Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review: Marvin Miller - Baseball Revolutionary (2015)

By Robert F. Burk

At one point in Robert F. Burk's on Marvin Miller, there's a comment from Red Barber about how the three most important people in the development of baseball have been Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Miller.

That's a rather high bar to pass, but Burk makes a rather good case for it in his biography, "Marvin Miller - Baseball Revolutionary."

Miller led the first professional sports union to have any clout. That may sound impossible in a day when owners and players are essentially partners in the operation, but that's a tribute to just how far the relationship has come. What's more, both sides have gained, and Miller was the catalyst.

If there's a theme here, it's that Miller was the right man at the right place at the right time. Oddly, though, this was hardly always the case for him.

After graduating from college, Miller fell into a variety of jobs that saw him bounce along the East Coast for several years. World War II played a role in that, although he didn't see military duty because of a shoulder issue. Eventually Miller landed with the Steelworkers Union in 1950, and moved up the executive ladder.

This section of the new book contains some information and insight into Miller that's not too common. Miller himself was told to downplay it in his own autobiography, with the publisher no doubt thinking that most people buying such a book wanted to read about the baseball years. Burk goes into Miller's family background at length, and covers Miller's personal political views - which were quite left of center. When you consider the times of the late 1940s and early 1950s, it wasn't exactly a career boost to be outspoken about such stances.

Miller spent more than 15 years with United Steelworkers. It's difficult to turn labor negotiations in that industry into riveting (sorry) material, and it's a little tough to get through this without some familiarity with the subject. Still, it's interesting to read what happened to the business in that era. Very short version - America was the king of steel after World War II, because the rest of the world's plants were in ruins. But as production in Europe and Japan started to ramp up, American business shrank - and conflicts grew on how best to handle that ever-changing situation.

By 1966, Miller was ready for a new challenge, and he found one when he was named the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. It was a group that had virtually no rights in the workplace, starting with the freedom to choose an employer. As the book details, Miller slowly built up support within the union and took on management on a variety of issues. He was helped by the fact that he was good at this, and those on the other side were simply awful at it. Baseball owners were outflanked at virtually every opportunity during Miller's time on the job.

Along the way, owners predicted doom after every step, and they were proven spectacularly wrong. Arbitration arrived, the reserve clause died, free agency became a reality, and revenues, salaries and franchise values spiraled upward. Burk gives most of the credit to Miller for this, which matches what most sports historians say.

After Miller stepped down from a formal role with the MLBPA in 1982, he remained in the picture in one way or another. Miller did do some advising of the association at times for the next few years, formally and informally. After that, he was always willing to give his views on a labor situation to anyone who called. You could count on him to be consistent, a fact that led him to being an outsider when the steroid problem reared its head in the late 1990s and the 2000s. In fact, Burk unleashes some rare criticism of Miller in the book, pointing out that baseball had to do something about PEDs in order to maintain good will with its fan base. Miller died in 2012 at the age of 95, equal parts confident, articulate and defiant until the end.

Burk had several long interviews with Miller for the book, and he also did a few other interviews as well as mined print sources for information. There aren't too many fresh quotes from outsiders here that may have added some perspective, but this still is a substantial biography.

Books on the business side of sport can be a tough sell for many. They only want to know about what happens between the lines. Still, off-field developments in baseball over the half-century are interesting in their own light, and have influenced the game greatly. Those wishing a course in how we got to where we are now will find "Marvin Miller - Baseball Revolutionary" quite helpful in that sense.

Four stars

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Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2015

Edited by Sam Miller and Jason Wojciechowski

We've hit the 20-year milestone in the publication history of the Baseball Prospectus. In that time, it has become a welcome sign of the approach of spring. Along the way, the series has taught us much about baseball, how it's played and what might happen in the months and years to come.

So what do people want to talk about when it comes to reviews on Amazon.com? The layout of this year's book. That's a new one, for this book and almost every other published volume.

