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An Overzealous Review of The Extra 2%: Prologue

On the one hand, it’s a fact: writing a 14-part review of a colleague’s book in the very same publication for which both of you work — it’s entirely indecent. And yet, that’s what Albert Lyu and I propose to do here for our colleague Jonah Keri’s The Extra 2%.

What’s more, we appear to be experiencing absolutely nothing in the way of moral distress over our decision.

Why? I don’t know exactly. But my guess is it involves some combination of the following five reasons:

1. It’s exciting, in a general way, when a friend writes a book. It’s natural to want to discuss it.

2. Albert and I are too naive to realize that we’re toiling thanklessly merely to augment Jonah Keri’s already substantial personal wealth.

3. The Extra 2% happens to address, like, a thousand topics entirely within the scope of FanGraphs’ own interests.

4. Writing a multi-part review in dialogue form allows Albert and I to experiment a little, and hopefully to amuse both ourselves and readers.

5. We’re bad people.

I invite the reader to mix and match these possibilities in whichever way is most pleasing.

In any case, here are the facts: Albert and I each own a copy of Keri’s book, which goes on sale March 8th. We’re going to read a chapter each weekday and then gather at an undisclosed virtual location to discuss said chapter. Sometimes we’ll provide close readings of the day’s passage. Other times, likely, we’ll stray far and/or wide from our assigned topic.

Mostly, as I say, the idea is to have some fun.


Cistulli: Before we get started in earnest, Albert, I want to make sure we’re using the same text here. So, to verify: we’re discussing The Extra 2% by FanGraphs’ (and The Wall Street Journal’s and Cat Fancy’s) own Jonah Keri, yes? Published by Ballantine/ESPN, yes? With the subtitle “How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First” — yes?

Albert: Sure thing. Just making sure, though: word around the FanGraphs premises is that this very same Jonah Keri among us also wrote (emphasis: wrote) for Playhouse and Pentboy. The author profile of the Jonah Keri on The Extra 2%’s dust jacket (which I am holding in my very hands) does not indicate that he actually did write for those two esteemed publications. If you can confirm for me that this is the very same Jonah Keri, then carry on.

Cistulli: Yes. This is me confirming same.

Um, so, I’d like to make it clear to the readership that I have no idea what I’m — or we’re — doing here. But we have these books in our hands, are mostly literate, and have embarrassing amounts of leisure time.

In terms of first impressions, I’d like to begin by drawing our respective attentions to Jonah’s author photo. The author photo, I’ll submit, is an under-explored genre of photography. As for Jonah’s, specifically, he appears to be wearing the expression of someone who’s just poisoned a beverage. Like, I’m sharing a drink with him, and he put poison in one of our cups — either his or mine. And I know that he did it, and he knows that I know he did it. So the question is: do I switch the cups when he’s not looking? Or did he plan for that, and actually put the poison in his cup.?

Whichever choice I make, Jonah will have accounted for it — that’s the look he’s giving me.

Author Jonah Keri sans glasses.

Albert: I’d place his smile in the 79th percentile if the sample is inclusive of all living baseball nerds. Though, he could have shown a little bit more teeth like Dave Cameron. A quick Google Image search shows us Keri doesn’t usually employ glasses, so clearly he’s bringing his A-game for this book.

Cistulli: Turning our attention to the actual inside of the book, we have the foreword, written by Mark Cuban. Cuban’s obviously an interesting character, and I want to get to him in a moment.

But first, a couple of questions, Albert:

1. Regarding forewords, generally, my sense is that they’re less for readers who’d already be buying the book and more for people who aren’t familiar with the title yet, who maybe come across the book while browsing, say. One might see this book on a shelf at Borders, for example, and say, “Oh, Mark Cuban. If he vouches for the book, then it must be good.” Does this characterization make sense to you?

