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REVIEW: Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups: A Complete Guide to the Best, Worst, and Most Memorable Players to Ever Grace the Major Leagues
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Fireside (June 2003)
Manufacturer's Price: $16 USD ($25 CAN)

By Mick Doherty

Here's a question about Rob Neyer's new book, ambitiously subtitled A Complete Guide to the Best, Worst, and Most Memorable Players to Ever Grace the Major Leagues. Should you buy it? If you're enough of a baseball fan to be reading Da Box, then here's the short answer: yes. Absolutely.

Now here's the question about Neyer's book: should you read it? In the traditional sense of the word, the short answer is "no." Absolutely not.

In fact, as I sit here writing this review of the most riveting -- that's not necessarily to say "best" -- baseball book to hit the market since The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract in 2001, I have a startling confession to make. I haven't read it. Actually, in the standard sense, I haven't "read" James' book, either.

Like James' imposing Abstract, Neyer's ode to the varied histories of individual major league franchises has found a prominent place on my nightstand; both books are of the sort that can be picked up, opened randomly and read (and re-read) at any time in virtually any direction. I've been doing that with James' book for a year and a half, and as noted, I am (almost) positive I haven't read all of it.

About the Book
What is it about Neyer's book that makes it so digestible?

Rather than providing a capsule description of the book -- discussed at some length here previously on Da Box in a group dissection of the All-Time Blue Jays Lineup -- let's have our friends at Publishers Weekly do the legwork:

by compiling lists of players in a baseball "lineup" format [Neyer] manages to catalogue the game's all-time greats -- and all-time bums. In the process, he also creates a kind of capsule history of every major league team. The secret is in the categories: along with the "All-Time" bests of each club, the book also includes such lineups as All-Rookie, All-Defensive, All-Traded Away (players who became great after their original team got rid of them), and All-Bust (players who never came close to living up to the hype).


In fact, Neyer includes both a first and second "All-Time" team for most franchises, and other colorful categories like Homegrown, Gold Glove, Iron Glove, Used-to-Be-Great and All-Name. He sets his own, often arbitrary rules and generally sticks to them -- something I can appreciate given the approach to the Baseball's Hall of Names occasional series that runs here on Da Box. (The All-Irish team announced on St. Patrick's Day had rules convoluted enough to stump a rounders expert in a downtown Dublin pub.)

The Publishers Weekly review heaps praise on what it calls "little sidebar essays" -- similar to the ones Neyer includes regularly on his ESPN.com portfolio page; in fact, to the standard reader of Da Box, these sidebars are the interesting but largely unnecessary appetizers to each chapter's multi-course meal of lineups.

And for dessert, at the end of the book Neyer provides a complete listing of each team's starting lineup, position-by-position (including managers) for every year of its existence. Did catcher Manny Sanguillen spend more time sharing the Pittsburgh starting lineup with Bill Mazeroski or Rennie Stennett at second base? Now you can tell at a glance. (It was Stennett three seasons to two.)

So when the folks at Publishers Weekly somehow manage to conclude that the "colorful sidebars supply most of the real conversation pieces," take that with a grain of salt the size of Pepper Martin.

Frankly, the one disappointing thing about the book's format is that it doesn't come with a companion searchable CD-ROM. The long lists, the free association, the tables and statistics and subject matter -- it's a natural for native hypertext. Maybe the next edition will have an optional multimedia version; it'd be worth doubling the price.

About Rob Neyer
Regular readers of Da Box will recognize the aforementioned James as being the godfather of sabermetrics and more or less the patron saint of the Zombie-Like Cult (ZLC) that populates the staffbox listed on the left-hand side of this site. And I suspect that any positive comparison to James would sit quite well with Neyer, who once worked for the man and has cited him regularly in his column for ESPN.com.

And sure enough, James' name appears in the "dustjacket quotes" (though since this book is a paperback, that's a bit of an anachronistic misnomer) on the Big Book of Baseball Lineups. Gushing like any proud teacher praising a star pupil would, James says "Rob Neyer is the best of the new generation of sportswriters. He knows baseball history like a child knows his piggy bank. He knows how to pick it up and shake it and make what he needs fall out."

