Sunday, August 17, 2014

Review: The Bird (2013)

By Doug Wilson

Go ahead. Try to explain Mark Fidrych and his summer of 1976 to someone who wasn't there. It's a difficult task.

Fidrych came out of nowhere that magical year. He wasn't considered a top-notch project at the start of the season, but he was ready when he got the chance after several weeks. Fidrych rolled up 19 wins and became the American League Rookie of the Year, starting in the All-Star Game along the way.

But that's only part of the story. He patted down the dirt on the pitcher's mound to make sure it was up to his specifications. Fidrych seemed to be telling the baseball on each pitch what to do, although he was simply talking to himself about what to do in a given moment. The right-hander bounced around with unlimited energy, congratulating his teammates on good plays and running everywhere. He picked up the nickname "The Bird," and it caught on as he sort of resembled Sesame Street's Big Bird with his long, curly hair and his flapping limbs.

Popular? Fidrych was more than popular. Ballparks were filled whenever he pitched, and after wins the fans demanded he take curtain calls after games. People delivered cakes and cases of beer to his house. Interview requests were through the roof.

And then, it ended quickly - thanks to an arm injury that Fidrych suffered in the middle of the 1977 season. He spent three years looking for an answer to his medical problem, and never found it. He left the stage as quickly as he entered it.

This sounds like a great subject for an ESPN documentary, and it probably will be someday. In the meantime, Doug Wilson does a good job of explaining what all the fuss was about with this book, "The Bird."

This is a full-fledged biography, starting in Fidrych's childhood days in Massachusetts. Wilson provides a couple of early clues to Fidrych's behavior in later years. His guess is that the pitcher had ADD, which was partly responsible for his hyperactive behavior at times. Then there's some sort of reading disorder, perhaps dyslexia, which made school work a challenge for Fidrych. It also left him unable to learn about baseball, and other players, in the usual ways of the time. Remember there was no SportsCenter or Twitter feeds to review the latest baseball news then. When Fidrych arrived in the majors, he had no idea who the best players in the game are. This led to some comic moments, but eventually the pitcher caught up with what was going on in the game.

When the arm trouble came, Fidrych tried almost everything as a cure but never could get his velocity back up to 1976 levels. He simply thanked everyone for the ride and went back to Massachusetts, where he started a farm, got married, and lived a down-to-earth life almost as if the period of fame never happened. By the way, Fidrych had an exam done on his shoulder with new medical technologies years later, and doctors found two tears in his rotator cuff - which, in hindsight, explained everything but didn't do him any good at that point in his baseball life. Still, it must have been nice to get an answer.

Wilson just wrote a book on Brooks Robinson, and the two publications have something in common. The subjects were not only great players - at least for a while in Fidrych's case - but they were admirable people. The point is repeated several times in both books, and gets a little tiring after a while as the point is overdone. There's little doubt, though, that people like to have their sports stars to be role models in everyday life. Fidrych and Robinson both qualified in their relationships with the public. This probably works better with Fidrych, since stories about how he dealt with his baseball rise and fall are what attracts us to him in the first place. The arm injury to Fidrych supplies the drama that was missing in Robinson's story.

"The Bird" fills in the details on what probably ranks as one of the most unusual careers in sports history. Those who are curious certainly will get the idea about what happened and why, and those who lived through it all will enjoy taking it all in once again.

Four stars

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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Review: The Lost 10 Point Night (2014)

By David Ward

It's one thing to have a sports hero while growing up. It's another to actually meet him. I remember seeing how a media professional was reduced to something close to a puddle when he had the chance to interview superstar hockey player Ray Bourque.

David Ward has taken this one step farther. He's written a book about his boyhood idol. The hero in this case is Jim Harrison, and the book is "The Lost 10 Point Night."

This is a rather unusual approach to a book, simply because players like Harrison usually aren't the subject of such research and writing. He was a big, talented player in junior hockey in the 1960s. Had he come along 20 years later, he would have been called a power forward - along the lines of a Cam Neely - and been in great demand.