Two points do come out rather quickly when taking the quickest of glances at this year's book. It's smaller than the 2014 edition by around 100 pages or so. When it comes to data, this is sort of like going from the Los Angeles phone book to the Dallas phone book. Huge to very big. There are a few players dropped from the sum total, but the 2015 version still has more than 2,000 players ranked. Someone who turns out to be significant might have slipped under the cracks, but the odds are against it. It's not a major problem for most.

Then there's the matter of design. The player capsules have been redone, so that there is less white space between lines and it might be a point of type size smaller. (OK, you try to tell the difference between 8 pt. and 9 pt.) It's a little bit more difficult to read. That's particular true because the line of type goes across almost seven inches of the page. It might work better to make each comments fit into two columns, with a little canyon of white space in between. Yes, it would expand the size of the book, but that could be attacked with slightly shorter comments or moving a few more players into the list of other players covered at the end of each team chapter.

Speaking of those catch-all sections, the type size and leading definitely has been reduced, making it somewhat intimidating to read. Personally, I glanced over the list looking for familiar names, and then moved on quickly. That's not the best idea in a book.

Otherwise, everything works out nicely. The writers obviously know what they are talking about, and there's a major effort to make the writing of each player capsule filled with fun and information. The team reviews, a couple of pages that serve as the introduction to the chapter, are for the most part well done.

The group at Baseball Prospectus have adopted the new statistics that have entered the game with zeal. There are all sorts of figures that come out here, and not just anagrams. There's good information on a variety of aspects of the game, and how that might affect future performance. In other words, there are such things as FIP and FRAA calculated, but they won't hurt your enjoyment of the book. If there's a lesson to be learned out of such work, it's that it's a reminder how athletically we all start declining in the mid-to-late 20s, and a typical player doesn't get very long to prove he should be or can stay a major leaguer.

As I've said before, "Baseball Prospectus" gets read here when it comes out, and then put away for reference during the course of a season. If there's a trade involving prospects, it's a primary resource for background information. It's a must-read for the major baseball enthusiast. Just make sure your glasses are clean before you start reading.

Four stars

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Review: If These Walls Could Talk - Detroit Tigers (2014)

By Mario Impemba with Mike Isenberg

Let's start this with a personal observation. I've had the chance to meet a variety of play-by-play announcers over the years, and they have a great many similarities.

They generally have worked their way slowly up through the ranks after dreaming of doing exactly this job when they were children. Therefore, they tend to enjoy just about every minute of the workday, no matter how many curveballs can be thrown (bad teams, technical difficulties, ridiculous travel, etc.)

Radio and television broadcasters also tend to have an outgoing personality. Not many shrinking violets last in the business. They make friends pretty quickly, mostly because they are generally nice people.

This brings us to "If These Walls Could Talk - Detroit Tigers." Mario Impemba is a television announcer for the Tigers, and he's teamed up with writer Mike Isenberg to present some recollections of his career. It's part of a series from Triumph Books designed to offer a backstage look through some of those who are around sports teams.

Impemba certainly follows the pattern described above. He grew up in the Detroit area and was a big Tigers fan. After graduating from Michigan State, Impemba tried his luck at announcing minor league games. He obviously paid his dues - you have to do so at that level - and he bounced through such places as Peoria, Quad Cities and Tucson.

Finally, Impenda got called up to the majors, as he joined the broadcast team of the California Angels in 1995. That's a pretty good job, and he could have been pretty well set working in the Los Angeles market. But when the Tigers called about a television position, Impenda couldn't resist the chance to head home. He's been there since 2002.

As the cover says, this is more or less a collection of stories about Impemba's baseball experiences. It starts with the time he used a roll of toilet paper to help him with a broadcast in the minors, and goes right through the 2013 American League playoffs. Since he's a television announcer, Impemba won't get to actually describe a World Series title for Detroit. But he will call many of the games of such a team and work on the cable pregame and postgame broadcasts in the playoffs.

Also, Impemba has gotten the thrill of seeing some major events. Some involve the Tigers and Angels, including Miguel Cabrera's Triple Crown season and some no-hitters, and some don't, such as Cal Ripken's breaking of the consecutive games record. Impemba even called Mariano Rivera's first big league save, although he didn't know it would be the start of a run that surely will put Rivera in the Hall of Fame.

