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Volume 23 No. 28
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New books: Running the bases

With baseball on hold, get your fix of the sport with a dozen new books hitting the shelves

Challenging times in the sports business world? Those invested in publishing sports books are on the same page. The new spring release of baseball books isn’t allowing anxious authors to spring forward with store appearances, signings and all the other adulation that goes with promoting them.

As a mother of invention, the Pandemic Baseball Book Club (www.pbbclub.com) has sprung up as one way to combat it.

Brad Balukjian, a natural science professor at Merritt College in Oakland, is one of the first members. He took the semester off with plans to circle all the bases with the April 1 release of his book, “The Wax Pack: On The Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife,” a cathartic journey around the country to visit ex-players whose cards happened to be in a Topps package of 1986 cards he opened up.

But as Balukjian, 39, realized at the end of his trip — “Everything changes except for this one constant: As long as you’re breathing, you will always have whatever is right in front of you. Make it count.” — it resonates even more during the COVID-19 shutdown.

“This book to me is much more about how to live your life than how to play baseball,” he said. “In the middle of this, it’s important to remember — it’s OK to feel down and anxious. I could collapse in frustration that I’ve had a 40-stop book tour canceled. But I’m not going to change by investing my energy into that feeling. Don’t descend into self-pity.”

We choose instead to ascend, recommending these new titles found online, that can help educate and entertain while keeping a socially accepted distance.

“The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife,” by Brad Balukjian (University of Nebraska Press, $27.95, 280 pages, released April 1)

Whatever happened to Jaime Cocanower, Rance Mulliniks and Randy Ready? Get ready for unexpected pleasures. Balukjian shuffles his deck of 1986 Topps cards — including Steve Yeager, Rick Sutcliffe, Gary Pettis, Al Cowens, Carlton Fisk, Doc Gooden, Garry Templeton and Vince Coleman — and sets out on a path of discovery that includes himself as much as his underdog heroes. It’s not just how Balukjian watches kung fu movies with Templeton, plays Cards Against Humanity with Cocanower or goes bowling and lifts weights with Ready. His inquisitive nature, honesty and self-awareness guides us through a mix of memoir, travel and human connection. These cardboard gods can be even more heroic now.

“The Cactus League,” by Emily Nemens (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Macmillian, $27, 288 pages, released Feb. 4)

A novel approach by the 36-year-old editor of The Paris Review finds a less-than-prickly way to probe the cul-de-sac nuances of spring training in Arizona, circa 2011. Jason Goodyear, a recent American League MVP runner-up for the Los Angeles Lions, gambles with his career arc, but amid the nine chapters (or innings), it’s more about the human frailties in a post-recession for his hitting coach, physical therapist and agent, plus fans and ballpark staffers all in survival mode. Nemens draws on her connection to the game from when she was 6 and, as a Seattle Mariners fan, looked up to 19-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. when he made an instant impact in the Emerald City.

“Swing Kings: The Inside Story of Baseball’s Home Run Revolution,” by Jared Diamond (William Morrow/Harper Collins, $28.99, 336 pages, released March 31)

The Wall Street Journal’s sharp baseball writer gains more loft from a feature he whipped up in 2017 spring training, going deep on how outside-the-batters-box hitting gurus prescribe ways to elevate the ball, which may not be all that new. Babe Ruth figured it out in the ’20s, and Ted Williams’ 1971 book, “The Science of Hitting,” is a template on how to counteract pitchers who throw downhill from a mound. Diamond barrels up with depth on how players like Justin Turner, J.D. Martinez, Kris Bryant and Aaron Judge are modern creations by exit strategists Craig Wallenbrock, Doug Latta, Richard Schenck and Bobby Tewksbary.

“Buzz Saw: The Improbable Story of How the Washington Nationals Won the World Series,” by Jesse Dougherty (Simon & Schuster, $28, 308 pages, released March 24)

There’s value in deconstruction. Bryce Harper abandons a team that just went 80-81, and now it’s all about a “Baby Shark” song and a skipper willing to survive and advance on an inning-to-inning basis? This was far more than a tool box full of duct tape and a solar-powered flashlight. Two Cy Young-résumé starters bonding with a calculated mix of young stars and veterans, climaxed with stealing four World Series games as the visiting team in Houston. Fans of teams trampled in the process won’t find this to be a buzz kill. Refreshed interviews culled by the 25-year-old Washington Post team beat writer give new perspective to the first-time champions. 

“Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry,” by Joan Ryan (Little, Brown and Company/Hachette, $28, 272 pages, April 28 release)

The headline in the satirical Onion.com is about how the 2007 Washington Nationals failed miserably against all spring training expectations: “Team’s chemistry overwhelmed by opponent’s biology.” Ryan, one of the finest sports newspaper columnists in the country and notable author of “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes,” unpacks the chemical balance beyond a catch phrase, and uses baseball because it is most like the business world — employee-tasked execution, based on various talents, combined to achieve a team goal. A “failure to thrive” could be also related to the need for human connection and activate our inner oxytocin. What worked for “The Bad News Bears” can be good news for those seeking mirror-neuronic messages of hope today.

