Saturday, March 28, 2020

Books: On Baseball Stories & Strategy

Major League Baseball's Opening Day would have been this past Thursday, but while the games are put on hold, you can still read books about this great game, including these three new releases: Wits, Flakes, and Clowns: The Colorful Characters of Baseball, by Wayne Stewart; State Of Play, by Bill Ripken; and The Cup Of Coffee Club, by Jacob Kornhauser.

Wits, Flakes, and Clowns: The Colorful Characters of Baseball
By Wayne Stewart
Rowman & Littlefield; 272 pages; hardback, $36.00; eBook, $34.00

Baseball is a game full of personality, from how a pitcher throws the ball to a guy's batting stance, to how someone celebrates a big moment, and then there are just characters who you'll never forget.

Wits, Flakes, and Clowns illuminates the funniest, craziest, and most clever people to ever play the game, from Mark Fidrych, the breakout star pitcher with the Detroit Tigers in the 1970s, to current stars such as Bryce Harper, an outfielder with the Philadelphia Phillies, and Trevor Bauer, pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds. There also is a look at colorful managers, such as "the ol' perfessor," Casey Stengel, who managed both the Yankees and Mets, and Billy Martin, who managed the Yankees on multiple occasions and frequently battled with owner George Steinbrenner.

Author Wayne Stewart, a sports historian who has written for USA Today/Baseball Weekly, Baseball Digest, and the SABR Research Journal, shares many little-known stories about some of the most entertaining men in baseball. There are also quotes from interviews some of these players gave with the author spanning decades to provide a personal look at these zany stars.

Stewart writes of Fidrych, "His first start wasn't until one month of 1976 was hot, yet the 21-year-old righty went 19-9 and won the Rookie of the Year Award after topping his league in ERA (2.34) and complete games (24 in 29 starts). He even averaged 8.6 innings per start. Although he appeared in just two seasons during which he pitched 10 or more games, he was a two-time All-Star. Somehow he owned a losing record as a high school pitcher.

"Fidrych got his nickname, 'the Bird,' for his gawky resemblance to television's Big Bird. At 6 feet, 3 inches and 175 pounds, Fidrych was one of the most demonstrative players on the diamond. He used to dart over to teammates and shake their hands after they made a defensive gem. In the middle of a game he'd drop down to his hands and knees to manicure the mound, patting and rearranging the dirt to his liking. He nervously paced around the hill like a cat on a caffeine-laced catnip bender, circling endlessly. Call him jittery, hyperactive, or manic, he was always entertaining.

"However, his main claim to spacey fame may have been the fact that he talked to the baseball before pitching, believing that made it go better. He'd clutch the ball then extend his hand toward home plate in a straight line. It was his version of giving pre-flight instructions, programming the ball where to go, but if a baseball then went for a hit, he shunned it, asking the ump for a new one...

"Terry Collins had many Fidrych memories, too. 'You know, I'm from Michigan so I remember seeing Fidrych a lot on TV talking to the ball, fixing the mound, and running on and off the field. He was voted Tiger of the Year and he attended the black-tie banquet. He can in wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt. That kind of said something. His attire wasn't very proper, but this is the same guy whom they applauded the free-spirit aspect of. That was him. He was carefree, and for his brief time he was an outstanding pitcher."

State Of Play: The Old School Guide To New School Baseball
By Bill Ripken
Diversion Books; hardcover, $24.99

Bill Ripken played Major League Baseball for 12 seasons, starting in 1987 with the Baltimore Orioles when he played for his father, Cal Ripken, Sr., and alongside his brother, Cal Ripken, Jr. This was the first time a father simulatenously managed two of his sons. 

Ripken played for the Orioles until 1992, and then again in 1996, while also playing for Cleveland, Detroit, and Texas. In 1988, he finished second in the American League in double plays with 110, and his .9927 fielding percentage in 1992 led all Major League second basemen. In 1990, he led the Orioles in hitting with a .291 average and was tied for first on the team with 28 doubles.

Currently an analyst for MLB Network, Ripken, in his new book State of Play, reconciles the tried-and-true baseball strategies of the past with the newer, analytics-driven strategies prevalent in today's game to adopt a modern philosophy that accounts for both.

Over the last few years, the Sabermetric and Analytical (S&A) craze has revolutionized the game, and taken over MLB front offices, dugouts, and news. However, Ripken feels, it has not taken over the game to the extent it would seem. There are plenty new terms, phrases, and stats like launch angle, spin rate, and pitch framing being thrown at fans with no real value behind them when it comes to how the game is played.

