Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review: Dr. Z (2017)

By Paul Zimmerman

Sportswriters always liked to tell stories about Paul Zimmerman, the legendary football reporter for Sports Illustrated who was known for his fanatic and complete dedication to his job. Here's one of them, told during Super Bowl week one year, which gets the point across. If it's not true, it should be.

Zimmerman was working for the New York Post one fall Saturday, and was assigned to cover some small college game. He wanted to see a big college game that started at 4 p.m. or so on television. Zimmerman liked to chart games as they went along, and he almost physically needed to be watching the game from the start - missing a play or two was unacceptable.

Zimmerman covered the first game, and shortly before its conclusion dashed down to the field to interview the coach and a star player or two briefly. Then he got in the car, drove to a nearby hotel, and got a room on the sixth floor of a hotel - arriving at 3:55 p.m.

Zimmerman grabbed his notebook, sat down, flipped on the TV ... and saw nothing. The television wasn't working. He called the front desk. "This is Paul Zimmerman in 612. My television set is not working. If I don't get a new room in the next five minutes, I will throw the television in this room from the balcony into the swimming pool below."

He got the room, and saw the kickoff.

Zimmerman's distinct literary voice has been quieted for the past nine years. He suffered a series of strokes in 2008, and cannot read, write or speak. Yes, some things just aren't fair.

Before the stroke, Zimmerman had taken a sabbatical and was hard at work on his memoirs. There wasn't much rhyme or reason to what he got down on paper, but he figured he would get to that. Fate had other plans.

But now friend and coworker Peter King of Sports Illustrated has taken those words, and organized them a bit. He also has added some columns written by Zimmerman for Sports Illustrated, and the result is an unexpected (because of the physical problems) surprise of the season: "Dr. Z - The Lost Memoirs of an Irreverent Football Writer."

The book is broken into 14 chapters, the various parts of Zimmerman's life. By far the longest is his personal all-time team in pro football, which is great fun to read. Zimmerman liked nothing better to look at film of old games and great players, and came up with ratings. The ratings are about a decade old at this point, and it would be interesting to see what he might do with the subject now. For example, has Tom Brady replaced Joe Montana as the greatest quarterback of the modern era? (John Unitas still wins the old school division.) Montana, by the way, is the subject of a fascinating feature story by Zimmerman, reprinted here from Sports Illustrated.

Football drives the book naturally, and there are stories from the Super Bowls and quarterbacks. But the Olympics get plenty of space, as do stories about journalism. There are stories about boxing with Ernest Hemingway, and about going to Columbia with a future KGB agent. The last four chapters turn personal - they are called "Wine," "Collecting," "Authority," and "National Anthem." That last one needs an explanation - Zimmerman used to time them at sporting events and keep records. That's not surprising from a person who could tell you how many steps there were from the lobby of the Newark airport to Gate 26.

A book like that almost has to be a little disorganized, since it was a work in progress when it came to a nearly 10-year halt. But, King did a good job of putting it all together so that you'd get the idea of what Zimmerman's life and talent were like.

Fans of Zimmerman probably will think that they are doing him and his family a little favor by supporting this project with a book project, and they no doubt are. Still, "Dr. Z" stands up pretty well for long-time football fans. And if you don't remember Zimmerman's work, this will open your eyes to a unique individual.

Four stars

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: The Streak (2017)

By John Eisenberg

Baseball fans in the 1960s and 1970s knew that a handful of baseball records were about untouchable. That word could be used to describe Cy Young's win total of 511, and Rogers Hornsby's one-season batting average of .424. The game had changed a great deal since over the year by then, and no one had come close to such marks for quite a while.

Another, very different record also was in that category. Lou Gehrig played in 2,130 straight games for the New York Yankees. Few had close to half of that total for years, and it seemed improbable that anyone else could touch it. The same theory applied to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, another outlier that defies comprehension in some ways.

Here we are in 2017, then, and DiMaggio's record still stands tall. But it turns out we were really wrong about Gehrig's record. Who knew that Cal Ripken would come along?

Ripken went sailing past Gehrig in 1995, and finished with 2,632 straight games to his credit. It would be easy to say that never, ever will be touched, but maybe we know better than to deal in absolutes in such case.

Ripken and Gehrig have been linked ever since, so a book on the two of them and their streaks seems like a natural - even 22 years after they were connected. But John Eisenberg has a bigger goal in mind in his book, "The Streak." While focusing on those two famous streakers, he examines the entire concept of playing in a large number of games in a row.

It's an odd record as these things go. You have to be exceptional to set a career record for stolen bases or hits, but you just have to show up day after day in order to rate highly in this category. That's not unimportant - perfect attendance has been desirable for most since grammar school. Still, you have to be good enough to earn a regular spot in the lineup, and then stay there for several years.

Eisenburg takes this concept way, way back to the beginnings of professional baseball. He helps to bring alive those early "streakers," and recounts a few controversies that came up along the way. Record-keeping then wasn't perfect in the late 1800s, so a couple of mistakes were make that changed the numbers and the record book. Interestingly, such streaks weren't a big deal then, which is why George Pinkney and Steve Brokie weren't household names even back when they played.

Eventually, Everett Scott of the Red Sox and Yankees went flying by everyone, and then Gehrig came along. His goal was to play every day, and he succeeded for more than a decade. As Eisenberg points out, there were a few close calls along the way. Once in a great while, Gehrig did things like hit in the top of the first inning and then exit, thus keeping his streak in tact. Major League Baseball has changed its rules about such actions and streaks over the years. You now can't simply be placed in the starting lineup and then be taken out for a pinch-hitter in the top of the first and still have it count as a game played. But Gehrig's tactics do make Ripken's ledger even more impressive, in that he went seasons without missing a single inning.

Eisenberg does a fine job of talking to several people about Ripken's big moments in the streak, making the feeling come along nicely. He also gets some opinions on how Ripken and Gehrig had slightly different obstacles to overcome in order to play so long, and on why the long consecutive streak may be a thing of the past.

Admittedly, a consecutive-game streak is almost a curiosity as these things go, and that might limit the audience a bit. Eisenberg admits that it took longer that he would have liked to finish this book. A natural landing point for the effort would have been 2015, 20 years after Ripken broke Gehrig's record.

But those who dive into "The Streak" will find some definite rewards. I'm not sure how the subject could be covered any better, and it will fully satisfy the appetite of avid baseball fans out there.

Four stars

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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Review: Houston to Cooperstown (2017)

By Greg Lucas

I'm not sure the Houston Astros were the most faceless team in baseball for some time, but they were in the argument.

Think about it. The team entered the National League in 1962, and struggled like most expansion teams. In those early years, most people probably thought of a stadium - the legendary Astrodome - when asked about the team. They didn't have many iconic players, and you could argue that they traded their best one (Joe Morgan) before he became famous. Houston had some memorable moments but oddly they were associated with losses. The 1980 playoff loss to Philadelphia, and the 1986 playoff loss to the New York Mets were amazing moments but ultimately unsuccessful ones.

The Astros had some very good players pass through Houston, such as Morgan and Nolan Ryan, and some good players who stayed like Larry Dierker and Jimmy Wynn. But there were great players who arrived and stayed, like Cal Ripken or George Brett.

That all changed, or at least started to change, in 1988. It is when Craig Biggio first arrived on the Astros' roster. A few years later, Jeff Bagwell followed Biggio to the big club. That was a heck of a right side of the infield for a decade. That's why Greg Lucas was smart to highlight those two in his brisk history of the Astros, "Houston to Cooperstown."

Biggio might have had one of the most unusual skill sets in baseball. No one has ever gone from catcher to second base to center field during the course of a career, and played it well. He was essentially too good an athlete and player to stay as a catcher, where the wear and tear of the position shortens careers. Bagwell was a topnotch power hitter, someone who moved from third to first at the start of his career and found a home.

