Monday, May 23, 2016

Review: The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism (2016)

By Matthew P. Llewellyn and John Gleaves

I once read a handy definition of "amateurism" when it came to sports. It was along the lines that amateurism was a way of keeping money out of the hands of those who actually earned it. That's oversimplified a bit, but you get the idea.

The event most closely associated with amateur athletics over the course of relatively recent history is the Olympic Games. Organizers have struggled over the years with coming up with a definition that works for all, until they more or less gave up about 25 years ago and let anyone in the door. You still hear complaints that the purity of the Games was spoiled a bit by that decision, even though there's never been much purity associated with the subject.

Now comes along a book on the amateurism by Matthew P. Llewellyn and John Gleaves, two associate professors of kinesiology at California State University at Fullerton.
"The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism" fills in some gaps in our knowledge of this particular subject nicely if perhaps not neatly.

Speaking of oversimplifications, I've always thought that amateurism essentially started a way for organizers of sport to keep the lower classes out of their fun and games. The idea mostly was associated with Great Britain. The theory was that only rich people could afford to take up a game and practice it enough to become really good at it without compensation. Lower classes had to eat and didn't have the time to devote to pastimes.

There is some truth to that. However, the authors point out that some sports, such as soccer, had a professional aspect to them dating back to the 19th century. That's in part why soccer's big event is the World Cup and not the Olympics, although the story took some twists along the way.

Pierre de Coubertin usually gets the credit for playing the lead role in bringing the Olympics back as a world festival in 1896. It had been a Greek competition a couple of thousand years before that. De Coubertin was something of a romantic and probably didn't have his history straight, but the Games did get going. The problem when it came to amateurism is that standards were all over the place. For example, Jim Thorpe was ordered to give back his medals from the 1912 Games because he had taken a few dollars to play baseball before those Games, which was perfectly legal in some cases. The action was taken so quickly that Thorpe wasn't allowed a hearing. (Note: he was put back in the record book about 70 years later.)

But if there's a central figure to the story presented by the authors, it's Avery Brundage. The head of the International Olympic Committee was a strong believer in the concept of amateurism, to the point where athletes couldn't serve as coaches or commentators on their sports even after they had competed. As the Games grew in popularity, Brundage kept one foot in the past.

However, he was smart enough to change his views on some of the eligibility rules as world conditions changed. When the Soviet Union and its associated nations decided to make a huge effort to become athletic powers, suddenly Brundage forgot about rules designed to prevent government sponsorship and support of the athletes. And when television and endorsements became part of the situation and money was starting to get serious, well, it was fine for the IOC to take it in - but not the athletes themselves. You might call someone who acts that way a hypocrite, and you'd be right.

Once Brundage left the IOC in 1972, the Olympics fell into deep problems for a while. Eligibility issues were on people's mind, but boycotts, doping scandals and concerns on how to split up a growing financial pie among organizers caused problems. But the 1984 Los Angeles Games revitalized the competition in almost all ways, and in 1988 pro tennis players took part in the Games in Seoul. In 1992, the Dream Team showed up in Barcelona for basketball, essentially knocking the barriers down.

Llewellyn and Gleaves are obviously smart people, and they've done their homework. The University of Illinois, which published this book, is the home of Brundage's archives, and certainly the two authors spent lots of time there and well as going back through all sorts of other records and transcripts. They come to some sharp conclusions that appear to be right on target.

However, this is not a book for the beach. The story is mostly told from an administrative viewpoint, and it's a little too easy to get lost along the way. Meanwhile, Llewellyn and Gleaves use plenty of words that may add to your vocabulary; even my Kindle didn't have the definitions of some of them.

"The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism" is an interesting story that fills in several gaps in the subject, and it's not entirely fair to judge a book designed more for an academic audience than for the general public. But it's easy to come away wishing that it was a little more down-to-earth in its storytelling. If you are willing to get through the dry spots and have an interest in the subject, then take a look and give it an extra star. Otherwise, some may not find it worth the effort.