It was a different game, then, though, and Harrison's career didn't quite pan out the way he and others might have expected. He came through the Boston Bruins' system, and was traded to Toronto. The Maple Leafs front office was a bit dysfunctional in the early Seventies, and many players took the chance to jump to the World Hockey Association when it came - leaving the Leafs in mediocrity or worse. Harrison had a couple of outstanding years in the WHA.

His biggest problem, though was a cranky back. His physical play left him rather battered, and surgeries left some scars and in some cases only hurt him. The injuries shortened his career and left him with disabilities that affect him to this day. That's not an uncommon story for players of that era since the medical treatment wasn't what it should have been, as teams treated athletes as if they were disposable. Harrison had the added factor of a major fight with his own team at the end of his career (Chicago of the NHL), and a running battle with the Players Association. That made him one of the first to wonder about the antics of Alan Eagleson, the NHLPA boss who eventually was jailed.

Everyone has a story to tell, of course, and Harrison's is relatively interesting. But is it a book? That's a good question, even after reading it. This isn't a full biography. It's more of a story about how Ward  wrote a book about Harrison. He talks to his wife, family members and teammates along the way, and he includes some personal observations and memories along the way. As could be expected in a book about a hockey hero, there aren't many negative stories told about Harrison here.

By the way, the 10-point night mentioned in the title came in the WHA. Harrison had three goals and seven assists in one game against the New York Raiders in 1973. The NHL record is also 10 points, set by Darryl Sittler. Even though the WHA was a notch below the NHL at the time, scoring 10 points in any pro league is an impressive achievement.

That brings us to the central question - is the story and Ward's quest a worthwhile book? Even after reading it, that's difficult to say. This checks in at well under 200 pages, and the thought did strike me that it might have worked better as a long magazine article.

Still, "The Lost 10 Point Night" takes a look at the life of a player that took some odd twists over the years, and probably is more typical of athletes from that era than we might think. Those who have a personal connection to that time in hockey history will find this publication holds their interest nicely.

Three stars

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Review: Man Versus Ball (2013)

By Jon Hart

It would be easy to say that "Man Versus Ball" is about one man's experiences on the fringe of sports. But if by fringe we are talking about the area right next to the green in golf, that's not entirely accurate. To butcher that metaphor, the book is over the fringe, down the hill and near the out-of-bounds stakes near the practice putting green.

In other words, we're not talking mainstream sports here.

Jon Hart certainly has had some interesting adventures in athletics over the years, and he chronicles them in a most unusual way. Each episode gets a chapter here, and you'll get a taste of the concept just by what's covered - semi-pro football, stadium vending, tennis ball boy (ball man?), roller hockey, mascot school roller soccer, and running - as in running up the stairs of the Empire State Building.

That sounds like a collection of columns from a magazine about different experiences, but it's a little less structured than that. The story on a season in semipro football goes on for something like 30 pages, while there are four different chapters about the joys of selling pretzels and hot dogs at ballparks. Meanwhile, the portion about running up a building is covered in almost no time at all.

These stories are all told from the first-person viewpoint, and have a certain timeless quality to them. Hart rarely mentions any sort of time frame within a particular story. However, his first stint as a stadium vendor obviously took place in 1996, when the Yankees won a World Series. Otherwise, some of the other stories could come from then, some could come from the relatively recent past.

A book such as this comes down to the question, does it work? My personal reaction was: somewhat. The longer essays work pretty well, as Hart has a nice touch for the material. I know that I'll have a different opinion about those people selling popcorn at games from now on. He's got a good sense of humor, and has good observations about his surroundings.

Still, the 170 pages go by a little too quickly for a book that originally cost $25; a trade paperback edition might have been a better idea. Some of the stories needed to be flushed out a bit better, perhaps with interviews with others. Maybe a few more subjects would have helped all the way around too.

