Saturday, May 19, 2018

Review: Press Pass (2016)

By Bob Trimble

This might be that rare book in which the author's stories about his work experiences that are printed might take a back seat to a more personal look at his life.

Bob Trimble was one of those kids who wanted to go into sports broadcasting when he grew up, and succeeded in that goal. He was a boy in the Pittsburgh area, but most of his career was spent in Michigan with a good-sized stop in Buffalo. Bob was pretty good at is, as his longevity indicates.

But apparently soon after he lost his job in Buffalo when the Empire Sports Network folded, Bob suffered from a case of Bell's Palsy. He never completely recovered from the ailment. Then throw in a heart attack and some depression issues, and it's clear that life hasn't been too fair to one of the nice guys of the business. (Disclaimer: I knew him during his days in Buffalo a bit.)

A couple of years ago, Bob sat down and wrote a book about his sportscasting experiences. It's called "Press Pass." It's surprising that no one in Buffalo heard about it before now, but he recently came to town to sell it.

The format is quite simple. After introducing himself as a 1979 Ohio University graduate, Bob takes us through an alphabetical list of some of the sports personalities he encountered over the years. It's an interesting list, with some national figures involved. Muhammad Ali gets us off to a good start, followed by such people as Bjorn Born, Scotty Bowman, Terry Bradshaw, Howard Cosell, Dick Butkus, Wayne Gretzky, Steve Garvey, Gordie Howe, Earvin Johnson, Michael Jordan, Mario Lemieux, Joe Namath and Arnold Palmer.

Spoiler alert: They all tend to come off well here. Sometimes I wished that the ancedotes would center more on the interview subjects rather than how the conversations came to pass. But, they might be dated or deal with long-forgotten events that aren't too interesting in hindsight. ("Have you ever been to Grand Rapids before?) There are enough insights and interesting tales to move you along.

Trimble does one thing in this sort that is extremely rare - he devotes a chapter to "The Bad Guys." There are only four people listed - Dennis Conner, Scott Mitchell, Tom Seaver and Lou Whitaker. Well, that's not a bad batting average if those are the only bums out there. The chapter does make one appreciate the good guys more, even if they are in the vast majority. Trimble also pays tribute to some broadcasters and writers he's encountered along the way, and actors ranging from James Caan to Jamie Farr get a chapter too.

Self-published books usually have a few more errors in them than the ones done by the pros, and that's the case here. It happens. But Trimble's writing style is straight to the point and conversational, so it's easy reading.

It's good that Bob got "Press Pass" out of his system. He had the chance to tell stories about his career, and maybe it will give him a little closure. No rating here, because I'm a friend and made a trip down to a restaurant to get an autographed copy. But people who live in the same areas that Bob did ought to enjoy it well enough.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Review: Jim Brown (2018)

By Dave Zirin

Jim Brown was and is a complicated man.

He's always done what he's wanted to do, knocking over obstacles along the way. Sometimes that's worked out well, and sometimes it's been a less than perfect situation for him and others. But he's always been a loud, articulate voice for his beliefs that commands attention.

Is it a surprise, then, that Dave Zirin's biography of Brown, "Jim Brown - Last Man Standing," is complicated to read? Probably not.

Let's start the discussion with Zirin, an interesting writer with a long string of credits. The first one is that he's a sports editor of The Nation Magazine, concentrating on the politics of sports. The writer also has published columns in "The Progressive." Zirin has written several books, and you can almost guess his orientation by reading the titles: "Game Over: How Politics Turned the Sports World Upside Down." "The John Carlos Story." "A People's History of Sports in the United States."

Before even opening the book, then, the reader knows that this will not concentrate on football games, and that Brown's actions will be mostly praised and defended in the pages to come. Check and check.

