The Book of Joe: Trying Not to Suck at Baseball and Life

Image of The Book of Joe: Trying Not to Suck at Baseball and Life
Release Date: 
November 1, 2022
Reviewed by: 

“if you love baseball, this interesting book will serve to enhance that love.”

Joe Maddon has spent 34 years of his life in baseball, 15 years in nearly every capacity in the minor leagues, and 19 years as a manager in the major leagues. He was highly successful in Tampa Bay with the Rays, Chicago with the Cubs, and, less so, in Los Angeles with the Angels.

In a sense, he is a typical “baseball lifer” who lives and breathes the game, but Joe Maddon is regarded by many as an eccentric. His managerial techniques were often greeted with ridicule. His interests go beyond the diamond, with art, literature, and classic cars among his passions.

Nor is he defined or confined by baseball’s conventional wisdom. He values information but refuses to be restricted by it. For Maddon, the “gut” is as valuable as the algorithms and the spray charts of baseball analytics.

Tom Verducci, the co-author, is a three-time National Sportswriter of the Year and the lead baseball writer for Sports Illustrated. He is an author, a reporter, and a commentator for the MLB Network and Fox Sports. The quality of his television work has been recognized with five Emmy Awards, and he is a member of the National Sports Media Association Hall of Fame.

The joint authors of The Book of Joe offer two clear and distinct voices. Verducci’s voice is more analytical and, for the most part, detached. Maddon’s voice is more visceral and, at times, combative. They both can be lyrical. Maddon loves the aphorisms and other ear-catching quotes that he has picked up from a variety of sources, many quite unexpected and unusual. These are the 21 chapter titles of the book.

Verducci develops interesting introductions to many of these chapters while providing historical context for some of those issues about which Maddon is passionate. They complement one another very nicely and their contributions to the whole are woven together nearly seamlessly. This is a collaboration that works.

The book does not follow any clear chronology and moves back and forth through Joe Maddon’s life and career. The connecting tissue is provided by the principles that guide Maddon, which he derives from a number of sources: his parents; the values he learns in his hometown of Hazleton, Pennsylvania; a number of baseball influences; his reading; his interest in art; and some surprising sources he encounters in a variety of circumstances.

He distils these down to slogans and aphorisms that not only provide chapter titles for this book but become guiding principles for his players and teams. Many were printed on T-shirts worn by his teams or on signs in the clubhouse, for example: “Tell Me What You Think, Not What You’ve Heard” and “Don’t Ever Permit the Pressure to Exceed the Pleasure.”

Leadership and managerial style are one of the major themes that run through Maddon’s life. His guiding principles are many, but central among them is communication which, if honest, builds trust. He contrasts this with the older style of fear and intimidation practiced by coaches and managers. It is interesting that many of those in baseball that he admires and were his mentors practiced the old style. Along with “communication,” Maddon places a very high value on building relationships and exchanging ideas, both of which build trust.

Among those in baseball who were strong influences on Maddon were Joe Torre, Don Zimmer, and Gene Mauch. Of these Mauch was the most important. Maddon considers Mauch to be a baseball genius and describes him as a devotee of the “spiritual life,” meaning, in baseball terms, winning by any means necessary. This is followed by a discussion of several examples of sign stealing in baseball. This should be instructive for those who can’t forgive the Houston Astros for the sign stealing in 2017 and 2018.

Another major influence was Ken Ravizza, a pioneer in the emerging field of sports psychology. Ravizza was a professor in the Kinesiology Department at Cal. State Fullerton. Maddon was a minor league coach at the time they met at spring training where Ravizza was working with minor league hitters. No one affected Maddon’s view of the mental side of the game more than Ravizza, who emphasized being in the moment and fearlessness.

Maddon gives much attention to the relationships between the general manager and manager, the owner and the manager, and the owner and general manager. These relationships, of course, cut across one another, and, for Maddon, they are not only a key to producing a great team but an area that has seen a great deal of change in the past two or three decades. In one section, Verducci examines these relations over the course of the history of baseball.

Within the discussion of these key relationships, Maddon and Verducci examine the flash point of analytics and the role they should and do play in contemporary baseball. In Maddon’s career, these key developments occurred in his time as manager. Chapters 15 and 20 both offer detailed discussions of Maddon’s struggle with advocates of analytics in Tampa, Chicago, and Los Angeles. He emphasizes that he believes in analytics and the need for information, and he depends on them in managerial decisions.

At the same time, Maddon is firm in his belief that in-game decisions must be guided by much more, specifically by the “gut,” which involves a reading of the immediate circumstances and the manager’s baseball experience. Both Andrew Friedman and Theo Epstein, the General Managers in Tampa and Chicago, respectively, are central figures in this argument with Maddon.

For those who recall Game Seven of the 2016 World Series, Maddon offers a moment-by-moment analysis of his critical decisions late in the game. He uses this example to explore the relationship between “gut” and “information,” looking at both success and failure as well as what could be described as luck. The focus is on pitching changes and bullpen management, subjects that get much attention throughout the book.

There, of course, is much more across the 21 chapters. In the end, The Book of Joe is a very thorough examination of Joe Maddon the manager and Joe Maddon the person. There is more than enough here to occupy the baseball junkie in this or other off-seasons until pitchers and catchers report for spring training.

Some may dispute Joe Maddon’s version of events, and some may quibble with Tom Verducci’s history and some of the analogies he uses. No doubt baseball historians and SABR members will find things about which to complain. But in the end, if you love baseball, this interesting book will serve to enhance that love.