Day 13 of 2023 baseball books: The blight of the latest Yankee brigade … but Berra with us, it’s not over until there is a movie review

“Baseball at the Abyss:
The Scandals of 1926, Babe Ruth and
the Unlikely Savior Who Rescued a Tarnished Game”

The author:
Dan Taylor

The publishing info:
Rowman & Littlefield Publishing
220 pages; $36
Released April 12, 2023

The links:
The publishers website
At TheLastBookStoreLA
At Skylight Books
At Diesel Books

“The 1998 Yankees: The Inside Story of the Greatest Baseball Team Ever”

The author:
Jack Curry

The publishing info:
Twelve Publishing/Hachette
288 pages; $30
Released May 2, 2023

The links:
The publishers website
At TheLastBookStoreLA
At Skylight Books
At Diesel Books

“Road to Nowhere: The Early 1990s Collapse and Rebuild of New York City Baseball”

The author:
Chris Donnelly

The publishing info:
University of Nebraska Press
376 pages; Price
Released May 1, 2023

The links:
The publishers website
At TheLastBookStoreLA
At Skylight Books
At Diesel Books

“Thurm: Memoirs of a Forever Yankee”

The author:
Thurman Munson
with Marty Appel

The publishing info:
Diversion Books
240 pages; $18.99
Released March 7, 2023

The links:
The publishers website
The authors website
At TheLastBookStoreLA
At Skylight Books
At Diesel Books

The reviews in 90 feet or less

First, consider yourself warned:

The New York Yankees are in Southern California this weekend, June 2-4, a Friday, Saturday and Sunday sleepover at Dodger Stadium, the later two date locked in for 4 p.m. starts on Fox and ESPN. Somehow neither Apple nor Yahoo nor Peacock nor Amazon was able to wrestle away the opener. This is way overdue. Their last interleague meeting: August of 2019. The Yankees wore all black uniforms. The Dodgers wore all white (except for pitchers, who had black hats, apparently so hitters could see the ball coming to home plate). It was “Players Weekend.” It was a chance to see players also wear nicknames on their back. It was overwhelmingly dreadful. It hasn’t come back since.

If being present and accounted for at any of these Clash of the Logos contests coming up is a burning desire, just realize it all comes with a steep cost. Just remember, the Yankees return to Anaheim from July 17-19 and tickets there may not be as L.A.-tiered atrocious for mid-week encounters, unless the Shohei Ohtani pitching-to-Aaron Judge matchup is somehow aligned, and then it’s easier to offload seats to drooling Yankees fans who will likely fill any available piece of real estate.

Next, consider yourself cautioned: It’s never over with New York Yankees-related books, year after year, publisher after publisher, narrative after narrative documented for some sort of fear that it will all be forgotten. 

In line with that, but on somewhat of a tangent as we are warming up, heed one more Yankees media-related public service announcement: “It Ain’t Over,” the documentary in current theatrical circulation about the life and times of Yogi Berra.

It was created on the premise that Berra was “criminally overlooked his whole life, at every stage.”

That’s the quote attributed in the New York Times to the film’s director, Sean Mullin. Spoon-fed to him by the entire Berra family? If not, he has liked the taste of it, because he used it again in an interview posted by with the words “criminally overlooked his entire life” in the headline:

“I’ll be honest, when I first got that phone call about the documentary, I was like “Wait a second. He seems too perfect. Like, what’s the story? What’s the narrative gonna be? I don’t wanna do it just to do it.” You know so much work to make these films. But the deeper I drove into his back story, the more I started to find out that he was criminally overlooked his entire life from childhood to his deathbed essentially, and that’s a narrative we could build around, so I hopped on board.”

We’ll be honest (because, before we wrote that, we really were not): This is an hour-and-a-half heavily tilted argument rather than a loving biography hammering home the credentials of Berra’s 18-year MLB Hall of Fame career. For what purpose? The court of public opinion.

We’re not sure who in the world of baseball actually disputes Berra’s achievements on the field. Or his managerial successes. But the family now appears to believe a wrong needs to be corrected. So it’s time to change any narrative – one that the family refuses to acknowledge in the film that Yogi Berra himself helped create. Through books. Through his commercials (he once thought he was doing work for Amtrak, and it was actually Aflac). Through other media ventures that made him a nice retirement income.

The impetus of this project, which worked its way to Sony Pictures Classic, all seems to point to Lindsay Berra, Yogi’s oldest grandkid, who got her athletic supporter in a bunch while watching the opening to the 2015 MLB All-Star Game in Cincinnati on TV. As part of the pregame ceremony, there was an introduction of the “four greatest living players” in baseball history.

Out came Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax and Johnny Bench.

“Are you dead?” she says she asked her grandfather, sitting near by.

“Not yet,” he supposedly replied.

(Insert the famous Yogi quote here: “Always go to other people’s funerals otherwise they won’t come to yours.”)

Pause for a second: Nolan Ryan was alive in 2015, and still is. When MLB had its All-Century Team announced in 1999, Ryan received the most fan votes of any pitcher — shy of one million, and about 22,000 more than Koufax. We didn’t hear the Ryan family throw a fit. On that same All-Century Team, Bench was the top vote-getting catcher with 1.01 million. Berra was next. With about 300,000 fewer votes, but still … And Pete Rose was also on the All-Century team. So was Mike Schmidt, ahead of Brooks Robinson.

In “It Ain’t Over,” leaning on the testimony of folks like MLB historian John Thorn, broadcaster Bob Costas, comedian Billy Crystal and other statistical-based minds – and then watered down by verbiage from the Berra family – we are told that it was really “the media” that created Berra The Cartoon Character and Master of the Malaprop and all the other misappropriated name, image and likeness issues. The media has wrongly overlooked and misrepresented Berra The Hall of Fame Player. The Most Underrated Player of All Time for someone who has been a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame for more than half a century.

If we weren’t sure about that entire premise going on, we were far less convinced of it coming out, having been required to pay for a $20 movie ticket and have a communal experience with seven other stragglers at a local Santa Monica art house instead of having the option to watch it more comfortably at home on a streaming service where it really belongs in the first place.

Among the things you aren’t told in the film:

==  Berra’s Norm Crosby-like persona is quite a bit self-inflicted. He was credited with authoring five books about himself, all with titles that played off his cute-and-cuddly disposition. See if there’s a theme here:

In 2008, “You Can Observe A Lot by Watching: What I’ve Learned About Teamwork from the Yankees and Life.” In 2002, “What Time Is It? You Mean Now? Advice for Life from the Zennest Master of Them All.” In 2001, “When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It! Inspiration and Wisdom From One of Baseball’s Greatest Heroes.” In 1999, “The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said.” and in 1989, “Yogi: It Ain’t Over,” which seems to hit on a familiar theme again.

Add to that: “The Wit and Wisdom of Yogi Berra” by Phil Pepe in 2002 with a cartoonish cover of Berra.

Meanwhile, two very heavy-duty books that really do define the true Berra career on and off the field have landed for those confused about the real deal:

Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee,” a 480-page effort by Allen Barra in 2009 (and Barra is included in the documentary), and “Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask,” adding 576 pages more by Jon Pessah in 2020 (and Pessah isn’t included) and we posted a review.