Three stars

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Review: I'd Know That Voice Anywhere (2016)

By Frank Deford

The Buffalo News gets the entire review, which you can access by going here. The shorter version would be that this is a collection of work of Deford's from National Public Radio. It is made up of commentaries about two pages long (three minutes or so of air time). Deford is considered the finest feature writer in sportswriting history, but he's pretty good at this too. Fans of Deford - which should include everyone - should like this.

Four stars

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Review: I'm Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies (2016)

By Tim Kurkjian

It doesn't take long to know what you're going to read when you look at the cover of this book. "I'm Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies" tells you right away that the author is a man who loves, loves, loves baseball and all its quirks.

Then Tim Kurkjian goes about proving it over the 232 pages in the book.

It's baseball book No. 2 for Kurkjian, the fine baseball reporter for ESPN. The first was "Is This a Great Game, or What?" That was an easy read with stories and facts about the game.

Now he's back, about nine years later, with a repeat performance. Kurkjian goes through the notebooks once again in search of stories and information.

The title of the book comes from a remark Kurkjian made in 2007 on "Baseball Tonight" on ESPN. Carlos Lee had his 13th sacrifice fly of the season. That broke the club record, and it looked as if Lee was headed to break the major league record of 19 set by Gil Hodges. That's a launching point for a series of facts about this narrow part of baseball history. Chili Davis once drove in 112 runs in 1993 without a sacrifice fly, while 10 players have hit three of them in a game. By the way, Lee didn't have another sacrifice fly for the rest of the season.

For part of the book, Kurkjian names a subject and devotes the rest of the chapter on stories on that particular area from a series of people. What's it like to get hit by a pitch? What do players think of superstitions? What sounds are made during a game that the players notice? There are a few chapters devoted to some statistical oddities of the sport, and even one on the fascination of box scores. If you haven't figured out that this book is designed for BIG baseball fans, you probably are on the wrong website.

Kurkjian's best work in the book comes at unexpected times. The first chapter is about how difficult the game is to play. Anyone who has been cut from a Little League team or gave up the sport in frustration knows something about that, but it's tough for the big leaguers too. Then there's a tribute to baseball personalities like Earl Weaver, Tony Gwynn and Don Zimmer who are no longer with us. It's a nice contrast to the three paragraphs and out approach of much of the rest of the book, and Kurkjian's feelings come across nicely.

One more key point - this might be the first review in this space to criticize the foreword. George Will is the author in question, and his approach is to quote several of the items contained in the book. This has the effect of making the reader ask the question, "Haven't I read that already?" when it comes up in the actual text. At least Will read the book, but it's an annoying technique.

"I'm Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies" comes off as a bit unfocused, but there's enough good information there to keep the reader going through it at a brisk pace. Kurkjian's good nature and his admissions about how he's a true "baseball nerd" help as well. His latest book might not be a keeper forever, but it will leave fans entertained.

Three stars

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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Review: The Secret Race (2013)

By Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle

Once upon a time, it was easy to love cycling in general and the Tour de France in particular.

It's difficult to imagine a more difficult sporting event, with its climbs up mountains and its sprints on level terrain - day after day, until three weeks go by. Then a few Americans started popping up near the top, giving people on this side of the Atlantic a rooting interest. And then a few Americans won, including Lance Armstrong - who kept winning and winning and winning (repeat word seven times in all).

But, there was a catch - a big one. It turned out that practically every single one of the contenders was using special drugs and other means to get faster. It was their idea of making it a level playing field. Eventually, even Armstrong was implicated and confessed.

That made it easy to hating cycling in general, at least on the competitive level, and the Tour de France in particular.

How did the drug era take place in cycling? Tyler Hamilton wrote his account of the story a few years ago, "The Secret Race." It's still quite fascinating, even if we know how it turns out.

Hamilton was a very good bike rider at a relatively early point in his career. He moved over to Europe in order to face the world's best and see how he measured up. Hamilton eventually joined the U.S. Postal Service team, which had Armstrong as its star and leader. Hamilton was an opening act on the team, to put it in show business terms, and had to prove that he had a chance of competing with big dogs.

