POWER BALL by Rob Neyer

December 9, 2018

Rob Neyer’s POWER BALL is just a very long rambling essay about baseball as it is being played currently, tied together nominally by Neyer’s play-by-play account of a meaningless game between a good team and a bad team. The subtitle, "Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game," confirms that summary, since "anatomy" could go anywhere and everywhere, and Neyer’s book does just that, touching on subjects ranging from the now-equal proportion of pitchers to position players on current rosters to the latest recovery rates from Tommy John surgery to oldish broadcasters’ strange embrace of the newish term "exit velocity."  The game itself, an Oakland A’s 9-8 comeback victory against the Astros on September 8, 2017, https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/OAK/OAK201709080.shtml , provides a loose framework for Neyer’s book-length essay: as events (and batters) pop up during the game, Neyer launches into an analysis of each of them, with as little causal connection or organization behind each analysis as there is between each at-bat of a 9-8 ballgame.

The only quality that elevates POWER BALL over anyone else’s rambling essay about baseball is that it was not written by anyone else. Neyer is a writer and thinker of almost unparalleled talent. As someone once wrote about Bill James, "I’d pay three bucks a month to listen to him snore." At $27.99, this book amounts to nine months and ten days worth of reading that is absorbing and thoughtful, the furthest you can get from a snore. It’s like being inside Neyer’s head while a baseball game is going on, and that’s a very lively place to be, with original insights and perspectives on aspects of 2018 MLB that you have never (I promise) thought about in exactly the way Neyer thinks about them.

For example, among the dozens of subjects touched on here, there is on pp. 109-113, a 3 and ½ page mini-essay on the phenomenon of gay ballplayers in the major leagues—or more precisely the absence of gay ballplayers, at least publicly. (Two major leaguers, Glenn Burke and Billy Bean, came out of the equipment closet after their retirements.) These 1400 words work as a self-contained disquisition on the subject, chockful of quirky details (such as Billy Bean and Billy Beane, the more famous Oakland GM, having been teammates on Pat Corrales’ 1988 Toledo Mud Hens’ roster simultaneously, or the surprising saga of Dale Scott, the MLB umpire who did come out as gay but suffered zero blowback for doing so. In fact, after he came out, he was figuratively embraced by no less a "knuckleheaded Neanderthal" than Curt Schilling, upsetting all my prejudices about Schilling, ballplayers, and people in general.) But why is Neyer discussing gay ballplayers at all? There was not, to Neyer’s knowledge, a gay ballplayer on the field that September 8th, after all. The subject arises because Neyer had been previously describing another taboo subject in baseball, that of showing emotions on the field, which the Astros’ catcher in this game, Brian McCann, is known to disapprove of, particularly in the incident Neyer cites, that of McCann blocking the plate after a bat-flipping Carlos Gomez had homered against McCann’s team.

But why is Neyer discussing McCann’s reputation as MLB’s "Fun Cop"? Well, that’s because he just finished discussing the broader tendencies of today’s players to act out in ways that displeases Fun Cops like McCann: today’s young ‘uns dress or wear their hair or beards in very idiosyncratic ways, as Neyer exemplifies with the Mets’ Rapunzel-tressed Noah Syndergaard and Cameron Maybin’s unfashionably high socks. But why is Neyer discussing on page 107 baseball’s recent dialing-back of grooming and sartorial standards?

Because on page 105, he had been writing about the place occupied by individual human tendencies in a mostly-regimented sport. Not only the tendency of ballplayers to express their individuality, but specifically he writes of umpires expressing their individual senses of what constitutes the strike zone. Neyer favors (as do I) the rapidly encroaching development of technology to allow "the prospect of ‘robot umpires’—a stupid term, but what are you gonna do?—who will call balls and strikes." Neyer gleefully extols the extinction of needless human elements in baseball: "When the human element can be removed," he assures us, "it will be removed," going on to predict the driverless cars that will soon be cruising along our highways and the Roombas that will soon be cruising along our carpeting. "Oh. Right," he catches himself. "Already happening. Well, more Roombas are coming. More driverless cars. More everything else, too. Robot umpires are coming, friends."

I could trace the etiology of the "human element" theme back further (to the unpredictability by human scouts of Josh Donaldson’s rise from a marginal 26-year-old to a 27-year-old MVP candidate) or I could trace the "gay ballplayer" theme forward (to MLB’s leeriness about accepting cannabis use by ballplayers, even in pot-friendly locales like Denver and Seattle), but the point is that the only logic connecting all these varied themes in POWER BALL, and a hundred others, is the logic of Rob Neyer’s capacious brain.

The organization of the book owes much to that of Daniel Okrent’s NINE INNINGS, as Neyer openly acknowledges, but Neyer departs much more freely from his nine innings than Okrent ever considered doing in his 1985 classic analysis of a Brewers-Orioles game. Each of the 18 chapters is labeled by the half inning it describes, and each one ("Home Fourth" or "Visitors Seventh") begins and ends with a paragraph on the events of that half inning, but in between those points, Neyer takes us on a trip upon his magic swirling ship, our senses to be stripped, waiting only for our boot heels to be wandering…. Following his free associations is a trip and a pleasure.

