Sunday, 2 March 2014

My Top 5 Baseball Books

Long time no see readers. It's been a while since I blogged on here huh? My duties at Let's Go Tribe have kept me pretty busy writing-wise so I haven't had much time or energy to devote to England Tribe.

But since I had an idea for something not strictly Indians-related, I thought I'd share my top 5 baseball books with you. I work with books every day of the week and have a real passion for sports books in particular so I've developed quite a collection of baseball literature over the past few years. Now keep in my mind these are only my top 5 that I've read so far. I'm constantly adding to my mini-library and this list will probably change in no time at all.

Anyway, here we go, these are currently my top 5, starting with some honorable mentions:

Honorable Mentions:

Living On The Black by John Feinstein

Ever since I got into baseball years ago, I've always had a fondness for pitchers. When I'm watching a game, I prefer to see a tightly contested pitcher's duel between two aces than a slug-fest, double-digit run marathon that feels like it'll never end.

So when I read John Feinstein's excellent Living On The Black, it was tailor-made to be my perfect book. Feinstein covered Tom Glavine and Mike Mussina over the course of the entire 2007 season. Both pitchers performed under the intense media spotlight in New York and despite both men having pretty average seasons, Feinstein's rolling diary of their year makes for a fascinating read. You really get a behind-the-scenes feel of what a major league pitcher goes through. You get the feel that pitching is more of an art than a craft.

Just before starting the book, I'd read some reviews stating it could be slightly repetitive at times but I never found this to be so. I really enjoyed the immense detail Feinstein went into for practically every start Mussina and Glavine made. I had no complaints with the thorough approach Feinstein took to document as much as possible.


Other honorable mentions: Moneyball by Michael Lewis of course. I've left it off my main list because it's such a classic and most baseball fans already know it so well. It's easily one of my favorites but doesn't need anymore explaining here.

Dirk Hayhurst's The Bullpen Gospels and Out Of My League were both brilliant reads, mixing in Hayhurst's life off the field as much as his time on the mound. He brings a lot of humor to both books and it really works. I'm looking forward to reading his new book, Bigger Than The Game.

Baseball's Great Experiment by Jules Tygiel was essentially my bible when I tackled my dissertation at university about the legendary Jackie Robinson. Without Tygiel's amazing book I would have been lost for a long time and it really helped me get a grasp on Robinson's legacy and the huge part he had to play in baseball history.


So without further ado, here's my top 5:

My Top 5 Baseball Books (in no particular order)

56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number In Sports by Kostya Kennedy

Joe DiMaggio, for me, is one of the few players in baseball history who earns respect and adoration from fans not just of the Yankees but fans of baseball first and foremost. Despite my loathing for the Bronx Bombers, I can't deny their incredible past and all the greats that played in pinstripes. Out of all of them, Joe DiMaggio is easily my favorite.

I had been pondering for some time which DiMaggio book to read because there are quite a few great ones: Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life by the great Richard Ben Cramer is probably the top choice but I was put off slightly by a lot of the reviews claiming Cramer was rather negative (it's still on my list to read though, and it's hard to get hold of a copy right now). Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil by Jerome Charyn is another one, a book that I actually have on my shelf and still haven't read yet, but I believe it's focus is heavy on Joe's time away from the game with Marilyn Monroe; I wanted to read primarily about his peak years on the field instead.

So it was Kostya Kennedy's biography about Joe's infamous record of hitting in 56 consecutive games that became my choice and it quickly turned into one of my favorite reads. The book details before the streak began, every single day Joe recorded a hit, as well as the after-effects when the streak met it's unfortunate demise. Kennedy has a talent for not getting bogged down in the numbers and weaves an engrossing story. It's quite a large book but Kennedy does well to keep it interesting throughout. DiMaggio's record is regarded by many to be one of the few that will never be broken and I hope that is the case.

Fantasyland by Sam Walker

When I first got interested in baseball, I decided to combine my love of reading with this wonderful new sport I'd discovered. I did a bit of reading around and ordered a few books regarded as "must-reads" like Moneyball, The Boys of Summer, Eight Men Out etc. I also picked up Sam Walker's Fantasyland and it soon became the pick of the bunch. 

