Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Review: Coach (2012)

By Rosie DiManno

While reading "Coach" in December 2012, I took a look at amazon.ca to see what the reviews were like from readers.

There were two. One was from Pat Burns' first wife, and it said that the book was inaccurate, filled with lies and incomplete. The former NHL coach was a much worse person than he was portrayed, she claimed.

Then there was a review from Burns' sister, who loved the book.

Hmmm. Couldn't wait to see how a non-family member, meaning me, might react at that point. While realizing that there are two sides to every story, "Coach" comes across a good accounting of Burns' life, particularly in regard to his hockey career ... which is why most people will read this in the first place.

Let's get one point out quickly though. Author Rosie DiManno makes it clear that Burns was no saint, particularly when he was a young adult. He did get married and divorced rather quickly and wasn't much of a father in those early days. Burns also could be a loner, particularly when hockey wasn't going so well. The stories about Burns' life as a policeman are a little vague at times, in part because Burns was known to exaggerate about those exploits. But the stories are still entertaining no matter how much truth is involved.

Burns sort of stumbled into a hockey career, serving as a coach to young players while working around his career with the police. Eventually that led to a stint in junior hockey, which led to a job in the minors. Before he knew it, Burns was the coach of the most fabled franchise in hockey, the Montreal Canadiens.

He did fine there for a while, and - take it from someone who attended news conferences for him - he always projected presence and attitude. My guess is that you always knew Pat Burns was in charge if you visited the locker room. His time in the Montreal fish bowl is well covered.

Even so, DiManno turns up the power of the microscope when Burns arrives in Toronto to coach the Maple Leafs in 1992. The Leafs surprised everyone by advancing to the conference finals, losing Game Seven to the Kings in a memorable playoff series in 1993. Even in eventual defeat, the Leafs had quite a ride. DiManno is all over that season, covering it with a few chapters in detailed fashion.

The story picks up in speed once Burns leaves Toronto. He coached in Boston and then in New Jersey, where finally he won a Stanley Cup - the missing item on his resume. Burns never had much of a chance to add to that record, as he was diagnosed with cancer after the following season and battled health problems for several years before dying.

There's one important part of DiManno's research that clearly elevates this a notch. She talked to everyone she could find after Burns' death. That means the book just doesn't have quotes from the time, although there are plenty of those, but everyone felt free to speak openly about relationships with Burns. It's fascinating to read what former Bruins' general manager Harry Sinden had to say about Burns' time in Boston with the perspective of hindsight.

"Coach" is a rather well-done portrait of a man who seemed so intent on moving forward that it took him until his dying days before he remembered to look around as he traveled. It's particularly good for Leaf fans who remember that surprising run from 20 years ago. But remember, relatives may have a different opinion.

Four stars

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Monday, December 17, 2012

Review: Honey, Do You Need a Ride? (2012)

By Jennifer Graham

A while ago on this site, I reviewed a humor book about running and didn't find it funny. I always worry in such situations that's something wrong with me.

Now, having read "Honey, Do You Need a Ride?", I'm convinced that I didn't have a humor bypass operation somewhere along the way.

Because this is a funny book. It's also equally poignant.

Jennifer Graham has been a journalist and freelance writer over the years. She gave up some parts of her career to get married and have children. Obviously, based on her resume, Graham is pretty good at the writing part of life.

The main theme of the book is, as you'd expect from the cover, about her attempts to become a "runner." The big problem is that she's always been on the heavy side. OK, Graham herself subtitled the book "Confessions of a Fat Runner." The line between heavy/fat/obese has always been unclear, but Graham's doctor has indeed told her to lose weight. Time then for her to put on some running shoes and head for the streets.

Despite her attempts to make light and put down those running efforts, Graham became a relatively slow but steady runner. She's done half-marathons, which puts her in the small minority of the running community. Still she was never fast enough to be satisfied, and the weight never came off for good. The description of those runs, and the weight-reducing efforts, are frequently laugh-out-loud material.

What's more, this all rings true for everyone. One of the best parts of running is that it's open to everyone, but the catch is that not everyone is very good at it. This is not a problem for those playing, say, basketball, since LeBron James isn't likely to show up at the local gym. But runners are in the same race as some really good athletes in many cases, making comparisons too easy, and those fast people look a lot better in shorts and a t-shirt than most. Many women have been fighting the battle of trying to fit into someone else's ideal body type, and life just doesn't work that way.

Yet there's more at work here, and that lifts this book into a higher class. Graham is quite open about her entire life. She was married to a general radio talk show host for several years, but eventually was divorced. Ever try to raise four kids and two donkeys (long story, but true) mostly by yourself? You might turn to ice cream every so often as well. It's very, very easy to root for Graham as she battles a variety of everyday woes, in part because she's so engaging in telling the story.

The book isn't exactly a straight-forward life story of running and life, and thus comes off as being a little disorganized in spots. Perhaps it started as a series of blog and journal entries, and was adapted into a book. We don't hear much about her ex-husband after he gets remarried, and the donkeys (no, not a synonym for ex-husband) enter and leave the story without much detail.

OK, it's not perfect, and none of us are. "Honey, Do You Need a Ride?" is a very enjoyable read that goes by quickly. Practically anyone who owns running shoes will like it, and those who identify with Graham's battles will love it. This is a writer who seems like she'd be worth reading no matter what the subject is.

Four stars

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Review: Team Canada 1972 (2012)

As told by the players with Andrew Podnieks

It's easy to think that Americans aren't exactly the target audience for this book.

"Team Canada 1972" takes a look back at the Summit Series, the now-legendary hockey matchup between Canada and the Soviet Union. Spoiler alert; Canada wins in the final moments of Game Eight.

It's easy to guess that much of Northern Ontario is missing some forests because of the paper needed to print all of the books that have been written about the series over the past 40 years. This is another one, obviously, published for the anniversary.

It's difficult to know the business side of the book from this side of the border. It's called "the official 40th anniversary celebration of the Summit Series,"  and has a special logo designed for the occasion. There's no obvious benefactor, though.

The format for the coffee-table book is rather simple. Andrew Podnieks, who has a long list of books to his credit, talked to everyone involved with Team Canada that he could. (Sadly, there have been a few deaths over the years.) That includes coach Harry Sinden and the young players who came along to be the hockey equivalent of tackling dummies in practices (for example, John Van Boxmeer, fresh out of junior). The missing people do get short biographies, sometimes based on old interviews.

OK, so how is the book? It's good looking for starters. The photos are used to good effect, with each player getting a full-color portrait from the time. Each player gets a couple of pages to tell his story, and there are brief descriptions of each of the games as well as other background information. There also are five appendixes, which might be a record, with statistics.

You'd expect all of that, and it's there. Still, the idea has to rise or fall with the players' comments, and after a while the stories become similar or redundant. Every potential player received a relatively late phone call with an invitation to join the team, thus interrupting his time at a hockey school. The memories of the games don't offer many surprises -- the team was surprised by the Soviets, it took a while to get in shape and come together as a team, Moscow was awful, etc. This might be a sign of reading too many books on the series, but I would guess Canadian hockey fans might have a similar reaction.

There were a few exceptions here. The comments by some of the lesser players, including those who went home early because of a lack of playing time, come off as fresh. Not unexpectedly, the most insight comes from Ken Dryden. His take on the reason for Canada's comeback is that Canadian hockey players played games, and plenty of them, and thus had much to draw on during difficult situations. The Soviets, meanwhile, practiced more than they played, and while that produced skilled players, it wasn't as helpful in such a pressure-packed series.

(By the way, I know this is designed for a Canadian audience. But it would have been fun to have all of the Soviet players give their stories as well somehow.)

At $45, this is a rather expensive volume. "Team Canada 1972" probably isn't the one book to read if you have to pick only one of the many to find out what happened in that memorable series, but it does add a bit to the overall story and looks good while doing it. Those who still tear up at Paul Henderson's goal ought to like it.

Three stars

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Review: 100 Things Bills Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die (2012)

By Jeffrey J. Miller

Welcome to a course in the history of the Buffalo Bills. This is your textbook, reasonably priced at $14.95 list.

It is a different sort of textbook, but that doesn't make it any less valid in reviewing the years of play by the National Football League team. "100 Things Bills Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" has more of an emphasis on the 'knowing" as opposed to the "doing," but it's still a worthwhile effort.

