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Beyond the Usual Suspects
on June 13, 2003
Rob Neyer chose the publishing of "Big Book of Baseball Lineups" to offer the world a new photo of himself. ESPN.com site-goers had been treated to the same photo of Neyer in a flannel shirt since his column debuted. Only John Kuenster of "Baseball Digest" used the same photo for longer. Now Neyer's got a blue T-shirt and an eerily wide grin. Why is this man smiling?
"Lineups" is a "comeback" book, after the self-published "Feeding the Green Monster" failed to make a splash. "Lineups" opens, really, with its appendix, a tremendously useful spreadsheet listing every team's top regular at every position from 1901 through 2002. This may be the first baseball book in years to print the name of Al Moran, the shortstop for your 1963 New York Mets (and what a shortstop!).
Working backwards from that chart comes a series of dream (and nightmare) teams from MLB's current 30 franchises. The downside of this is that you're only reading about the Los Angeles Dogers, or the Atlanta Braves. The now-defunct teams (Brooklyn, Boston/Milwaukee) don't get their own exclusive treatment, although the end of the book features joint chapters on the Brooklyn/LA Dodgers et al, which is not how I'd have done it.
This is a book best read in brief bursts, one team at a time. With the shifted franchises treated separately, Neyer is weighted toward discussing the last 40 years. However, there are some interesting "finds" here, especially for those less familiar with earlier baseball: The Yankees' best-ever left fielder is Charlie Keller, and the Cardinals' first-team rotation is rounded out by Lon Warneke.
The rest of the book is sidebars (mostly related to that page's lineup), and one feature article per team. Neyer debates managers a lot: for Kansas City, Dick Howser v. Whitey Herzog; for the Yanks, Joe McCarthy v. Casey Stengel. He also introduces current perspective into the spectacular flameout of the Mets' "Generation K", and the woeful roster moves made by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Obviously, there's lots to argue with here. Which is kind of the point. When Neyer chides a "Sports Illustrated" writer for bashing the playoff performance of the Atlanta Braves bullpen, he presents only line stats in their defense. He mentions the famous homers allowed by Charlie Liebrandt and Mark Wohlers, but neglects to mention the 1999 playoffs, when the Braves' pen blew late leads in 5 of 6 straight games against the Mets and Yankees. Later on, he states that the Brewers are the only expansion team to generate 2 Hall-of-Famers in their first 10 years: which is only true if you ignore the Mets, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan.
The book's most innovative aspect is its "Traded Away" teams, which allow you to wince in pain with every passing name. Least interesting (to me, anyway) were the "Iron Glove" teams. Overall, though, like "Baseball Dynasties", this is a just plain nifty book to dip into. If I were a broadcaster, this is the book I'd want with me, when the score's 10-3 in the 7th inning and it's time to start talking baseball history again.