The Astros still didn't receive a great deal of publicity with them around, but they popped up in the playoffs a few times with these two leading the way. Both of them piled up some big numbers. It's fun to look back and here and be reminded of just what they did. Biggio might have had the more impressive career because he was a little better in the counting stats, like 3,000 hits. Bagwell's body (the shoulder in particular) broke down toward the end, perhaps because he lifted too many heavy weights in the gym in an effort to stay strong. Both are now enshrined in Cooperstown, as Bagwell went in this year - which couldn't have hurt book sales.

Lucas, a former broadcaster for the team, covers the early years quite quickly, and lingers on the days of the two stars. Once Biggio and Bagwell are done, the author moves on to the last decade or so, which started with the arrow on the team pointing way, way down, but changed 180 degrees. Now they are one of the best teams in baseball.

If I could be allowed a bit of nit-picking, there are a couple of issues with the book - one of which has nothing to do with the publication itself. Biggio and Bagwell come off as good guys and solid citizens throughout. There's not much drama there. I could see how they'd be easy to cheer for, but their stories will leave your draw undropped. There also are some editing issues along the way, mostly in the form of the odd typo. Red Sox fans certainly will notice that Yastrzemski is misspelled twice here. Baseball readers are notoriously sensitive to such things - maybe too sensitive - but one more read by an editor might have helped.

Otherwise, "Houston to Cooperstown" reaches its goals nicely. It will bring back memories of Astros gone by for the local fans, while filling in the gaps of knowledge for the out-of-towners. I've known Greg Lucas since the late 1970s, and in my slightly biased viewpoint he's hit another line drive.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: Playing Hurt (2017)

By John Saunders with John U. Bacon

Most books by nationally-known sportscasters follow a pattern. There are entertaining tales of the early days, jumping from outlet to outlet, and then the story moves into a recounting of games and personalities encountered over the years.

"Playing Hurt" is definitely not that book.

The late John Saunders had a lot happen to him in his too-short life. He tells us about many of them in his memoir, which in spots is painful to read.

From a distance, Saunders was a rather typical success story. He first became nationally known when he landed at ESPN in the late 1980s, just when the outlet was ready to take off. Saunders did a lot of events over the years, and did them well. He wasn't a polarizing figure on the air, content to merely tell you what was going on.  There's a certain dignity in that approach that was welcome; you don't have to shout all the time to get attention.

What's more, Saunders was a black from Canada, which made him different in a professional world filled with white males. If you were a youngster of color looking for a role model, Saunders certainly could fill that role. 

That's all well and good, but there is little about that side of Saunders in the book. He starts off in dramatic fashion, telling about a trip he took in 2012 to the Tappen Zee Bridge north of New York City. Saunders pulled to the side of the road of the bridge, got out of the car, walked to the edge, and thought about jumping. Depression, it turns out, came along with Saunders throughout his life, and he had to battle the demons almost every day. It's not what you'd expect out of person with a dream job and a lovely wife and two daughters.

Saunders goes into his childhood in Canada from there, and it's not pretty. His father was abusive (physically and verbally) when he bothered to be home, which wasn't often because he was usually in Ohio. His mom usually had to raise the family of three children by herself, and she had plenty of her own problems. Saunders was sexually molested by the daughter of a friend of the family before he became a teenager, causing problems in relationships for the rest of his life. Moving around a bit probably didn't help either. Saunders developed problems with alcohol and drugs, and his relationships with women were frequently distant and brief. And depression started to turn up with frequency; it would be a lifelong passenger along with diabetes.

At that point, it's easy to wonder how Saunders turned out so well professionally. A bright spot was that he was pretty good at hockey, which got him an invitation to play for a couple of colleges. Saunders sort of stumbled into a broadcasting career, starting with a job in Espanola, Ontario - I've been there, and it's even smaller than you might think it is. From there it was on to other stops, including Toronto and Baltimore, before landing at ESPN. There were some mental health issues along the way, but apparently he made his life work.

If all of that weren't enough, and it certainly would be for most people, Saunders blacked out and hit his head at work in September 2011. That caused a serious brain injury that would need a great deal of therapy. It also led to what could be called an addiction to a strong prescription drug that was issued by a doctor for reasons only known to him; other doctors were shocked at the dosage.

The story essentially ends in 2013, when Saunders has been weaned off the prescription drug and he was feeling better. Some readers will remember that when Saunders died in 2016, not a great deal was said about the reason or reasons why. While reading the book, it's easy to wonder what might have happened and why. Thankfully, co-author John U. Bacon writes an afterword about the next three years. Saunders collapsed in a bathroom and could not be revived. Doctors said he died of a combination of an enlarged heart, complications from diabetes, and another disease that affected the regulation of breathing, blood pressure and heart rate.

"Playing Hurt" isn't a happy story, of course, and it's sad that this almost-universally liked man left us too soon. Reading the story was almost shocking, and such stories aren't going to be brought to the beach to serve as a summer diversion. Still, Saunders' hope was that a book would show others with mental health issues that they aren't alone and should reach out for help. This should do that, and more.

Five stars

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: Best Canadian Sports Writing (2017)

Edited by Stacey May Fowles and Pasha Malla

"Best Canadian Sports Writing" comes across as something of an interesting experiment.

Readers of this blog know that I'm attracted to the series of anthologies highlighting some of the best sports writing in America for the past 25-plus years. Therefore, it's easy to be interested in how the format and approach might work in Canada.

Apparently, a couple of people thought the same way. Stacey May Fowles and Pasha Malla have done a variety of articles and books over the years. The call went out for contributions, people responded with stories on all sorts of different subject, and - poof! - you've got yourself a book.

The first question, then, is: does the book work? I have rather mixed feelings about that, and not just because I'm an American reading a book about Canadian sports. Living in a border city will knock down a few of the barriers that might exist in such a situation.

The biggest difference might be that the American series relies quite a bit on some established sources for stories - Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine, for starters, plus some big-city newspapers. That's not to say those sources have been come more diversified in recent years, because clearly they have - the on-line world is touching the entire world of journalism.

There are some stories in Canada's version that were somewhat surprising to read. I should start with the good news; I liked some of the efforts.

Dan Robson's story on a youth hockey team coming south from the area around Hudson Bay was very well done. I'm not sure I've read many fishing articles in my day, as I have no familiarity with the subject, but Cathal Kelly raised the subject in a way that was appealing and informative to this novice. John Lott's profile of the Toronto Blue Jays' batting practice pitcher was well done. Kristina Rutherford's profile of hockey player Harrison Browne was nicely written. Stephen Brunt's profile of the Blue Jays' Roberto Osuna was long but worthwhile.

But there were some stories about odd subjects that just didn't draw me in. Two articles on professional wrestling might have been one too many. There are tales of sumo wrestling, street drag racing, ice climbing, and ski ballet. I try to avoid stories on the UFC when possible. The transcript of a discussion of sports journalists in color struck me as relevant, but the writing didn't require more than a stenographer. And some stories, such as the essay on why a video of the Sun's surface was sort of like the New York Knicks, could have been avoided.

There were a few opinion pieces scattered along the way, and again some worked better than others. The article on how women's soccer has a chance to break through had me nodding in agreement at times, while a story on Kobe Bryant's appeal to Muslim got points for originality - although it might be a tough sell in most publications.

In the meantime, few of the stories were particularly topical. I'm not sure if that was a deliberate decision, but it sure would have been nice to read something about someone in the mainstream.

"Best Canadian Sports Writing" might have some appeal to the adventurous reader out there. I'd like to think I can qualify for that category, but it's a little over the line for me some of the time. Let's hope this became an annual effort, though, and perhaps the batting average will get better.

