Monday, June 15, 2015

Review: Split Season: 1981 (2015)

By Jeff Katz

The author of the book "Split Season: 1981," has another job. Jeff Katz, it seems, is the mayor of Cooperstown, N.Y. If that doesn't put a smile on your face for a moment, you're on the wrong blog.

Hizzoner already has one book to his credit, the story of the Kansas City Athletics in the days when they traded the stars to the New York Yankees for basically the Yankees' leftover scraps from the dinner table. The former day trader has raised the stakes here by taking on the story of an entire calendar year, and he covers it nicely.

For those older than, say, 45, the 1981 season was unique. It was the first "mid-course correction" from the path of free agency that the sport entered after the 1976 season with the Peter Seitz decision and the ensuing collective agreement between players and owners. The players saw their salaries go up in the years after free agency, while the owners and their representatives complained about increased costs.

The players were ready to strike in 1980 over a proposal to introduce compensation into the system, something that would have restricted movement from team to team. The two sides agreed on everything but compensation in talks about a collective bargaining agreement in the summer of that year, and agreed to study the matter together for a while. Sadly, the two sides remained entrenched in those decisions, with little actual bargain taking place for months.

By 1981, a walkout seemed likely, and the players used a tactic that hadn't been unveiled before - the midseason strike. That way, the players already had some paychecks in the bank, and the owners were looking at missing games in the summer when crowds were bigger. The Summer Game took much of that summer off. There were the usual legal moves that comes with the territory, as well as a variety of combinations of negotiators as everyone searched for a solution. Finally, the two sides came up with a settlement - a compensation plan that was so bad and ineffective for reducing costs that the owners dropped it the first chance they had.

Katz does his best work here on the strike, having talked to many of the principals involved and doing good research. The settlement really did mean that free agency was here to stay, and thus the story has some historical impact. It's valuable to have the tale all in one place. One warning for what it's worth: Katz is decidedly on the side of the players, as owners' negotiator Ray Grebey and commissioner Bowie Kuhn get pounded here. They probably deserve it. It's difficult for anyone to be on the owners' side in this one, especially because they had been so arrogant in the past and didn't handle the new relationship with the players well. Still, the author's point of view does come across loud and clear, which is worth noting if you prefer your history to be a little more even-handed.

The rest of the coverage of the year features the unusual season, split into two parts. The story has a little trouble generating much momentum, in part because the season never did have much momentum. Fernando Valenzuela really got off to a remarkable start with the Dodgers; it's easy to wonder what might have happened to him had the season been played in its entirety.

However, Katz's tale gets back on track with the postseason, which features fewer moving parts and no distractions. The Yankees contributed with their usual hijinks of the era; the stories of disharmony mixed with victory remain as astonishing now as they were then. We even got a good World Series between two very high-profile teams.

Most of the value of "Split Season" will come from the strike coverage, but those looking for a quick lesson in the season itself will find this satisfying. Let's hope there's more to come from this author, assuming he can get away from village board meetings every so often.

And, by the way - if Katz has higher political aspirations, he'll be happy to know that the prime minister of Canada wrote a very good hockey history book last year. Maybe sports books have become a launching pad for political hopes.

Four stars

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Friday, June 5, 2015

Review: The Secret of Golf (2015)

By Joe Posnanski

There's a certain aura of heavyweight boxing champion that surrounds the world's best golfer, at least to the public. Usually there's one player who is the person to beat in a given major tournament.

This might have started with Arnold Palmer, who came along in the late 1950s just as the television age was arriving and the sport was exploding. They didn't call Arnold "the King" for nothing. But soon someone came along, younger and better. Jack Nicklaus proved to be tough to push off the mountain. Plenty of books have been written about the dynamics involving Palmer and Nicklaus.

Jack's reign was a long one, and he had some challengers over the years who eventually fell by the wayside. It took until Tom Watson came along in the late 1970s before there was a new No. 1.

The trees needed to chronicle that change of command have mostly stayed in the ground, but finally we have a book on the subject - and it's a good one. "The Secret of Golf" is about their relationship.

Joe Posnanski is the author here, and he's well suited for the job. He got to know Watson when he worked in Watson's home of the Kansas City area. Posnanski's first two books about the Reds of the 1970s and Buck O'Neil were nostalgic and sweet. Then he started working on a book on Joe Paterno, and, well, you probably know what happened to the ending of that story - an unexpected curve ball that was anything but sweet.