2. Were you to write a book, who would you choose to write the foreword for it?

Albert: What I think will catch people’s eyes is the application of business and Wall Street principles to running a sports team. Whether you love or hate Mark Cuban, he is pretty much universally known as the owner who was both a successful tycoon and a successful owner. (Note: if one finds this book at Borders, the entire store’s stock being on sale will contribute more to the impulse-buying of a passerby than the foreword’s author.)

The casual sports/business reader will be drawn to “Wall Street” and “Mark Cuban” more than if the title of the book was focused on, you know, the Tampa Bay Rays. And what those browsing the book will find is that Jonah really does deliver this holistic business perspective of running a baseball team from the very beginning of the book — not just statistics, but stadium bills, cost cutting, customer-based operations, parallels and differences between running a company and running a baseball organization. It’s much more than another Moneyball book about exploiting inefficiencies.

If I were to write a book, I’d get Ozzie Guillen, or whoever runs his Twitter feed. Or whoever runs @the701level. You can decide the topic of my future book, Carson — release date should be 2025.

Cistulli: Your answer, Albert, was dangerously close to substantive. I’d reprimand you in the manner customary for the insolent at NotGraphs, but, with all these hundreds thousands millions of readers looking on, I’ll play your sordid game.

In the prologue, we meet original Rays’ owner Vincent Naimoli. Someone might conclude that he (i.e. Naimoli) is similar to Cuban in the sense that both are/were strong, seemingly ubiquitous personalities, inseparable from the fabric of their respective franchises.

Like I say, someone might conclude that, but that someone would be concluding wrong. The winning percentages bear this out pretty obviously — but the processes are entirely different, as well.

Mark Cuban lovingly reminds us to use our heads.

We’ll treat Naimoli more deeply in chapter two, I’m guessing, but he and Cuban represent two of maybe half-a-dozen owner archetypes. Maybe there are more than that. I don’t know. But the qualities of these two guys are pretty clear. Cuban is the sort who, though conspicuous in the media, appears entirely committed to trusting his coaching staff and front office to make smart decisions — smarter than he would, at least. Naimoli, on the other hand, represents… well, how would you define his “type”? Certainly, people didn’t like him and he was bad at running a team.

Albert: Both owners definitely have/had a hands-on approach to running their team. The difference, as you surmise, is that Cuban had full trust in his staff to do the work. Cuban’s philosophy of investing in developing players and in databases is apparent — he has hired a large coaching staff as well as analytically minded folks such as Wayne Winston and Roland Beech and the like, letting them do the work.

Naimoli, on the other hand, hired his staff and micromanaged the team’s decisions down to the finest detail. And at the cost of, shall I say, fan relations, he sought every possible way to save the extra dollar or cut costs. Jonah (or do we call him Keri?) cites several examples of Naimoli’s non-front office related parsimonious ways: keeping outside food out of ballpark, preventing fans from moving down to field level, and asking national anthem performers to buy tickets.

Hmm, and that’s what I’ll call it. Naimoli is your typical parsimonious owner (or penurious — take your pick). And his ways pissed off and alienated a lot of the early Devil Rays fans. I guess it would have helped if the Devil Rays were actually winning back then (late 90s, early aughts), but — as I am sure the reader knows — they weren’t.

Cistulli: No, they weren’t (winning, that is). Question, though: from what we learn about Naimoli just in the prologue, do you think Naimoli would’ve been so widely despised had the Rays been anywhere near competitive?

Albert: Interesting thought. I would say that fans would be more forgiving / less despising had the Rays started out by, you know, winning the AL East and preventing a Yankee dynasty. If the Rays were merely near competitive though? I do think the fans would have still hated the guy since his decisions were, by nature, affecting a fan’s experience at the Trop.

An owner like Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders might be a good example of a hard-ass owner who regularly makes controversial moves (and lawsuits) but whose fan approval rating rises and falls with the team’s performance.

Cistulli: Davis could work, although I’d prefer to avoid entering the shadow world that is the mind of an Oakland Raiders fan.