Three stars

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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Review: Ahead of the Curve (2016)

By Brian Kenny

If you are a baseball fan, you may have noticed that a statistical revolution has been taking place over the last couple of decades. We've come up with all sorts of new ways of more accurately measuring performance on the diamond, but it all can be a little confusing - maybe a lot confusing in some cases - to those who haven't been paying attention.

Television host Brian Kenny takes a look at the revolution in his book, "Ahead of the Curve," taking some of those advances principles and applying them to the present and the past. That's not a bad idea at all, although what he writes about may strike you as more pleasing as how he writes about it.

Some of the numbers that are kept in baseball have been with us for well over a century - batting average, pitching wins, fielding percentage, and so on. We have come to believe that a .300 hitter in baseball is a good hitter, and that a 20-game winner on the mound is a great pitcher. But there are obviously problems with those numbers. Batting average doesn't account for walks and power, which makes it less effective than on-base percentage and slugging percentage (now combined into one number by many called OPS) in making those judgments. Pitching wins have an obvious bias toward good teams (the more games you win ...) and offensive support. Sometimes a pitcher gets eight runs scored for him every time he takes the mound, and suddenly he has a 14-2 record. Earned-run average is a better tool to judge pitchers, although that has its drawbacks too.

It's rather remarkable how much information is now available to baseball teams, and they are busy coming up with more of it. Every major league franchise has an office full of bright people who are looking for an edge. Sometimes they find one. If you saw or read "Moneyball," you realize how on-base percentage was overlooked for sometime, giving the Oakland Athletics an edge. The Pirates jumped on board the concepts of defensive shifts and pitch framing early, which helped their rise from sub-mediocrity.

Kenny goes through a variety of topics here along those lines. He thinks the save isn't really a good barometer of relief pitching, and that teams are on their way to changing their use of pitchers so that more hurlers appear regularly in a game for a shorter length of time. If you watched the Indians last year work their way to the World Series, you realize that he may be right. Kenny throws in a look at MVP selections over time and who should have been taken in a given year. That might not be fair in spots, since sports writers didn't have today's tools, but it's a fun exercise. That includes the 1941 American League debate, which pitted Joe DiMaggio and his 56-game winning streak against Ted Williams and his .406 average. Kenny eventually goes with DiMaggio, who did win it at the time, but wavers along the way.

This is all fine, and if you are looking for a course in such matters, you'll be well-served in that sense. But I found myself coming back to the question, did I like reading this? That's a tougher one.

I remember Kenny from his days at ESPN. I don't see him on the air now because he's on the MLB Network, which isn't on my cable package. Kenny comes across in the book as really sure of himself, as if anyone who disagrees with him isn't worth his time. Some of the reviews on amazon.com indicate that he's like that on the air too.

I always like to say that if I'm going to read a book about something, I want to enjoy the author's company along the way. I found myself getting tired of baseball people and reporters being insulted here. I would have preferred to have been given the facts, which are on Kenny's side, and gone on from there. I know, though, that television these days prefers loud to reasonable.

"Ahead of the Curve" accomplishes its goal, and I can understand why many readers have liked it. Maybe they'll now understand I'm a little less enthusiastic about it.

Three stars

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Monday, June 12, 2017

Review: Hockey Towns (2015)

By Ron MacLean with Kirstie McLellan Day

Ron MacLean, best known north of the border for his hosting work on Hockey Night in Canada, apparently has become something of an author in his spare time.

His first book was something of an autobiography, "Cornered," which was a rather entertaining look at his career and his encounters with interesting people along the way.

In 2015, MacLean came back with "Hockey Towns." My guess, and it's only a guess, that MacLean probably was even more comfortable with the approach this time around. Here he pretty much stays out of the picture, and tells stories about some people in hockey across Canada.

CBC has traveled across the country over the years to look at the relationship of Canada and its national pastime. The hockey community really is closely knit up there. While the format salutes a variety of locations crossing this giant nation, MacLean and Kirstie McLellan Day stick to other people here.

Some of the best stories here answer the question "Whatever happened to ...?" There are a variety of NHL players who pass through our lives as fans, sometimes not stopping long enough in one place for us to get to know them. There's Trent McCleary, who almost died after blocking a shot but recovered enough to give the sport one last shot. Steve Bozek scratched out 12 years in the NHL, a few more than even he hoped for. Brad Dalgarno's career didn't work out the way he hoped, but he did get to play guitar on stage with Garth Brooks.

There are tales about names you know. Doug Wickenheiser was a No. 1 overall draft choice who drew comparisons to Wayne Gretzky, but that's a rather high bar to reach - particularly when you get hit by a car that wrecks your knee along the way. Speaking of Gretzky, you'll love a story about a childhood friend signed him to a "book contract" - in high school. There are also tales about some of the other people in hockey - officials and administrators and a broadcaster and parents, including the remarkable story of the father of Zenon Konopka.

Does it all work? Not completely. A few of the stories aren't that interesting to an outsider. Some of the tales don't have happy endings, if you are looking for such work. And in a few cases, such as the subchapter on Eric Lindros, more information would have been nice.

While MacLean does write introductions to the chapters, he doesn't seem to have too much involvement with most of the stories themselves. Based on the credits, it seems like the two names on the cover had plenty of help putting this together. That puts a little distance between the authors and their stories in some cases, and a more personal touch might have worked better.

Put it all together, and "Hockey Towns" is a pleasant enough read for hockey fans. I wouldn't go much farther than that, though.

Three stars

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Sunday, June 4, 2017

Review: The Last Innocents (2016)

By Michael Leahy

We all thought, at the time, the Los Angeles Dodgers were an interesting team in the 1960s.

This was a team, after all, that played baseball as if it were the Dead Ball Era (pre-1920). Not every game was 1-0, but it seemed that way. The Dodgers had a couple of Hall of Fame pitchers, and scratched out a run or two to help them win. A rally was a walk, two stolen bases and a sacrifice fly. John McGraw would have loved it.

But they may be even more interesting now, thanks to the work of author Michael Leahy. His thoroughly research book on those Dodgers, "The Last Innocents," does an excellent job on shedding new light on a team that came very close to being a dynasty.

Just for background's sake, let's review what the team accomplished in that era. The Dodgers moved out of Brooklyn in 1957, and started to turn over their roster. Their World Series win in 1959 was something of a mixture of the old and new, but the team had a new look by the team the team moved into Dodger Stadium in 1962 - a pitcher's park in which runs would be hard to come by.

Sandy Koufax was about to become, well, Sandy Koufax, and Don Drysdale was mighty good too at the top of the rotation. A scrawny shortstop named Maury Wills, considered a nonprospect by most, grabbed a starting job and revolutionized the game by bringing the stolen base back. The Dodgers almost won the pennant in 1962, took the Series in 1963 and 1965, and lost to Baltimore in the Fall Classic in 1966. After that, Koufax retired, Wills and outfielder Tommy Davis were traded, and the Dodgers needed several years to regenerate their talent base.

Leavy looks at those teams mostly through the perspective of seven players - Wills, Koufax, Davis, Wes Parker, Jeff Torborg, Dick Tracewski and Lou Johnson. That's an interesting mixture of players - from stars to subs. All but the reclusive Koufax were willing to talk at length about those Los Angeles teams.

The games mostly take a back seat to the people here, which is a good idea in a book about a team from more than 50 years ago. Wills grew into a team leader on and off the field, but along the way would barely make a peep about what he sought at contract time. Parker, the son of rich parents, apparently had what looked like an easy life - except that his family life as a youth was a nightmare and baseball was his way of escape. The two life stories of the two Dodger infielders are at the center of the story. Torborg and Tracewski were mostly backup but provide plenty of insight here, while Johnson remains a fun character to this day.

Even so, Koufax might be the most fascinating person in the narrative, even from the distance of second-hand information. He was (and still is, no doubt) intelligent and well-rounded, but far more competitive and proud according to teammates that the outside world might have thought. All were in awe of what he was able to do with an arm that seem to degrade with every pitch.