Here Posnanski is back writing about mythical figures from the past, who have the ability now to put their relationship into perspective. The book mostly focuses on Watson, who was a little unheralded when he arrived on the PGA Tour but quickly became one of its most promising young players. His problem was, he couldn't close the sale at first. The phrase "you have to learn how to win" may not have been invented for Watson but it was close. Eventually, though, he figured things out and won eight major titles. The moment that torch was passed probably was the 1977 British Open, when Watson and Nicklaus played magnificent golf for four days and left the world's best golfers in their dust. And Watson won by a stroke. Winner, and new champion.

Watson stayed number one for quite a while, and some of the most interesting parts of the book deal with what Watson lost that title. His swing changed a little at the age of 35 or so, and he stopped drilling nearly impossible putts into holes at opportune times. Watson was still good, but rarely good enough to win. A side-effect comes across as unexpected - this golfer who had such discipline to hit practice balls until his hands bled, apparently had a little too much alcohol a little too often. It didn't help matters. Watson found his swing eventually and lost the desire to quench his thirst, but the putting stroke never came completely back.

The main story is divided into 18 holes, and between chapters is a short section devoted to a "secret" of golf as told by either Nicklaus or Watson. You may think you're reading a golf book at the beginning of these sidebars, but you may be reading about life in some cases. For example, when Watson hit a bad shot - these guys do hit bad shots once in a while, because golf is difficult - he tried to remember not to overcome it by trying to hit a spectacular shot. Watson preferred to hit a safe shot, get back in the fairway, make a par, and move on. There's something to be said for that approach to life - don't let the mistakes snowball.

Posnanski is always enjoyable to read, and here he makes the pages flow by quickly. It's not a long book, and it certainly doesn't take long to get through it. But the publication still feels fulfilling, along the lines of an extended short story.

Admittedly, stories about 1970s golfers aren't for everyone. Maybe someone will write a book about Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth like this someday, which today's 20-somethings will enjoy. But the publisher certainly had a thinking cap on when it decided to release "The Secret of Golf" within a couple of weeks of Father's Day. It's a fine June present for the older golfer on the gift list.

Four stars

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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Review: Jamaal Wilkes (2014)

By Jamaal Wilkes with Edward Reynolds Davis Jr.

Everything about basketball seemed to come easily to Jamaal Wilkes. At the least, it looked that way.

Wilkes always made it look so easy and smooth that his nickname was silk. He was an ideal team member throughout this career - worked hard on both ends of the floor, came through in the clutch, and was an ideal complement to those around him. If you wanted to sound like you knew basketball in those days, you'd say that Jamaal Wilkes was your favorite player.

It took a while, but Wilkes recently came out with her version of his career in "Jamaal Wilkes." (As you can see by the cover, it's a little difficult to figure out what exactly the title is - but more on that later.) It turns out plenty of hard work went into those seemingly effortless performances.

Wilkes' father was a pastor, mostly in Southern California, and his mother worked for the state. They had high standards, and they demanded that son Keith (he later changed his first name) follow them. He had a fine high school career, mixing great academics with superb basketball. Wilkes had his pick of colleges, and thought about the Ivy League for a while. However, there was a school down the road that featured good academics too, and the basketball education was unmatched.

Wilkes walked into the finest basketball program in the country, UCLA, which was led by one of the great coaches in history in John Wooden. The talent on the roster was overwhelming, starting with Bill Walton in those years before his knees became a major day-to-day concern. Once the Class of 1974 became eligible to play varsity ball, the Bruins were off. They didn't lose a game in their first two years, adding to the legacy of Wooden and the program. About the only thing that could stop UCLA was the odd injury (Walton was hurting and ineffective when the great 88-game winning streak came to an end) and boredom, and those two factors played a role in the Bruins losing in 1974.
Wilkes was a perfect sidekick to Walton on those teams, with his outside shooting, quickness and defensive effort. As you could imagine, Wilkes writes about Wooden and Walton a lot in the book, but gives the impression that he was a bit of a loner during those years. Therefore, there aren't a lot of great stories about those teams - simply lessons learned along the way and praise for his teammates and coaches.

