Book Review: The Last Best League

Every year, the top college baseball players gather about 70 miles southeast of Boston to hone their skills and showcase their talents in front of amateur scouts from all 30 Major League Baseball teams. This is the Cape Cod League, the most prestigious of all the college summer leagues, made of 10 teams that play 40-game schedules. In the summer of 2002, Jim Collins chronicled the season for the Chatham A’s of the Cape Cod League.

The A’s manager is John Schiffner, a high school teacher and baseball coach in Plainfield, CT for most of the year. His challenge is to recruit these 19-21 year old prospects by cultivating relationships with Head Coaches from schools all across the country to put together the best team possible. Once assembled, he has to ensure adequate playing time for each of his players in order to appease the head coaches from their respective schools.

In assembling his 2002 roster, Schiffner takes the risky path by recruiting a good number of players who were taken in the June draft. It is often in these players interest to play in the Cape Cod League against a high level of competition while increasing their bargaining leverage. But the downside is, once they sign a professional contract, they become ineligible to play for their Cape team. It’s a bold move since these drafted players are among the most talented, but they can be gone in an instant.

Jim Collins takes you through all that goes into one season in the Cape Cod League. From recruiting players throughout the year, to the volunteers who help procure uniforms, to the host families that take in the ballplayers during their time on the cape. It’s almost as if the entire community is involved in one way or another and they are rewarded with free baseball from the top college players in the country.

Collins also describes the day to day life of the Chatham A’s players. How they are required to find a day job during the season and the relationships they establish with their host families. You learn that while all these players have elite talent for their age, they also all have different motivations, goals, and expectations for their careers.

As a baseball fan, the beauty of reading a book from a decade ago was recognizing and following players that I’ve seen on top prospect lists and even the select few that have made a career in the Major Leagues. Even twelve years later, Tim Stauffer and Chris Ianetta, two Chatham A’s are still in the big leagues. Other future Major Leaguers from around the league are Anthony Gwynn, David Murphy, David Aardsma, and Jeff Niemann.

Brad Ziegler was even viewed as sort of an antagonist. As a member of the 2001 Chatham A’s, he made a comment in the local newspaper that rubbed some of his teammates the wrong way. He would return to the Cape in 2002, but this time with the Harwich Mariners and he would face off against his old team more than once along the way.

The most current release of The Last Best League is the “10th Anniversary Edition” (the book was originally released in 2004). This edition includes a chapter titled “10 Years Later”, which catches up with each of the ’02 Chatham A’s. All throughout the book, I had the urge to hop on the internet and check out how each player fared in professional baseball. Knowing that this chapter was included, I avoided doing any research until after I was finished. These players are still just in their early 30’s, but it’s surprising just how many of them are already out of professional baseball. Jim Collins continually refers to the baseball “pyramid”. By this he means that at every level, only the very best of the best will advance to play at the next level, all the way up to the “tip” of the pyramid, the Major Leagues. Ten years later, it’s easy to see that only a very few make it to the “tip”.

Book Review: “1954”

“1954” is the latest book from J. G. Taylor Spink Award recipient Bill Madden. Madden has covered Baseball for the New York Daily News for over 30 years and his most recent book, Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball, was a New York Times Bestseller.

As the title suggests, “1954” chronicles the 1954 Baseball Season. But the first time I read the book’s subtitle “The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever”, I was a little confused. As someone who spends a large amount of time researching and reading about Baseball History, I’ve never equated the year 1954 with this subtitle. Sure, it was Mays’ first full season that included an MVP and “The Catch”, the rookie seasons for Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks, and Larry Doby helped lead the Indians to an American League record 111 wins. However, in reading the story of the 1954 season, I was never truly convinced that this was the case. While there’s no denying the impact of African Americans during the 1954 season, I’m not sure that this was THE season that changed Baseball.

Aside from the minor issue with the subtitle, I thoroughly enjoyed “1954”. Madden chose a season from his childhood, one that includes a dominant team that finally overtook the Yankees and possibly the most famous play in Baseball history. He spends a lot of time introducing the many characters and giving their back stories (In fact, the season doesn’t even start until page 112). But this is necessary, because Baseball was undergoing a lot of changes in the decade after WWII. Changes such as franchises shifting to different cities for the first time in over a half century and most importantly, the integration of Major League Baseball. Integration certainly was not complete once Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby made their debuts, and Madden makes sure to detail the progress and show how some teams (like the Yankees) were reluctant to integrate.

There is a lot of focus on the three New York teams and their situations. Some readers might complain of “New York bias” by a New York writer since so much time is spent on the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers. But this is clearly not the case as all three teams and their stories are vital. You could not write this book without going into great detail on people like Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel, Jackie Robinson and Walter Alston. The astute Baseball fan can easily point out how these teams dominated the entire decade of the 1950’s.

A good number of Baseball books make the mistake of filling their pages with countless game and play by play accounts, to the point that they can become monotonous and start to run together. That’s certainly not an issue in “1954”. Madden chose the most important games and events (including the Giants and Indians World Series) and kept them interesting without losing focus.

I would have preferred that the book gave the reader a better sense of how life was during the 1950’s by touching on more non-Baseball events. It discusses Brown vs Board of Education, Hotel Desegregation, pop culture, and even a murder trial, but I personally wanted a little more. But this is nitpicking and ultimately it’s a Baseball book and that is certainly what you will get.

There’s a lot of information in the book. A lot of stories that Madden has gathered through interviews with former players and sources like the Hall of Fame Library and The New York Daily News Archives. No matter your level of Baseball knowledge, you’ll be sure to read a story that you haven’t read before.

