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The Last Nine Innings

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The Last Nine Innings
by Charles Euchner
$22.95, 300 pp, Sourcebooks, Inc.

Available through Amazon

Game 7 of the 2001 World Series really doesn't need much introduction here: I'm sure everyone remembers exactly where they were, what they were doing, and - in my case - who they proposed marriage to, immediately after Gonzo's bloop single. It generates all kind of cultural resonance. Some are shared, such as the post-9/11 atmosphere, perhaps capped by the Stealth bomber flypast before the game, while others are more personal. This was my first experience of the World Series in the US, and could hardly have been bettered as a tool for turning my interest into near-obsession.

Approaching five years on, Charles Euchner's book revisits that night in Phoenix. He's not the first author to do so: Buster Olney's The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty also covered the same game. However, as the title of that book suggests, Olney saw the event from a NY-centred focus, with Arizona irritatingly reduced to a supporting role - even though we won the frickin' thing. We'll take the mutterings about East coast media bias as read, shall we?

In contrast, Euchner is more even-handed, and broader in scope. As well as describing, virtually pitch by pitch, the events of the game itself, he also uses these as a key to look into a rainbow of baseball's modern aspects: "in nine taut innings, the game provided telling glimpses of everything that makes baseball a great sport... Few games say so much in such a dramatic way." And, while I'd have been entirely satisfied, had the game said nothing more telling or deep than "Yankees suck", the author does back up his claims.

For example, Steve Finley's running catch of Shane Spencer in the second inning, is the touchstone for a discussion of defense. This covers Finley's unusual training methods, involving tools like big rubber balls and balance disks [As an aside, I note that before becoming a pro player, Finley was accepted into chiropractic school, which may help explain his open-mindedness in this area], and then flows into a discussion of Derek Jeter's abilities, or lack thereof, as a shortstop. Finally, there's a piece on the pivotal importance of catchers, looking at Jorge Posada's issues playing the position. Play then resumes.

This format probably lends itself better to dipping into, rather than solid reading - it kept me happily engrossed for a week's worth of lunchbreaks, a couple of innings per day, but I can see how the approach could seem annoyingly random. Euchner's main thrust is the "Triple Revolution" that he believes has changed the game for good: globalization, physiological analysis, and enhanced use of statistics. The first and third are probably well-known (it seems almost every week brings out a "new" post-Moneyball volume), but the second is perhaps the most noteworthy.

The researchers at the American Sports Medicine Institute, a branch of the University of Alabama, have motion-captured and analyzed the motions of more than 900 pitchers, with the aid of 500 frames per second cameras, and come up with the "ideal" mechanics to maximize the efficiency of delivery, and minimize the risk of injury. Gruesomely, they also work with corpses, to determine the breaking points of ligaments, etc. Says researcher Nigel Zheng, "You have to build your own equipment... There's no such company that makes the machinery. I wish there was. And it's not like you can sell your equipment to someone else." Ick.

The particular tie-in to Game Seven, is that the ASMI have concluded that Roger Clemens' motion is the baseline for good form. And that's crucial, become when a pitcher hurls the ball, the arm motion is, "the single most violent act in all of sports." For about 1/30th of a second, the arm rotates at anything up to 1,620 RPM, and that's when all the damage gets done. Such analysis and optimization may be the next big step forward in baseball. Euchner says researchers at the University of Denver have calculated a 6'3", 210 lb pitcher could theoretically throw at 135 mph: I needn't point out the impact that would have.

Even within the game itself - which I am sure I needn't bother detailing to readers of this blog - there are some insights which were new to me. Over the last half-inning, Fox's coverage contained 263 cuts, about one every 2.27 seconds: according to Euchner, that's about two to three times the rate of a typical Hollywood movie. Then there's Arizona's beautiful plan for dealing with Rivera's pitches, which cut in hard to the hitter: step back from the plate. Its elegant simplicity worked, allowing Luis Gonzalez to be the first man all year to face Rivera twice in a game. And you know the rest.

For this aspect, the interview with the players help bring the game to life. Inevitably, Mark Grace gets the best line, on going up there in the ninth, desperate to get on base, by any means necessary. "If I've got to stick my head in front of one, I will. You'll get over concussion in a month or so." Fortunately, this wasn't necessary, but it was Womack's double that really turned the game. That blow changed our chances of winning from barely one in three, to better than five in six.

As you'd imagine, after less than a decade in existence, the list of books about the D'backs isn't long. The list of good ones is even shorter: you can cross Tales From the Diamondbacks Dugout off, for a start. However, Last Nine should definitely be on every Arizona fan's shelf, simply as a document of the finest moment on franchise history. That it's actually an interesting read above and beyond that, is a pleasant bonus.

The author, Charles Euchner, will be in town later this week to promote his book and sign copies. Dates of the appearances are as follows:

Thursday March, 30, @ 7:00 pm
Barnes & Noble, Scottsdale
10500 N. 90th Street [SE corner, Shea + 101]

Saturday April 1, @ 7:00 pm
Barnes & Noble, Desert Ridge Mall
21001 N. Tatum Blvd [Tatum + 101]