Author: Jonah Keri
Filed Under: Nonfiction.
Get a copy at Powell’s.
|C4 Ratings...out of||10|
As a Red Sox fan, I don’t really savor the recent success of the Tampa Bay (née Devil-) Rays. Thus far in 2011, it appears that for the third year running, the three best teams in the American League will play in the AL East, meaning no matter what, they can’t all be in the postseason. Before the Rays’ ascendance, I loved when the Sox played the Rays. It sometimes got a bit feisty, and the Sox would almost always take home 2 wins. Tampa was seriously a joke. Then came 2008, and with it mohawks and 9=8, etc. Now, as a Sox fan, I see Tampa as a bigger threat than the aging, overpaid Yankees.
In The Extra 2%, Jonah Keri starts with a team that was a perennial doormat and follows them as they scramble out of the gutter hand over fist. He is probing, funny, and critical, all of which make for an engrossing and revelatory read. I particularly like the angle Keri takes on the business side. His love for the sport is readily noticeable on every page, but his contempt for the league is almost palpable.
For the most part, MLB owners are an old boys club, a group of bullies. They spent years thwarting the efforts of various ownership groups to bring a major league team to Tampa, in large part due to contention over the stadium. Unlike most new stadiums, built by the city under pressure from an existing MLB team eager to reap the profits, the city of St. Petersburg decided to build Tropicana Field in advance of a team presence, attempting to lure a club to the city. However, by the time it came around to them, the Trop was the same outdated piece of crap it is today – half the seats don’t even face the diamond. MLB figured, why put a team there when they could get someone to build a nicer one someplace else, someplace where they didn’t already make money from Spring Training.
In 1998, after plenty of resistance from the good old boys up in MLB, overpaying MLB’s franchise fees, and signing a 30-year lease on Tropicana Field (!), a group led by Vince Naimoli finally got the go-ahead to start a team in Tampa. Their disadvantages multiplied: the player drafting process for an expansion team is especially convoluted, so I won’t bother to explain it, but MLB basically tweaked the rules to make things even worse for Naimoli’s crew. They found themselves broke, with a team full of garbage players and with minimal attendance in an old, uncomfortable stadium on the wrong side of the bridge between Tampa and St. Pete.
To make matters worse, Naimoli is widely considered to be one of the worst owner/managers ever. He makes Al Davis (of the NFL’s Raiders) look like a thrifty genius. Naimoli ran the team deeper into the ground, saddling them with bad contracts, even worse PR, and local alienation for years to come. (He also makes for a wonderful character and the section about him is probably my favorite of the book.)
Then came Sternberg and friends, the minority partners of the Naimoli group who bided their time in the wings and strategized. Golden boys of Wall St. who got out right before the dot-com bubble popped, they carefully worked behind the scenes to rejigger the inner workings of the Rays. Emphasis was placed on player value. That is, lock in a cheapo contract for a young player with high upside and hope for the best. It might bust and cost you, or it might give you a superstar for a paltry sum.
Eventually Sternberg and his new management team took majority control of the team, and it wasn’t much longer before Naimoli was gone. They quickly employed their Wall St. tactics, mining largely untapped stores of data. Tampa Bay began looking at stuff other teams weren’t yet, namely defense percentages and newfangled sabermetric stats such as WAR, VORP, and even a few they devised themselves. These allowed them to track all kinds of ancillary player attributes that could be combined to field a team with a slight (2%?) edge over traditional rosters built on counting stats. Wise player hires and savvy draft moves and trades quickly built a team of strong, young talent poised to make a move in 2008.
Of course, no one really cared. Lacking a strong bullpen, no one was taking the newly “Devil”-less Rays seriously. But a few clever roster moves and risks on young talent made the bullpen suddenly fearsome. Coupled with some excellent work repairing fan loyalty, the Wall St. boys created a perfect storm of talent and electricity that any baseball fan will remember from 2008. Suddenly the Rays were not just not-crappy, but playing better than anyone else. And the Trop, often called Fenway or Yankee Stadium South for the overwhelming number of visiting team fans, actually boasted a presence of annoying fans armed in cowbells:
…the cowbell became a Rays trademark that–much like the Angels’ Rally Monkey and the Mets’ inability to avoid shooting themselves in the foot–came to define the franchise.
It remains to be seen how long the Rays can sustain their success. They still have one of the lowest payrolls in the business, but so many other teams have caught on to their prudent approach that it’s no longer the advantage for Tampa. And the Trop is still a terrible park in an inconvenient part of town, amid a viewing market that can never compete with the likes of Boston, New York, Chicago, Philly, LA, etc. The other owners still stomp on them a little bit (namely in the draft and free agent bidding–I can just see beady-eyed John Henry smirking his creepy little smile as he signs Carl Crawford’s humungous paychecks). They’ve got some good guys locked down for a long time, though, so it’s certainly possible they get another chance to win that World Series they came so close to claiming in 2008.
Keri does a great job of breaking down complex financial strategy in very similar terms to how he breaks down baseball logic, which, one assumes, his readers are more familiar with. All in all, I found it a fascinating read. Much like Dirk Hayhurst’s The Bullpen Gospels gives a glamour-stripped look at the life of a ballplayer, The Extra 2% permits readers to espy the inner economic workings of MLB that, while not hidden, are often left unpondered. And despite the flowing stat-nerd facts, Keri writes in an excitable, chummy style that many readers will enjoy.
The national and local economies tanked. Public transit was nearly nonexistent. Roaming packs of rabid unicorns attacked fans in the bleachers.
One last thing. This book doesn’t really have to be read sequentially, which is nice. It’s obviously meant to be, but Keri reiterates just enough per section to allow them to stand alone. So if you are only interested in the Stadium, or the rise of Joe Maddon, you can read those sections just fine and ignore the rest of the book. Regardless, any fan of baseball, particularly a stat head or devotee of an AL East team will find a whole lot to like about this book.