'Moneyball' among must-reads this summer

'Moneyball' leads a bumper crop of recently released baseball books that are as hot as the weather.

Originally Published: August 5, 2003
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

All right, Oprah's Off-Base Book Club is in session. Here's your summer reading list:

We'll start with the summer's must-read -- "Moneyball'' by Michael Lewis (W.W. Norton, $24.95). "Moneyball'' critics -- and they are legion -- have focused on three areas. One, that the book ignores the important contributions of scouts in building the team (yes, it does). Two, Billy Beane is arrogant (yes, he is, but entertainingly so, and no more than most general managers). And three, that the Athletics' approach won't work (maybe, maybe not, but let's see first before passing judgment).

What the critics miss is what makes the book so compelling and important. Lewis provides the most revealing, enlightening look ever written on how a baseball team actually works. This is extraordinary reportage about an important new approach to running a team. We'll find out whether that approach works over the long haul, but if it does, "Moneyball'' will be considered the textbook. Rating: Five gloves.

Of course, Lewis is not the first writer to rub baseball's establishment the wrong way. And it's good to know that a third of a century after "Ball Four,'' Jim Bouton is still pissing off people. Two summers ago, Bouton and a friend attempted to save an old ballpark in Pittsfield, Mass., and met with extraordinary resistance from the city powers, who wanted to build a new stadium. He tells his story in detailed diary form in "Foul Ball'' (Bulldog Publishing, $24.95).

While this book is not nearly as fun or entertaining as "Ball Four'' (what could be?), it is nonetheless an interesting and important book. And just as "Ball Four'' perfectly captured baseball and American life in the late '60s, "Foul Ball'' captures the current era of pork-barrel stadium construction and finds that the only difference in the strong-arm techniques used between the major-league and minor-league levels is the amount of money.

It should be noted that Bouton upset so many people and was so unafraid of taking a stand, that he wound up having to publish the book himself after the original publisher backed out. Rating: 3 gloves.

Next, we have "October Men" by Roger Kahn (Harcourt, $25), which is strictly optional reading. Did we really need another book about the 1978 Yankees? The answer, as Kahn painfully demonstrates, is a convincing "No.'' Rating: 0 gloves.

"The Teammates'' by David Halberstam (Hyperion, $22.95). Halberstam is the finest and most important journalist of the past 50 years. I've read every book he's ever written, and my bookshelves are bending under their weight as if Mo Vaughn was sitting on them. So, obviously I hold the man in enormous respect. That said, I've never been a big fan of his baseball books. He is such a fan of baseball players that when he writes about them he loses the objectivity and reporting edge that marks his other work. This is an enjoyable read, especially if you're a Red Sox fan, but there is little new here. Rating: 3 gloves.

If you really want a terrific, short biography of Teddy Ballgame, pick up "What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?" by Richard Ben Cramer (Simon and Schuster, $18). I've previously mentioned this essay, originally written for Esquire in 1986, and do so again now that it finally has been republished in a small, affordable edition. I've said it before, I'll say it again: This is the best piece ever written about a baseball player. Rating: Five gloves.

It's a bumper year for Red Sox books. "The Long Ball'' by Tom Adelman (Little, Brown and Company, $24.95) tells the story of the 1975 season. I wanted to like this book, and there were sections that are very enjoyable, like when Adelman ties in what it happening in the rest of baseball, including the childhoods of Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr., along with the final days of Casey Stengel. But the book bogs down in dull retellings of games that have been described many times and in better ways. Rating: Two gloves.

I picked up "Long Ball'' while I was reading "Shut Out'' by Howard Bryant (Routledge, $27.50), which is an important and gripping history of the Red Sox race relations. Some of that history has been written before and some of it has not, but nowhere has it been laid out and documented as thoroughly and as well as Bryant does. Rating: Four gloves.

The late biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, was that rarest of people -- a Red Sox fan and a Yankees fan. His collection of essays on evolution, biology and geology are among the most accessible and enjoyable science books ever written. And so it's a treat to finally see his baseball essays collected in one spot, "Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville'' (W.W. Norton, $24.95). The essays are a little uneven, but Gould's explanation on the death of the .400 hitter -- and how it applies to how we should view all baseball statistics -- is worth the price of admission. Rating: 3 gloves.

And finally, I have to give props to "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Lineups" by Rob Neyer (Simon and Schuster, $16). Neyer is a friend and a colleague, and there's no way you could have missed the many earlier references to "Lineups" on this Web site.' But I'll add my voice. When Rob initially told me about the book, I had some doubts, but I'm pleased to say I've never been so wrong -- and I pick the Cubs to win the division every year.

"Lineups'' is the most entertaining statistical/analysis book to come out in years. Open to any page and you'll find yourself saying, "Gee, I didn't know that'' or "I never thought about it that way'' or "That's really funny.'' For instance, I just turned to page 11, which relates this terrific quote from Leon Wagner after he was traded to Cleveland: "I have nothing against Cleveland, but I would have preferred to have been traded somewhere in the United States.''