Miller is one of the best authors around when it comes to researching the history of Buffalo's football teams. His previous works have been first rate. Miller, then, is a good choice for another in a series of Triumph's books on sports teams designed for a regional audience.

Miller goes through facts about the team, from one through 100. It is in order of importance, more or less. It starts with Ralph Wilson, who brought the Bills to Buffalo in 1960, and number two is Marv Levy. That's followed by the first championship, Super Bowl 25, Jim Kelly, O.J. Simpson's 2000-yard season, and so on.

You probably could argue about the order of a specific chapter if you were so inclined, but it's fair to say that Miller gets to everything worth noting eventually. A little duplication is almost inevitable in this sort of format, but it's not much of a problem. Some of the material features quotes from those who were on the scene at the time, which is always nice to have.

If this is a history textbook, it probably ranks as the intermediate class. In other words, most Bills fans should know some of the stories that are contained here. Speaking as someone who has had plenty of Bills' history, I can assure you that the information here is accurate ... which is more than half the battle in a book like this.

But there are some stories that will either be new to almost any Bills' fan, or at least will shed some light on events. For example, the story of Bills' uniform number 31 is rather charming if mostly forgotten now. The game between the Bills and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League also pops up here, and deservedly so. Extra credit goes to Miller for the chapter on kicker Booth Lusteg.

By the way, the "things they should do" part is about what you'd think it would be - go to a game, visit Canton to see the Bills enshrined, check out the Wall of Fame, attend a draft party, etc.

"100 Things Bills Fans Should Know and Do" definitely works for what it set out to do. It's particularly good for young people, who might not even remember the Bills' Super Bowl run (has it really been 20 years?). Bit it's a worthwhile effort for all ages of Buffalo fandom.

Four stars

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review: The Good Son (2012)

By Mark Kriegel

Author Mark Kriegel achieved plenty of success with his first two sports biographies on Joe Namath and Pete Maravich. They not only sold well, but they were almost universally acclaimed. In other words, go read them if you haven't already.

Namath and Maravich were both icons of the 1960's, subjects that were close to mythical. His next subject, Ray Mancini comes from a slightly different era, and the name isn't quite as magical.

But that doesn't mean Mancini isn't a good subject for an autobiography. Kriegel delivers another outstanding piece of work with "The Good Son."

There are all sorts of themes running through this particular effort. The starting point, and the reason Kriegel said he picked Mancini, was all about fathers and sons. Ray's father was a boxer, and he was close to getting a title shot when World War II and an injury got in Lenny's way.

Papa Mancini's window therefore had closed, but son Ray was willing to take a look at opening it again. There's a telling portion of the book in which Kriegel asks the question, "How does a kid fight if he's not hungry?" The author comes right back for the answer, "Oh, but he was. For his father's love." Ray was determined to get a world title for the Mancini name.

Somewhat improbably, it worked. Ray Mancini came out of Youngstown, Ohio, and won a lightweight title. The early Eighties were a great time for boxing, with several charismatic fighters. Television, of course, couldn't resist the Mancini story, with the proud papa in the corner while sonny picked up another victory. Kriegel packs the story with great little details, particularly with frank comments by promoter Bob Arum on the state of the sport at the time.

Mancini would have had an interesting but somewhat typical life had he not gotten into the ring with Duk Koo Kim. These were two fighters who didn't know how to take a step back. Duk Koo said before the bout, "Either he dies or I die." He was prophetic; Duk Koo was carried out of the ring on a stretcher and soon after that died of a head injury.

From there, the story goes into uncharted territory. How does someone react after his fists led to the death of another person? Boxing is a dangerous sport, but death is not supposed to be part of the equation. I hadn't thought of it at the time, but interest by the American over-the-air television networks dropped considerably after the Mancini-Kim fight. They weren't in the business of televising executions, and lost the stomach for boxing.

Indeed, one of the main attractions here is to find out what happened to Mancini. He opened up with Kriegel about the process, and it's not a pretty picture. Mancini first lost that little edge he needed to be a fearless fighter. That eventually led to the loss of his championship. Mancini missed the glory of the business, but didn't have the drive any more - a discovery he made the hard way through a couple of comebacks. From there he goes through marriage and divorce, and something of an acting career. But it sounds as if Mancini wasn't completely at peace until he met Duk Koo's son, although time still has to write more of that story.

Mancini deserves plenty of credit here. He obviously opened up to Kriegel, even though there was no financial incentive to do so (in other words, he didn't get paid) and it must have been painful. Family members contributed much to the story as well. It's almost as if the Duk Koo fight was a huge rock that was thrown into the ocean, and the waves go out from the originating spot forever and affected all they touched.

No matter how good the source material is, though, someone had to put it together. The story was in good hands when Kriegel sat down to write it. He had a full notebook, as writers like to say, and used it well. Kriegel also supplies that little bit of grit that should be in every boxing book. The sport always has lent itself to black-and-white images told in a noir sort of way.

It's easy to root for Mancini after reading "The Good Son," just as it was during his career. The story about how his life took a huge unexpected turn ought to fascinate even those who find boxing less than attractive. In other words, it's an excellent read.

Five stars

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Review: Winners and Losers (2012)

By Bob Latham

Ever heard of Sports Travel magazine? Me neither.

It's easy to guess that it is devoted to the business of sports tourism. Sports fans all know people who travel to follow a particular team or event; fan doesn't come from the word fanatic for nothing. A magazine devoted to those people certainly doesn't turn up at the local supermarket, but it certainly fills a small niche.

Bob Latham is a columnist for Sports Travel. After reading his collection of columns called "Winners & Losers," it's easy to tell how he got the job. He's not bad at it either.

Latham is a lawyer by trade, so he does have some disposable income for such activities as going to sporting events. He's also been on the board for the United States Olympic Committee and the International Rugby Board. That last part probably puts him in the top one-tenth of one percent of Americans when it comes to knowledge about rugby. No one he was the chairman of USA Rugby.

Latham has been around a bit, obviously, and the column has given him a good opportunity to write about some of those experiences.

The chapters are arranged not by date, but by a broad subject in a particular chapter - "Places I Remember," "Learning from the Game," "Happy to be a Fan," etc. These don't come with a particular point of view or edge in almost all cases. Latham is definitely out of the old school, and can get goose bumps or tears out of watching a particular event.

A book such as this usually comes down to the question, "Does this work?" The answer might depend on the reader.Personally, I like my sports books to be a little more pointed than this one. As essay about Mark Sanchez of the Jets eating a hot dog during a game isn't designed to be anything but fun, but it's obvious rather light in weight. That's multiplied by the fact that Latham is not writing on a tight deadline, so he sticks to subjects that are less dated and read like he picked up the ball on an idle thought and ran with it for two and a half pages.

Latham obviously is a bright guy, and there's a place for something like this. In fact, I would guess that the audience for Sports Travel is a good fit for it. The readers there probably wonder "what's it like there?" when seeing a sporting event, and Latham is in a position to tell them. If they like the column, they'll certainly like the book.

By the way, this is a nice job of publishing by Greenleaf Book Group Press. It's expensive paper with color pictures. The book checks in at 200 pages, with plenty of white space, so it's a relatively quick read.

"Winners & Losers" is hardly life-changing and not filled with deep thoughts, but the purists out there may find it worth the comparatively short time it takes to read it. It's a pleasant effort from someone who seems like he'd be good company in the next seat at a sporting event.

Three stars

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Review: 100 Grey Cups (2012)

By Stephen Brunt

What's an American doing reading a book about the history of the championship game of the Canadian Football League?

Easy - the publisher sent me a review copy. I can see Canada on my way home from work every night (insert Sarah Palin joke here), so someone must have thought I'd be a little interested. And, that person was right. News of the CFL leaks its way here every so often, and some famous players (Doug Flutie, Warren Moon for starters) have been very successful north of the border.

One hundred championship games are an obvious reason for a celebration, and the CFL was smart to call in Stephen Brunt, a fine journalist, to do the lifting here for a coffee-table style book. His approach is the most interesting part of the story.

Instead of doing a review of each and every game in Grey Cup history, Brunt instead takes more of a big picture approach. He focuses on less than a dozen games that he considers particularly noteworthy or indicative of the league's history as viewed by teams.

In a sense, then, each chapter is something of a recap of one of the teams that have played in the CFL over the years. The glory years for each team are reviewed, with plenty of pictures from a variety of eras represented.

