Baseball Books Reviewed: The Rotation: A Season with the Phillies...

The Rotation: A Season with the Phillies and One of the Greatest Pitching Staffs Ever Assembled by Jim Salisbury & Todd Zolecki. (Running Press, 255 pg., $15). HB, 2012.

No one should be surprised that baseball today reflects many of the main characteristics of our culture, but the idea bears repeating nonetheless. This connection exists even in the province of baseball literature and baseball books, and a perfect example of it can be found in The Rotation: A Season with the Phillies and One of the Greatest Pitching Staffs Ever Assembled by Jim Salisbury and Todd Zolecki; a book about a hyped-up situation that had to be started and worked on even as the situation came into being. The Rotation is hardly the first baseball book to attempt to capitalize on the latest hot topic, but it did run a greater risk than normal in wedding itself to an idea, a group of players, and a team that were not guaranteed to produce the expected result. As things turned out, the authors did have to deal with disappointment instead of triumph; their own triumph is that they still managed to produce a book not only worth reading but one which provides an important lesson for those sports fans wise enough to glean it.

The big idea behind The Rotation, of course, is that prior to the 2011 season the Philadelphia Phillies put together a starting pitching staff of all-star moundsmen that would dominate baseball and almost inevitably lead the Phillies to another World Championship. The big four in the group were Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. Joe Blanton was scheduled, as an after thought, to fill the fifth slot in the rotation. It was an impressive array of arms and pitching talent, and many a Phillies fan as well as distraught fans of other teams, assumed that this lineup of big guns would decimate the competition and reduce the rest of baseball to fighting over second-best status. But any sports fans paying attention should have known better. No matter how good a team looks on paper, they still have to go out and perform in the actual competition … against other hungry determined talented athletes who are almost certainly not ready to roll over and concede anything. Many a championship banner has been mentally raised before it has been earned. Just ask Miami Heat basketball fans about that (Eds. note: review written before the Heat won the 2011-12 championship).

The Phillies themselves certainly knew the danger they were facing, and all through the book, from the very beginning of spring training, the authors depict the principals constantly holding onto a dual mindset: positing that the only acceptable outcome of the 2011 season is a World Championship while reminding themselves that they still have to perform up to their potential in order to meet their own and the world’s expectations. The problem was, as the St. Louis Cardinals demonstrated in 2011, that sometimes it is easier to be the underdog than the favorite, to be the chaser rather than the leader. It was the Cardinals who beat the Phillies in the very first round of the baseball post-season last year. St. Louis wasn’t necessarily a better team. Chris Carpenter was simply one-run better than Roy Halladay in the Fifth and deciding Game of the series … on that particular day. Yet, the loss was devastating and seemed to invalidate everything the Phillies had accomplished during the season, which was considerable, by the way. This all-consuming disappointment which can ruin the joy of an entire season’s worth of accomplishment might be another lesson worth learning, but it is probably expecting too much to think that sports fan and the participants themselves might absorb it.

Each member of the Phillies’ newly formed quartet of greatness is introduced in one of the first four chapters of the book; and each chapter not only serves as an adroitly-drawn profile which helps the reader understand each pitcher, but it also focuses on exactly how each pitcher came to be part of the team. The authors show us much to admire about each of these outstanding pitchers –especially in the cases of down-to-earth Roy Oswalt who has not let fame and fortune change him and the intensely focused-and-driven but grateful and generous Roy Halladay– but their accounting of Cliff Lee’s path back to Philadelphia is something else. Some readers may find all the excruciating detail about the hush-hush negotiations between Lee’s agent and Phillies’ management that it took to re-acquire the free agent fascinating; other readers, like me, may be disgusted by the descriptions of the blatant greed that would cause an agent to squeeze every last nickel (the cost of hotel suites on the road) out of the employer (the Phillies ballclub) who has already committed to making the player and his family fabulously wealthy.

After the introductions (“The Fifth Starter” and “The Supporting Cast” are two additional get-to-know-the-players chapters), the rest of the book is a month by month account of the season and its highs and lows, as the rotation leads the Phillies towards the team’s post-season destiny. The flaw in the team turned out to be the offense, which for most of the first half of the season just didn’t produce enough runs. The acquisition of high energy outfielder Hunter Pence from the woeful Houston Astros on July 29 helped quite a bit but wasn’t enough to stop the Cardinals’ juggernaut in October. At times in these chapters, the constant presentation of the big four’s pitching statistics can be a little wearying, but it is tough to do a seasonal account without keeping the reader abreast of such matters; and in this case, the stats are crucial to the authors’ obligation to assess exactly how the rotation did. In order to have the reader’s full attention, in fact, the authors do their overall assessment in the chapter (“One of the Best”) right before the denouement, “October.” It’s a smart decision, as it allows the reader to fully digest how well the Phillies’ Foursome did. It seems clear in the end that the authors succeeded in the goal of the book. They show that The Rotation was about as great as everybody expected it to be, but that in 2011 that just wasn’t enough.

Reviewed by: Mike Shannon (March 9, 2012)