There are plenty of stories here about Dodger management, which for the most part center on general manager Buzzie Bavasi. The franchise was a money machine in those days, and Bavasi was in charge of keeping it that way. He was a man of contradictions - someone who would lend a hand to a Dodger down on his luck one minute, and then pull deceptive negotiating methods the next. It's interesting, though, that Walt Alston, the team's manager barely comes up in the discussion. It sounds like he didn't make much of a footprint, although someone had to be pressing some buttons correctly for the team to do well.

The book has the subtitle of "The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers." It's difficult not to touch on the surrounding events of the Sixties when writing about any part of it. The players were visible at a time when Vietnam and civil rights were becoming major issues throughout the country, and had to be careful expressing viewpoints while working for a quite conservative business. Internally, the baseball players union more or less started in the 1960s once Marvin Miller came aboard, and that changed everything - although not during the Dodgers' run. Those events, though, take a back seat to the team itself.

Leahy jumps in with a couple of strong opinions along the way. He believes Wills should be in the Hall of Fame, and that the Dodgers handled Koufax's arm problems terribly. Both are very defensible positions. In fairness, Wills' addition of speed to the game changed baseball, but may not have had the long career that is the usual prerequisite for a trip to Cooperstown. It's always tough to judge the revolutionaries in that context. Hindsight is 20-20 with Koufax, and there's no way he would be treated the same way medically now. But it wasn't uncommon in the mid-Sixties to work a pitcher on two days rest when someone thought it was necessary, and complete games were much more common. We're all learned a lot on the subject of arms since then, even if there's still some mystery about it.

This is a fairly long book at more than 450 pages, but the material is frequently fresh and almost always interesting. "The Last Innocents" won the Casey Award as the best baseball book of 2016. I haven't read all of the nominees, but my guess is that this one is a very worthy winner.

Five stars

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Review: Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic (2017)

By Jason Turbow

Those old to remember have heard a lot about the Oakland Athletics of the early 1970s. I mean, a lot about the Athletics.

It's a group that won three straight World Series titles from 1972 to 1974 inclusive. That means they won six straight postseason series, which was a record at the time. They did it in a unique way too, fighting with the owner and fighting with themselves. The former was legal and financial, the latter was more physical.

Some of the stories spilled out into the public, where the media was more than happy to pass them along. You could almost see the heads shaking as the information got distributed. But we didn't know everything.

It took a while, but it's nice to get the whole story in one place now. That's the job Jason Turbow does in "Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic." Plenty of books have covered this era in one form or another, but - without reading them all - my guess is that this is the best one.

The Athletics would have been an interesting story even if they sang songs together around the campfire. The franchise spent a great deal of money on prospects in the late 1960s, as owner Charlie Finley tried to end a skid that dated back for decades. Not every dollar was well spent, but Finley's money went to enough good causes to make it work.

The A's, as Finley liked to call them, had quite a cast of developing stars and solid workmen. It was headed by Reggie Jackson, a fabulous talent who carried some baggage along in terms of ego but was kept under control by teammates who had been with him since they were all in the minors. Jim "Catfish" Hunter recovered from a shot to the foot to become a Hall of Fame pitcher. Rollie Fingers found his niche in the bullpen, providing another ticket to Cooperstown, He probably received more publicity for his distinctive mustache than his pitching. Joe Rudi was called "underrated" so often in his day that someone once said he should be simply "rated" - because we all knew how good he really was. Then there was Vida Blue, who when good was very, very good and had a name so lyrical that, as sportswriter Jim Murray once said, made you want to go home and yell at your parents for naming you Jim.

The other guys on the roster may not have gotten the attention of the others, but were pretty good too. Sal Bando was the glue of the team, Bert Campaneris was the sparkplug, Billy North added speed and defense, Dick Green was a defensive wizard, and Ken Holtzman was a dependable starter. Yes, they didn't get along so well at times, but they were united by a hatred of Finley. As Turbow recounts, it was always something new with Finley. Not only was playing for the Athletics of that time frustrating and maddening, but it was also exhausting. Finley appreciated his femployees, but only on his terms. When crossed, the owner could be petty and bizarre. Like most bullies, he tried to get his way all the time - and he roared (and sued) when he didn't.

Finally, Finley's stubborness proved to be past of the reason for his downfall. He didn't honor a contract with Hunter, and thus lost him as a free agent to the Yankees. The reserve clause soon passed away after that, and Finley couldn't come close to afford what it would take to keep the team together - particularly with the shoestring organization that he had put together around the team. The pieces soon scattered with the wind.

Turbow talked to as many members of those teams as he could, getting an impressive amount of people to look back. Their memories can be a little rough in terms of language. On the other hand, it's tough to picture the little ones even picking this story up. The author also does a nice job of putting the story together without too many details of the games. Yes, some moments of the big playoff games get highlights, but with the hindsight of around 45 years, they are less important than the stories about the principals and their personalities. The story moves along nicely.

"Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic" has more than enough going for it to keep just about any baseball fan entertained by a unique story line - especially if you are old enough to remember the story. And if this group remains your favorite all-time team - which probably hits quite a number of people in the Bay Area - do yourself a favor and buy this book right now.

Four stars

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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Review Sting Like a Bee (2017)

By Leigh Montville

Ever since Leigh Montville stopped writing newspaper and magazine articles and started writing books, you can never tell what he's going to work on next. Let's see - there have been books on Babe Ruth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ted Williams, Evel Knievel, and Manute Bol among others.

This year, he's added another interesting choice to the list. Admittedly, forests could have been spared if Muhammad Ali hadn't come around when he did. All sorts of books have been written about him over the years. It's hard to turn away from his personality.

But this is different. Montville opts here to write about the time when he had an epic fight with the United States government over his draft status. That's a big part of the Ali legend at this point, but it's not a particularly well-known story. That's why "Sting Like a Bee" is a useful addition to the library.

For those of you too young to remember, Ali really did shock the work when he defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing title in 1964. Then he did it again the next day by announcing that he had joined the Nation of Islam, a controversial Muslim group. Ali eventually changed his name from Cassius Clay. To say this all was unpopular would be a great understatement. Put it this way - most people thought the reputation of the boxing championship was tarnished - and Liston was known to be under the influence of organized crime. Plenty of people refused to call Ali by his new name; you'd think it would be easy to respect someone's personal wishes in this department.

Ali zipped through the heavyweight division's contenders, with his only roadblock being the draft board. After flunking an intelligence test, the military opted to reclassify several people by taking them into their ranks and giving them special training. Suddenly Ali was 1-A, and he claimed that his religion would not allow him to fight in Vietnam. Besides, Ali added, the Viet Cong had never discriminated against him. (His language was more colorful, but you get the idea.)

Montville gives the blow-by-blow account of the legal battle over Ali's status. There are a variety of stops and starts, but a key side issue was that Ali lost his boxing license once he refused induction - thus taking away his right to earn a living while he was fighting the case in court. It's a strange tale for the author - a book about a boxer without a heck of a lot of boxing along the way. Ali's journey almost is more of a legal expedition, as lawyers keep looking for a way for Ali to avoid military service.

The author makes a great point when he writes that as the Vietnam War became less and less popular, Ali's defiance became more and more mainstream. He eventually won his case to get his boxing license back, and fought a couple of times before the epic bout with Joe Frazier. Right after that, Ali won his case in the Supreme Court - and as Montville reminds us, he won it mostly because the Court Justices worked hard to find a legal loophole so that Ali wouldn't become a martyr in jail.

Montville did lots of reading about Ali and the Nation of Islam, and he sought out all sorts of people who played some sort of role in the story. The author even gets a lot of material from Ali's second wife, although some of it feels like it's from a different book in terms of content. Some of the twists and turns weren't particularly well publicized at the time, so it's good to catch up with it here.