== Berra didn’t make it into the Hall of Fame in his first year of qualifying – gaining 67.2 percent in 1971. It was the greatest percentage that year of a group where no one got enough votes. In 1972, Berra did pass the threshold with 85.6 percent and was runner-up to Sandy Koufax’s 86.9 percent, in his first year of eligibility.

Koufax, again, one of the greatest living players at that time.

Among the things you are told to show his greatness:

== Berra caught both ends of 117 doubleheaders. That’ll never be duplicated. Because no one would play that many scheduled double headers over a 117-year span in today’s game.

== In 19 seasons, Berra appeared in 18 All Star games. In the 1959, ’60 and ’61 seasons, they had two games, and he was in both. He actually could have played in more All Star games than the number of seasons played.

= Aside from winning the AL MVP in 1951, ’54 and ’55, Berra was second in voting in ’53 and ’56, third in ’50 and fourth in ’52. That’s one heck of a seven-season stretch. What they leave out: He received at least one MVP vote between in his second season, 1947, and every year after that through 1961.

= Berra, banished by the Yankees, was a coach on the 1969 New York Mets team that won the World Series. It makes no mention that Gil Hodges was the manager of that team, only that Berra’s presence and aura is another reason why his strategical greatness is overlooked.

== Granddaughter Berra admits she wanted to get him a Presidential Medal of Freedom honor, and she went into a panic and took to social media/celebrity endorsement to get the last surge of a necessary 100,000 signatures on a petition that would generate the White House’s attention. Once that happened, Berra’s family was given the award in a ceremony during the Obama administration.

But instead of being over, it’s just getting started.

The real headscratcher that we learn from the documentary is the famous line – “It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over” – can’t actually be attributed to Berra. There is no documentation. No example. Perhaps a twisted version of something else he said.

But he happily signed it on a baseball when asked? And that’s what they used for the film’s title? Intentional irony, or people who can’t get over themselves.

We wish we could have heard what Berra himself has to say about this film. Because, you know, if you didn’t know, he once had his own TV show. As a movie critic. “Yogi at the Movies.” Berra thought it was silly. But he did it anyway. Because, again, brand awareness, adding to your own funny characterization, etc., etc.

Despite many gushing reviews for the film, it sits with us as another thing New Yorkers need. To justify their place in the world as the be-all and end-all of baseball lore. And make sure Yogi Berra isn’t confused in the pop culture world with Yogi Bear. Or with Aaron Judge. Or Bill Dickey (whose No. 8 was actually retired by the Yankees, then worn by Berra, so it has been retired twice. Makes sense, eh? The retirement ceremony for both No. 8s was in July, ’72, when Berra went into the Hall, 18 years after Dickey was enshrined in Cooperstown).

Bear with us all of this. We can’t help but feel the Berra family is trying to over-correct something that isn’t disputed in the baseball world – unless you’re just a casual follower of the game and aren’t sure if your memory has stayed in tact. They are preaching to a choir here otherwise. Or, seeking out a whole new group of soloists to join together, hold hands, and sing Berra’s praises.

There is no tangible outcome to this. Even if some have you believe he’s finally getting his due — yes, finally getting his due — whatever that means. His legacy doesn’t need much of a tuneup, let alone being rebuilt. A record doesn’t have to be set straight.

If only this Yogi documentary could have gotten out of its own way – no Berra family members on camera, let alone providing executive credits – and keep it to just people like Thorn, Crystal (who probably had the most endearing things to say), Costas, the late Roger Angell, Al Downing, Joe Girardi, Ron Guidry, Derek Jeter, Tony Kubek, Joe Maddon, Don Mattingly, Willie Randolph, Joe Torre, Suzyn Waldman, Claire Smith, Bobby Richardson, Nick Swisher and, yes, the late Vin Scully.

Scully was asked to take some of his last breaths on earth to be part of this – and his main contribution was saying that “he was Yogi … everything about him was kinda funny.” A story on the film’s creation notes that Mullin brought Scully into the Dodger Stadium press box booth and sat him down for 30 minutes to talk about Berra. Perhaps just 30 seconds of Scully is included in the film.

That, if you ask us, is much closer to any mangled definition of what’s considered criminal.

Now: The over/under on the new New York baseball books is ….

As for the newest of the New York books … We will admit that we haven’t read them all, nor do we care to. But in order of our interest, we have gone through:

== In “Baseball at the Abyss,” Dan Taylor takes up the cause that the game was a mess in the winter of 1926 when Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb were accused of fixing and betting on games, just seven years after the infamous Black Sox Scandal. Christy Walsh, Babe Ruth’s L.A.-based business manager, puts his man in the movies and gives him a Hollywood presence. It led to Ruth’s greatest season in ’27 – the 60-homer effort. That Cobb/Speaker thing may never be spoken of again.

We’ve enjoyed Taylor’s previous work, and have reviewed them, including “Lights, Camera, Fastball: How the Hollywood Stars Changed Baseball,” in 2021 and “Walking Alone: The Untold Journey of Football Pioneer Kenny Washington” in 2022. This continues his recent run of exceptional topics and deft research and execution. And it may have the coolest cover of them all this year. The eyes have it.

== In “The 1998 Yankees,” prolific author and writer Jack Curry, currently an analyst on the Yankees regional network, decided to justify the thought that this team was “the greatest of all time.” Has enough time passed — 25 years — to make that proclamation?

To date, we’ll ride with that premise and see where it takes us. Curry was the New York Times’ national baseball reporter in ’98, covering a team that won 125 games, was 93-1 if leading after seven innings, and finished the season winning their fourth title in a six-year span.

As the Associated Press’ Rob Merrill writes in a post: “Baseball fans who love to hate the Yankees can still appreciate the book, but probably won’t enjoy it as much as anyone who owns merchandise with that classic interlocking N and Y. These Yankees were professional baseball killers who didn’t mind heeding Steinbrenner’s no facial hair rule. They went to work every day, pounded teams into submission, and did it all again and again from April to October.”

== In “Road to Nowhere,” we’re going back to the early 1990s when both the Yankees and Mets are trying to find their way back to success. They both found it. Without George Steinbrenner. Without Darryl Strawberry.

The Yankees were playoff dry since losing to the Dodgers in the 1981 strike-interrupted World Series. There was no wildcard so their second place finishes in the AL East meant nothing. The three-division setup, which seems to be a way to try to help them, shortened the AL East from seven to five teams, and they were leading the division in 1994 (70-43 in 113 games) when the strike shut everything down.

They were last in the AL East in ’90 – 67-95 — floundering with various GMs, with Tim Leary as the starting pitcher with the most wins (9) and most losses (19). Mike Witt (5-6, 4.47 ERA) joined the rotation, traded from the Angels to New York for Dave Winfield. Don Mattingly was still around at age 29 playing first base, with Steve Sax at second and Steve Balboni as the aging DH. Mattingly retired at age 34 after the 1995 strike-shortened season. Their attendance was less than two million a season. In those six seasons, the Yankees were 381-454 with managers like Bucky Dent, Stump Merrill and Buck Showalter.

Joe Torre arrived. Derek Jeter came soon later. They made the playoffs every season from 1996 (a World Series title) to 2007, then ’09 to ’12.

