Sports

Breslin, Jimmy. Can't Anybody Here Play This Game? Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, [1963] 2003. ISBN 1-56663-488-1.

August 2003 Permalink

Dickson, Paul. The Unwritten Rules of Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. ISBN 978-0-06-156105-4.
Baseball is as much a culture as a game, and a great deal of the way it is played, managed, umpired, reported, and supported by fans is not written down in the official rulebook but rather a body of unwritten rules, customs, traditions, and taboos which, when violated, can often bring down opprobrium upon the offender greater than that of a rulebook infraction. Some egregious offences against the unwritten rules are, as documented here, remembered many decades later and seen as the key event in a player's career. In this little book (just 256 pages) the author collects and codifies in a semi-formal style (complete with three level item numbers) the unwritten rules for players, managers, umpires, the official scorer, fans, and media. For example, under “players”, rule 1.12.1 is “As a pitcher, always walk off the field at the end of an inning; for all other players, the rule is run on, run off the field”. I've been watching baseball for half a century and I'll be darned to heck if I ever noticed that—nor ever recall seeing it violated. There is an extensive discussion of the etiquette of deliberately throwing at the batter: the art of the beanball seems as formalised as a Japanese tea ceremony.

The second half of the book is a collection of aphorisms, rules of thumb, and customs organised alphabetically. In both this section and the enumerated rules, discussions of notable occasions where the rule was violated and the consequences are included. Three appendices provide other compilations of unwritten rules, including one for Japanese major leaguers.

Many of these rules will be well known to fans, but others provide little-known insight into the game. For example, did you know that hitters on a team will rarely tell a pitcher on their own team that he has a “tell” which indicates which pitch he's about to throw? This book explains the logic behind that seemingly perverse practice. I also loved the observation that the quality of books about a sport is inversely related to the size of the ball. Baseball fans, including this one who hasn't seen a game either live or televised for more than a decade, will find this book both a delight and enlightening.

June 2009 Permalink

Entine, Jon. Taboo. New York: PublicAffairs, 2000. ISBN 1-58648-026-X.

A certain segment of the dogma-based community of postmodern academics and their hangers-on seems to have no difficulty whatsoever believing that Darwinian evolution explains every aspect of the origin and diversification of life on Earth while, at the same time, denying that genetics—the mechanism which underlies evolution—plays any part in differentiating groups of humans. Doublethink is easy if you never think at all. Among those to whom evidence matters, here's a pretty astonishing fact to ponder. In the last four Olympic games prior to the publication of this book in the year 2000, there were thirty-two finalists in the men's 100-metre sprint. All thirty-two were of West African descent—a region which accounts for just 8% of the world's population. If finalists in this event were randomly chosen from the entire global population, the probability of this concentration occurring by chance is 0.0832 or about 810−36, which is significant at the level of more than twelve standard deviations. The hardest of results in the flintiest of sciences—null tests of conservation laws and the like—are rarely significant above 7 to 8 standard deviations.

Now one can certainly imagine any number of cultural and other non-genetic factors which predispose those with West African ancestry toward world-class performance in sprinting, but twelve standard deviations? The fact that running is something all humans do without being taught, and that training for running doesn't require any complicated or expensive equipment (as opposed to sports such as swimming, high-diving, rowing, or equestrian events), and that champions of West African ancestry hail from countries around the world, should suggest a genetic component to all but the most blinkered of blank slaters.

Taboo explores the reality of racial differences in performance in various sports, and the long and often sordid entangled histories of race and sports, including the tawdry story of race science and eugenics, over-reaction to which has made most discussion of human biodiversity, as the title of book says, taboo. The equally forbidden subject of inherent differences in male and female athletic performance is delved into as well, with a look at the hormone dripping “babes from Berlin” manufactured by the cruel and exploitive East German sports machine before the collapse of that dismal and unlamented tyranny.