“1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever” will be released on May 6th, 2014



Piazza catches Chavez stealing

The Mike Piazza book, Long Shot, was released recently. He, along with the help of Lonnie Wheeler, goes through his childhood and career in Baseball while tackling all the issues (bacne, steroids, sexual orientation, etc). Really, he was trying to validate his Hall of Fame credentials and explain his side of all the issues.

But this isn’t a book review. There have been plenty written, and probably much better than I could do. I wanted to bring up one small, mostly forgettable incident during his season with the Padres. In August of 2006, the Padres visited Shea in his first trip back to New York. This is an excerpt from that chapter….

Before the first game, the scoreboard guys played another video of me, to the tune of the Beatles song “In My Life,” which was nice but a little schmaltzy, and the fans did a singsongy “Mike Pee-OTS-a” cheer when I got to the on-deck circle for the first time, which was also nice and not too schmaltzy. Then the Mets swiped four bases on me and beat us, 3–2. The next night, I threw out Endy Chavez trying to steal second in the second inning and he immediately jumped all over the umpire, as though there was no conceivable way the call could be right. His body language said, “What the hell? Are you kidding me?” I’m thinking, come on, I can’t throw anybody out? Get the fuck off the field.

Nothing too important. He’s just defending his throwing arm, which was pretty bad in his final year behind the plate. But since the internet is a wonderful thing, and has released a bunch of old clips, I decided to see if I could find the video. Sure enough, had the exact play…..

The first thing I notice, and you probably do as well, is that Chavez shows very little emotion after being thrown out. Granted, the video cuts away from Endy and there are a few seconds that we don’t see. But there is no way that he can “jump all over the umpire” in that time. He even slaps at his helmet, looking more disappointed in himself than the call.

Like I mentioned earlier, this play (and his account of the play), are of little importance. My problem is that this type of thing happens a lot in these types of autobiographies. For some reason, I continue to be surprised whenever I spot them. In an era of retrosheet, baseball-reference, and the abundance of available data, how could the author/editor/fact checker not spot these before publication? I suppose it’s because a lot of these don’t cause much uproar, even when they are spotted. No one is going to care that Piazza either misremembered or used a little artistic license, except for maybe Endy Chavez himself.

Rob Neyer goes through a number of these stories in his book “Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends”. It opened my eyes to how often stories can be embellished and the ease that they can be verified.

As for Piazza, it’s not surprising, since he seemed to paint a lot of people as an enemy in order to make himself the protagonist. I just think it was unnecessary, because we all know how good he was. If I had a vote, I would have put him in the Hall, and I imagine he’ll get in at some point in the next few years.

2011 Predictions

I think it’s a little foolish to project who will win each division, and even more so to project the postseason. When was the last time a team finished the year with the same roster they started with? It just doesn’t happen. Injuries, trades, surprises, failures all happen. We can try to take these things into account when projecting, but even the most knowledgeable analysts aren’t any more accurate. With that said, here are my picks!!

NL East
1 Atlanta
2 Philadelphia (wc)
3 Florida
4 New York
5 Washington

Comments: Heading into the season, I think the Braves have the best 25 man roster in the National League; I seriously considered putting the Marlins ahead of the Phillies, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

NL Central
1 Cincinnati
2 Chicago
3 Milwaukee
4 St. Louis
5 Houston
6 Pittsburgh

Comments: I don’t like picking repeat division winners, but I just there is another team that can finish above the Reds; I’m just not as sold on Milwaukee as other seem to be; I can see the Cubbies making a playoff run this year. Although, a lot of things will have to go right for that to happen

NL West
1 San Francisco
2 Colorado
3 Los Angeles
4 San Diego
5 Arizona

Comments: The Giants offense is a concern, as it was last year. But that didn’t stop them from winning it all; I like the Rockies to finish a very close second, I really like the Tulo and CarGo combo; The Dodgers may be the toughest to project. I can see them finishing 1st or 4th, but I’ll go with 3rd; After looking at San Diego’s “projected lineup”, I still can’t seem to find the middle of the order.

AL East
1 Boston
2 New York (wc)
3 Tampa Bay
4 Baltimore
5 Toronto

Comments: Boston just has way too good of a roster to not make the playoffs. They’d really have to have injuries like last year, which is very unlikely; Tampa Bay’s offense will score more runs this year than last and their bullpen will surprise; If the Yankees miss the post season, we’ll see another offseason like we did with CC, Burnett, and Teixeira

AL Central
1 Chicago
2 Detroit
3 Minnesota
4 Kansas City
5 Cleveland

Comments: The top 3 may be the most evenly matched 3 in any division. I wouldn’t be surprised if it came down to the final days; I really worry about Mauer and Morneau’s injuries, so I can’t pick them higher than 3rd; I’m really excited to see Moustakas and Hosmer this year in Kansas City

AL West
1 Oakland
2 Texas
3 Los Angeles
4 Seattle

Comments: The A’s remind me a lot of the Giants across the bay (Great pitching, suspect offense). But they should score enough runs to win the division; Father time won’t be nice to the heart of the Angels order. I also think they’d really like to take back that Kazmir trade (How can a guy be a part of 2 lopsided trades for opposite reasons?); I really hope King Felix is still a Mariner at the end of the season, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they had Montero and Banuelos instead.

World Series: Atlanta over Oakland
NL MVP: Troy Tulowitzki
AL MVP: Robinson Cano
NL Cy Young: Josh Johnson
AL Cy Young: John Lester
NL ROTY: Freddie Freeman
AL ROTY: Jeremy Hellickson