Mind Game
Goldman, Steven, ed.

                 At a recent New Jersey SABR meeting, Tom Oliphant, political writer and author of “Praying for Gil Hodges”, noted that part of baseball’s appeal is the ability to argue, disputes that span the breadth of  history, and that can be argued for hours, months, and generations. Should Fred Merkle have been called out in 1908? Did Ed Armbrister interfere with Carlton Fisk in 1975? Willie, Mickey, or the Duke? Does pitching or hitting win championships? Which is more important, statistics or scouting?

                 Just like life, the above questions are more complicated than they may appear. Merkle and Fisk were both involved in controversial plays which will never be undone, and Mays, Mantle and Snider will always have adherents for their superiority which will never be reconciled. Of course, World Series have been won with either strong pitching or overwhelming hitting, and no smart team can entirely disregard either statistics or scouting. But the last question really involves a revolutionary change in the nature of contemporary fandom-the observer and fan claiming a seat at the table with the professional class.

                 The work of Bill James, the Society for American Baseball Research and later, Baseball Prospectus, is, if such a diverse group can be generalized, the attempt by nonparticipants in professional baseball to understand, analyze, and predict baseball. Baseball wisdom has historically been passed down through the hierarchy-veteran players retire and take coaching jobs, passing on their lessons to the next generation. While Alan Schwarz’ The Numbers Game outlined clearly the entire history of gathering, collecting, and learning from baseball statistics, the current wave of fan driven research and explosion of new statistics and publications is, arguably, unprecedented. For the first time, number crunchers are not just complaining from newspaper columns, but contributing from the executive suites and seeing their theories put to the test.

                 The man said to be the guru of baseball statistical research is Bill James, the former night watchman who turned a typewritten journal mailed to a few isolated souls into a shelf full of books and articles. James was hired by the Red Sox in November 2002, and Mind Game is the story of the Red Sox’ 2004 World Series Championship and the role that James and the new thinking in baseball played in the season. After a brief accounting of the Red Sox’ history, Mind Game takes the reader through the 2004 season in bite size nuggets, describing a game or series of games in each chapter, combined with “Extra Innings” segments that illuminate other points not directly relevant to the season narrative. The combined effect is a fun, rollicking ride through the year with BP’s cheeky humor combined with sober, revealing analysis.

                 The new wave of baseball thought has its naysayers, as some establishment figures have made it abundantly clear to any and all that they are “anti-Moneyball” people, referring to Michael Lewis’ popular book about Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics teams that practice new principles of baseball performance analysis. These figures have often either not read the book or misunderstood it entirely, and Mind Game may not change their mind. But for any fair minded fan who may still be skeptical of the new wave of baseball knowledge, Mind Game is a convincing, well written, passionate description of a season for the ages.

-- Michael Webb

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