Hart shows some promise with "Man Versus Ball." He's done some work for major publications, and this book shows he looks like he could tackle some long-form subjects with skill and laughter. Here's hoping there's more work coming from his pen/computer in the future.

Three stars

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Friday, July 25, 2014

Review: The Goaltenders' Union (2014)

By Greg Oliver & Richard Kamchen

Goaltenders used to be a different species. It takes a certain type of person to be able to stand in front of 18,000 people with the job of not making a mistake. And then, when a mistake is made, those same 18,000 people either cheer with enthusiasm (a goalie's road games) or become emotionally crushed (home games).

Goalies have come up with all sorts of ways to handle that pressure, and some of the methods have been, um, unusual. They developed a reputation for odd behavior along the way. When one of those quirks comes up, hockey people have a funny way of mentioning it. They simply shrug their shoulders and say, "He's a union member."

That has nothing to do with the Players Association. It has everything to do with "The Goaltenders' Union," an informal way of referring to goalies as a strange group.

Greg Oliver and Richard Kamchen wrote a book on hockey goons a while back - that's another interesting subset of the hockey business - and they have returned with "The Goaltenders' Union."

This follows a rather simple formula. There's an introductory chapter on the subject of goaltending that covers a rather wide range of areas, including coaching. The idea of assistant coaches who concentrate on goaltending is relatively new, by the way. Then the book slides mostly into a series of biographies of goaltenders over the years.

Here's where the story turns a little odd. There's not much of a unifying theme about what goaltenders are selected for inclusions here. So, this isn't a book about an arbitrary list of the greatest goalies of all time, or 300-game winners, or whatever. It's just biographies of goalies, one after another, linked mostly by era. I believe there's a reference in the book that the authors talked to about 60 goalies along the way, and that sounds about right.

But what 60? Any goalie that played a decent amount of time might come up, and they do. So there's plenty of information here about players who don't have much historical significance, or who might not have had fascinating experiences along the way. So we hear from, say, Les Binkley and Bob Essensa, and not Curtis Joseph and Mike Vernon.

The authors add a few quotes from other sources, mostly newspapers and books, but those quotes don't provide too much perspective in some cases. The only criticism of the goalies usually comes from the goalie himself, which tends to turn the biographies rather vanilla.

I also noticed a couple of factual errors along the way. I received an early proof of this book, so typos about Jim Lorentz and Joel Quenneville may have been fixed in the printed copy. But saying Dominik Hasek was traded because of a salary crunch with the Sabres is simply wrong; he asked to be traded and tried to pick out a landing spot - finding one in Detroit. That makes it a little easy to worry about the accuracy of other, less familiar portions of the book, although each goalie does receive a quite adequate recap of his career.

Those looking for an overview of the people that have played the position certainly will find it with "The Goaltenders' Union." There are even some good stories about the characters who have filled the job at times. But the lack of some sort of unifying theme and perspective drag this down a couple of notches.

Two stars

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Review: Idiots Revisited (2014)

By Ian Browne

Books looking back on championship teams are a staple of the sports publishing business. The facts of the season are usually well-known to the audience, so it's just a matter of reminding everyone what happened. Then a few new stories and updates are added.

In other words, these books can either be "phoned in" or new information can be collected that adds great insight into what happened ... or anything in between.

"Idiots Revisited" is definitely one of the very good ones in the field.

Author Ian Browne, a reporter for MLB.com, went back and talked to several members of the Boston Red Sox organization from 2004, when the team ended an 86-year drought to win a World Series. They came through for him as Browne adds several new tales about that fairy tale season.