Ripken writes, "New school baseball minds use information and numbers to reach their conclusions, but intelligent baseball people have been using information and numbers for decades. Those people are a large part of how I define the 'old school.' The old school baseball guy has always used information and numbers to help create a plan for success. He's been around for a long time. Old school doesn't mean outdated or obsolete, it means battle-tested. Thirty, forty, and fifty years ago, box scores, scouting reports, and prior matchups were all used to come up with game plans for any given day. Any time valuable information presented itself, it was processed and used accordingly. This was across the board, whether evaluating a possible trade, a free agent on the open market, the June draft, bringing up a player from the minor leagues, the organization of spring training, or simply getting ready for game day.

"The old school baseball guy will also use his eyes as the game unfolds, and if his eyes see something that contradicts certain numbers, he might go with what he sees. The old school baseball guy wrestles with himself over the results of decisions he made during the course of a game. He understands that the game is built on results, that a broken bat hit is always better than a line drive out. The new school baseball guy trusts his numbers and the formulas more than he trusts his eyes.

"If a starting pitcher has had a rough time going through a line up a third time, he may find himself being new schooled out of the game in the sixth inning no matter how he is pitching that day. Let's say in this particular case, the starter being removed has a three-to-one lead and gets hooked. The bullpen happens to give up the goods and the team goes on to lose. If an old school guy made the pitching decision, he would kick himself for not trusting his eyes and instead going by the book. But the new school guy lives and dies by the numbers."

The Cup of Coffee Club: 11 Players and Their Brush with Baseball History
By Jacob Kornhauser
Rowman & Littlefield; 216 pages; hardback, $29.95; eBook, $28.50

In baseball, the phrase "cup of coffee" refers to a short stint in the Major Leagues, whether it be a single game or a week spent with the big club. Though brief, these players have reached the ultimate goal of the game, and can say they lived out their dream.

In the new book, The Cup of Coffee Club, Jacob Kornhauser tells the stories of 11 players who played in just a single Major League Baseball game, and how they responded to the heartache of never making it back. They include a former Major League manager, the son of a Baseball Hall of Famer, and two different brothers of Hall of Famers. 

Spanning half a century of baseball, each player's journey to the big leagues is distinct, as is each of their responses to having played in just a single game. The interviews Kornhauser conducted shows their unique perspectives, providing a better understanding of just how special each Major League game can be. 

Kornhauser writes, "Timing doesn't always have to do with opportunity or organizational depth: one poorly timed injury right as you're reaching your prime can derail your career. That was the unfortunate case for John Paciorek, who is widely regarded as the best cup of coffee player of all time. 

"At just 18 years old, Paciorek made his major-league debut for Houston on September 29, 1963, the final game of the season between the Colt .45's and the New York Mets. He was one of eight rookies starting for Houston that day. Within hours, he was easily the highlight of the season's curtain call, especially since the victorious Colt .45's finished 66-96 on the season and the Mets fell to 51-111 on the year, which is still one of the worst seasons in baseball history.

"Paciorek appeared at the plate five times. He went 3-for-3 and walked twice. His three singles drove in three runs and he himself scored four times. He was about as productive as one can be while playing in just one major-league game. Fewer than 4,000 people got to see this teenage slugger's historic performance. Still, there were thousands more eager Colt .45 fans - as well as fans from his hometown of Detroit - who were looking forward to bigger and better things for him.

"The Detroit Free Press ran a story after the game with the headline ''Dream Start for John' whose lede read:
HOUSTON - Eighteen-year-old John Paciorek made his major league debut Sunday for the Houston Colts and the Hamtramck St. Ladislus product showed every indication that he will be worth the $75,000 the Houston Colt .45's paid him to sign.

"He absolutely did show every indication he would be worth that signing bonus down to the penny. As Baseball Almanac points out in its summary of Paciorek's career, he started his 1964 campaign red hot as well. After he hit a bases-loaded triple against the Mets in a spring training game in late March, the Ocala Star-Banner ran a story jokingly stating, 'The New York Mets may file an unfair child labor charge against the Houston Colts if young John Paciorek continues harassing them.' He wouldn't get the chance to harass them again.

"Before the 1964 season began, with nothing but promise for his professional future, Paciorek suffered a serious back injury that required surgery and forced him to miss the rest of the 1964 season and all of 1965. After two years away from the game, he was an entirely different player. He held on and kept trying to make it back to the big leagues, but by the 1970s, he was finished with Organized Baseball entirely.

"Once again, timing was crucial. Had Paciorek not suffered that back injury, who is to say he wouldn't have become a superstar in the big leagues during the 1960s and '70s? At the same time, who's to say a couple of performances against a really bad Mets team didn't lead people into thinking he was destined for a decades-long career? There is, of course, no way to know for sure. That is what can ultimately eat away at a cup of coffee player: Is it better to have tasted the game's highest level just once, or to have never tasted it at all?"

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