In the same acknowledgements where he repays his debt to Okrent (a list of names so long that he repeats several of them in different sections), I noticed him thanking first and foremost his editor at Harper, both for coming up with the idea for the book and for allowing him "to write just the book I wanted to write," implying correctly that most editors would have insisted on toning down the more excessive of the many tangents Neyer goes off on, and on imposing more overt structure on the book than mere half-inning titles. I also noticed that the editor’s name is that of one of my star students in several writing courses at Pace University, once upon a time, that rare student who probably holds the record for "Most As earned from Goldleaf," straight As that I found very easy to enter. Eric Nelson studied several writing genres with me in the 1990s, so the only rule I know I advocated in every writing course I’ve taught is to "Break Any Rule," a self-contradictory maxim that manifests itself so pleasingly here. (The slightly more complicated form of that rule is "Break Any Rule—as long as you understand the rule you’re breaking." It’s that last clause that brings a frown to the faces of my lazier students, and a smile to those of my more ambitious students. Professors aren’t supposed to know which students wrote their anonymous course evaluations, by the way, but I could always tell Eric’s by the wit he wrote them with—mainly they concerned my mordant sense of humor, a deadpan quality that few students pick up on, and fewer appreciate. Most student evals complain about my obnoxious imposition of "rules" on them but the sharper ones realize that those "rules" exist to give them tall walls to butt up against, and sometimes to break. Eric Nelson got me from the very start, so it’s a delight to find him butting up against Rob Neyer’s quirky prose.) The unusually structureless structure of POWER BALL is very effective, but it works only because of the high quality of the thoughts contained within.

Of course, all readers won’t appreciate equally the far-ranging subjects of those thoughts, nor the far-distant regions to which Neyer takes them from the game under nominal scrutiny here ("the game" being both Major League Baseball and the Oakland-Houston tussle that Friday night in 2017).  When he goes on (pp. 177-190), for example, about the difficulty of pegging players’ racial, national, and ethnic origins and how those numbers have evolved and what they signify,  a reader lacking interest in sociological matters might feel a little antsy, or when he explores the trend of Ivy League graduates running half the franchises in baseball, he might lose a few readers unconcerned over diversity issues. I was okay with all of his digressions, wanderings, rapid changes of subject, and meandering ideas, but then I like Henry James and his interminable sentences analyzing the most minute of peripheral thoughts. I’m also a fan of Henry’s distant cousin Bill, who sometimes changes the pace of his pitches by throwing a sociologist’s pitch into a sequence of hard-core baseball writing, as little as I find myself agreeing with (and sometimes understanding) some of his more abstruse or counterintuitive points.

Be warned, too, that Neyer’s politics can get in your face. (Your face, not mine. I’m probably to the left of Neyer politically, and he’s probably to the left of you, unless you happen to be Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And if you are, hi there, cutie.) (Sorry. Hi there, Madame Congressperson-elect.) In discussing the damage caused to Houston’s Minute Maid Park  by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, for example, he quotes environmental writer Bill McKibben’s warning that unless we get serious about climate change, and fast, "we’re not going to Florida for spring training, but to St. Paul," observing that "McKibben’s prediction hasn’t come true yet. Which doesn’t mean it won’t." So fair warning to climate-change deniers, Holocaust deniers, and De-Neyers in general—his political assumptions might be tough for you to digest easily. For me, they went down like a cold beer on a hot day.

And for all the digressions, Neyer usually works his way unexpectedly back to the game, with trenchant discussions of the sort of baseball minutia that appeals to us all: following the climate-change passages, for instance, Neyer keenly analyzes stadium design and architecture, the history of pitch-framing, and the ill-defined definition of a "checked swing." The game under the microscope, by the way, also develops in an unexpected way:  each chapter ends with the score of the game, and the win probability, which stands at 93% at the seventh-inning stretch, the Astros beating the brains out of the A’s by a score of 7 to 3. But, as Neyer runs down climate change and sundry other topics, the A’s score four runs and tie it up in the bottom of the seventh. Ya gotta pay attention! Don’t just listen to the non-stop yakker sitting next to you! Watch the goddamned game!

To start the top of the eighth inning, with the score tied up at last, Neyer’s epigraph (he includes one for each half-inning) comes from novelist David Foster Wallace, famous for his pseudo-academic use of endnotes and footnotes. (Read https://lithub.com/the-fine-art-of-the-footnote/ if this sort of thing interests you, or just read Foster Wallace.) In POWER BALL, the notes at the bottom of almost half the pages are preceded by asterisks.  Lots of asterisks. More asterisks than ever plagued Roger Maris’s worst nightmare.* Asterisks and parentheses are the best friends of the digression-prone author, and both are used to full effect here, almost in a self-parodic way, as if Neyer, fully aware of how disorganized his mind can seem at times, is calling our attention to several parts of the page at once. I found the asterisks amusing, and the parenthetical style, discussing two or three subjects simultaneously, charming. But then one of my professors in grad school lost his temper over my own parenthetical style of writing, and scrawled all across my essay on Byron’s DON JUAN "WRITE IN MOTHER ENGLISH, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE!!!" (all-caps his), so who am I to judge?