Impemba goes through a variety of other subjects along the way. He writes about managers and players he's known over the years, his workday, his scorebook (don't touch!), working a little with Ernie Harwell, etc. This all goes down rather smoothly and easily. There's no controversy to be found here, and the only reading problem is that a few of the tales are more or less repeated along the way. It's not an indepth story, but this isn't designed to fit that description.

I don't have any connection with the Tigers, and I found "If These Walls Could Talk - Detroit Tigers" to be a pleasant reading experience. Fans of the Old English D, as they say in Detroit, ought to enjoy it.

Three stars

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Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: Miracle at Fenway (2014)

By Saul Wisnia

Those that thought fans of Boston Red Sox had an unquenchable thirst for books reviewing the 10th anniversary of their memorable season put those boosters to a good test in 2014.

At other points on this blog, you can find reviews of Ian Browne's "Idiots Revisited" and Allan Wood and Bill Nowlin's "Don't Let Us Win Tonight." Now comes "Miracle at Fenway" from veteran writer Saul Wisnia. I think I'm close to done.

Wisnia has done other books, including one on Fenway Park, and has a blog on baseball. At last look, he works for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, regionally famous in New England for its Jimmy Fund, which has a long relationship with the Red Sox.

While the other two books concentrate almost entirely on the 2004 season, Wisnia widens the scope of this book quite a bit. It essentially starts in 2000 with the beginning of the process that saw the team be sold. The new ownership group headed by John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino took over in 2002. And away we go.

After a variety of changes in 2002, the Red Sox were ready to contend again. In 2003, the team came close, losing in Game Seven to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series. If you believe that a season begins the day after the previous season ends, then the story of the 2004 campaign begins on page 125 of the 278 pages of text. That's later than was probably expected.

Wisnia goes through the story of the season in a straight-forward manner. Red Sox fans can recite the details by heart, of course. There's the hot start, a mediocre middle, the Varitek/A-Rod scrum, the Garciaparra, the run to the playoffs, and the postseason itself. To fill in the details, the author checks in with a variety of people. Surprisingly, the players contribute a rather small percentage of the material - and few of the stars provide fresh material, although they turn up with quotes from other sources. We hear from Lucchino, and we hear from a Fenway Park peanut vendor. And some people in between - including Jason Varitek's parents, but not Varitek himself.

This is written with a little distance; in other words, Wisnia is obviously a fan of the team, but his editorial judgments on what happened during those years seem to be more or less on target. This is also a quick read, but in fairness this may be a case of the events being so familiar that it's easy for some (well, me) to go through it.

There are better books out there on that Red Sox team. There aren't many revelations here, and some of the fan experiences related in the book aren't overly gripping. But "Miracle at Fenway" still works as a to-the-point, easy-read recap for casual fans of a magical time for an iconic franchise, which I think partly explains the glowing reviews on Amazon.com. Therefore, if you want a one-volume recap of what happened then, this is a good destination.

Three stars

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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Review: Throwback (2014)

By Jason Kendall and Lee Judge

Jason Kendall might not be the most obvious choice to write a book about baseball, in the sense that he had a good long career but wasn't a household name. In fact, many baseball fans outside of cities like Pittsburgh and Kansas City might have trouble picking him out of a police lineup - not that he's likely to be in one.

Kendall had other ideas in mind. He wanted to write a book on how baseball is really played - filled with information that isn't well known. Kendall teamed up with Kansas City sports writer Lee Judge, and the result is the oddly named but quite interesting "Throwback."

One of the major goals of the book is to show that the game of baseball is time-consuming, physically and mentally tiring, and complicated. There's a lot going on throughout a baseball game; multiply it by 162 games and you'll get the idea of the size of the grind.  

Kendall breaks things down nice and neatly. There's a chapter on the batter, one on the catcher, another on the hitter, through the infield and outfield, then to the manager, and finally to random notes. As you might guess, an ex-catcher has the most to say about the first three subjects. The pitcher-hitter relationship is the key to any game, even if the average fan can't see it easily even on television.

