Jock Lit

Need Relief? Summon the Pen.

At its best, the book offers fascinating details about El Duque's family life, his banishment from Cuban baseball, even the origins of the rickety-raft defection myth. There's a great deal about the sneaky machinations of Joe Cubas, the agent whose tremendous influence puts David Falk to shame.

But at its worst, especially when discussing Cuba itself, the book sometimes veers into Tom Clancy-esque oversimplification. You know, where those supporting Castro or wanting to remain in their homeland are filled with "revolutionary fervor," where schoolchildren are "indoctrinated," and a ballplayer who speaks up for the revolution must be "brainwashed."

Buried in its many pages is a jarring side story. We learn that it was coauthor Steve Fainaru, then the Boston Globe's Mexico City bureau chief, who personally got word to Joe Cubas that El Duque, long coveted, was ready to defect.

For all we know, the authors' emotional attachment to Hernandez helped add a richness to their writing. It certainly gave them unprecedented access to El Duque and his pals.

But it's hard not to wonder: Would a U.S. journalist be able to maintain such a stellar reputation, pen a well-received book, and nab another top job (Fainaru is now an investigative reporter with the Washington Post) if he had confessed clandestine actions on behalf of a Communist? Someone chock-full of, say, revolutionary fervor? —Joanna Cagan


Keep Your Eye on the Ball: Curve Balls, Knuckleballs, and the Fallacies of Baseball
By Robert G. Watts and A. Terry Bahill
W.H. Freeman, 258 pp., $14.95

imageWhen it comes to the field of applied physics, you'd have to look long and hard to find better practitioners than Barry Bonds and Pedro Martinez. That's what this revised edition of Keep Your Eye on the Ball, written by two engineering professors, argues. Wade through—or flip past—the charts and equations, and this book will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about why a curve curves, why a knuckleball (or a spitball) darts, and whether or not a rising fastball really does rise. The authors make even more provocative observations about the little-understood science of hitting. They argue, for example, that corked bats—and even aluminum ones—wouldn't provide an advantage to Major League hitters, but they claim that by tinkering with a bat's center of mass, engineers could build a better, and still legal, Louisville Slugger. To perform the research that gave this book its title, the authors built a charmingly Rube Goldbergian device to track a player's eye movements. The results? At the point of impact, a baseball is moving more than three times faster than even the fastest human eye can track. Further, they posit tests that might be able to reveal whether a 17-year-old high school phenom has the neurological hardwiring to be able to hit Major League pitchers the way he now roughs up his fellow high schoolers. "[Major Leaguers] are not paid a million dollars for their six-month job because of their bodies," the authors conclude. "It is because of their brains. The players that are paid the most have the best brains; they can predict the flight of the ball better than mere mortals can." Like Yogi said, 90 percent of baseball is half mental. —Allen St. John


Feeding the Green Monster
By Rob Neyer
Excerpted weekly on sportsjones.com. Available July 15 as an e-book from www.ipublish.com and as a paperback from online booksellers.

Rob Neyer is a lucky man. He falls in love fast and has the means to pursue his obsessions. After witnessing his first games in Fenway Park late in 1999, ESPN.com's resident stathead decided he must spend an entire season there and tell the world about what he discovered. Despite having what he calls "the greatest job in the world," Neyer fails to share his joyful experience in this online diary of the 2000 season.

Perhaps that's because Neyer is not really having fun. He spends April whining about the weather. Then he finds he can't simply replace the Royals, his first love, with the Red Sox. With the book intended as an exploration of a fan's life, the author's emotional distance is self-defeating. As a columnist, Neyer works best as a counterpuncher, challenging accepted truths, but those skills are wasted when he is his own subject. And he's too lazy a reporter to find enough passionate voices to replace his own.

Even worse, Neyer pinch-hits for girlfriend Maya, a Sox diehard who lives in Boston, with Kristien, who resides in Seattle and wouldn't know Babe Ruth from Bucky Dent. By early August, Neyer admits that he doesn't even want to be in Boston when the Sox are on the road. The author has a new obsession, and for the last third of the book, Neyer is going through the motions.

The book's best moments happen between games at Fenway. Highlights include a few hours chasing batting practice homers and an overnight stay in the old ballpark. Another good scene is a game at Safeco with his girlfriend's young son. And as baseball's principals never tire of squeezing every last buck out of fans and taxpayers, Neyer's angry defense of Fenway from local interests is welcome. Too bad he never explores whether he could offer his services to the efforts of Save Fenway Park to preserve the old ballpark he claims to loves so much. —Dean Chadwin

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