Now, the Mets. Having lost the NLCS to the Dodgers in seven games in 1988, they kept things close in ’89 and ’90, but then finished fifth, fifth and seventh in the NL East with a combined 208-277 those three seasons of ’91, ’92 and ’93 (59-103, 38 games back), with Bud Harrelson, Mike Cubbage, Jeff Torborg and Dallas Green trying to fix things. Their home attendance was in the 1.7 million a season range. Bobby Valentine seemed to get them back on track in a six-year-plus run as manager and they got to the NLCS in ‘99.

If you want to read about the Yankees and Mets in all their glory — such as one of writer Chris Donnelly’s previous books titled “Doc, Donnie, The Kid and Billy Brawl: How the 1985 Mets and Yankees Fought for New York Baseball’s Soul” — you must apparently need to wallow back and remember the bad-old days as well. Why, we aren’t sure. Maybe someone can hang onto this book title and use it 25 years from now to document what happened to the 2023 New York Mets.

More from Donnelly on these subjects: “How the Yankees Explain New York,” and “Baseball’s Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners and the 1995 Matchup that Changed History.”

== In “Thurm,” we’re not sure where to start. He has been dead longer than he was alive now. Forty years ago, he went down in a private plane he was flying, at age 32. He has been working on a memoir. It’s been resurrected with longtime Yankees historian Marty Appel. Now, we have closure? We have … something.

Now this feels more like something that is supposed to lead to something else …

Perhaps there’s more to grab onto in a book that came out in Sept., 2022: “Go The Distance: The Inspirational Story of Tom Tunison, Thurman Munson and a Lifelong Quest for Baseball Immortality

How they go in the scorebook

If a new book about Yankees baseball lands in a forest of trees cut down to provide more pages, and it doesn’t make a sound, is it worth reading? For the sake of Yankees historical accountability, there’s always an accounting issue publishers have to reckon with. And they usually say: Bring it on.

You can look it up: More to ponder

Oh yes, there is more:

== “Roy White: From Compton to the Bronx,” by Roy White with Paul Semendinger (Artemesia Publishing, 276 pages, $29.95, released April 11, 2023)

== “Bronx Epitaph: How Lou Gehrig’s ‘Luckiest Man’ Speech Defined the Yankee Legend,” by Steven K. Wagner (Excelsior, 216 pages, $27.95, released Jan. 1, 2023) is said to be the “first book to comprehensively examine” the words by the Hall of Fame first baseman on Jan. 4, 1939.

== “New York Yankees First: The Players, Moments and Records That Were First in Team History,” by Howie Karpin (Lyons Press/Globe Pequot/Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, $19.95, 228 pages, released April 1, 2023).

This is not the first book written about Yankees’ first award winners, first post-season feats, first things that happened at Yankee Stadium and “other notable” firsts.  And probably won’t be the last.

Something crazy we found out: “In 1954 and 1955, Hall of Famer Yogi Berra was voted the American League’s Most Valuable Player, making him the first Yankee to win the prestigious award in back-to-back seasons. Berra has previously won the award in 1951 … Berra is the greatest catcher in franchise history and is widely regarded to be the second-best catcher in baseball history behind Hall of Famer Johnny Bench.”

Please, don’t let the Berra family hear this blasphemy.

Day 12 of 2023 baseball books: A field guide of dreams, version 4.0

“Baseball Field Guide: An In-Depth Illustrated Guide
to the Complete Rules of Baseball”

The authors:
Dan Formosa
Paul Hamburger

The publishing info:
The Experiment, LLC Publisher
272 pages; $17.95
Released March 28, 2023

The links:
The publishers website
The book’s official site
At TheLastBookStoreLA

The review in 90 feet or less

Without making a judgement call, far too much has transpired, and expired, since 2016, when the third edition of this 240-pager (highlighted in red) last landed. At least 16 pages worth, for starters. We reviewed that one here.

And that was already a nice upgrade from the original in 2006 (mostly all red on its cover). And that was in need of an update just two years later in 2008 (mostly in green).

For those on the color spectrum, this one’s trimmed in bold blue to stand out from the rest.

In what is presented in the cleanest of typeface, clearest of sans-serif fonts, crispest drawings and illustrations, on the highest-grade paper stock, not to mention a convenient size (9 inches tall, 5 inches wide and less than inch thick) to carry around  – there’s something you don’t read every day about a ball-type book – it is, in essence, what you may expect from a field guide that otherwise instructs and enlightens and demystifies about subjects such as birds, wildlife flowers, restaurants or travel destinations.

And baseball, these days, might even cross over into any of those four topics, and more. (Right, Orioles fans?)

Page 1 of the instruction manual is even set aside for “Instruction: How to Use This Book,” with suggested entry points: Use it as quick reference, a more extended explanation of the Major League Baseball rule book, or, just read the whole thing and learn.

Which, based on our habits, we did.

There is a neat index, glossary, and even the author bios: Formosa helped create the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York (explains the book’s exquisite visual presentation) and Hamburger, originally from New York, now lives in Los Angeles as a creative director (explains the creativity). And for what it’s worth, the hamburgers they used to serve at the iconic Formosa Cafe in Hollywood were pretty creative and visual on top of their taste value.

Why this is new update is important: New rules, obviously, that may have been explained amidst dozens of stories, but presented here, shows no judgment.

A graphic from an website post explaining the new rules.

= The re-imagined defensive shift has a two-page spread at the end of the “Fielding” chapter on pages 141-142.

=  The bigger bases (page 57) shows how the space between the old bases was 88 feet, 1.5 inches from edge to edge. Now they are 87 feet, 10 inches, or 4.5 inches shorter

= The pitch clock (page 84) has the addendum: An umpire can give the pitcher or the batter extra time due to “circumstances beyond their control.” Like, when Cody Bellinger comes to Dodger Stadium for the first time with the Chicago Cubs, acknowledges the fan ovation, the umpire calls an automatic strike because he isn’t ready? “C’mon, read the room,” said Dodgers TV play by play man Joe Davis, correctly.

= How the PitchCom system works (page 40).

From a 2021 story in New Yorker: “Invasion of the Robot Umpires”

= An explanation about how “Robots Calling Balls and Strikes” may be in play with the Automated Ball/Strike system (ABS) (page 97). Some say the system detects a higher strike because it detects pitches that start high but dip into the back edge ofg the strike zone, “something a human eye would have trouble discerning.” We recently talked to former major league umpire Bruce Froemming about the new requirements of today’s arbitrators. He brought up this robo system and said with exasperation: Why don’t they just set up a board game and play a game that way?

= Misbehavior has its own chapter, and includes the crackdown on pitchers using sticky substances like Spider Tack to increase spin rate. Page 202 covers “A Rich History of Cheating,” and dedicates a page to the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal of 2017 and beyond. The chapter also defines how there are four terms used regarding what action an umpire can take against a player or manager: Eject, remove, disqualify or expel.

So here are the nine things (one for each inning) we gleaned from the fourth edition of this handy, dandy guide book to the game that you think you know until you don’t, and fits nicely in your back pocket:

1. The two-way player (page 27) is defined as someone who meets the requirements of pitching 20 innings or more and appears in at least 20 games in a starting position (with three plate appearances a game). A two-way player can also become “two separate players” on the lineup card. Which explains how Shohei Ohtani is listed as a DH and a P on the box score.

2. Thirty minutes before each game, each team must identify its manager. (Page 31). Can the manager ID himself?

The 40-foot high left-field wire screen at the L.A. Coliseum when the Dodgers played there (1958-61) was called the “Chinese Wall,” and apparently fans dressed appropriately. There is even a Wikipedia page that explains the origins of the archaic “Chinese Home Run” that was referred to in MLB games, a reference to a short outfield border, with all sorts of derogatory explanations. Is that appropriate today to even point that out? Yes, to learn from history, and not repeat it.

