The Last Nine Innings a one-game chronicle of baseball evolution

For four and a half years, I have tried to forget about the events of Sunday, November 4, 2001. But as a Yankee fan, that will always be impossible. I remember every detail of that game, and I still can feel the shock of watching the impossible become possible as Mariano Rivera proved that every now and then he is human.

It hasn’t helped my psychological healing process too much that baseball writers keep insisting on writing books about that fateful game. First, Buster Olney penned The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty in 2004. Olney’s book was a masterful and personal look into the Yankee clubhouse during their remarkable run from 1996 until Luis Gonzalez’s bloop single in 2001. Olney, a long-time Yankee beat writer, used his clubhouse access to further humanize what was already a very human team and show at what cost success came to the players and coaches from the last baseball dynasty.

Now, Charles Euchner, a city planner and former college professor, has revisited Game 7 of the 2001 World Series in his latest book entitled The Last Nine Innings. Whereas Olney’s book focused on the Yankees, Euchner’s book uses Game 7 of the World Series as a launching point for an examination into the various forces behind the evolution of the modern game of baseball.

First up comes a look at the latest legal strength and conditioning techniques sweeping through Major League Baseball. Euchner uses the experiences of Steve Finley to examine how current knowledge about muscle use and muscle strengthening can lengthen a player’s career. Finley, Euchner explains, works with chiropractor Edythe Heus to strengthen the balancing and tiny core muscles along his spine. Finley doesn’t lift mega-weights, but he has honed his body in such a way that has enabled him to play, for better or for worse, past his 40th birthday.

Finley’s technique is the anti-steroid approach, according to Euchner. Heus’ regimen focuses on “creating a better sense of time and space” instead of focusing on “the execution of an isolated task,” as Euchner claims steroids do. Finley’s training regiment helps him in the field as he dashes and lunges after elusive fly balls, and it helps him focus his swing at the plate.

Next up is a look at the fundamentals of the game: hitting, pitching, and fielding. Euchner breaks down the mental aspects of these tasks. Using extensive interviews with many of the participants of the Yankees-Diamondbacks World Series, Euchner delves into the minds of some of the game’s top players. He discusses Curt Schilling’s penchant for data and scouting reports, Randy Johnson’s efforts at controlling his extremely tall and thin frame early in his career, and Roger Clemens’ picture perfect motion and nearly-insane conditioning work.

Euchner gives the other two areas of the game the same treatment. He looks at positioning fielders, swinging styles and hitting approaches. The book provides a deep examination into the psychology of baseball, an area of the game often ignored by those who follow it. Chuck Knoblauch, one of the key cogs in the Yankee dynasty, was certainly a victim of baseball psychology.

Baseball, all 162 regular season games, 30 spring training games, and the October spring, can be grueling on the players. By examining the states of mind of those playing in the ultimate game of the season, Euchner shows how the sport’s premiere players prepare for an eight-month marathon.

Moving away from the personal, Euchner looks at the sabermetric revolution encompassing the sport. What is refreshing about Euchner’s book is that the stats can co-exist with the psychology. While the players say they do not follow the new stats, it gives those watching the game from General Managers to scouts to journalists and bloggers an insight into the game. He touches upon the never-ending Derek Jeter fielding debate and looks at the improbable events of the bottom of the 9th through the lens of Win Probability. (Tony Womack’s double with one out to tie the score shifted the game in the Diamondbacks favor from 35.4 to 84.3. It was by far the single most important play of the game.)

Finally, Euchner ends with some ruminations on globalization. Alfonso Soriano, a Dominican who played in Japan, was almost the hero of the World Series while a Panamanian took the loss and an American-Cuban delivered the game winning hit. But Euchner does more than give lip service to the ever-expanding international reach of baseball. Many Latin American players sign up for a few thousand dollars to play for the Major League academies. While some Latino players have gone on to be big stars, Americans never hear about the hundreds of players who do not make it and must return to a life of abject poverty. Other Latino players are picked up by Major League teams simply to fill out roster spots in the Minor Leagues. They will never fulfill their Major League dreams or share in the dollars that the sport’s upper levels have to offer.

In the end, Euchner, unfortunately for me, cannot rewrite history, and the last 30 pages of the book were the toughest to read. I kept hoping that maybe this time the roof at the BOB would be open, and Shane Spencer’s deep fly ball would be a game-changing three-run home run. Or that the Yankees would play the infield back and Derek Jeter would catch Gonzalez’s dinky hit. Or that Scott Brosius would complete the double play giving the Yankees a chance to move that infield back with two outs instead of playing up with one. But alas, it was not to be.

Personal feelings aside, Euchner’s book provides insight into the game at a whole new level. While he touches the surface on a variety of topics that could stand on their own in a 250-page book, as Andrew Zimbalist, baseball economist notes on the cover, you will never a game with the same thoughts again. You’ll be eyeing the pitchers, looking for the physics described in the book or watching an outfield twist and turn like a dancer catching up to a seemingly uncatchable deep fly ball.

The Last Nine Innings, by Charles Euchner, is published by Sourcebooks. It is available online at Amazon.com or at your nearest local bookstore.

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