It's impressive just how honest and open several players and other officials were. One of the good things about a book like this is that some of the role players can supply a lot of perspective on what happen. Here, Gabe Kapler and Dave Roberts fill their jobs nicely. But Johnny Damon is almost painfully honest about what took place, and Curt Schilling. Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Trot Nixon chip in with some very interesting comments. You'd expect Kevin Millar to do plenty of talking in a book like this, but the ever-quiet Mark Bellhorn even makes a solid contribution. Others chip in as well. Browne even gets Nomar Garciaparra to open up about the circumstances of his trade.

There's plenty of fascinating stuff here. Damon says the concussion he suffered in the fall of 2003 not only bothered him for the 2004 season, but for many years after that. Schilling talks about how he first hurt his ankle in spring training in 2004; you might recall that he did more damage in the postseason that year. Schilling also mentions how he got into a couple of mild fights with Manny Ramirez, while others talk about how difficult it was to keep Manny in line that season ... but they managed it for the most part. Keith Foulke was particularly driven to keep pitching in 2004's postseason, because he was going through a divorce and was no hurry to start a long winter in an empty house. Manager Terry Francona and general manager Theo Epstein also supply some thoughts and anecdotes.

For the most part, Browne is smart enough to get out of their way. He sets up situations with background information, and let's the players talk about the season - from spring training to that last ground ball to Foulke in the World Series. He also adds an epilogue about the fate of those players after 2004, which again features plenty of honesty.

It's hard to believe that "Idiots Revisited" could be done any better. OK, fans probably wouldn't have minded it the story was even longer - the 220 or so pages go by mighty quickly. "Idiots Revisited"  thus is an ideal read for Red Sox fans who want to look back on a magical year.

Five stars

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Review: Season of Saturdays (2014)



By Michael Weinred

Here's a lesson about jumping to conclusions when it comes to books.

"Season of Saturdays" looks rather straight-forward in its cover description. Michael Weinreb must have picked out the most important 14 games in college football history, and then thoroughly reviewed them in the book.

That's not quite what we have here. Luckily, it's probably better this way.

Weinreb has bigger things in mind. He essentially points to important trends in the game's history, and then picks out milestone games to prove his point. There isn't much play-by-play involved in the game descriptions. In fact, sometimes the game is beside the point, and that gets into a lively discussion about the sport.

For example, the Jan. 1, 1962 Rose Bowl matched Minnesota and UCLA. The game really didn't matter in one sense. What mattered is that Ohio State was the Big Ten champion that year, and passed up the chance to participate in the game. You can imagine how that went over with then-coach Woody Hayes. That's not happening now, not with the economics involved.

It is all part of the argument that has been part of college football for generations, and stays with us to this day. Should institutions of higher learning be involved in this level of athletics? Is it keeping with the mission statement of the college or university? Probably not, especially considering the fact that most schools lose money on athletics, and many have broken rules involving academic integrity in order to win football games.

Yet Weinred still finds the sport itself thrilling. He's feeling a little guilty about that, but not too much. It's partly because football serves a great connection between a university, the students, alumni and the surrounding city/town. Weinred grew up around Penn State, so he knows something about that subject. It's also because the games can be so darn exciting.

There are plenty of interesting aspects to the story told here. A subplot is the entire "Who is No. 1?" argument that has been a part of the game since, well, forever. One is the 1984 Orange Bowl featuring Nebraska and Miami. You might remember that Nebraska came within a point of tying the game in the final seconds. A tie, still possible in those days, would have given Nebraska the national championships in the polls. But Tom Osborne went for the win, and failed. It remains a fascinating decision, just like Notre Dame's action to accept the tie against Michigan State in 1966..

Then there's the curious case of Texas-Arkansas in 1969, when President Nixon announced that the winner of the game would be the nation's best team - even though Penn State was just as undefeated as the other two teams. Weinreb hints that politics might have had a roll in that move; there was an election to be won in 1972, after all.

The book goes in other directions from there. The author points to the Miami teams of the 1980s as ones that did whatever it wanted on and off the field, breaking the mold in that area. Then there's the rise of the passing game involving coaches such as Mike Leach and Steve Spurrier, who used the pass to set up the run instead of the other way around.

