Book Review: Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders
One of the biggest joys of being a baseball fan is griping with our fellow fans about our favorite team. We are so sure that we wouldn’t make the idiotic mistakes that we see the managers and general managers in the majors make. How could Jim Duquette trade Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano? Couldn’t he have gotten the other Zambrano? Why oh why was Willie Randolph so stubborn last year in continuing to bat David Wright seventh in the lineup? Surely if we were in the same positions, we wouldn’t commit these colossal blunders.
The best current baseball writer, Rob Neyer, has written a highly entertaining and informative new book called Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Blunders (Fireside, 2006). What is the difference between an error and a blunder? As Neyer writes, “Bill Buckner did not blunder when he let that ball squirt between his legs; John McNamara did blunder when he let Bill Buckner let that ball squirt between his legs.” There are three requirements for what Neyer considers a blunder, summarized as follows: “Premeditation. Contemporary questionability. Ill effects.” In other words, it has to be something that could be thought about in advance (hence Buckner’s error being excluded), clearly suspicious at the time (not just a second-guess), and negatively impacting a team’s performance (Bob Brenly is off the hook for questionable moves since the D’backs won the 2001 World Series). Therefore, a blunder can typically only be committed by owners, general managers, and managers. In fact, none other than Babe Ruth, who somewhat inexplicably was caught stealing second base to end the 1926 World Series, committed the only in-game player decision that is included in the book.
Many of the blunders were trades or free-agent signings that can be specifically correlated with a team missing out on a postseason berth one or more times. For instance, Neyer estimates that the Cardinals trading Steve Carlton to the Phillies before the 1972 season cost the Cardinals three division titles, and backs up this analysis with cold, hard facts. Of course, these analyses can suffer from the fallacy of preordained conclusions, that if the event in question hadn’t happened, everything else that followed would have remained the same. We know from the “butterfly flaps its wings” theory that this is not the case. But Neyer has earned enough trust through his superb column on espn.com, and the book uses accounts of Win Shares post-trades, that we do feel that we are seeing the best guesses as to the real impact of these GM decisions.
Neyer also does not shy away from more of the business and legal aspects of the sport, and shows himself to be as adept with this angle as he is with statistics. Some of the blunders committed by owners include hiring military man Spike Eckert, who compared baseball franchises to Air Force bases, as commissioner. They also didn’t realize the genius of fellow owner Charlie Finley’s idea of making every player a free agent every year. Coming from Finley (he of the orange baseball concept), this idea was mocked, but it was union head Marvin Miller’s private nightmare, as it would drive salaries down. But owners instead accepted the compromise that we have today, where players are locked up for six years before becoming free agents. Thus, every year, one or two stars at each position becomes a free agent, and there are many teams that need a player at that position, creating bidding wars. Finally, the owners participated in three off-seasons of collusion in the late 1980s, resulting in a huge settlement years later, and perhaps a permanent distrust of ownership by the players union.
The most entertaining chapters in the book (but let it be said that there is not one uninteresting chapter in the book) are reserved for in-game managerial decisions, which can be pinpointed as costing teams important regular season or playoff games. All the recent favorites are here. McNamara leaving Buckner in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Buck Showalter leaving David Cone in to throw 147 pitches in Game 5 of the 1995 ALDS against the Mariners. Grady Little not taking Pedro Martinez out of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. Joe Torre refusing to bring in Mariano Rivera in Game 4 of the World Series against the Marlins because he was waiting for a save situation on the road. But the funniest chapters are reserved for the Cubs’ hiring of Dusty Baker (who said that “a player doesn’t reach his peak until he’s somewhere between thirty-two or thirty-six and beyond”) and the Mariners’ hiring of Maury Wills in the middle of the 1980 season. This chapter is laugh-out-loud funny, as Neyer says that Wills “just might have been the very worst manager ever.” It is astonishing how many mistakes Wills made in just three months of major-league managing (he was fired one month into the 1981 season). Some of the highlights include making out a lineup card with two third basemen but no center fielder, repeatedly saying he was going to increase the playing time of players who had been traded away, and, for good measure, developing an addiction to cocaine.
The book is chock-full of good nuggets such as these. One of its main pleasures is being reminded of names that we may have vague recollections of, but around which we do not have a lot of context. Quick: did Tigers outfielder Chet Lemon play in the 1920s, 1950s, or 1980s? Answer: the 1980s. Did you know that White Sox broadcaster Ken “Hawk” Harrelson (he of the “You can put it on the board…YES!!!” call) had a disastrous stint as the Sox’ GM? Every time I read a column by Neyer, I come away with a substantive and interesting fact I didn’t know before. Multiply that feeling by a thousand, and you understand what it’s like to read this book.
Matt Sandler's column, "The Critical Fan", appears alternate Fridays