Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Book Review: Watching Baseball Smarter, by Zack Hample

I'm back from Pittsburgh. Since the Mariners managed to get yet ANOTHER game postponed today, I might as well put off catching up on the weekend games a little longer and write a book review instead. (Seriously, is there any reason I should catch up at all? Getting swept by the Twins and Angels isn't exactly my idea of a fun thing to watch.)

This is the second book in a row I'm reviewing where I actually sort of know the author, although in this case it's mostly that I've been following the chronicles of Zack's baseball collecting for the last year or so on his blog. Zack and I share the viewpoint that writing about a game shouldn't just be about the events on the field, although he takes it to much more of an extreme than I do. Anyway, his FIRST book was about getting baseballs, but this one is his second book, and it's about... everything.

Watching Baseball Smarter: A Professional Fan's Guide for Beginners, Semi-experts, and Deeply Serious Geeks by Zack Hample

A week or two ago, there was a thread on Lookout Landing asking what would be some good ways to teach a friend or significant other more about baseball, if they were interested in learning but didn't really know where to start. At the time, I'd read about 60 pages of Zack's book, and already wholeheartedly recommended it. I haven't changed my opinion since finishing the rest.

What's great about this book is that it actually manages to be something that can be read and enjoyed by all sorts of baseball fans. The subtitle is not a joke; Zack manages to make sure that there's fun stuff in the book for fans of all interest and knowledge levels. Whether you don't know what a ground ball is, or whether you know all about the infield fly rule and what year it became official, you'll still learn something from this book.

To be fair, it's hard for me to evaluate exactly how good it would be to a complete baseball newbie, though I could definitely see a lot of the same sort of tricks that I used to use when I worked as a technical writer, trying to cater to a wide variety of audience skill levels. Italicizing jargon words and keeping a glossary at the back keeps the text flowing well, but the reader shouldn't feel awkward if they don't understand the usage of a particular word; they also know that an explanation is readily available if needed. The book organization is pretty good overall, and it does cover all of the bases, no pun intended. There's even a chapter on umpires (with a situational quiz on "foul or fair?" that I could only get 7 out of 11 correct on), and a chapter on Baseball Stats For Dummies, interweaved with fun little factoids and quotes so that the advanced reader doesn't get bored. (The second half of the chapter is about scorekeeping and boxscores, and the sample boxscore has all of the players ending in -ez. You know, that badass Tavarez-Ibanez-Ordonez-Benitez lineup we've all dreamed of. Just kidding.)

There's a lot of good pictures and diagrams, too, showing anything from the way to grip different pitches to how fielders position themselves, to how they hold the bat in different situations, and so on. Lots of good explanations of things a lot of us take for granted, too, especially "what the hell are those guys thinking out in the field when it looks like they're just chewing gum," and "why are baseball contracts so thoroughly ridiculous?" There's even a poem made out of the "151 Ways To Hit A Ball".

Of course, there's no mention of Bill Wambsganss in the section on triple plays, but, hey, I think I can forgive that given the wealth of information on everything else.

My recommendation is to buy this book, read through it yourself, and then keep it in your backpack or on your desk at work -- and the next time you're in a conversation about baseball and feeling like "I don't have the time to explain all of this stuff!" to a friend or coworker, you'll have a book to lend them instead. Tell them it's even got an explanation of why baseball players are always grabbing their crotches, if they seem iffy about reading it. Of course, they're never actually going to give the book back to you once they realize what an indispensable baseball guide it is, so maybe this isn't the best plan, but you get the idea.

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