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Book Review: The Last Nine Innings, by Charles Euchner

The Last Nine Innings initially appears to be about game seven of the 2001 World Series, but readers should look elsewhere if they're hoping for a dramatic retelling of the events that led to the game-winning single by the Diamondbacks' Luis Gonzalez off Mariano Rivera of the Yankees. Ultimately, the book is about whatever baseball-related topics its author Charles Euchner wants it to be about. While many of these topics are interesting, their insertion into Euchner's narrative about the game itself disrupts the flow of the book and thwarts the drama that Euchner might have developed if he'd organized the book differently.

Euchner begins promisingly, quickly summing up connections to 9/11 that might have turned the book into an insubstantial mess and declaring, "I don't put much stock in elegiac and mythical portrayals of baseball." It is to Euchner's credit that he largely avoids overheated prose and meditations on heart and soul.  

Euchner's prose is somewhat dry, however, and he sometimes writes as if he's afraid to take a position. He cites evidence and "evidence" from all kinds of sources, from Bill James to the ludicrous Tim McCarver, then sometimes fails to sort through it. For example, Euchner muffs an opportunity in a chapter about Derek Jeter's defense: he quotes McCarver and a scout praising Jeter, then adds canned descriptions of a number of statistics suggesting Jeter isn't a good fielder. Euchner then doesn't offer an argument of his own or help the reader decide which side is more credible.

Euchner's organization of the book also seems passive, as if he doesn't want to decide where to put what or what's important enough to include. The book is structured in units based on each of the nine innings, but only a relatively small portion of the text in each unit is clearly about the game action.

The rest of the time, Euchner uses various events in the game as excuses to write what seem like gigantic footnotes that are placed right in the middle of the text. Alongside descriptions of the game are digressions about the physics of a pitcher's motion, international scouting, DIPS and so on. Euchner is all over the place, and he often doesn't bother with transitions, so, for example, a page and a half about the history of the Yankees franchise will be followed by a page about Vegas odds on the Series. Elsewhere, Euchner follows a paragraph about Luis Gonzalez' and Tino Martinez' friendship as youths in Tampa with a pitch-by-pitch account of Gonzalez' eighth-inning plate appearance against Mariano Rivera. As a result, the reader doesn't feel the drama of the game itself in Euchner's narrative, and the book's success (or lack thereof) is dependent upon the success of the digressions themselves.

Many of them are quite good - for example, Euchner's description of a physicist's use of a random number generator casts doubt on the idea that "hot streaks" are anything more than clusters of randomly distributed outcomes. Also very well done are a couple of pages on Latin American players' adjustments to U.S. baseball. Some of the tangents, however, are undermined when Euchner approaches them meekly (as with the example of Jeter's fielding), doesn't explain them completely or very clearly, or gets things wrong. (Greg Colbrunn, for example, is called "Craig" and is oddly, if not quite incorrectly, described as a "utility infielder"; David Dellucci's name is repeatedly spelled "Delucci.")

The book's best feature is its many unusual quotes and reminiscences from players and coaches. Euchner gets Craig Counsell to explain his bizarre batting stance, for instance. The author later describes Dusty Baker's attempts to prepare hitters like Matt Williams for different types of pitchers by playing different types of music during batting practice - loud rock for a flamethrower, oldies for a soft-tosser like Greg Maddux. Euchner also gets several quotes confirming my impression that D-Backs manager Bob Brenly isn't the sharpest tool in the shed: at one point, Brenly acknowledges that the headfirst slide can cause injuries but welcomes it because "it's a dramatic way of showing the guy's hustling." Later, Brenly admits that he realized during the ninth inning that he hadn't been sure if he would have had enough players to take the field if the game had gone into extra innings.

Surprising quotes like these ultimately made The Last Nine Innings worth my time, but mostly I felt that I was only enjoying certain moments. With a more coherent narrative or the guiding force of an argument or a clear belief system, I might have felt like I was enjoying the book as a whole.

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Note to publishers: I'm reviewing this book because it was sent to me for free. If you'd like to send me free stuff, I'd be happy to consider writing about it.