As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires…..Bruce Weber

1) Do you love baseball?

2) Is your idea of doing a great job being invisible??

3) Do you like death threats, getting your tires slashed, and having people get in your face when they don’t like what you do?

4) Do you like staying in cheesy motels, living your life on the road for 6 months of the year, and barely making enough money to get by?

5) Would you prefer a career path with very limited chances for advancement?

6) Do you perform well in high pressure situations?

If you’ve answered yes to several or all of the above questions, a career as a baseball umpire might be for you!

Bruce Weber’s informative and entertaining book, As They See ‘Em, chronicles a two year time period Weber spent training as a baseball umpire at an umpire school, and his visits with and observations of minor and major league umpires. Hilarious and insightful, Weber doesn’t miss a beat as he lifts the curtain on the umpire mystique, taking us behind the scenes to learn all about the guys most baseball fans love to hate.

I was surprised to find out about how difficult it is to get to be a major league umpire. There are only 68 active spots available for umpires in Major League Baseball (so you actually have a better chance of making it into the big leagues as a player than you do as an umpire!), and these slots don’t become available unless someone retires, dies or gets demoted. Many umpires work their way through umpire school, slog their way through the minors for years or decades, only to never get promoted to that next level. And even if you do make it there, there’s no guarantee you’ll be happier or feel career fulfillment. Many of the MLB umpires Weber talked to longed for the days of minor league ball, thanks to the pressure cooker of calling big time ball games, Big Brother-like cameras all over major league stadiums to help prove umpires right or wrong, and special software called QuesTec that rates an umpire’s performance behind the plate. So much for intuition! Although when Weber talked to most umpires, they welcomed the advent of instant replay to help them in close calls.

Bruce Weber, author of "As They See 'Em"

I was fascinated by the idea of umpire school. This for me was probably the most entertaining part of the book. Weber describes umpire school as part classwork (learning the rules of the game, even the obscure ones) and part fieldwork, getting out on the field and making the calls in real-time. I had no idea that there are different umpire systems based on what level of baseball is being played. There are two, three and four-umpire systems. The World Series and playoff games actually use 6! Umpires are actually taught how to ‘fight’ with managers (be sure and keep the bill of your cap under his so he can’t “beak” you!), and we learn what might prompt an ump to throw players or managers out of the game.

Although definitely guilty of yelling at an ump or two in my lifetime, I was shocked by the blatant disrespect most umpires are subjected to, whether it’s angry fans, upset coaches and players, and even the MLB administration itself. Umpires have tried to organize over the last few decades to get better pay and benefits, and these attempts  have gained them little if any improvements. One attempt to unionize even lost several experienced MLB umpires their jobs.

I have to admit that before reading this book, I really had no idea what umpires do. This was a great read for any baseball fan, and a lot of fun. I will definitely have more respect for the guys in blue come this baseball season.

Grade: A+

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Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game….Michael Lewis

Billy Beane, General Manger of the Oakland A's

Benjamin Franklin once said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing, over and over again, and expecting different results.

Every year, Major League Baseball teams fall all over themselves to spend millions of dollars to sign and trade baseball players, hoping to give their team a better chance to get to the World Series, even though it doesn’t always follow that the team with the biggest payroll and biggest stars automatically wins the Commissioner’s Trophy. Yet every year, teams continue to plunk out the cash to recruit players, relying on subjective scouting and incomplete statistics to make these costly moves.

Unfortunately, in 2002, the Oakland Athletics didn’t have the mega-sized payroll to bring in expensive talent and compete with other teams and their ready cash. What they did have was the guts to try something completely different. And they succeeded at it beyond anyone’s comprehension. Michael Lewis’ amazing book, Moneyball, is not only the story of the visionary A’s front office, but also the birth of a new way of thinking about baseball.

Billy Beane, a one-time professional baseball player, was selected 23rd overall in the 1980 MLB draft, choosing to go to the pros rather than attend Stanford, where he had a free ride. Scouts and coaches all over the nation were enamored of Billy’s clean swing and amazing stats. Beane would later come to regret his decision to forego college for the pros, and would be out of baseball by 1989. He believed that scouts were too easily swayed by what they wanted to see in a prospective baseball player, rather than what was really there. When Beane read a series of abstracts by a statistician named Bill Jame,s which broke baseball players down into cold, unfeeling stats rather than the gut feelings and subjective impressions of scouts, he believed he had found a cheaper, more efficient way of putting together a baseball team. This approach would rock the boat of conventional scouting, recruiting, and signing of baseball players, giving heretofore unknown players a chance to make it to the big leagues, and giving smaller market teams a chance to compete with their more expensive rivals.

