The Machine.

I broke two of my reading guidelines when tackling Joe Posnanski’s The Machine, his 20010 book about the remarkable 1975 Cincinnati Reds, focusing on their larger-than-life personalities as much as he does on the way they steamrolled through the National League. The first rule is that I almost never read baseball books. Baseball is work; reading is pleasure. When work invades pleasure, it becomes work. So I keep them separate as much as possible. The second rule is that I try not to read books written by people I know, especially if I count them as friends (as I do Joe), because then if I don’t like the book, I am faced with the difficult task of keeping my mouth shut, which, as many of you surely realize, is not something at which I am particularly skilled.

The good news is that I liked The Machine quite a bit – not as much as I loved The Soul of Baseball, which isn’t really a baseball book anyway, just a book about some people who played the game, but that’s an absurdly high standard. I won’t pretend to give The Machine an objective review, so I’ll focus on why I would recommend it.

I turned two during the 1975 season and have no memories of the Big Red Machine other than my parents telling me about those teams (including their dismantling of the Yankees in the 1976 World Series) when I was first becoming a baseball fan about five or six years later. Posnanski does a good job of keeping readers in the flow of the season, which started slowly for the Reds but turned into a romp that didn’t end until they faced the Red Sox in October, while also weaving in short but telling anecdotes about the team’s central personalities – primarily Rose, Anderson, Morgan, and Bench, and if you need their first names, well, you’re probably not the target audience here anyway.

Posnanski does a good job of humanizing Rose and Morgan, both of whom needed it for obvious yet totally unrelated reasons, while somewhat demythologizing Johnny Bench, who was one of baseball’s last true Hollywood stars, although he’s now better remembered for Krylon commercials and his gigantic hands. (Truckasaurus.) Rose doesn’t come off as sympathetic, just as pathologically driven; you won’t forgive his transgressions, but you can at least somewhat understand how he reached that bottom. Morgan, meanwhile, comes off as the cerebral player we all thought he was, given his stat lines, but that he did his best as an announcer to convince us that he wasn’t. (Disclaimer: I’ve never met Joe Morgan, and have no idea what he’s like as a person or as a student of the game.) Anderson, Tony Perez, Davey Concepcion, and Ken Griffey (Sr.) don’t get quite the same treatment, although I found the quiet rage of Griffey, still evident in contemporary quotes within the book, more reminiscent of Barry Bonds than of Ken Griffey, Jr., who had more of a reputation in baseball circles as an idler and a bit of a diva.

The Machine kicks into high gear at the end of the book when the nobody-respects-us Red Sox reach the Series and finally give the Reds the test they didn’t have all season. Those games were dramatic and come off as such on the pages, especially the epic Game 6, which Posnanski evokes through quotes and stories, including Rose’s boundless enthusiasm for what he correctly identified at the time as one of the greatest games in baseball history.

Posnanski mentions the team’s ethnic makeup and players’ obliviousness to it a few times during the book, but I wonder if that was truly a coming of age for MLB players post-Civil Rights Movement or just a function of winning breeding good chemistry. Was it unusual at the time to have a lineup – and the book is mostly about the lineup – that was so racially balanced? Did contemporary news sources see it as a big deal? In 1960, it would have been, and in 1980 it would scarcely have been noticed. I don’t know where 1975 fell on that continuum.

Posnanski’s writing has always spoken to me and, as you’d expect, the book absolutely flies – I knocked it off on a weekend trip to LA earlier this month. The friend who gave me this as a gift made a damn good call.


I assume Jim Abbott’s story is pretty well-known: Born with a malformed right hand, Abbott became a successful multi-sport high school athlete, pitched at the University of Michigan, and spent 10 years in the big leagues, pitching for the Angels, White Sox, Brewers, and Yankees, throwing a no-hitter for that last club that happens to be the only professional no-hitter I have ever attended in person. In his new memoir, Imperfect: An Improbable Life, written with Yahoo!’s Tim Brown, Abbott talks about his own personal struggles with creating an identity for himself independent of his disability, of the challenges of growing up with a visible difference, and of the opportunities his success gave him to reach and sometimes inspire children growing up with similar physical issues.