The exception is the team from Baltimore, which popped up in the CFL briefly when the league tried to expand to America in a fruitless attempt to change its business model. Baltimore did win a title and supplied some top talent when it and the other U.S. teams gave up. It gets reviewed here. Speaking as someone who hasn't been paying close attention to the league's financial situation, it's good to get a summary of what happened over the years.

Brunt also has plenty of sidebars along the way, covering a variety of subjects. It's a good fit in a format like this. And the pictures are very nice; they obviously cleaned out the attic and basement for this effort.

What's wrong, then? It seems a little thin for a book of this type. There are less than 200 pages of type here, and it can go by very quickly. That ties into the price, set at $45. That's probably a bit high even in Canada, where prices are more than they are at the United States.

"100 Grey Cups" is quite attractive and covers the required ground well enough. Whether you find it worth the price tag is entirely up to you, and not for an American to judge.

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2012

Michael Wilbon, Editor

It's always fun to see what the guest editors are thinking when the new edition of "The Best American Sports Writing" comes out. Do they like their stories traditional or off-beat? Do they have some unexpected choices, or do they prefer the traditional outlets? What adds to the fun is that the editors often don't have an idea what the source of the article is (I'm assuming they see a few of the possible choices along the way), so the process is almost subconscious.

Curiosity is heightened when someone like Michael Wilbon has the distinction of picking the entries in the annual series. We know Wilbon a little bit more than the others. After a long career in print journalism, including a lengthy tenure (31 years!) with the Washington Post, Wilbon jumped to working for ESPN. There he splits the hosting duties of "Pardon the Interruption" and does work on the network's NBA telecasts, among other responsibilities. We feel as if know him a bit through television.

A look at the contents page offers some obvious clues to Wilbon's intent. The stories come from Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, the New York Times, the Washington Post, etc. The only slightly outside-the-box source might be a story from Deadspin, a website that has its tabloid moments.

And then we read the book itself, and it's almost like watching Wade Boggs taking batting practice. Nothing but line drives, nothing but excellent stories - one after another.

As a subscriber to many of the outlets represented here, the first reaction to seeing them in the book is something like "well, of course that one is in here." Football in a troubled suburb of Pittsburgh. Marathon runner Frank Shorter goes public with stories of abuse by his father. The retirement of a uniform number at Williams years and years after the number was taken out of circulation for reasons that had been forgotten. The poisoning of some old trees in Alabama.

I remember reading a story on cricket in Indian in ESPN the Magazine, and marveling how well author Wright Thompson made that sport, which is an absolute puzzle to American audiences, come alive. He really helped the reader care about cricket, no small task. It's in here. And so is Taylor Branch's epic on the contradictions and problems in college athletes.

Wham, double to left. Whap, triple up the gap. Boom, the outfielder doesn't even have to look as it goes into the seats.

Then there are the new stories to this reader, always a highlight of this collection. "Punched Out: The Life and Death of Hockey Enforcer" obviously took a ton of time to research and write, and it shows. It's one of a few articles on the issue of head injuries in sports, a subject that was well-represented last year as well. We'll be hearing more about it in the years to come, too.

There's Allen Iverson in Turkey, Stephon Marbury in China. The Deadspin story is a profile of the late George Kimball, a legendary Boston sports writer. They don't make them like Kimball any more, and the story fits here in such a collection.

To stretch the baseball analogy to its breaking point, the only story that was something of a pop-up to the infield for me was one on soccer star Lionel Messi. The language on that one is used adroitly, but the description of Messi's particular skills were a bit technical and somewhat wasted on a casual soccer fan like me. It's probably more my fault that the author's.

"The Best American Sports Writing" series has been coming out since 1991. There's still no sign of slippage. Its arrival at the bookstores remains one of the best parts of autumn.

Five stars

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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Review: I Run, Therefore I Am Still Nuts (2012)

By Bob Schwartz

Is there anything more subjective than written humor? Probably not.

Everyone has a different reaction to attempts to be funny on the printed page. What strikes one person as flat out hilarious leaves another cold.

That brings us to "I Run, Therefore I Am Still Nuts!"

Bob Schwartz wrote a book that mixed running with humor more than a decade ago. If you've visited the running section of the bookstore over that time, you've probably seen it. I've done that, but moved along pretty quickly.

A review copy for the sequel came along recently, giving the chance at an honest try at reading it. For me, at least, it fell short.

The book is essentially a collection of stories or essays (43 in fact) about the sport. (By the way, each chapter gets a cute illustration - good work by B.K. Taylor, who has a nice style.) Schwartz obviously has been a good runner in his long career, breaking three hours in marathons. He's also run long enough to realize that his best days are behind him, and like all of us is doing his best to avoid the march of Father Time.

Is this a case of some essays are better than others? Well, no. I wish I could use the "the essays are good one at a time, but a collection is a little difficult" excuse, but I can't. Let's give a "for instance." One essay is about a trip to the doctor, as Schwartz worries what the diagnosis will be when the doctor is done taking a look. The author works hard to make comments along the way as he tells the story, but I just didn't think the situation lent itself to laughs too well.

It's all done good-naturedly - Schwartz probably would be good company for a run - and in a slightly technical way. In other words, maybe veteran long-distance runners (as in half-marathoners or marathoners) will pick up on the humor a bit more than I did..

The problem, from my perspective, is that there's a good chance you might disagree with my reaction. Schwartz has written a few books over the years, and has been nominated for several awards in the humor column. The comments on Amazon.com about the first book are glowing. If it comes down to "is this funny?" I get the feeling I'm on the outside looking in.

So use my technique and carry "I Run, Therefore I Am Still Nuts!" over to a chair at the bookstore, or read the sample chapters on Amazon.com. The odds are at least good that you'll think I had something of a sense of humor transplant somewhere along the way.

Two stars

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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Review: Dropping the Gloves (2012)

By Barry Melrose with Roger Vaughn

This should have been the starting question when "Dropping the Gloves" was written: Why is Barry Melrose famous in the world of hockey?

There are two big reasons. He was coach of the Los Angeles Kings when they went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1993. And, he's been an ESPN hockey commentator for most of the past 17 years.

Surprisingly enough, those portions of Melrose's life are comparatively overlooked. That's a big reason why "Dropping the Gloves" is less than compelling for the most part.

Melrose has a rather typical Canadian hockey success story to tell. He grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, and played hockey when he wasn't helping out. Melrose was one of the lucky ones who got to follow his dream. He went through junior hockey, was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the National Hockey League draft, and bounced around the World Hockey Association and National Hockey League as well as the minors for several years. I covered the NHL during his time there, and I can't say I remember him making any sort of impression as a player.

Melrose followed a similar path when he retired from playing and moved into coaching - junior hockey, American Hockey League, and National Hockey League. The time at ESPN was briefly interrupted by a coaching job in Tampa Bay that didn't work out, but Melrose seems to be in a good spot in broadcasting. He's a bright guy with some insight and personality - I interviewed him once for a story I wrote, and he was friendly and helpful.

The problem here is that the stories for the most part have been told before by others, in a sense. What the authors probably needed to do was to personalize the storyline with anecdotes along the way. You can talk all you want about chemistry in the locker room being a necessary ingredient to success, but a few more vivid examples would have been helpful.

There are a few stories like that. Melrose does go into some detail about coaching Wayne Gretzky. The coach first admits that he was a bit scared of coaching a superstar like Gretzky, but that the two quickly had a meeting of the minds about how the game should be played, and there were no problems from there. Too bad there weren't more anecdotes like that.

Melrose also spends less than a chapter about his time at ESPN. It's been a part of his life for quite a while, so that's surprising. Surely he could have spun a few tales about the personalities there, the way ESPN uses him since the games aren't shown there, etc.

"Dropping the Gloves" isn't a terrible book by any means. Melrose does have some good analysis about the sport, and he shares some thoughts on such subjects as fighting and coaching techniques here. A little tilt in the emphasis of certain areas, though, might have made this more interesting to more people.

Two stars

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Monday, November 5, 2012

Review: Total Mets (2012)

By David Ferry

Has David Ferry had time to do anything but work on "Total Mets" in the past few years? Has he talked to his wife in that span? Does his child recognize him?

