Sunday, March 09, 2014

Book Review: The Stark Truth

When I was growing up in Philadelphia, Jayson Stark was my favorite sportswriter, and not just because he got Dallas Green to famously wear a shirt that read "#$%@ YOU JAYSON" on it to a post game presser. He was funny and he was quick and he had a seemingly magical talent for pulling out rare and wacky tidbits from baseball action that made you realize exactly how weird and unique and wonderful the Mickey Morandini unassisted triple play (or whatever other moment you choose) actually was. 


I got older, and I discovered other baseball writers, and Mr. Stark moved on to ESPN. But even when I was at my SABR-est, I never quite fell out of love with reading Stark's columns over at ESPN.com. It wasn't cutting edge analytics, but let's face it, the relentless absolutism of some of the analytics-driven writers can get a little dull after a while. Whatever else Stark's stuff has been over the years, it has always been fun. And he himself has been a pleasure to support: open and forthright in explaining why he made the choices he did in his columns, pleasant and cheerful even in the face of abuse from the ever-expanding internet troll contingent, and always willing to engage in polite debate with folks he disagrees with. I don't always agree with his logic, but I respect and enjoy the way he puts himself out there, and shares the fact that he seems to so obviously be having fun.

Which is why it makes me so unhappy to note that his first book, The Stark Truth, is such a disappointment. Framed as a list of the "most overrated" and "most underrated" players ever, it's a collection of lists that's oddly joyless. Maybe it's that the patented Stark Wacky Facts approach works better in a column than in a book. Maybe it's that the book doesn't dig too deep in listing the five most underrated and five most overrated players at each position; these are all players that even a casual fan will most likely have heard of. When lower-tier Hall of Famers and multiple-time All Stars like Hal McRae are about as obscure as it gets, there's not a lot of meat on those bones. And maybe it's just because Stark really is that nice, and that he goes out of his way to reassure the fans of the "overrated" players that overrated doesn't mean "bad", it just means "not as good as you might have thought they were". 

Not, presumably, that this kept the Steve Garvey and Nolan Ryan fans of the world from freaking out when they saw where their idols ranked (hint: not on the underrated side). But it did mean that the book lacked teeth, that the arguments - more in sorrow than in anything else - were forceful enough in pushing their conclusions. That's not saying I wish the book had been mean. If it had been, it wouldn't have been Jayson Stark.

But what it is doesn't feel like vintage Stark either. The writer whose work I fell in love with went deep to dig up his tidbits for  those Philadelphia Inquirer columns. The bits in the book aren't deep enough to start barroom arguments. It's Stark-lite, and unfortunately, for me that just isn't enough. 
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