Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: Lasting Impact (2016)

By Kostya Kennedy

Kostya Kennedy absolutely nails the key issue about concussions in football in his book, "Lasting Impact."

At the end, he writes, "The notion of football as a sport overwhelmingly played by the have-notes and consumed by the haves is not an easy notion to bear. Something will be deeply lost."

We all have read the stories about retired pro football players who are suffering from brain injuries later in life. Gale Sayers, the Hall of Fame running back, just added his name to the list recently. Are we headed to a time when the only people who will take the risk of playing football are those with the least to lose? In other words, is football going down a path that was pioneered by boxing? Because in terms of general interest, that has turned into a road to something approaching irrelevance.

We don't know yet. But Kennedy headed to high school in 2014 to see what the football landscape looked like at that level. He found a sport with plenty of positives going for it, but with the concussion lurking nearby like a thunderstorm in the distance.

He did it by spending time with the New Rochelle football team, located north of New York City. New Rochelle is a good-sized suburb with a mix of demographics roaming its school hallways.  The Huguenauts have had good success over the years, usually fielding winning teams thanks to a veteran coach who worries about X's and O's some of the time and his players' personal problems at others.

There are profiles of the coaches, administrators and players, naturally. Lou DiRienzo, the coach of the team, comes off pretty well. High school head coaches receive a little more exposure to real-world problems than those higher up the food chain in college and the pros; those guiding such teams are a little more isolated from the players on an everyday basis.

Every so often, Kennedy has to shift his focus to the real world - for example, the death of two high school football player relatively close to New Rochelle. And that doesn't include concussions that seem to be something close to a weekly occurrence in football these days.

Just to add an unexpected twist to the story, who enters the scene but Ray Rice - just after he was released by his NFL team after a video was released showing him striking his future wife in an elevator. Rice played for New Rochelle, and returned to his high school during the season in the middle of the controversy surrounding the situation and his fate in it. 

New Rochelle at least came through for Kennedy with a good season. But the author wisely doesn't get bogged down in too many details of a year that is in the past and won't be that interesting to most readers - even though it's easy to root for some of the people involved. Kennedy is more interested in focusing on how high school football can supply support, discipline, and bonding for kids. It does that in many cases, but it also leaves kids on the sidelines with headaches - and who knows what's ahead for them?

Kennedy wrote a pair of terrific books on Joe DiMaggio's streak and Pete Rose. This book isn't quite so obviously compelling because of the less-famous subject matter, but the author's smarts still come through nicely here.

By the end of "Lasting Impact," Kennedy still isn't sure whether he'd let a son of his play high school football. He writes that he had no agenda going in, and still didn't have one going out. Kennedy can see arguments on both sides.The romantic side of high school football is still appealing, but the risks of playing become more real all the time. It's tough to know what the right answer is in every case.

Four stars

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Once There Were Giants (2017)

By Jerry Izenberg

Quick - name someone who is one of the heavyweight boxing champions of the world.

Me neither.

Somewhere along the line, heavyweight boxers stopped mattering. Maybe it's because most of the potential good ones are playing linebacker somewhere. Maybe it's because we became tired of the financial shenanigans in which the people not doing the work took money from the people doing the work - which has been going on since forever.

Maybe it's because the people running Ultimate Fighting and Mixed Martial Arts know more about marketing, especially in a world where they control the entire business. Maybe it's because people figured out there are easier ways to climb out of poverty.

Maybe it's a combination of all of the above.

In any case, it wasn't always like this. Once upon a time, the heavyweight champion was a major celebrity who was considered the toughest man on the planet. Come to think of it, it wasn't that long ago where that was the case - only a quarter of a century, a blink as these things go.

Veteran sportswriter Jerry Izenberg was around for the glory days of the heavyweight division. He apparently was at most of the big fights, and knew the champs and contenders personally. Izenberg empties out the memory book with "Once There Were Giants."