3. Field specifications (page 55) includes: There are rules regarding the minimum size for a field, but “nothing prevents the outfield from extending outward from home plate indefinitely.” And, parks built before June 1, 1958 and aren’t up to the current dimension restrictions (325 down each foul line and 400 to dead center field) are grandfathered into today’s rules. If the Dodgers still played at the L.A. Coliseum with its 252-left-field foul pole and 440 to right-center field, it would be cool today. Just not cool. (When the Dodgers and Red Sox played an exhibition game at the Coliseum in 2008 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Dodgers moving to L.A. the current restrictions made for the left-field foul pole to be only 201 feet from home. Read more about how when the Dodgers were at the Coliseum, commissioner Ford Frick proposed there was two left-field screens, a second put up 333 feet from home plate, and fly balls landing between the two screens would be a ground-rule double. It was nixed because of local earthquake ordinances. And, perhaps, common sense.)

4. There are 20 ways a pitcher can commit a balk (pages 70-72) and two ways a non-pitcher can be charged with a balk – including a catcher or another player (likely the third baseman) trying to block a runner from stealing home or advancing on a squeeze play. Likewise, there are 23 ways a batter can make an out (pages 112-113). Three of those are as a result of a runner doing something that runs afoul. The last example is interesting: If there is a 3-2 count on the batter, with two outs, and the runner from third tries to steal home and is hit by the pitch. The ruling: Strike three on the hitter. Batter is out. Run does not count.

5. A designated hitter is not allowed to be in the team’s bullpen “unless he is catching” a pitcher who is warming up (page 115). Let Will Smith know this one, please.

6. There are 12 ways a runner can be declared out (page 119). The last one: He runs around the bases in reverse order. Intentionally. It doesn’t apply if a runner goes back to the previous base as a mistake when he believes a ball was caught or deceived by a fielder. Clarification: Does this mean if someone steals second base, he can’t run back to first base and then try to steal second again? There is the story of how Germany Schaefer was on second and “stole” first to confuse the pitcher in the early 1900s. After, a rule was passed against “making a travesty if the game.” Or is this about The Jimmy Piersall Incident when he hit his 100th career home run in 1963, turned himself around, and went around the bases backward (as he did as a New York Met in the bottom of the fifth inning of this first game of a doubleheader, against Philadelphia’s Dallas Green, a fly ball down the short right-field line at the old Polo Grounds. Go the one hour, eight minute spot of this clip below to hear the radio call right after play-by-play man Bob Murphy’s live ad for Kool cigarettes and later remark “hope the run counts … well, Jimmy is a man of his word.” He wasn’t declared out. The official account of the game also mentions how Piersall “ran backwards to 1B and all the way around.” Manager Casey Stengel released him two days later saying, “There’s only room for one clown on this team.”)

7. Under the new defensive shift explanation (page 143) it notes there was a consideration of a “slice-of-pie” alternative that would have added a “no-man zone” behind second base, defined by the two baselines running outward at 45-degree angles from second base (and shaped like a slice of pie), which would have allowed for more ground balls going up the middle to have a better chance of getting to the outfield. That would have prevented infielders from playing too deep directly behind second base. The rule was tested in the minor leagues and not taken to the MLB level.

8. The 2021 Official Rules of Baseball added a clause: “Protesting a game shall never be permitted.” Even if an umpire makes a human error/wrong decision. Is that because the video replay system is supposed to resolve this happening in the moment, rather than set up a dispute afterward and possibly requiring the teams to resume the game at the point of the dispute – logisitcally problematic at best, no matter how right it may be?

9. Major League Baseball’s Office of the Commissioner requires the Official Statistician for every game to “generate tables displaying all individual and team records.” He must “identify each player by first and last name,” indicate if each player hit right-handed, left-handed or “switches between the two,” and for each fielder, including the pitcher, “indicate if he throws with his right or left hand.” Or arm, too. (Page 251).

And one more for the road:

There is a story behind why the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts felt touched enough to wear all this bling.

“A player or umpire is considered ‘touched’ when the ball contacts his body or any piece of clothing or equipment that he is wearing. However, if the ball only touches jewelry (such as a necklace or bracelet), it doesn’t count as a touch.” (Page 131). Uh, OK.

How it goes in the scorebook

A four-for-four career batting average of 1.000. Blue-ribbon work.

If the book isn’t dog-eared, bookmarked with adhesive note pages, highlighted with yellow marker and held together with paperclips by its fifth use, you aren’t handling it properly.

And if this isn’t kept near the real, confusing Official MLB Rule Book on one’s shelf, it’s a missed opportunity.

Make sure that Dodgers’ Bob Geren, who had been manager Dave Roberts’ “bench coach” and right-hand man but now has the label of “major league field coordinator,” keeps this bible nearby. That, and Roberts, and the Dodgers, seem to be trying to groom Danny Lehmann as someone deserving more responsibilities as the games evolves into … whatever it evolving into these days.

You can look it up: More to ponder

== Don’t get ghosted: There are reasons why one also needs to keep checking with the official website There are things that came up after the book went to press that need clarification. Like this:

== The authors point out that in any given MLB season, there are 2,430 games played. That’s because you have 30 teams playing 162 games. So, if multiply those two numbers together and get 4,860, you have to half that because, of course, it takes two teams to play one game. Game on, mathematicians.

Day 11 of 2023 baseball books: There was something in the air that night, the stars were bright, Fernandomania

“Daybreak at Chavez Ravine: Fernandomania
and the Remaking of the Los Angeles Dodgers”

The author:
Erik Sherman

The publishing info:
University of Nebraska Press
280 pages; $32.95
To be released May 1, 2023

The links:
The publishers website
The authors website
At TheLastBookStoreLA
At Chaucer’s Books
At BookSoup

The review in 90 feet or less

The screwball randomness of the Dodgers’ decades-late declaration that it will finally retire Fernando Valenzuela’s number 34 this coming August is … is ….

“It’s about damn time,” Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote last February, as the team was patting itself on the back by making the announcement at their off-season Dodger FanFest gathering. That includes the irony that the announcement came issued on a piece of paper to the media “for immediate release.”

Immediately, we laughed.

“The single question I get asked more than any other is, ‘When are you going to retire Fernando Valenzuela’s number?’” team president and CEO Stan Kasten is quoted in the Plaschke piece. “The answer is, this year.”

Only 11 years after Kasten and his Guggenheim Baseball Management group leveraged a bidding-war purchase of the franchise, wrestling it away from Ballpark Frank McCourt.

At least they didn’t listen more to their marketing team wait until ’34 – as in 2034 – to get this done.

Short story long …

For better or worse, McCourt adhered to at least one franchise tradition that went back to the O’Malley days of the 1970s — resisting the retirement of any Dodgers’ uniform number unless the player (or manager) had a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame (as well as having spent a considerable amount of time with the team. Ask Mike Piazza how that plays out these days).

Valenzuela’s retirement will increase the list of Brooklyn-L.A. Dodgers numbers taken out of circulation to 12. Of those, all but two will be Baseball Hall members – Valenzuela, plus longtime franchise infielder and beloved coach Jim Gilliam (19), who died suddenly during the 1978 World Series and the team decided it would honor him.