Walker, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, decided to find out what the fuss was all about with fantasy baseball and joined one of the top rotisserie leagues in the country, Tout Wars, figuring his insider-knowledge would give him an edge on the competition. Without spoiling the story, it doesn't quite work out the way Walker expects and his journey to win Tout Wars makes for a compelling and humorous read.

In my opinion it's the most entertaining baseball book I've ever read. Walker is a funny writer and tells a great story. I really loved the parts towards the beginning when he's at Spring Training "scouting" the players from a fantasy perspective, trying his best to put his insider access to use. 

I suppose it helps if you have at least a basic understanding of how fantasy sports work but Walker does a great job explaining everything, which I found very helpful when I was still learning the basics of the sport. The events detailed in the book happened nearly 10 years ago but I feel you could still read this book in another 10+ years, such is the outstanding quality of the work. I really wish Sam Walker would write another book, and that's the highest praise I can give. 

Faithful by Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King

Faithful is a season-long diary by two Red Sox fans Stewart O'Nan and legendary horror writer Stephen King. It documents every day of the historic 2004 season when Boston beat all the odds to win their first World Series since 1918.

It's a very captivating book. O'Nan and King take it in turns chronicling each day of the season and the best parts are when the two combine via email, offering their opinions on the state of the Sox. The entire feel of the book is very reminiscent of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch (one of my all-time favorites), thanks to both writers instilling that same feeling of drama and making it feel as if you're there alongside them. 

Personal highlights for me are O'Nan's trips to Fenway Park with members of his family. He does a brilliant job describing every aspect of the park, from walking through the gates, finding his seat, catching balls during batting practice and staying alert for foul balls during play. It's a great book about the game from a fan's viewpoint and it's one of the few baseball books I own that I can dip in and out of whenever I feel like it.

You don't have to be a Red Sox fan to enjoy Faithful. I love my Indians, but I actually don't mind Boston and don't possess hatred for them like some fellow Tribe fans do. The quality of O'Nan and King's writing makes this an easy-read and puts any contempt you might have for the Sox to one side.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

The only fictional baseball book on this list and it probably just edges out Bernard Malamud's The Natural as my favorite baseball novel. Chad Harbach took close to a decade to write this and it was worth the wait. The man is a master storyteller.

The highlights for me are obviously all the baseball moments. Young Henry Skrimshander is a gifted college shortstop, a wizard with the glove (I like to think Francisco Lindor is equally talented), until one fateful day when he makes a rare error that has catastrophic effects on everybody he knows and loves.

If I had things my way, I would have liked to see Harbach write even more about the games involving Henry and his Westish Harpooners teammates. He has such a gift for describing the game, it leaves you wanting more.

The book is pretty big and could probably have been trimmed a little. I could take or leave the love triangle involving Henry, his teammate and mentor Schwartz, and his girlfriend Pella. Let's include the bit-of-a-cliché gay romance between Henry's teammate Owen and the president of the university and Pella's father, Guert Affenlight as well. 

Still, Harbach makes you feel for every character and you really do begin to care for them deeply as the story progresses. It's no wonder critics were calling this the next 'great American novel'.

Odd Man Out by Matt McCarthy

Matt McCarthy was drafted by the Angels in the 2002 MLB draft from Yale, so you can tell he wasn't your average minor-league pitcher when it came to intelligence. McCarthy was a so-so player but a gifted writer and Odd Man Out depicts his single season in the Angels' minor league system before he realized years of long distance bus rides to towns in the middle of nowhere wasn't worth it (he went on to become a doctor, so fair enough).

The best thing about McCarthy's book is the fact he's a misfit in professional baseball, always seeing everything from an outsider's perspective despite being right there in the locker-room. It's fascinating to see what life is like for a late-round draft pick when he's side-by-side with the first round divas and the highly touted foreign imports. McCarthy has a humorous element to his writing and it really works.

My favorite part of Odd Man Out is the buildup before he's drafted, when Matt and his Dad are all excited about travelling to pre-draft workouts and Matt is researching what the scouts and analysts have to say about his draft expectations. The journey McCarthy takes over the course of the season is gripping and I found myself racing through his book, a real page-turner.


