Category Archives: Book Reviews

Take a look at our growing archive of book reviews, plus articles on forthcoming releases and author interviews

Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Cheerio Winter, Hello Baseball (Prospectus)

When does winter come to an end and spring begin?

According to the Met Office, in the UK it depends on whether you’re looking at the meteorological or astronomical season.  If the former, the first day of spring this year is 1 March, the latter is 20 March.

What the Met Office don’t take into account in that article is a third season you might be going by.

The baseball season.

This year, spring starts on 23 February.  Whilst a few teams are playing on Wednesday and Thursday, the proper spring leagues (Cactus in Arizona, Grapefruit in Florida) get going with games on Friday.

It’s the same every year: we’re all happy to have MLB baseball back as spring games begin, then go into a bit of a lull as the lazy Spring Training-ness of the games loses some of its appeal, before the regular season starts coming into view and the excitement builds again.

Even if you don’t care for Spring Training games all that much, you can at least enjoy them as the next marker that shows the real action is getting ever closer.

Baseball Prospectus 2018 Annual arrives

The start of Spring Training isn’t the only baseball season marker for me this week.  After Truck Day and MLB.TV Day, the next unofficial Day in my baseball calendar is the day on which there’s a knock on the door and the postie hands over a chunky parcel of joy.

That happened yesterday as my copy of the Baseball Prospectus 2018 annual arrived. I’ve been buying it every year since 2005 and whilst the quality has varied at times – never being worse than ‘good’, but not always hitting the heights hoped for – I can’t imagine being without it.

It’s a book you can dip into all season long, but it particularly comes into its own during Spring Training when there are prospects and fringe players to look up and learn more about.

Those other markets

In this column two weeks ago, my final thought was about the potential impact that a more prosperous baseball landscape outside of North America could have on free agents (at the lower levels, rather than the top stars).

This year’s BP Annual looks beyond North America by adding a couple of chapters about the Korea Baseball League and Nippon Baseball League in Japan.  There’s an opening essay about each league set-up followed by stats and commentary on the main players in each league (the Japan league version also includes stats on lots – all regulars? – of other players too).

They make for an interesting and welcome addition to the book, adding something a bit different that you might not think to go and look at on the internet otherwise.

The first name included in the Korean Baseball League list is Roger Bernadina, better-known for his time with the Washington Nationals in MLB or – for British fans – being the star man for the Netherlands in the 2007 European Championships final against Great Britain.

Another name that caught my eye was that of Michael Choice.  I wrote last week about some of the A’s prospects that had got away. Choice was drafted in the first round by the A’s in 2010 and rose to being the team’s top prospect, making the Majors in September 2013 before being traded to the Texas Rangers a few months later.

Things never quite panned out for Choice in the Majors and after bouncing around the Minors for a few years he decided to take up the offer of joining the Nexon Heroes in the KBO League last July.  The commentary on him in BP18 notes that he hit three home runs in his final game of the 2017 season and agreed a $600k deal to stay with the team for 2018.

New for 2018

Much of the rest of the formula stays the same, although there’s a new addition to the pitcher profiles in the form of three new ‘Top-Line Pitching’ metrics. These are designed to give an insight not strictly on performance but the type of pitcher they are, “how a pitcher gets to their results” is how they describe it.

The metrics look at Power, Stamina and Command and give a score for each based on a 0-100 scale.  First impressions are that they do offer something different and could be a useful ‘quick glance’ profile of a pitcher, although it would have been nice if they had spent a bit more time putting them into context in the Statistical Introduction by going through some examples of different types of pitchers.

The other addition is the presence of some specially designed Topps category leader cards that decorate the end of a team’s section if they have any leaders on their team from 2017.  Fourteen teams draw a blank and some aren’t your obvious leaders.  Baltimore’s sole leader card is of Caleb Joseph for his league-leading 2.9 Blocking Runs mark, which is nice for him and his family.

Don’t save the best ’till last, put it first

If this off-season’s player free agent market seems strange, that’s nothing compared to Jayson Stark becoming a free agent at the end of April last year in the latest round of cost-cutting by ESPN.  Picking a favourite baseball writer is like picking a favourite band, you love the ones you love for different reasons and choosing between them is impossible, but Stark is one of the first names that would come into my head.

