King Kaufman's Sports Daily

"Mind Game" author Steven Goldman on how the Red Sox got smart. Plus: NFL Week 5.


Salon Staff
October 7, 2005 8:00PM (UTC)

It's been 345 days since the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years. Sundays and holidays excepted, I doubt a half dozen of them have gone by without a book on the subject turning up in my mailbox.

I can't pretend to have read them all, or even to have opened half of them, but the best one I've looked at is "Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series and Created a New Blueprint for Winning" by the writers of Baseball Prospectus, a Web site of which I'm a fan, as you know.

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Though the book has 21 authors, including editor Steven Goldman, it's a narrative, not an anthology. It tells the story of how general manager Theo Epstein took control of the team after the 2002 season and built it into a champion using so-called Sabermetric principles -- except when he didn't -- plus some good old-fashioned business and baseball smarts.

It's a good story, even if you think you've heard it all before. You probably haven't.

Goldman, 34, might seem an odd choice to helm this project. A lifelong Yankees fan, the New Jersey resident writes the Pinstriped Bible blog for the Yankees' YES Network Web site as well as writing a baseball column for the New York Sun.

I asked him about that and other things over the phone Thursday as he made his way through Trenton on his way to a book signing in Philadelphia.

I haven't made it to the end of the book yet. How's it come out?

[Laughs.] The Red Sox win the World Series.

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You write the Pinstriped Bible, you work for the YES Network, I presume you're a Yankees fan in your civilian life?

Well, that's a complicated question. I was definitely raised a Yankees fan, but having worked around the Yankees for a number of years, and before that writing for MLB.com and the original Yankees.com Web site, I've never had to shill for anybody.

In fact, at one point when they were going badly, I said to the Yankees -- you know, the one nice aspect is they've mostly done well since I started doing this in 1997, '98 -- I said, "I'm going to have to rip you guys," and they said, "The truth hurts."

So, you know, you try to be objective. As Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, "You become what you pretend to be." So I feel like I have a good perspective on it and a good distance.

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And the other thing is, if the Mets do something well or the Red Sox do something that's interesting and stimulating to talk about or think about, I can look at it and enjoy it for what it is. I like excellence in every form that it comes in.

My next question was going to be, now that you have this new book about the Red Sox out, the farther they go in the postseason the better it'll be for your sales, so what's it like to root for the Red Sox, which you must be doing on some level?

Yeah, I guess I kind of am, and there are a couple of reasons for that, not only because of the sales, though we tried to make this book as evergreen as possible.

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One, I think that Yankees-Red Sox, again, would be a great story and very compelling, more compelling than the White Sox and Angels --

Unless you live in Chicago or Los Angeles.

Well, yeah. But the other thing is I really dislike the supposed, faux smallball that the White Sox claim to play. They hit a good number of home runs. Everything they did to the Red Sox in the first game, for example, was pretty much the result of the home run, and yet the talk is always about the bunt and the stolen base. Those things have probably hurt them more than they've helped.

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So, you know, not to sound like some J.D. Salinger-reading geek, but I hate phonies.

That's a misconception about the White Sox. What do you think is the biggest misconception about the '04 Red Sox?

There are a whole bunch, but probably -- and we talk about this in the book -- the brawl. The idea that when [Jason] Varitek shoved his glove under A-Rod's nose, that turned the entire season around. Even Bill James suggested that that turned the entire season around.

The thing is, we like our sports stories to always be about character and emotion and have this kind of movie quality about guys persevering against tremendous opposition, but sometimes you just have talent. In the Red Sox's case it took till a certain moment to jell, and it happened that that moment was roughly a week to 10 days after that fight. They sort of drifted along at .500 for the next 10 games after that fight.

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This was kind of a pedantic exercise but it was fun to do. We tried to find every brawl that there's a record of, and we found, as you would expect, that when two teams came together and had a fight, no matter what the circumstances, pretty much the good teams stayed good and the bad teams stayed bad afterward. It's not like somebody went into a fight with a team that was supposed to go 50-100 and, you know, punched Babe Ruth in the nose and finished 110-50. It just doesn't happen.

Or drilled him in the ass, as the case may be. What franchise is closest to the Red Sox in "getting smart and creating a new blueprint for winning," or is there somebody who's better than they are at this stuff?

