There is no doubt some of the best sports books ever have been about baseball. Every baseball fan has their favorites. Personally, I am fan of The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, Boys of Summer, and Ball Four.
But whereas the amount of literature is staggering and certain stories have been told, re-told, and told once again, no one had yet written about the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays – unless you count Vince Namoli’s Baseball, Business, and Beyond. But if a book is written, and no one reads it, does it count?
Esteemed baseball and business writer Jonah Keri attempts to rectify this lack of Rays literature with his new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First. Keri, who has written for Baseball Prospectus, ESPN.com, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other places, tells the tale of the rise of the Rays, from the early days of expansion to the present era.
The Extra 2% is not a typical baseball book, however. Focusing primarily on the new Rays ownership, Keri looks at the Rays history from a business perspective, using terms such as “leveraging”, “opportunity cost”, and “arbitrage”. Having been years removed from my college business course, I was a bit intimidated, but Keri’s writing style speaks to the average fan and carefully explains the business terms and makes them easily digestible. Even for an English major.
Written in chronological order, the first few chapters of the book detail the excruciatingly poor business operations of Vince Namoli. Although Namoli is given credit for battling MLB to get a team in St. Petersburg, he is vilified for each of the boneheaded blunders he makes when the Devil Rays actually start play. There are stories of failed fan interaction, mangled marketing, poor public relations, and awkward organizational management. Keri doesn’t mention what Namoli is up to currently, but given his detailed mistakes, it’s hard to see him positively contributing to any company these days.
In the early chapters, Keri also discusses the ineptitude of the Devil Rays’s baseball operations, to include former Devil Rays GM Chuck Lamar. Unlike Namoli, Lamar comes off as a sympathetic character. His quotes throughout the book do everything short of apologizing to the fans. He seems like a man who was overmatched and misplaced, and one you hope has found better employment.
As the book progresses, Keri writes about the Wall Street careers of Matt Silverman, Stuart Sternberg, and Andrew Friedman. Keri covers their successes in trading, evaluation, and decision making and their adoption of those same skills to the Rays front office. He delves deep into the background of Joe Maddon, discussing his propensity for ideas and why he was the perfect fit for the Rays. Once these characters are introduced, Keri talks about the deals, signings, and business decisions this new team had to make to transform the laughing stock of baseball into AL East contenders.
While Keri did a great job providing background and bios and making even the most astute Rays fan realize the magnitude of this Cinderella story, I do have a few critiques. First, there is no index. I know it would have been more work on the writer, editors, and other members of the Keri team, but for a book with so many characters, and one that will probably be referenced for years to come, I would have liked to see that feature.
Keri also spends too much time detailing the Devil Rays failure to draft Albert Pujols. Although there was no reason for the Devil Rays not to draft him, a writer could write volumes on missed picks and failed draft opportunities. And besides, a year later, the Devil Rays did follow the advice of a traveling scout and signed a player from an obscure backwoods area. That scout did such a great job finding the next “Babe Ruth” that both he and the player were mentioned in dozens of national publications. The scout’s name was Benny Latino and his prized find: Greg “Toe” Nash, a legendary slugger from the swamps of Louisiana who was out of professional baseball after only one year.
Despite those and a few other small critiques, The Extra 2% is an absolutely great read, not only for Rays fans, but baseball fans in general. According to his notes, Keri interviewed approximately 175 people, everyone from Joe Maddon’s mother to the Cowbell Kid to Rays front office folks to people who worked for the City of St. Petersburg. There is a lot of work evident in The Extra 2%, and it’s great to finally have all that history and those perspectives in one place instead of scattered throughout the Internet.
The Extra 2% has already often been compared to Michael Lewis’s classic Moneyball. And that is true to an extent. Both highlight unorthodox methods of franchise management, both cover a team’s attention to details neglected throughout the industry, and most importantly, both give snapshots of stories still taking place. These are not books written with the hindsight of history, such as tomes on the 1927 Yankees, the stories of the ’69 Mets, and tales of Hank Aaron’s home run chase. These are living stories, and there are, as Keri mentions, still unresolved issues for the Rays: a stadium no one likes, fans to win over, and the constant struggle against Major League Baseball’s most financially powerful juggernauts.
Jonah Keri’s book is not a book of solutions, nor is it a classic baseball story. It’s the story of the Rays, how they came to be and who they are today. Whereas fifty years ago, Roger Kahn introduced the masses outside of Brooklyn to The Duke, Pee Wee, Jackie, and Campy, Keri introduces the world to the Tampa Bay Boys of Summer: Stu, Matt, Andrew, and Joe.