That's a great sound bite -- or, here on the Web, I guess, sound byte. And it's accurate; Neyer is certainly at least one of the best of the new century's metaphorical descendants of Grantland Rice, Damon Runyon and Jim Murray. The fact that Fireside opted to incorporate Neyer's name into the title -- the print equivalent of a movie star's name appearing before the title of the film in the opening credits -- speaks volumes about his credibility and marketability.

But to be completely honest -- and to use, appropriately enough, a baseball analogy -- Neyer is less this generation's Alex Rodriguez of baseball scribes than he is the Juan Gonzalez of writers. No, no, not that Neyer gets married and divorced every six weeks, or that he can't write if his pants are too tight. (Actually, I don't know either of those things for a fact. But they seem like reasonable assumptions.)

Living as I currently do in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, I have had the good fortune to watch both A-Rod and Juando hit many, many times -- often back-to-back in both games and batting practice.

Gonzalez has a beautiful swing; when he steps into the cage before a game, the entire stadium pretty much stops and watches. It's not quite McGwire-esque or Bonds-ian, but it's as close as North Texas has ever come; it is, in fact, beyond how the fans react when the $25 million dollar shortstop takes BP.

The difference between Rodriguez and Gonzalez -- at the plate, anyway -- is that during a game, A-Rod never takes an at-bat "off," whether the team is up 10 (or more likely these days, down 10), whether it's April or October -- well, in the Rangers' case, late September. Every once in a while, Gonazalez will loaf an at-bat, take a game off, or -- ask your friends in Detroit about this one -- punt an entire season.

Neyer's ESPN.com column is like that -- it seems that occasionally, albeit far less often than Gonzalez in the above example, he (e-)mails it in. So that was the one concern I had in picking up the Big Book of Baseball Lineups; would it be uneven? Demonstrate the occasional lapse or seemingly hurried conclusion that even found its way into Neyer's Baseball Dynasties collaboration with Eddie Epstein?

Thankfully, the answer is no. It's terrific -- er, at least what I've read of it so far (see above).

As a point of clarification, I should add that in my own (not exactly recent) experience as a newspaper columnist, and now in providing daily online content to a professional audience, I understand it's hard. Neyer takes a day off once in a while? He has a bad morning or is under the weather and his writing reflects it? So what?

The fact that I make his ESPN.com column a stopdown every day just reflects the heightened expectations he brings on himself by being, as James put it, one of the best of the new generation of sportswriters. So when he pops out to second base and doesn't run it out -- to conclude the Gonzalez analogy, which probably should have died peacefully a couple of paragraphs back - it's disappointing.

Back to the Book ...
So how good is this book? Well, if numbers impress you -- and here on Da Box, ZLCers do tend to be impressed by numbers -- at last check, the Big Book of Baseball Lineups held the lofty status of Amazon.com Sales Rank #111.

Need some context? Well, the first book in the most popular series of all time, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, even after five years, is holding strong at #81. James' Abstract, two years into its run but just released in paperback this month, has dipped to #3,863. The most recent book I contributed to that is available on the site, New Worlds, New Words, has the healthy rank of #869,965. That's right -- while Neyer looks to crack the vaunted Amazon Top 100, my co-authors and I can take some solace in still being in the top ... million. Barely.

... And Those Lineups?
But how good is Neyer's book? Lots of baseball fans will formulate an answer to that based on a similar, but wholly different question: how good are his picks?

Doesn't matter. Not a damn bit. The rankings in James' Abstract continue to strike me as bizarre in a few places, enlightening in most others. As noted broadcaster and impressionist Jon Miller -- another dustjacket buddy of Neyer's -- writes, "You will argue with some of Rob's picks and you will provoke many an argument with your baseball friends."

And that's the point; the book is thought-provoking, even if sometimes those thoughts are "what the hell is he thinking here?" But honestly -- from my point of view anyway -- even that didn't happen all too terribly often.

Just as an exercise for this review, I did a "spot check" on the first team Neyer picked for the five franchises I have followed closely at some point in my life, either due to physical proximity or because they're the Yankees; those teams are the Tigers, Reds, Indians, Rangers and of course, the Greatest Franchise in Sports.