Stark provides the traditional guest foreword to this year’s BP annual and it’s a typically thoughtful and entertaining read.

And the great thing is, that’s not where Stark’s baseball writing in 2018 comes to an end.

The Athletic keeps on growing

Ken Rosenthal broke the news this week that Stark has been signed up to join The Athletic’s expanded MLB team from 1st April.

The Athletic is a fairly new venture with a simple mandate: providing quality sports writing at a price.  In some respects this runs counter to prevalent trends, with media companies moving towards video and audio and the long-held expectation of many that online content will be available for free.

The fact that it runs counter to these trends is the whole point. The belief is there’s a sizeable audience that still values writing and are prepared to pay a reasonable cost for it. I count myself among that number, signed up in early January and I’ve been impressed so far.

It seems like every week or so another baseball writer confirms they are joining the website’s staff.  Whilst the quality of the articles published is generally high and provides good variety, you can tell it’s still in a formative period somewhat and building up to cover the entire circuit (20 of the 30 MLB teams have dedicated writers, alongside the national writers such as Rosenthal, Stark, Peter Gammons and Jim Bowden).  I probably feel that a little more than most subscribers as I don’t follow any of the other North American sports so I don’t get the benefit of all of the other content they are putting out.

Still, the national MLB writing is already strong (and will be even better with Stark on board), the Oakland A’s are covered well by new beat writer Julian McWilliams and Melissa Lockard and I’m enjoying dipping into the local coverage of other teams to pick up the early news from Spring Training camps.  I definitely recommend taking a look.

Book Review: Calico Joe by John Grisham

(Hodder & Staughton, 2012), 198 pages.

The MLB Battlegrounds event in Hyde Park earlier this month resulted in me receiving a number of emails from newcomers to the sport.

Whilst my Baseball Basics for Brits series answered some of their queries, they deliberately don’t go too far into explaining the game on the field.

There are plenty of videos and guides already available, but the main one that I always recommend to Brits comes from an unusual place.

Back in 2012, the best-selling ‘legal-thriller’ author John Grisham’s released his latest novel that happened to have baseball at the heart of it.

I’m always encouraged to see anything that might put the sport in front of the eyes of a few more Brits, hoping that popular culture can be used as a ‘way in’ among the sceptical masses in this country.  Grisham has a legion of fans in the U.K. and, much as with Stephen King, many are likely to put their trust in the author and put their doubts about ‘that American sport’ to one side.

And, of course, it gives us baseball converts in Blighty the chance to get our hands on some baseball fiction a little easier than normal.

The ‘Calico Joe’ of the book’s title is a character called Joe Castle, a rookie phenom of the Chicago Cubs whose incredible introduction to the Major Leagues captivates a nation.

One of Castle’s biggest fans is an 11 year old called Paul Tracy, the son of a New York Mets pitcher struggling to hold onto his Big League job.

The novel is predominantly told from the perspective of Paul Tracy and it begins 30 years on from Castle’s rookie season. The memories from that year are brought flooding back by the news that Tracy’s dad is dying of cancer and his failing health compels his son to go on a journey of redemption.

Some of the comments I’ve read about the book by British readers have complained about the amount of baseball game detail included in the novel.  Baseball fans naturally will be less perturbed by this, although it seems an unfair criticism to me in any case.  There is a section in the book that follows Castle’s exploits on a day-by-day basis, but it’s a limited part of the overall novel, never gets too bogged down in minutiae and is an integral part of how Grisham conveys the nation becoming increasingly gripped by the developing story of this great rookie’s performances.

From a baseball fan’s perspective, where it lacks a little is that you can take a pretty good guess early on how things are likely to play out and what the subtitle – “a father’s guilt; a son’s redemption” – is going to refer to.

This is not a huge issue on its own; however it develops into a bit of a disappointment as the novel reaches its conclusion. I was left wanting more, but not in the positive ‘this is great, I don’t want it to end’ sense, more that I felt that there was a spark, a twist or a sudden change of pace missing.

That’s certainly not to condemn Calico Joe as a novel to avoid. It’s a decent story and is told with customary precision by Grisham mixing different time periods to good effect. I had high hopes that this would be a novel I would love and instead it’s merely one that I like, a book to pick up if available at a reduced price or to borrow from the library.

