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All the marbles, appraised

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It seems hard to believe, considering the game was played not even five years ago, but memories of one of the most thrilling, tense, nail-biting, go-for-all-the-marbles, leave-nothing-on-the-field games of recent memory is perhaps receding in our memory. Game Seven of the 2001 World Series had all of that and so much more, yet it's hardly remembered as Mariano Rivera's most poignant postseason failure. Time will invariably change our perspective, so it should come as no surprise that more recent events have become more memorable events; however, I do wonder if the Arizona Diamondbacks' dramatic championship push against baseball's best would still be on the tip of the baseball fan's conscious had the Boston Red Sox not done the same thing three years later, on their way to breaking the curse and all that jazz.

If it is up to researcher, author, and scholar Charles Euchner---who is based, ironically enough, in New England---baseball fans will never for a moment forget the night of November 4, 2001. Euchner's book, the heroically non-subtitled The Last Nine Innings, represents what is and must will be the most definitive look at the final game of the '01 season, a probing and inquisitive look at both teams and all angles of a single game and nearly every conceivable factor that shaped it into the classic it was. Not one to "put much stock in elegiac and mythical portrayals of baseball," Euchner does not seek to weave a Giamatti-esque rendering of a ballgame "embody[ing] mankind's eternal Odyssean struggle to return home" any more than he wishes to portray baseball as "an essential source of bonding between fathers and sons" or "provide the most telling lens into the American pysche." Instead, Euchner believes baseball is simply and blessedly "a damn good game," and so he picked one to analyze.

And so Euchner did, crystallizing nine innings' worth of study of the national pastime into a coherent and brisk tale (300 pages, including index) that encompasses factors and perspectives and techniques and routines that inform our understanding of not only this particular game, but the grand game itself---factors, some of which escape us or we take for granted as fans, such as: the pitching motions of the game's starters, Curt Schilling and Roger Clemens; the athleticism and synchronicity exhibited by Derek Jeter when he makes a play; Steve Finley's "power ballet" as he glides across the outfield, both physically and mentally at the top of his game; the batting styles of the top hitters, and what separates one hitter from the next; how sports science has captured players' movements through the process of observation and study; how much statistics can tell about a player or a game, and where the next stop is in the stats revolution; the "inner traits" of winners, and what makes a top player's psyche so unrelenting; and why, in this age of advanced scientific and analytical examination of baseball, do so many top players come from Latin America, where such examination takes a back seat to nothing more innovative than simply playing and mastering a craft.

Now, no look at 2001's Game Seven is complete without a breakdown of the bottom of the ninth, and Euchner does not disappoint. In fact, I must confess---although I have no particular fondness for this announcer---one of Euchner's best decisions in The Last Nine Innings was to quote game analyst Tim McCarver liberally throughout the book, and particularly in the chapter detailing the bottom of the ninth. The reason for this is simple: McCarver has never been better as an analyst than at the particular moment when he "first guessed" the strategy undergirding the final play of the series:

"Left-handers get a lot of broken-bat hits into the shallow part of the outfield," McCarver tells his TV audience. "That's the danger of bring the infield in with a guy like Rivera on the mound."

And so it was, as the lefthanded batter (Luis Gonzalez) plopped a soft, shallow liner over a drawn-in shortstop (Jeter), driving in the winning run and defeating the previously (except for once, in '97) unbeatable Rivera. McCarver called it, and consequently no retrospective of the game is complete without McCarver's observations.

However, as noted, Euchner's book is no mere retrospective. Instead, it is something of a survery course into modern baseball, using Game Seven as a template. The breadth of topics covered by Euchner is impressive enough, but the depth he inserts into relatively brief reviews of the topics is what makes The Last Nine Innings worthwhile. I mentioned before that the book has no subtitle; while this is technically true (neither the cover nor the Library of Congress data mention a subtitle), the banner page states that the book is "Inside the Real Game Fans Never See." Perhaps this is an intended subtitle; whatever it is, I must report that it is apt. Update [2006-4-24 1:50:53 by Basil]: The picture above contains a subtitle of "How Baseball Works." This is not on the copy the publisher sent me. At any rate, the subtitle is obviously not a major consideration; I just found it endearingly different that my copy didn't have one.

Have you taken a look at Steve Finley's stat lines---specifically, his relatively late power spike---and suspected steroid usage? Sure you have, even if Finley does not appear all that massive. What is I were to tell you that Finley does only light lifting and "works out" (if you can call it that) barefoot, practicing a regime designed to enhance all 640 muscles of the human body under the tutelege of some woman named Edythe Heus, who designed her regime after marveling at the Cirque du Soleil? If Euchner's account can be believed, then it's true---and the regimen is quite effective, indeed:

During his first spring training after the new regimen, Finley was surprised to discover his new power. "I went to spring training that year [1999] and I had no idea what to expect, none whatsoever. I was nervous about how I'm going to feel. . . . [I]n the first couple of days, I was launching balls to left field and left center, over the net, everything. I was like, 'Oh my God.' I mean, center field? I was hitting them anywhere I wanted to hit them, and it was easy. It was the same little easy flick I've always had. And I was running around the outfield like a little kid. I called her up and I said, 'Edythe, this is unbelievable. I've never felt this good in my entire life!'" . . .

Over the course of a season, as Finley jerks and twists his body, he feels pain and tightness in his muscles and hamstrings that could flare into a major injury. So he flies in Heus for consultations.