Goodness, the first impression from this book is that it is a very impressive piece of work. I'm relatively sure that it contains the longest known description of Jay Hook's career in the 700-plus pages within the covers. (For the record, Hook pitched for a bit more than two seasons for the Mets and gets almost four pages here.)

The idea behind "Total Mets" is to celebrate the first 50 years of play by New York's National League baseball team. And then celebrate it some more. You'll never see any subject covered more thoroughly.

The book starts with a year-by-year description of the team's fortunes in those 50 seasons. For what it's worth, it's a bit of a surprise that Ferry didn't cover how the team came about. It's an interesting story, as New Yorkers worked to get a replacement team once the Giants and Dodgers packed up for the West Coast after the 1957 season. One plan even involved setting up an "expansion league" called the Continental.

Even so, we jump right into the opening 1962 campaign, one of the worst seasons in baseball history. There are plenty of details about the next 49 years told along the way, and no season gets overlooked. There are full individual statistical recaps of each year included too. The 1969 and 1986 seasons don't dominate the narrative in this section ... which is a good idea in a book like this.

Then it's on to the player biographies. Ferry originally wanted to write biographies of every Met who every suited up for a game - and still has plans to publish such a book - but someone probably realized that doing that here might have collapsed some bookshelves. So we get 50 biographies, hitting everyone from Marv Throneberry to Mike Piazza. Tom Seaver goes from page 346 to 364. It's tough to say whether a little trimming might have made it more likely for readers to dive into a particular portion, but it is, after all, "Total Mets."

General managers and managers get their due in succeeding chapters. It's a great idea to look back on the GMs and cover what they did while on the job. It's followed by good-sized reviews of the postseason games that have been played over the years (good to have the box scores), plus plenty of team and individual records. Just don't think that the records are completely up to date, as they don't include the 2012 season.

What helps the text considerably is that Ferry, while admittedly a Mets' fan from childhood, takes a journalist's approach. He'd better, since he works for the Associated Press. In other words, Ferry is not constantly glowing in his words. He's willing to criticize when necessary, and that covers more than the Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi trade. That helps gives praise that much more credibility.

If there's a complaint to be had here, it probably centers on a lack of pictures. There are some photos scattered about here, but there are plenty of pages with nothing but text on them. That makes it a little less than inviting, at least on a skim basis. My guess is that it's a matter of economics. After all, this book checks in at under $30 retail, which is something of a bargain considering the information involved.

"Total Mets" obviously isn't for everyone, as its overwhelming nature will limit sales to true believers. But those fans who remember the night when Tug McGraw beat Sandy Koufax in Shea Stadium in 1965, as a for instance, will give this an extra star. This is nothing if not thorough.

Four stars

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Review: NASCAR Nation (2012)

By Chris Myers with Michael Levin

In 2010, Chris Myers and Michael Levin combined to write the book, "NASCAR is America - How Racing's Values Mirror the Nation's."

Now in 2012, the same combination has come out with a book, "NASCAR Nation - How Racing's Values Mirror America's."

It seems safe to conclude that if you bought the early book, you probably don't need to acquire the later version. Come to think of it, you probably don't need to buy "NASCAR Nation" under any circumstances.

Myers jumped from ESPN to Fox more than a decade ago, and has found a home as part of the "newer" network's coverage of stock car racing. I was easy to guess that a book by Myers would use the subtitle's themes about racing's "values" as a launching point for stories he's seen around the racing circuit.

That's a book that would have been relatively entertaining. But instead, Myers sticks to the subtitle's theme and writes 221 pages about how wonderful NASCAR is. The chapter headings include "Risk," "Patriotism," "Speed," "Tradition," "Pageantry," "Heroes" and "Victory." Get the idea?

Even if the reader buys that premise, there is a big, big problem with how it's told. There are no backing anecdotes or examples of virtually anything along the way. If it is the same book as the one written in 2010, I can't imagine that much updating was done ... because there are only a few references to current news in the sport, It's simply a book filled with Myers telling us how wonderful everything about NASCAR, instead of showing us. And what happens when you do that? After a while, you can't help but repeat yourself. A lot.

By the end, we get a section like this: "NASCAR is at its core an American sport, a sport defined by American values, American sense of risk and rewards, and an American thirst for speed, competition and achievement. America is a nation of risk takers. We can't recognize that you can't change the status quo by hiding from possibility, and so we're a nation of people willing to go out on a limb, to take a chance, whether the outcome we're seeking is a more secure future for our children or just a thrilling weekend afternoon." Change a few words, and you might have a typical political speech heard this fall.

Speaking of politics, there's one odd exception to the relentless positive approach taken in the book. There are about four references to how wonderful it is that NASCAR doesn't have any unions. I'm not so sure that some of the workers would agree with that, but you won't find an opposing viewpoint here.

Any book that's part of the "NASCAR Library Collection" obviously isn't going to criticize NASCAR. The concept behind the book might have worked for some sort of article for an in-house magazine or a race program. But it's just too thin to work in a book-length form.

Myers has always come across as a good, smart guy in his broadcasting career. He'd be enjoyable company over lunch or an adult beverage, I'd bet. He probably has a good book about NASCAR in him. "NASCAR Nation" isn't it.

One star

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: The Longest Race (2012)

By Ed Ayres

The short description of "The Longest Race" certainly doesn't sound like a best-seller: "Runner gives his thoughts on his sport, his life and other subjects while competing in a 50-mile race in 2001."

The first reaction might be "2001? What took him?"

There's no clue inside about the timeline of the book, so we'll have to make due with what has been presented. I think the reactions to this book will be all over the map.

Ayres is the founder of Running Times magazine. The publication is devoted to a rather small niche of the running community, targeted toward ardent runners. Its sister magazine, Runner's World, throws out a wider net of subject material. This, pretty clearly, is more of a Running Times approach.

As it turns out, the year of the race really doesn't matter one bit. Ayres has been running for most of his life, and he's over 70 now. Ayres caught the beginning of the "running boom," as he finished third in the 1970 New York City Marathon. The portions about running 50 miles along the Potomac River in Maryland near the West Virginia border are rather timeless. I doubt the experience will have changed much in 11 years. It's still quite a physical undertaking. By the way, the book has some tips for ultramarathoners at the end.

It took me a while to figure out a way of describing what reading this book is like. Eventually, an analogy came to me, and it's the obvious one. "The Longest Race" is like running along side Ayres for a long time without doing any talking. Thoughts come and go during runs like that, and they come from all sorts of unexpected directions. This is Ayres' point of view, albeit with the chance to do some organizing and editing before presenting them.

You should probably know that Ayres was raised as a Quaker and is a vegetarian. He's also been working for and is sympathetic to a variety of positions on the global stage. As a for instance, Ayres is hardly a graduate of the "drill, baby, drill" school of energy policy. He believes that sort of approach merely delays the inevitable, and does damage to the environment in the meantime.

Thus Ayres finds tangents in a variety of ways. Suddenly, the reader is presented with thoughts on Mikhail Gorbachev, or the man who helped design the world's largest nuclear bomb. It's fair to say there is plenty told about running and anthropology along the way, mostly in the form of our ancient ancestor's running roots. Ayres argues -- and others have echoed the thought -- that running long distances helped us survive as a species way back when, when we could outlast the potential food supply during the chase and strike when the animal at the lower end of the food chain when it was forced to rest.

Ayres obviously a bright person, and he writes nicely enough. The big question comes on whether this sort of book works, and that's going to come down to a very personal reaction. Based on the blurbs on the covers and the reviews on amazon.com, this sort of thoughtful approach works quite well for some.

But it didn't work particularly well for me, even though I'm relatively sympathetic to some of his points of view. The lack of focus was a little distracting, and the road to the non-running sections struck me as a little too winding. That leads to a problem of a rating here; I chose to give my personal reaction to the book rather than solely on its merits. There's something to be said for grabbing the reader, even loosely, and bringing him along.

I don't want to discourage anyone interested in running from at least pondering a look at "The Longest Race." This may sound interesting to you, so by all means give it a try. The book probably will find an audience, but my guess is that it will be a relatively small one. And that's O.K. ... every book doesn't have to sell in the millions.

Two stars

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Review: Breakaway (2012)

By Tal Pinchevsky

For those of you under the age of 30, it's difficult to describe what international sports were like in the Cold War era.