Those who know some statistics will have no difficulty understanding what's going on here—the graph on page 255 tells the whole story. I wish the book had gone into a little more depth about the phenomenon of a slight shift in the mean performance of a group—much smaller than individual variation—causing a huge difference in the number of group members found in the extreme tail of a normal distribution. Another valuable, albeit speculative, insight is that if one supposes that there are genes which confer advantage to competitors in certain athletic events, then given the intense winnowing process world-class athletes pass through before they reach the starting line at the Olympics, it is plausible all of them at that level possess every favourable gene, and that the winner is determined by training, will to win, strategy, individual differences, and luck, just as one assumed before genetics got mixed up in the matter. It's just that if you don't have the genes (just as if your legs aren't long enough to be a runner), you don't get anywhere near that level of competition.

Unless research in these areas is suppressed due to an ill-considered political agenda, it is likely that the key genetic components of athletic performance will be identified in the next couple of decades. Will this mean that world-class athletic competition can be replaced by DNA tests? Of course not—it's just that one factor in the feedback loop of genetic endowment, cultural reinforcement of activities in which group members excel, and the individual striving for excellence which makes competitors into champions will be better understood.

May 2005 Permalink

Lewis, Michael. Moneyball. New York: W. W. Norton, [2003] 2004. ISBN 0-393-32481-8.
Everybody knows there's no faster or more reliable way to make a lot of money than to identify an inefficiency in a market and arbitrage it. (If you didn't know that, consider it free advice and worth everything you paid for it!) Modern financial markets are Hellishly efficient. Millions of players armed with real-time transaction data, massive computing and database resources for data mining, and more math, physics, and economics Ph.D.s than a dozen Ivy League campuses are continuously looking for the slightest discrepancy between price and value, which more or less guarantees that even when one is discovered, it won't last for more than a moment, and that by the time you hear about it, it'll be long gone. It's much easier to find opportunities in slower moving, less intensely scrutinised fields where conventional wisdom and lack of imagination can blind those in the market to lucrative inefficiencies. For example, in the 1980s generic personal computers and graphics adaptors became comparable in performance to special purpose computer aided design (CAD) workstations ten times or more as costly. This created a situation where the entire value-added in CAD was software, not hardware—all the hardware development, manufacturing, and support costs of the existing vendors were simply an inefficiency which cost their customers dearly. Folks who recognised this inefficiency and moved to exploit the opportunity it created were well rewarded, even while their products were still being ridiculed or ignored by “serious vendors”. Opportunities like this don't come around very often, and there's a lot of luck involved in being in the right place at the right time with the skills and resources at hand to exploit one when you do spot it.

But just imagine what you could do in a field mired in tradition, superstition, ignorance, meaningless numbers, a self-perpetuating old boy network, and gross disparities between spending and performance…Major League Baseball, say? Starting in the 1970s and 80s, Bill James and a slowly growing group of statistically knowledgeable and scientifically minded baseball fanatics—outsiders all—began to look beyond conventional statistics and box scores and study what really determines how many runs a team will score and how many games it will win. Their results turned conventional wisdom completely on its head and that, combined with the clubbiness of professional baseball, caused their work to be utterly ignored until Billy Beane became general manager of the Oakland A's in 1997. Beane and his statistics wizard Paul DePodesta were faced with the challenge of building a winning team with a budget for player salaries right at the bottom of the league—they had less to spend on the entire roster than some teams spent on three or four superstar free agents. I've always been fond of the phrase “management by lack of alternatives”, and that's the situation Beane faced. He took on board the wisdom of the fan statisticians and built upon it, to numerically estimate the value in runs—the ultimate currency of baseball—of individual players, and compare that to the cost of acquiring them. He quickly discovered the market in professional baseball players was grossly inefficient—teams were paying millions for players with statistics which contributed little or nothing to runs scored and games won, while players with the numbers that really mattered were languishing in the minors, available for a song.

