You gotta love it when someone messes up an accepted narrative. And there hasn’t been a narrative in Major League Baseball over the past several years that has been more widely accepted than “The Yankees and Red Sox have an unfair advantage.” And, sure, structurally-speaking they do. They’re richer than Croesus and are run by the smartest men in the game.
And for two of the past three years they’ve been beat by the Tampa Bay Rays for the division crown. What gives?
The answer to that question is the major draw to Jonah Keri’s excellent new book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First. He covers more ground than that, of course, and we’ll get to that in a minute, but really, no one would read a book about how the Yankees exploited all of the resources at their disposal to win. Er, to continue winning. Keri’s book is about solving what may be the biggest problem in baseball: how to compete on an inherently unlevel playing field.
And there are no easy answers. This is not Moneyball. It’s not about some would-be genius figure thinking circles around the competition through some breakthrough involving esoteric baseball concepts. It’s about how a couple of former Goldman Sachs colleagues — team owner Stuart Sternberg and president Matthew Silverman — and their friend — former private equity whiz and current Rays GM Andrew Friedman — simply worked harder and smarter in incremental ways. How they have literally applied that “extra 2%” to every move they’ve made in order to grab whatever advantage they can.
And despite the investment banking background of the principals and the phrase “Wall Street Strategies” in the title, this isn’t a book about deceptively simple business theories and it’s not the kind of book that consultants will hand out at seminars in which they peddle the latest in management trends. Which may kind of suck for Keri because there’s a lot of money to be made in that racket, but it’s great for baseball fans because its lack of gimmickry is what makes The Extra 2% the best, most fulfilling look at what it takes to run a successful baseball team I have ever read.
And it’s the comprehensiveness that really sets this book apart. Turning the Rays around wasn’t a matter of some simple, Billy Beanian observation about the value of a handful of sabermetric concepts. It was a baseball challenge, a business challenge, a public relations challenge and a morale challenge. Keri explains the problems the former Devil Rays had in all of these areas and explains exactly how the Sternberg/Silverman/Friedman team dealt with them.
In this Keri eschews Michael Lewis’ tale-telling and character-sketching tendencies in the name of straight-forward reporting. And while I loved Moneyball, I found –and I think most baseball fans will find — Keri’s approach to be more informative and intellectually fulfilling. Lewis taught us a lot about the inner-workings of a baseball team, but it was always in service of his dramatic narrative, which wasn’t always easy to accept at the time and hasn’t been unequivocally vindicated in the past eight years. Keri, in contrast, plays things matter-of-factly and simply answers more questions all of us have about what it takes to beat the Yankees and the Red Sox at a fraction of the price.
Which isn’t to say that this is a clinical read. To the contrary, the book is packed with fun, most particularly when dealing with the Rays’ previous owner Vincent Naimoli, who redefined the concepts of ego, greed, cheapness, pettiness and cluelessness when it comes to running a baseball team. Those who rooted for the Rays between 1998 and 2005 may get sick to their stomaches reliving Naimoli’s follies, but for the rest of us it’s great theater. Deadspin ran an excerpt of all of this last week for those wanting a taste. My favorite part is the stuff about Naimoli not allowing employees to have Internet access. As late as 2003. Yikes.
One other thing that those of you who read a lot of non-fiction will appreciate is Keri’s writing style. There seems to be a tendency these days for non-fiction writers to mess around a lot and get all cutesy in the name of stamping their work with their personal brand. I’m thinking of guys like Malcolm Gladwell and others who mistake sophistry for analysis and who try to infuse every other sentence with a “gee whiz!” tone that tells you that what you are reading Is Truly Important. Keri doesn’t do that. He’s engaging without drawing too much attention himself. He’s straightforward but doesn’t eschew flavor. It breezes along but never feels too light.
More generally speaking, it’s a book in which the subject — and not the author’s decision to tackle the subject — is the main point. That may seem like an odd thing to say, but for most of the non-fiction I’ve read in the past five years, it seems like the majority of the effort was put in the book proposal and, once it was accepted and the advance paid, the rest was just filled out around it. “See my neat nut of an idea!” the author seems to say. “Now let’s see how many anecdotes I can string together in order to show you just how neat an idea I had!” To the contrary, Keri tells a story that teaches us stuff. He didn’t set out to make a point and then search for a story that supported it.
The Extra 2% is one of the best baseball books I’ve read in recent years and I recommend it highly. If you care a lick about what it takes to run a baseball team — or if you care a lick about the inequalities between baseball’s haves and have-nots — you should definitely pick up a copy.
And stay tuned, because later this morning I’ll be running a Q&A with Jonah in which he (a) reveals the single most important move in the ascendancy of the Tampa Bay Rays; and (b) explains why — contrary to everyone who is sleeping on them — the Rays will most certainly be in the thick of things in the AL East this year.