Hamilton did that eventually, which earned him some fringe benefits - such as the chance to have EPO injected and receive blood transfusions. As the cyclist put it, it was either take dope or go home. Thus the elaborate schemes began, where he would have doctors meet him in secret places so that injections and transfusions could take place. As for conversations on the subject, remember the line from the movie "Fight Club": The first rule of Fight Club is that you do not talk about Fight Club.

Eventually, Hamilton got caught. They all did in one way or another, even though by the sound of it the testing by the sport's authorities was relatively simple to pass. It just takes a little slip-up to test positive. Hamilton still isn't sure what happened the first time around, and denied the charges at first since he wasn't technically guilty of using someone else's blood. But he was guilty of plenty of other things, and eventually decided to tell his story in court and in this book. 

It's certainly interesting to read how the nuts and bolts of the operation worked during the doping era. Still, the attraction of this book is a reasonably close look at Armstrong. He was an American icon for a while when he was winning tour titles. Armstrong had given up cycling while undergoing cancer treatments, and his return better than ever was embraced by all. He set up Livestrong, a cancer foundation that raised millions and millions.

It was, of course, too good to be true. The Armstrong shown here is not a pretty picture. He's consumed with himself and his image, treating people horribly along the way. Hamilton eventually fell into that class. A description of a confrontation between the two in a Colorado restaurant is pretty shocking. Even Hamilton calls him a bully a few times, and that seems to fit. We wanted really hard to believe in the myth, and it's still evident in the reaction that lingers to today. Armstrong set new records for defiance before finally confessing (to Oprah, no less) in public.

After reading "The Secret Race" and going through the news reports about the episodes, it will be tough for anyone to feel the same way about cycling for a long time. But, a purging probably was necessary, and Hamilton helped supply it. "Thank you" might not be the right words, but in the end Hamilton probably did the right thing.

Five stars

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Friday, April 22, 2016

Review: Mavericks, Money and Men (2016)

By Charles K. Ross

It was difficult not to think of a story a friend of mine once told me while reading "Mavericks, Money and Men." I'll tell the story in a moment, but a description of the book needs to be told to set up the story.

The history of the American Football League has been told many times over the years. A group of men self-nicknamed "The Foolish Club" started a rival league designed to challenge, or at least co-exist, with the established National Football League. Such actions had taken place in the past, but they were rarely too successful. The All-American Football Conference did all right in the post-war 1940s, and a few of its teams merged into the NFL. But in general, the convention wisdom was that the participants in the new league at an ownership level were throwing their money away.

It turned out the AFL did quite well, thank you. There were growing pains, of course, but the league slowly improved and merged with the NFL in 1966. That led to four interleague championship games (Super Bowls I through IV) that took place before the leagues' lineup was reshuffled. The AFL teams famously won two of them, the Jets in 1969 and the Chiefs in 1970.

Author Charles K. Ross spends a great deal of time reviewing the contributions of African American players to the success of the AFL. That's particularly true in the case of historically black colleges, which had been more or less ignored by the NFL through the 1950s. And this is where the story comes up.

I was friends with Larry Felser, the late sportswriter of The Buffalo News. The subject came up about the number of players who came out of Grambling University, coached by the legendary Eddie Robinson, who found success in the AFL. Felser said the reason behind those signings was simple: AFL teams made payments to Robinson in order to make sure that he steered top talent toward the NFL.

I can't say I've ever seen that story reported anywhere. However, Felser covered the AFL throughout its 10 years of existence. He knew everyone in the league, and was on a first-name basis with owners. I have little doubt that if such payments were being made, Felser would have known about it.

Certainly I wouldn't blame Robinson for taking the money if it were offered. The athletic programs of schools like Grambling weren't exactly overfunded, and I'd bet someone like Robinson would do what he could to improve the football program.

I'm not trying to say that the NFL wasn't as good or as quick as it should have been when it came to the area of integration. The Washington Redskins didn't have a black player until the early 1960s. But Ross carries a certain approach into the story that can make the reader stop and wonder whether he's forcing the events of the time to fit into his version of the story.