The Oakland A's are short for “Athletics”, but under Beane it might as well have been “Arbitrageurs”—trading overvalued stars for cash, draft picks, and undervalued unknowns spotted by the statistical model. Conventional scouting went out the window; the A's roster was full of people who didn't look like baseball players but fit the mathematical profile. Further, Beane changed the way the game was played—if the numbers said stolen bases and sacrifice bunts were a net loss in runs long-term, then the A's didn't do them. The sportswriters and other teams thought it was crazy, but it won ball games: an amazing 103 in 2002 with a total payroll of less than US$42 million. In most other markets or businesses competitors would be tripping over one another to copy the methods which produced such results, but so hidebound and inbred is baseball that so far only two other teams have adopted the Oakland way of winning. Writing on the opening day of the 2004 World Series, is is interesting to observe than one of those two is the Boston Red Sox. I must observe, however, amongst rooting for the scientific method and high fives for budget discipline and number crunching, that the ultimate product of professional baseball is not runs scored, nor games, pennants, or World Series won, but rather entertainment and the revenue it generates from fans, directly or indirectly. One wonders whether this new style of MBAseball run from the front office will ultimately be as enjoyable as the intuitive, risk-taking, seat of the pants game contested from the dugout by a Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel, or Earl Weaver. This superbly written, fascinating book is by the author of the almost indescribably excellent Liar's Poker. The 2004 paperback edition contains an Afterword recounting the “religious war” the original 2003 hardcover ignited. Again, this is a book recommended by an anonymous visitor with the recommendation form—thanks, Joe!

October 2004 Permalink

Lyle, [Albert] Sparky and David Fisher. The Year I Owned the Yankees. New York: Bantam Books, [1990] 1991. ISBN 978-0-553-28692-2.
“Sparky” Lyle was one of the preeminent baseball relief pitchers of the 1970s. In 1977, he became the first American League reliever to win the Cy Young Award. In this book, due to one of those bizarre tax-swap transactions of the 1980–90s, George Steinbrenner, “The Boss”, was forced to divest the New York Yankees to an unrelated owner. Well, who could be more unrelated than Sparky Lyle, so when the telephone rings while he and his wife are watching “Jeopardy”, the last thing he imagines is that he's about to be offered a no-cash leveraged buy-out of the Yankees. Based upon his extensive business experience, 238 career saves, and pioneering in sitting naked on teammates' birthday cakes, he says, “Why not?” and the game, and season, are afoot.

None of this ever happened: the subtitle is “A Baseball Fantasy”, but wouldn't it have been delightful if it had? There's the pitcher with a bionic arm, cellular phone gloves so coaches can call fielders to position them for batters (if they don't get the answering machine), the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium enhanced with a Mood Room for those who wish to mellow out and a Frustration Room for those inclined to smash and break things after bruising losses, and the pitching coach who performs an exorcism and conducts a seance manifesting the spirit of Cy Young who counsels the Yankee pitching staff “Never hang a curve to Babe Ruth”. Thank you, Cy! Then there's the Japanese pitcher who can read minds and the reliever who reinvents himself as “Mr. Cool” and rides in from the bullpen on a Harley with the stadium PA system playing “Leader of the Pack”.

This is a romp which, while the very quintessence of fantasy baseball, also embodies a great deal of inside baseball wisdom. It's also eerily prophetic, as sabermetrics, as practised by Billy Beane's Oakland A's years after this book was remaindered, plays a major part in the plot. And never neglect the ultimate loyalty of a fan to their team!

Sparky becomes the owner with a vow to be the anti-Boss, but discovers as the season progresses that the realities of corporate baseball in the 1990s mandate many of the policies which caused Steinbrenner to be so detested. In the end, he comes to appreciate that any boss, to do his or her job, must be, in part, The Boss. I wish I'd read that before I discovered it for myself.

This is a great book to treat yourself to while the current World Series involving the Yankees is contested. The book is out of print, but used paperback copies in readable condition are abundant and reasonably priced. Special thanks to the reader of this chronicle who recommended this book!

October 2009 Permalink

McGivern, Ed. Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting. Clinton, NJ: New Win Publishing, [1938] 1975. ISBN 0-8329-0557-7.
This is a facsimile of the 1938 first edition, published to commemorate the centenary of the author's birth in 1874. Earlier facsimile editions of this classic were published in 1945, 1957, and 1965; copies of these as well as the first edition may be found at abebooks.com, but most are substantially more expensive than new copies of the 1975 reprint. Imagine trying to publish a book today which includes advice (pp. 461–462) on shooting targets off an assistant's head!

March 2004 Permalink

Rousmaniere, John. Fastnet, Force 10. New York: W. W. Norton, [1980] 2000. ISBN 0-393-30865-0.