The A's celebrate Matt Hatteburg's game winning home run on Sept 4, 2002 in Oakland. With this win the A's broke the AL record with 20 consecutive wins, a statistic that is still alive today. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Having loved Lewis’ other book The Blind Side, where he tackles the heartwarming story of Michael Oher and his rise from poverty to riches through football and the love of his adoptive family, I was prepared to love Moneyball too, especially after I saw and enjoyed the movie last weekend. I often find myself bored when I read a book right after seeing the movie, but this was not so with Moneyball. I thoroughly enjoyed it, maybe more so than the movie. Lewis has such a down-to-earth style, explaining the somewhat overwhelming statistics and insider thinking in baseball, and he is so good at getting into the heads and hearts of his characters. Billy Beane’s complex character is  is hilarious one minute and unhinged the next minute, smashing bats into walls and throwing chairs, choosing to go to the gym and work out during games because he was too nervous to watch. I can imagine the stress he must have been under, to prove to the rest of baseball than his unorthodox choices had method to the madness and were considered and purposeful, and how awesome it must have been to succeed even against bigger and seemingly more talented teams. His willingness to think outside of the box and go against the grain of the outdated and stubbornly entrenched thinking of major league baseball are awe-inspiring. Lewis’ portraits of the overlooked, unknown players Beane would recruit, such as unorthodox pitcher Chad Bradford, catcher-turned-first baseman Matt Hatteberg, and oversized catcher Jeremy Brown, were awesome.  You were really rooting for these guys, and laughing at the old-timer scouts who overlooked and undervalued them.

There wasn’t much not to love about Moneyball. The only part that didn’t appeal to me was the epilogue, where Lewis explains how major league baseball reacted to his book. It seemed to me a bit defensive and kind of whiny. Other than that, it was an amazing book. The movie was also really good. I’m not a Brad Pitt fan, but he did a great job as Billy Beane. Check out both the book and the movie.

Grade: A-

Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend….James Hirsch

Willie Mays making "The Catch" during the 1954 World Series. The YouTube footage of this catch is priceless.

I have never in my reading life been turned off by the size of a book. Especially if that book is captivating and amazing; then the book is never long enough. 🙂 A  great example of a book that was plenty long, but still not long enough for me is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I could easily have gone another 800 pages in that world. There was no despair greater than mine to discover that there was no sequel forthcoming. Gone With The Wind easily falls into that category, too.

So…. how much does it suck when a long book isn’t that great?

James Hirsch’s Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend is not super long  (560 pages of the main story and epilogue), but for some reason it feels like I started reading this book back in 2009. It. Just. Took. Forever.

I’ll start with the positive: Willie Mays was an AMAZING ballplayer. That message came across loud and clear. He rose above poverty, racial discrimination, and an unconventional family background to make it to the major leagues, in a time when African American athletes were not widely recruited. He was taught the game of baseball by his father, Cat Mays, a fantastic baseball player in his own right, who had been denied the opportunities his son would get.  As a player, Mays was unstoppable, and gave 250% on the field. There was one day he played 32 innings in a double header on the same day, and very seldom missed a game during his 22 seasons with the Giants.  The guy left it all on the field, making amazing, over-the-shoulder catches in center field, throwing home from the outfield to nail opposing runners at the plate, hitting hundreds of home runs and batting in his teammates. Even more amazing, Mays managed to stay pretty classy off the field too, despite a messy divorce and his not-so-warm welcome from San Francisco fans when the Giants franchise left New York. He had a genuine commitment to his fans and to children, who were his special interest, tirelessly giving of his time and money to children’s organizations, even playing stickball with his young fans in the streets. Along with Jackie Robinson, Mays’s level of play and professionalism helped to pave the way for racial integration in sports. The level of discrimination he endured during his playing years, and the way he kept his head above the fray and just played ball, is inspiring.

This controversial 1955 Sports Illustrated cover, featuring Mays, his manager Leo Durocher, and Durocher's actress wife Laraine Day outraged white supremacists, who were horrified to see a white woman touching a black man.