From the Western viewpoint, the teams from the other side of the Iron Curtain (the Soviet Union and its affiliates) were the subject of curiosity. We didn't know much about them, we knew they came from a different economic and cultural system, and we thought they were something close to robots.

It was particularly true in hockey. The West found out just how good the Soviets were during the 1972 series matching its best with their best, and in succeeding competitions and special tours. We on this side wondered what these players would do if they played full-time in the National Hockey League.

Eventually we found out ... and got the answer a little earlier than expected. For before the Soviet Bloc broke into pieces, several hockey players figured out ways -- mostly sneaky ways filled with danger and intrigue -- to come to the Western Hemisphere to give the NHL a shot.

The stories were kept quiet at the time for security reasons in some cases, although details have come up in dribbles over the years. When "Breakaway" was released, anyone who followed the sport during that era must have instantly realized what a great idea for book it was.

Author Tal Pinchevsky talked to as many people as possible about hockey's high-profile defections and transfers over the 1980's and early 1990's. Former NHL general manager Mike Smith compares it to an 'international political spy thriller" on the back cover of the book, and everyone will have that same thought.

The first high-profile move came when the Stastnys of Czechoslovakia made the jump to the Quebec Nordiques. Not only did Peter, the best player of the bunch, make the jump, but brothers Anton and Marian made the jump too. Other followed, such as Petr Klima, Peter Ihnacek, Petr Svoboda, Peter Bondra, etc.

Then the Soviets started to come. While aging players like Slava Fetisov wanted to make the move with permission of government authorities, the young players saw many years of indentured servitude in front of them and decided to bolt first. Alexander Mogilny caused a sensation when he defected in the spring of 1989, and Sergei Fedorov did the same a short time later.

The details of the actual defection are always interesting as told by Pinchevsky. There are discreet meetings in woods, people changing hotels every day, high-speed drives, bribe money, government officials, and so on. There are plenty of reminders about how much nerve and courage it took to make that move, even with the promise of huge financial rewards at the other side of the border. After all, family members were often left behind, not to mention a lifetime of possessions and memories. They thought they'd never be able to go back, although that changed when the Iron Curtain crumbled at the end of the Eighties.

A book like this essentially depends on how open the sources are. Some of the players involved still don't like talking about the specifics, or what the move meant to relationships in their families ... and it's been more than 20 years. That means some of the stories told here are better than others. For example, Petr Nedved, the last defector, who came over at 16, is particularly open about the experience of coming to the West at that age on the hope that the NHL would call. I also found myself wondering if the 20-somethings and younger would find this to be ancient history, so this book isn't for everyone.

But for those who remember the era, "Breakaway" fills in some gaps in a unique time in hockey history quite nicely. Pinchevsky puts a human face on those then-faceless men who risked everything for the chance to play a game in North America.

Four stars

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Review: How the SEC Became Goliath (2012)

By Ray Glier

The most impressive part of "How the SEC Became Goliath" might be revealed in the acknowledgements.

Author Ray Glier mentions in passing three that he wrote this entire book in two months. Wow. There's no doubt about the validity of his claim that he was up until 2:30 a.m. a lot in order to get it done.

Glier probably was driven by the nightmare that the Southeastern Conference might fall on hard times once the actual season began, leaving his book as something of an anachronism. He had nothing to worry about there, as it turned out. The first BCS standings came out in mid-October, and the SEC had seven of the top 25 teams in the country including the top two.

The SEC has become a great success story, having won the last six national championships. It's a good idea to take a look at what's gone right for a conference that seems like it is the NFL's top minor league - along the lines of Triple-A baseball.

Glier makes a couple of great points early in the book, pointing out that Southern schools have always taken a outsized share of interest in their football teams. The South had a bit of an inferiority complex, probably dating back to the Civil War. Professional teams didn't really arrive in the Deep South until the 1960's, when expansion teams finally landed in such places as Atlanta, Miami and New Orleans. Before that, schools such as Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia were fans' representatives in the bid for national sports exposure.

But that doesn't fully explain the recent dominance. Glier goes through a list of reasons for the SEC's good teams. Top coaching certainly has been high on the list, especially lately. Nick Saban, Les Miles and Steve Spurrier are clearly around the top of any list of the best in the sport. Then there's a general philosophy that football games are won from the inside out -- in other words, on the offensive and defensive line -- rather than the outside in. It's caught on throughout the conference.

Then there's a commitment to strength and conditioning on a huge scale. Anyone with a degree in that field apparently won't be unemployed for long, based on the number of people working at SEC schools in that department. And the conference's members have tried to stay on top when it comes to recruiting -- good players always help -- and facilities, which help impress the best recruits.

It's all done on a professional basis, and Glier does talk to some people who know plenty about football, SEC style. Still, there are some signs of the compressed time schedule.

Portions of the book feel a little disorganized and padded in spots. There aren't a great many sources of information here, understandable under the circumstances. You also could argue that it's a good subject for a long magazine article, but perhaps not quite interesting enough to many for a full-fledged book.

Those in SEC Country, though, might disagree. They'll certainly enjoy this quick look at the subject, and probably learn a few things along the way.

Three stars

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review: As I've Seen It (2012)

By Ed Kilgore

The story of how I first saw this book is worth telling.

I walked into a Barnes & Noble for a book signing by ex-boxer Ray Mancini and author Mark Kriegel when I saw Ed Kilgore standing by the service counter. Right next to him were copies of his new book, stacked up on the counter. I knew the book was coming but didn't know when it would go on sale.

When I asked him a smart-aleck question like, "Ed, are you using the personal touch to sell books now?", he laughed and said he didn't even know it was even there. But we quickly negotiated a good-natured deal: If I agreed to buy the book, he's autograph it on the spot.

Kilgore has been part of the Western New York sports scene for almost 40 years. We probably met about 30 years ago at one sporting event or another, and he's always been helpful and friendly for me. When I worked for the Sabres, he said whenever he got a telephone call from some drunk asking a trivia question, he'd give him my number because he figured I had a better chance of answering it. Thanks, Ed ... I think.

This sort of longevity is fairly rare in the television business, since most people try to move up and on. Kilgore used to be the new kid on the block while competing with Van Miller and Rick Azar; now he's the proverbial grizzled veteran. He's written down some of his memories in "As I've Seen It."

This is exactly what you might expect out of a longtime local sportscaster, with an extra surprise thrown in at the end. The early chapters are dedicated to a bit about his pre-Buffalo years -- who knew that his real name was Kim? The road to Buffalo that he took is a good reminder about just how much luck plays into the job-seeking process for those looking for work in the media. Kilgore more or less stumbled on to a job lead through a connection and got hired. He'd be the first to tell you that it could have been anyone else who happened to be in that age-old cliche of the right place at the right time.

From there, Kilgore mostly sticks to stories about others, everyone from Jim Kelly and Rick Martin to O.J. Simpson and Scotty Bowman. But there's time for some anecdotes about his family, co-workers and celebrity sightings along the way. I particularly liked reading about Ron Hunter, a legendary anchorman who passed through Buffalo, and Jerry Fedell, a news director at Ch. 2 in Buffalo whom I worked with in radio for a while. .

The last chapter is devoted to Kilgore's climb of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. While that trip came up on the news and through his Facebook posts, it comes across as a larger adventure when fully told here. Any buried feelings about trying mountain climbing of mine have been fully submerged again.

On books about Western New York, I tend to be particularly tough on looking for incorrect facts and typos, but Kilgore has a good batting average here. His writing style is quite conversational, as it's easy to hear his voice while reading it.

I don't rate books by friends, but those who have lived in the Buffalo area during the past 40 years should find "As I've Seen It" an easy, enjoyable read.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

Review: Baseball in the Garden of Eden (2012)

By John Thorn

Ask the casual baseball fan who invented baseball, and the answer probably will come back as "Abner Doubleday." He is said to have created the national pastime in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839.

This is despite the fact that Doubleday was a student at West Point at the time. Indeed, his historical claim to fame was actually that he was at Fort Sumter when the Confederacy attacked to start the Civil War in 1861.

But if not Doubleday, then who?

John Thorn, the official historian for major league baseball, took that task on. His long, long search covered decades, and the story of his investigation is smartly recounted in "Baseball in the Garden of Eden."

Many games don't have a simple genesis; basketball and Dr. James Naismith might be the exception that proves the rule. It doesn't take a historian to take a look at the British game of cricket to conclude that the English brought the game over to the New World, and it went through some unknown adaptations to get to be baseball. An intermediate step probably was the English game called "rounders."