Kendall covers the details in a quick, point-by-point method. He presents some information on one particular area, and then moves along. There isn't much wasted energy, making it to be a relatively brisk read.

For example ... ever wonder how the catcher signals the pitcher when there's a runner on second base? Kendall says many teams use the "first, shake, last" approach. In that case, the first signal is the "live" one, and the rest don't matter. But if the pitcher doesn't like it, he can shake it off. Then the catcher will give a string of signals, and the last one is the one that matters. But - teams can just as easily switch to "last, shake, first" at a given moment too. Or vice-versa. There are signals from the catcher on when to throw a pickoff play, signs on which fielder should cover on throws to second when a runner is on first, and so on.

It's fun to read about the relationship between catchers and umpires. Kendall points out that sometimes he'll go out of his way to make sure that the umpire isn't hit by a stray pitch. That sort of favor can pay off on a close call down the line. He also points out how much talking goes on at the plate between batter, catcher and umpire, even though it looks quiet from a distance. That's because an umpire will become angry if a catcher or hitter turn around to make a point. It's all about appearances and respect.

There are a couple of drawbacks to way the way this information is presented. Most importantly, many of the points made along the way do not come with any accompanying anecdotes. That really would have brought the facts home to the average reader. The book jumps a notch when it points out how defenses had to shift infield play a bit when Derek Jeter came up, because he could go to the opposite field so well. Therefore, a second baseman might not want to cover the bag on a stolen base attempt even when a right-handed hitter was up. But such examples aren't that common. The other is that there is a little repetition of material here, although it wasn't a major issue.

The "throwback" title refers to the attitude that Kendall carries throughout the book. He's definitely an old-school type in a lot of ways. Kendall thought that players should hustle all the time, pay attention, and not try anything dirty or cheap. If they did the latter, they should be prepared to suffer the consequences.

"Throwback" isn't for the casual fan who merely watches the game on television at a mental distance (doing other things, etc.). It also might cover familiar ground for those who played the game at a reasonably high level - high school and beyond. But for those in the sweet spot in between, the book will provide an education into the game you might know pick up anywhere else.

Four stars

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Friday, January 9, 2015

Review: Pete Rose - An American Dilemma (2014)

By Kostya Kennedy

Baseball analyst Bill James once wrote that Pete Rose wasn't one of the top 10 natural hitters in history by any stretch of the imagination.

Yet, there he is, on top of the all-time list of career hits by a major league baseball player. Once upon a time, everyone loved him for that, for the way he attacked the game with complete focus and intensity, day in and day out.

Rose played in the majors for more than a couple of decades, moved smoothly into managing, and then the wheels fell off. Who says American lives don't have second acts?

Rose's story certainly has been well chronicled over the years, but this seems like a good time to go back and review it in depth. Author Kostya Kennedy does exactly that in excellent fashion in "Pete Rose - An American Dilemma."

Kennedy goes over the early years smoothly enough. Rose grew up in Cincinnati, the son of a top local athlete who played organized sports including football into his 40s. Determination was ground into young Pete, who lived for sports and didn't worry about time in the classroom. Rose signed with the hometown Reds, and it didn't take long for him to get noticed - if only because of behavior that led to a famous nickname, "Charlie Hustle."

Once Rose arrived in Cincinnati, he became the heart of some great Reds teams. He played four different positions there (Rose added a fifth after leaving), piling up batting titles and All-Star Game appearances (hello, Ray Fosse) along the way. Rose knocked down barriers in the clubhouse, mixing with all nationalities and races easily. No wonder everybody loved him. After a few stops as a free agent, Rose finally came home to Cincinnati as a player/manager.

And here's where the story turns into a Shakespeare-like epic, and where Kennedy's book becomes fascinating.