The book separates Abbott’s life and career into two separate tracks. The main track begins with Abbott’s parents meeting, dating, and finding themselves about to become teenaged parents, and then facing the reality of Abbott’s condition, yet, after an adjustment period, deciding not to let the disability become an excuse for him or for them. The sections dealing with Abbott’s childhood tell seemingly tangential anecdotes that turn out to be important in his professional career as he tries to deal with the sudden fame and just as sudden decline all within the first five or six years after college. The second track pulls Abbott’s no-hitter out of the main story and gives it its own narrative, one that I enjoyed reading because of my personal connection to that game but that only gave occasional glimpses into the mind of a pitcher as he’s throwing the game. (I’d love for any pitcher to sit down after a no-hitter – and after the ensuing celebration – and write down everything he remembers thinking or doing during that game. Abbott’s retelling here has some of that, but much of it reads like a man remembering a game he pitched almost twenty years ago, not the more precise in-the-moment recollections we’d get if it was something he’d written the day after the game occurred.)

Those two interesting stories are intertwined in an obvious and ultimately unsuccessful gimmick to try to create some parallels between them, which only serves to distract the reader from both of the narratives without adding anything to the overall story. Abbott’s no-hitter started slowly, picked up speed in the middle innings, and then reached a crescendo in the ninth inning. His career arc looked nothing like that, and ended first with a whimper, a brief comeback, and then a final great good-night. It’s awkward to read about a no-hitter in nine brief chapters separated by longer discursions dating back as much as twenty years – and it’s just as awkward to read about Abbott’s career and have the no-hitter omitted entirely. It reads to me as if the no-hitter was this book’s equivalent of Oakland’s twenty-game winning streak in the movie version of Moneyball: Someone decided that the film needed a Big Triumph, regardless of that event’s place in the greater narrative. Imperfect wouldn’t have been perfect with a more conventional structure, but it would have read better.

I also struggled with the book’s occasional lapses into purple prose; Abbott’s voice (which I’m assuming is what we’re getting for most of the first-person narratives) is clear and simple, so when he refers to a taxi as a “metered ride” or says he didn’t have the “temerity” to ask teammates why he’d been given a certain nickname, it’s like having someone crank up the volume in the middle of a song. (“Temerity” is a great word, but you can’t just drop it into a passage where it’s the two-dollar word in a paragraph of dimes.) Abbott also defines his performance primarily by his won-lost records, occasionally mentioning ERAs, which makes him a product of his time; if you’ve watched any baseball over the first ten days of this season, you already know how foolish using a pitcher’s won-lost record to measure his performance is, and the book would be stronger with anything more advanced in their stead.

Where the book really sings is in the passages about people who helped Abbott on his way up or the kids he helped once he’d gotten there. Tim Mead, the longtime PR man for the Angels, might want to get a lawyer and sue Abbott, because the book makes Mead out to be an absolutely wonderful human being. Abbott mentions the first scout to really believe in him (Don Welke, now with Texas), the teacher who taught him a trick that allowed him to tie his own shoes, the coaches and teammates who became his support network, and the late sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman, who comes through on the page exactly as I knew him from our two or three encounters in Toronto. Abbott’s recounting of his time on the Olympic team that won the gold medal in Seoul in 1988 is another highlight. And the section describing the kids and parents who would line up by the dozens across the country just to meet him so they could see that, yes, there’s someone else who looks like them, someone who made it all the way to the major leagues … well, it might get a little dusty in your living room when you get to that part.

Abbott’s early life and pro career didn’t fit the typical mold for Hollywood sports movies, but there’s plenty there for his story to stand on its own without structural gimmickry to make it seem more dramatic. I was always a Jim Abbott fan – if you liked baseball at the time and didn’t root for him, you probably weren’t human – and enjoyed reading about his experiences, but the story’s packaging took something away from what he had to say.

Next up: Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum.


Moneyball, the movie, is an absolute mess of a film, the type of muddled end product you’d expect from a project that took several years and went through multiple writers and directors. Even good performances by a cast of big names and some clever makeup work couldn’t save this movie, and if I hadn’t been planning to review it, I would have walked out.

The movie failed first and foremost for me as a movie, not just as a baseball movie. (I’ll get to the baseball parts later.) The general plot here is that the A’s lose their 2001 ALDS to the Yankees and are about to lose three major players to free agency, so Billy Beane goes hunting for a new way of doing business. He runs into a stats geek working in Cleveland’s front office named Peter Brand, hires him, and Brand brings the sabermetric philosophy that we now associate with the early 2000s Oakland teams. This causes friction with Oakland’s scouts, who are all idiots, and Art Howe, who was a stubborn idiot (this is the movie, not my opinion), and Billy might even lose his job until the A’s get hot and win 20 games in a row. Meanwhile, we are to believe that this is all so Billy can purge the personal demons created by the failure of his playing career.

