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Book Review: Out of My League

A few years ago, a friend asked if I had read the book Bullpen Gospels. I told him that I had heard of it, but never read it. When I asked him why he brought it up, he responded, “my girlfriends dad is mentioned in it, and not in a very positive light”. I was intrigued and I had heard good things about the book. Just a few weeks later, the author was picked up as a big league invitee to the Rays spring training. The Rays Index carried a piece he wrote about the first fime he faced his new (and shortlived) teammate, Manny Ramirez. I was hooked and immediately downloaded the book. I must have read it in just a few days and loved every page. I became mildly obsessed with the author Dirk Hayhurst. (Blog & Twitter) The Bullpen Gospel’s is the laugh-out-loud tale of minor league hijinx with a more serious set of themes deftly woven into its pages. (I thought I had written a review for the blog here, but I guess I just posted elsewhere. I’ll fix this soon.)

Out of My League picks up where the Bullpen Gospels leaves off. Dirk opens the story, still living on the floor of his batty grandmothers house. He has met a girl on e-Harmony and is trying to make a relationship work while hocking TV’s at Circuit City. The book then traces a two part storyline as Dirk makes his way through triple-A and eventually to the big leagues; all the while maintaining a long distance engagement and cross-country wedding planning.

While the book is not quite as funny as the Bullpen Gospels, it is far more piognant. There is a scene that humorously encapsulates the book. Dirk, who has just been called up to the bigs, is sitting on the bed at his 5-star hotel talking to his fiance who has flown out to see him. He is eating $100 room service pancakes while he bemoans the way that “the Show” changes people. He complains about his triple-A frineds who don’t act the same, who are aloof. The scene drips with irony and reminds me of the scene in Wayne’s World, where Wayne and Garth are trying to be eloquent about the way fame/money/endorsements change people, all while prominently pitching products. Very funny.

At the heart of Out of My League is a story about idolatry and dreams. Sometimes we think that acheiving a certain something will make us happy. We think, “If I just had x, I would be happy”. The trouble is that when we do finally get x, it doesn’t satisfy like we expect. Out of My League is an honest tale of the way that getting what we want can kill us.

Even if you don’t like baseball, the book is a fun read and a great tale of love and life.

 

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Book Review: Meandering Through the Minors

Baseball is a long, long season. It marches from the rainy, sometimes snowy days of April long into the Fall. By the time the World Series is finished, it is not uncommon for the calendar to read November.

For most fans the season begins with a flurry of interest. No matter how bad your team was last year, or even how bad they will be this year, they are still in the hunt in April. Its easy to follow baseball in April. Nobody is injured and you know all the names on the jerseys.

By the dog days of summer, its harder to be a fan. Sometimes you are unfamiliar with the players, your team is listing near the bottom of their division, and most likely you have conceded to be a seller at the trade deadline.

In a number of ways, Garry Griffith’s Meandering through the Minor Leagues is a perfect mirror to the major league season. His vignettes (presented in reverse chronological order) of the Minors are like character studies of small town america. Meandering is an incredible anthology of sketches. Some of the best work is in the first few chapters. Like the season, Garry jumps out of the gate like a writter riding the energy of a month of sequestered Spring Training. His stories from Normal, IL are his best.

As the book moves on, it becomes the territory of diehard fans. Like those who religiously listen to broadcast and check boxscores in the heat of August, the middle of Meandering through the Minor Leagues can be a bit daunting. The nature of the book as a collection of other writtings leads to some repitition and some sections that approach boring.

Thankfully there are the September call-ups. As the book rounds third base, it picks up speed. Some of the final essays get back to the tone the book had in its opening chapters. While not all of these final essays are directly about baseball, the tone is the same and they are interesting additions to the memoirs.

Overall, this book is a good read. For diehard fans of the sport, they will love the anecdotes and character sketches the populate its pages. The casual fan may get lost in the middle. Nevertheless, this book should be required reading for any avid baseball fan and is a must read for anyone who holds season tickets to a minor league team.

The Objective/Subjective Brilliance of the Tampa Bay Rays

As I consider the Rays success over the past few years, I am not nearly smart enough to do any kind of statistical analysis or close enough to tell you stories of what the Rays have done in the community. What I have seen is an incredible balance of objective and subjective measurements and accomplishments.

When I was a manager for Starbucks, we had secret shoppers come to the store 6 times a quarter. These secret shoppers had two set of criteria that the stores were being judged on. The first was objective, measurable. Our drinks had to weigh a certain amount. They had to be just the right temperature. The bathrooms had to be clean. The barrista had to know the answer to a semi-obscure piece of Starbucks information. All of these things were clearly measurable.

