Dear reader, you are going to thank me for posting this review of Jim Turvey’s Starting IX: A Franchise-by-Franchise Breakdown of Baseball’s Best Players, because I have just solved all your holiday shopping dilemmas, at least the holiday shopping dilemmas for the baseball fans in your life.
Turvey, who writes for DRB as well as several other baseball outlets, has put together a charming and informative romp through baseball history, filled with trivia, whimsical digression, and a lot of good baseball discussion.
The book’s format lends itself to all of the above. Here’s the premise: For each of the thirty major league teams, Turvey provides us with an ideal line-up — the best player at each position over the team’s history. His “Starting IX” is, in fact, really a “top XI;” he provides the top player at each position, and then adds a closer and a utility player (which in some instances includes players best known for their DH roles).
He clearly explains his ground rules: he looks at teams across franchise history (so, for example, the Montreal Expos and Washington Nationals are a single franchise). Players are chosen based on their production for a particular team, so Hideki Matsui, would not get the nod for the Rays based on his production while playing for the Yankees, just to give one example. This means that a few players are listed more than once. Adrian Beltre, to name one, was the franchise-best third baseman for the Mariners and for the Rangers.
But Turvey gives us so much more just a list of players and statistics. In his introduction, he writes that he sees his book as “the perfect mix between old-school baseball narrative-telling and new-school sabermetrics,” and I think he very much succeeds in threading this needle. His evaluation of each player draws on a range of traditional and newer statistics, but there are also nuggets of fun facts about stadiums (did you realize that the Angels play “Build Me Up, Buttercup” during their seventh-inning stretch?) and players, as well as heartfelt descriptions of the personal struggles of Darryl Strawberry and the loss of Jose Fernandez that take us beyond a list of metrics.
Each team chapter starts with some basic facts about that team with a few pages of narrative. That is followed by a deeper dive into the eleven players chosen for this hypothetical, cross-generational all-star team. Some of the player entries are brief, others quite lengthy. In some cases, Turvey takes us along as he debates which player to choose. As just one example, Turvey compares Chipper Jones (Atlanta Braves third baseman) with Eddie Matthews (whose Braves career spanned Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta) across a number of metrics and concludes that Chipper Jones was, indeed, the best third baseman in Braves franchise history.
In some cases, a player’s inclusion sends Turvey on engaging side-tangents. Larry Walker’s selection as the Colorado Rockies right fielder leads Turvey to speculate about an all-Canadian Starting IX; a Bobby Grich mention leads to a Starting IX of underrated players; Ernie Banks’ entry as the Cubs best shortstop is followed with a list of the best players never to have played in the postseason.
When my copy of the book arrived, I of course went quickly to the chapters of “my” teams — the New York Mets and Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays — but then have been delighted to work my way through the rest. Each chapter is filled with baseball treasure.
Starting IX: A Franchise-by-Franchise Breakdown of Baseball’s Best Players is available from Amazon. Kindle edition coming soon.