Brown was born in South Carolina but moved to Long Island as a child - where he became as good an athlete as that area - or perhaps any area - has ever seen. Brown didn't stop excelling once he got to Syracuse University. He was an outstanding football player who should have won the Heisman Trophy, but probably didn't because of racial prejudice. But as good as Brown was in football, he might have been a better lacrosse player. Mix a 6-foot-2, 230-pound mountain of a man with strength and speed, and you come close to athletic perfection.

Brown didn't skip a beat when he arrived in the NFL, arriving with the Cleveland Browns as the rookie of the year, and exiting as the league's most valuable player. And then he retired, still in his prime, walking away while he still could. Nobody did that then, but Brown was his own man.

Zirin divides Brown's life into several compartments from there, although sometimes the dots aren't fully connected. Chapters deal with Brown's involvement into the civil rights - this was a man who took a step back from fully endorsing Dr. Martin Luther King's efforts while endorsing Richard Nixon in 1968. Brown appeared in some movies and tried to produce others, but his career in Hollywood didn't go that far. Was that racism or lack of ability? Zirin seems to lean to the former, although it's certainly possible that it just wasn't a good fit.

Some years later, Brown turned his efforts toward improving lives in inner cities with his Amer-I-Can program. He certainly put time and his own money into that venture starting in 1988, and had some successes. Amer-I-Can is still in business, although it might not have had the impact that some expected - perhaps because of a lack of seed money from backers (private and public). Even Zirin has trouble fully defending Brown when it comes to treatment of women. The public figure has been involved in a number of incidents over the years, none of which has led to convictions. Still, there's a lot of smoke out there.

But Zirin's last point is a good one. Brown is past the age of 80, walks with a cane, and can't turn his head around, but he's still out there fighting for his beliefs. Whenever an issue meshes politics and sports, such as Colin Kaepernick's protests, Brown's phone still rings for reactions. His contemporaries - Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, etc. - may not response for one reason or another, but Brown never ducks such issues.

This book could have used some end notes on who was interviewed and when. I assumed that anything that wasn't attributed to another source comes from Brown or another interview subject directly, although I shouldn't have to guess. It's also unusual to read a biography with such a particular point of view; history for me usually goes down easier when the story is presented from a step back for perspective's sake.

Brown continues to fascinate us, commanding attention as the clock counts down. "Jim Brown" presents a good-sized if somewhat one-sided portrait of a man who will be remembered for more than carrying a football as a young man - someone who became an imperfect but interesting adult for more than half a century. Those with an interest in him will find plenty to think about here.

Three stars

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Review: Pudge (2015)

By Doug Wilson

They don't make 'em like Carlton Fisk any more.

The Hall of Famer was, as that description implies, the greatest of his generation at the baseball position of catcher. He holds several records in the sport for durability and longevity, as he played into his 40s at a position in which one's knees are supposedly done by 35 or so. Old-fashioned hard work throughout his life gets much of the credit, although the individual doing that work is just as special.

Fisk was always one of those strong, silent types out of rural New England, where bragging wasn't done or appreciated. It's tough to imagine him sitting down for long periods of time to write an autobiography.

So it's up to someone else to fill in the gaps of describing Fisk. Doug Wilson took on the job when he wrote "Pudge" The author of a few other baseball books comes through with a thorough job of reviewing an eventful life.

Fisk's baseball story is an unlikely one for a couple of big reasons. The first is that he grew up in Charlestown, New Hampshire. That's located right on the Connecticut River on the eastern edge of the state, south of Hanover (home of Dartmouth). The winters can be long there and the springs slow in arriving, so you can imagine just how many baseball prospects come out of that region. Somehow, Fisk beat the odds.

Adding to the joy that Charlestown felt about sending one of its native sons to the majors was that Fisk landed in Boston to play for the Red Sox, New England's team. Could there have been a better pairing for all concerned? It didn't take Fisk long to be considered the greatest catcher in Red Sox history, proving to be a good fit with other 1970s stars on that team like Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, and Fred Lynn. He developed a good rivalry with fellow catcher Thurman Munson of the Yankees along the way.

Catchers take a pounding in baseball sometimes, which is reason number two why this is an unlikely story. Fisk suffered a very serious knee injury relatively early in his long career, and there was some doubt about whether he'd ever play again at anything close to the previous level. The catcher did the work, and recovered to play at his previous levels for many more years.

What's more, Fisk took part in two of the iconic baseball moments of the 1970's. He was the central figure in one of them, a game-ending home run in Game Six of the 1975 World Series - finishing what is still considered one of the greatest games ever played. In another, he and the Red Sox fell to the Yankees in the 1978 playoff game that capped an era of intense rivalry between those teams. Both are well covered here, as you might expect.

Fisk was also part of a turbulent and somewhat forgotten about era in baseball in which the game's financial structure was blown up and rebuilt. Salaries exploded and Fisk was involved in an odd series of events - too complex to discuss here but nicely examined in the book - that led to him being declared a free agent and poisoning the relationship between the catcher and the Red Sox.

Fisk landed with the White Sox, and became the face of the franchise for most of the 1980s. Wilson doesn't have as much material here, as Chicago only won one division title during the catcher's time wearing #72 (he flipped his old number, 27, around after changing teams). The ending of Fisk's tenure as a White Sox player was awkward as well. That's not unusual, as it's always tough to know when a veteran athlete is done or merely in a slump - particularly an athlete as proud as Fisk.

Wilson talked to a long list of Fisk's teammates and associates here. Occasionally the material feels a little repetitive, but sometimes that research pulls out a little gem. I loved the story about someone climbing up the stairs to the top of a church in Charlestown right after Fisk's World Series home. A policeman arrived to find out what the fuss was about. When told about the homer, he answered: "Hell, if I'd known that, I'd have come and helped you."

The biggest drawback might be a slight hole in the middle of the story. There are plenty of quotes from Fisk accumulated from his years in the spotlight, but it's tough to know what he's really thinking along the way. No doubt he likes it that way.

Even so, "Pudge" works quite well. If you are of age to remember his body of work from the standings, then this should bring back some good memories and fill in some gaps in the narrative.

Four stars

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Sunday, April 8, 2018

Review: Lou (2017)

By Lou Piniella with Bill Madden

When I first got a look at Lou Piniella in person, he was a young prospect in the Baltimore Orioles' farm system. The outfielder was OK as a Double-A player in Elmira, New York, but not someone that could be projected into a long baseball career.

Boy, was that wrong.

Piniella made it to the major leagues for good in 1969, winning Rookie of the Year honors with the Kansas City Royals. He stayed in the game through the early 2010s, so he had a half-century of involvement with the game at its highest level. (For the record, Elmira followed him like a favorite son every step of the way.)

A guy like that should write a book, especially if he has a strong New York connection (sales and all that), and Piniella finally got around to it in 2017. The result is "Lou." Not surprisingly, the cover photo has Lou in a Yankee hat - he became relatively famous wearing pinstripes.

It's easy to think that Piniella beat some long odds to have the life he did. He wasn't a great prospect coming out of the Tampa area, but he did sign a pro contract. Piniella worked hard but did some bouncing around along the way. After some decent but not overwhelming years in Kansas City, Piniella was traded to the Yankees... and the fun began.

The Yankees of the late 1970s and early 1980s had some stars, but they also had some grinding players who seemed dangerous when it mattered most. Ask the Boston Red Sox, who might have had a happier ending to the 1978 had Piniella not displayed some unexpected defensive skills in the playoff game with New York.

Piniella had a front-row seat to the "Bronx Zoo" days of the Yankees in that era, and he naturally has some stories about Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson. Those years have been covered elsewhere in other books. Come to think of it, co-author Bill Madden - the fine Daily News writer - has worked on several of those books. It still amazing that the "win first, argue later" approach of those Yankee teams worked so well.

Those stories of turmoil continued into the 1980s, as Piniella eventually turned into a Yankee executive. He got a chance at managing but couldn't quite get New York over the finish line, and eventually decided to go elsewhere. That came with some heartache, according to this book, but it probably was for the best for all concerned.

The rest of Piniella's story might be the most interesting to some fans, simply because it hasn't really been told. He landed in Cincinnati, where he led the Reds to one of the great upsets in World Series history by beating the mighty Oakland Athletics. From there it was on to Seattle, where he had the chance to manage Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson and Ichiro Suzuki. Then Piniella was on to Tampa Bay, where he was hamstrung by finances, and Chicago (Cubs), which went through an assortment of ownership groups while he was managing - a recipe for problems.

For a guy who is best remembered for throwing bases around while arguing with umpires, Piniella comes off as rather calm here. He says religion helped him reach that state, and he probably mellowed a bit with age. Piniella also seems quite affected by the fact that three of his closest friends in baseball - Thurman Munson, Jim Hunter and Bobby Murcer - all died at a young age.

No matter what the reason, he's a little embarrassed by a few of his actions in hindsight. Piniella also gets some help along the way here, as people like Griffey and Rodriguez contribute their stories a few times. I'm not a great fan of that technique, but it works pretty well here.

It's difficult to have a strong reaction to "Piniella." It was an interesting baseball life, and the seasons do go by quickly. But the book may not be called fascinating or filled with bombshells. Let's just say, then, that this autobiography is worth your time, and will get an extra star from Yankee fans.

Three stars

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Sunday, April 1, 2018

Review: Unbeaten (2018)

By Mike Stanton

This one is personal.

Brockton, Massachusetts, is a small city in the southeast part of the state. Once upon a time it was one of the shoe manufacturing centers of the United States, with millions of pairs produced per year. The work was tough and difficult in some cases, but it was also honest and put food on the table for thousands. That led to a better life for a lot of people, and a better future for their children.

There wasn't a lot of glamour attached to Brockton back in the day, before the shoe business dried up. But in the late 1940s and 1950s it had Rocky Marciano, and that was something.

Marciano fought his way to the heavyweight championship, when that title meant almost everything in sports. He finished his career unbeaten at 49-0, something no heavyweight has ever done. Marciano put Brockton on the map, no small task.

While I'd like to think that my parents and grandparents were the Favorite Sons and Daughters of Brockton, since they are natives of the place, reality puts Marciano as the champion in that category. I spent roughly the first six years of my life there (late 1950s), and went back frequently for visits. It was difficult not to hear stories about Marciano from relatives and friends. Even today, it's tough not to see evidence of his life - such as the monument just outside the stadium that's name after him.

Let me assure you, then, that Mike Stanton gets just about everything right in his thorough book on Marciano's life, "Unbeaten."

Stanton really captures what Brockton was like, particularly for those immigrant families who came there looking for that better life. Rocky Marciano (real name - Rocco Francis Marchegiano) was born in 1923, and thus became aware of life right about the time the Depression started. For the record, my father was born about six months later and didn't really have any memories of Rocky in high school even though they were in the same building for a while. Rocky dropped out along the way.

After Marciano was kicked out of the military, you might have picked him as the longest of long shots to be famous. He wasn't well educated, and manual labor of some sort seemed like his best option in life. But he was a good athlete, and he was dedicated and determined. Although Marciano wasn't a bad catcher, boxing was a much better fit. By Stanton's description, Rocky was incredibly raw - but he was very strong and wanted to learn.

The wins started to pile up, and eventually he climbed the ladder into the heavyweight rankings. There was a vacuum created by the retirement of Joe Louis from the boxing scene, and there wasn't much talent to replace him - until Marciano walked in. He knocked out Joe Walcott in an epic bout to win the championship, and kept it through the time he retired 1955. Rocky didn't fight very often as champion, partly because of the tax laws of the time, and he didn't have that many great opponents. But he showed up every night, punched in, did his job, got the win, and went home. Residents of Brockton used to bet as much money as they could on the Native Son, collect the winnings, and have a party. My parents used to drive from Philadelphia to Brockton on fight nights, just so they could join in the inevitable celebration. The book tells how people bought cars and houses with those winnings.

The fights are carefully reviewed, one after another. Stanton must have sore eyes from reading microfilm and watching YouTube. But he really does justice to a couple of other areas in Marciano's life that deserved investigation.

The first centers on the sport of boxing in the 1950s, which was - by any standard - a mess. Fixed fights were relatively common, and organized crime played a role in the sport. There are no signs that Marciano had pre-planned outcomes in his fights. However, his de facto manager, Al Weill, was also the matchmaker for the International Boxing Club, which essentially ran the sport during the 1950s. Marciano discovered Weill was skimming some money off the top of purses for his own benefit, and that may have helped drive him into retirement. On the other hand, the boxer probably benefited from having a, um, well-connected business partner in terms of his career.

Then after retirement, Stanton refers to Marciano as "America's Guest," someone who never paid for anything if he could help it. (By the way, my grandmother told me stories about how Rocky's mother didn't like opening her purse either, throwing off lines like "Don't you know who I am? I'm the Champ's Mother.") The Depression and the dishonest manager left a few scars in that area. I guess. Marciano may have been America's worst money manager during the remaining years of his life, hoarding cash when possible and hiding it in all sorts of places. When he died in an airplane crash, the locations of those bankrolls went with him.

It's tough to know how good Marciano was. He was small for a heavyweight by today's standards, checking in at under 190 pounds. Marciano came along at a bad time for talent. But he could throw and take a punch, and rarely took a step back. Maybe he's Joe Frazier with a better chin. And he beat everyone was put in front of him, and nobody else has ever done that.

Marciano, then, certainly deserves a first-class biography, and this is that. Take it from another grandson of Brockton - "Unbeaten" brings an interesting if complicated era back to life.

Five stars

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review: Smart Baseball (2017)

By Keith Law

"Smart Baseball" is sort of like a college textbook, except for the fact that there aren't many classes in most universities on baseball analysis.

Translation: For the most part, it gets a bit more difficult to read as you go along.

Even so, you'll probably come out a bit smarter once you are done reading it.

Keith Law is the professor of sorts for the book, and he's well qualified to lead the discussion. Law is a former writer for Baseball Prospectus. He worked in the front office of the Blue Jays for a while - heck, he was the entire analytics department - before moving on to ESPN. Law's columns there have been smart and interesting.

In his first book, Law takes us through the revolution in baseball statistics. If you've been paying attention for the last several years, you know that all sorts of different numbers are now "out there." Suddenly such terms of "spin rate" and "launch velocity" are popping up on television broadcasts.

This book is divided into three sections. Part One is going to be the most interesting for most readers. Here Law goes through some common statistics that pop up in baseball, and shows why they aren't too useful. Batting average doesn't account for walks, pitching wins has too many external factors influencing them, saves hardly tell the story of relief pitching, fielding percentage scratches at the surface of telling how good a particular player is, and RBIs are skewed toward good teams because they generate more opportunities (in other words, a good player on a bad team won't drive home many runners, because there are fewer runners to drive in). It's all very logical and well done.

From there, we move into the new wave of baseball numbers, relatively speaking. On-base percentage has been around for quite a while, but no one seemed to pay attention to it until, oh, maybe 15-20 years ago. From there, we get into such numbers as slugging percentage and OPS, Fielding Independent Pitching and Win Probability Added, and UZR/dRS fielding ratings. I'm not going to tell you I understood some of them too well, because I didn't.

Luckily, things get a little easier in Part Three. Law looks at Hall of Fame debates through the new numbers, tells what a scout does in this new age, and opens a door to a vast data-collection project in Major League Baseball that will be a huge tool for further analysis. You'll come away thinking, why is Jack Morris on the inside of the Hall of Fame and Lou Whitaker on the outside?

Law is a good teacher, and he explains this stuff well. Still, it's easy to wonder if we've gotten to the point where we're leaving some people behind. Some of these statistical tools are great for evaluation over the long haul, and teams can use them to try improve their rosters. But fielding zone ratings aren't going to pop up on scoreboards during your next visit to the baseball park. Yes, the game can be enjoyed at all sorts of levels, but sometimes the discussions here can be more centered on the long term than short term. If I'm watching a game featuring a starting pitcher with an ERA of 3.00, I have a rough idea that he's pretty good. The team may want more information than that, but I'm quite satisfied with that much data while I'm having a hot dog and drink.

The Revolution really is here, and "Smart Baseball" will help you understand what's happening. But if you prefer to stay "blissfully ignorant" of the new statistical tools used at the game's highest level, that's fine too - there's room enough for everyone. And it's not like batting average and RBIs will disappear anytime soon.

Four stars

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Review: The Immaculate Inning (2018)

By Joe Cox

"The Immaculate Inning" as a concept is something that seems relatively new in baseball, at least by that name. It happens when a pitcher throws nine strikes and no balls in an inning, meaning that no fielder even touched the ball during the course of sending the batting team down in order. I'm not sure I heard the term used in this way until a few years ago.

Now it's fairly common when it happens, which isn't too often. Maybe the book, "The Immaculate Inning" will help give it a bit of a boost in popularity.

Author Joe Cox essentially has written a book of lists without the actual lists. He has compiled some achievements that take place in a given game, season or career that are not quite unique but very unusual. It's something of  a crash course on the personal side of the game, since the feats are done by players and not teams.

Having perhaps confused you with those last couple of sentences, let's explain the format of the book. Cox has picked out 30 different items for examination. They include such items as 20 strikeouts in a game, hitting for the cycle, "super slams" (walk-off grand slam homers when down three runs), Triple Crowns as a batter or pitcher, 30-game winners, 50-save seasons, etc. Most of the choices are solid enough, although I could have done without "Position Players Pitching" (uncountable at this point) and "Surviving Shenanigans to Win a League Batting Title" (a little arbitrary concerning the definition of shenanigans).

Let's take 50-homer seasons as an example. The text has how many times it has beendone in baseball history (45 through 2017), the most recent time (Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge last year), standout and surprise names on the list, and the chances of additions in the future (in this case, quite good considering the homer-happy environment). Then Cox tells the personal stories of those on the list, usually in about four or so sections. In this case, we have Babe Ruth, Hack Wilson, Cecil and Prince Fielder, and Stanton and Judge.

Based on the back of the book, there's little doubt that Cox did his homework here. He went through a lot of books, websites, newspapers, etc. to collect information for this book. Cox definitely gets major points for that. He even interviewed a half-dozen players about their achievement; too bad some of the 19th century performers weren't around to comment.

OK, does this all work? That I'm not so sure about.

It's a difficult assignment to make some of this material interesting. There's some play-by-play of games from long ago, and it's easy to get the idea of what happened pretty quickly. The life stories of well-known players are rather well-known so it's tough to be drawn in, although some new tidbits for some may emerge along the way there. For example, I had no idea that Ken Griffey Jr. tried to commit suicide as a teen by swallowing a couple of hundred aspirin tablets.

It's also a surprise that each category doesn't have a full list of those who are in "the club" at the end of each chapter. Some lists would be a little lengthy, but it would have helped to see all the names in most cases.

"The Immaculate Inning," then is a tough needle to thread. Readers need a strong interest in baseball to even pick it up, but those same readers might not learn that much along the way. Those who are in the sweet spot will learn some historical background on the game, but their numbers won't be great.

Two stars

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