For example, Buck Buchanan came out of Grambling for the 1963 football drafts. He was the number one pick overall in the AFL selection process, taken by the Kansas City Chiefs. The Green Bay Packers took him in the 19th round. Ross apparently believes that this was due to the NFL having its head in the sand. It's far more likely that Buchanan, for whatever reason, had agreed to an AFL contract already. By the way, since Buchanan - the first black to be taken No. 1 overall - wound up in the Hall of Fame, the NFL should have tried much harder to sign him. Such arrangement were more common than people realize, depending on the year.

Ross also has an unusual opinion on the career of Marlin Briscoe, who is in the history books as the first black quarterback to start a game in the AFL or NFL. He got that job when injuries and a lack of talent wiped out the Denver Broncos at a position. Briscoe moved into the lineup and played 11 games for the rest for the 1968 season. Ross wonders how good the Broncos might have been had they stayed with Briscoe in the years to come, and some believe racism prevented that chance. I'm not discounting that possibility. However, Briscoe's 41.5 percent completion rate as a passer in 1968 and 5-foot-11 height might not have helped his case either. Briscoe certainly deserved a chance to compete for a job in 1969, but the rest of the story shouldn't get much beyond a "what if?"

Otherwise, this is a rather basic story of the history of the AFL. It covers the teams and their seasons, climaxed with stories of championships. There are a few tales that may be relatively new to football readers, showing that Ross did plenty of homework. On the other hand, an early edition of the book designed for reviewers had a few errors, such as the spelling of the name of Broncos' executive Bob Howsam.

Ross' main point about how the contribution of African Americans helped the AFL become successful is a good one. I wish "Mavericks, Money and Men" had concentrated on that part of the story. Extensive interviews with those pioneers would have been interesting. The book that was written isn't quite as compelling, but it will serve as a quick review of a key time in football history.

Three stars

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review: The Best Team Money Can Buy (2015)

By Molly Knight

When a hockey team was in the midst of all sorts of turmoil several years ago, he said that it all reminded him of a soap opera that he watched to kill time during the afternoons before games.

That player would have loved the Los Angeles Dodgers of the first part of the decade.

The Dodgers' story involved front office and ownership drama, big money contracts, stars and lesser lights. Plus, few happy endings. Shakespeare would be proud.

It's a natural story for a book, and Molly Knight writes it all down in "The Best Team Money Can Buy," the head-shaking story of the Dodgers' unfulfilled attempt at glory.

Knight wisely starts off the story with former owner Frank McCourt. He had taken one of the flagship teams in baseball and run it into the ground. There were enough odd details in his personal story to keep everyone from the Los Angeles Times to TMZ entertained. Eventually, the team was put up for sale and snapped up early in 2012 for a mere $2.15 billion.

If that price didn't show that the Dodgers meant business, a trade later in that first year was an even bigger signal. Los Angeles completed a huge trade with Boston - picking up Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford for a few relatively minor players. The key point was that the Dodgers were willing to pay the contracts of these high priced players. Suddenly, money was no object.

The Dodgers were determined to do better the next year, and were willing to spend their way to do so. Zack Greinke was added to the roster as a free agent, giving the Dodgers a powerful combination with Clayton Kershaw at the top of the rotation. One of their biggest additions was Yasiel Puig, a Cuban defector who had immense talent but who was rough around the edges. Very rough. After a slow start, the Dodges found an extra gear and had an amazing run to take charge of the National League West. They came within two games of making it to the World Series.

It was more of the same in 2014. The Dodgers kept spending money, and enjoyed another division-winning year. But playoff losses aren't particularly accepted well when the payroll is above $200 million.

Knight found out plenty of interesting stories along the way here. Puig is a centerpiece, a young man whose behavior often was excused because of his talent. His numbers have gone down since a sensational rookie year, and we'll see how he reacts to that in the near future. Hanley Ramirez comes off as something of enigma. His immense talent at hitting a baseball is still present, but a series of injuries have hampered his ability to field one. Kershaw comes off as one of the good guys, dedicated to his craft and to the idea that his career won't be complete without a World Series championship.

