Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review: Dr. Z (2017)

By Paul Zimmerman

Sportswriters always liked to tell stories about Paul Zimmerman, the legendary football reporter for Sports Illustrated who was known for his fanatic and complete dedication to his job. Here's one of them, told during Super Bowl week one year, which gets the point across. If it's not true, it should be.

Zimmerman was working for the New York Post one fall Saturday, and was assigned to cover some small college game. He wanted to see a big college game that started at 4 p.m. or so on television. Zimmerman liked to chart games as they went along, and he almost physically needed to be watching the game from the start - missing a play or two was unacceptable.

Zimmerman covered the first game, and shortly before its conclusion dashed down to the field to interview the coach and a star player or two briefly. Then he got in the car, drove to a nearby hotel, and got a room on the sixth floor of a hotel - arriving at 3:55 p.m.

Zimmerman grabbed his notebook, sat down, flipped on the TV ... and saw nothing. The television wasn't working. He called the front desk. "This is Paul Zimmerman in 612. My television set is not working. If I don't get a new room in the next five minutes, I will throw the television in this room from the balcony into the swimming pool below."

He got the room, and saw the kickoff.

Zimmerman's distinct literary voice has been quieted for the past nine years. He suffered a series of strokes in 2008, and cannot read, write or speak. Yes, some things just aren't fair.

Before the stroke, Zimmerman had taken a sabbatical and was hard at work on his memoirs. There wasn't much rhyme or reason to what he got down on paper, but he figured he would get to that. Fate had other plans.

But now friend and coworker Peter King of Sports Illustrated has taken those words, and organized them a bit. He also has added some columns written by Zimmerman for Sports Illustrated, and the result is an unexpected (because of the physical problems) surprise of the season: "Dr. Z - The Lost Memoirs of an Irreverent Football Writer."

The book is broken into 14 chapters, the various parts of Zimmerman's life. By far the longest is his personal all-time team in pro football, which is great fun to read. Zimmerman liked nothing better to look at film of old games and great players, and came up with ratings. The ratings are about a decade old at this point, and it would be interesting to see what he might do with the subject now. For example, has Tom Brady replaced Joe Montana as the greatest quarterback of the modern era? (John Unitas still wins the old school division.) Montana, by the way, is the subject of a fascinating feature story by Zimmerman, reprinted here from Sports Illustrated.

Football drives the book naturally, and there are stories from the Super Bowls and quarterbacks. But the Olympics get plenty of space, as do stories about journalism. There are stories about boxing with Ernest Hemingway, and about going to Columbia with a future KGB agent. The last four chapters turn personal - they are called "Wine," "Collecting," "Authority," and "National Anthem." That last one needs an explanation - Zimmerman used to time them at sporting events and keep records. That's not surprising from a person who could tell you how many steps there were from the lobby of the Newark airport to Gate 26.

A book like that almost has to be a little disorganized, since it was a work in progress when it came to a nearly 10-year halt. But, King did a good job of putting it all together so that you'd get the idea of what Zimmerman's life and talent were like.

Fans of Zimmerman probably will think that they are doing him and his family a little favor by supporting this project with a book project, and they no doubt are. Still, "Dr. Z" stands up pretty well for long-time football fans. And if you don't remember Zimmerman's work, this will open your eyes to a unique individual.

Four stars

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: The Streak (2017)

By John Eisenberg

Baseball fans in the 1960s and 1970s knew that a handful of baseball records were about untouchable. That word could be used to describe Cy Young's win total of 511, and Rogers Hornsby's one-season batting average of .424. The game had changed a great deal since over the year by then, and no one had come close to such marks for quite a while.

Another, very different record also was in that category. Lou Gehrig played in 2,130 straight games for the New York Yankees. Few had close to half of that total for years, and it seemed improbable that anyone else could touch it. The same theory applied to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, another outlier that defies comprehension in some ways.

Here we are in 2017, then, and DiMaggio's record still stands tall. But it turns out we were really wrong about Gehrig's record. Who knew that Cal Ripken would come along?

Ripken went sailing past Gehrig in 1995, and finished with 2,632 straight games to his credit. It would be easy to say that never, ever will be touched, but maybe we know better than to deal in absolutes in such case.