Billy is the only fully realized character in the entire movie, and even at that his disparate pieces don’t tie all that well together. Peter Brand, a.k.a. Paul Antipodesta, is a mousy number cruncher who looks like the lay viewer would expect a stat geek to look – unathletic, dressed in dull collared shirts and ties, intimidated by the players, with no complexity to the character. Howe is nothing but a holier than thou obstacle for Beane whose entire motivation for his stubbornness is his desire for a contract extension – a hopelessly tired plot device that makes for a one-dimensional character. Even Casey, Billy’s daughter, who is shoehorned into this weird plot strand about him possibly losing his job, is nothing more than the plot strand requires her to be.

The lack of multi-dimensional characters is exacerbated by the languid, aimless plot and stop-and-start pacing. The film mopes through Opening Day and the beginning of the A’s season, races through their midyear turnaround, then jumps through most of the winning streak until the twentieth victory, at which point we’re handed slow motion views of the A’s blowing an 11-0 lead … and of Art Howe thinking, with no sound at all. Even the paces of conversations are strange and often forced; one of the “action” scenes, if I could call it that, involves watching Billy juggle three GMs (Shapiro, Phillips, and Sabean) to try to acquire Ricardo Rincon. All three GMs come off as stooges, but more importantly, it’s boring as hell to watch anyone, even Brad Pitt, talk on the phone.

Pitt is very good with the stilted material he’s given and clearly made an effort to look and act the part, from his hair to his tone of voice to his facial expressions. He’s also frequently eating or drinking, which he seems to do in every movie in which he appears. Jonah Hill, as Peter Brand, is very good when he can use his character’s dry, monotonous delivery for comedic effect, drawing laughs from lines that aren’t inherently funny because his timing is so good. Chris Pratt has several funny moments as Scott Hatteberg, very recognizable if youve seen his work as Andy on Parks and Recreation, although he really only has two scenes of any significance in this movie. Philip Seymour Hoffman was wasted as Howe, unfortunately, playing a one-note character who would like you to know he doesn’t care what you have to say about baseball. Robin Wright Penn is also wasted as Beane’s ex-wife who is apparently married to a closeted gay man.

I could have tolerated a lot of flaws if Moneyball had just given me a good baseball movie, with some real tension to it, or perhaps a strong character study of Billy Beane. But the film provides neither, and I spent most of the movie wondering what was really on the line here. The A’s don’t win a playoff series in 2002, so the script can’t set that up as a goal or use the playoffs as a climax. Beane took a $39 million team to the playoffs the year before; he wasn’t going to be fired in May for taking a few risks that his owner more or less told him to take (and if he had been fired, he would have been hired by someone else in a heartbeat, despite the character’s later claim to the contrary). His daughter is worried about him because she doesn’t see the big picture, but neither she nor her father is in any real jeopardy at any point in the film. We’re not playing for anything here.

Then there’s the baseball stuff, which is not good. For starters, the lampooning of scouts, which draws from the book, isn’t any more welcome on screen (where some of the scouts are played by actual scouts) than it was on the page; they are set up as dim-witted bowling pins for Beane and Brand to knock down with their spreadsheets. It’s cheap writing, and unfair to the real people being depicted. Current Oakland scouting director Eric Kubota also gets murdered in a drive-by line that depicts him as a clueless intern given the head scouting role after Beane fires Grady Fuson in April after a clubhouse argument (that never really happened). I’ll confess to laughing at the scout referring to “this Bill James bullshit,” although the A’s bought into that bullshit years before the film claims they did – and, in fact, hired Paul Depodesta three years before the movie-A’s hired Brand. (In the film, Fuson refers to Brand as “Google boy,” a term applied to Depodesta by Luddite beat writers in LA three years later.)

The film also relies on some pretty gross misrepresentations or oversimplifications of the business. The idea of a GM getting on a plane and flying two thirds of the way across the country to meet another GM to discuss a trade for a left-handed reliever is so absurd that it should set off alarm bells in even the casual fan. Do you really think that GMs only talk trades in person? That they fly to meet each other for tete-a-tetes before consummating any deal? Similarly, teams don’t sign injured players to guaranteed contracts by flying out to their houses (on Christmas Eve, apparently) without having them go through physicals.

