Monthly Archives: November 2008

Asian Pacific Americans and Baseball: A History – by Joel S. Franks

Ichiro, Dice-K, Matsui, Okajima, Nomo – all names that most baseball fans are well aware of, and all names that come from Japan.

But the history of players with Asian ancestry goes much farther and deeper than just those who we see on the big league diamond today, which is the jumping off point for Joel S. Franks’ new work, Asian Pacific Americans and Baseball: A History from McFarland Publishing.

Franks takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of baseball in the Pacific Islands, pre-statehood Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, the Phillipines, as well as China, Japan and other Asian countries. Baseball found roots in numerous places throughout the Pacific Rim, and the book does a thorough job finding different footholds that baseball took root in. Whether it was internment camps, military bases, high schools, or other situations, the spread of baseball across the Pacific Ocean is a pretty remarkable story, and certainly a tough one to chronicle.

Franks takes on the task admirably – he uses a solid mix of newspaper and magazine articles, interviews, and other historical records to piece together a history of baseball in the Pacific Rim.

However, it is this area that sparks my one gripe about the book – it was hard for me not to get buried under the mountain of information that Franks offers. At times I felt like keeping track of all the names, places and accomplishments got to be a bit much. You might have the same experience – or if you’re more adept at keeping track of those kinds of things, you might have a much better experience.

Certainly to bring together over 100 years of baseball history in a region to which is was not native and which only resulted in select players assimilating into American organized baseball is a tough task to undertake. Franks has compiled a tremendous amount of information – some of which has already come in handy in recent discussions – his book will certainly be a tremendous resource for those who will further research in this area. However I think that the majority of readers would get a tremendous amount more from this book if it were to be slightly reorganized to help the readers see the connection to modern the modern day game.

Asian Pacific Americans and Baseball is a remarkable resource for those readers who want to get a much deeper look into the people that played baseball and the various places that the game developed.

The book is available for purchase via www.mcfarlandpub.com or by calling 800-253-2187.

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The Portland Sea Dogs by Wendy Sotos

As part of their ‘Images of Baseball” series, Arcadia Publishing presents The Portland Sea Dogs, authored by Wendy Sotos.

This 127-page look at the history of the team that returned baseball to the state of Maine in 1994 is a photographic tour of the people, players, and ballpark that has become one of Minor League Baseball’s most successful franchises. Unfortunately the pictures are all black-and-white, which does leave some of the vividness of the story out.

Sotos took this compilation of phots and added text to highlight some of the many players that have come through this double-A affiliate of the Florida Marlins from its inception until 2002, and the Boston Red Sox from 2003 until the present.

An interesting read for those seeking an analysis of this particular club, or for those from the Portland area.

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Red Sox Rule by Michael Holley

(I’m catching up on some books that came out in 2008 that I wasn’t able to get to during the regular season…a bit shorter review than normal, but hopefully enough to give you some insight to the book.)

Without question, the Red Sox have been one of the most dominant teams in the past five years, which is coincidentally when Terry Francona took over as manager. Brought to Beantown following the Grady Little incident in the 2003 ALCS, he has managed to step into the fire of Red Sox Nation without burning his feet.

Michael Holley is quick to recognize the apparent connection of Francona’s arrival and the success of the Red Sox, and offers 202 pages on the man who has been at the healm of the club since 2004.

This is a good read for Red Sox fans looking to learn a bit more about Francona, both on and off the field. Like many, he’s taken an interesting route to get where he is, and like most, it hasn’t been a straight or easy path to the manager’s chair. Having met Francona on several occasions, I wouldn’t say he’s the most dynamic fellow I’ve ever come across, and the book didn’t do anything to change my opinion of him. It provides quite a bit of information on him that I didn’t know before, but given that he’s 3,000 miles away from me, its immediate relevance is a bit tougher to discern.

For non-Red Sox fans, such as myself, the insight into Francona may be a bit more than most folks would like to spend 200 pages on. He’s a darn good manager, but it’s more of a biopic as opposed to a strategy book, although there are some nuggets scattered throughout about how he approaches the game from a strategic sense. You might read this and end up really liking Francona…or you might get to the end and say to yourself, “ok, nice story – now what?”

By no means is Red Sox Rule a bad read – I’d just want to know your interest in the subject matter before giving it a whole-hearted recommendation. If you cheer for the Red Sox, read it – you’ll enjoy it. If you’re not a Red Sox fan, proceed at your own risk — I can’t guarantee you’ll get that into it.