There is one stumbling block here, and it's a good-sized one in terms of some readers' enjoyment of the story. There is plenty of legal stuff here, and it's quite dry. Montville includes quite a bit of legal testimony and documents verbatim, and it's hardly brisk reading. And that's an odd combination with Montville's wordy writing style, which can be a little tough to navigate if you aren't used to it. Ali certainly doesn't come off as a saint here either, mostly because of his wife's comments. That may not please the big fans, and disillusion others.

"Sting Like A Bee" is a good addition to the Ali library, filling in a literary gap. I'm just not sure it's going to work for everyone; I've read most of Montville's books (and loved him as a columnist) so I'm a little biased. If you are willing to put up with the lack of fun and excitement in a book about a fun and exciting public figure, dive in and receive an education.

Four stars

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review: Arnie (2017)

By Tom Callahan

The year 2016 was a tough one for sports icons. We lost Muhammad Ali, one of the best boxers ever and a man who influenced world culture. We lost Gordie Howe, a simple, down-to-earth guy who, depending on your standards, is one of the finalists as the greatest hockey player.

And we lost Arnie. You didn't need to be a golfer to know that we're talking about Arnold Palmer, one of the most important players in the sport's history.

That's the guy Tom Callahan, a veteran golf writer, profiles in his book, "Arnie."

Palmer might be an example of the "right man at the right place" school of history. He turned professional in the middle of the 1950s, when Americans had more leisure time and were using it to play more golf. It was also when television started to influence American culture, and Palmer was perfect for that. You can tell by the photographs out of that era that Palmer was "cool" - Steve McQueen with a driver.

Palmer loved to compete, and was never afraid to take risks in search of victory. Sometimes it didn't work, and you could see his expression turn briefly sad. But when it paid off, the smile lit up the golf course. The crowds noticed that, of course, and loved to follow him. They turned into an army - "Arnie's Army."

Palmer had a great run of about 10 years in which he was winning major championships or in contention for them. His biggest problem was that Jack Nicklaus came along in the early 1960s, and Nicklaus could play. He turned out to be the best ever. (Almost the same thing happened with Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.)

For a few years, Palmer and Nicklaus had what the other wanted - Palmer wanted to be as good as Nicklaus on the course; Nicklaus wanted to be as beloved as Palmer was with the public. That made the relationship a little frosty for a while, but they were both smart enough to figure out that they had a lot more in common than they had differences. Palmer spent a lot of time making money and making friends, and he admits that probably hurt his golf game. But, as the book mentions, on a personal level it was a good trade.

Palmer was very good at making money, but he was better at making friends. Yes, he was "Arnold Palmer," but was friendly to everyone in sight. Arnie answered his mail, signed endless autographs, chatted with young players, sat through countless interviews, and at the end no doubt posed for hundreds of selfies. And he seemed to remember everyone along the way.

Here's a story from the book that shows what he was all about. Two soldiers from Vietnam, Jeff and Wally, sent a note to Palmer asking if he could send them some sand wedges and balls so that they could practice bunker shots. Palmer sent them right away and enclosed a personal letter. Months later, they both returned home safely. One went to the Western Open in Chicago and found a way to thank him in person for the gesture: "I'm one of the guys you sent sand wedges to in Vietnam." Palmer's response: "Are you Jeff or Wally?" He remembered their names. Unbelievable. But that was Arnie.

Callahan arranges the chapters by year, and the story is in somewhat chronological order. But it's more of a jumping off point for anecdotes about Palmer and his accomplices over the years. There are times when when it's easy to wonder in the text, "How did we get here?" But Callahan gets back to Arnie soon enough, and tells another story about him.

The pages of "Arnie" go by quickly (it's 250 pages of text, plus a long appendix), and you are sure to laugh a little and cry a little along the way.  This isn't a definitive biography, but it sure shows why so many people loved him. That makes it worthwhile.

Four stars

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Friday, April 7, 2017

Review: Leo Durocher (2017)

By Paul Dickson

The Buffalo News is publishing my review of this one, which you can find clicking here.

The short version - author Paul Dickson works hard to separate fact from fiction concerning the baseball manager's life. It's not easy, considering Durocher himself created some of the confusion. Durocher doesn't come off as a particularly likeable person here, but it's hard to look away when he's at his best and at his worst.

Four stars

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Review: Son of Bum (2017)

By Wade Phillips with Vic Carucci

The word that comes to mind when reading "Son of Bum" is ... curious.

Let's start with the basics. Wade Phillips might be the most well-known assistant coach in football these days. That's sort of like being a well-known spy, another profession not known for publicity-seekers. (Although there have been a few coaches who don't shy away from cameras.)

That's certainly in part due to the fact that he served as a head coach in a few different cities, including Buffalo and Dallas. Phillips also has a good reputation for putting solid defenses together wherever he's gone. And being a football coach, an occupation that keeps moving van companies in business, he's gone to a lot of places over the years.

But at the start of his football career, Wade was mostly known as the son of Bum Phillips. For the young readers out there, Bum put together some really good Houston Oilers teams in the late 1970s. The problem was that the Pittsburgh Steelers - the Steel Curtain Steelers - were always in the way.

Bum was loaded with personality, and he captivated the city of Houston with those teams. But that Phillips never could get over the hump, lost his job as a result, and moved to a much worse situation in New Orleans. Bum built up a decent team with the Saints, but eventually departed like most coaches do.

Wade is an entirely different personality. He received plenty of credit for his work in the Super Bowl win by the Denver Broncos in Feb. 2016, when he was the defensive coordinator. It was a nice reward for more than 30 years of good work in the NFL. Wade always came across as relatively serious, and someone who said what he meant without much flair. People like that don't often have books published.

The book is subtitled "Lessons My Dad Taught Me About Football and Life." That's true for most of the first half of the book. Bum frequently had Wade on his coaching staffs when the son was just getting started in the business. At times it seems as if Wade is more concerned with telling about his dad's approaches and experiences than his own. Since Bum wrote a book of his own in 2010, it's easy to wonder about how this might work. But Wade's affection for his dad certainly is evident right from the beginning, and certainly Dad would be proud of his son's reputation around the league at this point.

Once Bum leaves the NFL, Wade sticks to his own lifestory. It's covered relatively briskly, without spending too much time on individual games. The most interesting stories of the book probably center on switches in jobs over the years. Phillips has a lot to say about a pair of NFL owners with completely different personalities - Jerry Jones of the Cowboys and Ralph Wilson of the Bills. I'm fond of saying that teams usually lose for a reason, and Phillips' comments about what it was like to coach under Wilson back up that statement. Phillips' exit from Buffalo was a strange one for all concerned, and the Bills haven't been to the playoffs since he left almost two decades ago.

One game does get a little extra coverage in these pages, and it's that Super Bowl win. There are a few good stories from that day, and it's obvious what a personally satisfying moment that was for Phillips.

Otherwise, the veteran coach spends just a little time dealing with the X's and O's of the business. The terminology of pro football can be intimidating, even to those who follow the game fairly closely as fans, but there's little here that will stop an average football fan in his or her tracks. This is also a pretty quick read, which is appropriate.

I won't give this a rating, as coworker and friend Vic Carucci worked on the book with him. The two have put together a book that won't intimidate many, but will instead give a fairly good look at a straight shooter. Those seeking to learn about a man and a profession that usually is closed to the public will pick up some insight with "Son of Bum."

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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Review: Casey Stengel (2017)

By Marty Appel

There's a lot to be said for being the right person at the right time at the right place.

Ask Casey Stengel.

That might sum up the life of Stengel. Marty Appel uses those words and many more in his new biography of the legendary baseball figure, "Casey Stengel - Baseball's Greatest Character."

