Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Hot Stove Book Review: Mind Game

I almost didn't get to write this review for Mind Game.

You see, earlier this year an urgent call went out on the BP mailing list for someone to help out with "Rudy"--the top-secret code name for Baseball Prospectus's new book on the Red Sox, named after former Sox infielder Rudy Pemberton. It was a rare moment in time where I had a few spare hours to rub together--maybe La Chiquita was out of town, or something of the sort. Anyway, I volunteered to help out, but it took a couple of days for the Rudy crew to get back to me (probably intoning, Election-style, "Anyone? Anyone? Anyone else?") with the assignment, and by then, I no longer had the spare time.

I worked on it anyway, and the results were a predictable disaster--I was already over my word limit, by a half and not yet finished, when I wrote the editors asking, "Am I on the right track here?" Mercifully, I was put on the "don't-call-us-we'll-call-you" list, and my overlong sidebar hit the digital cutting room floor.

So, after that heart-lifting introduction, you might feel compelled to ask, what exactly, is Mind Game? Mind Game (subtitled How the Red Sox Finally Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning) is the story of the 2004 Red Sox, told from the Prospectus authors' sabermetric point of view--that is, facts, history, and performance analysis replace the usual mythologizing and revisionist history that goes into telling the story of a popular championship team.

Following a chronological structure, the authors break down the Sox' year, from the off-season to the post-season, and beyond, in a multi-author "articles" format. Articles are dedicated, for example, to the value of defense, the rise and fall of Nomar Garciaparra, and the effects of a big brawl (like the Yanks and Sox had in late July) or a big winning streak (like the Sox had in August). Many of the chapters are supplemented with "Extra Innings"--basically, big sidebars exploring a single nuance of the Red Sox' season or history.

Here are some highlights:

  • Steve Goldman, unleashing a prosecutorial brief against the life and career of Tom Yawkey. If Yawkey were still alive, or if the Yawkey trust still owned the franchise, reading this chapter would be enough to get a decent-sized mob rolling down Yawkey Way, torches and pitchforks in hand.
  • Will Carroll doing his injury thing, once again, with regard to Schilling's ankle. Seeing that Will has written so much about the Stigmata Sock, I was certain this would be a letdown, but Carroll somehow managed to tell the same story for the Nth time, yet make it new and informative once again.
  • The section on brawls, including an appendix of brawls from the 1920's to the present, is a great, original piece of research.
  • Nate Silver's alternate-reality analysis of the A-Rod trade that wasn't does a nice job of debunking the potshots by those who think that the Sox couldn't have won if they acquired A-Rod.

Since I have to say a few negative things, lest I be accused of bias, I'll start off by saying that the cover is darn ugly, in a lime-greenish sort of way. More seriously, this multi-author work doesn't quite gel the way a book with a single narrative would. By the time that Brother Joe scripts his excellent back-to-back chapters on the ALCS, near the end of Mind Game, he is probably the first and only author to have written consecutive chapters in the book. In some ways, Mind Game is more readable in a piecemeal fashion--the way I suspect most of us read the Prospectus annual--than trying to read it from start to finish like a more traditional narrative.

OK, so that's not really much of a criticism. Some might criticize Mind Game for capitalizing somewhat illogically on the Red Sox Championship. After all, if the playoffs are a crapshoot, then you could wind up praising a champion just for their outstanding luck. A good number of Yankee fans would argue that if the Bronx Bombers had just been able to get a couple more outs in Game 4 of the ALCS, Boston, 2005 edition, gets reduced to a mere historical footnote--the guys who got beat by the guys that went to the World Series.

However, all of the adversity the Sox faced on their way to World Series Rings and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy gives Mind Game its relevance. The 2005 Red Sox had a number of big decisions to make--ranging from the acquisition of Curt Schilling to whether or not to trade Nomar Garciaparra, to whether or not to pinch-run for Kevin Millar.

As broken down by the BP crew, we see that for the most part, the Sox made the right decisions at each juncture. Over the course of multiple essays, the guys at BP present arguments about the way the game is played, about how front office money should be spent, and about how the teams involved in the 2004 postseason--particularly the Red Sox and the Yankees--should be viewed by history.

You may not always agree with the arguments, but I must admit that they made me think, occasionally to the point where I paused in my reading to make notes on a napkin, or whatever else was handy.

And this is why Mind Game comes highly recommended--because any book that makes you think has done its job. Go buy it.

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