“The Incredible Women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League,” by Anika Orrock (Chronicle Books, $19.95, 160 pages, released March 10)

There’s a beautifully crafted, mid-century artistic license taken by this Oakland native and Nashville resident in extracting quotes and quips from the women who played in the AAGPBL during the ’40s and ’50s. Orrock creates a new narrative and aura around the brave athletes who dared to step up to the plate to fill a wartime void and need for national pride. With energy, sophistication and validation, this proves again there’s crying in baseball, if just tears of joy for generations of young girls who have a new entry point to this history now that 28 years have passed since the movie “A League of Their Own.”

“The Inside Game: Bad Calls, Strange Moves and What Baseball Behavior Teaches Us About Ourselves,” by Keith Law (William Morrow, $28.99, 272 pages, April 21 release)

Deciding to examine the decision-making process of the modern game leads the astute author of the 2017 gem “Smart Baseball” to draw upon his media knowledge (senior baseball writer for The Athletic, after working at ESPN and The Baseball Prospectus), plus time in the Toronto Blue Jays front office. The behavioral sciences behind when to issue a take sign and when to take a risk signing a Tommy John-surgery pitcher produces an onion-peeling reveal about the data and human process behind it. What motivates some may discourage others, and both can make perfect sense. Don’t overthink it — this can also help in other walks of life and business.

“Stealing Home: Los Angeles, The Dodgers and the Lives Caught in Between,” by Eric Nusbaum (Public Affairs/Hachette, 352 pages, $18.99, released March 24)

Today it’s called gentrification. Some 60 years ago, it was urban renewal, and the Dodgers sought land in L.A. to create a new modern stadium. North of downtown became the landing pad that Angelenos know as “Chavez Ravine,” but in truth, “it is really a code word for the mysteries and pleasure of baseball,” writes L.A. native Nusbaum. He was personally pulled into this story back in high school, when a victim of the Red Scare explained how he was once in charge of making this acreage a Utopian housing project. “The real history is less like a fable and more like the story of a crime that Los Angeles perpetuated on itself,” Nusbaum adds as he connects new dots to familiar landmarks and remaps the area that today’s city slickers might want to Google again.

“State of Play: The Old School Guide to New School Baseball,” by Bill Ripken (Diversion Books, $24.99, 240 pages, released Feb. 18)

The MLB Network studio analyst (and younger brother of Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.) has his own public service announcement: Let’s unite our outlook instead of being grumpy about how the national pastime works in 2020. A refresher course on how and why things happen bridges the process, and it’s open to constructive criticism. The former middle infielder has an acute angle of perspective, and has our trust that there’s a simple agenda of finding the center of the Venn diagram where spreadsheets and scoresheets overlap. Pitch framing, launch angles, spin rate, wins above replacement, defensive shifts and the DH are all fair game, even when today’s stadium lights can’t be turned on to help act as a disinfectant.

“Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original,” by Mitchell Nathanson (University of Nebraska Press, $34.95, 448 pages, May 1 release)

The Villanova law professor produces what would be the final chapter in the legacy of Jim Bouton, who died the summer of 2019 from brain disease. There’s far more depth to reveal about the somewhat eccentric, decorum-flouting author of the 1970 classic “Ball Four.” He kept his wits about him later as a sportscaster, actor and then a midlife crisis comeback as a knuckleball pitcher. Nathanson finds not just a complicated man, but one misunderstood, reviving Bouton’s best pitching line: “You spend a good deal of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

“Hall of Name: Baseball’s Most Magnificent Monikers from ‘The Only Nolan’ to ‘Van Lingle Mungo’ and More,” by D.B. Firstman (self-published by DB Books, $18, 326 pages, released March 17)

We know a great baseball name when we read it, squint at it, and then try to spit it out. But as the kids say in the national spelling bee: Can we have the etymology? Can you use it in a sentence without snickering? The Urban Shocker is that someone finally name drops about 100 MLB players to see if what’s on the back of the jersey may have more historical pop-culture importance than what’s on the front. Ethnicity and authenticity are part of the process for the Society of American Baseball Research veteran. Names are parceled into “Poets and Men of Few (Different) Letters,” “Dirty Names Done Dirt Cheap,” “Sounds Good to Me” and “No Focus Group Convened.” You’ll never again try to melodiously mispronounce Rusty Kuntz.

“War Fever: Boston, Baseball and America in the Shadow of the Great War,” by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith (Basic Books, $30, 368 pages, released March 24)

Roberts and Smith, history professors at Purdue and Georgia Tech, respectively, can’t complain about the timing. They’ve connected Babe Ruth with the pandemic of his time — the 1918 so-called “Spanish Influenza” — which knocked the 23-year-old Red Sox pitcher for a loop coming out of a polluted time in spring training. As the city is battling “the grippe,” the World Series champions were led by Ruth, who is “becoming a figure of folklore. He was Paul Bunyan with an ax, Davy Crockett with a rifle, Mike Fink on a keelboat — an American capable of accomplishments beyond mortal man.” A two-time 20-game winning pitcher is now leading the American League in homers. Who’d have guessed?

Tom Hoffarth is a writer based in Southern California.