Well, if you want to talk about a team that's already there, obviously we have to talk about the A's. The difference between the A's and the Red Sox is that the A's are known for "Moneyball," but what they really have is budget ball. The Red Sox have "Moneyball" with money.

There are a lot of teams that are on the verge, but we have to see what kind of moves they make in the future. The Blue Jays have been hovering in this kind of netherworld for a while where J.P. [Ricciardi] seems to make some decisions that are Sabermetrically oriented and based around that philosophy of on-base percentage, and then he retreats from it just as quickly so that, as [co-author] Jay Jaffe was saying earlier this year, everybody on the team seems to have the same .330 on-base percentage.

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You'd love to see the Brewers go further in that direction because they certainly have the core. If they could just augment what they're doing with some intelligent decision-making, they could go further.

Sounds funny to say about the Brewers.

It is.

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NFL Week 5 [PERMALINK]

During the baseball playoffs, this column turns to a hunkered-down, defensive, time-saving ... I mean, streamlined, convenient, reader-friendly format for the weekly NFL picks. Two sentences for each game. No muss, no fuss, no time-consuming research. Wait, that last one slipped out.

Winners in capital letters.

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MIAMI (2-1) at Buffalo (1-3): It looks like Mike Mularkey is going to bench quarterback J.P. Losman in favor of Kelly Holcomb, which I think is a mistake. I like what I've seen from Losman so far, though not the results, and given the tough AFC, including the suddenly pretty-good Dolphins, the Bills aren't going to salvage their playoff hopes anyway, and yes, thank you for asking, I am willing to indulge in run-on sentences to stay within my limit of two per game, which reminds me I'm really concerned about President Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court.

BALTIMORE (1-2) at Detroit (1-2): Hard to pick from this mess. I'll go with the Ravens defense.

New Orleans (2-2) at GREEN BAY (0-4): The Packers have to win one sometime. Don't they?

Tampa Bay (4-0) at N.Y. JETS (1-3): What the Heck™ Pick of the week. It can't always be the Colts' opponent.

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Chicago (1-2) at CLEVELAND (2-2): Aren't any good teams playing this week? The Browns are actually looking halfway decent so far.

NEW ENGLAND (2-2) at Atlanta (3-1): I know, that loss to the Chargers exposed that the injuries have finally mounted to the point where the Patriots can no longer sustain their high level of play. I know that.

Seattle (2-2) at ST. LOUIS (2-2): Either of these clubs is capable of losing to anyone, anywhere, and I'm including high school teams here. On the theory that the Rams have the Seahawks' number, I'll pick them until Seattle proves different.

Tennessee (1-3) at HOUSTON (0-3): The Texans have to win sometime, don't they? Don't they?

INDIANAPOLIS (4-0) at San Francisco (1-3): The Colts have to lose sometime, don't they? Well, yeah, but not this week.

PHILADELPHIA (3-1) at Dallas (2-2): Donovan McNabb is this year's Steve McNair, vintage 2002-03, barely able to walk all week, body parts actually falling off when he sneezes, and then playing brilliantly on Sunday. I admire the way the Cowboys have been sticking with the run in the face of all sorts of evidence that they can't run worth a damn.

CAROLINA (2-2) at Arizona (1-3): My theory that the Cardinals would be fine once Kurt Warner left the lineup is looking pretty good considering they're 0-3 with him under center and 1-0 since he got hurt. It's about to stop looking good.

Washington (3-0) at DENVER (3-1): I know Washington is not as good as that 3-0 record, and I suspect the Broncos aren't as good as their 3-1. I'm more likely to be wrong about Denver.

Cincinnati (4-0) at JACKSONVILLE (2-2): The Bengals have played beautifully, but their competition has been weak so that record's a little misleading. The Jags have their problems, and their wins have come against bad teams too, but I think they'll put things together and surprise the Sunday night audience.

PITTSBURGH (2-1) at San Diego (2-2): A second intriguing prime-time game, considering the Steelers' loss to the Patriots and the Chargers' shellacking of them after starting the year with two losses. The San Diego offense is hitting on all cylinders, but it hasn't met the Steelers yet.

Season record: 40-20
Last week: 10-4
What the Heck™ Picks: 2-2
Number of games Abraham Lincoln could have talked about if, using the two sentences per game rule, he'd used the Gettysburg Address to make NFL picks instead of talking about liberty and bravery and all that stuff: 5

Previous column: Red Sox Blame Game

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