Ripken and Gehrig have been linked ever since, so a book on the two of them and their streaks seems like a natural - even 22 years after they were connected. But John Eisenberg has a bigger goal in mind in his book, "The Streak." While focusing on those two famous streakers, he examines the entire concept of playing in a large number of games in a row.

It's an odd record as these things go. You have to be exceptional to set a career record for stolen bases or hits, but you just have to show up day after day in order to rate highly in this category. That's not unimportant - perfect attendance has been desirable for most since grammar school. Still, you have to be good enough to earn a regular spot in the lineup, and then stay there for several years.

Eisenburg takes this concept way, way back to the beginnings of professional baseball. He helps to bring alive those early "streakers," and recounts a few controversies that came up along the way. Record-keeping then wasn't perfect in the late 1800s, so a couple of mistakes were make that changed the numbers and the record book. Interestingly, such streaks weren't a big deal then, which is why George Pinkney and Steve Brokie weren't household names even back when they played.

Eventually, Everett Scott of the Red Sox and Yankees went flying by everyone, and then Gehrig came along. His goal was to play every day, and he succeeded for more than a decade. As Eisenberg points out, there were a few close calls along the way. Once in a great while, Gehrig did things like hit in the top of the first inning and then exit, thus keeping his streak in tact. Major League Baseball has changed its rules about such actions and streaks over the years. You now can't simply be placed in the starting lineup and then be taken out for a pinch-hitter in the top of the first and still have it count as a game played. But Gehrig's tactics do make Ripken's ledger even more impressive, in that he went seasons without missing a single inning.

Eisenberg does a fine job of talking to several people about Ripken's big moments in the streak, making the feeling come along nicely. He also gets some opinions on how Ripken and Gehrig had slightly different obstacles to overcome in order to play so long, and on why the long consecutive streak may be a thing of the past.

Admittedly, a consecutive-game streak is almost a curiosity as these things go, and that might limit the audience a bit. Eisenberg admits that it took longer that he would have liked to finish this book. A natural landing point for the effort would have been 2015, 20 years after Ripken broke Gehrig's record.

But those who dive into "The Streak" will find some definite rewards. I'm not sure how the subject could be covered any better, and it will fully satisfy the appetite of avid baseball fans out there.

Four stars

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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review: Houston to Cooperstown (2017)

By Greg Lucas

I'm not sure the Houston Astros were the most faceless team in baseball for some time, but they were in the argument.

Think about it. The team entered the National League in 1962, and struggled like most expansion teams. In those early years, most people probably thought of a stadium - the legendary Astrodome - when asked about the team. They didn't have many iconic players, and you could argue that they traded their best one (Joe Morgan) before he became famous. Houston had some memorable moments but oddly they were associated with losses. The 1980 playoff loss to Philadelphia, and the 1986 playoff loss to the New York Mets were amazing moments but ultimately unsuccessful ones.

The Astros had some very good players pass through Houston, such as Morgan and Nolan Ryan, and some good players who stayed like Larry Dierker and Jimmy Wynn. But there were great players who arrived and stayed, like Cal Ripken or George Brett.

That all changed, or at least started to change, in 1988. It is when Craig Biggio first arrived on the Astros' roster. A few years later, Jeff Bagwell followed Biggio to the big club. That was a heck of a right side of the infield for a decade. That's why Greg Lucas was smart to highlight those two in his brisk history of the Astros, "Houston to Cooperstown."

Biggio might have had one of the most unusual skill sets in baseball. No one has ever gone from catcher to second base to center field during the course of a career, and played it well. He was essentially too good an athlete and player to stay as a catcher, where the wear and tear of the position shortens careers. Bagwell was a topnotch power hitter, someone who moved from third to first at the start of his career and found a home.

The Astros still didn't receive a great deal of publicity with them around, but they popped up in the playoffs a few times with these two leading the way. Both of them piled up some big numbers. It's fun to look back and here and be reminded of just what they did. Biggio might have had the more impressive career because he was a little better in the counting stats, like 3,000 hits. Bagwell's body (the shoulder in particular) broke down toward the end, perhaps because he lifted too many heavy weights in the gym in an effort to stay strong. Both are now enshrined in Cooperstown, as Bagwell went in this year - which couldn't have hurt book sales.

