvantage when compared to big payroll teams like the Yankees. He says that even though Atlanta is a great city, it's no New York, and he just can't compete for salaries.
Let's cut the crap, John. Here are three letters that don't appear anywhere in Schuerholz's whining about finances:

Did you forget, John? Did you forget that you Braves teams were feeding off of an artificially enlarged market that offered your team far more income than cities of comparable size? The Braves, through TBS, increased their market share beyond Atlanta and throughout the Deep South and parts of the entire country, thanks to cable TV. This "superstation" advantage gave the Braves and Cubs a huge competitive advantage that actually produced an outcry from other owners that the Superstation teams were expanding their markets too far and stealing away their own fans.
And how much did TBS pay the Braves for TV rights? How much extra income was generated by the Superstation itself, and how much extra revenue did the Braves generate thanks to their nationwide exposure?
John, you had an advantage over every other NL team except the Cubs. For most of your existence, you were the most financially viable team in the league, with the possible exception of the Mets, Dodgers, and Cubs.
I don't accept a baseball executive's cries for poverty (did you have to take out a mortgage on your second home in Florida, John?), especially when it comes from one of the richer teams in the game.

Schuerholz defends Bud Selig (surprise) on the steroids issue, arguing that any testing program or attempt to regulate performance-enhancing drugs would have to be approved by the union. Which (surprise) makes it sound like the union's fault that no action was taken about steroids in the 90's. What Schuerholz fails to mention is that the reason the union never approved a testing program is that Selig didn't bother to ask for one until 2002, when the shit had hit the fan. And the union approved it!
Schuerholz does praise the union -- he praises it for buckling down to pressure and re-opening the Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2005 to rewrite the testing procedures, an action that drew furious protest from Marvin Miller.
Schuerholz loves Hank Aaron and wants to open Pandora's Box -- I'm sorry, I mean he wants to put asterisks next to the accomplishments of players who used steroids.
As you may have guessed, Schuerholz is a conservative. He's friends with Rush Limbaugh, who worked as an advertising/sales man with the Royals while Schuerholz was there.

Also, Schuerholz references the cocaine scandal that erupted while he was in Kansas City. After making a trade with the Giants, it was Vida Blue who "introduced this horrible pox of drugs upon our highly respected organization in Kansas City." Well said, John. Did you crush him with stones or just stain him with a scarlet letter?
Schuerholz takes some responsibility for not doing his due diligence in inquiring into Blue's "moral makeup and character." Because as we all know, only people of poor moral makeup and despicable character use drugs. Sheesh!

In conclusion, I guess Schuerholz's book would be best read by a conservative man looking for new fodder for his inspirational posters. It's worth reading for the baseball bits, but it's hard for me to get past the rest. Schuerholz doesn't come off as dishonest or manipulating in the book. I guess it's just that his views and mine are very far apart.

And on that note, I'm off to listen to the man who introduced the horrible pox of drugs upon our highly respected institution of talk radio: Rush Limbaugh.

(Just kidding. I never listen to Rush.)

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