Having 12 retired numbers, considering the team’s history, isn’t too many at all. Consider the New York Yankees’ willy-nilly approach has led to 22 number retirements, 10 of whom are not in the Baseball Hall. As a result, no one can wear a single-digit number any longer.  

This Valenzuela honor might have made more sense in 2021, 40 years after his debut, but COVID derailed any potential plans (the team decision-makers have intimated). That magical 1981 Rookie of the Year/Cy Young Award season included the Dodgers’ improbable run to the strike-infested 1981 World Series. That year, Valenzuela led the league with eight shutouts, 11 complete games, 192 innings in 25 appearances (averaging more than seven innings per start) and 180 strikeouts. The NL’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game when the game decided to come back out of the strike, Valenzuela would make six straight Mid-Season Classic appearances and be in the top five in voting for the Cy Young and four times for MVP.

It’s been 37 years since he led the major leagues with 21 wins and 20 complete games in 34 starts, and won a Gold Glove. He narrowly lost the NL Cy Young Award to Mike Scott.

It was also 32 years ago – March 28, 1991, on the last day of spring training – the team lost its collective mind and released him. He was 30 years old but his left arm, shoulder, elbow and everything in between had racked up more than 2,300 innings, as well as more than 100 complete games in 331 appearances, winning 141 of them. Add to that a post-season record of 5-1 with a 1.98 ERA in eight games.

It was heartbreaking.

Was he running out of steam? Was he due for a large contract? Probably yes to both.

Valenzuela was somewhat on borrowed time considering he couldn’t pitch in the 1988 post season and World Series title run because of injury. His ERA in his last four years in L.A. – 1987 through ’90 – was over 4.00, reflected in a combined W-L record of 42-50. During that window, he also led NL at one point or another in earned runs allowed, hits allowed, walks allowed and wild pitchers.

But, still, he was Fernando. He just needed a reboot.

With new-found freedom, he unnecessarily wore the uniforms of the Angels (number 36, which still isn’t retired!), Orioles, Phillies, Padres and Cardinals. He would squeeze out 600 more innings – most effectively, a 13-win season for the Padres in ’96 — before he stepped away on his own terms in 1997 at age 36.

In 17 seasons, his 173 wins in 453 games include a 3.54 ERA and 2,074 strike outs. That doesn’t factor in the 1992 season when he pitched in Mexico at age 31 after he was released by the Angels and wanted to get away from everything.

Also note: His 41.5 career WAR is the greatest of any Mexican-born MLB player.

To Dodgers fans, “Fernandomania” has never ended. The No. 34 replica jerseys with the letters “VALENZUELA” (condensed more across the shoulders far more when they were in 1981 when one almost couldn’t see the “V” at the start or “A” at the end as it spread almost under his left and right arm pits) remain a consistent reminder that his cultural currency has value.

The best the Dodgers franchise could pull together in the last decade was asking him to come back as a Spanish-language broadcaster and team ambassador.

“He gave them everything he had,” a fan told the L.A. Times for a piece about Valenzuela’s attempted comeback in 1991. “It’s like a worker when he’s all used up and the boss gets rid of him because he’s of no use anymore.”

Making up for it this year includes having him as the cover boy for both their annual media guide and their pre-season yearbook.

What’s the collateral damage of the Dodgers’ think-tankers tanking on this number retirement for so long?

Mike Brito, the influential scout who found and signed Valenzuela, died in July of 2022 and will miss this retirement ceremony. Same for Ralph Avilia, another legendary Dodgers’ scout for his work south of the border, who died last January.

Bobby Castillo, the Dodgers’ local-born relief pitcher who taught the screwball to Valenzula, six years his younger, died in June of 2014.

Tommy Lasorda, the Dodgers manager who went with him as that 1981 Opening Day starter when most of his top guns were injured, and let him pitch a complete game, died in early 2021 and will miss this. Al Campanis, the team’s general manager who put Valenzuela on the roster, died in 1998. Ben Wade, the team’s scouting director when Valenzuela was signed, died in 2002.

Vin Scully, who told Dodgers fans to throw their sombrero to the sky after Valenzuela’s 1990 no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals at Dodger Stadium, died in August of 2022 and will miss this.

The hope is former Spanish-language Hall of Fame broadcaster Jaime Jarrin, who just turned 87 and is now retired, can be there in August. Same with former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, who just turned 85, and long-time teammate Manny Mota, who also just turned 85.

In a recent piece for The Athletic, Fabian Ardaya quotes Jarrin: “It’s something that was long overdue … I don’t know why they waited. They could have done this several years ago. But now they’re retiring the number, so it’s fantastic …He belongs there…. His number will be there forever.”

The tribute will come on an otherwise nothing-happening weekend in August, against an opponent, the Colorado Rockies, that wasn’t even around when Valenzuela was pitching for the Dodgers. Expect fans to pay inflated ticket prices to the three games in order to get some give-away trinkets.

Valenzuela had been in this Think Blue purgatory called “Legends of Dodgers Baseball (presented by Bank of America),” a quasi-elevated category the team had put him in with Steve Garvey, Maury Wills, Kirk Gibson and Don Newcomb (and this summer will add Mota and Orel Hershiser) but with no number-retirement ceremony expected to go with it.

Until now.

So many questions …

When Erik Sherman decided to dive into this well-researched and context-rich book about Valenzuela’s life and times, he included a final chapter called “Legacy,” where he addressed not only this lack-of-number-retirement status, but also why Valenzuela hasn’t drawn enough attention to be included in Cooperstown’s hallowed shrine.

Review copies of Sherman’s book came out in February, a couple of weeks after the Dodgers-Valenzuela announcement. It was a bit too late to rewrite an update. Sherman, a New York-based writer, is likely to be recognized by Dodgers-faithful readers as the resourceful author who seemed to single-handedly produced “Out At Home: The True Glenn Burke – Baseball’s First Openly Gay Player” in 2015 (we reviewed here) and then referenced again as we reviewed Andrew Maraniss’ “Singled Out: The True Story of Glenn Burke: The First Openly Gay MLB Player and Inventor of the High Five” in 2021.

In this case, Sherman may have caught a nice break having this book ready to release this season as the Valenzuela spotlight will re-intensify after so many years of being quite dormant.

Sherman, having an ESPN “30 For 30” documentary from 2010 called “Fernando Nation” to access, as well as Jason Turbow’s well-received “The Bled Blue: Fermandomania, Strike-Season Mayhem and the Weirdest Championship Baseball Had Ever Seen” about the 1981 Dodgers in 2019, had to do a lot of his own refresh work to fill in many gaps.

That included connecting with Dodgers team historian Mark Langill and former Dodgers GM Fred Claire, who was in the team’s communications department when Valenzuela arrived in ’81 and made the final decision on his release in ’91.

Claire’s perspective of that roster move may be the most revealing part of this book after all these years.

Along the way, Sherman picks up fresh perspectives from former Valenzuela teammates like Rick Monday, Dusty Baker, Steve Garvey, Jerry Reuss, Pedro Guerrero and Tom Niedenfuer. Sherman also has great nuggets of info from Bruce Bochy, who managed Valenzuela in his three seasons in San Diego and played against him as a member of the Giants.

The plight of the Mexican immigrant is just as important narrative weaved into this.

