It’s been a long week for baseball fans in Southern California. Between the arrest of Dodgers pitcher Julio Urías, and the Angels’ general inability to get out of their own way, you almost have to squint to see the reasons we love baseball sometimes.
“Why We Love Baseball” is the name of Joe Posnanski’s latest book, which was released Tuesday. His promotional tour will take him to Chevalier Books in Larchmont Village on Sept. 12, an event with writer Molly Knight.
The topic intrigued me long before it was put to print, but the time was right to dive in. In spite of its often ruthless business practices and unsavory characters, there’s a lot to love about baseball, regardless of whether you believe the pitch clock ruined the game or saved it.
“Diving in” is what Posnanski does best. He takes a topic – usually baseball, though he’s also written books about Joe Paterno and Harry Houdini – and plumbs its depths until the reader is prepared to write their own graduate thesis.
“I’m just so curious about stuff, when I research something, it’ll always lead to about 10 different rabbit holes,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I’m just the kind of person who follows those rabbit holes down. … Old newspapers are the heart of what I do. The writer will mention something like, ‘this reminds me of something’ and I’ll look that up, and end up in 1890.”
Indeed, “Why We Love Baseball” spans 130 years of professional baseball history. What you learn, when you dive in that deep, is that many of the game’s touchstone moments are love/hate affairs depending on nothing more than where you live. Baseball is a sport driven by regional rooting interests. It always has been.
If Kirk Gibson’s game-winning home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series is the substance of Dodger fans’ dreams, it’s enough to haunt an A’s fan to this day. Albert Pujols-Brad Lidge, Luis Gonzalez-Mariano Rivera, Ralph Branca-Bobby Thomson. Choose the hero of your favorite baseball moment; there’s probably an unfortunate victim on the other end.
“Bill Buckner is the worst moment in Red Sox fans’ history and the best in Mets fans’ history,” Posnanski said. “That one moment has such incredible emotional impact on two different fan bases, and then there’s the third one that doesn’t care about the Mets and Red Sox.”
Wisely, the book takes a global view. There are chapters or subchapters about Jackie Robinson and Roki Sasaki and Jackie Mitchell (Google her). There are references to baseball movies which, if you haven’t seen them, you must.
As entry points to fans of a certain generation, there was nothing better than “A League of Their Own”, “Major League”, or “Field of Dreams”. (Remarkably, the latter two films were released in theaters two weeks apart in April 1989.) The current generation has “Moneyball” (2011) and … not much else. Even fans of “Moneyball” the movie seem to borrow broadly from fans of “Moneyball” the book (2003), an entry point which deserved its own chapter – more on that in a bit.
“The Hill”, released in August, stars Dennis Quaid in an adaptation of the inspirational true story of a baseball phenom, set in 1970s Texas. Perhaps it can buck the trend.
“We had this sort of glory period of baseball movies,” Posnanski said. “Even, like, ‘Little Big League’ – some silly movies like that – all had this charm. There was this magical sort of decade or 15-year period where a whole bunch of fun, cool baseball movies came out and some stinkers. There was a real genre for baseball movies. That’s gone.”
Posnanski pointed to recent baseball documentaries like “Facing Nolan”, “Fastball”, and “The League” as evidence of a new genre that has the potential to fill the void. “There are some really cool ones like that,” he said, “but I would like to see some more baseball movies come out.”
What has filled the void is a generation of fans who love baseball without a favorite team, perhaps without a favorite moment, or even a specific memory of having seen a major league game in person.
I’m talking about the “Moneyball” generation, the folks who love baseball for its numbers and love numbers because of baseball. Not all were drawn to baseball by the book or the movie, but it certainly was a catalyst. Just look at the hundreds of entrants each year into sports management and sports analytics programs popping up at colleges across the country.
Scott Powers, the Dodgers’ former Director of Quantitative Analysis, once told me he received 900 applications for an entry-level position in the team’s analytics office, and “500 seemed qualified.” How many of them fell in love with baseball because of Kevin Costner?
There is a perception within the industry, often repeated, that these are not “real baseball people.” But I would have loved to have seen the work of Michael Lewis or – especially – Bill James included somewhere in the book.
“I have an essay that I’ve written that didn’t make the book called ‘Bill James Gets a Job at a Pork and Beans Factory’,” Posnanski said. “Which I thought was an incredible moment, it just didn’t quite work.”
I’m laughing out loud as he recites the title of the chapter. But it holds a lot of truth.
Though other analytically-minded thinkers came before him, James is undoubtedly the most influential figure in professional baseball’s shift from qualitative to quantitative evaluations over the last 40 years. He formed many of his ideas at the most droll of occupations: a night security guard at the Stokely Van Camp plant in Lawrence, Kansas.
James’ first “Baseball Abstract” was published in 1977. Its audience grew from a few dozen hardcore readers to – no joke – every front office in the game. That process played out over decades, but now many of James’ once-novel ideas are canon at every level of the sport. Why do we love baseball? For some, it’s because we all have access to the numbers that can prove when your favorite team overpaid for its underachieving superstar.
As I reflect on why we – and I – love baseball, it’s remarkable to think how different the same book might be written 50 years from now. Posnanski joked about developing a screenplay for a baseball superhero movie. I called dibs on a co-producer credit. In the sequel to “Why We Love Baseball”, hopefully Cal Ripken will have to make room for another Iron Man chapter.
Another rough outing for Patrick Sandoval sends Angels to 6th straight loss
Lance Lynn gives up 3 homers in 9-run inning as Dodgers lose to Marlins
Shohei Ohtani remains out of Angels’ lineup, might play Thursday
MLB places Dodgers’ Julio Urías on administrative leave ‘until further notice’
Angels drop rollercoaster 10-inning game to Orioles, their 5th straight loss