A little stream-of-consciousness, then:

Spot Check #1: Cincinnati Reds
Not much of a problem here. I'd think about moving Pete Rose from LF to 3B in order to get George Foster's big bat into the outfield, but that's quibbling -- and Neyer even takes the time to explain his treatment of Rose. Clay Carroll seems an odd choice as the #1 relief pitcher on a team with a history of great bullpens from Captain Hook to the Nasty Boys, and I'd probably go with Johnny Franco -- who's not only on the Reds #2 team, but also the Mets #1 squad. I was surprised that Jim Maloney didn't make the four-man first-team rotation. Not much to argue with, but enough to start an all-night debate in a bar off Fountain Square.

Spot Check #2: Detroit Tigers
Wow I agree with every single selection. I tried to find something I didn't like here, but what are you gonna do? Argue for Lou Whitaker over Charlie Gehringer or Mike Henneman over John Hiller?

Spot Check #3: Cleveland Indians
Hate to make this two "perfect teams" in a row -- what's the fun in that? -- but the only surprise to me was Early Wynn ending up the #2 starter on the second team instead of taking his place on the varsity. I probably don't know enough about Stan Coveleski to appreciate his #3 slot on the first team. I do believe, unfortunately, that you could haul this book down into The Flats and get beat up for suggesting some guy named Lou Boudreau was better than Omar Vizquel.

Spot Check #4: Rangers/Senators
Including the latter-day Senators in this discussion means my reactions are a bit less informed than if it was only a review of the glorious history of Tom Grieve's Rangers. That said, I'd flip-flop the designated hitters and put Brian Downing on the first team over Larry Parrish, and take John Wetteland as the relief pitcher over Jeff Russell. I'd like to make an argument for Rusty Greer over Frank Howard in LF, and maybe longevity and leather would allow that argument to take shape. Kenny Rogers is probably the best-known starting pitcher as a Ranger, but he settles for the #1 slot on the second team behind guys like Charlie Hough, Fergie Jenkins, Kevin Brown and Nolan Ryan. Even a diehard Texas fan -- which I'm not -- can probably live with that. Tangent: one thing this book does is highlight the traditional position weaknesses of some franchises; the CFs here are Don Lock and Oddibe McDowell. Ugh.

Spot Check #5: New York Yankees
You have to wonder, what's harder? Putting together an all-time team for a franchise stuffed with Hall of Famers like the Yankees, or one for a new kid on the block like the Florida Marlins? Regardless, Neyer's pretty spot-on here, too. His rules about including someone who actually was a designated hitter at DH introduce Don Baylor into a lineup including Ruth, Gehrig, Berra, Mantle and Ford; cue the old Sesame Street classic "One of These Things is Not Like the Others." Although it would have been breaking Neyer's own rules, I'd have been tempted to give the DH slot to Ron Blomberg just for history's sake. The selection of Tony Lazzeri over Willie Randolph at 2B seems wrong, but that might be tinted by modern bias -- and Neyer admits that Poosh-em-Up Tony "just edges" Randolph. Lefty Gomez as the fourth starter on the first team doesn't seem right, either, with Allie Reynolds just behind him as the first starter on the second team -- but that really is picking nits. Unless you're in Toots Shors.

Box Check: Neyer vs. the ZLC
Since Neyer selects a "Single-Season" team for each franchise as well -- and we here on Da Box did that same thing a few months ago in preparation for the ongoing Jays/Yanks Ultimate Series -- we can compare "how we did" against the work of Bill James' best and brightest. There is no DH in the Ultimate Series, of course, but other than that:

Position: [ZLC Choice] * [Neyer's Pick]
C: [Whitt '89] * [Whitt '87]
1B: [Delgado '00] * [Olerud '93]
2B: [Alomar '93] * [Alomar '93]
SS: [Fernandez '87] * [Fernandez '88]
3B: [Gruber '90] * [Gruber '90]
LF: [Bell '87] * [Bell '87]
CF: [Moseby '83] * [Moseby '84]
RF: [Barfield '86] * [Barfield '86]
SP: [Clemens '97] * [Clemens '97]
RP: [Henke '89] * [Eichhorn '86]

Eight out of 10 players match; five, or half of the selections match exactly. Not bad, Rob. Not bad at all.

