|Book Review: A's Essential: Everything You Need to Know to Be a Real Fan!|
Written by Brian Oakchunas (Contact & Archive) on May 07, 2007
Before I read this book I wondered what exactly that title meant. What does one need to know to be a real fan? I was curious to see if the book would be chalk full of recent stats and organizational philosophies so that fans could better appreciate the current team they put on the field. But the author takes a stand in this regard. He sends a clear message that what we need to understand to be a real fan is history. The book follows the A’s from the Connie Mack era of the early 20th century up through the current incarnation of the team that made it to the American League Championship Series in 2006.
But the book does not want us to understand the history of the A’s from a business perspective or a statistical point of view. These issues are glazed over. Indeed, the book does not even mention why the team decided to move from Philadelphia to Kansas City and dismisses the decision to move from there to Oakland as a sort of quirk of Charlie Finley: “Finley just up and moved the A’s from Kansas City to Oakland” (34). Payroll problems of the 90’s and 2000’s are similarly discarded because the game is just “not the same as it once was” (182).
The stats are there, after a fashion. You’ll find out how many home runs Jimmie Foxx hit and the number of wins virtually every A’s pitcher got during the A’s run of the early 1970’s, but it doesn’t go much deeper than that. If you are interested in Jimmie Foxx’s isolated slugging percentage or what kind of control those pitchers had, you are in the wrong book. Far more problematic is that Travers is not the least bit inclined toward sabermetrics (the study of baseball statistics) and never attempts to prove his questionable conclusions about the statistical values of players and teams. The author champions small ball (stolen bases, hits and runs), which he refers to as “National League baseball”, rather than on-base percentage and power, which is referred to as “the Yankee way” (79) but might as well be called the ‘Billy Beane way.’ He also refers to players as ‘clutch’ or ‘not clutch’ at his whim but provides little evidence as to what makes them clutch and completely ignores the orgy of evidence that the vast majority of players don’t possess any more or less ability than they normally have in ‘clutch’ situations. While I’m sure that any number of baseball books published each year that take these outdated philosophies for granted, in a book about the most statistically oriented professional team in the world with a foreword written by Billy Beane, of all people, these seem like unforgivable sins.
What A’s Essential does give us in heaps is the history specific players and other A’s personnel. Most of the chapters are titled after players and Travers manages to dig up plenty of interesting quotes and his knowledge of other writings about the A’s is voluminous. He finds enough fascinating material that it is easy to forgive his irrelevant jaunts on topics like Rube Bressler’s opinion of Babe Ruth.
Some of the writing seems like fluff in favor of the players. For example, even something as innocuous in the grand scheme of things as Esteban Loaiza’s drunk driving arrest is glazed over as “off-field trouble” (194). Numerous instances of these obfuscations of the truth tend to heighten the reader’s curiosity about the more juicy details while detracting from the enjoyment of the book. The exception to this is the topic of steroids, which is clearly an emotional issue for Travers. He is ready to speculate on the use by a variety of players and Mark McGwire’s chapter is particularly brutal as he views all of the slugger’s achievements and troubles through the lens of steroids. For instance, Travers blames all of McGwire’s injuries and relationship problems on performance enhancing drugs: “Like Canseco, his were abnormal injuries to his feet arches, back, tendons—all the telltale signs of steroid use" (140).
A’s Essential includes a variety of pictures, tidbits, and trivia, all of which are interesting and add to the reader’s experience with the book. The foreword written by Billy Beane may potentially attract readers but it is a brief two pages and merely discusses how happy Beane is to be involved with a team that has such a “winning tradition.” Travers ranks his top ten players from each era and a variety of other top ten lists demonstrate how opinionated Travers is and often leads the reader to question his judgment (Terrence Long made the all 2000’s team?!). The absence of an index detracts from the book’s eventual utility as a library reference book.
So what, then, of our original question of what does one need to know to be a real fan? I’d say reading this book gives me a better sense of the A’s history but as I go out to the ballpark, I hardly feel that the information was essential to make me a better fan. By way of contrast, after I read Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, I felt that I was watching a team with an incredible force behind it. It wasn’t the individual players that came and went that made it great; it was the braintrust running things that made us have faith and heartfelt admiration in our team. While A’s Essential can be a useful source to those who are students of A’s history, I’d recommend Lewis’ book to those looking to augment their experience as fans.