Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Reviewing "Baseball in Long Beach"; mainly the Dirtbag parts.

The Summer Leagues have been over for several weeks now, so apart from the occasional scrimmage or two (Dirtbags vs. Trojans on November 23!) we're about to enter the most dead part of the baseball year. Thankfully, Long Beach Register's Bob Keisser's new book Baseball in Long Beach was released just in time to help fend off any offseason withdrawals.

As pretty plainly expressed in the title, the book is an anthology of sorts of baseball in the 562, ranging from biographies of Long Beach-natives that went on to become baseball icons, to the history of college and prep baseball in the city. The book starts out modestly, giving due notice to the reverence the city's baseball community had for Press-Telegram sports editor Frank T. Blair, and the role Blair played in pushing for a ballpark that would serve as the city's baseball epicenter. Keisser quickly shifts gears, however, and covers the lives of favorite sons turned Hall-of-Famers like Bob Lemon and Tony Gwynn.

While these chapters are probably obligatory, many die-hard baseball fans, and certainly Long Beach fans, are already to some degree familiar with several of the stories referenced. The bios, however, serve as nice segues into the stories of lesser-known natives Bobby Grich and Vern Stephens, two should-be Hall-of-Famers who are profiled in the curiously titled chapters “Moneyball” and “Moneyball, Part II”. It's an interesting look if for no other reason than both Grich and Stephens's outstanding big league careers seem to have fallen under the radar as history has passed. Keisser examines how the advancement of sabermetrics have created a swell of Hall-of-Fame support for the previously dormant cases of Grich and Stephens. Though Keisser's use of advanced statistics creates a compelling case for both players, the overabundance of statistics referenced (advanced and traditional) occasionally causes the stories behind the players themselves to get lost.

Eventually, Keisser focuses Baseball in Long Beach on baseball in Long Beach, digging deeply into the the rich history of the area's several high schools. Covering high school baseball history for one specific city might seem like an awfully niche subject, particularly if the reader is a non-Long Beach native like myself, but one can't help but be impressed with the sheer volume of baseball talent that the area has produced, and Keisser allows no one of significance to slip through the cracks. Moreover, the overview Keisser gives serves as a nice foundation and backstory to the real heart of the book (as least as far as I'm concerned), the history of Long Beach State baseball and the rise of the Dirtbags.

In clearly laying out the history of the region's prep and Junior College baseball programs, Keisser sets up the telling of how a hastily assembled group of players on a perennial loser of a school managed to use it's lack of funding and facilities as a motivating force. You know the story of the mud-caked uniforms that became the then-49ers' signature look, but the book also focuses on other Omaha-bound LBSU teams, including the '93 squad which became the first to call Blair Field home, only to struggle out of the gate. One interesting anecdote referenced involved Coach Dave Snow holding “practice” on the track, rather than the baseball field, and running his team (the first ever to officially be known as the Dirtbags) after a disappointing weekend series. As Keisser puts it, in words that seem all too relevant today: “[the message] was clear – you didn't become a Dirtbag just by being on the team, and the coach was willing to do whatever it took to get that point across.”

There's a chapter dedicated to some of Long Beach State's biggest names in the major leagues, though Evan Longoria has noticeably little coverage. The portion on Troy Tulowitzski, inparticular, is intriguing, as it's obvious Tulo's passion for what it means to be a Dirtbag still plays a heavy role it the all-star shortstop's approach to the game.

Keisser's telling is truly comprehensive, as he goes on to cover the stellar career of long time big league scout Harry Minor; the Jeff Buroughs-lead Little League World Series teams of the '90's; several championship clubs from amateur leagues such as PONY and American Legion; and he provides anecdotes about the California Winter League, the old Pacific Coast League, and the multiple failed attempts at an independent league team in Long Beach (no mention of the American West Baseball League's proposed Long Beach Splash, who apparently folded this past summer before games were ever played).

Keisser's book is well worth a read, particularly if you're suffering from the offseason blues, and those with at least a passing familiarity of the region's baseball prowess should appreciate the thoroughness of Keisser's coverage. Bringing this back to the Dirtbags, I'll close with an excerpt on Long Beach State's status in the post-Snow era, as the Dirtbags enter 2014 still trying to find their previous glory:

“What's mostly been lost is that thing Snow always sought – players who buy in 100 percent to the type of play and discipline he wanted. There's been a lot of players excited to be a Dirtbag but very few with the discipline and commitment to play like one.”