The author warms up for the assignment with a chapter on the history of the relationship between boxing and organized crime. The connection goes back to the start of the 20th century, according to Izenberg, but grew in importance in the 1930s and may have peaked in the 1950s. Fixing the results certainly happened, but the easiest way to influence the sport was through shady deals in management and curious matchmaking. In other words, connections were more important than victories in getting a title shot.

The last of the heavyweight champions to have obvious mob connections was Sonny Liston in the early 1960s. It speaks volumes that some people thought the heavyweight title dropped in class when it went from Liston to Muhammad Ali, who announced he had joined the Black Muslims right after beating Liston. Everyone seemed to be afraid of that group, even the syndicate.

The roll call of champions from there is pretty impressive. It includes Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, and Mike Tyson. Even the contenders and the brief champions were at least interesting - Ken Norton, Leon Spinks, Earnie Shavers, Ron Lyle, etc. Once Tyson's career blew up, partly because of self-inflicted wounds, things haven't been the same. Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis haven't faced enough quality opponents for them to qualify as anything close to all-time greats.

Izenberg has plenty of good stories about the greats and near-greats. For example, the author writes that Frazier was something of a one-trick pony for most of his career in the form of a great left hook. However, Frazier had a surprise for Ali in their legendary third fight. He had been discreetly working on developing a punch with his right hand. Frazier shocked Ali with that new skill, and it turned the fight into a classic.

There's some good material here. Izenberg knows his boxing, and his version of events generally feel authentic. He also has some funny lines along the way, and that does wonders for making the story more fun.

On the minus side, this is a mighty quick read - and would have been even quicker without the tales of organized crime that don't feel like it's a good fit with the story. Izenberg also could have used a little more cleaning in his editing. A few facts and incidents get repeated along the way.

"Once There Were Giants" comes across as an entertaining enough package - maybe not a book you'll save forever, but enjoyable along the way. I'm in the sweet spot for the target audience, naturally. The catch comes for those who are too young to remember the principals here. They probably won't be interested enough to pick this up in the first place. But their dads might.

Four stars

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Monday, February 27, 2017

Review: One Nation Under Baseball (2017)

By John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro

Now, here's an interesting subject.

You have have heard that America sort of blew up in the 1960s in any number of ways. All sorts of changes came to the country, and they were packed into the decade. It was hard to keep up with the way the rules seemed to change by the hour.

In contract, the game of baseball remained relatively unchanged. People who had come from 1895 in a time machine still would have recognized it in 1965 - nine innings, three outs, and so on.

For some, that was good. They could go to the ballpark and see decades of tradition on display. Heck, most of the players weren't allowed to wear long hair, so every day was turn back the clock day in that sense.

But there were all sorts of changes taking place in the game, even if they might have been relatively subtle. Looking at the decade in that sense is the premise of "One Nation Under Baseball."

After an excellent introduction by Bob Costas about how important and interesting those changes were, authors John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro jump right into a fascinating anecdote from pitcher Jim Grant. He was in Detroit in 1960 on a road trip when he got a call from aides of Senator John F. Kennedy, telling him that the Presidential nominee wanted to have breakfast with him the next morning. It took some convincing, but Grant did make it down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. The two men had a frank conversation about civil rights, and Grant was impressed that Kennedy bothered to seek him out.

And away we go through the 1960s, covering a variety of topics and presenting some stories. Some are familiar, but several are pretty fresh because of interviews done just for the book - even from the perspective of about 50 years later. That helps make it at least interesting.

Even so, this bogs down a bit in relatively short order. The baseball stories will at least interest those picking it up, but the book goes in a variety of other directions. Before we know it, we're reading about a New York City newspaper strike, or the Beatles, or Muhammad Ali, or New York major John Lindsay. In addition, some times the stories don't match the overall theme of changes in society changing baseball. There's a portion of the book on the 1969 New York Mets, who pulled off one of the great surprises in baseball history by coming from nowhere to win a World Series. Forests have been sacrificed to tell that story, but it doesn't seem like a particularly good fit in this book. Denny McLain's 31-win season gets a look here, but it's hard to figure out where that fits in with the narrative. At least we can guess why he never came close to repeating that big season (arm issues were bothering him by the end of 1968).

