My Little Blue Book
When I was nine years old, my parents gave me a little book with a blue cover for Christmas. It was small enough to fit into a stocking--5 by 4 inches, with the kind of cheap-grade paper that made its 174 pages seem more like 50. Written by Louis Phillips in 1979, it had the terse, uninspiring title BASEBALL.
You wouldn't think much of the book if you saw it today. It's littered with dry lists (the 3,000-hit club, top ten lifetime homers, etc.), strange-but-true anecdotes (like Harvey Haddix's lost masterpiece), a glossary of baseball terms (a can of corn is "a high, lazy fly ball that can be easily caught"), and mini-bios and illustrations for some of the game's most honored luminaries. The quality of the drawings is variable at best - you'd swear Carl Yastzremski was actually Richie Cunningham, and that someone inserted a sketch of Dionne Warwick in place of Rod Carew.
But to me the book was a godsend. I studied it obsessively for the entire winter after I got it. I could tell you that Tris Speaker hit more doubles than any man in history, that Al Zarilla was the last guy to smoke two triples in an inning, and that Walter Johnson struck out 3,508 batters, more than every other major-league pitcher (up to that point, anyway; the figure has been bested eight times since). For awhile my father and his friends used to try to stump me by asking me to, say, rattle off the complete list of 500 home-run hitters, or give the names of the last Triple Crown winners in each league.
The weird thing is, I wasn't a huge baseball freak when my parents gave me that book for Christmas. I mean, sure, I'd been to many ballgames by 1979. But to be honest those games are mostly a miasma of hazy impressions. I never had the primordial experience where you walk into a ballpark for the first time and fall in love with the smell of the grass or the thwack of the ball hitting the bat. Instead, I fell in love with baseball through a book. You might even say that I fell in love with BASEBALL before baseball itself.
It's a little embarrassing now that I think about it, that a throwaway stocking stuffer--which couldn't have cost more than a buck-fifty--was my way into the National Pastime. In fact, after I'd memorized all the stats in my little blue book, I got ahold of some baseball periodicals and followed the 1979 season after it was over (sorta like a guy I knew who liked reading literary criticism about Moby-Dick, but hadn't actually read Moby-Dick).
After that stat-fueled winter of 1979, I got into baseball--I'm talking real, actual baseball here--pretty hardcore. But until that time, baseball was mostly a series of lists and dates and numbers to me. Something about those stats had a kabbalistic hold on me, which is exactly what the traditionalists complain about--that today's kids are reducing the wonderfully elusive game of baseball into a Matrix-like stream of data. But that's what baseball was to me in the early days: a parade of numbers.
My ally in the world of baseball numbers was always my brother Sean. Four years younger than me, he was something of a math prodigy. My dad would quiz him when he was still young enough to sit in the seat of a grocery cart, asking, for example, "what's negative three minus negative five," and Sean would chirp "Two!" Later he learned how to do long division in a blink and read college textbooks as a hobby--you know, for fun. Eventually he had to be sent to an advanced math school (think this episode of the Simpsons) because he was too bored with regular ol' addition and subtraction.
Around that same time, in the mid-'80s, I read Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.: J. Henry Waugh, Prop. I was too young to understand it as a work of meta-fiction, but I was smitten with the main character, Henry Waugh, and his attempts to devise a role-playing baseball game that he could play on his kitchen table:
Henry had spent the better part of two months just working on the problem of odds and equilibrium points in an effort to approximate [the game's] complexity. Two dice had not done it. He'd tried three, each a different color, and the 216 different combinations had provided the complexity, but he'd nearly gone blind trying to sort the colors of each throw. Finally, he'd compromised, keeping the three dice, but all white, reducing the total number of combinations to 56, though of course the odds were still based on 216. . .Besides these, he also had special strategy charts for hit-and-run plays, attempted stolen bases, sacrifice bunts, and squeeze plays, still others for decided the ages of rookies when they came up, for providing details of injuries and errors, and for determining who, each year, must die.
This was turbo-charged Strat-o-matic, a league where you got to be player, fan, manager, GM, owner, and even God Himself. It was just attractive enough to a self-absorbed teenager (is there any other kind?) that I decided I was going to invent a role-playing baseball game of my own.
But I would need help from my brother Sean. The two of us were heavily into Bill James, APBA, and baseball arcana (I remember going to a ballgame with him once and both of us trying to name every ballplayer from 1982 whose last name ended in the letter Y--we got everyone but Tim Flannery). In many ways Sean was the ideal partner as we embarked on our super-project. But in another way we were totally ill-suited to the task. After all, I was only 14 years old; he was 9. Math prodigy or no, I'm not sure we realized the enormity of constructing a game that was, essentially, an extremely complex orrery--a mechanical model of baseball itself.
But try we did. We spent the better part of one summer figuring out the percentages of various incidents, both on and off the field (i.e., when the Pittsburgh Drug Trials exposed baseball's drug problem a short time later, I factored in the odds that a player would be suspended for putting coke up his nose). Far and away our biggest bugaboo was devising a mathematical model for baseball's aging patterns. Sean and I filled notebook after notebook charting the flow of hundreds of players' careers.