I could have included a lot more of my favorites on this list and had a hard time whittling them down to just 5 (which is why I chose more in the honorable mentions part). 

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

A Special Announcement

So it's been a while since my last post. Early October in fact, the day after the Indians were eliminated from the post-season. Things have changed since then, and I'm not just talking about the state of the MLB landscape, with the league going transaction-crazy with guys moving all over the place (Robinson Cano to Seattle, Jacoby Ellsbury to the Bronx etc).

Things have changed for me too. I have recently been added as a contributing writer over at Lets Go Tribe, the superb Indians blog on the SB Nation network. It's an amazing opportunity and I'm eager to get started straight away.

As a result, the new gig at LGT is probably going to affect my output here at England Tribe somewhat. Time is precious enough as it is and I imagine it will be rather difficult to produce articles for both Lets Go Tribe and England Tribe, and at the same time maintaining the same level of quality I strive towards.

So it is with a heavy heart that I announce that England Tribe will be temporarily suspended until further notice. I am not ending the blog at all, by no means is England Tribe done and dusted. But I am warning my readers and any newcomers to the blog that posts over the next few months and the 2014 season will be limited to say the least. If I get into a writing-groove and feel I have extra ideas and articles to share away from Lets Go Tribe then I will endeavour to post them here to keep the blog refreshed. But I expect they will be pretty inconsistent and no where near as regular as the 2013 posts were.

I just want to say thank you to each and every person who read my blog since its humble beginnings back in March of this year. It was incredibly fun to follow the Indians' remarkable 2013 campaign through this blog. If you want to read more of my stuff you now know where to find me. I'll be writing feature articles and the odd news post over at Lets Go Tribe, working alongside their talented stable of writers.

Thanks again guys, and go Tribe.


Thursday, 3 October 2013

Indians Lose 4-0 To Rays, Exit Post-Season

A packed to the rafters Progressive Field witnessed it's first post-season game since 2007 last night. Everything was set for a historic and memorable evening. But it just wasn't to be. The Indians fell to the Tampa Bay Rays 4-0 in the Wild Card game and so the home team find their season over, eliminated from the Playoffs, as the Rays proceed to the ALDS to face Boston.

I'm not going to give you an in-depth recap of the game pitch-by-pitch. You already know how it ended so there's no need to rehash the disappointing events too much. It wouldn't make for the most exciting read anyway. But I am going to look at some talking points from the game, things I found interesting. Here we go:

Tribe Can't Capitalize On Opportunities

After a couple of innings this game looked as if we were set for a good old fashioned pitcher's duel. Danny Salazar and Alex Cobb were lights out to begin the game but after Delmon Young took Salazar's first pitch of the 3rd inning over the left field wall for a 1-0 Rays lead, the hits started to mount up on both sides. By the 4th inning, after a smashed liner down the third base line by Desmond Jennings put the Rays ahead 3-0, the Indians started to crawl back into the game.

It began with a crushed double by Carlos Santana, then Michael Brantley beat out an infield hit, followed by a Ryan Raburn walk to load the bases. Down 3-0, this was the key moment in the game to get back into the contest. The Indians were perfectly primed to score, with only 1 out in the inning. Asdrubal Cabrera, who struggled all season with runners in scoring position, had the chance to redeem himself for his sub-par 2013. Instead Cabrera swung weakly and grounded into an inning-ending double play, killing the rally and the momentum at the same time. The home crowd, previously so raucous for the first few innings, were silenced. I think this was the biggest turning point in the game. The fans inside Progressive Field were vocal all night but were never quite the same after that 4th inning. I think that effected the team to a degree, as you could feel the Rays had gotten away with a lucky escape. Cobb was on the ropes and could have been chased from the game if Cabrera had gotten a hit. It never happened.