What's more, I'm not sure all of the anecdotes go anywhere. We see how the road to free agency started, and how the sport became more color-blind, but there isn't much analysis given along the way. I would guess that most people picking this up might not want to read a sociologist's view of baseball, but this went a little too far in the other direction. Even a final chapter summing up what had happened would have been good.

The bibliography here is very impressive, and it's almost surprising that the authors got this down to only 200 or so pages of text. "One Nation Under Baseball" will at least interest those who want to learn more about the Sixties, but they might be disappointed that there's not more to the story.

(Footnote: I found out after writing this that Shapiro was one of the interviewed people in the fine HBO documentary on the Boston Red Sox of 2003 - revised after 2004.)

Three stars

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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2017

Edited by Aaron Gleeman and Bret Sayre

I've been reading and reviewing the Baseball Prospectus for more years than I can remember. That means I might be running out of things to say.

The constant is that I really wouldn't want to start following the baseball season without reading what the experts at BP have to say.

The 2017 edition is out, and as usual it's full of worthwhile information. This year's book checks in at 576 pages. That's an enormous project to finish in an offseason, considering how much information is included. It takes a big, talented staff to turn that around, and BP obviously has that.

The format follows the usual pattern. Each team gets an essay - usually different from what you might read elsewhere, but generally an interesting take. Then comes a description of player after player after player. I guess they always miss a few players who had an impact on the season to come, but very few. The basic statistics are there along with some other "new age" numbers. If you are new to the book, it will take a little time to TAv and WARP, but not long. Those new readers also should know that the stats don't go back very far (2014/2015/2016). I saw a comment on amazon.com complaining about that, but it's not a record book designed for that purpose. This year's book adds some fancy stats for catchers. It's nice information to have if you study such stuff. Finally, there are a few essays in the back on general baseball topics, plus a ranking of the top 101 prospects in the game.

The writing is good and sometimes quite funny and fresh. It certainly feels like the player comments are a little more upbeat now than they used to be. Few players are out and out trashed, and the guys who have a chance to hang around a major league roster seem to get a little more respect than in past years. The authors seem to know what they are talking about; many wind up in the front offices of major league organizations. The book has started to print each team's BP alumni.

Again, I tend to stick to the major league players when reading it at this time of the year, and then refer to it during the season. Otherwise, I might be reading straight through until May. If my favorite teams make a trade, especially involving some prospects, I go straight to it for reference. Sometimes I'll even grab it while watching a game, especially if unfamiliar teams are playing. It increases my interest.

I'm not sure how many ways I can say "if you are a big baseball fan, you should be buying this." But it is true. I might not bother to say it next year, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.

Five stars

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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Review: Macho Row (2017)

By William C. Kashatus

The 1993 Philadelphia Phillies were one of the great "fluke" teams in recent baseball history.

If you look at the team's all-time record, year by year, you'll get the idea. The '93 team won 97 games to capture the National League East title. Philadelphia hadn't had a winning record since 1986, when it finished about 20 games behind the New York Mets in the division. The team didn't have a winning record again until 2001, when it won 86 games again.

That's part of the reason why that Phillies team was so popular, and remains so in to this day. It was all so unexpected. Another part of the reason. is that the squad had some good-sized characters. They were loud, brash, profane and fun-loving, and they all sat together in the home locker room.

That part of the room became known as "Macho Row," giving us the title for William C. Kashatus' book on that team. There were six occupants of that part of the room - Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk, Mitch Williams, Dave Hollins and Pete Incaviglia. They set the tone for the team, that took advantage of an opening at the top of the division.

Those on "Macho Row" get special treatment in this book. The six get their own chapters, and their exploits are fully covered on and off the field - sometimes in rather raw terms. (I'm not sure the kids will want to read about a baseball team from 24 years ago anyway.) Dykstra was the catalyst of the offense, Daulton was the power-hitting catcher, Kruk was the pure-hitting first baseman, Williams was the erratic relief pitcher, and Hollins and Incaviglia were good-sized pieces in the lineup.

