Pretentious, self-absorbed book reviews, wherein the reviewer either buries or hopelessly scatters the lede amidst a flurry of arcane references and snappy quips, are singularly frustrating. Bearing that in mind, I will get right to the point and proceed from there: Jeff Passan's new book, The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports, is exceptionally good, and I recommend it to any baseball fan, old-school or new, who likes to read, think, learn, or be entertained.
Indeed, among the impressive—and marketable—qualities of The Arm is that its content holds broad appeal for readers with disparate sensibilities. Are you a contemplative baseball fan, or is it something you prefer to just sit back and enjoy? Are you a sucker for the arc of a good narrative and a peek behind the curtain of Major League Baseball's operations and player transactions? Or are you the type of fan who wants to cut through the crap and focus on the facts? Do you just want to sit down and read a good book about baseball? Regardless of your leanings, Passan's got you covered—and it bears repeating that that is no small feat.
A book about a topic as timely and as fraught as the avalanche of ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) injuries in pitchers in recent years—and the ubiquitous mad speculation as to what causes, and how to prevent, those injuries—could theoretically proceed in any number of directions, and could easily devolve into an unwieldy mess. Readers of The Arm will appreciate Passan's lucid balance between delving into technical facts and the understanding that his readership comprises mostly lay people who are accustomed to consuming their sports information in quick and easily digestible snippets. Passan gives each of these competing ends their proper due with jargon-free language and an impressive economy of words that, together, yield a compelling authorial tone and a thorough, brisk-paced exploration of the topic in all its significant complexity.
When I was offered the opportunity to review The Arm, I eagerly accepted: I couldn't (and can't) claim to be the closet reader of Passan's prior work, but I appreciated the chance to get an early take on a book that, I figured, would finally offer answers to the questions that have frustrated and devastated pitchers, teams, and fans for years: What is up with all these UCL tears? What causes them, and how can they be prevented?
I think I vaguely assumed, then, that The Arm would set out to definitively answer those questions. When I detected its scope would both include and transcend those questions, I initially didn't know what to think. Here's a note I took early on in Chapter One: "If you aren't interested in the trials and tribulations of the pitchers who undergo TJ (Tommy John) surgery, I wonder if this book will be a frustrating read."
Almost immediately after writing that note, I realized how completely misguided it was, and I wrote, "This is the book that's been begging to be written." I had neglected to consider how preposterous it is that my above-mentioned questions about the UCL even exist to the extent they do in a sport as rich as baseball and in an era as technologically profuse as ours. I hadn't stopped to consider that I had asked the wrong questions; I hadn't really considered all the various factors that have conspired to perpetuate the ignorance and the problem; and I certainly hadn't thought much about the toll it takes on pitchers and their families all around the world—from famous, millionaire professionals to amateurs barely mid-way through their teens. Fortunately, Jeff Passan did.
So as I proceeded further into the book and learned about the brutality of the surgical procedure known as "Tommy John," as I learned about the assumptions, practices, and institutions that imperil children's health across the globe, and as I found myself growing attached to and empathizing with pitchers-players I had previously known almost nothing about—making their way through the grinding, existential uncertainty of the rehabilitation process—I came to realize what a serious problem this all really is.
The Arm, as well-crafted, thoroughly researched, and timely as it is, is far more than a good book. It is an important, necessary, and long-overdue document. Jeff Passan presents the facts of what has been and what is. While the facts, once presented, speak for themselves, it was only through Passan's masterful presentation that they achieved what, together, they became: a powerful, undeniable call to action. Everyone involved in every level of baseball, from fans to parents, from players to coaches, from Little League to the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization to Major League Baseball's executive offices, must take heed and take action.
The Arm is exceptionally good. Pick up a copy and read it, baseball fans.