In Conclusion ...
Neyer, one of the few sportswriters of the current generation who seems to really understand (or at least works with people who really understand) what multimedia convergence can do for a book's sales -- has used the Web magnificently in promoting the Big Book of Baseball Lineups.

On his own personal/professional Web site, Neyer posts additional features and explanations of material in the book, provides contact information inviting feedback and good-humouredly includes a section dedicated entirely to corrections.

ESPN.com, Neyer's highest-profile employer, recently published a special section called Baseball's Dream Teams which listed most of his "first team" for each franchise, plus one "Burning Question" -- that is, it provided just enough of a tease to the book's content to drive buyers to the local Barnes & Noble, and provided new, fresh content unavailable anywhere else.

Finally -- so far, anyway -- Neyer has taken to the venerable ESPN.com Chat Room to discuss the book with fans and skeptics -- the very type of interactivity that scares off most authors. And he doesn't pull any punches in the chat; in response to a question about the best player not to make the "first team" for a franchise, Neyer replies "That would be a strapping young fella by the name of Joe DiMaggio. And yes, I know I could have slotted him in left field (or center, and shifted Mantle to left), or at DH. But I didn't allow such things. When it's your book, you can do stuff like that."

It is definitively Neyer's book -- though he deserves props for sharing credit and listing sources for every chapter -- and if you've read this far, you probably already own it or you will later today.

And next year, let's hope we're reviewing the CD-ROM.
High Neyer Act | 7 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
_Jurgen - Wednesday, June 18 2003 @ 03:41 AM EDT (#33382) #
HIJACK

In a post about Reed Johnson's performance in the Cubs-Jays rubber match, DS wondered how many times a player had started and finished a game with a home run (to the ribbing of MP).

Well, turns out Tom Tippet was wondering the same thing. DS, here's your answer. (Scroll down to "Tuesday, June 17" if necessary.)
Coach - Wednesday, June 18 2003 @ 08:16 AM EDT (#33383) #
if you've read this far, you probably already own it or you will later today.

Or, your birthday is next week and you are crossing your fingers that someone in your family actually reads your blog.

Excellent review, Mick. Special thanks for the links in the conclusion; I'll be doing some "research" later. Some people complain that Neyer's OBP, as it pertains to his prolific work on ESPN, has fallen below 1.000, but he still leads the columnists' league in SLG, and it sounds like he hit a walkoff grand slam with this book. I haven't even begun to (not) read it, but add me to the waiting list for the CD-ROM.

The last time we mentioned Neyer in Da Box was to discuss his column about the short-lived four-man rotation, which included his no-holds-barred criticism of Richard Griffin's work, and a confession that Rob is becoming a Jays' fan. You gotta like the guy.
_DS - Wednesday, June 18 2003 @ 10:04 AM EDT (#33384) #
Thanks Jurgen. It seems surprising that its only happened four times.
Mike D - Wednesday, June 18 2003 @ 10:59 AM EDT (#33385) #
I own the book too, Mick, and I completely agree with you: Pick it up, open it randomly and read in any direction. Interesting, debate-creating stuff.
_George - Wednesday, June 18 2003 @ 03:22 PM EDT (#33386) #
Funny, I'm surprised Johnson's feat happaned as many times as it did...
_Craig - Wednesday, June 18 2003 @ 04:40 PM EDT (#33387) #
I read the Jays' section, and I've flipped through some other teams. Like the Baseball Prospectus, Win Shares, or the Abstract, it's not something to be read cover-to-cover.

Not a great book, but worth the $12 Amazon price tag.
_Spicol - Thursday, June 19 2003 @ 01:12 PM EDT (#33388) #
But to be completely honest -- and to use, appropriately enough, a baseball analogy -- Neyer is less this generation's Alex Rodriguez of baseball scribes than he is the Juan Gonzalez of writers.

I couldn't agree more with this statement. I'm interested to know, Mick, who would you compare Jason Stark to? Gammons? Yourself?
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