I hate the New York Yankees. For nearly a century they've dominated major-league baseball. They've bought success (Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio), scouted it (Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle) and traded for it (Roger Clemens). Their success has bred success, as mesmerized ballplayers have been drawn hypnotically toward those hallowed pinstripes and glittering World Series rings.
Publishers can't ignore their success either, and the following three baseball books deal in some fashion with those damn, damn Yankees.
Most pungently, there's Roger Kahn's "October Men." In "The Boys of Summer," Kahn's memoir of the luckless 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers, he wrote, "You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat." Here he's glorying in a team triumphant — not the sleek, corporate Yankee dynasties of the past and present but the most dysfunctional and anarchic of champions, the mid-'70s Yanks, when star Reggie Jackson and manager Billy Martin nearly came to blows, owner George Steinbrenner kept saying the exact wrong thing and the team threatened to come apart at any moment.
It's a fun, gossipy book. Unfortunately, Kahn acts as apologist to Steinbrenner and Jackson at the expense of Martin. Martin probably deserves this — he was paranoid, alcoholic, racist — but the other two don't deserve Kahn's apologies. He writes that one of Steinbrenner's rants "woke up everybody," then later admits the Yankees kept losing.
He also pins many of Jackson's problems to the veiled racism of sportswriters and management (which certainly existed) but is unconvincing in his examples. After quoting writers Roger Angell and Red Smith on how Jackson wasn't a great hitter, Kahn adds, parenthetically and poutingly, that Jackson hit more home runs than Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Stan Musial, "three white stars who almost always are referred to as great hitters." In every other stat that matters, Jackson can only peer up at the towering numbers of the other three. It's not even close.
The full Angell quote on Jackson can be read in Angell's new book "Game Time," where he calls Jackson a "chronic overstrider and overswinger," which he was, and also "streaky and excitable," which he also was. Since 1962, Angell has been the New Yorker's baseball correspondent, and one expects a Yankee bias from him. But he's long known that baseball is more about losing than winning; and while he feels Sept. 11 tempered exultant cries at the Yanks' 2001 demise at the hands of the Arizona Diamondbacks, at heart he's a Mets and Red Sox man, and it shows.
This collection is another hodge-podge of recent and not-so-recent essays. Its conceit is to divide his articles into the three seasons of baseball — spring, summer, fall — and then cherry-pick, say, spring training 1962 and World Series 2002.
One of the best pieces here is "Early Innings," from 1992 ("There are more holes than fabric in my earliest baseball recollections," he writes); and the reportage from the 21st century is a joy, such as when he describes Barry Bonds as "a monstrous Vaderish force looming up again and again in the middle of the Giants' batting order. ... "
Angell is 82 now, and enjoying a beautiful Indian summer in his autumn years as an author.
Smarts over money
The best baseball book of the new season, however, is Michael Lewis' "Moneyball." It begins with a question: How can the Oakland Athletics, with a payroll a fraction of the Yankees,' compete with the Yankees? Knowledgeable fans will answer that smarts have always counted more than money in baseball (the money-laden Dodgers have won bupkis recently), but Lewis digs deeper and discovers in the A's general manager, Billy Beane, a Jamesian scholar. That's Bill James, by the way, a Kansas statistician who revolutionized the way we look at baseball numbers — favoring on-base and slugging percentages over batting average, for example.
So how does Beane win with his dinky payroll? He finds value in what is not viewed as valuable and buys it; and he figures out what is not valuable but is viewed so by others and sells it.
A former No. 1-caliber draft pick who never panned out, Beane also searches for the kind of player he wasn't. He'll take the fat, patient hitter over the lean, impatient one. "We're not selling jeans here," he tells his body-conscious scouts.
Lewis, author of "Liar's Poker," overdoes the stock-market metaphors, and he doesn't confront what will happen when richer GMs become Jamesian scholars themselves. How will the A's compete then? There's also this dilemma: On-base percentage helps score runs, and scoring runs wins ballgames, and winning ballgames brings fans to the park. But walks are dull affairs. The perfect Billy Beane player would walk every time, but who wants to watch that? In other words, can a team be so boringly victorious that fans stop attending anyway?
"Moneyball" is an eye-opener, though, even for a semi-Jamesian like myself, and should be required reading for everyone in the Seattle Mariners organization. Just keep the book away from the Yankees. What they don't know might (please, please) hurt them.
Erik Lundegaard writes book and movie reviews for The Seattle Times, and a baseball column for The Grand Salami, a Mariners magazine.