Appel, also known as George Steinbrenner's first public relations director with the New York Yankees, is well-qualified to try to put a picture of Stengel together. He's written several books on baseball, and obviously has plenty of contacts through the Yankees' history and through baseball to make this work in an entertaining and comprehensive style.

Stengel's real name was Charles, but he was from Kansas City - and he picked up the name Casey (as in K.C.) along the way. Stengel always preferred baseball to school work, and dropped out of high school a little early to sign a professional contract. And why not? His starting salary was twice what his father was earning.

Stengel wasn't a bad player, reaching the majors and bouncing around through a few teams once he got there. It included six years in Brooklyn and three with the New York Giants; Casey liked playing on the big stage that New York offered. Stengel also displayed an ability to be entertaining. The sportswriters would call it "colorful" or say he was a "real character." Whatever you call it, Casey was the type of guy who once reacted to a greeting at the batter's box by taking off his cap - and having a sparrow fly off his head. You don't see that today.

Stengel played 14 years. Baseball-reference.com's list of comparable batters has him as a close match to Cleon Jones - who signed with the Mets when Stengel worked there. He had a habit of turning up at historic moments - like hitting the first home run in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, or hitting the first home run in a World Series in Yankee Stadium.

After finishing his playing career, Stengel started to work off the field - and provided a laugh-out-loud moment in his book right away. He was named the president and manager of a minor-league team in Worcester. Soon he was offered a job as a manager in Toledo, but the franchise owner in Worcester didn't want to let him take it. So Casey the manager wrote a letter to Casey the president, resigning from the position. Casey the president wrote back with "I join the fans of Worcester in expressing our appreciation for your outstanding services rendered and wish you luck in your new position. We congratulate Toledo on getting your valuable services."

Stengel managed for several years in the majors, guiding Brooklyn and the Boston Braves in the 1930s and early 1940s. But he only had one team play above .500, so no one thought of him as a genius. But Stengel still landed the Yankees job in 1949, and promptly won five straight World Series title - which has never been matched. It's funny how smart he got when he had good players. Joe Torre had a similar experience in the Bronx, as he guided the great Yankee teams in the late 1990s after having little success as a manager beforehand.

Some loved Stengel, and some disliked him. The sports writers and the public generally loved him, though, building up good will. He could be unconventional as a manager, pinch-hitting for players in the second inning and making odd decisions with the pitching staff. But generally, they worked out pretty well.

Appel barely touches on one part of the Yankees' story in the 1950s, which is race. The Yankees didn't integrate the major league roster until 1955, well behind most other teams. That would seem to be a sign that Yankee scouts weren't in a hurry to add African Americans to the roster, although a couple of anecdotes indicates that Stengel didn't have any problems with an integrated roster.

Stengel took a year off after the Yankees ordered him to retire after the 1960 season, and then turned up as the manager of the New York Mets. The expansion team wanted some attention, and Stengel certainly could provide that. The Mets soon outdrew the rival and much better Yankees. But New York's Mets were a terrible baseball team in those early years, one of the worst in history. It's easy to wonder if Stengel was the right man for that job in a baseball sense, and if the Mets were mismanaged in their first few years of play. Those issues go generally unexplored here.

Appel did plenty of research, and comes up with some facts that must have taken some digging to find. He is helped in his task by using portions of an unpublished autobiography by Stengel's wife, Edna. Written in 1958, the tales from that do help illuminate Casey as a complete person - one who was drawn to the spotlight, unable to pull away in spite of his wife's wishes in that area. There are a few moments in the book where the story becomes a little choppy, but for the most part this is an easy lift to read.

Appel also obviously is very fond of Stengel as a character, and it's tough not to be. Any criticism of the subject is rather gentle, and quickly offset by warm words. For those who don't know why we still remember the legendary figure so well, "Casey Stengel" fills in the gaps well.

Four stars

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: Lasting Impact (2016)

By Kostya Kennedy

Kostya Kennedy absolutely nails the key issue about concussions in football in his book, "Lasting Impact."

At the end, he writes, "The notion of football as a sport overwhelmingly played by the have-notes and consumed by the haves is not an easy notion to bear. Something will be deeply lost."

We all have read the stories about retired pro football players who are suffering from brain injuries later in life. Gale Sayers, the Hall of Fame running back, just added his name to the list recently. Are we headed to a time when the only people who will take the risk of playing football are those with the least to lose? In other words, is football going down a path that was pioneered by boxing? Because in terms of general interest, that has turned into a road to something approaching irrelevance.

We don't know yet. But Kennedy headed to high school in 2014 to see what the football landscape looked like at that level. He found a sport with plenty of positives going for it, but with the concussion lurking nearby like a thunderstorm in the distance.

He did it by spending time with the New Rochelle football team, located north of New York City. New Rochelle is a good-sized suburb with a mix of demographics roaming its school hallways.  The Huguenauts have had good success over the years, usually fielding winning teams thanks to a veteran coach who worries about X's and O's some of the time and his players' personal problems at others.

There are profiles of the coaches, administrators and players, naturally. Lou DiRienzo, the coach of the team, comes off pretty well. High school head coaches receive a little more exposure to real-world problems than those higher up the food chain in college and the pros; those guiding such teams are a little more isolated from the players on an everyday basis.

Every so often, Kennedy has to shift his focus to the real world - for example, the death of two high school football player relatively close to New Rochelle. And that doesn't include concussions that seem to be something close to a weekly occurrence in football these days.

Just to add an unexpected twist to the story, who enters the scene but Ray Rice - just after he was released by his NFL team after a video was released showing him striking his future wife in an elevator. Rice played for New Rochelle, and returned to his high school during the season in the middle of the controversy surrounding the situation and his fate in it. 

New Rochelle at least came through for Kennedy with a good season. But the author wisely doesn't get bogged down in too many details of a year that is in the past and won't be that interesting to most readers - even though it's easy to root for some of the people involved. Kennedy is more interested in focusing on how high school football can supply support, discipline, and bonding for kids. It does that in many cases, but it also leaves kids on the sidelines with headaches - and who knows what's ahead for them?

Kennedy wrote a pair of terrific books on Joe DiMaggio's streak and Pete Rose. This book isn't quite so obviously compelling because of the less-famous subject matter, but the author's smarts still come through nicely here.

By the end of "Lasting Impact," Kennedy still isn't sure whether he'd let a son of his play high school football. He writes that he had no agenda going in, and still didn't have one going out. Kennedy can see arguments on both sides.The romantic side of high school football is still appealing, but the risks of playing become more real all the time. It's tough to know what the right answer is in every case.

Four stars

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Once There Were Giants (2017)

By Jerry Izenberg

Quick - name someone who is one of the heavyweight boxing champions of the world.

Me neither.

Somewhere along the line, heavyweight boxers stopped mattering. Maybe it's because most of the potential good ones are playing linebacker somewhere. Maybe it's because we became tired of the financial shenanigans in which the people not doing the work took money from the people doing the work - which has been going on since forever.

Maybe it's because the people running Ultimate Fighting and Mixed Martial Arts know more about marketing, especially in a world where they control the entire business. Maybe it's because people figured out there are easier ways to climb out of poverty.

Maybe it's a combination of all of the above.

In any case, it wasn't always like this. Once upon a time, the heavyweight champion was a major celebrity who was considered the toughest man on the planet. Come to think of it, it wasn't that long ago where that was the case - only a quarter of a century, a blink as these things go.

Veteran sportswriter Jerry Izenberg was around for the glory days of the heavyweight division. He apparently was at most of the big fights, and knew the champs and contenders personally. Izenberg empties out the memory book with "Once There Were Giants."

The author warms up for the assignment with a chapter on the history of the relationship between boxing and organized crime. The connection goes back to the start of the 20th century, according to Izenberg, but grew in importance in the 1930s and may have peaked in the 1950s. Fixing the results certainly happened, but the easiest way to influence the sport was through shady deals in management and curious matchmaking. In other words, connections were more important than victories in getting a title shot.