However, the best part about the British edition of the book is the 5,000 word introduction that serves as a perfect baseball primer for the uninitiated.

Grisham explains that he was encouraged to write it by his British publisher, noting that they were asking him to explain “aspects of the game that most American boys have absorbed by the age of ten”. That’s a great way of explaining the knowledge gap facing Brits when they first encounter the sport as presented from a North American source.  There is so much that it is just assumed you will know because baseball is a part of the culture across the pond.

Grisham takes on the task with some trepidation (“I understood how daunting the task would be”), but does a great job in explaining the field of play, the different player positions, the rules of the game and how it is played.  If you read it on its own you would guess immediately it had been written by a novelist and his style of weaving the details together – starting by asking the reader to imagine they are stepping up to home plate and describing what they will see – works extremely well.

Whilst it isn’t available to download on its own, you can read it in full via the Look Inside feature on the book’s product page on It’s as clear an explanation of the ins and outs of the sport that I’ve read and if you’re a baseball newcomer I’d recommend it as one of the best ways to learn the basics about how the game is played.

Have you read “Calico Joe”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

Reviewing Baseball Prospectus 2017 and Ron Shandler’s 2017 Baseball Forecaster

Even though there is plenty of great online coverage to get you ready for the baseball season – both real and fantasy – you may be like me in enjoying a physical book or two to dive into at this time of year.

Baseball Prospectus 2017

My traditional purchase is the pleasingly big, thick brick of a book that is the Baseball Prospectus guide.

It reviews the previous season and previews the coming one with essays on every MLB team, followed by statistics and commentaries on their Major Leaguers and main Minor League players and a Top 101 Prospects list.

I always come back to BP based on how much use I get out of it each year after the initial good flick-through. It’s a handy resource to have on your coffee table when watching games or doing some research and, with the print version in particular, a search for one player usually results in a 10 minute browse.

There’s the odd player comment that, to my taste, veers too far into the jokey rather than enlightening end of things (as I noted in my review of the 2016 edition), but generally you’ll find that the stats and comment will teach you something new about a player.

The 2017 edition follows the standard formula and the established level of quality regular readers have come to expect, so previous buyers won’t need much encouragement to pick up this year’s book and if you’re not among that number, it’s definitely worth looking into if you’re after something more than a pre-season guide.

Ron Shandler’s 2017 Baseball Forecaster

BP normally meets my Spring Training book needs, yet this year I decided to double-up and buy another well-known annual guide.

Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster has long been high on the list of required purchases for fantasy baseball fans. As a keen, rather than a full-on obsessed fantasy player, it’s not something I have shelled out for previously, but having re-read the excellent Fantasyland book during the dull baseball-free winter, I thought I’d give it a go this year.

Whilst the book touts itself as being for “baseball analysts and fantasy leaguers” with its “encyclopedia of fanalytics”, it is definitely a fantasy baseball tool rather than a more general preview guide.

There are plenty of unique stats to the Forecast (XPX, BPV, DOM and DIS to chuck in just a few) that take some learning; in fact, I ended up copying them out onto a bit of paper and clipping that to the book so I could always have it handy, rather than flicking backwards and forwards to the glossary.

The player entries are listed alphabetically – first the batters, then the pitchers – rather than grouped into teams which has an immediately obvious benefit in finding a player’s entry when under the draft clock. The comments are written in short-hand and include plenty of abbreviations that, as with the stats themselves, take a little while to decipher at first but soon become helpful in stripping away the fat and giving you the core nuggets of info you need to consider about the player.

One other thing that can catch you out initially is that they bundle Double-A, Triple-A and MLB stats together in a single line if a player competed at different levels that year (the minor league numbers are converted into Major League Equivalents, MLE). This is denoted by an asterisk next to the team name, for example, A’s 2016 rookie Ryon Healy has OAK* next to his 2016 stat line, so you are aware that the numbers listed aren’t what the normal record books say.

As with the other features, you soon get used to it and there is a fantasy-based reason behind the approach: MLEs at Double-A and above “provide as accurate a record of a player’s performances as major league statistics”. The stat lines aren’t there as a reference book, they are there to help you make decisions on a player’s fantasy value.