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Fans of the World Unite! A (Capitalist) Manifesto for Sports Consumers – by Stephen F. Ross and Stefan Szymanski

What better day than Election Day to talk about a book calling for an uprising of sports fans and a major reform of the four major sports leagues in the United States?

Thus we have Fans of the World Unite! by Stephen F. Ross and Stefan Szymanski, and published by Stanford University Press.

Now while this isn’t a baseball book per se, I thought I’d take a look at it for two reasons — it’s the off-season and I have a bit more time on my hands, and it does provide a pretty engaging critique of the setup of Major League Baseball and how fans are adversely affected by its structure and policies, which are ultimately intended to protect and profit the owners.

The premise of the book is fairly simple – the major professional sports (MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL) are setup in such a way that encourages and rewards monopolistic behavior while ultimately hanging fans out to dry by limiting their choice while exploiting the relationship that fans have with their favorite sports teams.

To remedy this problem, Ross and Szymanski propose a two-pronged approach that would more or less turn the current American leagues upside down.

Using NASCAR and the international soccer leagues as examples, the authors propose that the leagues be reworked with a clear separation between league orgazniers and ownership while instilling a promotion and relegation system that rewards accomplishment and punishes failure.

The first piece would require each league to have a governing body that is completely separate from the teams and owners, similar to how NASCAR is structured. It would be their responsibility to maintain the health of the league, through marketing, broadcasting, competitive balance and opportunity, scheduling and playoff management, and so forth. There would be a person ultimately accountable for the well-being of the organization who would have both ultimate responsibility and ultimate jurisdiction.

The second piece would bring merit based participation into the fold – in other words, if you want to be a Major League team, you had better play like it, otherwise you’ll be demoted to a minor league. This system is already in place in international soccer leagues, and the authors argue that it would work well in the United States as well, by providing the ultimate motivation for a team to succeed and invest in their players and coaches.

Certainly approaches to sport that, while not new in practice, would represent a major change in the way the major sports operate in the United States.

The authors argue that such a change would result would in a reduction in the power that owners have when it comes to corporate welfare. With an increase in teams and a reduction in the exclusivity of having a team that could compete at the Major League level, owners would be forced to shoulder more of the load themselves. No longer would be cries of “I’m moving this team to (fill in the blank) unless I get a new stadium paid for with tax dollars!” be tolerated because odds are that city would already have a team.

Ross and Szymanski reveal and highlight the leverage that professional sports teams have been allowed to have under the current setup, and that is where they find fans over the proverbial barrel. If you want to be a sports fan you have to play by their rules – and that means watching the teams the league has decided to put on TV, accepting blackouts of your favorite team’s games unless certain conditions are met, tolerating and even encouraging teams not to get better by rewarding poor performance, and so on.

Before I started reading Fans of the World, Unite!, I was sincerely thinking this was going to be a rallying cry along the lines of “no new taxes!” or “bring the troops home!” — something that would be able to be distilled down so much that it would fit on a button, or a 3’x5′ picket sign and would be something that would be marched in front of stadia and arenas around the country.

Would it be a chronicle on injustices brought on fans by professional sports teams? Price-gouging, baiting and switching, hoodwinking? Would I be fired up after reading it and march down to my local teams’ offices and demand change?

No.

Rather, the authors bring a much more academic approach; Ross is a Professor of Law at Penn State and Szymanski is the MBA Dean and Professor of Economics at London’s City University. Both readily admit to writing the book from the ivory tower of academia – and while it’s not written at a level unreadable to most folks, you will definitely be invited to think and analyze the problem at hand as the authors see it. Processing the book left me feeling like I had been involved in a trial, listening to the prosecution make its case. Given that it’s Election Day and I’ve been listening to countless ads and reading propositions and ballot measures, this does fall in line with that in a certain way.

And while those ballot measures are interesting in their own way and I care about them on behalf of my civic duties, this was something that appealed to my recreational side.

At 184 pages of text, the authors keep their argument succinct, which keeps the book moving along and the reader engaged in the work. An interested reader could easily finish this in a day, while a more casual pace should allow this to be completed in a week or so.

The question that remains though, is: what now?

Assuming you read the book and agree with the changes the authors are calling for, how do we make that happen? Ross and Szymanski provide several scenarios in the final chapter, including one for fan revolt. While I could see them happening under the right conditions, I just don’t see those right conditions among us. The NFL continues to basically print money and MLB is on an upward trend, even though attendance was flat from 2007 to 2008.

The old saying of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” certainly comes to mind when thinking about the situation. It doesn’t mean it wouldn’t or couldn’t happen…I’m just thinking something will have to fall apart before it can be put back together in the way that the authors suggest. While we do live in a fast-paced society where things can happen fairly quickly, there are a lot of things that are too firmly rooted in place to make these changes feasible.

