Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Jonah Keri's 'The Extra 2%'

I like Jonah Keri. Apart from a calculus teacher who brought a hammer dulcimer to class and a trigonometry teacher who let us turn in homework only weekly, he's one of few people who've taught me things involving mathematics without engendering any sense of malice. He also has the best intro music in all of podcasting, and I suspect he makes beautiful, tender Canadian love.

More importantly, he wrote The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, the first smart book about the Tampa Bay Rays. Unless you consider brick-sized coffee-table commemorative editions with photos and cut-and-paste promotional text "good," it's essentially the first good book about the team at all, which makes it frustrating that it's often oblique about its main topic and instead feels far more enjoyable and touching in a way that Keri probably didn't initially intend.

Ostensibly, Keri's book should exhibit a kind beautiful meeting of talent and topic. He's a contributor to Baseball Prospectus and a co-writer of their Baseball Between the Numbers: Why Everything You Know About the Game Is Wrong. So he not only marries writing chops to sabermetric bona fides, but the subtitle of this book alone tells you how right he is for the job.

What's clear, though, as the middle of the book turns to the rise of the Rays sabermetric dynamos — Andrew Friedman, et al — is that the job itself kind of sucks. Keri's task is to explain to you the strategies that brought the Rays to the World Series, but because they're proprietary strategies, he can't do much more than refer to smart decisions without examining their innards. Friedman and company probably didn't divulge much themselves; anything specific would kill the Rays future. We know that the Rays have the means of finding overlooked value and using smart negotiating tactics to keep it. We can't know their search methodology, and nobody's going to give away their boardroom tricks.

The overall effect is rather like reading a good Capitol Hill journalist covering the CIA. You know the reporter has peeked behind the curtain, while supposedly an august and informed figure has walked him through some deeply cool stuff. From that point on, though, you have to work on faith in that reporter and his subjects. Keri at least has the benefit of going through this process with a group whose efforts can be charted annually and against their peers — and also one that has never done something clownishly evil, like depose a competent Central American leader on behalf of an American banana conglomerate.

Doubtless, the tight-lipped nature of the Rays' staff contributed to another niggling problem: the book repeats itself. Chapters begin by summarizing content from the preceding chapter, often re-describing people or events covered just a page or two before.

For instance, on page 29, Keri writes, "If an antitrust case were to ever go to court, the league would be forced to open its books, something it desperately strives to avoid." The next page, he describes the Devil Rays' first opening day as "the last moment when Devil Rays fans would have reason to cheer for a long, long time." No problem here, but on pages 34-5, he writes, "The risks for the league went well beyond simple financial damages. Two things terrified the Lords of Baseball: the opening of their books and the repeal of MLB's antitrust exemption." Two paragraphs later: "That first opening day would be the highlight of the [Rays owner Vince] Naimoli era." Different phrasing, same ideas, conditions and events, just pages later.

Repetition isn't always a bad thing. In long books or ones targeted at dumb audiences, it can be very necessary. But Keri's a sharp dude with a smart audience, and the book's focus essentially selects for a more intelligent reader: you're going to pick up the book because you want to understand Wall Street applied to baseball. Also, this is a pretty short book; at 245 pages of decently sized and spaced type, you can start and finish it between lunch and dinner.

I suspect the repetition isn't Keri's fault. In fact, I strongly suspect that somebody did the publishing equivalent of a kid with a term paper hitting SELECT ALL and screwing around with font sizes and line spacing until he realized that, with another 10 pages, he could hit a magic number where the book jumped up to a higher price point. Inefficient writing neither seems like Keri's style nor an apt approach to addressing efficiency mavens like the Rays front office. Besides, blaming people in suits is more fun, because people in suits do dumb shit like ruin Guatemala on behalf of the United Fruit Company.

When the subjects of your book clam up about the specifics of their success, other details are going to steal the spotlight, and other ideas will start to carry both emotive and entertainment weight. Thus, while the book's title pitches a deep dive into wonky Wall Street arbitrage, its content ultimately serves as a kind of public trust for two distinct ideas: how horrible and crazy owner Vince Naimoli was, and how many obstacles stand in the way of building a solid Rays fanbase.