On top of all the player entries, the first 70 pages of the book are dedicated to fantasy baseball research and advice. There is plenty here to learn from and even the less-complex sections, such as analysing how the top 15 average draft position (ADP) players worked out in terms of actual fantasy value, are really useful.

I particularly like the 5 year injury record section. It’s a simple idea, listing every player and the type of injury and number of days they missed each season, but it’s great to be able to flick straight to that info really quickly.

And even though the Forecaster isn’t quite the behemoth that the BP brick is, it’s certainly no flimsy magazine. It’s essentially A4 sized in height, a bit larger than that in width, and approximately 1.5cm thick. So there’s lots in it, but you can put it in your bag to read on the train to work without knackering your shoulder.

Which one might be for you?

Well, you can’t go wrong with either. As stated, the Forecaster is a great choice if your primary focus is on fantasy baseball, whilst Baseball Prospectus offers a more rounded baseball guide with some fantasy help included in the PECOTA projection stats (BP offers a dedicated Fantasy subscription service on their website too).

However, my main conclusion is that they are different enough to make for an excellent pairing without feeling like you are paying for two versions of the same thing.

We can all appreciate the benefit of taking one bottle into the shower rather than two, as the old Wash & Go advert used to tell us, but when it comes to these baseball books, two is even better than one.

Nevermind the Bollocks, it’s Baseball Prospectus 2016

This past week has treated us all to sights of baseball’s return thanks to photos of teams taking part in their first days of Spring Training camps in Arizona and Florida.

It also treated me with a traditional ‘baseball is on its way’ sight of my own:



Yes, a copy of the Baseball Prospectus annual taking pride of place on my coffee table, with obligatory pencil for notes right beside it.

This has been a lapsed tradition in recent years. Living circumstances and regular travel meant that the convenience of a version on my Kindle made too much sense to ignore, yet in truth it was a compromise I was never completely happy with. After the initial week or two of reading, I found myself rarely delving into it because delving into an e-book just isn’t the same as flicking through a paper brick.

The whole point of the BP book is that it sits there close to hand when I’m watching or writing about baseball. If a recently promoted prospect is taking the field, or the TV coverage heads to a break with a low-profile reliever heading to the mound, I’ll be reaching for BP to find out more and inevitably reading about other players while I’m there.

My lack of e-book engagement has a bearing on it, but I have felt that the annual has taken a bit of a downturn in recent years in not quite being the essential resource it once was. Comments from regular readers about the 2016 edition were reassuringly positive and my first impressions are that this is a return to form.

The print layout is unquestionably improved from previous editions, with a better quality of paper being used and a nicely designed page that crams plenty of detail in without looking cluttered. Last year’s edition raised complaints about a small typeface and they’ve really focused on improving the layout, by all accounts. You can sample this thanks to the Philadelphia Phillies chapter being made available for free as a pdf.

Humour has always been a part of Baseball Prospectus, which can be difficult to get right as what’s funny to one person can be off-putting to another. The light-hearted asides often strike the right tone for my taste in this edition, although there’s one major exception to this.

The Houston Astros’ shortstop Carlos Correa made a big impression in his rookie season in 2015 and is rightly regarded as one of the most exciting young players in the Majors.

Sadly, BP decided that everyone knows Correa is an amazing talent and didn’t bother to try to give any insight about him, instead providing what can only be described as a load of aimless bollocks. It starts with “Correa is a Saturday morning, a cup of coffee and the second chapter of your new favourite book. He’s the 20 dollars you forgot to put in your winter coat ..” and goes on and on in the same vein for 10 whole lines.

It would have been fine starting that way, then saying ‘you get the picture’ and going on to put his rookie season in historical context or suchlike, but you’d expect a bit more from BP than thinking ‘errr, he’s really good isn’t he, let’s just write something silly’.

This is a rare exception among well over 1,000 player comments though, so don’t let that put you off from picking up a copy.

That also goes for the errors that do always creep into the book every year. They’ve got plenty of experience in producing this tome so it’s a bit frustrating (especially for the team themselves, I’m sure) that errors like mixing up charts, such as with the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox here, make their way into the published product. However, BP always hold their hands up to it and try to rectify things by maintaining an Errata list and make Premium subscriber details for affected players free to view. It’s not perfect, but not the end of the world either.

