Monday, October 30, 2023

Books: More Baseball Titles To Enjoy As The World Series Rolls On


Photo by Jason Schott.

The World Series between the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks is taking place this week, and as a follow-up to last week's first round of books to enjoy, here are more titles you will enjoy: The Tao of the Backup Catcher, by Tim Brown; The 1998 Yankees, by Jack Curry; The Voices of Baseball, by Kirk McKnight; Billy Ball, by Dale Tafoya; The 50 Greatest Players In Braves History, by Robert W. Cohen; and Do You Believe in Magic?, by David Krell.

The Tao of the Backup Catcher: Playing Baseball for the Love of the Game

By Tim Brown, with Erik Kratz

Twelve; hardcover, 304 pages; $30.00

Tim Brown has covered baseball for more than thirty years, including when he covered the Yankees in the 1990s for the Newark Star-Ledger. He has written two New York Times bestsellers, The Phenomenon, with Rick Ankiel and Imperfect, with Jim Abbott.

Brown's new book, which he co-wrote with Erik Kratz, is The Tao of the Backup Catcher. He takes you through Kratz's path through a 19-year professional baseball career as a backup catcher playing for 14 teams, which included a memorable stint with the Yankees in 2020. There are also incredible stories of other backup catchers just like him, who spent years performing one of the most unique rolls in sports with no guarantee of what the future might hold.

I had the opportunity to talk to Tim Brown in July, and he said this of Erik Kratz's wild journey through baseball, "Well, let's see, the book comes out on All-Star Game day, which I think is awesome because hardly anyone in this book sniffed being an All-Star; I think the timing is perfect. At its most basic, The Tao of the Backup Catcher chronicles the journey of Erik Kratz, you know, a forever backup catcher, and the journeys of a lot of guys like him, but I think, Jason, what it's really about is all of us, and who we are when the reality doesn't quite match up to the intentions and the dreams, and how we conduct ourselves then, and what it takes to be a good friend and a good teammate, part of something bigger than ourselves, who we choose to be in all of those times."

Even though this book is co-written with Kratz and about his story, he works in a lot of recognizable names like Eddie Perez, who was Greg Maddux's personal catcher, Vance Wilson, who played for the Mets in the early 2000s, and Josh Paul, who played for the Angels and had an unfortunate moment. Brown said of how important it was to filter in their stories with Kratz as the overriding story, "I thought it was important, as much as I loved Erik's story, I really thought what would appeal to the reader was not so much a story about one backup catcher, but all of the backup catchers, more about the culture of backup catchers because then I start to grab onto that crossover element of stay-at-home mom or dad, or the teacher or people who think, you know, 'geez, I'm not really in the boxscore today, I didn't get my uniform dirty today, I guess I didn't contribute anything,' but what I'm trying to convince people, if they think about, is this is about all of us, this is about being the best 'you' you could be given your circumstances."

To read the full Book Chat with Tim Brown, please click here.

The 1998 Yankees: The Inside Story of the Greatest Baseball Team Ever 

By Jack Curry

Twelve; 288 pages; hardcover, $30; eBook, $16.99

Jack Curry is an an analyst on the Yankees' pregame and postgame shows on the YES Network, where he has worked since 2010. He has won five New York Emmy Awards. Prior to that, Curry covered baseball for 20 seasons, first as the Yankees' beat writer and then as a national baseball columnist. He is the co-author of three acclaimed books on the Yankees, Swing and a Hit, with Paul O'Neill, which was released last year (click here for Brooklyn Digest's coverage); Full Count: The Education of a Pitcher, with David Cone, from 2019 (click here for our coverage); and The Life You Imagine, with Derek Jeter, which came out in 2001.

In his new book The 1998 Yankees, Curry examines what made this team, that went 125-50 on their way to winning the World Series, should be acknowledged as one of the greatest ever.

Yankees Owner George Steinbrenner said at the time, "Right now, you would have to call them the best team ever."

With the 25th anniversary of that wonderful season upon us, Curry revisits the season to discuss how the team was built and why the Yankees were such a talented, compelling, and successful club. 