The Tribe had another opportunity to get on the scoreboard the very next inning. To open the 5th, Yan Gomes smashed a double to start things off. Lonnie Chisenhall, selected to start over Mike Aviles at third base due to his success at hitting right-handers, lined a single to put runners at first and third. Michael Bourn struck out in his at-bat then Nick Swisher was lucky not to get caught in a double play after his weak grounder. Gomes was left standing at third and Chisenhall had moved up to second when Kipnis strode to the plate with 2 outs. Unfortunately Kipnis, perhaps trying a bit too hard on the big stage of the post-season, chopped the ball in front of the mound to Cobb to end the inning. Again the Indians couldn't capitalise against a reeling Cobb, stranding runners once more and allowing the pitcher to settle in and recalibrate. It was incredibly frustrating to see the home side squander these chances, especially against a pitcher like Cobb who looked very good all night and wasn't likely to give up many more scoring opportunities. So it proved.

The Indians had further chances to score as the game progressed but I felt like they never fully recovered from those wasted 4th and 5th innings. The Rays seemed to grow in confidence from then on and the Tribe hitters never put together another rally like those two in the 4th and 5th.

Moments Of Interest

  • Terry Francona made the bold decision to start Chisenhall over Aviles and it paid off handsomely. Aviles slumped somewhat in September and, although Chiz didn't set the world on fire himself, he was better suited to hit right-handers than Aviles. It worked a charm as Lonnie went 3-4 on the night, and saved a run in the 8th inning when he made an amazing diving grab on a Evan Longoria line-drive which had the left field corner written all over it. Chiz did have an error in the 9th inning after a sharp Delmon Young groundball hopped off his glove, but overall I was thoroughly impressed by his poise and confidence in the first post-season game of his career.
  • Danny Salazar deserves a round of applause. The rookie took the mound for the Tribe's biggest game since 2007 and didn't show an ounce of nerves early on. The first 2 innings were incredible as Salazar was simply untouchable. If the national baseball audience didn't know about him before, they do now. He looked like a 10 year veteran out there as he racked up some early strikeouts, not a guy who started the year at AA Akron. Francona pulled the young fire-baller in the 5th after Salazar walked Jose Molina to start the inning. I felt Salazar could probably have gone a bit longer but Francona probably saw something we didn't, plus the confident Tribe bullpen pitched very well as a unit in September. Salazar finished with 4 innings pitched, giving up 4 hits for 3 runs, walking 2 and striking out 4. It wasn't how Salazar pictured the night ending but he showed some glimpses of his immense talent. He has a promising future ahead of him that's for sure.

  • It was not a good night for our big free agent acquisitions. Michael Bourn had an awful game in the lead-off spot, going 0-4 with 2 strikeouts. He was fooled by Cobb's breaking ball too often. Nick Swisher also had a miserable evening, going 0-4 as well with 2 strikeouts of his own. Swish was really trying out there, taking some huge hacks and only just missing at times, but ultimately lived up to his reputation as a guy who struggles in the post-season.
  • Let's give some credit where it's due: The Indians bullpen did a brilliant job at keeping the home side in the game. Marc Rzepczynski took over in the 5th inning in relief of Salazar and did well, striking out David DeJesus before being pulled for Bryan Shaw. Shaw pitched fantastically, striking out 2 Rays, before turning the ball over to Justin Masterson in the 7th inning. Masterson pitched so well in 2 innings of relief that it made you wonder if Francona could have rolled the dice a bit and started the big right-hander instead of Salazar. Nonetheless, Masterson got the Indians to the 9th inning with the score still at 3-0, recording 2 strikeouts. Cody Allen started the 9th and was unlucky to have an unearned run charged to him, after Lonnie's error and Swisher's missed catch at first base saw Yunel Escobar score Ben Zobrist to put the Rays up 4-0. It was Joe Smith who Escobar hit off but Joe settled down after that and struck out Molina before getting DeJesus to fly out to right. Overall I was really impressed with the bullpen's efforts and they were unlucky not to have the offense pick them up.
Still A Season To Be Proud Of

So the Indians season is now over but do not despair Tribe fans. Despite the disappointing loss last night, there is still a lot of pride to be had in this 2013 season. When you lose 94 games in 2012 and then make the Playoffs with 92 wins the next year, that's something to shout about. The improvement this squad made was remarkable and there is a lot of positives to take away: the development of our starting pitchers, such a question mark before Spring Training. The amazing value and production provided by 'The Goon Squad' (Aviles, Giambi, Gomes and Raburn if you didn't know already - shame on you). That's just two examples of many and there's even more to look forward to in 2014. I can't wait to see Salazar again, as he'll be aiming to complete his first full season in the majors. Next year should see the beginning of the Francisco Lindor era in Cleveland, as we should hopefully catch our first glimpse of the shortstop prodigy at some stage in 2014. So don't wallow in sorrow for too long fellow Tribe fans. 2014 will be here before you know it. Until then, take pride in this Indians team and their superb against-the-odds season.