Then it was on to the pros, as Wilkes landed with the Golden State Warriors. He was rookie of the year in 1975, and that team surprised everyone by winning the championship. Funny how titles seemed to follow Wilkes around. He became involved in a contract dispute there and soon jumped to the Los Angeles Lakers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, someone in the argument for best player ever, was waiting. What's more, Earvin "Magic" Johnson would be along shortly. The Lakers of the 1980s may have not been the most dominant team in history, but they might have been the most exciting team to watch. They didn't call that style of ball "Showtime" for nothing, and Wilkes was a big part of it.

The Lakers won championships in 1980 and 1982 with Wilkes playing a key role in both of them. Los Angeles also won in 1985, but Wilkes knew he was on the battered side by then. He won one more title in L.A., squeezed out a last season with the Clippers, and retired.

For those who simply want the story of a basketball player who didn't take any short cuts to success, this clearly fits that description. Still, it's fair to note a couple of good-sized flaws in the story.

First, there's not much drama here. Yes, yes, that's how his life went for the most part, and that can't be changed. But practically all sides of Wilkes' personal life go unmentioned here. A couple of personal tragedies are touched so lightly that it's easy to guess whether they should have been brought up in the first place. At the end, there's nothing in the book that indicates what Wilkes has been doing since he retired almost 30 years ago. Anyone reading this book is a fan of Wilkes, and the question "What's he doing now?" never gets answered.

Then  there's the problem of editing, and it's a good-sized one. Some names are misspelled along the way, such as those of Ernie DiGregorio and Jim McMillian. The book has some really striking typographical errors, such as Wilkes' university as "ULCA" and a reference to "John wooden." There are about three instances in which lightning came out as lightening, which is a big difference in meaning. The layout has some silly mistakes such as the odd indentation and line of space, and a cover page that makes it difficult to figure out the title. The book certainly could have used one more read by an outside editor to catch some of these items.

"Jamaal Wilkes" the book may have its flaws, but Jamaal Wilkes the basketball player was admirable - an opinion reinforced here. This publication goes by quickly and easily, and his many fans ought to enjoy it.

Three stars

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Review: Pedro (2015)

By Pedro Martinez and Michael Silverman

A complicated package, this man named Pedro Martinez.

He's part great athlete, part artist, part personality, part angry young man. There's no male equivalent for the word diva, but that would be Pedro - a brilliant talent who always had a little extra baggage surrounding him. He just pitched for a living and instead of singing at the Metropolitan Opera.

The various aspects of Martinez's personality are very much on display in his autobiography, "Pedro." That's what makes the book so interesting. It's hard to look away, even in retirement.

Pedro came out of the Dominican Republic to play baseball, following in the footsteps of brother Ramon. He was the little brother in age as well as size, and always was a little underestimated by scouts along the way. You can understand where that first chip on the shoulder came from. However, as one scout put it, he had a heart as big as a lion, and that gave him the chance to shine at the sport's highest level.

That's not to say that Pedro ever forgot a slight. This book is evidence of that. He felt he didn't get a fair shot with the Dodgers, who traded him to the Expos for a player (Delino DeShields) whose career fell apart in no time at all. The deal is considered one of the worst in Dodger history. Martinez got a chance to be a starter in Montreal, and thrived. By 1997, Martinez was the National League Cy Young winner (18-6 record, 1.74 ERA), and it was obvious to everyone that the financially struggling Expos couldn't afford to keep him.

Pedro went off to Boston in a trade at that point, but he wasn't happy about it. Martinez wanted to cash in on his status as an elite pitcher. Then the Red Sox offered to make him the highest paid pitcher in baseball, and Pedro didn't need to go anywhere. Instead, he put together a couple of the greatest seasons in pitching history. Martinez was beyond brilliant in 1999 and 2000; he didn't play baseball, he put on performances. All of that was done while he was spending some time ignoring and/or hating his pitching coach, Joe Kerrigan, which is at best unusual.

Martinez always found a way to fuel his emotions. Get booed in Boston because of a rare poor outing? He wasn't going to do the fans any favors after that. Opposing players do something wrong in Pedro's eyes? Here comes a fastball at your back, pal. Indeed, he was involved in a lot of incidents over the years, and Pedro seems to remember every detail. Martinez's best-known incident might have been in the time in the 2003 playoffs when Yankees coach Don Zimmer came charging after him in a brawl between the teams, and Martinez gave him a little push - leading to the sight of a 72-year-old man tumbling to the ground. No one looked too good at that moment.