I wasn’t as concerned with the script having Beane trade Carlos Pena to Detroit for a reliever and some money (as opposed to the actual three-team, seven-player deal including Jeff Weaver and Jeremy Bonderman) as I was with seeing Pena, an intelligent, gregarious person, depicted as a sullen Latino player. I also find it hard to believe Beane would ever say he didn’t care about pitchers’ platoon splits. And the film’s emphasis on Beane not making it as a player seems to point to questions about his makeup, especially his confidence, which hardly ties into a film about how makeup is overrated.

If you do end up seeing the film, and I imagine most of you will, there is one scene towards the end that stood out for me as incredibly spot on, so much so that it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the film. Beane is sitting in what was then called the .406 club at Fenway Park with John Henry, who is about to offer him a record-breaking deal to become the Red Sox’ new GM. Henry expounds on how Beane’s method of doing things is going to sweep through the industry, and how critics within the game weren’t just trying to protect the game, but were expressing their own fears about their livelihoods. That speech applies just as well to any industry undergoing the kind of creative destruction ushered in by Bill James, Sandy Alderson and Billy Beane. Remember that when you see the next written attack on “stat geeks” who are ruining the game along with a defense of RBIs or pitcher wins.

If you haven’t already done so, go read the book before thinking about seeing this movie, and maybe go watch Brad Pitt steal every scene he’s in in Snatch instead.

Mint Condition.

UPDATE: Folks, the line about Old Hoss Radbourn being my alter ego is a joke. I’m not Hoss, but he and I have had some fun with the rumor that I am. He’s incredibly clever and I’m flattered to be thought the source, but it’s not me.

I received a comp copy of Dave Jamieson’s Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession back in the spring through my connection with the guys at mental floss, but got backed up in my reading between the move and writing playoff previews that I just got around to the book now. If you’ve got any history of collecting baseball cards (I do) or an interest in that tangential part of baseball history, I highly recommend the book, a quick, fun, occasionally funny run through the history of the baseball card, one that disabused me of a handful of card myths I thought were true.

Jamieson, who must be roughly my age as he too collected a hoard of cards that are no longer worth the cardboard they’re printed on, goes back to the origins of the baseball card as a way to sell tobacco, allegedly to adults but, hey, if a few kids caught the leaf habit, so much the better. Many of those tobacco cards are, of course, major collectors’ items today, but what I didn’t realize is that they’re rare not just because they weren’t kept but because they varied so widely – manufacturers would issue many different cards per player, with different brands advertised on the backs or different portraits on the fronts, for example. Jamieson discusses the history and myth behind the T206 Honus Wagner card, but also points out that it’s not the rarest card in history (another card in the same set, the T206 “Slow” Joe Doyle error card, is definitely rarer). Instead, Jamieson posits, the Wagner card became more valuable because it was deemed valuable in the first place: The media attention paid to the card when it sold for record-breaking sums made it more desirable to other, status-seeking collectors down the road.

He jumps forward a bit to the period after World War II when the card industry really boomed with the introduction of Bowman and Topps cards, as well as the latter’s monopolization of the industry that lasted until Fleer won an antitrust lawsuit in 1981. Topps’ actions to create and defend a monopoly occurred at the same time that the MLB Players’ Association was getting started, and while at first the MLBPA was willing to let Topps have its run of the joint, Marvin Miller’s first order of business was to end Topps’ free ride and begin returning that lost value to the players – making the union, which was battling one monopoly in MLB management, a willing partner to another monopoly in the baseball card realm. From there, Jamieson chronicles the rise and fall of the collectors’ boom in baseball cards, drawing much of his material from Pete Williams’ 1995 book Card Sharks, on the formation of Upper Deck and the creative destruction it brought to the baseball card industry, a very good story in its own right.

Jamieson keeps the book from turning into dry history by, naturally, finding and discussing a few notable eccentrics along the way. I particularly enjoyed the section on Woody Gelman, longtime head of Topps’ Product Development team and the creator of, among other icons, Bazooka Joe and the Mars Attacks! series. (I remember seeing Topps’ Wacky Packages as a kid, possibly the first time I ever ran into (or understood) parody in any form, but I don’t think I realized until I read this book that they were a Topps product.) Jamieson also takes us inside the collection of a former owner of that T206 Wagner, and looks at the rise of both card auction outfits, card authentication services, and the “ethical” card doctor who doctors worthless cards to better understand how fraudsters do it to create valuable ones. And I’d be remiss if I omitted the part my alter ego friend Old Hoss Radbourn played in the book, with a quietly extended middle finger in a few early cards of himself. That’s right: Old Hoss may have invented photobombing.

