Sunday, April 08, 2007

Book Review: The Cheater's Guide To Baseball, by Derek Zumsteg

It's really rare that I actually review recent books here. It's even rarer that I review books written by people I've actually met in real life. This book was both released in the last month AND is by someone I know, which makes it a little strange to write about.

However, being as I'm all for book events and going to bookstores and heckling local authors, I figured I better review this one soon, especially because Derek will be at Third Place Books on April 11th at 7pm -- that's this Wednesday night -- talking and signing and being his usual entertaining self. If you're in the Seattle area, you should try to come out for this. It'll be fun.

The Cheater's Guide To Baseball, by Derek Zumsteg

Cheating is not a laughing matter.

Someone'll have to inform Derek of that, though, because most of this book is pretty funny.

The first thing I should probably mention is that this book is not really a guide for cheating in baseball, though you could probably figure that out on your own. A more accurate but less witty title might be "A Historical Account Of Ways People Have Broken, Bended, Ignored, Folded, Spinned, and Mutilated the Rules of Baseball Over The Years". Derek basically presents the stories of various figures through baseball history who have sought to gain an unfair advantage over their opponents, often by breaking the rules (or occasionally, those who sought to gain a little extra cash by giving their opponents an unfair advantage).

All of the things you're probably thinking of as baseball cheating are covered in this book -- corking bats, throwing spitballs, stealing signs, doctoring the ball, the 1919 Black Sox, etc. But there's a lot more details about each one of these than most casual fans would know. For example, the physics of how a corked bat provides an advantage; a detailed explanation of why doctored baseballs do what they do, and several examples of who used them and how; a long treatise on Gaylord Perry, the legendary spitball master; and recountings of fixed games going back 50 years before the infamous World Series fix. There's even a chapter on steroids. It's a pretty interesting chapter, and that's all I'm going to say on the matter.

If you've been reading Derek's writing on USS Mariner and elsewhere for the last few years, most of the writing style will be fairly familiar to you -- informative with a dash of sarcasm and wit mixed in. Pretty much every sidebar, whether serious or silly, has a punchline at the end of it. Sometimes this detracts from the main flow of the writing; sometimes it doesn't. If you're like me, you'll eventually just skip the sidebars and read them after you finish the chapter.

(As an aside, this actually made a great bus book due to the length of the chapters and the lack of chapter-to-chapter context -- everything's pretty well-encapsulated. The book's got plenty of substance in it, no pun intended, but at the same time, the writing is light enough that you won't have any trouble keeping yourself in it.)

Some of the best parts of the book are the drawings. They range from funny things like a cartoon diagram of Gaylord Perry's secret hiding places for substances and a comic strip entailing the Hidden Ball Trick, to serious things like a corked bat or an illustration of how to doctored illegal baseballs work... to things that are both funny and serious, such as one "showing" a bunch of "signs" that teams may use. (The signs diagram was funny enough that I was reading this book on the bus and started laughing. My best friend was sitting next to me wondering what was so funny. He doesn't know much about baseball, but I handed him the book and told him to read through that page, and he also cracked up.)

Oddly, if I have one complaint about the book, it was that I heard Derek had to cut out a few chapters, notably those on equipment and on trying to deliberately injure other players, and well, I would have rather read about those than the chapter on fan riots and heckling, which didn't seem quite as relevant to the central theme to me.

It's a good thing the groundskeeping chapter stayed, at least, because that's some great stuff. If you ever wondered exactly what things could factor into "home-field advantage" besides simply having the last opportunity in the game to score, you'll love learning about the various ways people have (legally) tampered with the field in the past to get conditions that work for their team and against the opponents. (And no, I'm not just saying that because I was the first bug finder with that chapter. It's seriously fascinating stuff.)

So yeah, I give this book a thumbs up. It's a solid effort from Derek to serve up an interesting slice of baseball history. As a paperback-only release, it's worth the $14, and again, you can buy a copy and get Derek to sign it at Third Place Books this Wednesday night, or later in the month I believe you can also bug him at Powell's on Hawthorne, if you're in the Portland area.

No comments: