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.

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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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Review: A Guy Like Me (2016)

By John Scott with Brian Cazeneuve

One of the big lessons of 2016 is that free elections can have interesting and unexpected consequences.

I was thinking about the voting for the NHL All-Star Game, of course. Did you have anything else in mind when you read that?

The center of attention in this case is John Scott, a veteran enforcer who found himself in the spotlight last year. There's little doubt it's the reason he wrote this autobiography, "A Guy Like Me."

Scott was playing for the Arizona Coyotes a little more than a year ago when an unofficial campaign got underway, probably viral in nature, to get Scott into the All-Star Game. His vote total kept going up and up until he was in position to win a spot in the starting lineup.

The situation was a little awkward, and the NHL didn't help matters with its clumsy response. League officials tried to get Scott to reject the invitation if he actually won, which he didn't do. Then an NHL official tried to tell Scott it was bad for the league for him to play in the game, which made him more determined than ever to play. The capper was when Scott was traded to Montreal and immediately sent to the minors under shadowy circumstances. Could a minor leaguer even play in an NHL All-Star Game?

Scott did go to the game (there was no rule against it), had a couple of goals, and was named the Most Valuable Player. Everyone who tried to get serious about a cute little exhibition game in which no one hits or plays defense came off badly, while Scott was embraced. It's almost a movie plot, and Scott says author Mitch Albom is working on it.

The veteran's version of those events certainly is the highlight of the book, issued quickly enough to still attract the interest of hockey fans. As for the rest of the story, it's relatively standard stuff - although Scott is far from a typical hockey player in some ways.

The native of Canada grew up mostly across the border from Buffalo. He grew into his size of 6-foot-8 eventually, making him rather fearsome on the ice. Scott landed a spot on the roster at Michigan Tech University, where he - this is the most unusual part - studied engineering. So much for that jock stereotype in this case.

Scott quickly figured out that he needed to be a potential fighter to play at hockey's highest level, and he made the decision to do so. He wasn't a legend as these things go, but he did his job no matter where he went. Enforcers sometimes bounce from team to team where they are most needed, and Scott was no exception with seven NHL teams on his resume. Scott retired after the 2015-16 season; the All-Star Game was a tough act to follow.

Scott comes off here as a pretty smart person, as the engineering degree would indicate, and rather articulate too. He's easy to like, and no wonder many rooted for him in his career. The biggest catch in the book comes when Scott isn't writing about the All-Star Game. There's a great deal of material on how he learned to fight and his battles along the way. The problem with the story is that there's isn't much else to it. Scott wasn't really a part of too many memorable games or teams. He only participated in four playoff games, all with Chicago. Scott has some stories about teammates such as Patrick Kane and Joe Thornton, but a little more humor would have been nice.

Fans of hockey fights are famous for their enthusiasm and passion for that aspect of hockey - take it from a guy who co-wrote a book with an enforcer. They should enjoy "A Guy Like Me." The rest of the potential audience probably won't be so engrossed.

Three stars

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Review: Furious George (2017)

By George Karl with Curt Sampson

You just knew when you watched George Karl as a college player that he would be a coach some day.

Karl was one of those guys at the University of North Carolina that certainly had some talent, but what struck people from a distance was his drive, intensity and determination. Your team might outscore his team, but you'd never defeat him. He's just come back for more.

Sure, enough, Karl earned a little playing time in pro basketball, but stayed with the sport after his playing days ended. After a few years of paying his dues, he ended up as a coach in the NBA. He's the first to say he coaches like he played.

It's been quite a ride. He goes over some of the details in "Furious George" - extra credit goes to the person who thought of that title.

There are two qualities that you'd expect from a book by Karl. He has made several stops in his coaching career, including a couple in basketball's minor leagues and one in Europe. Coaches sometimes have a short shelf life, if only because players have been known to tune them out after a few years. The good ones rebound, pardon the pun, and Karl has done a lot of that.

Meanwhile, Karl always has spoken his mind in public while coaching, although he has kept some thoughts in reserve. Now that time has gone by, he feels more free to give completely honest opinions. And in a variety of cases, Karl does.

The book has received some publicity for his commentary on the play of Carmelo Anthony when the two were together at Denver. Just to take something at random: "He was the best offensive player I ever coached. He was also a user of people, addicted to the spotlight, and very unhappy when he had to share it." Karl does say that he and Carmelo came from much different backgrounds and perspectives, and he didn't really expect his star player to instantly mesh with him. But there are some tough words along the way in the book.

Karl also has some less-than-kind things about such players as Mel Turpin and Chris Washburn, who had trouble with food and drugs respectively. Some of the owners and executives get a few choice words as well. I have no doubt that the job of coaching has changed greatly since Karl was a player, and that he's had to try to adapt to the ever-changing rules about dealing with new situations as best he could.

Karl tells his life story in a slightly frantic but entertaining fashion. The first few chapters are a bit disorganized in terms of time, as they jump around a bit from subject to subject. After that it settles down, but there is still a lot of ground to cover in terms of seasons and personalities. This isn't a complete life story, as it merely hits the highlights.

Even so, there's some interesting points to be made here, and Karl has some fun doing it. Based on the book's contents, Karl has had quite a few burgers and beers with friends and associates over the years. The menu may have changed lately because of a battle with cancer, but the book still reads like a friendly chat among friends.

"Furious George" may not be the most memorable basketball book on the shelf, but it's generally honest and fun. Those who have followed the NBA closely over the years will find the pages turn quickly.

Three stars

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