For fans fired up by opening day, here are five new books about baseball.
The Baseball Prospectus kids are the smartest around. They know all the numbers, they know how to explain them to us. On Yankees history: "The Yankees were run with a ruthless perspicacity for years, the only exception being the organizational racism that restricted them to the best white players they could get, instead of the best players. They survived the consequences of this reprehensible handicap . . . because the Yankees were so well run in other ways."
On the prospects of the 2010 Yankees: "It is apparent that (GM Brian) Cashman is trying to walk a tightrope, one eye on the future and the budget, another on the clock ticking on the remaining minutes in the careers of his Fab Four veteran corps of Jeter, Posada, Rivera and Pettitte."
On A-Rod: "For the moment, he remains one of the most valuable and essential players in the game."
Essential reading for smart baseball fans.
Emma Span is a fan disguised as a terrific writer. In the chapter "Pedro Pants-less and The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle," Span writes of the extraordinary experience of seeing Pedro Martinez naked (you'll have to buy the book for a detailed description); "Bleeding for Baseball" tells about giving blood for Mets tickets; in "Crying in Baseball" she concludes "It's a nice bit of dialogue but wildly untrue: baseball is full of grown men crying."
Span is one of the quirkiest and funniest baseball writers around. In "Next Year" she tells us, "Recently I've been having a lot of odd, vivid baseball dreams. . . . there was one where Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez have been kidnapped, and for some reasons the police were no help and it was up to me to rescue them . . ." Again, you'll have to read the book.
Nearly every American male has suffered the indignity of having his mother throw out his baseball cards, but Josh Wilker apparently had an enlightened mom, and we can thank her for her part in making Cardboard Gods possible.
Baseball cards may just be pieces of cardboard to many people, but try telling that to Wilker, whose obsession with them led to an imaginary letter exchange with Carl Yastrzemski, and that's just the beginning. In Cardboard Gods, Wilker connects baseball cards to more pop culture references than you'll find in a season of Family Guy — everything from Louis L'Amour Westerns to Jack Kerouac to Elvis Costello.
Cardboard Gods covers territory familiar to any boy (or former boy) whose heart pounded at the thought of the wax paper packages. If you loved the game, you loved your cards, and you'll love this book. Bonus: Dozens of cards are reproduced in full color, including my favorite, Topps' 1980 Mark "the Bird" Fidrych.
The idea behind Top of the Order is simple: Pick your favorite baseball player — using your own criteria for "favorite" — and write a few pages about why you picked him. Some writers chose the greats: Roger Kahn, a great himself, actually manages to find something new to say about Jackie Robinson. Some selections are quirky: Actor and screenwriter Michael Ian Black chooses former Mets outfielder Mookie Wilson, inspired by a visit Mookie made to Black's hometown of Hillsborough, N.J., when Black was 11. Some, like the chapter on Tom Seaver by Pat Jordan, are based on super-projections of the author's lost dream.
A few, such as Buzz Bissinger's appreciation of Albert Pujols, seem phoned in; others, like editor Sean Manning's own choice, Michael Jordan — yes, that Michael Jordan, the great basketball player and mediocre minor-leaguer — are so out of left field as to inspire awe.
After reading The Baseball Codes, you'll feel you're watching baseball with 3-D glasses — that is, you'll see all kinds of patterns and hidden meanings you never thought to look for before. In chapters such as "Don't Show Players Up," "Mound Conference Etiquette," "Retaliation" and "The Clubhouse Police," Turbow and Duca highlight the unwritten rules which all veterans know but which are seldom discussed.
In perhaps their most savvy chapter, "If You're Not Cheating, You're Not Trying," they shrewdly observe that "when it comes to cheating in baseball . . . many tactics that go against the letter of the law are viewed as perfectly acceptable, both by those who utilize them and those against whom they're enacted. . . . Think about it this way, because others certainly do: deceiving an umpire is cheating, but deceiving an opponent (say by stealing his signs) is simply hard nosed competition." Perhaps the most fun new book of the baseball season.