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Tuesday, 02 July 2019 22:56

A baseball fiction starting nine

Baseball is the most literary of sports.

There are any number of possible reasons – the pastoral origins of the game, the gentle pace, the devotion to history, the lauded figures of the past – but it’s tough to argue that of all our shared athletic endeavors, baseball is the one that has inspired the most ink to be spilled.

Fictional exploration of the game has been going on for decades, with some of the most gifted writers of numerous generations choosing to introduce baseball into their pages. Some use it as a tertiary or tangential element, while others use it as a story’s centralizing, guiding force.

And so, in honor of the upcoming All-Star Game and the full-on onset of summer, here’s a list of a few works of baseball fiction. Some are well-known works, while others are more marginal. It’s far from an exhaustive list – there’s far more great stuff out there – but here’s a lineup’s worth to get you started.

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One of the longest-standing truisms in the athletic realm is that nothing is more important than inborn natural talent; while practice can make you better, there’s no amount of practice that can compensate for a lack of inherent ability.

But in baseball’s brave new world, with reams of data available at the press of a button, perhaps that truism isn’t quite so true after all.

“The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists are Using Data to Build Better Ballplayers (Basic, $30), by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik, is an exploration of the rapidly-blossoming notion that there’s more to it than that. Teams are turning their vast data-collecting capabilities toward the field of player development, trying to find ways to maximize the talent of their players in new and sometimes unconventional ways.

It’s a new frontier, one awash in high-speed cameras and swing gurus. It’s all about spin rates and launch angles and elevating the velocity of the ball, be it thrown or batted. And the people who are the earliest adopters, from the front offices to the fields, are reaping the rewards.

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Baseball is a team game made up of individual battles, a series of one-on-one confrontations where one man throws a ball and the other attempts to hit it. Yes, the action evolves after that, but at its heart, baseball is about pitcher versus hitter.

The man at the plate has a weapon – his bat – and protection in the form of gloves, a helmet, perhaps some armor in the form of an arm guard or shin guard. The man on the mound has none of that. But he is not unarmed – he has the ball. And the ball can be a formidable weapon indeed.

That weapon is the focus of Tyler Kepner’s new book “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches” (Doubleday, $28.95). In it, the New York Times baseball writer digs deep into the myriad ways that players have tried to put the ball over the plate over the course of the game’s long history. It’s an exploration of one-half of that ever-present central conceit of hurler against striker.

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It’s safe to say that the Boston Celtics of the 1950s and 1960s were the greatest dynasty in American professional sports. One could try to make arguments for other teams in other sports, but in terms of pure extended dominance, it’s tough to argue against eight consecutive championships and 11 titles in 13 seasons.

It’s also tough to argue against any two players being more vital to those victories than Bill Russell and Bob Cousy. But despite their brilliant dynamic on the court, their relationship beyond basketball is something a little more complicated.

Both aspects of the Cousy/Russell link are explored in Gary Pomerantz’s new book “The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, and What Matters in the End” (Penguin Press, $28). Built around a years-long series of interviews with Cousy, the book explores the history of that dynastic time in Celtics history and examines an NBA that might have disappeared forever had Cousy and Russell not come along, all while also looking at issues of race in a particularly tumultuous time in our society.

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There’s no denying that Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick are among the greatest coaches in the history of football. One can argue about their relative placements in the pantheon, but it’s difficult to dispute either’s placement among the greatest of the greats. Meanwhile, Raiders owner Al Davis spent decades as the free-wheeling outlaw of the NFL’s leadership class, bringing his own unique ideas and passions to the game.

And Michael Lombardi worked under all of them.

Those relationships form the basis for Lombardi’s new book “Gridiron Genius: A Master Class in Winning Championships and Building Dynasties in the NFL” (Crown Archetype, $27). It’s a chance for Lombardi to impart the myriad lessons he has gleaned over his decades of working with some of the finest football minds in history.

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Sports fandom is a funny thing. Not only do we love talking about what happened in a given game or season or career, but we also love asking questions about all those things. Specifically … what if? What if something changed fundamentally about the games that we love? And what if those changes resulted in more changes and those changes led to still more changes and so on?

That’s the guiding force behind “Upon Further Review: The Greatest What-Ifs in Sports History” (Twelve Books, $28). Assembled and curated by Mike Pesca, this collection of essays takes a look at what might have happened if certain aspects of the sports world had played out differently. Some of them address the topic at hand with scholarly seriousness, while others work with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but all of them are engaging looks at diverging potential paths through sports history.

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What is it that truly defines athletic genius?

While there’s no doubt that physique and physicality play massive roles in what makes a successful athlete, there’s more to it than that. True sporting greatness springs from not just one’s body, but also that body’s connection with the brain.

In his new book “The Performance Cortex: How Neuroscience is Redefining Athletic Genius” (Dutton, $28), Zach Schonbrun attempts to explore that connection; it’s a deep dive into the neuroscience behind movement that attempts to develop an understanding of the body-brain relationship and determining how the relationship impacts those performing at an elite athletic level.

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Of all our major sports, baseball is the one with the longest history. All that history means that on a singular level, there’s room for a lot of interesting things to happen. It’s like the adage about infinite monkeys and infinite typewriters eventually producing “Hamlet” – do something long enough and you’ll eventually get some singular results.

Joe Cox’s latest book “The Immaculate Inning: Unassisted Triple Plays, 40/40 Seasons, and the Stories Behind Baseball’s Rarest Feats” (Lyons Press, $27.95) recounts some of those singular moments. Some are just one game (or even one play) while others consist of longer stretches and even full seasons, but they all share at least one commonality: you don’t see them every day.

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The inroads that statistical analysis has made into baseball coverage over the past decade or so are pretty remarkable. Advanced metrics have become a much larger part of understanding the game.

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Book explores commonalities between the greatest teams in sport

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