Rick Maese is a sportswriter for The Washington Post.
Baseball fans represent a diverse subset of the population. The mathematician who admires the perfect formula, the artist who studies brush strokes — they can sit side by side in the stands and appreciate the same game, pitch by pitch, out by out, inning by inning, in a completely different way.
But to explain the same story to both those groups is a tough assignment. Increasingly, sportswriting caters to one audience or the other. The stats geeks and the wistful romantics apparently sit at different tables in the lunchroom. It’s a point of conflict in the sport, and not just among fans. Since the publication of “Moneyball” in 2003, teams have debated the perfect way to judge a player, to build a team, to manage a game.
Theo Epstein was an early adopter of the statistical approach that would revamp the way baseball was studied and helped the Boston Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years. But as the stats world flattened and every team began incorporating smarter analysis in their day-to-day business, Epstein and his inner circle had to evolve.
“They made a fundamental decision early after coming to Chicago that the one edge they could exploit was found in a very old-school resource: people,” Tom Verducci writes in “The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse.”
“I feel like I’ve pushed our organization back to the human being,” Epstein, the Cubs’ general manager, tells the author. “And thankfully so.”
Verducci, a longtime baseball writer for Sports Illustrated, is perhaps the perfect scribe to tell this definitive tale, a generational talent who can talk numbers and remain awed at the game’s beauties. In one moment he’s describing player valuations, and in the next he’s admiring a grand painting. And to fully understand a modern-day championship team, that’s essential.
“The construction of a championship team is granular. The final picture is a Seurat painting,” he writes. “As with many tiny dots of color, there are millions of reasons and thousands of cascading events that help explain how in five years the Cubs morphed from a 101-loss team into a world championship team.”
The Cubs’ story is a unique one, and not just because of the century-long backstory of failure that preceded their seven-game triumph last fall. As Verducci shows, the characters elevate the narrative: an outfielder who returned from surgery after missing the regular season, an ace pitcher who inexplicably can’t throw to first base, a charismatic first baseman who’s beaten cancer, an aging catcher they call Grandpa who serves as clubhouse leader and so on.
No two are given as much attention as Epstein and Joe Maddon, the team’s unconventional manager. And because both are the thoughtful sort, “The Cubs Way” isn’t just a recounting of baseball games. Its lessons could just as easily be found on the business shelf or in the philosophy section. (Interestingly, Epstein was recently named by Fortune as the world’s greatest leader, two spots ahead of Pope Francis.)
At times, the book reads as though the author is detailing a Fortune 500 company, with access to board meetings and strategy sessions. A 259-page player development manual, for example, lays out philosophy and guiding principles down to smallest detail, like a pitchers’ pregame warmup or what foot a runner should use to touch first base. And Maddon’s 13 core principles of managing could be applied to all manners of business (“make a personal connection first,” “question data with feel” or “wear whatever you think makes you look hot”).
Verducci, who also served as an analyst for Fox’s postseason broadcasts, certainly had enviable access to the key players, and his pregame visits with Maddon are enlightening (as is a peek at the manager’s lineup card, which is riddled with personal notes, motivational phrases and proprietary stats). He often allows his characters a bit too much room, though. When it comes to explaining the game, they’re better ballplayers and he’s the better writer, and there’s no need for quotations to run on for multiple paragraphs when they could easily be distilled to a sentence or two.
The best sportswriting takes readers beyond the box scores and highlights. At its best, “The Cubs Way” pulls back the curtain on a historic championship. As a lifelong Cubs fan, I was in the bleachers for Game 5. The Cubs trailed three games to one and were on the brink of elimination. I only knew what I could see from my seat. But Verducci is able to take us into the clubhouse and show how first baseman Anthony Rizzo helped lighten the mood before the pivotal game.
“Rizzo stripped down to nothing, jumped on a couch in the clubhouse, and began quoting every great cinematic motivational line he could think of, from ‘Any Given Sunday’ . . . to ‘Rocky.’ . . . Here it was, on the nerve-jangling edge of game 5 of the World Series, and the Cubs looked like they were deep into a karaoke party. The tone was set,” he writes.
The Cubs won the next three games, but not without drama. Verducci was stationed at the end of the dugout in Game 7 when it appeared the Cubs curse might continue. Rainfall momentarily sent both teams into their clubhouses. Cubs reliever Aroldis Chapman turned to Verducci. “He was crying,” the author writes. “Tears ran down his face. As he walked past me, as if to comfort or steady himself, he reached his right hand toward my left hand and gently held my wrist. The pain he wore was visible.”
The numbers matter, and no doubt these Cubs wouldn’t exist if Epstein didn’t know the perfect formula. But the full story of the game doesn’t fit on the back of a baseball card. Verducci sees the sport as a scout, a historian, a manager, a personnel whiz, a stats geek, but, above all else, as a storyteller. Like Epstein, he understands the numbers and the people.
If Verducci tells the ups and downs of the 2016 season and seven games that will be remembered forever in Chicago, Scott Simon’s “My Cubs: A Love Story” provides the emotional 108-year backstory. He lays out the context of suffering, of losses, of communal connections and religious devotion. Verducci told the team’s story from the clubhouse; Simon is content to tell it from the bleachers.
For Simon, the longtime NPR personality, the Cubs are a constant, connecting childhood to adulthood, connecting him to his father and to his city. Sports fandom isn’t a personality quirk, a résumé line or a box to check on a dating website. Like devotees of most any team can attest, it’s a defining part of one’s identity.
“I am a Cubs fan. A husband and father, an American, a Chicagoan, and a Cubs fan,” he writes. “My politics, religion, and personal tastes change with whatever I learn from life. But being a Cubs fan is my nature, my heritage, and probably somewhere in my chromosomes.”
His view — the fan’s perspective — is no doubt crucial to understanding the significance of last year’s World Series. He celebrated the Cubs’ victory in pivotal Game 5 from the stands and observed players poking their heads out of the dugout. “I found myself thinking of all the Cubs who never had a chance to step up into such adulation,” he writes, “and all the fathers, mothers, and grandparents for whom the Cubs had been a life’s devotion that could crack our hearts, but renew our faith.”
Because it’s Simon, there’s plenty of personal history mixed in, and the quick read can be disjointed and meandering, hopping between memories, anecdotes and observations. He gets a little too cute at times, rewriting Allen Ginsberg and Rudyard Kipling poems to give them a Cubs focus.
The reader isn’t told about Epstein, Maddon or the Cubs’ memorable 2016 season until the book is half-over. And even then, “My Cubs” includes passages about the politics of the Ricketts family, which owns the team, and Chicago’s murder rate, formidable subject matter that feels out of place in a work that bills itself as a love story to a baseball team.
And while Simon has no interest is explaining the Cubs through statistics, both he and Verducci seem to agree about the thing that makes them special, the World Series memorable, the sport essential. It’s the people: the ones in the dugout, sure, but also the ones in the stands, the ones watching on television, the ones who lived and who died waiting for the Cubs to play in a World Series, and the ones who now have an epic story to tell their own grandchildren someday, numbers and all.
By Tom Verducci
Crown Archetype. 375 pp. $28
By Scott Simon
Blue Rider. 145 pp. $23