The story of the season, which was full of memorable moments is told through Curry's observations and reporting from that season, as well as interviews with more than 25 players, coaches, and executives, who revealed some behind-the-scenes stories about the journey they took to reach greatness. One of the big moments was David Wells' perfect game, and the story around that remarkable achievement shows what made the team special.

The players that led this team, and other championship seasons before and after 1998, are some of the most recognizable, beloved players in Yankees history, among them Derek Jeter, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams, David Cone, Andy Pettitte, Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada, and the uncomparable closer Mariano Rivera.

In addition, the 1998 Yankees had new faces added to what was already an incredible lineup that had won the World Series two years before. Chuck Knoblauch was brought in from Minnesota to be a solid presence leading off, Scott Brosius took over at third base and became the World Series MVP, veteran Chili Davis was a force, and, at the end of the season, phenom Shane Spencer, who did nothing but hit home runs in September. There also was addition of El Duque, Orlando Hernandez, and all the excitement around what he brought to the team, to one of the best rotations in history.

In my chat with Curry when the book was released in May, I asked him about the sense of pride the Yankees took in being a machine, calling themselves "grinders," and he said, "If you look at that lineup - up and down that lineup - I think you could describe all of those guys as grinders. It was Knoblauch's first season, and he brought an energy at the top of the lineup, we know who Jeter is, O'Neill was a grinder, Tino Martinez was a grinder, Brosius was a grinder. People I think often misconstrued who Bernie Williams was, but this was a guy who was going to lay a heavy at-bat on you every time, and one of the things that I'm glad that I did in this book, Jason, was I found (former Red Sox catcher) Jason Varitek at a Yankees-Red Sox game one day. He was a rookie in '98, so I wanted to get someone's perspective who had to sort of battle that lineup, and as we sat in the Yankee Stadium third base dugout, you could see Varitek almost reliving a nightmare, basically saying, 'yeah, we tried to do this to O'Neill, but it didn't work that often,' 'oh, we tried to do this to Bernie, but you couldn't really get him out here,' Tino was this, and he turned to me and said, 'I feel like I'm giving you the same scouting report on every guy, but that's who they were, they were just so difficult to get out, they extended at-bats, etc.'"

To read our Book Chat with Jack Curry, please click here.

The Voices of Baseball: The Game's Greatest Broadcasters Reflect on America's Pastime, Updated Edition

By Kirk McKnight

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; hardback, $36.00; eBook, $34.00

Kirk McKnight is an American author whose specialty is interview-based sports books ranging from the diamonds of baseball to the ice rinks of hockey. He is also the associate editor of The Wickenburg Sun, a weekly Arizona newspaper. His previous books include The Voices of Hockey: Broadcasters Reflect on the Fastest Game on Earth and Batting Clean: Why Dale Murphy Belongs in Baseball's Hall of Fame.

McKnight's book The Voices of Baseball, is a fascinating tour of baseball's greatest moments and iconic stadiums, with your virtual guides being the reminiscences of 50 play-by-play broadcasters. The updated version includes 14 additional broadcasters, two new stadiums, the latest World Series calls from the booth, and a tribute to the recently-departed Vin Scully, the longtime announcer of the Los Angeles Dodgers who started calling games while the team was still in Brooklyn.

This book will really hit home in New York. Here, Mets fans love hearing Gary, Keith, and Ron on SNY, while also enjoying Howie Rose on their radio broadcasts. Rose and Gary Cohen, who have called Mets games for over three decades, were inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame this July. 

All across the country, teams can be identified with their announcers, such as Duane Kuiper, Mike Krukow, and Jon Miller calling San Francisco Giants games, Ken "Hawk Harrelson with the Chicago White Sox until he retired a few years ago, Don Orsillo first with the Boston Red Sox and then the San Diego Padres, Joe Davis with the Dodgers, and Michael Kay calling the Yankees on YES.