Even with the snags, I can already tell I’m going to enjoy reading through the team essays during Spring Training, consulting the comments and projections as part of my fantasy draft preparations, learning more about some of the best prospects in the Minors, and heaving it from the coffee table countless times during the season to look up a player or two.

You might need to make some logistical allowances for getting the print version, its size and weight don’t make it an ideal travel companion and you’ll need a bloody big letterbox if you don’t make other arrangements to receive it in the post, but I’d definitely recommend making the effort.

Flicking through the print version is so much more satisfying than searching the e-book (the presentation of the tables is a bit his-and-miss that way too), as is avoiding typing comments and instead using a pencil to scribble essential notes down.

Such as writing the word ‘BOLLOCKS!’ next to that maddening Carlos Correa capsule.

The Book of Baseball by Derek Brandon and Jim Marooney

The Book of Baseball  by Derek Brandon and Jim Marooney (A Channel Four book / Sidgwick & Jackson),  128 pages. ISBN 0-283-99551-3 (1987) Hardback.

A book review by Jamie Crompton

I can’t quite remember which came first: reading The Book of Baseball or collecting my first set of Topps baseball cards. Either way, the book played a fundamental role in first introducing me to the game more than a quarter of a century ago. Despite the cost of £7.95, which was quite a lot of pocket money in those days, it proved to be very good value. When, many years later, I became a serious fan of the sport, the basics that I had picked up from this publication served me well. All in all, I have fond memories of reading The Book of Baseball.

Published in 1987, the book positioned itself as “the first major British book about baseball” and was tied in to Channel 4’s televised coverage of MLB. Its authors were Derek Brandon, whose Cheerleader Productions company had already brought American football coverage to the UK and was now doing the same with baseball, and Jim Marooney, Cheerleader’s New York-based producer, formerly of NBC. The front cover features an action shot from a Dodgers–Phillies game; Mike Schmidt is seen sliding towards second base as Dodgers infielder Steve Sax attempts to throw to first.

The book’s foreword is by Martin Tyler, who presented Channel 4’s baseball coverage in the mid-1980s and has since become the lead football commentator at Sky Sports. It made me wonder, given their coverage of the NFL and NBA, whether Sky will take on baseball at some point. Accompanying Tyler’s intro appears a picture of the ticker tape parade that followed the New York Mets’ 1986 World Series win; I pity the poor guy who had to clean all of that up!

Delving into the first few pages, we are introduced to the fundamentals of baseball, including the strike zone, fielding positions and how runs are scored. We are also informed of the roles of umpires and coaches. The next part of the book explains the art of pitching and there are some nice illustrations of some of the common grips and pitch trajectories. The section on batting touches on some of the strategy that goes into the batting order and describes what designated hitters and pinch hitters do. We are then told something of how the bats and balls are made.

The section on fielding lets us know that until 1954, fielders dropped their gloves where they stood at the end of an inning and left them out on the field until the next inning. This would have created dangerous obstacles for the opposing fielders, so it is not surprising that this practice was stopped. The book rightly stresses the importance of the catcher as well as outlining the ways in which runners can be put out. As you might expect, the history and structure of the game is also laid out, including details of the leagues, divisions, play-offs and World Series.

From a British perspective, one of the most interesting parts of the book is entitled “Baseball & Channel 4”, which tells us a little about the televised MLB coverage in the United Kingdom at that time. Screening baseball seemed like a logical move, given the popularity of the NFL over here. Three World Series were covered in all, but due to haphazard scheduling by Channel 4, it proved impossible to maintain even modest ratings and the programming was eventually axed. The coverage was somewhat limited by today’s standards (10 hours were given to the 1986 postseason and World Series, for example) and it is amazing to think how far we have come since then. ESPN America now shows several live games per week, including every postseason game, and if that isn’t enough, MLB.TV has every single game live and on demand. You have to start somewhere though, and we should be thankful to those that pioneered the broadcasting of baseball in the UK.