And now, for the negative, which you may find surprising. For some reason, Hirsch felt we would get the best measure of the man by chronicling, in detail, almost every single at-bat and almost every play in the outfield Mays had in his 22-year career. Which was really cool at first, and then got really tedious. I felt like I was being beat over the head with the man’s greatness. I appreciate that Mays shattered dozens of records and was a tremendous athlete and all that. I got that within the first two hundred pages. The problem was that there were still three hundred-some pages to go.  Hirsch interspersed short vignettes about Mays’  life outside of baseball in between these incredibly detailed game summaries, and it was these personal parts of the book that I really enjoyed. I felt like I got to know Mays as a person, rather than a pile of statistics. I realize that Mays was a very guarded person and didn’t share much about his personal life and his feelings; maybe it’s amazing that we are allowed to know what we know about him (Hirsch’s book was authorized by Mays). There were about ten key games I think would have illustrated Mays’ greatness very well. I just didn’t understand the drive to include all the rest of them.

I love sports books. I’ve devoured almost everything John Feinstein has ever written, and loved Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. Kahn did a much better job of bringing us the Brooklyn Dodgers as men rather than athletes in his book, and his book was about a team rather than one player, which may be why I enjoyed Kahn’s book so much more.  This was just not a favorite for me. I learned more about Willie Mays than I ever bargained for, and saw some great footage of his best moments on YouTube.

Grade: B-

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game….Michael Lewis

Michael Oher, Baltimore Ravens' left tackle

One of the most common questions I was asked when people saw that I was reading this book was, “Didn’t you see the movie?” I don’t live that much under a rock. The movie was amazing. But as a lifelong reader, I’ve discovered that sometimes the book offers you much more than the movie ever could. My belief in this maxim was only strengthened when I closed Michael Lewis’ wonderful book, The Blind Side.

In addition to the amazing, inspiring rags to NFL riches story of Michael Oher that we all know so well from the wonderful movie named after the book, The Blind Side, Lewis offers us the idea that football as a sport has evolved over the past twenty years to make Michael Oher and his athletic gifts as a left tackle so highly prized. Once upon a time, offensive linemen were essentially indistinguishable from their O-line teammates. No player (except maybe the quarterback) was any bigger than the game. Ask anyone who watches football, and very few people can tell you after the game how the right guard performed, or if the right tackle made all his blocks. But everyone can tell you where the ball was and who caught it thirty yards downfield.

Lawrence Taylor sacks Joe Theismann, breaking his right leg. The video of this moment is not for the faint of heart.

That all began to change when a player named Lawrence Taylor at right defensive end began to make quarterbacks’ lives hell on earth. He was the first NFL player to ‘sack’ a quarterback, and the keeping of sack statistics began thanks to Taylor.  Even worse, no one could stop him thanks to his size and speed. Enter San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who comes up with the idea to add a larger, more agile left tackle (the offensive player who lines up against the right defensive end) to better protect the quarterback’s so-called “blind side” (if he was right handed) from the new defensive threat. It worked. Since that time, huge left tackles like Jonathan Ogden (formerly of the Baltimore Ravens) and Chad Clifton of the Green Bay Packers have gone from obscurity to making the second highest salary (next to the quarterback) on most NFL rosters, paving the way for Michael Oher to make it to the NFL. He would be chosen with the 23rd pick overall in the 2009 NFL draft to play for the Ravens, where he still plays today at left tackle.

The Tuohy family

The stories Lewis tells of the Tuohy family and their welcoming of Oher into their family are heart-rending and hilarious, much like the movie. My favorite was the story of how Oher chased his sister Collins around their house in his underwear trying to get his pants from her, because she refused to let him leave the house in black pants with a blue blazer to accept an award. Of course this all happened right in front of the head coach from Tennessee, who came to the house for a surprise visit! The book goes much more in depth into Oher’s life before meeting the Tuohy’s, and finding out how grim and desperate his younger years were, having one set of clothes on his back and having  to beg for food and drink water to “feel full” only made his meteoric rise more astounding. The college recruitment process was also pretty interesting. As depicted in the movie, Oher was wooed by several big-time colleges, such as LSU, Tennessee and of course, the Tuohy family’s alma mater, Ole Miss. The visits by the coaches, most memorably the incoherent Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron with his Cajun accent, and their subsequent promises to Oher’s brother Sean Junior, were hilarious.

Lewis ends the book wondering how many kids like Oher, with amazing athletic ability yet no opportunities to better themselves financially or educationally, are missed by the system. He reports throughout the book that there are so many athletes recruited by top colleges who never make it to the pros, simply because they don’t have the educational background to hack college, or end up getting arrested or just dropping out. Oher was extremely fortunate to have a family that loved him and supported him in bettering his life and learning. Was it Oher’s athletic ability alone that got him as far as he did? No way. Behind him was the Tuohy family, his tutor Sue Mitchell, his high school and later college coach Hugh Freeze, and Big Tony Henderson, who took the leap of faith in inviting Oher to come with his son to apply to Briarcrest. Things could have turned out so differently, and thank goodness they didn’t.

