I first came across Dan Okrent in Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary (in which he’s brilliant) and again while reading about the history of fantasy baseball (he invented it).
He was also the best at chronicling the fall of Detroit, which now seems to be behind Time magazine’s paywall.
His 1985 book “9 innings” is a insider look at baseball through analyzing a single regular-season game between the Brewers and Orioles in June of 1982. The beauty, of course, is that he uses the seemingly random game as a platform to examine more macro baseball ideas: the amateur draft, scouting, labor relations, broadcast rights, journalism, team ownership, etc.
Also weaved in and out of the narrative is a long list of facts I either never knew or had once known and since forgotten. Also, some great anecdotes:
- Paul Molitor played just 64 minor-league games — all in Class A — before debuting in the majors in 1978, when he was named the AL Rookie of the Year. (Robin Yount played the exact same number of minor-league games before becoming the Brewers’ starting shortstop at age 18.)
- Luis Tiant once said that Milwaukee outfielder Gorman Thomas was so ugly he “could be anything in the jungle [he] wanted to be, but not the hunter.” (Proof.)
- The Brewers’ iconic logo from the early 80s was chosen in a fan competition. The fans got that one right.
- Hall of Famers Eddie Murray and Ozzie Smith were high school teammates.
- In the attempt to lure a major-league team to Milwaukee, Bud Selig‘s ownership group convinced the White Sox to play 10 “home” games at Milwaukee County Stadium in 1968. (Selig eventually got his team when the group bought the Seattle Pilots in 1970.)
- Baseball actually went 80 years without a major rule change, from the time the pitcher’s mound was moved 60 feet, 6 inches from the plate until the designated hitter was instituted in 1973.
The Brewers won the game and continued to win in 1982. They went on to advance to the World Series that year, where they lost to the Cardinals in seven games. As Okrent notes, the franchise fell off quickly from there (and actually didn’t advance to the playoffs again until 2008).
There was one move, however, that could have prevented that. At the 1981 winter meetings, Brewers general manager Harry Dalton declined a trade that would have sent 33-year-old starting pitcher Mike Caldwell to the Phillies for Ryne Sandberg, who at the time had just six major-league plate appearances under his belt.
Caldwell pitched just three more (sub-par) seasons while Sandberg, of course, won an MVP with the Chicago Cubs and has since been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
A dozen seasons with Yount, Sandberg and Molitor in the infield would have likely changed the landscape of the American League.