Sherman is bold in his preface to establish three major talking points:

= Valenzuela was to Latinos what Jackie Robinson was to Black Americans.

= Whether he professed to be or not, Valenzuela had become a reflection of the great Mexican American civil rights icon Cesar Chavez, a leader to a people largely doing low-paid manual labor. They had come to believe if Fernando could succeed, so could they. He changed their lives. He was their salvation.

= A strong argument can be made that he introduced baseball to more people around the world than any ballplayer who has ever lived.

The mystique Valenzuela created by shying away from any biographies or autobiographies, or even getting involved in these kind of heady discussions, are what make this book even more intriguing.

Author Q&A

Q: Maybe you can diplomatically explain how in your book, in the final chapter that is titled “Legacy,” you document reasons given over the years about why Fernando Valenzuela’s No. 34 hasn’t been retired – and then it comes to pass that this most recent off-season, the Dodgers are all giddy about that fact it will now do it, and will happen in August?

A: Well, media and the fans have been clamoring for years for the Dodgers to break their unwritten rule of retiring only Dodgers’ HOFers numbers (with Junior Gilliam the only exception as a sentimental favorite of the O’Malley’s when he passed suddenly) and do so with Fernando.  But here’s the thing. My publisher was requested to send a few advanced copies to Dodger executives when they came out in early February. And, lo-and-behold, three weeks later they make the announcement about Fernando’s Number 34!  So I am owning it!  Maybe my Legacy chapter was the last straw!

Q: Another thing in that chapter is why Valenzuela hasn’t drawn much attention for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Why do you think that’s the case? It is worth noting you think he could at least deserve the Buck O’Neil Award for those who “enhanced baseball’s positive impact on society, broadened the game’s appeal and whose character, integrity and dignity are comparable” to what O’Neil showed.

A: It’s purely a numbers’ game.  Fernando only had six truly “great” seasons and the HOF voters like to see 10.  But the voters should really look at people who greatly impacted the game and an argument can be made that nobody in baseball history did so more than Fernando.  He brought Mexicans from outside the shadows at ballparks all over America.  And that impact is still felt today.  The O’Neil Award is a no-brainer by it’s very definition.

Q: There are the larger cultural and social aspects to this story as you’ve pointed out – links to Cesar Chavez and Jackie Robinson. As well as the plight of the Mexican immigrant. What do you hope readers take away from those narratives you’ve brought up as a broader understanding of what Valenzuela meant?

A: I hope they take away what Fernando meant to the average Mexican, Mexican-American and Latino in terms of how they can improve their own lives.  Here was a 20 year old, overweight, unsophisticated young man from an impoverished Mexican town that proved he could be the best in the world at his profession for a given period of time.  He reminded them of their older brother or uncle—an everyman—who could do great things.  He inspired them to become not just ballplayers, but doctors, lawyers, teachers and professionals.  If he could do it, so could they.  He was to Mexicans what Jackie Robinson was to African-Americans.  And the similarities to Chavez were remarkable—both impacted millions, both were not public speakers, both were not the classic physical specimens that you might envision of a hero. 

Q: You also hope is Fernando might realize from this book the impact he made on society and his culture. How might you measure that … when there is a chance for an update and you maybe can talk to him about it?

A: I will likely see him next week at Dodger Stadium.  That should be interesting, as I don’t know what to expect.  I’ve spent three years of my life working on his life story and have interviewed nearly a hundred people both inside and outside his inner circle.  Usually a biography is a power thing for the subject.  Hopefully, he is moved, though there is a chance he won’t care.  He relishes his privacy and is still quite shy.  I am enamored by what his reaction will be. 

Q: How do you think not being able to coax any interviews for Valenzuela affected the content of this project?

A: I’ve been told it’s probably a better book this way because it’s completely impartial.  In other words, I think a biography can provide more details and truths than an autobiography.  I’ve met him briefly before.  He’s a nice man, but not exactly loquacious.  I would have liked the opportunity to interview him to see what he would have revealed, though he rarely gives them and has turned down substantial sums of money for his life story whether on the page or screen. 

Mike Brito and Fernando Valenzuela in March 2012 at Camelback Ranch-Glendale in Phoenix, Arizona.
© Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers

Q: Of all the people you were able to draw upon, where do you think you got your best insights about Valenzuela from?

A: Probably first and foremost from his inner circle—Jaime Jarrin, Pepe Yniguez, Mike Brito—but also from writers like Lyle Spencer and team historian Mark Langill.  Teammates like Dusty Baker, Steve Garvey, Rick Monday, Pedro Guerrero, Tom Niedenfuer, and Jerry Reuss were also terrific.  They all knew him extremely well.

Q: Who else would you have wanted to interview for this? Mike Scioscia? Anyone else?

A: Yes, I really wanted Scioscia as he was Fernando’s primary catcher.  Ron Cey was another, but probably because he was working on his own book he didn’t agree to speak with me.  I have met Ron in the past — we had a wonderful conversation.  So I understand why he didn’t want to if he had his own book coming out at the same time.  That’s my guess.

Q: What most impressed you about Valenzuela’s career from a numbers standpoint?

A: Statistically, no starting pitcher in history began his career better than Fernando.  He was unhittable the first half of the ’81 season.  But I must say, his no-hitter in ’90 was so impressive because some of his talent had eroded by that time.  That accomplishment was based on grit and truly learning how to pitch.  In my mind, the best game he ever pitched was Game Five against the Expos in the NLCS.  Freezing temps and he pitched an absolute gem to put the Dodgers in the World Series.

Q: Do you think in today’s game, with Shohei Ohtani doing what he’s been doing with his pitching arm and at the plate, there might have been more thought given to Fernando Valenzuela, who had two Silver Slugger Awards, possibly being a two-way player – again, with the DH in place in the National League?

A: Excellent point!  Yes, I think they would have let him hit — especially early in his career. 

Q: Has Valenzuela’s career as a broadcaster enhanced his status with the franchise, since it is apparent he could have easily faded into the sunset and, considering how the Dodgers once dropped him, never looked back at L.A.?

A: His broadcasting kept his Dodgers’ legacy alive.  It’s been said that Jaime Jarrin was responsible for convincing to come back to the Dodgers’ family in that role.  Fernando was bitter when the Dodgers cut him at the end of Spring Training in ’91. 

How it goes in the scorebook

Like the number retirement ceremony, a book like this has been too long in arriving, but we can’t always pick the time and place that we deem to be most authentic and holistic.

It’s now, so pay attention.

Just as readers had to come to terms of the realities of the Dodgers’ creation and fruition in L.A. with Eric Nusbaum’s 2020 gem “Stealing Home: Los Angeles, the Dodgers and the Lives Caught in Between,” and Jerald Podair’s 2019 “City of Dreams: Dodger Stadium and the Birth of Modern Los Angeles” – as well as Don Normark’s 1999 “Chavez Ravine, 1940: A Los Angeles Story” and its subsequent documentary – “Daybreak at Chavez Ravine” and the story of Fernandomaina will have to be in the same ballpark of local historic literary reckoning.

You can look it up: More to ponder

== An excerpt of Chapter 19 as posted on Howard Cole’s “Off Base” Substack site.