Martinez also had stretches where he became sick of the media for one reason or another and stopped talking to reporters. Those Yankee-Red Sox rivalries were overheated times all the way around, and Pedro's reaction here is at least understandable. Martinez, naturally, reviews the loss to the Yankees in Game Seven in 2003 - taking the blame instead of passing it to manager Grady Little for leaving him in too long - and revels in the World Series championship Boston won a year later.

By then, Martinez's skills had started to diminish, thanks in part to injuries. He wasn't the biggest of men, and he put a lot of abuse on that body over the years. Pedro went to the Mets as a free agent, where he eventually broke down physically. Martinez at least got to leave baseball from a big stage, as he pitched his final game in the 2009 World Series in Yankee Stadium. He's going into the Hall of Fame this summer.

This book works quite well because Martinez is quite honest in his recap of his life to date. It's sort of like him throwing a fastball in his prime - here it is, see if you are good enough to handle it. English may have been a second language for Pedro, but he comes across very well and articulate here. Co-author Michael Silverman also interviewed several people from Pedro's life, and their quotes provide some good perspective about what was going on at a specific time. By the way, there are a few typos of names along the way; let's hope they are fixed for the paperback edition.

Your opinion of Pedro Martinez after reading "Pedro" probably won't change much. The talent was overwhelming, the personality was never boring. All he asks that you accept him on his terms, and that seems like a fair bargain.

Four stars

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Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: Every Town is a Sports Town (2015)

By George Bodenheimer with Donald T. Phillips

"Every Town is a Sports Town" is billed as appealing to sports fans, business readers, and corporate executives alike. That's a rather diverse group, even for allowing for the fact that the business types have been known to read the sports page first at times. So let's take a look at what we've got here, and see where it fits.

George Bodenheimer wasn't an original at ESPN, but he could more or less see or at least learn about the creation first-hand. He joined the company in 1981, less than two years after it had started. Bodenheimer was employee no. 150, for the record.

ESPN had grown a bit from the first days when no one was too sure what they were doing and where they were going. They were the first to start a 24-hour cable channel dedicated to sports, offering a modest challenge to the status quo in broadcasting. The big three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, were still in charge, but this at least was an interesting gamble.

Bodenheimer arrived on the scene, doing whatever his boss at the moment thought necessary. One of his first responsibilities was to drive from Bristol, Conn., the corporate headquarters, to the Hartford/Springfield airport to pick up Dick Vitale. You might think that driving Vitale somewhere would be an exercise in silence in the car for everyone but Vitale, but they actually struck up a good relationship in those drives.

Eventually, Bodenheimer moved up from driver to a variety of positions of the business world. The company was small enough at the beginning so that young talent was rewarded pretty quickly, and new ideas were accepted readily. After all, on some level they were making it up as they went along. After some time out in the field, working with affiliates, etc., Bodenheimer eventually came back to Bristol.

It turns out he had a pretty good seat for the development of the company there. The author goes through the highlights, including such events as the addition of Sunday (and later Monday) Night Football, ESPN2, College GameDay, the X Games, the merger with Disney, SportsCentury, 30 for 30, and so on. Viewers - come to think of it, maybe customers would be a better word with all the platforms ESPN uses these days - will remember those developments.

Eventually, Bodenheimer became the president of ESPN. He certainly comes across here as a good boss, taking pride in a personal relationship with all employees and accepting ideas no matter what the source. It's probably not a coincidence that ESPN had a long run of success under his tenure. And when things went a little bad, he rolled up his sleeves and figured out a way to fix them.

Now to the difficult part - what sort of book is it? I'm not so sure sports fans will love this effort. Many of the developments in ESPN mentioned above have been covered in other places, so there's not much new in that sense. Besides, Bodenheimer doesn't have that many stories about the on-air personalities that can draw a sports fan in.

Business types might be able to take a bit more out of this. This is a success story, after all, and it's instructive to see how ESPN reacted to situations over the years. Business books sometimes can get bogged down in anagrams and four-point plans for success. Luckily, Bodenheimer avoids that for the most part. Yes, there are sections devoted to how ESPN came up with a mission statement - my eyes gloss over when I see such things - but mostly it's how he dealt with real-world situations. It's fair to say this is a mostly positive look at the ride at the network. Even the failures seem to be handled properly. The people Bodenheimer encountered along the way come off well here.