An amazing book. If you loved the movie, you will like the book too. Don’t miss this amazing short about the real Michael Oher.

Grade: A

Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation….John Carlin

Nelson Mandela

When Nelson Mandela was released from a South African prison in 1990 after serving 27 years, he was returning to a nation torn apart by apartheid. Riots tore through the streets, people were imprisoned and executed for very little reason, and white man was against black man. ‘Separate but unequal’ could have been the slogan of South Africa for the apartheid years, which began in 1948 and lasted for nearly 50 years. Mandela, who had been a radical anti-apartheid leader before his imprisonment in 1964, could easily have used his almost god-like standing with black South Africans and the understandable anger anyone would feel after slightly more than a quarter century behind bars to mobilize his people and cause civil war….but he didn’t. In fact, he took a completely different tactic, which would not only be millions of times more efficient, but would help to bring his shattered country together.

John Carlin’s book, Invictus: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made A Nation, tells the story of Mandela’s quest to reunite the country of South Africa in a very nonconventional, and slightly incredible way: rallying the nation behind the South African rugby national team, the Springboks. Rugby had been viewed for years by black South Africans as the ‘white man’s game’ and the symbol of all that was wrong with their country. White South Africans, or Afrikaners,by contrast, loved their sport and their team. The rugby teams of the 1990’s reported meeting very hostile crowds worldwide as they traveled abroad for games, as they were considered symbols of the apartheid and defacto supporters of it. Militant black South Africans rallied to have the team blocked from international competition as a protest towards the treatment they were receiving in their country, and it worked, which angered their Afrikaner countrymen. As an olive branch toward the Afrikaners when he became president in 1993, Mandela reinstated the rugby team and insisted they keep the name Springbok as well as the green rugby jerseys, both of which had been considered apartheid symbols.

While in prison, Mandela spent a lot of time reading about Afrikaners, learning their language, and getting to know his Afrikaner captors. He learned that Afrikaners, underneath, were good people who had been raised in apartheid society and knew nothing else. He also realized that Afrikaners were paralyzed with fear that if the black Africans came to power again, they would exact the revenge that the Afrikaners deserved for the injustices of apartheid. Instead of exacting this revenge, Mandela reached out his hand to Afrikaners in respect and friendship…and it worked. Hard core apartheid supporters melted like butter in his presence, and the two races began to work together. Mandela kept Afrikaner members of his staff in place after he came to the presidency, when most were convinced they would be thrown out. He reached out to Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springboks, to enlist his and his team’s support to unite South Africa under the slogan of “One Team, One Country”. The Springboks did their part by learning to sing the black African national anthem and reaching out to black youth by holding rugby clinics where they could learn the game. Mandela wore the Springbok colors when he went to talk to his people to encourage them to not see Afrikaners as the enemy, but as fellow South Africans. The unbelievable Sprinbok victory at the 1995 Rugby World Cup was the epitome of all Mandela had hoped to accomplish. Black and white cheered and hugged in the stands, and partied in the streets. Both black and white cheered and called Mandela’s name as he came onto the field to award the cup to the team. It was the beginning of a new era in South Africa.

The book was touted as a sports book, but I felt it was more political than sports driven. It was primarily the story of Mandela and how his years in prison catalyzed his vision for his country. It gave a sweeping view of the struggles and destruction of apartheid, and the shaky baby steps the nation took as Mandela was freed from prison and took office. The story of the Springboks didn’t begin until the middle of the book, and it was a great example of how Afrikaners were converted to the messages of acceptance and forgiveness preached by Mandela. Stories such as how the players cried through the black national anthem, and how the Afrikaners came to accept the lone black player, Chester Williams, as one of their own, were really touching.

I was glad I read the book, after how much I enjoyed the movie, which if you haven’t seen it rent it NOW. Morgan Freeman is AMAZING as Mandela, and Matt Damon is nice eye candy as Pienaar. The book gave a more complete background on the atrocities of apartheid, and made what Mandela accomplished and how he affected people that much more awe-inspiring. There are not many people who have lived on Earth who have had the ability to change hearts and minds as much as Mandela has. We can all learn a lesson from him.  Below is a wonderful segment that ESPN put together when Mandela was given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2009. Check it out if you can.

Grade: A-