== It would be prudent to find one of the local book store/signings for Sherman coming up:
Wednesday, May 3: Book Soup, West Hollywood at 7 p.m.
Thursday, May 4: Chevaliers Books, Los Angeles at 6 p.m.
Sunday, May 7: Chaucer’s Books, Santa Barbara at 4 p.m.

== Other books in the Sherman pipeline include:
= “Two Sides of Glory: The 1986 Boston Red Sox in Their Own Words” (2021, University of Nebraska Press) with our review here.
= “After the Miracle: The Lasting Brotherhood of the ’69 Mets” (2019, Simon & Schuster)
= “Davey Johnson: My Wild Ride in Baseball and Beyond,” (2018, Triumph Books) with our review here.
= “Kings of Queens: Life Beyond Baseball with the ’86 Mets” (2016, Berkley Books)
= “Mookie: Life, Baseball and the ’86 Mets” (2014, Berkley Books)
= “Steve Blass: A Pirate for Life” (2012, Triumph Books)

== A Society for American Baseball Research profile on Fernandomania is here.

== We did not forget: Illustration credit for artwork at the top of this post: Tom Forget /


Day 10 of 2023 baseball books: A circus catch with a minor-league degree of difficulty

“Welcome to the Circus of Baseball:
A Story of the Perfect Summer,
at the Perfect Ballpark, at the Perfect Time”

The author:
Ryan McGee

The publishing info:
Doubleday/Penguin/Random House
272 pages; $29
Released April 4, 2023

The links:
The publishers website
At TheLastBookStoreLA

The review in 90 feet or less

Roger Owens’ whereabouts inside Dodger Stadium on any given game may be as much a minor miracle as it is a logistical challenge. It remains one of our most logical pursuits whenever we get the nerve to navigate the traffic inside and out of the ballpark these days.

Why go to a game? One good reason: Check in on Roger Dodger. For love of the game.

Through any stadium entrance, get to the loge level and survey which odd-number aisles of the third-base side Owens may be traversing like some kind of garden maze. Get in his line of vision. Then sheepishly strike up a conversation, even if it causes him to pause from his duties as the iconic peanut vendor performing one of the city’s most noteworthy deeds of the day. For his satisfaction and employment, and for our entertainment experiences.

Owens has given us enough nifty insights into his career over many decades – specifically in 2008 when the Dodgers returned to the L.A. Coliseum to commemorate their 50th anniversary in the city by staging an exhibition game against the Red Sox, and then catching up prior to the Dodgers-Red Sox 2017 World Series. It finally led to local city government proclamations recognizing his impact on our lives.

He’s got his own Internet Movie Database resume — “Men In Tights” in 1993 came about because Mel Brooks knew his work and his role in a crowded gathering — he brought the joy. He’s made several appearance on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” back in the day. We own a bobblehead — signed — created for him in his honor by a local company — and still not yet distributed at Dodger Stadium in a night that might honor him instead of some marginal relief pitcher.

Roger Owens, right, explains how life is going these days with me and my friend, Chuck, during the Dodgers’ first Sunday home game of the 2023 season.

Even Baseball Almanac recognizes his perfect pitching history in its annals, quoting from the book Owens’ late nephew once wrote about his incredible life of perseverance and family tribulation.

What’s relevant in 2023 is that Owens is, among others, unnecessarily taking the brunt of the residual effects of baseball’s attempt to improve its overall commerce.

New rules extract so-called dead time and try to wrap up nine innings in less than three hours. Great. But it’s only natural that Owens (and other vendors) have less time to sell and generate income. They have to work quicker. That isn’t fair, or easy, for someone like Owens, who just turned 80 on Valentine’s Day and has to deal with arthritic ailments that naturally come from years of going up and down stairs, being in the sunshine as it affects the skin, and also having issues with his hearing. He’s also still wearing the surgical mask because he feels safer.

On top of that: A bag of peanuts has soared to close to $8 a bag with tax.

To ring up sales, Owens needs to lug around a portable credit card scanner – which often is faulty and has to be swapped out for another one. Tips are tougher to generate that way as well. That leads to a jam up of employees trying to replenish during the game.

Owens says he can only get through two cases of peanuts, which have 36 bags each, because of limitations, slower sales and all else that factors in.

This is all on top of a backward edict, still unresolved and unaddressed, that prevents him from tossing fans their bags of peanuts as he has done since the 1950s when he was a teenager at the Coliseum. Or else he’ll get in trouble. Obviously, a bag of nuts he tosses from 20 feet away, by way of a right arm going between his legs, around his back, or over his head, could really, really hurt someone, right? Especially those whose noses are pressed to their cellphones and aren’t paying attention.

All things considered, it would hardly seem to be worth the effort. But this is Roger Owens. Resilient. Persistent. Never shell-shocked by all these distractions. The last homestand, he even had a scary moment when he stumbled over a obstacle meant to keep people in line, went face-first onto the pavement, scratched his glasses, busted up his mouth and came out of it with a bruised left eye. But he came back to pitch after spending some time in the stadium infirmary.

Owens will always defy the odds and figure out how to do his circus-type work, no matter what clowns are running the show.

Despite the fact he’s a vital part of the Dodger Stadium ethos and its atmospheric gauge — take the temperature inside the place, and if it’s sunny and with not a cloud in the sky, it’s because of Owens — he’s never been recognized as a Dodgers employee during the annual season-end recognition. All who are brought onto the field to celebrate their longevity with the organization doesn’t included him only because he is part of the company that provides the food services, and even they are not keen on relaxing rules that allow him to work in the cheerful environment he helped create.

We’ve bubblewrapped so many ballpark things now – and forced upon everyone a technology that enforces a touch-less experience with any purchase. Those over the age of 70 might just as well stay home if they can’t change their habits of the last half century. Those in the 12-and-under age range who come to a mid-week day game with their classroom groups might be handed a $20 bill from their parents to get something to eat, but they must spend time in a line at one of the few kiosks around the stadium that accept bills in exchange for a debit card from an ATM-type machine so they can pay for anything at a concession stand.

Or, to put into Owens’ machine so he is compensated.

It’s amazing that Owens doesn’t just exclaim (everyone scream it out) nuts to this circus. Yet, when he’s there, at work, grinding out another game for the enjoyment of others, we can’t help fell as if we’re inside Roger’s Big Top, and he’s the ring master, joke teller, trying to avoid the elephant in the room.

The peanut gallery has spoken. We’ll get off our crate and try to refocus on another baseball three-ring event.

Dodger Stadium has seen its share of circus acts over the years. The most recent was when Cirque du Soleil pitched a tent in the parking lot and evoke this lead from the Associated Press story in December, 2015:

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The circus is coming to Dodger Stadium.
Cirque du Soleil is raising its blue-and-yellow big top at the home of the Los Angeles Dodgers for the premiere of its latest touring production, “Kurios — Cabinet of Curiosities.”

It raised some curiosities about how other ballparks could be converted into circus-friendly facilities.

Which is something that’s been going on with minor-league baseball since it was invented.

Which is why Ryan McGee’s look back at his experience in North Carolina in the early 1990s, at a time when Major League Baseball was losing its charm and forcing its business upon everyone of its loyal souring supporters, is so worthy of re-examining today.

What’s happened to the fun? When did loud sirens and flashing LED lights become the thing to do when someone for the home team hits a home run? Or the loud music with the thumping base beat become the beat of baseball?

Is this how baseball defines fun now?