It was an endless, painstaking research project, but I realized, near the end of that summer, that our data was fundamentally screwy. Specifically, I noticed that different types of players aged differently--that slender slap hitters were different animals from lunky longball types (an insight that eventually made PECOTA tick). But because I hadn't factored that in, it made our research virtually useless. I began to feel in over my head. When I started high school in the fall, I set aside my preoccupation with baseball numbers and turned to other things: girls, the Godfather movies, the Clash, things like that.
But Sean stayed with the stats. He figured out that you didn't really need dice or mathematical models to make a workable baseball role-playing game. Instead Sean skipped over all the research and hatched a baseball league out of his own imagination. It was called the United Baseball League, or UBL, and it was filled with concocted players who seemed straight out of a Preston Sturges movie: Apollo Armstrong, T-Bone Clemons, Barrett Vollm, L'Shaen Galloway, Lefty Wells (a righty), and Amos Grace (Brooks Kieschnick before there was Brooks Kieschnick).
Sean would spend his days filling new notebooks with new numbers, all of them recording the goings-on of his baseball otherworld. One time I peeked at his stat pages and discovered thousands of simulated teams and players, going back to the 1940s. The closest analogy I can think of are the mad ravings of Charles Crumb, the older brother documented in the movie Crumb. As he slowly began to lose his mind, Charles' comic strips dispensed with actual drawings and instead became crowded--even ravaged--with odd markings and hen pecks, a strange kind of graphophilia whose meanings were known only to him. That was Sean's United Baseball League.
Sean eventually outgrew his numbers fetish, just as I did, and both of us ended up drifting into the humanities (I'm now a writer; he's an actor). When I was home from college one summer I ran across the research I had done on our role-playing baseball game and I threw it all away. I guess I was at that age where a mathematically modeled baseball game seemed silly, if not downright hubristic (in a Robert McNamara sorta way).
If you think about it, my folly of trying to reduce baseball to numbers is the same one that gets levied against Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta. The anti-numbers crowd (Joe Morgan, Richard Griffin, Buzz Bissinger, Larry Bowa) caricaturize sabermetrics as narrow-minded and robotic--some human element, they say, always slips out, unaccounted for.
The older I get, however, the more I realize that baseball numbers have a personality all their own. In fact, I sometimes like to think of a ballplayer's statline like a song melody. As your eye scans left to right, you pick up tones, rhythms: some are jagged and staccato, others have a sweet languor; some burst at the seams, almost comically, while a few are nearly sublime. Here are a few of my favorites (I'll let you guess who they belong to):
155 611 135 230 46 18 39 131 7 .376 .450 .702
2-3 .400 77 0 0 55 82.3 37 20 137 1.20
97 303 54 92 6 14 8 28 26 .304 .346 .495
21-20 .512 44 44 23 0 342 311 113 208 3.39
92 0 29 0 0 0 0 0 29 --- --- ---
I like the cadence of those lines. They give off the pleasing impression that the backs of baseball cards are as personable as the fronts.
One of the first things that strikes you about baseball, especially compared to other sports, is the sheer volume of it. Last year alone there were 2,464 games, 188,519 plate appearances, and well over half a million pitches thrown. Most of these situations were probably pretty boring, very much like one another. The thrill, however, is when the unexpected slips through the cracks.
People give Jayson Stark a lot of crap for his Useless Information columns--you know, where he lists all of baseball's latest numerical oddities. There are even some people who think that such eccentricities aren't germane to "real" baseball because they are essentially valueless. (A few years back Lee Sinins refused to consider Kevin Millwood's no-hitter, in which he walked three hitters, any different from other games where a pitcher might allow, say, three stray singles. This is what I would call the fundamentalist version of performance analysis, where all incidents on a ballfield are converted into their most concise unit of value.)
But to me the game has always been about these serendipitously random moments--like when two balls were in play at Wrigley Field in 1959, or when a guy in the upper deck of Yankee Stadium caught foul balls on back-to-back pitches, or when a Randy Johnson fastball just so happened to cross the path of an unfortunate flying dove. The game is full of such impossibilities. My brother Patrick was there when Randy Velarde turned an unassisted triple play, while a friend saw the Twins turn two triple plays in one game at Fenway Park. Sometimes it seems like everything has happened in baseball--but nearly every week, if not every day, the game comes up with something that you've never seen before.
Back in 1979, I read this passage in Louis Phillips' BASEBALL:
Although many players have managed to hit 2 home runs in a single inning, not one player has ever hit 2 grand-slam homers in a single inning in major-league play.
I'm not sure why that factoid made an impact on me, but I used to chew on it when I was a kid. I dreamed that sometime, somewhere, someone could pull off that feat.
Flash forward twenty years later. I'm sitting in the stands in Dodger Stadium on a night in late April, and Fernando Tatis goes yard with the bases juiced--not once, but twice in the third inning. The second one was a low liner that just barely cleared the fence in left center. The Dodger fans around me glumly buried their heads in their hands, but I stood up, stunned. As Tatis rounded the bases, the first thing I thought of was my little blue book. It was almost dead to me--I hadn't thought of it in years. But on that night the memory of those pages came back to me, as alive as ever. It was enough to give me a lump in my throat.
Brian Gunn ran Redbird Nation, "a St. Louis Cardinals Obsession Site," for two years. He's now a full-time movie writer in Los Angeles. If you'd like a compendium of his best sportswriting, you may order the Redbird Nation Reader from Lulu.com. All proceeds benefit the March of Dimes.