Some of the boys on Macho Row might have had another connection: Performance Enhancing Drug (PED) use. Dykstra certainly bulked up in an attempt to improve his performance, and some of the others are at least under suspicion.  There was no testing done on PED use back then, so it falls under the category of possibly unethical rather than illegal behavior.

But other members of the team and organization are covered as well, if less thoroughly. Special attention goes to Curt Schilling, who became the ace of the staff with a 16-7 record in a breakthrough year. He was won of five starters who won at least 10 games, which is impressive. Schilling's personality made some waves along the way, but the man could pitch.

Kashatus certainly did his research. He talked some members of that Phillies' organization, and went through all sorts of newspapers, books and magazines. Once the stage is set by introducing the characters, the author goes through the season month by month. It's a little difficult to make the year interesting in hindsight on a game-by-game basis. There wasn't much drama, as the Phillies got off to a good start and more or less stayed in first place for much of the season. The Expos put on a challenging burst for a while, but fell short. Then the tale moves into the playoffs, and such games are always memorable to fans.

Speaking of fans, Kashatus qualifies as one such person when it comes to the Phillies, and that's a drawback here. One odd moment comes when the playoff series with Atlanta comes up. After discussing the Braves' alleged arrogance because of their run of success, the author writes, "It was that same arrogance coupled with the belief that the Braves could dispatch the Phillies in four straight games that resulted in Atlanta's downfall." That doesn't really ring true, and doesn't give Philadelphia enough credit.

Then Toronto, the World Series opponent, is described as "the best Major League baseball team that money could buy." Kashatus paints the Series as a battle between the free-spending Jays and the frugal Phillies. Philadelphia didn't have a big payroll in 1993, but that probably was due to a lack of success in the preceding years that led to poor attendance and small revenues. It's tough to call Philadelphia a small-market team.

Along those lines, Philadelphia is cited as the original model for Billy Beane's "Moneyball" philosophy with the Oakland A's. There's about an eight-year gap between those teams, and the analogy seems to be a bit of a stretch.

Meanwhile, one of the themes of the book is how the Phillies followed the sport's unwritten code in terms of behavior. That includes such actions as sticking up for teammates, whether it be throwing at opponents when the situation calls for it to not airing dirty laundry in the media. That part of the book feels a little forced too.

Still, I can see how lifetime Phillies fans cherish some of the memories of the '93 teams. The year provided a season of head-shaking joy, in spite of the abrupt ending in the form of Joe Carter's walk-off homer in the World Series. Those fans are the obvious target audience for "Macho Row," and they will find some rewards here.

Three stars

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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Review: Boy on Ice (2014)

By John Branch

"Boy on Ice" is not a typical biography.

For one thing, it's a fairly long book (327 pages plus notes) on a fairly short life (less than 30 years). For another, there's no happy ending; if anything, the final chapter still will be written down the road, even a few years after publication.

Yet the story of Derek Boogaard remains quite interesting in an odd sort of way, and with a little luck it is educational as well.

Boogaard was, in some ways, an unlikely figure to be a professional athlete. He grew up in Western Canada and played hockey, like every other boy, but he wasn't too good. Boogaard showed few signs that he'd grow into a relatively famous player.

But he did have one advantage on the ladder - size. Boogaard was always really big for his age. That meant he could be an enforcer in the game of hockey. Boogaard eventually grew into a body that was 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds.

The idea behind enforcers is that they try to protect the best players on their teams, try to stop opponents from taking liberties. That happens at times, but they also are asked to fight one of the opponents' big guys for one reason or another. Enforcers in that sense often play less than five minutes a game, leaving a thought of "what's the point?" to some.