The book ends with a lament on the slow death of baseball cards, a phenomenon for which Jamieson explores various causes but can’t pinpoint a single reason for boys’ lack of interest in something so innate to his (and my) childhood. (I will offer that steroids have jack squat to do with it, since interest in MLB and minor league baseball grew substantially during the “steroid era.”) I do agree with his point that cheapening the core product by adding “chase cards” – prizes, limited edition cards, or other package inserts that weren’t just plain old cards of everyday players – didn’t help, but I think the fact that the cards themselves lack any interactivity is a huge part of why they’ve fallen so far out of favor. If you’re a kid today, what are you going to do with a pack of baseball cards? There’s no game or challenge involved, and I’d be hard-pressed to explain to an 8-year-old boy why I thought baseball cards were fun. They just were. The cards haven’t really changed, but maybe the definition of fun has.

At about 240 pages, Mint Condition is a very quick read, well under four hours for me, but in that short space it managed to fill a gap in my knowledge of baseball history, one I doubt I would have explored on my own since I left my baseball card affinity back the 1980s. Aside from the unsatisfying conclusion and some need for a better copyeditor, it’s well worth your time.

Next up: I’m crawling through the desert of Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt.

Nice Guys Finish Last.

Leo Durocher’s Nice Guys Finish Last was re-released today, as one of many good baseball books of the 1970s that had fallen out of print (a category that includes the indispensable Weaver on Strategy, which was out of print before a 2002 reissue). Durocher’s book is rambling, funny, insightful, maybe not all his (did he really say of Judge Landis, “The legend has been spread that the owners hired the Judge off the federal bench. Don’t you believe it. They got him right out of Dickens?”), but absolutely worth the read.

The book doesn’t have much of a narrative structure, working more as a collection of anecdotes presented in a vague chronological order, although more identification of the year(s) under discussion would have helped. The bulk of the book focuses on his time playing with the Cardinals and managing the Dodgers and Giants, with a pretty good balance of straight baseball stories and Durocher’s own antics, mostly involving umpires, like this exchange between him and a frequent sparring partner of his:

And, sure enough, he said it again. “I’ll reach down and bite your head off.”
“If you do,” I said, “you’ll have more brains in your stomach than you’ve got in your head.”
And I’m in the clubhouse.

In addition to being a great baseball book, Nice Guys Finish Last is a bloodletting, as Durocher gets every grudge and bit of dirt off his chest, with many famous names from baseball history ending up the worse for it. Ernie Banks, Milt Pappas, Joe Pepitone, Leland MacPhail (Andy’s grandfather), Happy Chandler, Bowie Kuhn, Branch Rickey, Red Smith, and Cesar Cedeno all show up to play roles in Durocher’s stories and leave with egg on their faces and stains on their reputations. Even Jackie Robinson takes some criticism for showing up to spring training out of shape, while Durocher blames Banks for protecting his own reputation while undermining Durocher’s authority. Of course, I’m not sure how seriously to take some of the accusations, since most are first-person recollections of events that took place five to forty years before the book’s publication, but they made for good reading.

In addition to the unclear writing around certain dates and the question of the accuracy of Mr. Durocher’s memory, his baseball thinking reads today as very old school. He describes hitters by their average, homers, and RBI – although that could just as easily have been the work of his co-author, Ed Linn – and goes on a long rant near the end of the book about, in essence, why he liked scrappy players more than raw-talent players, even though he offers pages of effusive praise of Willie Mays, who was all raw talent but emotionally fragile. Durocher worked for Branch Rickey, one of the most progressive thinkers in baseball’s first century, but many of Rickey’s prized ideas, like working the count, either made no impression on the Lip or didn’t register enough to show up in his memoirs.

Apropos of nothing, one other passage struck a bit of a personal chord with me:

I thought, in fact, of something Laraine had said to me the first time she met Mr. Rickey. Because they were both such religious people I had been confident they would get along marvelously. Instead of the instant rapport I was expecting, there was instant non-rapport. “This man isn’t your friend, Leo,” she told me after he had gone. “I know you think the sun rises and sets on him, but he isn’t what you think he is.”

That’s precisely the sentiment my wife expressed on meeting my (former) boss in Toronto. She always has been a good judge of people.

Next up: William Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Ironweed.