Thursday, March 30, 2006

Review: The Last Nine Innings - Charles Euchner 

For a Diamondbacks fan, Game Seven of the 2001 World Series is unquestionably the greatest game in the comparatively short history of the franchise. A come-from-behind victory against the most storied franchise in all of professional sports to bring the state of Arizona its first major professional sports championship, the game was both exciting in isolation as well as important in context.

So it took me a while to get into the rhythm of Charles Euchner's new book, The Last Nine Innings. I was reading it from the perspective of a Diamondbacks fan who was actually at the game. (Yeah, I know probably a quarter million people say that, but I really was, and I have the ticket stub, pictures, and homemade DVD to prove it.)

Euchner's approach is much broader than that. Unlike The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, The Last Nine Innings covers both teams in equal measure. But Euchner uses the minutiae of the game (and he does get into the minutiae) as a jumping-off point to explore larger themes -- "scientific analysis, exotic statistics and globalization," as the dust jacket puts it.

I initially assumed that the title implied that Game Seven was the last game of "old-school" baseball, but very quickly Euchner makes clear that the game of baseball has been in transition for a while (it's always been in transition). Euchner talks about globalization, for example, and how the Yankees are able to use their superior financial advantages to sign pretty much whichever foreign player they want, such as Mariano Rivera.

There is something in this book for both sides of the statistical analysis debate. Early in the book, Euchner seems to place himself firmly in the camp of the sabermetricians when discussing Derek Jeter's defensive abilities. (In other words, color Euchner less than impressed.) But even though Euchner uses other statistical debates throughout (e.g., the effect of pitchers on batted balls), elsewhere in the book, he seems to at least condone "gut" moves that would seem to go against statistical probabilities.

The strongest part of the book for me was Euchner's discussion of the physical aspects of the game -- 10 pages (or more) on the mechanics of a batter's swing, 8 pages (and more) on a pitcher's mechanics. It was the one part of the book that was mostly new to me, and I found it very interesting. For all the focus by many baseball analysts on the Web (and I count myself in that very broad category) on statistics and how to better analyze what a player has done, the focus on how to make a player do better is an area most people like myself are wholly unqualified to tackle and least likely to understand. Reading the book, I got a better appreciation of how every baseball game (or even at-bat) adds a series of data points to a player's experience that the good players incorporate into their skill sets that allow them to excel long after they've hit their physical peak. (Of course, the focus on experienced players like Clemens, Johnson, Schilling, and Luis Gonzalez indicates that perhaps that point of "physical peak" is slowly getting later.)

The book is not perfect. It could have used one more run-through by a copy editor ("Colangelo" spelled as "Colengelo" in the next-to-last line of the book, for example). And Euchner only takes a few steps down other paths that are also important to baseball today -- financial disparities, the steroid controversy. But that latter criticism is only one that suggests that Euchner could have expanded his 300-page into a 400-page book and I'd've gladly read it.

I would recommend the book particularly to Diamondbacks fans, but also to the general public, particularly those who are casual fans of the game. It's a quick, entertaining read. You can buy the book from Amazon at this link.


One other note: Charles Euchner will be in Phoenix at a couple Barnes & Noble stores to sign copies of The Last Nine Innings today (Thursday, March 30) and Saturday, April 1. (I know Jim had more details in his review of the book, which I swear I didn't read except to notice that he had specific addresses.)