The Rays objective brilliance has been well documented. Jonah Keri’s recent book, The Extra 2%, is about this in particular. He shares stories of secret statisticians the Rays keep on staff. In the blogosphere, these men have come to be known as the “Rays Sabermetric Keebler Elves”. They can give you any kind of breakdown on pitchers, hitters and fielders.

The trouble with managers at Starbucks and with some baseball teams as well is that they get so transfixed by the numbers, the measurables, that they become machines. No one wants to work for a manager who only cares about the bottom line. No one wants to play for a manager who is such a slave to statistics that he will never go with his gut.

On the other hand there are subjective grades. At Starbucks, the secret shoppers would also judge the store on how it felt. Was the service good or legendary? Did the store feel like a place you would want to be. These things were far less measurable, especially in any kind of quantifiable way. Some managers really chafed under these grades; others flourished. Often, if a manager could effectively create the feel Starbucks was looking for, they struggled with the details of their store. Barristas weren’t adequately trained; drinks were often made wrong. But it felt right.

The Rays have included this as well. A few examples show how loosely the clubhouse is run. Last fall, Yahoo sports ran an article (found here) about how the Rays were all addicted to Farmville on their iPads. As you read the article, it oozes fun. Combine that with a manager who insists are themed road trips (see the picture above) and a GM who has an original NES system set up outside his office to play classic baseball games, you have an incredibly fun environment.

And that is the difficulty of any leader or manager. Whether in baseball, retail or whatever field you like, maintaining the balance between these two things is essential to success. Go off the rails on one side and you become a number-crunching-bottom-line-robot. Jump in the other direction and you become a warm-and-fuzzy-get-nothing-done-teddy-bear.

My Journey to the Trop

Editor’s Note: As part of my Lenten vow to write everyday, Saturday’s I will be focusing on the Tampa Bay Rays. This week, I’ll tell you why I love them.

One of my fondest memories of a child were in a small town outside of Atlanta called Carrolton. My grandparents and great-grandmother lived there and I would visit with my cousins during the Summer. More than picking up sticks (which my grandfather made me do often) and more than going to Six Flags (which my grandmother let me do seldomly), I will always remember the soundtrack of the evenings. Every night my family whiled the time away by watching the Atlanta Braves on TBS. They were fans. My great-grandmother, Bertha Conner, new Mark Lemke’s slash lines by heart. She would listen to the game way too loud and fall asleep this way every night.

Growing up in Tampa I loved baseball, but there was no team in town. So, I adopted my families team, the Braves. When the Devil Rays were awarded to the Bay area, I was stoked. I went to a game very early in ’98. Even as a punk rock kid who spent way too much time at the State Theatre in downtown, I was always a fan of baseball.

When I went to college, I was surrounded by football fans. Despite my enduring interest in the Devil Rays (one of my wife and I’s first dates was to a Devil Rays v. Tigers game [she’s from Michigan]), I began to follow football more closely. By no coincidence this was also about the time of the rise of the great Buccanneers teams of the late 90’s and early 00’s.

After college the Devil Rays and Bucs were equal in their mediocrity, so I followed them both. I couldn’t afford Bucs tickets, but I would drive over the bridge half a dozen times a year.

In the Summer of 2007, I lost my job in Tampa and I was forced to relocate to Myrtle Beach, SC. While I liked Myrtle Beach, I loved Tampa. As a nerd, I was an early adopter of the iPhone and in the spring of 2008 things began to change (and it wasn’t just the name of the franchise I followed). Two huge things shifted my attention.

The first was the MLB App for the iPhone. I was able to listen to every game through the season. The soothing rhythm of Rays announcers became the background for life in my house. If there was a Rays game being played, it was probably being listened to at our house. In fact, the excitement of the season and my life culminated on the same day. The Rays lost the World Series the day my first son was born.

The second discovery in early 2008 was stumbling upon the website Raysindex.com. It was this website and its proprietor, Cork who opened my eyes to a whole new world of baseball. I had never heard of sabremetrics. I learned to watch the game with a new eye and a new love. I had no idea what I was missing. Baseball became a beautiful dance of numbers and decisions.

The rhythm of the call and the dance of the statistics made me huge fan. Every summer, my wife and I time our visits based on homestands. Just like when I was a kid at my grandparents every evening, we cook and clean and put our kids to bed to the tune of the pitch and catch of the Tampa Bay Rays.

And that’s just fine with me.