Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Beyond Blunderdome
2006-06-05 02:56
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Like I'm sure many bloggers do, I obsessively check my referrer logs to see who's talking about me. (This is one of the many ways the blogverse resembles public high school, but that's another topic for another day.) I was a bit mortified to find that for a few days I was linked by, homepage of the author and ESPN columnist who was one of the first writers from whom I learned that "sportswriter" and "intellectual" are not mutually exclusive terms. This may well be the first time Neyer, or at least the folks who run his website, has ever paid any notice to little old me, so how embarrassed was I that my little in-passing mention of Rob's new book with quoted entirely out of context? What I wrote was "Rob Neyer's new book on blunders seems short of content compared to his last several works, which were primo bathroom reading." What said was "seems short of content." Okay, this isn't quite as egregious as the movie ads that take the one nice thing Roger Ebert says in his one-star review and blow it up into 24-point text, but still, do I want a writer I admire very much to think I'm taking lame potshots at him from my crummy little Rockies blog? No, I don't want that at all. If your goal was to elicit a full review, webmaster guy, mission accomplished.

The bookshelf sunk into the wall in my bathroom has three shelves. The top shelf is where whatever I'm currently reading lives. At the moment, this means The Chronicles of Narnia, a book of Sarah Vowell essays, Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains the World, and the novel on which "Deadwood" is based. I read a lot of old-fashioned bound volumes for an Internet-ager, but I read them like webpages, zipping back and forth between several things at any given time. The second shelf is dedicated to my "Buffy" reference materials, an impressive collection which I have more or less memorized by now but still consult from time to time as a part of my efforts to compile a complete list of every character actor who ever appeared on both "Buffy" and "Star Trek" or "The X-Files." And then the third shelf is the Neyer shelf. I have 'em all -- Baseball Dynasties, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, The Big Book of Baseball Lineups. (I've read Neyer's more personal narrative work Feeding the Green Monster, but I don't recommend it. It certainly doesn't merit bathroom positioning.) What's great about these books is that they are essentially unfinishable. They're so crammed with minute details that you can always open them up and discover something fantastic and interesting about baseball history you never knew before.

I was raised as a baseball fan. I've read every major history of the sport that was available in the early nineties, all of the famous works of baseball literature, and more John R. Tunis and Matt Christopher novels than I can possibly ever list. I've seen the big Ken Burns baseball movie countless times. The point is, I'm intimately familiar with the epochal moments of baseball history, good and bad. The books I want to be reading at this point are the ones that fly in the face of the century of conventional wisdom that's amassed around the game, like Moneyball and the Baseball Prospectus franchise, or books that uncover elements of baseball's rich history that are completely new to me. The Neyer books in my bathroom do this better than any other besides Bill James' mighty Historical Baseball Abstract, which is way too heavy to comfortably read on the toilet. Neyer tells me things I didn't know about famous guys. He introduces me to interesting players of whom I've never heard. He reliably trashes Dusty Baker. The man's, in short, a genius.

When I was much younger, I used to have a music blog not too different from this one where I'd write about all the new records college was exposing me to and how I felt about them. Eventually it ran out of steam because you can only hear music for the first time once, and after you've dutifully and fully absorbed the catalogs of Miles Davis, The Beatles, and Cheap Trick, everything else seems a little...anticlimax. It's tough for me to really be blown away by a new record nowadays. Likewise, it's tough to find a baseball book that offers really new information. Jeff Pearlman's book on Barry Bonds was beautifully written and impeccably researched, but, well...I already knew Barry Bonds was a jerk. This is why Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders is kind of a letdown. Neyer's previous books have shown a remarkable knack for making baseball seem exciting, new, and mysterious to a guy who can reel off the starting lineups and pitching rotations of every team in the league off of the top of his head. The Blunders book, except for a few moments here or there, just isn't like that. The earlier books' basic, easily described concepts belied a wealth of original, even groundbreaking material. No one had ever gone to the trouble of compiling a complete list of pitches for hundreds of history's most significant hurlers. Few had ever done such an illuminating job applying modern statistical thinking to the argument over the greatest team of all time. And no one to my knowledge had ever put so much thought into listing the greatest players ever to wear a Colorado Rockies uniform.

But baseball blunders, by their very nature, are things we remember, and things even the misty-eyed scribes of the Halberstam school tend to get the details on largely correct. Neyer's reseach in the new book is as deep as always, but on the whole the latest Big Book just isn't as exciting as its predecessors. The old stories, like the Babe Ruth sale or the Cubs' college of coaches, we've heard rehashed dozens and dozens of times. More recent blunders like the Mike Hampton signing and the Grady/Pedro incident have been even further digested and redigested by the instant-reaction society formed around pages just like this one. It's not a bad idea to put them all together in one book, and certainly Rob Neyer of all baseball writers is capable of bringing fresh angles to all of these old chestnuts, but Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders is a book you read through once and then put away. It simply doesn't qualify for the permanent bathroom collection.

It has a shocking lack of neat-looking tables, too, for a Neyer book.

On a completely unrelated note, have you read this story about some woman stalking Bob Uecker? I thought I was the only one!

2006-06-05 08:56:41
1.   Bob Timmermann
I have a restraining order against George Frazier.
2006-06-05 15:20:09
2.   Voxter
The Neyer books in my bathroom do this better than any other besides Bill James' mighty Historical Baseball Abstract, which is way too heavy to comfortably read on the toilet.

Dude, you need one of those little carts that rolls. On the package, it shows toiletried and stuff resting in its various racks, but mine contains exclusively reading material: back issues of the New Yorker, the current edition of Baseball Prospectus, old New York Timeses all paged to the opinion section, and -- you guessed it -- the Historical Baseball Abstract, which rests comfortably (and at a good reading angle) in the top rack. It's changed my life for the better, man.

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