I admit. When I decided sometime in the 90's to become a "better" baseball fan, I read through various books that claimed to enlighten me as to what these "better" fans were seeing that I was somehow missing. Some of it was enlightening and some not. Zack Hample's book didn't exist back then, but I wonder if the 90's Dex would've enjoyed it. I imagine the Dex of modern times would not be able to shake the image of Zack Hample pushing people out of the way to catch his 17th foul ball of a baseball game and such an image might cloud my impression of what could possibly be a pretty decent book.
Enter Chuck Phillips. A self proclaimed "new" baseball fan (as of a couple of years ago). He's going through what some of us probably went through at some point and is trying broaden his appreciation of the game by watching a lot of it and reading a lot of books that would make one a "better" fan. One of the books that he found was Zack Hample's. I asked him to offer up a review. After he had written it, I explained that nobody actually likes Zack Hample. My own lesson to him on his journey to baseball fan enlightenment.
Here then is Chuck's review. He's actually on a baseball book binge right now so I'm going to bug him for more. If you consider yourself a casual fan or somebody who wonders (like me) if Zack Hample is able to get over himself long enough to write a decent book. Read on!
Watching Baseball Smarter: A Professional Fan's Guide for Beginners, Semi-experts, and Deeply Serious Geeks
Fact: Baseball is not a boring sport to watch.
Some people are of the opinion that there isn’t enough action in soccer, cricket makes no sense, and diving is only interesting when someone smashes their head on the diving platform -- but those are just
my some people’s opinions. And, they’re entitled to them.
People who believe that baseball is boring to watch are in error. This is not an opinion. If you do not concur, you are not merely expressing a differing opinion -- you are in denial of one of the truths of our universe.
Hear ye! I speak from experience. Up until two years ago I had wrongly believed that baseball was a boring sport to watch. This was before I saw the light and was converted from Apathetic-Non-Baseball-Watching-Recluse into Animated-Watches-Every-Padres- Game-Recluse. Now, much to my wife’s chagrin, I must watch every Padres game either in-person or over The Information Superhighway (which I have recently renamed The Baseball Delivery Interstate).
Now isn’t the time to regale you with the granularities of my journey to baseball enlightenment. I will instead, use this time to direct the unwashed masses towards baseball nirvana via a book, specifically, Watching Baseball Smarter: A Professional Fan's Guide for Beginners, Semi-experts, and Deeply Serious Geeks by Zack Hample.
Please note that the title of this book is wrong. I’m sure that some editor changed it before print in order to sell a few more copies. This book is not for semi-experts. It’s for newbs, like myself. The title should read: Watching Baseball Smarter: A Professional Fan's Guide for Beginners and Deeply Serious Geeks Who Know Little to Nothing About Baseball.
For a rookie fan like myself, the task of learning the intricacies of the sport can be somewhat overwhelming. For a start, baseball has precisely eighty billion different stats, forty-seven thousand rules, a new dialect, several leagues of players, a dozen trade deadlines, etc, etc. You don’t need to know all of that stuff in order to realize that you were wrong about baseball being boring, but the more you know, the more you grow to love the sport and its culture. Watching Baseball Smarter helped me increase my knowledge of and love for the sport.
The book’s first chapter is titled, "The Basics". My ego almost led me to skip this chapter, but thankfully I ignored the voice in my head that said, "Pffft. Basics?!? You played T-Ball fer crying out loud! There is too much Facebooking to be done for you to waste time reading about ‘The Basics’!!!" If you hear a similar voice in your head, ignore it. Chapter 1 should not be skipped by newbs -- even if you played T-Ball and Little League. Chapter 1 taught me several gems. For example, I learned what a five-tool player was and why wrong handers are more desirable as pitchers. I learned about the "other" leagues. Why the DH was invented (blah!). I learned that I must have an opinion on the DH (see previous sentence). And the chapter ends by covering the three stages of a season: Spring Training, Regular Season, and Post Season. A concise chapter, with some review, but worth the read.
The guts of Watching Baseball Smarter consists of a four chapters that describe the mechanics, positions, and strategy of the game. Chapter 2: Pitchers and Catchers was a particular favorite for me. Having watched a season and a half of baseball before reading the chapter, I had heard about every pitch in the arsenal of Big League pitchers but didn’t really know the differences between every pitch. After reading this chapter I learned the difference between a cutter and a sinker, among others. As a trivia bonus, I also learned what the eephus and the gyroball is. Chapter 3: Hitting covered fundamentals like stance, weight shift, grip, and follow-through. It discusses the line up, different ways a hitter can bunt (sacrifice, drag), and manufacturing runs. Chapter 4: Baserunning was the most basic chapter in the book, IMHO. I read it anyway and learned a few things, including the hook slide, the indicator sign, the safety squeeze, and the neighborhood play. Chapter 5: Fielding is arguably the most instructive for a newb. Before reading the chapter I had never even noticed the defensive alignment of the fielders. I had heard Dick Enburg talk about The Ted Williams Shift before, but didn’t have a clue what it meant. I learned about no doubles defense, defensive indifference, and the infamous infield fly rule. At then end of chapter 5 the author covers the nuances and strategies of each position.
Save for Chapter 8: Stats (covered in next section), the remaining chapters of the book cover "the rest". Chapter 6: Stadiums includes random historical facts about stand-out stadiums (Petco is not mentioned, grrr), groundskeeping tricks that help the home team (like assisting The Baltimore Chop by packing the ground near home plate so that it’s rock-solid), among other things. Chapter 7: Umpires covers some obvious points, i.e., umps are under appreciated, it’s a tough job, technology is being used to measure their performance, yadda yadda. The chapter is spiced up a bit by including a Fair Ball Quiz which challenges you to make the call in scenarios like, "A grounder bounces past first base in fair territory, then hooks and rolls found before reaching the foul pole." Chapter 9: Random Stuff to Know and the final chapter, 10: Random Stuff to Notice, cover, well, the random stuff: unwritten rules, various awards, The Hall of Fame, cheating, controversies, etc. The gem of chapter 10 is the lengthy glossary of baseball slang. Reading the glossary came in handy at Jerry Coleman day when my buddy was telling me about a player that came up from the Minors for a cup of coffee. I knew what he meant and grinned like an idiot (which is how I normally grin).
The best chapter of the book is Chapter 8: Stats. Not only does it introduce and explain a number of fielding, batting, and pitching stats, it covers a few examples of league rule changes that have had an effect on certain stats. The author also gives some general guidelines for thinking about certain stats. For instance, a 3.11 season ERA is great and a 2-to-1 SO/BB ratio is good. The chapter ends with a lesson in scoring; who the official scorer is and what s/he does, how to score a game yourself, and how to read stats and box scores. It ends with "Incredible Feats" -- things like a perfect game, no- hitters, hitting for the cycle, the unassisted triple play, and four strikeouts in an inning.
As a new fan that was hungry for knowledge, Watching Baseball Smarter, served its purpose; it gave me a solid foundation of baseball knowledge that enabled me to graduate to more sophisticated baseball content. I finished the book less intimidated by the world of baseball and felt more of an insider than I had previous to reading it. If you are a soccer, cricket, or diving fan that has finally accepted the universal truth that Baseball is a great sport to watch and you are ready to learn more, Watching Baseball Smarter is an important book for you.