Saturday, June 23, 2012

Review: The Year of the Los Angeles Kings (2012)

By Andrew Podnieks

Somebody must have gone without sleep recently.

"The Year of the Los Angeles Kings" plopped at my door a little more than a week after the end of the Stanley Cup Finals. I'm not sure the city of Los Angeles had cleaned up from the parade yet when this book hit the streets.

Even in an age when "instant books" are produced quite quickly, this is impressive. Publishers know it's important to capitalize on the emotions of a championship season when it comes to selling to the fan base, and the National Hockey League -- which produced this book -- certainly came through there.

Andrew Podnieks gets the credit as the writer here of this 160-page volume. It covers the bases exactly the way you'd expect. After a short introduction, the book jumps into a statistical and tabular review of the 2011-12 regular season. That includes the game-by-game results, individual scoring, overall playoff results for the NHL, etc.

Then comes the main section on the Kings' magical ride to the Cup.Each game receives a few pages, complete with quotes from the participants. It's written from the Kings' perspective, naturally, and it comes the bases of what happened in each game. There are plenty of color pictures along the way, and they are very nicely done. When combined with a good-looking layout, this becomes a top-notch package. Yes, the section concludes with pictures of the Kings with the Stanley Cup, events that seemed to happen about a blink of an eye ago.

That's followed by a small section on team history, with a couple of articles and a few lists taken from media guides. Then each player gets a two-page biography, with one page a color picture.

This doesn't take long to read, as you could imagine. I haven't seen the instant book put out by the Los Angeles Times, but my guess would be that it is a little more text-heavy.

Still, "The Year of the Los Angeles Kings" does what it sets out to do artfully. It will only appeal to the Kings' fans, of course, so it's not necessary to rate it. Backers of the team will enjoy the pictures and descriptions of the games as they relive an unlikely ride to a title.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Review: Showdown at Shepherd's Bush (2012)

By David Davis

The so-called "running boom" arguably started in the 1970's. That's when Frank Shorter won the gold medal in the 1972 Olympics in Munich in the marathon. He led a parade of Americans to championships around the world as suddenly the sports world started to pay much more attention to running. Even though the American aspect of it, at least in terms of winning races, has dropped off, marathons are still crowded in many locations.

But the boom was actually the second of its kind. The first started more than 100 years ago.

David Davis outlines the circumstances surrounding that initial burst of enthusiasm smartly in his book, "Showdown at Shepherd's Bush." As you might suspect, the Olympics and an American were behind it all, but in far different ways.

Marathon running was present in 1908 but it's tough to say it was thriving. Running 25 miles, done as something close to a stunt for the 1896 Games in Athens, was almost a curiosity. The Boston Marathon was on the sports calendar, but there weren't crowds wanting to enter.

Then in 1908, an amazing finish captured the sporting world's attention. Dorando Pietri of Italy was well ahead in the Olympic marathon in London (Shepherd's Bush was the district of London where the Games were held), but he ran out of gas as he circled the stadium. Pietri collapsed a few times, and had to be helped over the finish line. Meanwhile, Johnny Hayes of the United States was in good shape as he finished second. Tom Longboat of Canada had dropped out; he had been the prerace favorite. Those three runners take centerstage in the book.

As Davis outlines here, Hayes was awarded the gold medal when Pietri was later disqualified. But oddly enough, Pietri won the public relations battle as the public felt sorry for him. Pietri became something of a superstar by 1908 standards. He even had a song written about him by Irving Berlin; it became Berlin's first hit.

The three marathoners as well as a handful of others went on to run match races in arenas before thousands of fans, no matter how dreary in terms of spectator appeal that format might sound today. Interest in marathoning really stayed strong through World War I, when everyone had better things to worry about.

Davis did a nice job researching the back story, even getting some Italian newspapers translated for his purposes. The tale moves along smartly, and all three of the major characters are interesting in their own way. Readers today get a good look at amateurism at its worst back then, as greedy promoters and officials schemed to bend the rules and to send the money their way.

It's a long-lost era, but Davis brings it to life for a few hundred pages well here. "Showdown at Shepherd's Bush" is a nice recap of an under-publicized aspect of Olympic history.

Four stars

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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review: Extra Innings (2012)

Edited by Steven Goldman

The geniuses of Baseball Prospectus are back with another book and the g-word is not to be thrown around lightly.

The staff of that "organization" -- a group of writers that produces an annual must-read book and a popular website -- has been doing good work in the area of baseball research and analysis for quite a while now -- more than a decade. They also did a book a few years ago, "Baseball Between the Numbers," that was less topical but contained plenty of interesting issues examined in some new and interesting ways.

"Extra Innings" is the sequel, in a sense. And as sequels go, well, this isn't The Godfather Part II.

The Baseball Prospectus crew always has relied on a number of formulas and statistics to make its case, but usually it has added sharp, funny writing to help the reader move forward. For the most part here, though, this is pretty dry stuff.

It's particularly true in the front portion of the book. After a good introduction by Goldman on some statistics that should be on a back of a baseball card, we jump right into the steroid era. There's an essay on the steroid era which is slow going, a story on how the drug-enhanced boys should do in Hall of Fame consideration that's a little long, and an essay on what is called the next stage of athlete enhancement that is really dry. At that point, it's page130 and there hasn't been much fun to be had at all.

It's somewhat hit or miss from there Rany Jazayerli does a good job at looking at the effect of age on the amateur draft, Jay Jaffe takes a nice look at whether Jack Morris is a Hall of Famer, Derek Carty examines when a team's hot start is more than a hot start, and Christina Kahrl shows what the increase in strikeouts means when it comes to how the game is played. There are other chapters in which while the conclusions are of interest, the methods used to get there might tend to glaze the reader's eyes over.

The end result, then, is something that reads a bit like a collection of academic papers on the broader subject of baseball. The information that comes out of it certainly is worth having, but the full story of how that information is derived might not be of great interest to most fans.

In other words, "Extra Innings" probably will have trouble finding a mass audience. Those that like this sort of analysis certainly will much to study here. For the rest of us, this is a tough book to love.

Two stars

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