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How I spent my All-Star break

When there’s no baseball to watch, it’s a good time to read a book.

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Tampa Bay Rays v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

It’s the All-Star Break which means four days without meaningful baseball in the middle of July. In some ways, this constitutes cruel and unusual summer punishment. No baseball? That’s for December, when the temperatures are brutal and the daylight is short.

But maybe a break is OK. Especially when the team you follow has somehow managed to win roughly three out of ten games. Normally, that constitutes a bad streak. A poor run. But when there have been nine chunks of those ten games, it can be kind of a drag.

Maybe, just maybe, the Royals will have a stretch of games where they actually string together a few wins. No more of this “the most we can win in a row is three games” malarkey. I’m talking a serious winning run. You’re familiar with that. When the team wins 15 out of 25 in September and the optimism carries you into the winter. Then, you make cockeyed predictions in March. By the next July, you wonder what the hell drug you were on at the time. It’s a vicious cycle.

The lull in the race to the bottom of the AL Central allows for time to catch up on other pursuits otherwise neglected. There have been a litany of baseball books of quality which have been published over the last year. A personal favorite is The MVP Machine, written by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik. Yes, there is far too much Trevor Bauer and Kyle Boddy and Driveline for my personal taste, but you can’t avoid the fact that these are the names at the forefront of the latest revolution in the game. You may not like them. You may find their self-promotion or general Twitter presence distasteful. Boddy, in particular, seems to relish reviving old Royals tropes here and there. And Bauer is... Bauer. But it’s not so much about the people as it is the approach. How are players and teams looking to leverage data to improve performance. The first wave of analytics was about identifying the players who were good. The next wave is about identifying how to get better.

There’s plenty more besides Driveline. The book examines the work Brian Bannister is doing with the Red Sox. How Doug Latta is revamping swings. How the Astros are on the leading edge of technology.

My main takeaway from the book was that the smart teams are finding new ways to use technology to gain an edge. Like the Astros, those teams are already leading the revolution. The teams that are lagging, will continue to do so. There’s so much data to mine that once you fall behind, it’s impossible to catch up. You’re better off searching for the next breakthrough rather than refining what’s already been accomplished.

This book feels very much the guide for the next wave of baseball.

The essential book for the old wave (or maybe the first wave) was Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Published almost 50 years ago, it remains one of the best baseball books of all time. Bouton passed away on Wednesday, which led me to grab it off the bookshelf.

My advice: Don’t trust any baseball writer who doesn’t own a copy and read it frequently. This is the gold standard for baseball books.

Thumbing through it, I’m reminded the variety of topics it touched. From the greenies to the labor issues to race to God himself, Mickey Mantle. It’s a time capsule of a book, but it’s a damn good one. As the blurb on the back of my copy (20th Anniversary Edition) says, it’s not a book about baseball, it’s a book about people. And hilarious people at that.

The wisdom of Joe Gordon alone is worth the price of a paperback: “Up and at ‘em. Let it all hang out.” But Bouton does a great job chronicling the ups and downs of life in the major leagues. He pulled back the curtain and let the public inside the clubhouse for the first time. It remains a revelation.

One book I will not be purchasing, never mind reading, (or linking to on Amazon) is Bud Selig’s new memoir. If there’s a need to revisit the era when baseball turned a blind eye to steroids, extorted cities for new stadiums, threatened contraction and cancelled a World Series, I would opt for someone committed to telling the truth. And I would not count on Selig to tell that truth.

To quote Bouton, my reaction upon hearing Selig was writing a memoir: “Shitfucker.”

Under Selig’s watch, baseball lost in the ratings and marketing, but more than made up for it in lucre for the owners. Revenues grew and grew and grew during his tenure. And would you believe, they grew a little bit more. Owning a franchise has never been a better investment. And it’s all about the money.

The purpose of a memoir is to plant the flag in the historical narrative. By writing a book now, Selig gets to set that narrative ahead of any future examinations that may be less flattering. It feels like an undeserved victory lap.

Enough about Selig. Let’s go pound some Budweiser.