The thing about announcers is, as players and managers come and go, they can call a team's games for decades, giving them no shortage of history to offer. They have witnessed all the big moments, from Opening Days to no-hitters, all from the best seats in the house. They have an intimate knowledge of their teams and stadiums that nobody else can. Since McKnight talks to broadcasters with decades of calling games between them, it is one of the best histories of the American Pastime you will find.

Billy Ball: Billy Martin and the Resurrection of the Oakland A's

By Dale Tafoya

Globe Pequot/Lyons Press; hardback, $24.95; paperback, $19.95; eBook, $19.00

Dale Tafoya's work has appeared in the New York Daily News, New York Post, The Athletic, Baseball Digest, and Beckett Baseball Card Monthly. He is the author of Bash Brothers and One Season in Rocket City.

In the book Billy Ball, newly out in paperback, Tafoya looks at how Billy Martin revived the Oakland Athletics in 1980, as the club had come off the high of their dynasty from a decade before. This, of course, came after Martin's second stint as Yankees Manager, and Tafoya describes the reputation that preceded Billy, and which he lived up to, as the brawling, hard-drinking baseball savant with a knack for turning bad teams around. 

In the early 1970s, the Oakland A's became only the second team in Major League Baseball history to win three consecutive World Series championships. By the end of the decade, the club was in free fall, as they lost 108 games in 1979 and drew just 307,000 fans.

Free agency, which came into existence in 1976, ravaged the A's, and the team's colorful owner, Charlie Finley, was looking for a buyer. First, he needed to revive interest in the team, and along came Martin, a West Berkeley native. With the homecoming for the fiery manager, the fans immediately embraced the A's once again. Martin instituted an aggressive style of play that came to be known as Billy Ball, and they were back in the playoffs.

Tafoya tells this story through interviews with former players, team executives, and journalists, and it is an entertaining one, but now heartwarming, as the A's are set to leave Oakland. This book captures a moment when there was no better place to play baseball.

The 50 Greatest Players In Braves History

By Robert W. Cohen

Globe Pequot/Lyons Press; hardback, $32.95; eBook, $31.00

Robert W. Cohen is the author of several books on baseball, football, and basketball, including The 50 Greatest Players in Philadelphia Phillies History, The 50 Greatest Players in Boston Red Sox History, and The 50 Most Dynamic Duos in Sports History.

Following that pattern, Cohen's new book, The 50 Greatest Players in Braves History, chronicles the careers of their most impactful performers from their time in Boston to Milwaukee and Atlanta. 

The measuring sticks he uses include who the degree to which they shaped the team's fortunes, the extent to which they added to the Braves legacy, and the levels of statistical compilation and overall dominance they attained in that uniform. In addition to summaries of each player's greatest season, their most memorable performances, and notable achievements, there are quotes from opposing players and former teammates to only make this an even more cherished book.

Do You Believe in Magic? Baseball and America in the Groundbreaking Year of 1966

By David Krell

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; hardback, $34.00; eBook, $32.00

David Krell is a former TV news producer at MSNBC who has written for the Baseball Hall of Fame magazine Memories and Dreams and several Society of Baseball Research publications. He is the author of 1962: Baseball and American in the Time of JFK (click here for our review from April 2021) and Our Bums: The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory and Popular Culture, and has edited the anthologies The New York Yankees in Popular Culture and The New York Mets in Popular Culture.

In Do You Believe in Magic?, Krell gives a unique and dynamic look at an underappreciated, yet pivotal, year in American history and culture, 1966. He uses the baseball season as the throughline to tell the story of an underappreciated year that saw many seismic shifts take place. There was a World Series upset when the Baltimore Orioles triumphed over the Los Angeles Dodgers, five successful missions in NASA's Project Gemini, the Supreme Court's Miranda warnings decision, the television debut of "Batman," and Jacqueline Susann's salacious best seller Valley of the Dolls.

Innovation was the common theme in this extraordinary time, and Krell tells the story of this transformative year through vivid narrative, exclusive interviews, plenty of archival photos, and contemporary news accounts. 

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