October 2003 Permalink

Veeck, Bill and Ed Lynn. Thirty Tons a Day. New York: Viking, 1972. ISBN 0-670-70157-2.
This book is out of print. Used copies are generally available at Amazon.com.

September 2002 Permalink

Weber, Bruce. As They See 'Em. New York: Scribner, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7432-9411-9.
In what other game is a critical dimension of the playing field determined on the fly, based upon the judgement of a single person, not subject to contestation or review, and depending upon the physical characteristics of a player, not to mention (although none dare discuss it) the preferences of the arbiter? Well, that would be baseball, where the plate umpire is required to call balls and strikes (about 160 called in an average major league game, with an additional 127 in which the batter swung at the pitch). A fastball from a major league pitcher, if right down the centre, takes about 11 milliseconds to traverse the strike zone, so that's the interval the umpire has, in the best case, to call the pitch. But big league pitchers almost never throw pitches over the fat part of the plate for the excellent reason that almost all hitters who have made it to the Show will knock such a pitch out of the park. So umpires have to call an endless series of pitches that graze the corners of the invisible strike zone, curving, sinking, sliding, whilst making their way to the catcher's glove, which wily catchers will quickly shift to make outside and inside pitches appear to be over the plate.

Major league umpiring is one of the most élite occupations in existence. At present, only sixty-eight people are full-time major league umpires and typically only one or two replacements are hired per year. Including minor leagues, there are fewer than 300 professional umpires working today, and since the inception of major league baseball, fewer than five hundred people have worked games as full-time umpires.

What's it like to pursue a career where if you do your job perfectly you're at best invisible, but if you make an error or, even worse, make a correct call that inflames the passion of the fans of the team it was made against, you're the subject of vilification and sometimes worse (what other sport has the equivalent of the cry from the stands, “Kill the umpire!”)? In this book, the author, a New York Times journalist, delves into the world of baseball umpiring, attending one of the two schools for professional umpires, following nascent umpires in their careers in the rather sordid circumstances of Single A ball (umpires have to drive from game to game on their own wheels—they get a mileage allowance, but that's all; often their accommodations qualify for my Sleazy Motel Roach Hammer Awards).

The author follows would-be umpires through school, the low minors, AA and AAA ball, and the bigs, all the way to veterans and the special pressures of the playoffs and the World Series. There are baseball anecdotes in abundance here: bad calls, high profile games where the umpire had to decide an impossible call, and the author's own experience behind the plate at an intersquad game in spring training where he first experienced the difference between play at the major league level and everything else—the clock runs faster. Relativity, dude—get used to it!

You think you know the rulebook? Fine—a runner is on third with no outs and the batter has a count of one ball and two strikes. The runner on third tries to steal home, and whilst sliding across the plate, is hit by the pitch, which is within the batter's strike zone. You make the call—50,000 fans and two irritable managers are waiting for you. What'll it be, ump? You have 150 milliseconds to make your call before the crowd starts to boo. (The answer is at the end of these remarks.) Bear in mind before you answer that any major league umpire gets this right 100% of the time—it's right there in the rulebook in section 6.05 (n).

Believers in “axiomatic baseball” may be dismayed at some of the discretion documented here by umpires who adjust the strike zone to “keep the game moving along” (encouraged by a “pace of game” metric used by their employer to rate them for advancement). I found the author's deliberately wrong call in a Little League blowout game (p. 113) reprehensible, but reasonable people may disagree.

As of January 2009, 289 people have been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. How many umpires? Exactly eight—can you name a single one? Umpires agree that they do their job best when they are not noticed, but there will be those close calls where their human judgement and perception make the difference, some of which may be, even in this age of instant replay, disputed for decades afterward. As one umpire said of a celebrated contentious call, “I saw what I saw, and I called what I saw”. The author concludes:

Baseball, I know, needs people who can not only make snap decisions but live with them, something most people will do only when there's no other choice. Come to think of it, the world in general needs people who accept responsibility so easily and so readily. We should be thankful for them.

Batter up!

Answer: The run scores, the batter is called out on strikes, and the ball is dead. Had there been two outs, the third strike would have ended the inning and the run would not have scored (p. 91).

August 2009 Permalink