"She gets to the root of that problem to find out what muscles are not doing what they're supposed to do. I had a hamstring problem just a few years ago. I thought I was going to pull it. I mean, for three weeks, it was tight---I felt like it was just going to snap. Doctors and trainers are rubbing it, massaging it, doing ultrasound, everthing. Nothing's doing anything. Edythe came here, she did a few muscle tests on me and finds out my low abs [were weak], there was nothing there, no strength whatsoever. She just pushed me right down and isolated those. She gave me four lower ab exercises. I did those for four, five days, and it [the hamstring problem] just went away."

Sudden increases in power; miraculous regenerative ability. Barry Bonds had Greg Anderson; Steve Finley has Edythe Heus. Whatever works, I suppose.

The Finley story is but one example (out of many) in which Euchner delves deeper into the game story than your typical retrospective on a memorable game. In addition, unlike sportswriters' works, the story is not lost in evaluations of Player A's personality or how Player B could tell a good tale or how Player (say) BB is such a jerk. Euchner's tale is deeper than that, better than that, more important than that.

Now, Euchner's work does not escape what one might call "harmless error"---superficial mistakes that, while annoying to the discerning reader, do not affect the book's overall quality in a meaningful sense. Perhaps the most glaring "harmless error" in The Last Nine Innings occurs in the book's Preface and is repeated on page 113; on both occasions, Euchner calls Dr. James Andrews "the pioneer of Tommy John surgery." While Andrews, an orthopedic surgeon based in Birmingham, Ala., is certainly a pioneer in the field of sports medicine, Euchner's description of Andrews is demonstrably false. As most baseball fans familiar with the procedure know, it was invented by Dr. Frank Jobe:

Jobe . . . was told to "make up something" by Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Tommy John, who was diagnosed with a career-threatening torn ulnar collateral ligament in 1974. Instead of just making up something, Jobe made history.

Jobe extracted a tendon from John's right arm and used it to replace the torn ligament on his left, pitching arm, threading the healthy tendon through holes drilled into the bone above and below the elbow. At the time, no one was certain of the outcome, but John went on to win 170 additional games; the procedure thereafter became known as 'Tommy John surgery.' Without Jobe's help, John would never have pitched another baseball.

Since then, Jobe has performed more than 200 of these operations and has passed the technique on to other surgeons, such as Dr. James Andrews . . .

(Emphasis added.)

Jobe's name is so intertwined with the mythos of "Tommy John surgery" that some, including Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus, have predicted the procedure---and, of course, its regenerative effect on hundreds of pitching arms in the past three decades---will earn Jobe a place in Cooperstown one day. Certainly, James Andrews is a preeminent name in sports medicine---seemingly everybody in the game visits him in Birmingham when necessity calls---but he was not "the pioneer of Tommy John surgery." While I do not believe this error damages Euchner's credibility, it is a surprising error for him to make, considering he profiled Andrews' American Sports Medicine Institute in the book.

Moreover, while this is not a "harmless error" per se, as it is based on a subjective characterization rather than an historical fact, Euchner makes the following outlandish claim concerning Barry Bonds on page 22 of The Last Nine Innings:

Over his career, Barry Bonds transformed himself from a skinny 200-pound singles and doubles hitter to a 228-pound block of a home run hitter.

(Again, emphasis added.)

Characterizing Barry Bonds, even at the earliest stage of his big league career, as a "singles and doubles hitter" is akin to calling Mike Alstott "an elusive and shifty tailback." In a word, the characterization is proposterous; in two words, it is utterly preposterous. The guy made his big league debut at age 20 and averaged two bases per hit in his rookie season. He spent most of his first 1,500 at-bats in the leadoff spot and still found the time to smack 20-25 homers per season---this before the era of offensive explosion, mind you. By his mid-twenties, Bonds was slugging in the .500s, then the .600s, with one remarkable season even near .700. This was all at least five seasons before Bonds (allegedly. . . ) entered the 'roids timeline. I'm not trying to defend Bonds here, and I imagine that maybe the old Bonds was something like a "singles and doubles hitter" as compared to the superhuman Bonds of 2001-onward, but I find Euchner's characterization to border on the irresponsible. It's a strange day indeed when the topic of steroids is discussed in anything resembling a rational, constructive manner; the last thing the public debate needs is misinformation and startling revisionist history like this. It's one thing---and a great thing, indeed---to discuss Steve Finley's (all-natural) secrets for youthful performance; it's quite another to turn the young Barry Bonds into something better served describing Mark Grace.

Still, I do not wish to finish with a sour impression of Euchner's book. I seek to review it honestly, and I consider the characterization of Bonds too much of a whopper to cast aside. Nevertheless, I highly recommend the book and instead wish to portray the Bonds whopper (and the Tommy John pioneer thing) as the exception that proves the rule of Euchner's ability to draw on an incredible amount of information, and an impressive assortment of perspectives, and produce a stellar, coherent work. If you're a stathead, appreciate Euchner's review of defensive metrics, pitch counts, win-probability analysis, and defensive independent pitching statistics. If you're into old-time hardball, appreciate the manner in which McCarver's and Bob Brenly's, and the various players' perspectives inform the review of the game. If you're into sports science, appreciate Euchner's focus on the work of the American Sports Medicine Institute. If you're looking for nuggets on Nats, appreciate the book's look at Alfonso Soriano; to summarize Jim Kaat's appraisal of Soriano, he's just like Hank Aaron, just not as good. (That, of course, is praise.) If you're a critic of the way baseball is presented on television, appreciate Euchner's analysis of FOX's hyperactive camera work; during the final inning, Euchner reports, FOX showed each image for an average of 2.27 seconds. Fortunately, Euchner displays greater depth than that with every subject of his book.

The Last Nine Innings has everything. And to think---it's all about one game. A great game, as it were.