Friday, September 27, 2013

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2013

J.R. Moehringer, Editor

This space has contained reviews of the annual book, "The Best American Sports Writing," for years. It's always been very, very good reading, often receiving the relatively rare five-star rating. It's to the point where I'm hard pressed to come up with something different to say each year, other than "go buy it, you'll be glad you did."

This year ... was different.

Series editor Glenn Stout, was always opens the book with a thoughtful introduction, sets the tone right from page xi. He reminds us that sports can be a path to finding out more about a particular person or situation, although not necessarily the path. That meshes with my own experiences, particularly when it comes to the running stories I write. Runners run for a variety of different reasons, and it's often fascinating to find out the details as a clue to a bigger story about human behavior.

That led into an introduction by this year's guest editor, J.R. Moehringer, who started as a daily sportswriter but moved into different areas - drawn by the stories that sports can create but not necessarily drawn by the sports themselves.

After a handful of pages went by, I didn't need much more time to reach a conclusion. Moehringer was going to be using a much bigger net to capture stories that previous editors.

There are a couple of ways of expressing that. First, only a handful of stories are about athletes in the public eye. Most deal with people we don't know dealing with extraordinary situations; in other words, nothing about Tiger Woods here. Second, there are stories in here from sources such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN the magazine that I didn't read the first time around. I don't recall that happening often in this series, but I read them here because I had faith in the selections that they would be worth my time.

Let's add a third - the first story in the book, arguably designed to be the showcase piece of all 25 picks, is on bullfighting. While the story is very well done and full of drama, bullfighting isn't something that pops up on sports talk radio of SportsCenter very often. OK, never. It's followed by an article on bowling, and then by two athletes dying young. No, it's not your older brother's anthology.

One of the few articles on someone in the public eye could have been published in an anthology of business stories. It's the story of Curt Schilling's spiral into corporate bankruptcy with his video games company. "End Game" is fascinating reading, but baseball barely takes even a supporting role.

There is much to enjoy here. Charles Siebert's look at an undrafted free agent's attempt to stick in the NFL was very enlightening. "At the Corner of Love and Basketball" by Allison Glock held me more or less captive. A look back at a "Simpson's" episode on baseball was terrific. I also remembered stories on principled athletes and Urban Meyer from the first time I read them, and they were worth reading again here.

On the other hand, there were a couple of stories that I quit reading well before the halfway point, and a few others that didn't quite add up for me - emphasis on "for me."

And that's the charm of the series. I don't have to like all of the picks, but the selections of "The Best American Sports Writing" force me to try to read stories that I wouldn't normally cover. Moehringer's success rate wasn't quite as good as some of the other editors, at least to me, but you may have a different experience. The journey, though, is always worth taking.

Four stars

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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Review: One Last Strike (2012)

By Tony La Russa with Rick Hummel

Fans of the St. Louis Cardinals will always remember the 2011 baseball season. Yes, they won the World Series - but the Cardinals have done that before with some degree of regularity. But it's how they did it that will put a smile on every Cardinal fan's face.

St. Louis was hovering just above .500 in late August, apparently out of the playoff picture. Then the Cardinals got hot, the Braves got cold, and somehow, some way, St. Louis grabbed a playoff spot on the last day of the regular season. Then in the playoffs, the Cardinals survived the early rounds of the playoffs to reach the World Series against Texas. You may have heard that the Cardinals were down to their last strike a couple of times, but fought back somehow to eventually win it all.

The conclusion was the perfect exit line, and manager Tony La Russa used it - retiring right after the end of the Series. He followed that by writing a book that's mostly about the magical season, "One Last Strike."

It was always a bit difficult to get a good read on La Russa from the distance of a fan, and the book gives the impression that he liked it that way. La Russa clearly is a very intelligent man, and he took his job very seriously. He expected everyone to do the same. Team members were certainly allowed to enjoy a particular moment, but they had to remember that the overall focus was winning that last game of the season if possible. In this case, the Cardinals had to win the next-to-last game in dramatic fashion to get to that last game. They did win that Game Six in the most extraordinary way imaginable, setting up a less dramatic but still exciting Game Seven of the Series. As you'd expect, the story of those two games is the best part of the book.

If this story is any indication, and I'm quite certain that it is, managing in the major leagues is more complicated than even big fans can imagine. The strategic parts of the job are easy to second-guess from the stands, but much goes into every decision - and the decision can go a different way depending on the circumstances. There's a fascinating story about a simple stolen base in the World Series that might have been prevented had strategy gone a different way - and La Russa beat himself up a bit over it until he came to terms with the fact that he made the best decision he could at the time. As he writes, these aren't chess pieces out there - they are people, and it's his job to put them in the best possible circumstances to succeed.

The other big part of the job that is highlighted is the interpersonal relationships involved. La Russa chose a group of veteran players to be "co-signers," people to react to situations and ideas. He also made sure to keep lines of communication open whenever possible. That's not easy in these days of agents and fans telling players how great they are, but La Russa obviously had a long record of success to use as a took to convince those same players to play the game correctly.

La Russa concentrates on those areas here, which in itself is interesting. Books by Terry Francona and Joe Torre had much more attention paid to media-related issues, which may be the price they paid for serving as a manager in Boston and New York respectively.

La Russa also rarely goes back into his own personal history much here. He played in the majors for several years, and then moved into managing to start what turned out to be a 35-year career. There are references to those times, but mostly to make a point about today. It sounds as if La Russa might have another book or two in him.

"One Last Strike" is a bit on the dry side - not many funny anecdotes, and few stories about the other members of the Cardinals' organization. So take it for what it is - a serious primer about how a great manager (third all-time in wins, I believe) went about his business. What's more, Cardinal fans will love the ending.