The last of the heavyweight champions to have obvious mob connections was Sonny Liston in the early 1960s. It speaks volumes that some people thought the heavyweight title dropped in class when it went from Liston to Muhammad Ali, who announced he had joined the Black Muslims right after beating Liston. Everyone seemed to be afraid of that group, even the syndicate.

The roll call of champions from there is pretty impressive. It includes Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, and Mike Tyson. Even the contenders and the brief champions were at least interesting - Ken Norton, Leon Spinks, Earnie Shavers, Ron Lyle, etc. Once Tyson's career blew up, partly because of self-inflicted wounds, things haven't been the same. Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis haven't faced enough quality opponents for them to qualify as anything close to all-time greats.

Izenberg has plenty of good stories about the greats and near-greats. For example, the author writes that Frazier was something of a one-trick pony for most of his career in the form of a great left hook. However, Frazier had a surprise for Ali in their legendary third fight. He had been discreetly working on developing a punch with his right hand. Frazier shocked Ali with that new skill, and it turned the fight into a classic.

There's some good material here. Izenberg knows his boxing, and his version of events generally feel authentic. He also has some funny lines along the way, and that does wonders for making the story more fun.

On the minus side, this is a mighty quick read - and would have been even quicker without the tales of organized crime that don't feel like it's a good fit with the story. Izenberg also could have used a little more cleaning in his editing. A few facts and incidents get repeated along the way.

"Once There Were Giants" comes across as an entertaining enough package - maybe not a book you'll save forever, but enjoyable along the way. I'm in the sweet spot for the target audience, naturally. The catch comes for those who are too young to remember the principals here. They probably won't be interested enough to pick this up in the first place. But their dads might.

Four stars

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Monday, February 27, 2017

Review: One Nation Under Baseball (2017)

By John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro

Now, here's an interesting subject.

You have have heard that America sort of blew up in the 1960s in any number of ways. All sorts of changes came to the country, and they were packed into the decade. It was hard to keep up with the way the rules seemed to change by the hour.

In contract, the game of baseball remained relatively unchanged. People who had come from 1895 in a time machine still would have recognized it in 1965 - nine innings, three outs, and so on.

For some, that was good. They could go to the ballpark and see decades of tradition on display. Heck, most of the players weren't allowed to wear long hair, so every day was turn back the clock day in that sense.

But there were all sorts of changes taking place in the game, even if they might have been relatively subtle. Looking at the decade in that sense is the premise of "One Nation Under Baseball."

After an excellent introduction by Bob Costas about how important and interesting those changes were, authors John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro jump right into a fascinating anecdote from pitcher Jim Grant. He was in Detroit in 1960 on a road trip when he got a call from aides of Senator John F. Kennedy, telling him that the Presidential nominee wanted to have breakfast with him the next morning. It took some convincing, but Grant did make it down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast. The two men had a frank conversation about civil rights, and Grant was impressed that Kennedy bothered to seek him out.

And away we go through the 1960s, covering a variety of topics and presenting some stories. Some are familiar, but several are pretty fresh because of interviews done just for the book - even from the perspective of about 50 years later. That helps make it at least interesting.

Even so, this bogs down a bit in relatively short order. The baseball stories will at least interest those picking it up, but the book goes in a variety of other directions. Before we know it, we're reading about a New York City newspaper strike, or the Beatles, or Muhammad Ali, or New York major John Lindsay. In addition, some times the stories don't match the overall theme of changes in society changing baseball. There's a portion of the book on the 1969 New York Mets, who pulled off one of the great surprises in baseball history by coming from nowhere to win a World Series. Forests have been sacrificed to tell that story, but it doesn't seem like a particularly good fit in this book. Denny McLain's 31-win season gets a look here, but it's hard to figure out where that fits in with the narrative. At least we can guess why he never came close to repeating that big season (arm issues were bothering him by the end of 1968).

What's more, I'm not sure all of the anecdotes go anywhere. We see how the road to free agency started, and how the sport became more color-blind, but there isn't much analysis given along the way. I would guess that most people picking this up might not want to read a sociologist's view of baseball, but this went a little too far in the other direction. Even a final chapter summing up what had happened would have been good.

The bibliography here is very impressive, and it's almost surprising that the authors got this down to only 200 or so pages of text. "One Nation Under Baseball" will at least interest those who want to learn more about the Sixties, but they might be disappointed that there's not more to the story.

(Footnote: I found out after writing this that Shapiro was one of the interviewed people in the fine HBO documentary on the Boston Red Sox of 2003 - revised after 2004.)

Three stars

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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2017

Edited by Aaron Gleeman and Bret Sayre

I've been reading and reviewing the Baseball Prospectus for more years than I can remember. That means I might be running out of things to say.

The constant is that I really wouldn't want to start following the baseball season without reading what the experts at BP have to say.

The 2017 edition is out, and as usual it's full of worthwhile information. This year's book checks in at 576 pages. That's an enormous project to finish in an offseason, considering how much information is included. It takes a big, talented staff to turn that around, and BP obviously has that.

The format follows the usual pattern. Each team gets an essay - usually different from what you might read elsewhere, but generally an interesting take. Then comes a description of player after player after player. I guess they always miss a few players who had an impact on the season to come, but very few. The basic statistics are there along with some other "new age" numbers. If you are new to the book, it will take a little time to TAv and WARP, but not long. Those new readers also should know that the stats don't go back very far (2014/2015/2016). I saw a comment on amazon.com complaining about that, but it's not a record book designed for that purpose. This year's book adds some fancy stats for catchers. It's nice information to have if you study such stuff. Finally, there are a few essays in the back on general baseball topics, plus a ranking of the top 101 prospects in the game.

The writing is good and sometimes quite funny and fresh. It certainly feels like the player comments are a little more upbeat now than they used to be. Few players are out and out trashed, and the guys who have a chance to hang around a major league roster seem to get a little more respect than in past years. The authors seem to know what they are talking about; many wind up in the front offices of major league organizations. The book has started to print each team's BP alumni.

Again, I tend to stick to the major league players when reading it at this time of the year, and then refer to it during the season. Otherwise, I might be reading straight through until May. If my favorite teams make a trade, especially involving some prospects, I go straight to it for reference. Sometimes I'll even grab it while watching a game, especially if unfamiliar teams are playing. It increases my interest.

I'm not sure how many ways I can say "if you are a big baseball fan, you should be buying this." But it is true. I might not bother to say it next year, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.

Five stars

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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Review: Macho Row (2017)

By William C. Kashatus

The 1993 Philadelphia Phillies were one of the great "fluke" teams in recent baseball history.

If you look at the team's all-time record, year by year, you'll get the idea. The '93 team won 97 games to capture the National League East title. Philadelphia hadn't had a winning record since 1986, when it finished about 20 games behind the New York Mets in the division. The team didn't have a winning record again until 2001, when it won 86 games again.

That's part of the reason why that Phillies team was so popular, and remains so in to this day. It was all so unexpected. Another part of the reason. is that the squad had some good-sized characters. They were loud, brash, profane and fun-loving, and they all sat together in the home locker room.

That part of the room became known as "Macho Row," giving us the title for William C. Kashatus' book on that team. There were six occupants of that part of the room - Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk, Mitch Williams, Dave Hollins and Pete Incaviglia. They set the tone for the team, that took advantage of an opening at the top of the division.

Those on "Macho Row" get special treatment in this book. The six get their own chapters, and their exploits are fully covered on and off the field - sometimes in rather raw terms. (I'm not sure the kids will want to read about a baseball team from 24 years ago anyway.) Dykstra was the catalyst of the offense, Daulton was the power-hitting catcher, Kruk was the pure-hitting first baseman, Williams was the erratic relief pitcher, and Hollins and Incaviglia were good-sized pieces in the lineup.