What's striking about reading this book is that the Dodgers never seemed to fit together as a team particularly well. For example, for most of the years described, Los Angeles had one too many starting outfielders (four players with big contracts) and not enough help in the bullpen. It's no wonder that the Dodgers in 2015 went out and signed Andrew Friedman from Tampa Bay to run their baseball operations. After years of pinching pennies with the Rays and creating nickels and dimes, we'll see how he does with dollars to throw around.

It's tough to say whether interest in this Dodgers' era is large enough to captivate fans without a rooting interest in the team. "The Best Team Money Can Buy" isn't overly sensational, but it's certainly well done and a good review of the era.

Four stars

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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Review: The Arm (2016)

By Jeff Passan

Some of the writers of the Baseball Prospectus series have a pet saying: There's no such thing as a pitching prospect.

Naturally, you could call that shorthand for "There's no such thing as a pitching prospect over the long term, because they keep getting hurt."

It's not your imagination. Every so often, a pitcher comes off the mound complaining of a sore elbow, and in a couple of days the diagnosis comes down with painful finality: Tommy John surgery is necessary. That's an operation that tries to fix a broken ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow.

It takes about a year to recover from the surgery, which is named after the first pitcher to have it. While it might be the most successful development in recent sports medicine techniques, there are still no guarantees. If a pitcher does come all the way back, the ligament can break again. And as we ask pitchers to throw harder and harder, particularly at a young age, more and more of them need the operation. Throwing a ball 100 times every fifth day at 97 miles per hour is going to cause stress to the body. I'm not sure "epidemic" is the right word to describe the situation, but the numbers are on the increase.

People who follow baseball from a distance know this is going on. Still, they have only a vague sense of what's going on and what's involved. That's what makes Jeff Passen's book, "The Arm," valuable. He writes at length (about 350 pages) on the issues involved.

Passen went searching for a pitcher who was willing to be open and honest about the recovery process, and he was lucky enough to find two. Both went through their second Tommy John surgery and rehab during the time frame of the book. One was Todd Coffey, a major league veteran hoping for one last shot. The other was Daniel Hudson, a promising Arizona Diamondback pitcher (see first paragraph) who blew out his elbow, worked hard on rehab for a year, and then blew it out again. The two are both painfully honest about the recovery process and how difficult it is, physically and mentally. Their wives' thoughts along the way add nicely to that part of the story.

There are plenty of other aspects to the story as well. Passen reviews in an early chapter what actually takes place in a Tommy John operation. You can almost hear the drill making a hole in the bone at one point. The author heads to Japan to see how they are handling the rising tide of injuries, in spite of a culture that essentially glorifies the idea of "shut up and pitch" no matter how much pain there is. There are elite programs in the United States that try to identify top players at a young age. A few extra miles per hour can turn into hundreds of thousands of dollars if a pitcher moved up in the amateur draft.

Passan also talks to some people who think they have some answers to curing the epidemic. There is not much proof that they help the situation much, perhaps because of the randomness factor. One pitcher can do everything wrong and still have a long career, while another may do everything right and crumble at age 17. Some medical professors are doing some good work, including one that has created a new type of elbow operation that sounds promising for certain cases. But many admit that we are a long way with coming up with any sort of predictive formulas.

There's also an interesting chapter about Jon Lester, who gave Passen access when he was negotiating with teams as a free agent a little more than a year ago. Lester was an outstanding pitcher who had been healthy throughout his career but had crossed the magic line of 30 years old - and thus statistically was at risk for some sort of decline in the relatively near future. The Cubs bet $155 million before the 2015 season that Lester would continue to pitch well.

There are a few moments along the way here that are a little dense. The human body is a complicated structure, particularly when it throws a baseball hard. I'm not saying a degree in kinesiology (human movement) is necessary to read the book, but those portions aren't a breezy read. Then again, those who pick up a book like this aren't expecting a breezy read.

What "The Arm" does, then, is define the issue and set the table for conversations going forward. That's quite an accomplishment, and it should make it very worthwhile for those who want an extended peak at a situation that figures to get worse before it gets better.

Five stars

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