The game began at 1 am here in the UK last night and I didn't get to bed until 5 am. I'm shattered from it but I feel it was worth staying up for. It's not every day your team plays a high stakes Playoff game. Even though we lost I'm glad I made the extra effort to watch it.

I'll have my season review and player ratings up over the course of the next week or so. It could be rather large so it might take some time to work out. Watch this space.

Until then, thank you to everybody who has read this blog during this fabulous season. Go Tribe!

(All photos courtesy of Zimbio)

Monday, 30 September 2013

Tribe Sweep Twins, Secure AL Wild Card

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2013 Cleveland Indians will be playing baseball in October. Post-season baseball. Playoffs.

Just let that sink in for a bit. Savour it.

For the first time since 2007, Cleveland will host an MLB Playoff game. At the beginning of the season, all Tribe fans wanted was meaningful baseball games in September. For me personally, I just wanted us to be relevant, somewhere within the region of "relevant" and "respectable" by the end of the season. The dream was post-season baseball for me, and I didn't really think they'd actually achieve it, not after 2012, not after all the new acquisitions would naturally need time to gel. Well the Indians only went and did it, surpassing all expectations. They did indeed play meaningful baseball in September. And now they will play in October too. Pinch me.

So that's it folks, the regular season is done and dusted. The Indians finished with a 92-70 record, quite astounding considering how bleak things looked at times this year. 10 straight wins to end the year. 21-6 in the month of September. I don't care what they say about the "soft schedule," you play the team in front of you. We did and we won. That's all there is to it.

In the end it all came down to the final day, game 162. Win and they're in. The Indians obliged. Thanks to an absolutely dominant outing from Ubaldo Jimenez and some important hitting from key players like Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana, the Tribe wrapped up the top spot in the AL Wild Card with relative ease, beating the Twins 5-1 on Sunday to complete a four-game sweep of Minnesota. It was Cleveland's seventh four-game sweep of the year, the most in major league history since the 1943 Cardinals. That's just amazing.

Something else amazing: Ubaldo's 13 strikeouts, which matched his career high. It has been a magnificent few months for the Dominican right-hander and he pitched a real gem in the Sunday sunshine. After getting into a bit of trouble in the 7th inning, Jimenez was relieved by Marc Rzepczynski and then Justin Masterson to finish out the game. It was somewhat fitting to see Masterson pitch the final couple of innings after such a brilliant season by the All Star. The final out was a thing of beauty as well: Masterson induced a sharp groundball that looked as if it had eyes for right field, but fellow All Star Jason Kipnis made a gorgeous web-gem-worthy dive to his left to snag the ball. Kipnis got to his feet in light-speed to throw the ball to Masterson covering first base for the final out. Cue delirious celebrations on the field, in the homes of Cleveland fans, and little old me here in UK, going mental sat on the floor in front of my laptop.

Let's take a look at some talking points from this series then:

Perez Problems Solved? Sort Of

With just days left of the regular season, Chris Perez was finally relieved of his closing duties on Friday 27th September. And I'm surprised it took so long to be honest. After nearly costing the Indians another game in Thursday night's narrow 6-5 win, Perez apparently went to Francona and said he didn't want to cost the team any valuable wins this late in the year. The skipper agreed and demoted Perez from the closer role, finishing out the season with a closer-by-committee, including guys like Cody Allen, Joe Smith, and new member of the bullpen Justin Masterson.

It's safe to say Perez has had a terrible 2013. In 54 games he finished with a 5-3 record, a bloated 4.33 ERA with 25 saves, and 5 blown saves. In 54 innings he gave up 56 hits, 11 home runs, and 21 walks. Simply put, it was not good enough for a closer on a team trying to compete for a place in the post-season. There was a moment a couple of months ago where it felt like Perez was back on track to be being the closer he once was. It looked as if he was improving. Then he imploded once more. It wasn't to be.