But that's merely the outline of the story. Ball and bat games have been around for centuries. If you are looking for absolute proof that baseball predates Doubleday's alleged invention, check out the town laws of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1791. It seems that a game called "baseball" if played too close to a meeting house, was declared illegal.

Slowly but surely, baseball evolved during the 1800's. The number of bases and players increased to the point where we might recognize it -- although Thorn doesn't spend much time trying to help the reader picture what the early variations of the game resembled. Regional differences in the rules slowly disappeared, with the Knickerbockers of New York getting plenty of credit for standardization along the way. Eventually the game reached the point where nine men on the field and nine innings was more or less than standard. From there it was an easy jump to professionalism, which arrived in a manner of speaking in 1869, and a full national league, in the form of a National League, in 1876.

The road was pretty bumpy from there, as Thorn nicely recounts. Teams came and went, and the reserve clause was born along the way -- a device to control salaries that lasted almost a century. We even saw the rise and fall of The Players League in 1890, and the arrival of the American League at the turn of the century. But somehow baseball survived and prospered.

Thorn knocks down plenty of myths about the game's early days. Alexander Cartwright has been given plenty of credit for his role in the development of the game, but Thorn can't find much support for such claims. Henry Chadwick at least tirelessly promoted the game, in part through writing and editing.

So where did Doubleday come from? Thorn recounts the work of a commission in 1907-08 created to find out how baseball came about. It was a rather nationalistic time, and coming up with a story that said the game had evolved from a British ancestor just wouldn't do. One person came forward to claim he had been in Cooperstown when Doubleday's work was introduced. Even though the witness didn't have much credibility, the story was accepted as fact without any backing research.

Why Doubleday? Thorn goes into the history of theosophy, a philosophy designed to promote brotherhood as well as the study of other religious and unexplained laws of nature. Al Spaulding - a baseball player who went into the sporting goods business - was connected to theosophy through his wife. Doubleday was also a follower, so when the connection more or less fell out of the sky, the group issued its finding.

The obvious danger of a book like this is that it can be dry. Thorn does a good job of keeping the material fresh. Some quoted material from the 19th century can be slightly slow going. Even so, the only part that really drags is the sections on theosophy. They are probably necessary to the story, but they do glaze the eyes.

Overall, though, "Baseball in the Garden of Eden" puts the pieces of baseball's development together and makes some sense out of them. Those interested in the subject will find much to enjoy here, and maybe it smashes for good a few misconceptions about the game's roots that have been around for far too long.

Four stars

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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review: The Goal of My Life (2012)

By Paul Henderson with Roger Lajoie

We read "The Goal of My Life" because we want to know Paul Henderson's reaction to the question, "Is that all there is?"

And to understand why we ask, we have to understand something about Canada, and hockey, and fame.

Henderson was living a relatively normal life until 1972. He was a good, but not great, player in the National Hockey League. The winger broke in with Detroit in 1963, and eventually was traded to Toronto. Henderson was one of the best players on some ordinary Maple Leaf teams of the late 1960's and early 1970's. He played on a line with Norm Ullman and Ron Ellis.

Then came 1972. Canada agreed to play the Soviet Union in a special eight-game hockey series that fall. The professionals of Canada had never met the Soviets before, and there was considered curiosity about how such a matchup would. go. It was also in the middle of the Cold War, so such "cultural exchanges" were rare and those on the other side of the Iron Curtain represented a great unknown in many ways.

The Soviets took about two periods in Game One to show that they were for real, winning that first game by a score of 7-3. By the end of Game Five, Canada trailed in the series, 3-1-1, and only the most loyal of Canada's hockey fans believed that a comeback was possible. But it was, and Henderson was a major reason why. He scored the game-winning goals in Game Six, Game Seven, and - most famously - Game Eight to give Canada the series. It's indicative of Canada's love of hockey that Henderson's goal became one of those "where were you when...?" moments north of the border.He went from hockey player to national hero in record time.

Once the series was over and the celebrations were finished, Henderson probably had figured out that the rest of his life was going to be an anti-climax. So, while we're interested in Henderson's hockey career and his thoughts about the '72 Series, we're curious about what happened from there.

Hockey fans probably know what Henderson played hockey for the rest of the decade, jumping to the World Hockey Association in 1974. He spent five seasons in the WHA, and around that time turned up his attention to his faith. Henderson became a devoted Christian in that time.

When his hockey days were finally over, Henderson looked around at possible second careers. He eventually settled on work in his faith, mostly through The Leadership Group which offers a hand to men trying to lead a more spiritual life. Plenty of athletes make such a turn in their lives, for reasons as individual as their personalities. Although it's not really discussed, there are hints that Henderson has done some motivational speaking over the years to pay some bills. And who in Canada wouldn't want to hear what it was like?

The book, then, essentially is split in two. The first 150 pages or so stick to hockey, and it's always good to read a first-person account of great moments in a particular field. Henderson's comments don't have a great deal of bite for the most part, but there are interesting stories about the journey.

One anecdote is revealing. Henderson was once asked about Bobby Clarke's famous slash that broke Valeri Kharlamov's ankle in game six. His reply was, "It was the low point of the series." Clarke wasn't happy about the answer. Henderson apologized and gives a longer explanation in the book, saying that what looks good in the heat of the moment may not be good behavior in hindsight. But he adds that it was a "loaded question" and "This is one of the many reasons today re very wary around certain writers." It's a curious moment.

The final 80 or so pages of text are mostly spent on Henderson's faith, including several pages of comments from people who have worked with Henderson on his religious projects. The reader's interest level may depend on his own background and set of beliefs. Henderson's own faith received quite a stern test recently when he was diagnosed with cancer, but happily he seems to be at peace with whatever happens.

Those looking for a mere hockey story from Henderson won't find it in "The Goal of My Life." Lives don't come that neatly packaged. It's an interesting enough tale, though, that at its core does show how at least one person reacted to sudden, overwhelming celebrity.

Three stars

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Review: Promises to Keep (2012)

By Floyd Little with Tom Mackie

"Promises to Keep" is an odd autobiography. It was written probably because of a magazine article, and its best parts appear to have been published elsewhere.

First, the magazine story. Gary Smith wrote the story for Sports Illustrated a while back. It was about the unique relationship of star football player Floyd Little and freelance football writer Tom Mackie.

Little was one of the nation's top college running backs at Syracuse, and a workhorse for the Denver Broncos. Little didn't have a great deal of help on his Broncos teams of the Sixties and Seventies, and his teams had poor records, but Little still was obviously one of the league's best runners.

Guys like that usually have trouble making the Hall of Fame, and Little certainly did. But Mackie's childhood hero was Little, and Mackie was determined to get Little to Canton ... particularly after the two men actually met. So Mackie kept working at that goal, year after year, and Little finally made it. The story, as Little puts it here, was practically a screenplay - a memorable, wonderful story that put Little back in the public eye.

It was a natural, then, for Little to try a full-fledged autobiography. Most Hall of Famers should give such books a try anyway. And this is it. He covers his early years well enough, coming out of poverty in Connecticut. Little got some guidance along the way that directed his energies into proper directions, and after two years of prep school he landed a scholarship at Syracuse. There he was one of the great series of running backs to wear #44 (Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, etc.).

Little was a first-round draft choice of the Broncos, and became their one star. Denver spent most of his career losing, but that doesn't mean he didn't encounter plenty of interesting personalities along the way. Little tells a variety of anecdotes about a variety of them.

This part is good reading, but it comes with a catch. Little mentions that he wrote a book in 2006, "Floyd Little's Tales from the Broncos' Sideline." He says that since the publisher went bankrupt recently and that books are difficult to find, he simply retells some stories here. In looking at the amazon.com review, there's no doubt that the best tales do get rehashed here.

Once Little gets done with his pro career, he spends just a little time on his life after football and soon jumps into the story about making the Hall with both feet. The chapter runs more than 40 pages, which is saying something in a book that has 243 pages of text. It's easy to see how much the trip to Canton meant to him, but he still has a little bitterness about the wait. Considering that Little is by all accounts a good person, here's hoping he moves beyond that and soon.

The book ends with a wide variety of comments, going from inspirational advice to thoughts on Tim Tebow and Jim Brown to tributes to family members. It's a slightly disorganized finish to the story, although it sounds like his work at Syracuse now in the athletic department is an excellent spot for him.