The second half of the book provides a profile of every MLB team, including history and roster, basic field dimensions of each stadium and various interesting facts. We find out that Wrigley Field is the only major league park without floodlights. We learn that the Braves, Blue Jays and Rangers have never been to the World Series. We also discover that Comiskey Park is not only the oldest ballpark in the U.S., but also has the prettiest ladies’ loos in Major League Baseball. That these have all been overtaken by history makes them no less interesting to read about.

Much else has changed since the book was published. The majority of MLB teams have moved to new stadiums, four new franchises have been added and one team has both a new city and a new identity. Divisions have been realigned, the postseason has been expanded (twice), an entire postseason was lost due to a strike by players and the “steroid era” cast a shadow over the game. The book’s sponsor, Scottish Amicable, was acquired by Prudential. The list of contacts for British baseball has become outdated and Channel 4 has not broadcast baseball for many years. Saddest of all is that one of the co-authors, Jim Marooney, has since passed away.

Nevertheless, the book is much more than just a historical artefact, as the sections such as “How to read a boxscore” and the helpful glossary of terms would still be of use to anyone trying to learn about the game today.

A minor criticism is that there are a few aspects of the game that were overlooked. It would have been interesting to read a little more about baseball around the world, particularly Japan and Central/South America, though given the book’s tie-in to MLB coverage, the focus here is understandable. There is no mention of the women’s game, and topics such as the Negro leagues and integration are covered only briefly.

Overall however, this is an excellent book. The authors succeed in explaining the game to a British audience, imparting a great deal of relevant information without ever patronising the reader. There is a good balance between factual, descriptive writing and the various anecdotes that give a flavour of baseball culture. The game of cricket is sometimes used as a natural reference point, which is useful for Brits experiencing the game for the first time. The book also contains many colour photos among its 128 pages. This excerpt from the summary on the back cover seems to capture the essence of baseball very nicely:

“The game has a natural pace that ebbs and flows, keeping the audience riveted to pitcher and batter, eyes peeled for the winning hit. It is both subtle – like cricket – and immensely dynamic, liable to explode at any minute with a surge of activity and the support of a roaring crowd.”

The Book of Baseball went out of print within about a month of its publication. For those interested in buying the book, Derek Brandon still has a few unopened copies available at the original cover price of £7.95, plus P&P.  You can contact Derek via his website, Cheerleader Productions, at Alternatively, you could try auction sites or second hand book shops.

Who’s on First? Illustrated by John Martz

Written by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello (Quirk Books, 2013), 40 pages

Abbott and Costello’s famous comedy routine ‘Who’s on First’ is a cherished slice of baseball popular culture.

It has been copied and adapted with varying degrees of success over the years. Illustrator John Martz is the latest person to take on the task of living up to Abbott and Costello’s extraordinary performance of the routine and he more than does their memory justice.

The book is primarily designed with children in mind, but the adults reading along with them – and the adults who pick up the book for their own pleasure – will get just as much enjoyment from it.

The routine plays out over the course of 40 generously sized pages, giving Martz plenty of space on which to let his imagination flow.

In Martz’s version, the characters of the routine take the form of animals, birds and reptiles. The coach, Abbott in the original sketch, is turned into a tall brown bear, whilst the inquisitive Costello wanting to know ‘Who’s on First?’ becomes a white rabbit.

The expressions of Abbott and Costello are priceless as both become more and more frustrated by their inability to understand each other. The one danger with a print version of the routine is that it can obscure the rhythm and flow that makes its enactment so funny. Martz deals with this expertly by building up each element of the routine to a considered crescendo, often letting each punch line (if you can quite call them that) sink in by using one whole page

Abbott’s first run through of his men on first, second and third is met by a brilliant full-page picture of the rabbit Costello’s bemused face, whilst later on a full-page spread is left uncluttered beyond the pair screaming “THIRD BASE!” in unison.

The fun, colourful characters and backgrounds will catch any child’s eye and Martz helps the routine along by signposting every new ‘name’ with a picture of every player, as if looking at you from the back of a baseball card. Abbott’s reply of “Why” to Costello’s question as to the name of the team’s centre-fielder is made all the funnier by the baseball-cap-wearing crocodile appearing alongside the speech bubble.

Matching the clever and hilarious script of Abbott and Costello with Martz’s engaging animal characters is a winning combination, coming with the added bonus of giving a baseball-loving parent an excellent opportunity to surreptitiously introduce the sport to their young ones.

