STARRED REVIEW
April 2017

Celebrating the season of the Cub

Feature by

It’s a new world, baseball fans. The Cubs are World Series champs for the first time since 1908—and there’s plenty to read this spring about the team’s success. The lovable losers stopped losing by employing a manager untethered to traditionalism, a load of young talent and an analytics-savvy front office. This sort of data-driven thinking has become a favorite topic of baseball books, and we get another strong entry this year. The gem of the season, though, takes us back to an earlier era and a much rowdier and more dysfunctional bunch.

STARRED REVIEW
April 2017

Celebrating the season of the Cub

Feature by

It’s a new world, baseball fans. The Cubs are World Series champs for the first time since 1908—and there’s plenty to read this spring about the team’s success. The lovable losers stopped losing by employing a manager untethered to traditionalism, a load of young talent and an analytics-savvy front office. This sort of data-driven thinking has become a favorite topic of baseball books, and we get another strong entry this year. The gem of the season, though, takes us back to an earlier era and a much rowdier and more dysfunctional bunch.

April 2017

Celebrating the season of the Cub

Feature by

It’s a new world, baseball fans. The Cubs are World Series champs for the first time since 1908—and there’s plenty to read this spring about the team’s success. The lovable losers stopped losing by employing a manager untethered to traditionalism, a load of young talent and an analytics-savvy front office. This sort of data-driven thinking has become a favorite topic of baseball books, and we get another strong entry this year. The gem of the season, though, takes us back to an earlier era and a much rowdier and more dysfunctional bunch.

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It’s a new world, baseball fans. The Cubs are World Series champs for the first time since 1908—and there’s plenty to read this spring about the team’s success. The lovable losers stopped losing by employing a manager untethered to traditionalism, a load of young talent and an analytics-savvy front office. This sort of data-driven thinking has become a favorite topic of baseball books, and we get another strong entry this year. The gem of the season, though, takes us back to an earlier era and a much rowdier and more dysfunctional bunch.

To start with the team of the moment: It’s hard to overstate the enormity of the Cubs’ triumph. Just three years ago, they were fresh off an abysmal 96-loss season; in this very space, a reviewer had the gall to call the Cubs “inherently funny.” Oh, how the tables have turned. The last laugh goes to Scott Simon, whose My Cubs: A Love Story is a brisk, sweet romp through Cubs history to the glorious present. Who can forget the numberless celebrity Cub fans who emerged at the 2016 Classic—your Bill Murrays, your John Cusacks, your Eddie Vedders? Simon, host of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday,” was among them, if not so frequently the object of the Fox cameraman’s gaze. Hard to question his bona fides, though. “Uncle Charlie” was Charlie Grimm, who managed when the Cubs last appeared in the Series in 1945. “Uncle Jack” was longtime broadcaster Jack Brickhouse. Neither of these men was Simon’s uncle in the technical sense, but they were close enough to get him access to Wrigley as a boy and a lifelong Cubbie bug.

The personal bits are the best parts here. Simon also finds some deep cuts, such as a remembrance of second baseman Ken Hubbs, whose star shone bright in the early ’60s before a plane crash snuffed it out. Most of the rest is familiar to the initiated—the goat, the Bartman, the victory just lived—though sprinkled liberally with Simon’s Cubs-related doggerel. The Chicago faithful should eat it up, baseball fans with an ear for whimsy will be amused, and no one can begrudge it (Cleveland devotees excepted).

BUILDING A DYNASTY
More straightforward, though deeper, is Tom Verducci’s The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse. The stars of this show are Theo Epstein, the curse-dispelling general manager who earned his first star with the Red Sox, and Joe Maddon, the unorthodox coach and, as is reported here, big Pat Conroy fan. Verducci, who got plenty of access to his subjects, handles Epstein’s transition to the Cubs from the Sox and Maddon’s coaching philosophy. He structures the story of the team’s construction around a game-by-game description of the 2016 Series. It’s an effective and entertaining breakdown of what looks to be the next MLB dynasty.

THE FUTURE OF STATS
You can be sure the Cubs front office is hip to the stats that are the subject of ESPN analyst Keith Law’s Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, the New Ones That Are Running It, and the Right Way to Think about Baseball. The subtitle, in all its verbosity and italicization, nicely encapsulates the author’s impatience with atavistic analysis. And it provides the three-part structure for the book.

In the first section, Law brings the hammer down on stats like batting average, RBI and fielding percentage—pillars of baseball cards but irrelevant to a player’s true quality. In the second, he discusses more revealing measures like on-base percentage and fielding independent pitching. In the third, he applies modern stats to questions like the Hall of Fame and discusses where the future of baseball analytics is going—particularly with the advent of MLB’s Statcast product, which promises to give us new information and to make hard-to-quantify abilities like defense easier to grade.

Many readers will already know the undeniable truths here (like the idiocy of saves and pitcher wins); on some of the less familiar concepts (like weighted on-base average, or wOBA), the book is, unfortunately, a bit murky. In most of its sections, though, it qualifies as a useful introduction to (or refresher on) statistical fundamentals—assuming the reader doesn’t mind a little snark, a flat attempt at humor here and there or a condescending tone. Pete Palmer and John Thorn’s The Hidden Game of Baseball (to which this book owes a great debt) is better stats through dense mathematical analysis. Michael Lewis’ Moneyball is better stats through narrative. Smart Baseball is better stats through polemic.

DYSFUNCTIONAL FUN
One team that most certainly did not believe in “smart baseball” was the 1970s Oakland A’s, which took three straight Series from 1972–74. Jason Turbow tells their tale in Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s. This team is a perfect fit for Turbow, a wonderful storyteller who gave us a rollicking look at major league players’ daily lives in The Baseball Codes. These A’s were a dysfunctional bunch, known almost as much for their fighting in the locker room as for their play on the field. (Manager Dick Williams could shrug off his own role in one of these scrums by telling the press, “And don’t forget, I had five or six scotches at the time.”)

What arguably fueled the winning was the one person the A’s hated worse than each other: owner Charlie Finley. He was a dictator, a micromanager and a showman. He favored loading up the bench with pinch runners; one of his prized signings was a sprinter who couldn’t read a pitcher’s pickoff move. And he was a skinflint, a quality that earned him the enmity of his players and that famously drove off star pitcher Catfish Hunter. The beauty of Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic is that it works on two levels: as a great yarn but also a sharp illustration of the game as it existed just before free agency changed it forever. Turbow tells the story with a facility that makes it the read of the season.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

The Cubs Way
By Tom Verducci
Crown Archetype

ISBN 9780804190015

Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic
By Jason Turbow
HMH

ISBN 9780544303171

Get the Books

My Cubs

My Cubs

By Scott Simon
Blue Rider
ISBN 9780735218031
The Cubs Way

The Cubs Way

By Tom Verducci
Crown Archetype
ISBN 9780804190015
Smart Baseball

Smart Baseball

By Keith Law
Morrow
ISBN 9780062490223
Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic

Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic

By Jason Turbow
HMH
ISBN 9780544303171

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