The question now is, what role will the big right-hander play in the post-season? Will he feature at all? I have to admit, I think it would be wise just to shut him down entirely now. His confidence is completely shot and his future with the Tribe is in serious doubt.

How many fans would shed a tear if Perez were traded in the off-season? I certainly wouldn't and I'm sure the majority of Indians fans feel the same way. Our patience with Perez has always been relatively thin but it has never been thinner than now. The manner of his 9th inning displays are always nail-biting, and never in a good way. Painful to watch is the correct term I believe. Personally, I think it's time both sides agree to call time and move in different directions. A fresh start could be exactly what Perez needs to get his mojo back. I for one think his days closing in Cleveland are over.

King Kazmir

Take a bow Mr Scott Edward Kazmir. The veteran left-hander put in a superb performance during Saturday afternoon's 5-1 win to edge the Indians another step closer in their bid to secure their Wild Card spot. Kazmir pitched 6 solid innings before departing, giving up 6 hits, 1 run, walking 2, and striking out an incredible 11 batters. He was making the Twins miss consistently, keeping them off balance all afternoon. I was particularly impressed with his breaking ball, a beauty of a pitch when he got it right. Kazmir finished the 2013 season with 162 strikeouts in 158 innings. That's more than Matt Cain, David Price, Zack Greinke, Hiroki Kuroda and Matt Moore. For the small price the Tribe paid for Kazmir, I think they more than got their money's worth. Especially for a dude who had been out of the majors since 2011.

In fact, after a difficult August in which he was plagued by arm fatigue, Kazmir rebounded in style during September. Over 5 starts he posted a 2.57 ERA this past month with 43 strikeouts in 28 innings, an incredible amount. Talk about a strong finish to the season. I've heard Kazmir is willing to discuss returning to Cleveland for 2014 and I have absolutely no problems with that. I think if he can remain healthy then he has the potential to build off this season and come back even stronger next year. I feel he deserves another year with the Tribe at the very least.

Sir Swisher

It's been easy to see the effect Nick Swisher has had on the Indians this year. The guy is such a character, so full of enthusiasm, you'd have to be blind not to see how beneficial his positive attitude has been to this club. From the moment he signed in December 2012 to the final out of Sunday's game, the smile on his face has rarely dropped, even as he struggled at times on the field.

It hasn't exactly been a career year for Nick in his debut season in Cleveland. I wouldn't have blamed him if his enthusiasm faltered a bit as his performance suffered. But give credit where it is due, the man did not give up.

Swisher had a fantastic month of September and was arguably the cornerstone of the Tribe's amazing playoff push these past four weeks. Let's look at some numbers: In the 26 games he played in September, Swisher batted .263, had a .353 OBP, and a .515 slugging percentage. He recorded 26 hits, 4 of them doubles, and hit 7 home runs for 17 RBI, to go along with 15 walks. Hell, he even threw in a stolen base for good measure, his only one this year.

He finished the year with 22 homers (he hasn't hit less than that since his rookie season in 2005) so considering that 7 of them came within these past 26 games, that's a pretty good hot streak right there. Swisher's 2-run bomb in the 1st inning of Sunday's game settled any early nerves for the Tribe and put them on track for the Wild Card-clinching win. It was only right that Swisher, the face of this franchise, should be the one to put a smile on the fans' faces, one big enough to match his own. Thanks Nick.


So where does this all leave us? Tampa Bay and Texas both won their final games to finish with matching records of 91-71. That means they face off tonight in a 163rd game to decide who will play the Indians in Wednesday's Wild Card game at Progressive Field. I will of course be staying up late for Wednesday night's game and I cannot wait for it. It'll be my first Playoff game as an Indians fan since I started supporting the team late in 2007. I pretty much missed out on all the excitement six years ago. I was still a new fan and still learning the game, and thus didn't fully appreciate how special it was. Now I know, now I appreciate it, and I really hope the Indians can keep us happy for many more days to come in October.

Now if any of you kind souls feel like sending one of those sweet Indians Playoffs t-shirts to me in England, I would really appreciate it!

Thanks for reading.