What more could you want from a baseball-related illustrated book?

Have you read “Who’s on First”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95mph by Shawn Green and Gordon McAlpine

The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95mph by Shawn Green and Gordon McAlpine
Shawn Green will always be remembered for one magical day in Milwaukee – May 23, 2002.

Playing for the visiting Dodgers, the left-handed outfielder went 6-for-6, belting four home runs (equalling an MLB record), a double and a single, setting an MLB record of 19 total bases in one game.

Green retired after the 2007 season, finishing his 15-year MLB career with a .283 average, 328 HR and 1,070 RBIs, winning Silver Slugger awards, Gold Gloves, MVP votes and being selected to All-Star teams.

So is this book the rather standard post-career cash in? Far from it.

During his early years in Toronto, Green became frustrated by manager Cito Gaston not giving him playing time, opting for veteran players instead, especially against left-handed pitching.

Green details how he asked to take more batting practice, but was told not to.

The outfielder’s decision to ignore this saw him secretly taking extra swings off a batting tee and transforming his career in the process.

Green goes on to explain how he managed to find a calmness during these 15 to 20-minute sessions, where rather than thinking about hitting, he switched his brain off to the point where he was allowing himself to hit.

This process helped Green relax at the plate, hence the book’s title, allowing him to focus on his opponent’s delivery, see if he was tipping his pitches and make powerful swings.

All of a sudden, this approach saw Green go from a 16 HR part-time player to a star slugger capable of hitting 40+ HR a season.

Green’s honesty is to be applauded in the book, as he notes how his ego got the better of him following the trade which sent him to Los Angeles, as his power numbers dipped as he tried to live up to the expectations of a big contract extension before he found his groove and belted 49 HR in 2001 – a Dodger franchise record.

Shoulder trouble (and the lack of a bat to protect him in the line-up after Gary Sheffield’s departure, which to his credit Green does not mention as an excuse) saw him struggle in 2003 but to his credit he rebounded to hit 28 HR while playing 1st base, a new position for him, in 2004 before finishing up his career with Arizona and the Mets.

The book is a really interesting insight into what goes through a player’s mind when at the plate, and what can happen when you overthink and fall victim to your ego.

It also offers some great advice for young hitters about how to identify if a pitcher is tipping his pitches, as well as providing fans with words of wisdom from hitters such as Carlos Delgado and Tony Fernandez.

The book is not particularly long – it will probably take no more than three hours to read it cover to cover – but it does offer something different to the many other books by former players, and is well worth investigating.

Then you will see what Yogi Berra meant when he said “90 per cent of the game is half mental”.

Have you read “The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95mph”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella

Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella (First Mariner Books, 1999), 265 pages

The 1989 film Field of Dreams is regularly cited as one of the greatest baseball-themed films of all time.

Its popularity transcends an audience of pure baseball fans. The film normally even gets a couple of airings every year on British terrestrial TV (in fact it was shown on ITV4 earlier in the week), making it one of the few baseball-related things that blends into the popular culture of a traditionally baseball-sceptic nation.

The iconic phrase ‘if you build it, he will come’ – normally wrongly quoted as ‘if you build it, they will come’ – has been latched on to by many Brits who perhaps don’t know it’s related to Field of Dreams.

Even less will know that its true source is a novel, first published in 1982, called Shoeless Joe.

I read Shoeless Joe after having watched Field of Dreams on a number of occasions and I suspect most people minded to read W.P. Kinsella’s novel will be in the same position.

Everyone will have their own view on film adaptations of novels. As someone who is much more a book person than a film person, I will normally want to interpret the novel in my mind rather than rely on a specific director’s version. One of the joys of reading novels is the way your own imagination plays an active part in the experience and the lack of that involvement – as I watch films, at least – is one of the reasons why that form of entertainment has never really drawn me in.

Consequently, I lowered my expectations slightly before reading the novel. Not only was there the obvious obstacle of already knowing the main storyline, but the characters and scenes had already been painted for me.

The first mention of the lead character, Ray Kinsella, immediately brought Kevin Costner’s appearance in the film to mind. It’s difficult to say whether that’s an endorsement of Costner’s casting or the fact that his portrayal of the character is familiar and therefore seems ‘right’ in a way that it might not have done had I read the book first.