I could spend a few thousand words listing the indignities Naimoli foisted on the fans, employees, the Tampa Bay area and the concept of running a ball club. It's impossible to think Keri didn't have a kind of luxuriating fun profiling Naimoli's legacy of ever more ambitious and unsympathetic failure. The man simultaneously loved to pose as a Caesar who joined his subjects — sitting down in the stands, instead of a luxury box — while completely blowing the illusion by tossing a diabetic out of the stadium for bringing in outside food, haranguing vendors and maintaining bathroom upkeep whose aesthetic standards seemed to be, "Everything should be dark, and there should always be an eerie faucet-drip noise that makes people think that they're standing in the scene preceding a violent rape in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit or Oz."

If you didn't live in Florida during the Naimoli years, you probably missed all of this, and Keri performs a welcome duty by establishing an entertaining record of it. Naimoli was a study in contradictions — a tireless fighter who brought a team to St. Petersburg, but exactly the kind of owner who prevented it from succeeding. His miserliness verged on Dickensian comedy, yet he allowed the team to go "all-in" year after year on expensive, flashy signings. He brought a team to a community, then charged local school kids admission prices to perform in on-field celebrations.

Naimoli was grandiosely wrong in a way that modern science doesn't allow anymore. The best way of picturing his mindset is by staring at a medieval painting, where the world is arranged without any perspective other than what God must see. Everything is flat and arranged in a hierarchical mess, with a massive Creator larger than anything else, and figures arrayed under him, sized according to importance. A cop once pulled Vince over, and instead of offering his license to answer the question, screamed, "Do you know who I am?" Thank some equally great power that the owner is no longer Vince Naimoli (PBUH).

Indeed, in the absence of greater disclosure from Friedman and company, this profile of Naimoli goes a long way to explaining just how successful they were in building the 2008 Rays: they weren't the Naimoli regime. With a predecessor so bad, simply doing the opposite was going to win more ballgames. But it's this focus on the suffering of Rays fans that couples neatly with the end of Keri's book: a look at the uphill battle facing the creation of a real fanbase.

Keri covers all the general points: the Rays have a long record of losing, no championships, a history that hasn't even lasted a generation yet, and they play in a state filled with expatriates from Red Sox Nation and the greater New York area — not to mention fans of those teams who grew up when there was no baseball in Florida. The area also suffers over 10% unemployment, with that percentage increasing in the construction sector, which means that Florida's historic develop-and-flip Ponzi economy has stalled out and started growing rust and weeds. Public sector development vanished with Governor Scott's nixing no-strings-attached federal monies for high-speed rail, while state, county and city governments have been cutting budgets and jobs since 2007.

These are all tough facts and exactly the sorts of points that Boston and New York fans like to forget when busting on lowly Florida and its fans. It's not a wealthy and cosmopolitan area in the way Boston and New York are. There are no lifelong die-hards. You can go to Fenway and run into four generations of fans raised on lore, drama, heroes, goats and triumph. You can't find someone in Tropicana Field old enough to buy beer who grew up with the Rays.

When he gets into specifics, however, Keri really starts to deal. Consider:
The greater Tampa Bay region is often regarded as a small market by MLB standards. But the population analytics website defines it as one of the fifteen largest in the country, with 3.25 million residents. Despite those healthy numbers, suburban sprawl and the Trop's unfortunate location paint a grim picture. Only 19% of Tampa Bay residents live within a thirty-minute drive of the Trop—by far the smallest percentage of any MLB market. Seattle, with roughly the same population base, counts two and a half times as many residents in a half-hour driving radius. Every market smaller than Tampa Bay counts at least half its residents within thirty minutes of the ballpark. The Denver area includes 800,000 fewer inhabitants than Tampa Bay, yet more than 1.9 million Denverites can make the thirty-minute-or-less drive to Coors Field versus just over 600,000 in Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater. (p. 223)
As someone with friends in the area, I can attest to this headache. The size of the bay makes skirting the land surrounding it an exercise in time-wasting frustration. Only St. Pete residents can reach the stadium with anything like ease. There is no rail transit, period, and surface streets and highways grind to a halt at bridge choke points; there are no ferry services cutting across the bay. Once traffic is factored in, the greater Orlando area — an explosive demographic potential for fans and earnings — sits over three hours away, six hours round-trip. Even without traffic and paying for more direct toll roads, a drive to the Trop from eastern Hillsborough County (the county Tampa is actually in), a huge and growing residential area, takes an hour, even under ideal mid-day conditions.