Lucas, a former broadcaster for the team, covers the early years quite quickly, and lingers on the days of the two stars. Once Biggio and Bagwell are done, the author moves on to the last decade or so, which started with the arrow on the team pointing way, way down, but changed 180 degrees. Now they are one of the best teams in baseball.

If I could be allowed a bit of nit-picking, there are a couple of issues with the book - one of which has nothing to do with the publication itself. Biggio and Bagwell come off as good guys and solid citizens throughout. There's not much drama there. I could see how they'd be easy to cheer for, but their stories will leave your draw undropped. There also are some editing issues along the way, mostly in the form of the odd typo. Red Sox fans certainly will notice that Yastrzemski is misspelled twice here. Baseball readers are notoriously sensitive to such things - maybe too sensitive - but one more read by an editor might have helped.

Otherwise, "Houston to Cooperstown" reaches its goals nicely. It will bring back memories of Astros gone by for the local fans, while filling in the gaps of knowledge for the out-of-towners. I've known Greg Lucas since the late 1970s, and in my slightly biased viewpoint he's hit another line drive.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: Playing Hurt (2017)

By John Saunders with John U. Bacon

Most books by nationally-known sportscasters follow a pattern. There are entertaining tales of the early days, jumping from outlet to outlet, and then the story moves into a recounting of games and personalities encountered over the years.

"Playing Hurt" is definitely not that book.

The late John Saunders had a lot happen to him in his too-short life. He tells us about many of them in his memoir, which in spots is painful to read.

From a distance, Saunders was a rather typical success story. He first became nationally known when he landed at ESPN in the late 1980s, just when the outlet was ready to take off. Saunders did a lot of events over the years, and did them well. He wasn't a polarizing figure on the air, content to merely tell you what was going on.  There's a certain dignity in that approach that was welcome; you don't have to shout all the time to get attention.

What's more, Saunders was a black from Canada, which made him different in a professional world filled with white males. If you were a youngster of color looking for a role model, Saunders certainly could fill that role. 

That's all well and good, but there is little about that side of Saunders in the book. He starts off in dramatic fashion, telling about a trip he took in 2012 to the Tappen Zee Bridge north of New York City. Saunders pulled to the side of the road of the bridge, got out of the car, walked to the edge, and thought about jumping. Depression, it turns out, came along with Saunders throughout his life, and he had to battle the demons almost every day. It's not what you'd expect out of person with a dream job and a lovely wife and two daughters.

Saunders goes into his childhood in Canada from there, and it's not pretty. His father was abusive (physically and verbally) when he bothered to be home, which wasn't often because he was usually in Ohio. His mom usually had to raise the family of three children by herself, and she had plenty of her own problems. Saunders was sexually molested by the daughter of a friend of the family before he became a teenager, causing problems in relationships for the rest of his life. Moving around a bit probably didn't help either. Saunders developed problems with alcohol and drugs, and his relationships with women were frequently distant and brief. And depression started to turn up with frequency; it would be a lifelong passenger along with diabetes.

At that point, it's easy to wonder how Saunders turned out so well professionally. A bright spot was that he was pretty good at hockey, which got him an invitation to play for a couple of colleges. Saunders sort of stumbled into a broadcasting career, starting with a job in Espanola, Ontario - I've been there, and it's even smaller than you might think it is. From there it was on to other stops, including Toronto and Baltimore, before landing at ESPN. There were some mental health issues along the way, but apparently he made his life work.

If all of that weren't enough, and it certainly would be for most people, Saunders blacked out and hit his head at work in September 2011. That caused a serious brain injury that would need a great deal of therapy. It also led to what could be called an addiction to a strong prescription drug that was issued by a doctor for reasons only known to him; other doctors were shocked at the dosage.

The story essentially ends in 2013, when Saunders has been weaned off the prescription drug and he was feeling better. Some readers will remember that when Saunders died in 2016, not a great deal was said about the reason or reasons why. While reading the book, it's easy to wonder what might have happened and why. Thankfully, co-author John U. Bacon writes an afterword about the next three years. Saunders collapsed in a bathroom and could not be revived. Doctors said he died of a combination of an enlarged heart, complications from diabetes, and another disease that affected the regulation of breathing, blood pressure and heart rate.

