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Book Review: Nine Innings by Daniel Okrent

I received a book from my brother for Christmas and upon unwrapping it I could tell instantly it was about baseball.  The green of the cover unveiled what I would find to be Daniel Okrent’s fine book on a single baseball game, Nine Innings, subtitled: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game.  At first I wondered what sort of dissection Mr. Okrent would have undertaken and studied, and to what degree.  Would this be the sort of minutia with a statistical gloss that would prove to be a difficult read?

Any doubts I had were soon dissipated.  I was swept into the world of the game from June 10, 1982, between the Brewers and Baltimore Orioles at County Stadium in Milwaukee.  Not just an analysis of the game itself, however, Nine Innings helps readers realize and understand the deep-rooted interpersonal connections and internal and external influences that brought every one of the participants in that single game to the stadium that June day.  The players, managers, coaches, broadcasters, reporters, owners, and fans enjoyed that specific game because of its unique time and place.  In reality, every baseball game is a product of these collisions and circumstances.  But few are explored so thoroughly.  Okrent’s book is not only about a single game, it’s about the cosmos and chaos of baseball as a whole.

The beauty of Nine Innings, though, is that one can view baseball through the lens of a single game in productive fashion because there are so many cataclysmic events, monumental influences, seemingly random occurrences, personal choices and outside factors that press upon how a single game is populated and put together.  The players, first of all, come together through a vast array of different paths, all to the same field to play as a team on a given day, against another team of similarly suited and skilled individuals.  Like with the players, the influences that brought the managers, broadcasters, owners and all others to that single game in the positions they were in are complex and intriguing.

In June, 1982, the Milwaukee Brewers had recently fired their manager, Bob Rodgers, and were now on their way to becoming Harvey’s Wallbangers under replacement manager Kuenn.  The mid-season game upon which Okrent focuses his intense inspection appears to be a mellow and casual affair at first glance, even though Milwaukee had preceded it with three straight home losses in a four-game series to Baltimore, a team led by the crafty and formidable Earl Weaver.  Baltimore was one of the AL’s serious threats that year to Milwaukee’s postseason dreams, if the Brewers would ever get their act together and make a run.

Okrent explains the basics of the action on June 10, 1982, but also dives in deeper, examining the players in the game and how they arrived in professional baseball and became major leaguers with Milwaukee, whether through the minor leagues, trade or free agency.  Many heroic characters of the 1982 squad are discussed, including Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, Jim Gantner, Ben Oglivie, Cecil Cooper, Roy Howell, Ted Simmons, Don Money, Charlie Moore, Pete Vuckovich, Bob McClure, Rollie Fingers, Gorman Thomas, Mike Caldwell and more.  I found it really fascinating to learn more about these players, many of whom are up there with the all-time Brewers greats.  It was really amazing to see a more intimate, human side to these players, and to go beyond the surface to understand their origins and how they became part of such a golden team for Milwaukee.  From Gantner’s humble beginnings to Cooper’s incredible work ethic, to Rollie Fingers coming over in a big trade, to the team’s shrewd addition of Gorman Thomas, Brewers fans will love to read about the back stories of these incredible players.

In addition, Nine Innings delves into how the Brewers front office had evolved over the years leading up to 1982, beginning with the Brewers’ arrival in 1970.  Okrent goes behind the scenes to show Bud Selig’s hard-fought battles to bring a team back to Milwaukee and the way he operated as an owner.  The club’s finances are revealed to be quite perilous at times.  The considerable influence of ex-Baltimore executives is explored as well, especially that of general manager Harry Dalton and scouting director Ray Poitevint.  The book also goes into great detail about the evolution of baseball (changes in the game, the advent of new pitches, free agency and salaries, and much more) and the politics of the sport, particularly as they pertain to the owners and the commissionership.

Nine Innings provides a wonderful look into the various factors that resulted in this particular baseball game between the Brewers and Orioles.  The game, the players and the atmosphere are truly brought to life by Okrent’s detailed research and evocative writing.  I delighted in many discoveries by reading this book; for example, I was not aware that Harvey Kuenn had part of his leg amputated.  I also wasn’t aware of how much of an influence the Baltimore organization had on Milwaukee’s front office personnel in the 1980’s.  I’m a more knowledgeable Brewers and baseball fan as a result.  I think most people who are good critical thinkers and astute observers perceive that there are many layers to a baseball game and that there are many people and events that influence who appears in each game, etc.  But Nine Innings reaches the level of detail and research that is usually beyond the scope of the average fan.  Peeling the onion of this game is a great, rewarding process and a lot of fun.  I suggest you pick up Nine Innings and take a trip to June 10, 1982, at old County Stadium.