Wednesday, October 22, 2008

My Annual Baseball Post, 2008 Edition

I'm not really a baseball fan (although I'm closer to that than I am to any other sort of sports fan); when the Red Sox, my team, were in the playoffs this year, I knew they were (after a while), and I'd check to see if they'd won or lost (if I remembered to), and was (mildly) disappointed when they lost; but I didn't actually watch any of the games. Nor could I name a single contemporary Red Sox player.

Despite this rather considerable handicap, I am a fan of Bill James's writing on baseball. I've read, or at any rate read in, several of his books, here and there over the years. This is not so much because he is such an important figure in the development of Sabermetrics (a term he coined), but simply because I find him a marvelously entertaining writer. His writing is lively, accessible, intelligent, and often funny. His style of argument is intelligent and knowledgeable without being (to my mind) in the least academic, and he has a very engaging pragmatism. (I grant, in all this, that I am a very poor judge of his arguments, since I know so little about the subject.) Some years ago I read his book on the baseball hall of fame, and found the style of thinking and arguing extremely congenial and compelling.

But that's all hard to convey, so I'll switch back to funny, particularly since this entire post was mostly meant as a preamble to the following gem I just stumbled across:
Dan Mossi had two careers as a major league pitcher, one as a reliever and one as a starter, and he as pretty darned good both times. No one who saw him play much remembers that, because Mossi's ears looked as if they had been borrowed from a much larger species, and reattached without proper supervision. His nose was crooked, his eyes were in the wrong place, and though he was skinny he had no neck to speak of, just a series of chins that melted into his chest. An Adam's apple poked out of the third chin, and there was always a stubble of beard because you can't shave a face like that. He looked like Gary Gaetti escaping from Devil's Island.

One of the problems with choosing ugliest and handsomest players is that a player who looks little short of grotesque in one pose or one photograph will look fine in another. Susie showed me a picture of Hoyt Wilhelm in which he looked positively handsome. I assured her it was just a bad shot.

You never have the problem with Don Mossi. Don Mossi was the complete, five-tool ugly player. He could run ugly, hit ugly, throw ugly, field ugly, and ugly for power. He was ugly to all fields. He could ugly behind the runner as well as anybody, and you talk about pressure... man, you never saw a player who was uglier in the clutch.

-- Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, p. 245
After that, of course, I had to go look for pictures of Dan Mossi. And the results, while not strictly speaking belying James's description, nevertheless can't help but disappoint slightly:

--although I will agree those ears are spectacular. And two more, just to cement the point:

I'm probably not well-versed enough in James's works to recommend any one in particular, but keep your eye out for his writing. He's definitely a good author in the clutch.

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