"Playing Hurt" isn't a happy story, of course, and it's sad that this almost-universally liked man left us too soon. Reading the story was almost shocking, and such stories aren't going to be brought to the beach to serve as a summer diversion. Still, Saunders' hope was that a book would show others with mental health issues that they aren't alone and should reach out for help. This should do that, and more.

Five stars

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: Best Canadian Sports Writing (2017)

Edited by Stacey May Fowles and Pasha Malla

"Best Canadian Sports Writing" comes across as something of an interesting experiment.

Readers of this blog know that I'm attracted to the series of anthologies highlighting some of the best sports writing in America for the past 25-plus years. Therefore, it's easy to be interested in how the format and approach might work in Canada.

Apparently, a couple of people thought the same way. Stacey May Fowles and Pasha Malla have done a variety of articles and books over the years. The call went out for contributions, people responded with stories on all sorts of different subject, and - poof! - you've got yourself a book.

The first question, then, is: does the book work? I have rather mixed feelings about that, and not just because I'm an American reading a book about Canadian sports. Living in a border city will knock down a few of the barriers that might exist in such a situation.

The biggest difference might be that the American series relies quite a bit on some established sources for stories - Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine, for starters, plus some big-city newspapers. That's not to say those sources have been come more diversified in recent years, because clearly they have - the on-line world is touching the entire world of journalism.

There are some stories in Canada's version that were somewhat surprising to read. I should start with the good news; I liked some of the efforts.

Dan Robson's story on a youth hockey team coming south from the area around Hudson Bay was very well done. I'm not sure I've read many fishing articles in my day, as I have no familiarity with the subject, but Cathal Kelly raised the subject in a way that was appealing and informative to this novice. John Lott's profile of the Toronto Blue Jays' batting practice pitcher was well done. Kristina Rutherford's profile of hockey player Harrison Browne was nicely written. Stephen Brunt's profile of the Blue Jays' Roberto Osuna was long but worthwhile.

But there were some stories about odd subjects that just didn't draw me in. Two articles on professional wrestling might have been one too many. There are tales of sumo wrestling, street drag racing, ice climbing, and ski ballet. I try to avoid stories on the UFC when possible. The transcript of a discussion of sports journalists in color struck me as relevant, but the writing didn't require more than a stenographer. And some stories, such as the essay on why a video of the Sun's surface was sort of like the New York Knicks, could have been avoided.

There were a few opinion pieces scattered along the way, and again some worked better than others. The article on how women's soccer has a chance to break through had me nodding in agreement at times, while a story on Kobe Bryant's appeal to Muslim got points for originality - although it might be a tough sell in most publications.

In the meantime, few of the stories were particularly topical. I'm not sure if that was a deliberate decision, but it sure would have been nice to read something about someone in the mainstream.

"Best Canadian Sports Writing" might have some appeal to the adventurous reader out there. I'd like to think I can qualify for that category, but it's a little over the line for me some of the time. Let's hope this became an annual effort, though, and perhaps the batting average will get better.

Three stars

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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Review: Ahead of the Curve (2016)

By Brian Kenny

If you are a baseball fan, you may have noticed that a statistical revolution has been taking place over the last couple of decades. We've come up with all sorts of new ways of more accurately measuring performance on the diamond, but it all can be a little confusing - maybe a lot confusing in some cases - to those who haven't been paying attention.

Television host Brian Kenny takes a look at the revolution in his book, "Ahead of the Curve," taking some of those advances principles and applying them to the present and the past. That's not a bad idea at all, although what he writes about may strike you as more pleasing as how he writes about it.

Some of the numbers that are kept in baseball have been with us for well over a century - batting average, pitching wins, fielding percentage, and so on. We have come to believe that a .300 hitter in baseball is a good hitter, and that a 20-game winner on the mound is a great pitcher. But there are obviously problems with those numbers. Batting average doesn't account for walks and power, which makes it less effective than on-base percentage and slugging percentage (now combined into one number by many called OPS) in making those judgments. Pitching wins have an obvious bias toward good teams (the more games you win ...) and offensive support. Sometimes a pitcher gets eight runs scored for him every time he takes the mound, and suddenly he has a 14-2 record. Earned-run average is a better tool to judge pitchers, although that has its drawbacks too.