But that doesn’t mean their ideas are bad. If anything, their ideas are very good and should be read by more and more fans across all sports. The authors readily admit that the fan-driven scenario is the most hopeful, with fans demanding a political course of action and involving their elected officials. So how do we make that happen?

Maybe the authors need to launch this campaign with the tools of change – buttons,  bumper stickers, signs you can put in your window, t-shirts, and celebrity endorsements. Put someone in the spotlight – develop a website and make it easy to take fans from indecision to action. They’ve already explained the why, I wonder if Ross and Szymanski will follow up with the how?

Fans of the World, Unite might just be slightly ahead of its time, but it’s a book that merits reading and consideration, and as I’m sure the authors would hope, action on the part of the reader.

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All you need to know today.

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The Bill James Handbook 2009

Time to get back on the horse and talk about some new baseball books…and what better to end the playoff hiatus than the world famous Bill James Handbook 2009.

So assuming you haven’t been hiding under a rock for the past 30 years or so, and you have even the slightest interest in statistical analysis and/or fantasy baseball, you know who Bill James is. Hopefully you’ve picked prior versions of this book so it isn’t a completely new topic to you.

But If it is your first encounter with Mr. James’ work – don’t do yourself the disservice of just picking TBJH2009 up and flipping through it. The majority of pages contain statistics and you’ll probably just dismiss it as being an encyclopedia of players’ performance. Not that this isn’t entirely true…but the real key is to understand why the book contains all this data.

James has been at work for 30 years trying to figure out the correlation of numbers to winning. He knew that it wasn’t all about the “traditional” statistics – batting average, win-loss record, and ERA to name a few…he sensed that there was something more out there that could be used as a gauge of a player’s ability to contribute to his team’s ability to win ballgames.

It’s James’ thinking about the relation of statistics to winning that is what deliver the punch of the book. Even though it only occupies a dozen or so pages, his analysis and introduction to certain statistical categories give the numbers context and meaning, and turn them into things that should be thought about as opposed to just looked at.

The first thing that really captured my attention – and this is on page 321, mind you  – is his article on bullpens, specifically his assigning of positions to the pitchers who comprise a bullpen. It’s not fair to compare a utility reliever to a closer – yet the current mainstream thinking does just that. Each pitcher in the bullpen comes into the game in different situations, and James argues that we need to look at their performance on an individual basis while in the context of their role. The Bill James Handbook 2009 provides the tools and instructions for doing just that, and the result is a smarter and more educated fan.

In the same vain of understanding what affects success, James and the crew at Baseaball Info Solutions have provided a tremendous amount of data on managers – how many lineups they use, how quick they are to pull their starting pitchers, and one of my favorites – how successful they are when they call for an intentional walk. Managers tend to be either overlooked or somewhat unfairly criticized, and James reminds the reader that he is there “trying to pollute the discussion of managers with actual facts.”

To James, it’s one thing to suppose something, it’s quite another to actually have numbers and facts that can be used to support tendencies.

What James and his collaborators ultimately are trying to do with The Bill James Handbook 2009 – besides sell books, of course – is to challenge your way of thinking and to take the shackles off your brain and allow you to look at statistics and numbers in a whole new light and not only learn what they think, but possibly discover your own correlations.

For instance – James suggests the possibility of MLB teams “employ(ing) platoon players like Las Vegas employs comedy acts.” He takes two players at the same position who have such polar opposite lefty/righty splits that combining them would be a dream come true – and he subsequently renames the tandem to elicit a decent chuckle from the reader.

The book concludes with two sections that ultimately challenge the reader the most – league leaders and 2009 projections. The former encourages you to look at the top 10 leaders in an array of statistical categories and see which tend to have the most influence on winning; while the latter gives you a glimpse into the future through the eyes of James and his team. You can’t argue with the leaders, yet you can debate the projections until everyone is blue in the face – that is a big part of the appeal.

Not to be left out are the Fielding Bible 2008 awards and a realtively new project that Mr. James has shared with his readers – his Young Talent Inventory, where he attempts to rate the best young players in baseball as well as which team has the best young players in their system. Depending on how your team came out, it could either be a bright spot for the future, or signs of conern if you believe in developing talent and bringing up the future from within your organization.

The Bill James Handbook 2009 is another heavy hitter, particularly when it comes to off-season reading both to recap the 2008 season and look ahead to the 2009 campaign. I’m glad to have my copy ready to go, knowing that it’s assuming it’s rightful position on my desk’s reference shelf.

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