Oh - one other small complaint -- couldn't someone have found a better, in-focus picture for the front cover?

"Promises to Keep," then, comes with an asterisk. Those who read Little's first book probably need not go here. As for the rest of us, the new effort is a pleasant enough look at one of football's most underrated players.

Three stars

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Review: Paterno (2012)

By Joe Posnanski

As writing assignments go, this one turned out to be almost cruel.

Joe Posnanski, one of America's best sports writers, was given the chance to write a book on one of America's coaching icons. He'd been promised great access to the subject of the biography, who probably would retire at the end of his last season. He'd also been given the chance to examine the subject's personal records. It would be a chance to salute one of the icons of the sports world.

But the icon in question was Joe Paterno, the Penn State football coach who was caught up in one of the biggest scandals in the history of college sports in the fall of 2011.

"Mr. Posnanski, you're going to have to change some of the tone of the book in order to consider this new information. Oh, and do it as fast as you can, because the public is anxious to read about this and every day that you don't publish it costs us all money."

The resulting book is "Paterno." It's not the book that Posnanski thought he was going to write, certainly, but still worth your time.

Paterno was headed for the mythical Mount Rushmore of coaches until the past year. Yes, he won games, more than any other football coach. He won a few national championships along the way. Paterno turned the middle of Pennsylvania -- and if you've ever been there, you know it's pretty close to the middle of the proverbial nowhere -- into one of the power centers of the college football universe. No small task.

Paterno did it the right way, too. His players graduated, went on to successful lives in many cases, and remembered the lessons they learned from their coach along the way. It wasn't idyllic; there were tough years and bad apples along the way. But it was close.

Most of the book still salutes that tone. Posnanski writes about dozens and dozens of players, coaches, etc. who had a relationship with Paterno. Joe Pa was something of the quirky mad scientist at times, always preferring to hide in his home office and work on some new defense than anything else. Yet he found time to raise a family (with his wife's considerable help), challenge the university to raise its standards, and raised millions to help his school reach a goal of excellence.

Alas, that single-mindedness came back to haunt him. When graduate assistant Mike McQueary saw "something" in a shower involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and a young boy, he reported the incident to Paterno. The head coach passed along the information and never followed up on it. Paterno joins in the chorus here that he should have done more. Paterno and Sandusky apparently didn't get along well, and it's tough to say if there were other clues about Sandusky's behavior that Paterno missed or didn't want to see. Posnanski leaves that for others to investigate.

Guido D'Elia was a friend of Paterno's who saw the coach up close for decades and was convinced of his goodness, but even he couldn't figure out why Paterno didn't follow up on the incident. "Find the answer to that, and you have the story," he said.

So, we don't have the full story, and maybe we never will. Clearly we need time for everything to be sorted out, and time wasn't on Posnanski's side. The book feels a little rushed in spots, with some duplication of material. Yet there is much here that is worth reading, much that gives us insight into this simple yet complicated man.

"Paterno" is an artfully written book that supplies many of the pieces that went into the subject's life. We'll have to see if there are other pieces that complete the puzzle.

Four stars

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Friday, September 7, 2012

Review: The War by the Shore (2012)

By Curt Sampson

With the Ryder Cup coming up soon on the golfing calendar, it's not a bad time to take a look back at one of the most dramatic competitions in that event's history: the 1991 edition.

The temperature was starting to go up at that point, a process that had been building since all of the best Europeans took on the Americans as opposed to the Great Britain vs. U.S. format that had been abandoned a decade before that. Some Euro wins put the competitiveness back in the Ryder Cup, and the emotions soon followed.

The 1991 event became known as "The War by the Shore," and author Curt Sampson wisely uses that as the title of his good recap of the event. Perhaps the centerpiece of the story deals with the subject of Ryder Cup and pressure.

Pro golfers know pressure, of course. If they don't play well, they don't eat. The top players get beyond that stage, of course, and then have to worry about the pressure of getting to the next level -- winning on the tour -- and the next -- winning a major. But if a player doesn't come through in that situation, he's only let himself down.

In the Ryder Cup, a golfer who fails lets down himself, his team filled with peers, the fans at the course who are openly rooting for him, and his country. That's a much different animal, particularly in a relatively unfamiliar match play format. As a result, there are many nervous shots in a Ryder Cup. The compensation is, you don't have to beat everyone to win. You just have to win your match.

Sampson does a very nice job of setting up the event. It's fun to look at the rosters of the two teams now. Team Europe in hindsight has the memorable stars, including Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros and Colin Montgomerie. The Americans had some merely "very good" players, including Fred Couples, Lanny Wadkins and Payne Stewart, but they were deeper. Would that be enough? Virtually all of the players get quick biographies that bring to light some new or forgotten facts about them, and the story of the course itself -- just opening and thus a surprise choice to serve as host -- is interesting now as well.

Once the circumstances are set up, we move to the golf itself. It's difficult to make 21-year-old matches too interesting today, particularly those in the early going. If there's a little drag in the story, it comes at that point. But once we reach the final day of competition, the story certainly picks up. Sampson made the decision to write about the singles matches in order, rather than going minute by minute around the course. It's a smart move in this case because it's much easier to follow. Any loss of impact due to a lack of feeling about how the day was going for a side at a particular side isn't really missed that much.

Besides, the author did know what was coming. As any veteran golf fan knows, the competition came down to the final match, and provided a finish for the history books. And there's a nice ending on what happened to the participants after the match.

All things considered, "The War by the Shore" attains its goal pretty well, giving a nice recap of the proceedings. Those who have a strong interest in the subject certainly would do well to pick this up, and will give it an extra star.

Three stars

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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Review: Perfection (2012)

By Bob Griese and Dave Hyde

The mental image is advanced by the media every year. The members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins notice that the last undefeated team in professional football team has lost. So they pour themselves a glass of champagne and toast their team from yesteryear.

Sometimes it happens in November. Sometimes it happens after New Year's Day. But it always has happened, year after year, for 40 years.

Those Dolphins are the only team, still, to go through an entire season and playoffs without losing a single game. That makes them a contender for the mythical title of "greatest football team ever," simply because they met every challenge put in front of them.

It makes those Dolphins worth reading about, even today. Bob Griese and Dave Hyde have done a fine job of reviewing that season in their appropriately titled book, "Perfection."

The two men take an interesting approach to the writing of this book. Griese might be the most famous player on that team from a 2012 season. He had a Hall of Fame career, and he went on to become a television commentator after retirement. But ... the funny part is that Griese was hurt in the fifth game of the season, and didn't start again until the Super Bowl.

That sounds like a problem, but it really isn't here. It's easy to guess that Hyde did a lot of the heavy lifting that fills out much of the rest of the book in the chronological account of the season. The focus shifts away from Griese to his teammates. There are excellent profiles of the personalities on that team, from coach Don Shula, to the offensive linemen taken off the proverbial scrap heap, to the elegance of Paul Warfield, to the contrasting behavior of safeties Dick Anderson and Jake Scott. Griese and Hyde make this team come alive.

The book also takes some interesting tangents along the way. The use of amphetamines back then was indeed heavy and unregulated. There's a story about how Mercury Morris took a pill from O.J. Simpson at the Pro Bowl, and Morris stayed awake from Sunday afternoon until Tuesday morning. Simpson used to take two of those pills before every game. The medical practices from those days come across as almost barbaric in hindsight. It's no wonder why so many players from that era are suffering from the after-effects of injuries, particularly concussions.

Griese also points out how those Dolphins were on the cutting edge of football strategy. For example, Miami pioneered the use of situation substitutions. Morris and Jim Kiick both saw plenty of action at halfback, depending on the situation. Common today, novel then.

There are a couple of typographical errors that jump out here. Don McCafferty and Steve Tensi get their names mangled. That's surprising in a book that otherwise is quite well researched.

Obviously, a book about a football team from 40 years ago isn't going after the youth audience. Still, it's good to have a first-hand account of such an important team in terms of history. "Perfection" is easy to read, and will keep you entertained and interested. It's a nice job.

Four stars

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Sunday, September 2, 2012

Review: Sapp Attack (2012)

By Warren Sapp with David Fisher

Who says media interviews don't help sell books? Warren Sapp recently made an appearance on WFAN Radio in New York (picked up by the Yes Network on television), in which the former NFL star was quite funny and interesting.