Finally, there's the unpredictable nature of the game, best shown by Auburn-Alabama last year. Alabama's coach was/is Nick Saban, master of taking as many variables out of the game as possible and perhaps the best college football coach ever. Even he couldn't compensate for the moment when an Auburn player ran a missed field goal back more than 100 yards for a game-winning touchdown on the final play of the game. Those moments, and there have been a lot of them, have made the sport special.

Weinred has clearly done his homework, and he never comes off as an apologist for the game. It's short but generally to the point. You might not like the personal stories about Penn State, but they work pretty well here. "Season of Saturdays" is a worthwhile read as we get ready for another season.

Four stars

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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Review: The Dirtiest Race in History (2012)

By Richard Moore

The subject of steroids and sports has become rather tiring.

How many more surprises are out there?

Just this week, at the time of this writing, a book revealed that Alex Rodriguez received permission from major league baseball to take testosterone in 2007, which may have helped him turn in a banner year and sign a $252 million contract with the New York Yankees. That's only the latest in a series of developments in baseball over the past several years.

Then there have been similar stories involving athletes in such fields as cycling and track. While the story of what happens to someone like Lance Armstrong for the rest of his life has some drama, some sports fans probably would prefer to simply write him off for good as an arrogant cheater.

This brings us to the biggest track story of the 1980s, the sprinting rivalry between Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis. It's all recounted in the book, "The Dirtiest Race in History."

You might remember the basics. Lewis won America's respect, if not love, for his performance at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He won four gold medals there, including the 100-meter dash. That put a target on him for the next Games, in Seoul in 1988. Lewis found his rival, and vice-versa, in Ben Johnson, a short, powerful Canadian.

There was all sorts of anticipation about the Seoul matchup, and the race met those expectations. Johnson set a world record, with Lewis right behind. That made it all the more shocking when, less than two days later, it was discovered that Johnson had failed his drug test. He was disqualified and Lewis was given the gold medal ... quietly, and out of the public eye, in an office. No use making a ceremony out of this result.

Author Richard Moore went back about a quarter of a century and more to review those times. Several people are quite open about what was happening in the 1980s. That includes Johnson, although some of his explanations and stories still don't add up. Lewis was less cooperative and remains a slightly enigmatic figure. Most importantly, Moore captures the feelings that the Eighties were the Wild, Wild West, when anything went, when it came to track and drugs. Most of the contenders were doing steroids, in part because they were afraid to be left behind.

Meanwhile, Olympic and track officials were more than happy to turn away from any evidence of steroid use. They didn't want to know what was going on, so they didn't look. That includes a study of Lewis, who had a small amount of illegal substances in his system at the Olympic trials; nothing was done from there. If you want to compare that to major league baseball in the late 1990s, well, feel free.

The best part of Moore's book comes when every arrives at Seoul for the showdown. The author gives a moment by moment description of what happened before, during and after the race. That includes comments from top officials like Dick Pound. Moore even talked to the woman who had to go retrieve Johnson's medal after the results of testing had been revealed. There are also some good stories here. For example, one official describes how he went under the grandstand of a major meet once, and found all sorts of syringes. Then there's the tale of the hot line for athletes set up after Seoul, designed to answer questions about steroids. Most of the questions were a variation of "How do I get what Ben Johnson got?"

I have little doubt that there's an audience for this, based on the reviews on Amazon.com. It's a thorough job of reporting and writing. For those who qualify as track fans who want a full look back, this serves the purpose. Please give it an extra star.

Still, some of the material, particularly the scientific portions, is a little dry. And let's face it, we're not dealing with model citizens here. Instead, we are hearing from cheaters in many cases. Whether you want to hang around these people for 300 or so pages is entirely up to you. I came away feeling impressed by the work but not too enthusiastic about learning more about the subject.

In other words, don't make me read about A-Rod or Lance in the near future.

Three stars

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