By Mike Steffanos
Recently I was contacted by the publisher of the book The Last Nine innings and offered a comp. copy in the hopes of a review or mention on my website. The publicist's idea to use baseball bloggers to generate some buzz for the book was a pretty smart idea. I've already seen the book mentioned on a couple of other Mets blogs and am sure that many of us got the chance to check out this book.
As someone who enjoys baseball books, I was certainly intrigued by the premise of the book, as described in the e-mail:
It's a very "sports-intelligent" book about how the game of baseball has evolved. It has as its backdrop the classic 2001 World Series where the Dbacks defeated the Yankees in 7. And what's unique here is that the book has the substance to please serious baseball junkies, and a unique narrative to entertain casual fans.
I looked forward to receiving the book, and began reading it almost immediately when I did. I was somewhat curious of the author's choice of the game to use as the framework for his creation. It was certainly an exciting game, but it happened almost 5 years ago. Usually sports books are published as soon after an event as possible to cash in on fans' interest. If they are based on older events, it's usually because the winning team has a huge fan base. I doubt if the Diamondbacks fit that bill -- given the somewhat elderly demographic of that area, it's a safe bet that a significant portion of their fan base has "moved on" to a "far better place" in the last 5 years.
All kidding aside, the author, Charles Euchner, makes the case himself for choosing this game in the introductory chapter of the book:
In nine taut innings, the game provided telling glimpses of everything that makes baseball a great sport. Four of the game's greatest pitchers -- Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, and Mariano Rivera -- delivered textbook performances of intelligence and power. One of the game's rising stars, Alfonso Soriano, displayed the drama of power hitting. Fielders like Steve Finley, Derek Jeter, and Mark Grace made clutch plays that demanded to be deconstructed. Some of the game's old stars, like Matt Williams and Tino Martinez and Paul O'Neill, showed how they could shape a game while making outs. And finally, one of the game's slugging stars, Luis Gonzalez, won the game when he choked up and barely made contact -- and, as luck would have it, dropped a soft fly ball into a part of the field recently left untended by the Yankee fielders.
Few games say so much in such a dramatic way as the Diamondbacks' 3-2 win over the Yankees in Phoenix on November 4, 2001.
Okay, I'll buy that. My one remaining cause for skepticism was the concept itself: using a game of baseball as a starting point to discuss the game of baseball. Not that I felt this was a bad idea, but often this type of writing lent itself to a certain hoity-toityness -- another one of those excruciating literary excesses that tries to make baseball more than it is, when what baseball actually is more than satisfies those of us who love the game. Fortunately, Mr. Euchner managed to put my mind at ease on that score, too:
I don't put much stock in elegiac and mythical portrayals of baseball. Contrary to the late Yale scholar and baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti, baseball does not embody mankind's eternal Odyssean struggle to return home. Contrary to poets like Donald Hall, baseball is not an essential source of bonding between fathers and sons. Contrary to essayists like Jacques Barzun and George Will, baseball doesn't provide the most telling lens into the American psyche.
But baseball is a damn good game, and sometimes it unfolds in ways that astonish and please even cynics. Sometimes, because it can astonish and please, the game creates something that seems bigger than it really is. And people sometimes need something that seems bigger than it is.
I breathed a sigh of relief and dug into the book. The book is organized into chapters that corresponded to the innings of the game, with the players and game action used as a starting point to examine various aspects of baseball in the 21st century. This could have come across as somewhat contrived, I guess, but instead reminded me of the type of wide-ranging discussion you have while watching a baseball game with a knowledgeable friend, where what occurs on the field sparks conversation and debate.
Everything is up for discussion as you delve into topics such as how pitchers and hitters set each other up, the use of statistical analysis in today's game, pitch counts, umpiring, managing, specialization in the game, and even luck's role in the outcome. Charles Euchner does a good job in presenting all of the information without making the material seem dry or beating you over the head with his own point of view. I enjoyed the book very much. This book would have been a perfect summer read, at the beach, in a hammock or on the deck. If you are looking for a really good book about the game of baseball, one that is intelligent without reading like a text book, I can highly recommend The Last Nine Innings to you.
The Last Nine Innings
Author: Charles Euchner
Hardcover, 288 pages, Sourcebooks, Inc.
Buy The Last Nine Innings on Amazon.com
Next up: A review of Adam Rubin's Pedro, Carlos, and Omar : The Story of a Season in the Big Apple and the Pursuit of Baseball's Top Latino Stars.