There's still a fanbase there. In 2010, the Rays drew the fifth-highest TV ratings in the majors. There's a reason why the seats are empty — apart from Tropicana Field being the Baseball Crypt, a Mausoleum for Good Times, the Place Where Your Skin Producing Vitamin-D Goes to Die, where people inexplicably play baseball on something normally reserved for little kids to stand on while trying to beat golfballs under a windmill and into a toad's mouth. It's because the stadium's in a terrible location, surrounded by crummy old houses, gentrified Yuppie apartment buildings and nothing interesting to do before or after games.

It's not even demographically in a sensible place. Leaving aside the geographical and traffic factors that make Tampa a better location than St. Petersburg, it's utterly dumbfounding that someone chose to plunk a baseball stadium down in a city whose cultural profile is essentially "a vibrant gay community surrounded by low-income housing and retirees on fixed incomes." Stereotyping is ugly, but it's not exactly radical or unfair to identify gay people, poor people and elderly people on the brink of death as sitting somewhere outside the target baseball audience. (Although, on that last point, you can't blame anybody for thinking of Tropicana Field as a facility ideally suited to being stuffed with dead bodies.)

Rays owner Stu Sternberg knows this, which is why he's pushed for a new stadium for years. But he faces a much larger problem, one that Keri alludes to but would have done better to firmly underline: when you sell yourself as a team/owner/management that makes dynamic economic choices based on smart metrics, you can't expect a city/county to believe that a new stadium will do anything other than cost them hundreds of millions of dollars, because every metric out there says that sports stadiums don't create public money. Even if Sternberg self-finances, he'd be a fool not to demand a waiver of concurrency/impact fees and taxes — which, of course, no Florida local government can afford to waive, considering overtime pay for police and the costs of nearby road expansion and traffic management. For Sternberg to sell Hillsborough County or the City of Tampa on building a new stadium, he has to pitch them a complete repudiation of the smart management and budget efficiency he spends the 364 other days of the year touting for his team.

This, then, is the weird thing about Keri's book: his background and its subtitle paint it as a brainy and metrical look at an economical baseball turnaround, but the most resonant parts are the lamentations that bracket that focus. He does his best with what he can get from the front office; the Rays sunk money into recruiting, development, baseball schools overseas. They repudiated the Naimoli regime and staffed the building with eggheads who can play video games to blow off steam.

But it's the twin dooms of the stadium issue and of the Naimoli regime that provide the most weight to the sunny turnaround of Sternberg and Friedman. Part of what made the Rays success so meteoric was starting from an absolute, bizarre baseball nadir. That nadir deserved a profile, and Keri gives it. What he shows, however, is a group of clever men who've stretched their dollar about as well as anyone could expect, yet still stare down inevitable and potentially crippling obstacles to creating a vibrant flesh-and-blood fanbase.

Rating: 3.5
A tough call, because it will offer a different experience for different audiences. Hardcore fans will be familiar with the stories behind the Rays smart drafting and Maddon's background, and they'll likely be a little disappointed not to find meatier content in terms of sabermetrics and breaking down the Rays scouting and drafting methods. At the same time, they'll probably love having a one-stop shop for Naimoli tales. Rays fans will also be familiar with much of the book's subjects, but the details of the original stadium deal, the bids for teams and the demographic problems of the current stadium are more than welcome and will provide good grist for arguments. Overall, an ideal book for casual baseball fans who are interested in learning about dynamic team management through the lens of an entertaining story. It's just a shame it couldn't be a little longer or that Friedman and company weren't willing to let everyone in by disclosing a few more details explaining the turnaround that we've all had to watch from outside.