What I can state is that, whatever the reason, it didn’t reduce the enjoyment of reading the book at all. Had I been more ambivalent towards Field of Dreams then my opinion might be different; however, I’m very fond of the movie and the familiarity with the characters as they are portrayed in it, and the main storyline itself, didn’t prove to be a barrier at all.

I’m sure part of the reason for this is that Shoeless Joe provided me with exactly what I was hoping for, but was a little cautious of expecting. The novel takes what I enjoyed about Field of Dreams and enriches it.

Field of Dreams is a more concentrated version of Shoeless Joe. It simplifies the storyline somewhat, reducing the number of characters and sub-plots involved.

By reading Shoeless Joe, you meet new people and are taken down additional paths. It’s basically the story you know, but with additional elements to it that allow the key themes in the book – following dreams, holding on to memories, reaching out to the past – to be explored further. There is a deeper background story, more detail in the main scenes to lose yourself in and the characters are more richly drawn.

In short, if you’ve enjoyed watching Field of Dreams, you will find reading Shoeless Joe just as enjoyable, if not more so. What’s more, I borrowed my copy from the local library, so this may be a rare baseball-related book that you can find relatively easily in the UK.

It’s certainly worth hunting down a copy; however easy or difficult that task may be.

Have you read “Shoeless Joe”? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Can you recommend any other similar books? If so, let us know.

The Secret History of Balls by Josh Chetwynd

The Secret History of Balls by Josh Chetwynd (Perigee, 2011) 221 pages

If you’re a sports fan, and it would be safe to assume someone reading a website about baseball is, you probably don’t think about balls anywhere near as much as you should.

Balls are the essential element in many sports and games and like most things that are seemingly ever-present, we take them for granted. They are always there, but how often do we actually stop and think about them?

The answer to that question is probably ‘not very regularly’. The Secret History of Balls is both a colourful reminder of why we should pay them more attention and an entertaining helping hand to give balls the credit they deserve.

This lively guide to the history of balls is written by Josh Chetwynd. Josh is known to baseball fans in the UK as a seasoned broadcaster, formerly on Channel 5 and now BBC 5 Live Sports Extra. Throughout his career he has always shown a knack for being able to impart his knowledge and to educate while never losing sight of the fact that sport, for all the importance we typically attach to it, is first and foremost supposed to be fun.

His previous two books have been masterly pieces of research on British and European baseball history. His latest, published earlier this year, takes a slightly more irreverent look at its subject matter but it still a notable collection of fact-finding in its own right.

Accompanied by Emily Stackhouse’s illustrations, over sixty balls are looked at in alphabetical order, from the Australian Rules Football to the Zorb Globe (the big hamster ball for humans).

The baseball section was the first that I flicked to, of course, and that’s as good an example as any in the book at the importance of the ball, in terms of its development and how this has affected the way the sport is played. As Chetwynd puts it, “when things change in baseball, the first place people look is the ball”.  Continue reading

What about the Villa? by Joe Gray

What about the Villa? Forgotten figures from Britain’s pro baseball league of 1890 by Joe Gray (Fineleaf, 2010), 204 pages

watvHLThere is no getting away from the fact that most people in Britain share a hard-headed view of baseball.  They see it as a game played solely by Americans and of little relevance to the UK’s sporting past or present, aside from the idea that ‘we invented it and called it rounders’.

The existence of a professional baseball league in Britain in 1890 would come as a great surprise to those doubters.  Indeed, it would probably be a surprise to some British baseball fans too.    

‘What about the Villa?’ chronicles this fascinating chapter in British baseball and sporting history.  It is the first book by Joe Gray, founder of the Project for the Chronicling of British Baseball (Project Cobb).  Joe is also a valued contributor to BaseballGB, but no personal bias is needed to admire the achievement of producing this book and to enjoy its contents.

The book covers all aspects of the league in impressive detail.  This begins with a useful guide to how baseball was played in 1890 and goes on to investigate the sport’s early links with Britain, how a professional league came to be formed in 1890, who was involved in the league, how the competition played out and the league’s legacy.  Continue reading