Mike Veeck, son of baseball visionary Bill Veeck and owner of his own variety of minor-league baseball teams, came out with the 2005 book, “Fun Is Good: How to Create Joy & Passion in Your Workplace and Career.” It was all based on his own experiences at the ballpark, particularly running the St. Paul Saints.

And truth be known: We gave a copy of this book to one-time Dodgers owner Frank McCourt. He seemed genuinely curious about it and we feel he did read it, after thanking us with a note for getting it on his radar.

It’s a minor miracle that minor-league baseball exists to any fun extend any more today.

McGee taps into his writing abilities that finally landed him a job at ESPN (he hasn’t been laid off yet?) and he continues as co-host of “Marty & McGee” with Marty Smith on ESPN Radio. McGee’s writing has also drawn praise for his work on ESPN’s “College GameDay.”

His career trajectory out of college – and landing an internship touring with the Asheville Tourists in North Carolina – is now preserved for entertainment purposes and historical context in these pages. A perfect sized city for minor-league ball, filling a need while waiting on the porch to see if the MLB ever wants to expand into proven real estate.

McGee manages to make words like fertilizer, foam-costumed crustacean, nacho cheese sauce and “Captain Dynamite and His Exploding Coffin of Death” (not really) all dance together in the same pages. It’s poetic justice to a time when McGee can now look back at the poetry in motion he was experiencing.

The bottom line is taking a journey back in time and having distance to process it. From there, McGee shows a concern about how tradition is being canceled by those who aren’t imaginative enough to see its value when numbers are pressed into a spreadsheet.

Circle back to Roger Owens and get back to us when his credit card machine is actually working. He may want to go back to the All-American days with the double bags for $2 and kids could catch them with their baseball gloves.

Maybe he’s got to consider a new gig, at Lake Elsinore. Or Rancho Cucamonga. Or San Bernardino. Head to Vegas for the weekend. Some local minor league ball park where he would be appreciated, beloved, and tipped well.

In cash. And in proper adoration.

How it goes in the scorebook

Shelve it right there next to “Clubbie: A Minor League Baseball Memoir,” by Greg Larson (University of Nebraska Press), which we enjoyed reviewing in 2021 and still stays alive on its adjacent website.

The insight Larson gave in “Clubbie” runs parallel to McGee in “Welcome to the Circus of Baseball.”

Full of delight. The meaning of delightful. And shedding light on a subject that needs more historical perspective.

The rhythm is captivating from the start, the stories and incidents of minor league baseball are things we’ve read about in the past, but this is a relevant refresh – especially considering how it is going back in time to 1993, when Major League Baseball was teetering and the minor leagues were the idealistic way to experience the game again on a small-town basis, and how minor league baseball has been contracted for the good of no one.

It made us dream again for a redo.

You can look it up: More to ponder

== The illustration of Captain Dynamite above comes from, and artist Jason David Córdova.

== McGee updates the status of Minor League Baseball in a May 19 post here.

== A review by The Wall Street Journal’s David M. Shribman points out that over the years, other minor-league focused books have documented certain aspects of this Americana experience.

“But because Mr. McGee’s focus is the back-office grunt work and not the players’ experience, his narrative has a special allure. …. Evoking the shimmering green of Asheville’s sunny diamond, Mr. McGee’s chronicle is a celebration of baseball when it isn’t only the greenbacks that matter. The circus of baseball is still, despite all the problems, the greatest show on Earth.”

And what a nice way to be referred to after all that, as Mr. McGee.

“The contrast between big and small is the quiet subtheme,” of the book, Shribman also explains and we concur. “Minor-league operators constantly struggle to keep tradition alive and remain relevant, a challenge made even greater after the 2020 constriction of the minor leagues that called for the elimination of 42 teams.

“As Mr. McGee puts it: Minor-league clubs worry about ‘how to maintain a balance between the old ways of doing things, the very methods that had gotten them all to where they were now, and the newer, increasingly corporatized practices that might very well be their only chance of surviving in the future’.”

Kind of like the world of newspapers. And Major League Baseball stadiums.

== One more previous title to consider: “The Circus Is In Town: A Baseball Odyssey,” by Robert A. Hilliard (released in 2016, Outskirts Press). The author recounts how he became a central figure in bringing baseball back to New Jersey in the 1990s, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Single-A team.

== Does anyone else know about something called the “Major League Circus Show?” See if this jogs memories. And what is the NitroCircus that tours minor league parks, like the Dodgers’ Oklamoma City affiliate?

Day 9 of 2023 baseball books: Son of a gun, these stories still grow roots

“Sons of Baseball: Growing Up with
a Major League Dad”

The author:
Mark Braff

The publishing info:
Rowman & Littlefield
240 pages; $24.95
To be released May 10, 2023

The links:
The publishers website
At TheLastBookStoreLA
At Diesel Books

The review in 90 feet or less

A recent story in the San Diego Union-Tribune recently made us feel a bit older. And wiser.

David Newhan, who managed to get eight solid years in as a Major League Baseball infielder and outfielder with San Diego, Philadelphia, Baltimore, the New York Mets and Houston, between 1999 and 2008, deviated from a recent career path as a big-league coach so he could jump in as the head coach at Maranatha Christian High School in San Diego. He’s been there since mid-season 2022 after the team got off to a 1-9 start.

Maranatha Christian’s Nico Newhan, left, and David Newhan in Feb., 2023 in San Diego. (San Diego Union-Tribune)

The impetus for the change: His son, Nico, plays there now as a senior, and will be a shortstop heading to the University of Arizona on a baseball scholarship soon.

David could see the writing on the wall. Perhaps, because his father, Ross, is in the writers’ wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, recognition for his career as a journalist with the Long Beach Press-Telegram and Los Angeles Times covering the Dodgers, Angels and then the game in general.

“The fact is I spent every spring training and summer at the ballpark,” Ross says in the story. “So naturally, baseball was a way for me to be closer to my son … The players were great to (David). He worked in the clubhouse, he got to be the bat boy. I never pushed David into baseball. He just gravitated to the game.”

Same story with David and his son.

“He was running around the clubhouse when I was with the Mets and Astros,” said David. “I could see he was driven. I’m not surprised by his success.”

Adds Nico: “Not many kids are blessed with a dad who played and coached in the big leagues. For my dad to take time away from his coaching career to be with me and this team is a blessing.”

The baseball thread that can connect grandfather to father to son isn’t one seen all that often on the big-league level, so appreciate it when it happens – or could. In any scenario.

Mark Braff, a retired media PR professional from New Jersey looking for a project to work on, came up with this idea even though he says in the acknowledgements that, before this book began in January 2021, “I did not know a single ‘son of baseball’ … so, challenge number one was to figure out how – or even if – I could connect with the people whose stories are collected in this book.”

He explains more how one contact led to another. Dodgers’ assistant PR director Jon Chapper thought he might have more than something with Jerry Hairston, Jr., the current Dodgers’ SportsNet LA studio analyst.

As Braff tracked down and interviewed 18 sons of former MLB players, Hairston and his 16-year MLB career with Baltimore, the Chicago Cubs, Texas, Cincinnati, the New York Yankees, San Diego, Washington, Milwaukee and the last two with the Dodgers in 2012 and ’13, warranted inclusion. He’s the only one of a three-generation baseball family mentioned.

Continue reading “Day 9 of 2023 baseball books: Son of a gun, these stories still grow roots”