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Book Review: The Last Nine Innings, by Charles Euchner

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The Last Nine Innings, the new book by Charles Euchner, takes a unique approach to presenting the panorama of modern baseball. He chooses to see everything through the lens of its impact on one game: game seven of the 2001 World Series between the Yankees and Diamondbacks. It is a promising method that, at its best, can combine the excitement of narrative non-fiction with the insight of more thorough analysis. Euchner doesn't hit this one of the park, but I'll give him credit for a bloop single that sneaks past Derek Jeter into the outfield grass.

There's a lot of drama inherent in a single, winner-takes-all baseball game--the World Baseball Classic was a persistent reminder of that. But despite the claims of ESPN teaser ads, only a handful of games every year--even including the postseason--are truly "must-win" contests, in which both managers ignore typical regular-season strategy and every minor decision can have a monster impact on the year's end result.

Exhaustive analysis of one such game has the potential to shed light on a wide variety of subjects. A single-elimination game focuses more attention than usual on managerial decision-making: we may know that certain approaches translate to more runs in the long term, but what if we need one or two runs right now? Fitness and defensive execution also go under the microscope. A game-seven, ninth-inning miscue may just be an accident of fate, but it doesn't feel that way when, 175 games after opening day, it's the difference between winning and losing.

At its best, a book structured this way makes you feel like you have the very best imaginable seat-mate at your side during the game of the century. A couple of times, Euchner comes close to pulling it off. In Chapter Fourteen, he picks a great moment to dive into win probability statistics. Bottom of the sixth inning, close game, runner on first--whaddya do? He makes another good choice for Chapters Nine and Ten: it's the fourth inning, two superstar pitchers are hitting their stride, how did they prepare? Curt Schilling gets his outs with the help of exhaustive preparation--we get a fascinating chapter on his methods--and Roger Clemens relies more on pure power and an almost freakish level of fitness.

However, Euchner sometimes mistakes a selectively microsopic analysis of baseball for a proper analysis of a single game. I have this mental image of the front page of his notebook as the mix-and-match section of a junior-high exam: he came up with about nine baseball topics he found particularly interesting, then figured out which inning to pair them with. He put the expert bat-handling middle-infielder before the speedy centerfielder, if you will. The first chapter is a good example: he picks apart the four-tenths of a second between a pitch's release and its arrival at the plate. Interesting, I guess, but aside from setting the stage for 250 pages of attention to detail, it doesn't do much for an understanding of game seven.

The Last Nine Innings is most frustrating in its use of Eucher's extensive conversations with the players involved in the game. Most of the time, those quotations are great: whether or not you agree with how, say, Matt Williams sees the game, it's sometimes fascinating to hear what he has to say, how he approached certain moments in game seven. Williams is one of the better interviews, often serving as the book's resident expert on hitting. He explains what Dusty Baker calls the "one-hand fred," a swing that allows batters to make contact despite being fooled. Long after the initial description, Williams turns up again, commenting on Alfonso Soriano's eighth-inning home run. That's the way a book like this should work. Occasionally it does.

At the same time, those perspectives suggest many of the book's more egregious missed opportunities. At least a half-dozen times, Euchner considers multiple sides of an issue, then gives the last word to Tim McCarver. Challenging McCarver's claim that no one should ever slide head first, the author asks, was it okay for "the original masters, Pete Rose and Rickey Henderson?" McCarver: "Yeah, but there's only one Leonard Bernstein. There's only one Pavarotti. No one else should try." Leaving aside the credulousness required for a reader to take that one at face value, McCarver's function as arbiter of such disputes didn't seem in keeping with the book's approach. He may be a household name, but if you are weighing the new versus the old, conventional wisdom against renegade approaches, Tim McCarver should not be the one with the gavel.

Now that I've warned you of McCarver's pervasive influence, I'd have to turn it around quick to get you interested in reading the book, right? As I've suggested, Euchner offers plenty of fascinating anecdotal information on game preparation, video work, fitness, and even some fun with numbers--though nothing in that department that would excite anyone who's ever seen a Bill James Abstract. At times, the narrative is engaging. He picked a mighty fine subject, one that will surely be analyzed much more in the decades to come. If nothing else, The Last Nine Innings offers an excellent background to provide context for such future work.

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