As the 9-8 game draws near its close, Neyer manages to pack in several further observations on topics ranging from the pace of play over the past few decades to ways of avoiding and treating concussions in MLB players to the ever-increasing height and weight of big-league shortstops to Rule 6.01 (j), the Chase Utley rule.  Near the very end, he waxes about the changing role of the closer, naturally, and at the very end, he wanes about the current daily ritual of celebrating wins, especially those of the walk-off variety, as here, with two lines of players on the winning team high-fiving, bumping elbows, or engaging in elaborate secret handshakes.  He writes an epilogue, and a chapter after the epilogue, and a literate chapter of acknowledgements, almost as if he’s dismayed that the time has come for his non-stop chatter to end, and he doesn’t quite know how to shut the spigot off. I felt the same way, and look forward to his next book-length arrangement of intelligent thoughts.

 

*  Made you look!

 
 

COMMENTS (13 Comments, most recent shown first)

RandomSports
I've loved every Neyer book but as much as I like the guy it didn't tackle anything that hasn't been done and beat to death in so many other books already. It's a shift from his past books no tables not much reminiscing and his politics have finally found the way in to his baseball writing (I can't stand his but I wouldn't want my own clumsily added to a book about baseball either)


I think he is at best making sense of the past over writing about the present and the future. Enjoyable read but after such a long wait between books I was hoping for a lot more.
9:54 PM Dec 28th
 
Gfletch
Well done. Makes me want to read the book. Part of the appeal here is the idea of roaming ones imagination randomly, yet circling around a theme. Appealing because that's the way I think (sometimes with, but often without any theme to tie me down).
11:43 AM Dec 11th
 
rotcnomar
The power of that Kindle app. It's now mine and I have a plane ride tomorrow to knock most of it out. Thanks for the write up.
8:57 AM Dec 11th
 
villageelliott
"Eric Nelson studied several writing genres with me in the 1990s, so the only rule I know I advocated in every writing course I’ve taught is to "Break Any Rule," a self-contradictory maxim that manifests itself so pleasingly here. (The slightly more complicated form of that rule is "Break Any Rule—as long as you understand the rule you’re breaking." It’s that last clause that brings a frown to the faces of my lazier students, and a smile to those of my more ambitious students."

Sounds like a corollary to Mark Twain's," Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.
- quoted by Rudyard Kipling in From Sea to Shining Sea

Good advice. Like Kipling, I have found it very useful.


BTW:

MARK TWAIN, D. LITT., OXON: Students Give a Great Ovation to Him .

OXFORD, June 26. - Together with thirty men distinguished in politics, art, science, or letters, including ... Rudyard Kipling and, Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) received a university degree today... the great ovation was reserved for Mark Twain, who was the lion of the occasion. Everyone rose when he was escorted up the aisle and he was applauded for a quarter of an hour.
---The New York Times, June 27, 1907
12:20 AM Dec 11th
 
bewareofdow
I have Rob’s Big Books and the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers.

I enjoyed them all tremendously and hope Rob continues writing books.
3:05 PM Dec 10th
 
bearbyz
Thanks a lot, I put this book number one on my Christmas list, but after reading your review I want it even more. Now I will be disappointed if I don't get it for Christmas.
2:26 PM Dec 10th
 
wovenstrap
Chevy Chase released an album in the mid-1970s, which I had when I was a little kid. On the back cover in the credits he pulled that exact same "Made you look!" gag.

As an adult I edit books for a living, often academic ones with a lot of notes. I've been waiting for someone to pull that trick..... to no avail.
2:21 PM Dec 10th
 
gingras
Excellent book. Fine portrait of what "modern" baseball has become and is becoming.
12:53 PM Dec 10th
 
Steven Goldleaf
No graphs, no tables, no nothing,

MarisFan, I can be unusually confident I'd have written much the same without knowing the name of the editor because I only learned his name when I read the book's final pages, by which time I'd already drafted my review. The paragraph about Nelson was dropped in after the review was in its second draft.
7:15 AM Dec 10th
 
bbbilbo
Are there a lot of tables and graphs? If not, I'll be buying the Kindle edition; if there are, I'll buy the old-fashioned one.
6:32 AM Dec 10th
 
steve161
If I hadn't already read it, this would move me to read it. Excellent review.

The only thing I'd add is that there's no reason to pay $27.99 for it: Amazon has it for $18.29 ($17.42 for the Kindle edition). There are, by the way, 14 reviews on Amazon, all five-star.
6:13 AM Dec 10th
 
MarisFan61
Neat!

The book sounds like Nabokov's Pale Fire with a little less psychosis. I might even buy it. :-)

BTW, would you have written this with as much love and feeling if the editor hadn't been your student?
(what a hoot that is!)
3:00 AM Dec 10th
 
doncoffin
I apparently pre-ordered it a month ago and I'm jealous that it hasn't shown up yet. Whine, whine, whine...​
7:23 PM Dec 9th
 
 
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