This is the perfect book for the bathroom, and I mean that in the best sense possible. Keep this book handy through the summer and then during the long winter -- you'll find yourself repeatedly dipping in for a refreshing swim through baseball history. Rating: Five gloves.

Boxscore line of the week
Another July 31 deadline has passed and once again, the Mariners failed to make a needed trade. Despite the obvious need for another bat and despite Oakland's addition of Jose Guillen, the Mariners added no one to the roster, prompting easily annoyed reliever Jeff Nelson to rip management.

General manager Pat Gillick, who spent the trade deadline day back in Toronto, said he tried to make a good deal but nothing made sense. Well, maybe not. But why not? The Mariners' self-imposed budget might be tight, but Billy Beane is operating under far stricter budget constraints, and even with other general managers saying they wouldn't deal with him, he still pulled off the Guillen trade. Couldn't Gillick have done the same?

The pitcher the Mariners dangled the most was the frustrating Freddy Garcia, a Cy Young candidate two seasons ago, an All-Star last year, the least effective pitcher in the rotation in April and May, the league's pitcher of the month in June and the least reliable starter in July. Garcia's inconsistency no doubt scared some teams off, and he did nothing to pique their interest with his first start of August. One day after the trade deadline, Garcia didn't get out of the second inning. His line:

1.2 IP, 7 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 2 BB, 1 K

It was the eighth time this season Garcia has allowed six or more runs.

The Mariners are so old that their representative at the AAA All-Star Game was 40 years old, and they have faded badly down the stretch two of the past three seasons. They also are basically a .500 team since mid-June. So if they're going to hold on in the West, they'll need Garcia to right himself. And for Gillick to find some help in the lineup.

Lies, damn lies and statistics
Here's the latest update on the great Lou Merloni-Ben Affleck career competition. Merloni, the player Affleck ripped last year for his low batting average, was waived by the Red Sox last March after hitting .200 in spring training. The Padres claimed him, and he is batting .276 with one home run and eight RBIs, giving him 10 career home runs in six seasons, and seven hits in the past two months. In other words, his career is on a Cooperstown track compared to Affleck, who just made "Gigli.'' ... The Angels will pay Kevin Appier more money not to pitch for them ($15.6 million) than Oakland will pay Tim Hudson ($2.7 million), Mark Mulder ($2.7 million) and Barry Zito ($1.1 million) combined. ... In between Roy Halladay losses (April 15-Aug. 1), Jeremy Bonderman lost 12 games, Barry Bonds hit 28 home runs and Dan Miceli pitched for four teams. ... Miceli, by the way, has also pitched in four divisions (the NL West with Colorado, the AL Central with Cleveland, the AL East with the Yankees and the NL Central with Houston), this season, becoming the first player to do so since Dave Kingman in 1977. And with two months to go, he can still pick up the NL East and the AL West. ... How tough is it to break the 1962 Mets record for losses in a season? Even after losing five games in a row to lower their winning percentage to .262 late last week, the Tigers still needed to lose another five in a row to match the Mets' pace. ... If Bob Boone never manages again, he'll be one of 12 men to manage at least five seasons without having a winning record. The worst such mark was Jimmy Wilson, who managed eight sub-.500 seasons. ... Keep your eye on Seattle reliever Rafael Soriano, who struck out all six batters in two innings Wednesday night, one batter Saturday and five batters in two innings Sunday, giving him 12 strikeouts in his past five innings. Batters are hitting .165 against him.

From left field
Did your favorite team swing the deal that will send it to the World Series? Or did it just mortgage its future for a mere extra week in October? Time will tell, and that's something to remember while looking at these midseason (July and August) trades that ultimately proved costly -- some quite costly and some quite quickly:

Year The deal
1987 Tigers trade John Smoltz to Atlanta for Doyle Alexander
1989 Rangers trade Sammy Sosa and Wilson Alvarez to White Sox for Harold Baines
1990 Pirates trade Moises Alou to Montreal for Zane Smith
1990 Red Sox trade Jeff Bagwell to Houston for Larry Andersen
1992 Blue Jays trades Jeff Kent to Mets for David Cone
1996 Braves trade Jason Schmidt to Pittsburgh for Denny Neagle
1997 Mariners trade Derek Lowe AND Jason Varitek to Boston for Heathcliff Slocumb
1997 Mariners trade Joe Mays to Minnesota for Roberto Kelly

Win Blake Stein's Money
This week's category is: Awards That Made As Much Sense As "Gigli" Winning An Oscar For Best Picture.

QUESTION: Thanks to a late-season trade, who won the National League batting title while playing in the American League?

ANSWER: In 1990, the Athletics traded for St. Louis outfielder Willie McGee in late August after McGee already had enough plate appearances to qualify for the NL batting crown, and no one caught up to his average the rest of the season.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com