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The Book of Joe: Trying Not to Suck in Baseball and Life, by Joe Maddon and Tom Verducci

At the height of World War II, when wave after wave of Allied bombers suffered alarming casualties, the Columbia University statistician Abraham Wald was tasked with finding a way to stem the losses. Since returning aircraft showed extreme strafing across the fuselage and wings, the prevailing thought was to reinforce those areas. Wald countered by recommending a reinforcement of the areas that showed no damage: the engines and the nose of the aircraft. When the powers that be challenged Wald with the numbers, Wald countered that the observable data reflected the bullet holes from surviving aircraft. The planes that got hit in the engines or nose did not return.

The moral is: Numbers don’t solve problems; people do. Data helps, but it takes a human being, preferably a smart one, to make sense of it.

Baseball’s greatest minds (and some of the lesser ones) have always been obsessed with statistics. With each succeeding generation, a new measure of performance is introduced and leveraged as irrefutable evidence of a player’s or team’s ability or lack thereof. As the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays (nee Devil Rays), Joe Maddon was part of the baseball vanguard to apply data and technology to take a last-place team in 2007 to the World Series a year later, and to win the long-suffering Chicago Cubs its first championship in more than 100 years. Only six years later, Maddon would be fired as manager of the California Angels, for, among other things, not following the statistically driven commands of the number crunches in the team’s front office.

Maddon, with the help of baseball writer Tom Verducci, chronicles his rise and fall in the All-American Pastime, and lessons learned along the way in The Book of Joe: Trying Not to Suck in Baseball and Life. As much as it is an autobiography, it is also a case for leadership in a sport that is becoming inundated by numbers. Maddon’s career straddles the old world and the new, and he recalls with great detail the evolution of tactics and plays that have become so commonplace in today’s game, but sincerely laments the reliance on results-driven actions at the expense of the game’s beauty.

Before reading Book of Joe, I was not a fan of Maddon, as I still bore a grudge for a squeeze play he inflicted on the Red Sox in the game after Opening Day in 2009 (it just seemed a little early in the season for such sneakiness). But after reading his book, I not only understood the how’s and why’s of that particular play, which he would inflict on other unsuspecting teams, I appreciated the mind behind all the creative ways he tried to improve his team and the game.

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