Take it from a guy who wrote a book with such a player - if there's a path to the NHL, some people will take it. They have to make a decision to become a fighter. There are rewards and there are downsides. Derek didn't even like fighting, but it was a means to an end.

In the case of Boogaard, he was always big and willing, but it took a while for him to get good at it. Eventually, though, he became one of the toughest guys in the National Hockey League. You can argue about whether he was the toughest, but ultimately it doesn't matter. He was in the argument. Derek also was on the shy side, but he was great in the community and became popular with fans.

Enforcers make a deal when they fill that role - they will pay a price. It usually involves pain. Boogaard suffered a variety of injuries during the way, and it led to a lot of pain. Boogaard needed more and more pills to cope with it. He got those pills from team doctors in some cases, and from the street in others. Either way, Boogaard turned his body into a pharmacy. He died of a combination of alcohol and painkillers in 2011.

Branch received complete cooperation from the Boogaard family on telling the story. His father, a policeman by trade, is still trying to put all the pieces together and call attention to the issue. As a result, the book has all sorts of details about the life Derek was leading near the end. Records from banks, credit cards and cell phones help tell the story. But one part of the puzzle wasn't visible until after his death - Boogaard had CTE, brain damage. Researchers were shocked that someone in his 20s had so much damage, perhaps due to a series of concussions suffered in hockey.

How did this happen? That's still being sorted out. There were a lot of enablers along the way, and their stories wind through the courts. Even though we've learned a lot about concussions over the years, it's tough to know how far to move the line in contact sports in order to prevent them. Boogaard's father says Americans are more interested in solving the problem than Canadians, since Canada considers hockey a "sacred cow."

Branch's original series of newspaper articles for the New York Times won awards, and it's expanded into book form here. The story might have been better with about 50 pages removed in order to have more impact. But once Boogaard starts downhill - and you know where it's headed - it's impossible to look away. 

Stories about addiction - whether it's Eric Clapton or Dwight Gooden - generally aren't a whole lot of fun to read. Certainly, though, "Boy on Ice" serves as a fine case study for this type of situation in hockey. It's a story that cries out to teach some lessons to the rest of us, if only we could figure out what they are.

Four stars

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review: Sports Business Unplugged (2016)

By Rick Burton and Norm O'Reilly

There are some people out there that don't want to hear anything about the business side of sports. They are sick of contracts, agents, sponsorships, international relationships, and so on down the list.

"Sports Business Unplugged" is not for them.

The story behind this book requires a little explanation. SportsBusiness Journal is the trade newspaper/magazine of the sports business. It's been around for a quarter of a century or so. I remember seeing it around the office when I worked in professional sports back then. Not every article is going to interest every reader, but that's fine - something will get your attention. Since it's written for organizations in the business (and they buy most of the subscriptions), it's tough for the average fan to justify the cost.

Along the way, SportsBusiness Journal picked up a couple of columnists. Rick Burton is a professor at Syracuse University, while Norm O'Reilly works in the same job at Ohio University. They have teamed up for a column in the publication for the past several years. "Sports Business Unplugged" is a collection of their greatest hits.

The book is broken into four different sections. There's marketing and sponsorship, followed by the Olympics, Canada and the world, and improving the world of sports. I suppose the surprise there is how much is written about Canada by a couple of American experts, but the issues raised are still valid.

And that's the most important of this. Burton and O'Reilly do a good job of discussing situations in sports that might get overlooked otherwise. What is the relationship between sports and young people? Are there better ways to conduct the bidding process for cities who want to host the Olympic Games? What do the Olympics do for a city, anyway? Are sports paying enough attention to morals and ethics? What will sports look like in a couple of decades? Sometimes the authors don't have the answers, but they are opening the right questions for discussions.

One warning here: This is not for beginners. Some background in the business of sports is necessary, and even that may not get you through some of the references. But you'll get the idea.

Full disclosure: Burton was on our school newspaper staff when I was at Syracuse. The kid's done pretty well for himself, I'd say. So there's no rating here - just a note that it's nice to see an old friend advance the discussion so well.

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