Some of the boys on Macho Row might have had another connection: Performance Enhancing Drug (PED) use. Dykstra certainly bulked up in an attempt to improve his performance, and some of the others are at least under suspicion.  There was no testing done on PED use back then, so it falls under the category of possibly unethical rather than illegal behavior.

But other members of the team and organization are covered as well, if less thoroughly. Special attention goes to Curt Schilling, who became the ace of the staff with a 16-7 record in a breakthrough year. He was won of five starters who won at least 10 games, which is impressive. Schilling's personality made some waves along the way, but the man could pitch.

Kashatus certainly did his research. He talked some members of that Phillies' organization, and went through all sorts of newspapers, books and magazines. Once the stage is set by introducing the characters, the author goes through the season month by month. It's a little difficult to make the year interesting in hindsight on a game-by-game basis. There wasn't much drama, as the Phillies got off to a good start and more or less stayed in first place for much of the season. The Expos put on a challenging burst for a while, but fell short. Then the tale moves into the playoffs, and such games are always memorable to fans.

Speaking of fans, Kashatus qualifies as one such person when it comes to the Phillies, and that's a drawback here. One odd moment comes when the playoff series with Atlanta comes up. After discussing the Braves' alleged arrogance because of their run of success, the author writes, "It was that same arrogance coupled with the belief that the Braves could dispatch the Phillies in four straight games that resulted in Atlanta's downfall." That doesn't really ring true, and doesn't give Philadelphia enough credit.

Then Toronto, the World Series opponent, is described as "the best Major League baseball team that money could buy." Kashatus paints the Series as a battle between the free-spending Jays and the frugal Phillies. Philadelphia didn't have a big payroll in 1993, but that probably was due to a lack of success in the preceding years that led to poor attendance and small revenues. It's tough to call Philadelphia a small-market team.

Along those lines, Philadelphia is cited as the original model for Billy Beane's "Moneyball" philosophy with the Oakland A's. There's about an eight-year gap between those teams, and the analogy seems to be a bit of a stretch.

Meanwhile, one of the themes of the book is how the Phillies followed the sport's unwritten code in terms of behavior. That includes such actions as sticking up for teammates, whether it be throwing at opponents when the situation calls for it to not airing dirty laundry in the media. That part of the book feels a little forced too.

Still, I can see how lifetime Phillies fans cherish some of the memories of the '93 teams. The year provided a season of head-shaking joy, in spite of the abrupt ending in the form of Joe Carter's walk-off homer in the World Series. Those fans are the obvious target audience for "Macho Row," and they will find some rewards here.

Three stars

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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Review: Boy on Ice (2014)

By John Branch

"Boy on Ice" is not a typical biography.

For one thing, it's a fairly long book (327 pages plus notes) on a fairly short life (less than 30 years). For another, there's no happy ending; if anything, the final chapter still will be written down the road, even a few years after publication.

Yet the story of Derek Boogaard remains quite interesting in an odd sort of way, and with a little luck it is educational as well.

Boogaard was, in some ways, an unlikely figure to be a professional athlete. He grew up in Western Canada and played hockey, like every other boy, but he wasn't too good. Boogaard showed few signs that he'd grow into a relatively famous player.

But he did have one advantage on the ladder - size. Boogaard was always really big for his age. That meant he could be an enforcer in the game of hockey. Boogaard eventually grew into a body that was 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds.

The idea behind enforcers is that they try to protect the best players on their teams, try to stop opponents from taking liberties. That happens at times, but they also are asked to fight one of the opponents' big guys for one reason or another. Enforcers in that sense often play less than five minutes a game, leaving a thought of "what's the point?" to some.

Take it from a guy who wrote a book with such a player - if there's a path to the NHL, some people will take it. They have to make a decision to become a fighter. There are rewards and there are downsides. Derek didn't even like fighting, but it was a means to an end.

In the case of Boogaard, he was always big and willing, but it took a while for him to get good at it. Eventually, though, he became one of the toughest guys in the National Hockey League. You can argue about whether he was the toughest, but ultimately it doesn't matter. He was in the argument. Derek also was on the shy side, but he was great in the community and became popular with fans.

Enforcers make a deal when they fill that role - they will pay a price. It usually involves pain. Boogaard suffered a variety of injuries during the way, and it led to a lot of pain. Boogaard needed more and more pills to cope with it. He got those pills from team doctors in some cases, and from the street in others. Either way, Boogaard turned his body into a pharmacy. He died of a combination of alcohol and painkillers in 2011.

Branch received complete cooperation from the Boogaard family on telling the story. His father, a policeman by trade, is still trying to put all the pieces together and call attention to the issue. As a result, the book has all sorts of details about the life Derek was leading near the end. Records from banks, credit cards and cell phones help tell the story. But one part of the puzzle wasn't visible until after his death - Boogaard had CTE, brain damage. Researchers were shocked that someone in his 20s had so much damage, perhaps due to a series of concussions suffered in hockey.

How did this happen? That's still being sorted out. There were a lot of enablers along the way, and their stories wind through the courts. Even though we've learned a lot about concussions over the years, it's tough to know how far to move the line in contact sports in order to prevent them. Boogaard's father says Americans are more interested in solving the problem than Canadians, since Canada considers hockey a "sacred cow."

Branch's original series of newspaper articles for the New York Times won awards, and it's expanded into book form here. The story might have been better with about 50 pages removed in order to have more impact. But once Boogaard starts downhill - and you know where it's headed - it's impossible to look away. 

Stories about addiction - whether it's Eric Clapton or Dwight Gooden - generally aren't a whole lot of fun to read. Certainly, though, "Boy on Ice" serves as a fine case study for this type of situation in hockey. It's a story that cries out to teach some lessons to the rest of us, if only we could figure out what they are.

Four stars

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Review: Sports Business Unplugged (2016)

By Rick Burton and Norm O'Reilly

There are some people out there that don't want to hear anything about the business side of sports. They are sick of contracts, agents, sponsorships, international relationships, and so on down the list.

"Sports Business Unplugged" is not for them.

The story behind this book requires a little explanation. SportsBusiness Journal is the trade newspaper/magazine of the sports business. It's been around for a quarter of a century or so. I remember seeing it around the office when I worked in professional sports back then. Not every article is going to interest every reader, but that's fine - something will get your attention. Since it's written for organizations in the business (and they buy most of the subscriptions), it's tough for the average fan to justify the cost.

Along the way, SportsBusiness Journal picked up a couple of columnists. Rick Burton is a professor at Syracuse University, while Norm O'Reilly works in the same job at Ohio University. They have teamed up for a column in the publication for the past several years. "Sports Business Unplugged" is a collection of their greatest hits.

The book is broken into four different sections. There's marketing and sponsorship, followed by the Olympics, Canada and the world, and improving the world of sports. I suppose the surprise there is how much is written about Canada by a couple of American experts, but the issues raised are still valid.

And that's the most important of this. Burton and O'Reilly do a good job of discussing situations in sports that might get overlooked otherwise. What is the relationship between sports and young people? Are there better ways to conduct the bidding process for cities who want to host the Olympic Games? What do the Olympics do for a city, anyway? Are sports paying enough attention to morals and ethics? What will sports look like in a couple of decades? Sometimes the authors don't have the answers, but they are opening the right questions for discussions.

One warning here: This is not for beginners. Some background in the business of sports is necessary, and even that may not get you through some of the references. But you'll get the idea.

Full disclosure: Burton was on our school newspaper staff when I was at Syracuse. The kid's done pretty well for himself, I'd say. So there's no rating here - just a note that it's nice to see an old friend advance the discussion so well.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Review: A Guy Like Me (2016)

By John Scott with Brian Cazeneuve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three stars

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