That prompted me to read his book, "Sapp Attack." It's the obvious literary track to say that the book is quite funny and interesting, but it's tough to go quite that far.

Sapp always has been an interesting figure. He was a superstar at the University of Miami, where he was part of some great teams filled with tremendous talent. But Sapp also carried some baggage with him, even then. He failed a drug test shortly before the draft, which allowed him to slip down the first round a bit. Sapp was grabbed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who put him at starting defensive tackle after a few weeks and let him go to work.

Sapp certainly ranks as one of the great characters in recent NFL history. He usually said what was on his mind, on and off the field. That led him to some good-sized fines over the years. Isn't it interesting, then, that Sapp wound up on the NFL Network as a commentator?

Well before retirement, though, Sapp went through some good times and bad times. He certainly helped change the culture of the then-lowly Bucs, who eventually became Super Bowl champions. Sapp credits coaches Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden for leading the way in those years, although he was part of a often suffocating defense that was greatly responsible for Tampa Bay's rise. The story about how the Bucs knew the Raiders' audibles in their Super Bowl matchup because they hadn't changed them since Gruden had been the head coach there was particularly interesting.

Sapp eventually left Tampa Bay to jump to the Raiders, which at first glance seemed like a perfect match. All  Raiders are NFL players, but not all NFL players are "Raiders," if you consider the stereotype of Oakland's outlaw image. Sapp figured to fit right in, but he's quite frank in describing how disorganized the Raiders' organization was at that time and how odd owner Al Davis was back then. Well, we had plenty of other evidence about Al, so we don't have to take Sapp's word for it there.

The construction of the book is rather odd. Sapp and co-author David Fisher review the player's career nicely enough, mostly relying on anecdotes rather than reciting scores. But when the chronology ends, Sapp is only on page 200 ... and the book goes on to page 314. After some overall review of the game, Sapp moves on to what he's been doing since retiring, concentrating on commentary and "Dancing with the Stars." Turned out the big fellow did have some moves. But it feels a little padded. In addition, it's a book that reads as if there are no natural spots for chapter endings; it just sort of runs along throughout the entire text.

Occasionally, Sapp's logic is a little twisted. For example, he once grabbed Jerry Rice's facemask, forcing the receiver to turn awkwardly. A severe knee injury was the result. Sapp said about the play a few paragraphs, "You don't apologize for a clean hit,: But isn't grabbing the facemask a penalty? Sapp also controls his tongue a few times in terms of rough language, but there are enough bad words elsewhere in here to make the reader wonder why he bothered.

Overall, though, Sapp makes a good impression -- just like he did in the interview. He's quite candid throughout, put in the hours off the field, and didn't take any plays off on it. "Sapp Attack" isn't great literature, but it's worth a read -- particularly in the first half of the book -- by those who have followed this future Hall of Famer.

Three stars

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Review: Best of Rivals (2012)

By Adam Lazarus

The position of football quarterback is unique in a variety of ways in sports, but in one way in particular. A starter is not merely named, he is the subject of a coronation. For whatever reason, we seem to think that quarterbacks can never be replaced, even temporarily, unless they are ready to be buried on the depth chart for years to come. Heck, NFL coaches don't switch quarterbacks until well past the point of logic, a time when their team is either so far ahead or behind that no one is even paying attention.

The general rule is such matters is that it helps to have one person take over the starting job. In other words, if you have two number-one quarterbacks, you have no number-one quarterbacks.

But there was an exception to that rule, and it's the subject of Adam Lazarus' book, "Best of Rivals."

After the 1992 season, the San Francisco 49ers had two star quarterbacks on their roster. Steve Young was arguably the best quarterback in the National Football League at that point. Joe Montana was arguably the best quarterback in the National Football League in history. There's never been a situation like it.

Thus a recounting of the story involving the two men is worth telling for that reason. Two Hall of Famers, one job.Lazarus tells the story here.

The author gives a brief biography of both players first. Montana and Young were both famous in college, but Montana needed little time to achieve pro stardom. Young began his professional career in the United States Football League, bounced to the lowly Tampa Bay Bucs, and finally arrived in San Francisco ... with Montana ahead of him on the depth chart. It wasn't an easy situation for someone used to starting.

From there, Lazarus gives us something of a game-by-game account of the few years that the two men were together. Sometimes two quarterbacks can have a good relationship, but usually one of them is clearly better and deserves to start -- thus, each knows his role. That wasn't the case here, and Montana was always looking over his shoulder at the younger, talented man backing him up.

What's striking in hindsight at how battered Montana was when Young arrived in 1987, even though Montana didn't even have a full decade on the job yet. He spent much of the next few years on the injured list, but was frequently still very effective when he was healthy enough to play. That gave Young a taste of playing time, but never quite enough to be comfortable until Montana started to miss long stretches of games at a time.

Lazarus obviously put in his time at the library for this one, with several quotes brought back from the past to describe games and events. He also talked to as many principals as possible, including Montana and Young. Indeed, Young sounds as if he was more forthcoming on the subject than Montana in hindsight. But the best moments in the book come this way, such as the time Bill Walsh needed about five minutes from his view in the owner's box at the Super Bowl (he had retired at this point) to say that the 49ers would in the game easily and decisively.

"Best of Rivals" works reasonably well. Since much of the detail comes from the games themselves and the accompanying quotes, it's fair to say that this book will be welcomed more than San Francisco fans who wish to review a unique part of their history. They should definitely give it an extra star. The rest of the football world may find that this bogs down just a little in the stories about games from two decades ago, but most will find this a solid enough recounting of the era.

Three stars

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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Review: Imperfect (2012)

By Jim Abbott and Tim Brown

Former baseball player Jim Abbott always wanted to be more than a curiosity.

Admittedly, he's always going to be known by the general public for the fact that he reached the major leagues in spite of having only one hand. His drive and determination to overcome that disadvantage have always been admirable and made him special.

But now that he's written an autobiography, it's obvious that Abbott is admirable in more ways than one. After reading "Imperfect," it's fair to say that most people will come away thinking that Abbott has written a superb book that details just what it's like to be a big league pitcher - any big league pitcher.

Abbott and co-author Tim Brown use something of a ping-pong approach to the book, alternating subjects for the chapters. Half of the sections are devoted to Abbott's entire career, and it was interesting one.

The left-hander grew up not realizing that he wasn't supposed to play baseball, so he played and practiced whenever he could. Abbott threw against a wall for hours in order to make the smooth transition between throwing and fielding, which involved moving the glove to his left hand after making a pitch. He was a good enough athlete that he even played a little quarterback in high school.

From there he passed up the chance to sign with a major league baseball team straight out of high school, earning a scholarship to Michigan. From there, Abbott landed a spot on the 1988 United States Olympic baseball team, which won a gold medal in Seoul.

He landed a big contract with the Angels, who put him in the rotation without a day in the minors. Abbott didn't need much time to fit in on the field, becoming a regular even if he was rarely dominant. 

The pitcher became something of a media sensation, as everyone wanted to do a story on him. But that had a side effect; Abbott was sought out by children throughout the country who needed inspiration to face their own challenges. The hurler said he was blind-sided by all of the emotion involved there, but felt an obligation to help. It's compelling material.

Eventually, Abbott was traded to the Yankees, and bounced to the White Sox, Angels (again) and Brewers. There haven't been many descriptions of what it's like to be unable to make the transition from thrower to pitcher at that level, as Abbott slowly lost his ability to get outs at the game's highest level. It's painful to read about the pitcher's unraveling toward what he considered a premature retirement, mostly because it's so easy to root for him while reading this. 

Meanwhile, the rest of the book is devoted to Abbott's no-hitter for the Yankees against the Cleveland Indians in 1993. Each inning receives a chapter. 

Abbott had been bombed by the Indians in his last start, so he didn't exactly come into the game thinking no-hitter. He just wanted a win. The pitcher takes us through the game in a way that brings real insight into the art of pitching. 

Abbott and Brown talked to some of the people in Abbott's life who provide additional background information on the key points of the story, and an Angels' executive opened up his clippings file on Abbott for more memory-jogging. Brown deserves credit for putting the package together in such a good way.
The result is more than simply worth your time. For those interested in inspiring stories, and in baseball, "Imperfect" works just about perfectly.

Five stars

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