It's rather remarkable how much information is now available to baseball teams, and they are busy coming up with more of it. Every major league franchise has an office full of bright people who are looking for an edge. Sometimes they find one. If you saw or read "Moneyball," you realize how on-base percentage was overlooked for sometime, giving the Oakland Athletics an edge. The Pirates jumped on board the concepts of defensive shifts and pitch framing early, which helped their rise from sub-mediocrity.

Kenny goes through a variety of topics here along those lines. He thinks the save isn't really a good barometer of relief pitching, and that teams are on their way to changing their use of pitchers so that more hurlers appear regularly in a game for a shorter length of time. If you watched the Indians last year work their way to the World Series, you realize that he may be right. Kenny throws in a look at MVP selections over time and who should have been taken in a given year. That might not be fair in spots, since sports writers didn't have today's tools, but it's a fun exercise. That includes the 1941 American League debate, which pitted Joe DiMaggio and his 56-game winning streak against Ted Williams and his .406 average. Kenny eventually goes with DiMaggio, who did win it at the time, but wavers along the way.

This is all fine, and if you are looking for a course in such matters, you'll be well-served in that sense. But I found myself coming back to the question, did I like reading this? That's a tougher one.

I remember Kenny from his days at ESPN. I don't see him on the air now because he's on the MLB Network, which isn't on my cable package. Kenny comes across in the book as really sure of himself, as if anyone who disagrees with him isn't worth his time. Some of the reviews on amazon.com indicate that he's like that on the air too.

I always like to say that if I'm going to read a book about something, I want to enjoy the author's company along the way. I found myself getting tired of baseball people and reporters being insulted here. I would have preferred to have been given the facts, which are on Kenny's side, and gone on from there. I know, though, that television these days prefers loud to reasonable.

"Ahead of the Curve" accomplishes its goal, and I can understand why many readers have liked it. Maybe they'll now understand I'm a little less enthusiastic about it.

Three stars

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Monday, June 12, 2017

Review: Hockey Towns (2015)

By Ron MacLean with Kirstie McLellan Day

Ron MacLean, best known north of the border for his hosting work on Hockey Night in Canada, apparently has become something of an author in his spare time.

His first book was something of an autobiography, "Cornered," which was a rather entertaining look at his career and his encounters with interesting people along the way.

In 2015, MacLean came back with "Hockey Towns." My guess, and it's only a guess, that MacLean probably was even more comfortable with the approach this time around. Here he pretty much stays out of the picture, and tells stories about some people in hockey across Canada.

CBC has traveled across the country over the years to look at the relationship of Canada and its national pastime. The hockey community really is closely knit up there. While the format salutes a variety of locations crossing this giant nation, MacLean and Kirstie McLellan Day stick to other people here.

Some of the best stories here answer the question "Whatever happened to ...?" There are a variety of NHL players who pass through our lives as fans, sometimes not stopping long enough in one place for us to get to know them. There's Trent McCleary, who almost died after blocking a shot but recovered enough to give the sport one last shot. Steve Bozek scratched out 12 years in the NHL, a few more than even he hoped for. Brad Dalgarno's career didn't work out the way he hoped, but he did get to play guitar on stage with Garth Brooks.

There are tales about names you know. Doug Wickenheiser was a No. 1 overall draft choice who drew comparisons to Wayne Gretzky, but that's a rather high bar to reach - particularly when you get hit by a car that wrecks your knee along the way. Speaking of Gretzky, you'll love a story about a childhood friend signed him to a "book contract" - in high school. There are also tales about some of the other people in hockey - officials and administrators and a broadcaster and parents, including the remarkable story of the father of Zenon Konopka.

Does it all work? Not completely. A few of the stories aren't that interesting to an outsider. Some of the tales don't have happy endings, if you are looking for such work. And in a few cases, such as the subchapter on Eric Lindros, more information would have been nice.

While MacLean does write introductions to the chapters, he doesn't seem to have too much involvement with most of the stories themselves. Based on the credits, it seems like the two names on the cover had plenty of help putting this together. That puts a little distance between the authors and their stories in some cases, and a more personal touch might have worked better.

Put it all together, and "Hockey Towns" is a pleasant enough read for hockey fans. I wouldn't go much farther than that, though.

Three stars

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