Rose was discovered to be a chronic better, often on baseball and always on his own Reds team. After a thorough investigation, Rose was banned from baseball in any capacity and eventually ruled ineligible for the Hall of Fame. He spent some time in prison, and has floated in the mist for more than 25 years since then - associated with baseball but not part of it.

Rose famously denied betting on baseball for years and years, and then came clean in a book of his own. It didn't help his case to be reinstated. Rose currently is Pete Rose for a living, signing autographs and making personal appearances. 

Kennedy covers many bases here, talking to Rose, his family, his friends, baseball associates and others. Rose was giving off hints about his problems in the gambling field, but maybe we didn't want to listen. His mother once told a reporter almost without thinking that her son had lost a bundle on the 1984 World Series. Some of his players noticed how nervous Rose got when watching an out-of-town game on the clubhouse television. As one media person said in the 1980s, "Pete is a helluva guy, but he'd bet on what time it is."

The dilemma in the title might be partly a reaction to revelations about steroid use by players in the 1990s. Those players haven't been banned for harming the game's integrity, while Rose was banned because his gambling might have hurt the game's integrity. On the other hand, rule number one in baseball is team members absolutely can not gamble on the sport. That's why it's on the wall of every locker room in professional baseball. What to do with Rose, then, who broke that rule?

Kennedy, who wrote a fine book about Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak, is in even better form here with this fair and slightly sympathetic portrait. It's easy to write off Rose at this point in his life, but the story still draws can draw us in. "Pete Rose - An American Dilemma" has been ranked with the best baseball books of 2014, and it's easy to see why.

Five stars

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Monday, January 5, 2015

Review: You Can't Make This Up (2014)

By Al Michaels with L. Jon Wertheim

One of Al Michaels' best qualities as a broadcaster is that he is durable. No, that isn't a comparison to tires. It's that he has lasted.

Michaels first popped up in the national spotlight in the early 1970s as the voice of the Cincinnati Reds, when he did a little work on the World Series. A few years later he landed with ABC, and Michaels has been with us ever since.

Don't discount the skill about being durable at this level. Those who are on the air all the time sometimes become overexposed and become targets. The obvious comparison is Curt Gowdy, who did a variety of sports over the years and did them very well. But after a few decades on the job, people (viewers and network executives both, I would guess) tired of his work and it was on to semiretirement.

That hasn't happened to Michaels. It's not a surprise then, that a book by Michaels about his broadcasting career would be interesting and pleasant. "You Can't Make This Up" follows that description perfectly.

Michaels split his childhood between New York and Los Angeles, almost staying with the Dodgers who also moved in the Fifties. He went to college at Arizona State, and paid his usual dues looking for broadcasting work. Check that - there was nothing usual about working for Chuck Barris briefly. Yes, Michaels searched for contestants for "The Dating Game" at one point in his life.

But eventually, he landed a sportscasting job in Hawaii, where he picked up a ton of experience, and then moved on to the Reds and San Francisco Giants. It was on to ABC from there, where he had the signature moment of his career. Michaels found himself announcing hockey in Lake Placid at the 1980 Olympics, which didn't figure to be much of an assignment. Then came the march of the United States team, and Michaels' "Do you believe in miracles?" moment right after the win over the Soviet Union. The announcer's story of those Games and that game still delivers goosebumps.

From there it was on to baseball and football for the most part, usually on Monday nights but eventually on Sunday nights. Michaels has become part of the furniture over the years, having done so many big games. He's worked with great analysts and seen many memorable moments. It's fun to go along for the ride in a manner of speaking.

Michaels delivers the story in a good-hearted manner too. Only a few people get carved up a bit. Michaels didn't know Howard Cosell until the late 1970s, when the latter had started a transformation into a bitter, angry man. It's tough to blame Michaels for not wanting to work with Cosell at that stage. Boomer Esiason and an ESPN executive named Mark Shapiro are about the only others who don't come off too well.

The pages fly by here, as Michaels mixes some of his own life with encounters with some stars. It's all quite entertaining, exactly as you'd expect. "You Can't Make This Up" is like having a nice, long conversation with Michaels, in which you know you're going to have a good time.

Four stars

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