Four stars

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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Review: My Best Race (2013)

Edited by Chris Cooper

Simple, simple, simple.

Go find some famous runners, and ask them what's the race that they never forget.

It's another one of those slap-your-forehead-and-ask-why-you-didn't-think-of-it books. Thankfully, Chris Cooper did.

He's the editor of "My Best Race," although he probably could have gotten away with a writing credit. Cooper supplies the background information around the quotes, and handles those duties well.

He talked with 50 different runners. All of them are accomplished in the sport in one way or another. Luckily, they aren't all marathoners, so there's diversity in their backgrounds.

What's more, the stories go in unexpected directions. Few give their most famous races in describing their favorite races. Some go back to high school, for instance. Ed Eyestone knocked off an undefeated prep athlete in a very unexpected time and place, and went on to become a two-time Olympian.

A few even go to the end of their careers, like Bart Yasso's participation in an ultra-marathon in South Africa. I wasn't expecting Kathrine Switzer to talk about anything about her first Boston Marathon - but she did, talking about her trip to Athens to run a marathon. But all the stories are quite interesting.

If you follow the sport of running, you know many of the names. Jeff Galloway was a pretty fair runner until he became one of the nation's leading authors on the subject. Zola Budd was a sensation when she came out of South Africa in the Eighties. Steve Scott is one of America's greatest milers. And on it goes.

Each chapter has a little tip for the running population that more or less relates to the story. It's probably not necessary, but if it helps get someone out the door - fine.

I didn't count the non-Americans in the book, but I don't recall many if any. The biggest names of the sport aren't overly represented, although Kara Goucher - which leads the book - is a fine exception. Wonder if Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, Alberto Salazar or Joan Benoit Samuelson were asked to participate?

This is an e-book, so it's not available to everyone, and might not be something you'd want to keep forever anyway. But it's a nice quick read, with many worthwhile tales, and at a low price. You'll be happy with your investment of time when you reach the finish line of "My Best Race."

Four stars

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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review: The Sons of Westwood (2013)

By John Martin Smith

For those who are looking at a somewhat left-wing historical look at the UCLA basketball dynasty, "The Sons of Westwood" is that book.

That's actually not as bad an idea as it might sound, even to conservatives.

John Martin Smith's book concentrates on the years between 1964 to 1975, when the Bruins won 10 NCAA titles in 12 years. That's a remarkable achievement by almost any standard, especially when you consider that players left after a maximum of three years of play. The Celtics won 11 NBA championships in 13 years in one stretch, but Bill Russell was the center for all of them. The UCLA roster was usually in flux, although not as much as when today's teams see top freshmen turn pro.

"The Sons of Westwood" - the title of the school fight song, by the way - starts with a rather basic look at Wooden's life. The story is familiar to many by now - he grew up in the Midwest, became one of the best players of era, turned to coaching and landed at UCLA almost by accident. After arriving in Westwood, Wooden once said that he tried too hard to win because he wanted a championship too much. Once that first one came, they kept coming - thanks in part of a national recruiting effort that was ahead of its time.

It's here that we get to the premise of the book. Society was going through all sorts of changes in those years, and basketball was part of those changes. The rise of the African American athlete was one of the big stories of the Sixties. A center named Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was directly involved in that. He joined with such players as Lucius Allen,  Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe who were willing to challenge the rules as they had always been handed down.

That couldn't have been easy for Wooden, who certainly used one set of principles throughout his life because they had worked for him, and then had those principles challenge by a bunch of people under the age of 21. Wooden also had to deal with the pressure of playing not to lose, since Alcindor and Co. were considered so talented by some that they weren't allowed to have an off-night.

And if that group was "interesting" to coach, Wooden couldn't have predicted what would happen later on when the Bill Walton era ran from 1971 to 1974. Walton was a full-fledged member of the counter-culture during much of his time at UCLA. That meant protests over the Vietnam War and marijuana use. The situation blew up, by UCLA standards, in 1974 when the Bruins didn't win a title.

Smith certainly comes across as being on the players' side in such discussions. That's fine - and I'd agree with him on many points - but some of the issues of the time weren't as cut and dried at the time as the author makes them out to be. It's tough to criticize Wooden too much for sticking to his old beliefs, because that's the path he knew. And for his faults, UCLA did win basketball games under Wooden, even with some turmoil around the team.

Wooden also takes some hits here for the presence of booster Sam Gilbert, who was something of an underground legend in basketball circles. Gilbert was close to the players, sometimes helping out with financial problems and even going as far as arranging abortions. Smith hits Wooden for at the least looking the other way while all of this was going on, and the coach probably deserves it.

There are a couple of other problems along the way here. Some of the material, such as quotes from Adolph Rupp about blacks, cry out for some sort of immediate attribution. There's also a few odd statements that come off as naive. One is the criticism of UCLA for scheduling easy games at home at the start of the season in order to rack up wins and revenues. Is there anyone who doesn't do that these days, except when there's the odd good game to accomodate television? Back then, national TV wasn't even an issue.

One aspect of the entire story is overlooked here. After Wooden retired, he still stayed in touch with most of his ex-players - including some of those who had troubled relationships with him. Andy Hill, who comes up as one of the critics, even wrote a book with Wooden. It's a credit to both sides that issues were settled.

"The Sons of Westwood" will make college basketball fans do some thinking about those UCLA teams, and that's good. Smith's arguments don't all work, as he may be reaching for more than he can grasp, but the effort should be appreciated.

(Note: This book is scheduled for release on September 30.)

Three stars

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