"Every Town is a Sports Town," then will work for those seeking the details of an impressive business achievement - how ESPN conquered the sports world. If you are in that narrow classification, you'll enjoy it and maybe get a few good tips along the way.

Three stars

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Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: Ty Cobb - A Terrible Beauty (2015)

By Charles Leerhsen

Baseball great Ty Cobb never needed much help on the baseball field. This name from a century ago is all over the record book, as he is one of the great hitters and base stealers in history.

What he needed was someone who knew something about public relations and marketing. Somewhere along the way, it became accepted that Cobb was a racist madman who skirted the edge of the rules while compiling such an incredible record.

Author Charles Leerhsen investigated the facts extensively for his new book, "Ty Cobb - A Terrible Beauty." It turns out that Leerhsen is just about as much of a game-changer as Cobb was in his time.

Cobb was raised in Royston, Georgia. His father was William Herschel Cobb, an educator and politician who seems to be an intelligent, rational man and who tried to make sure his family followed the same paths. You can guess his reaction when Cobb announced that he wanted to try his hand at playing baseball for a living. But Ty did it anyway, and stayed with it even though early in his career he heard that news that his mother had shot and killed his father, believing that he was an intruder lurking outside the house.

Cobb always said that the incident drove him for his baseball career, and he did play a certain amount of fire at all times. There were fights and feuds along the way, but these weren't uncommon. In fact, Leerhsen does some of his best work in describing what baseball was like in the first two decades of the 20th century - a time that was not for the faint of heart. Educated players were a rarity at that point, and gambling and hazing surrounded the game. As for baseball itself, it was the so-called "dead ball era," when runs were hard to find. Cobb was a perfect fit for that time, ripping line drives to all fields. Then when he was on base, he drove fielders to distraction as he presented a constant threat to catch the opposition by surprise. But the author couldn't find any evidence that Cobb was a dirty player, the sort who filed his spikes before a game in order to inflict more damage to opponents. Put it this way - it's easy to understand why he was such an attraction.

By the time the 1920s arrived, Babe Ruth had turned baseball into a slugging contest. Cobb was player/manager of the Tigers for a few years, was involved in a vague betting scandal that also affected Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, and ended his career in Philadelphia. His place in history was assured, to the point where he received more votes for the initial Hall of Fame class than Ruth - which pleased Cobb throughout his life.

It's easy to stereotype someone coming out of rural Georgia in the early 1900s as a racist, and Cobb picked up that reputation along the way. Yet there are no signs of that here. Cobb defended Jackie Robinson's right to be a big leaguer, and apparently had good relations with blacks from childhood on. He was fierce when it came to defending himself and opinions, a smart man who didn't suffer fools easily. The picture Leehsen paints of Cobb is more complete and nuanced, and more interesting than we could have imagined.

The only minor complaint that could be made here is that the book qualifies as "revisionist history" and the author isn't subtle about pointing that out. There are a couple of relatively famous books about Cobb that have been printed in the past, and Leehsen found them after investigation to be full of inaccuracies. He points them out with a certain amount of, well, glee. That can be a little uncomfortable to read. But it's probably necessary, since the point of the book is to change minds.

And "Ty Cobb - A Terrible Beauty" does exactly that. Our perception of one of the top 20 baseball players in history, and that might be too liberal an estimate, moves a bit with publication of this book. That makes it more than just another biography; it's almost a public service.

Five stars

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Friday, May 1, 2015

Review: Underbelly Hoops (2012)

It's been said that one of the basic stories in literature centers around a stranger in a strange land. The hero wanders through new adventures, meeting strange and different people along the way.

Welcome, then, to "Underbelly Hoops." Your tour guide is Carson Cunningham.

Cunningham probably struck some people as a bit of an enigma. He played Division I college basketball, earning academic All-American honors at Purdue. He was a good college player, but not quite good enough to earn a shot at the National Basketball Association. Even though he had all sorts of options after college, he was unwilling to do some of them - at least on a full-time basis - until he thoroughly got basketball out of his system.

That meant it was off to places like Estonia to play professional basketball. You can almost hear family members saying, "You're going where?" Cunningham eventually bounced back to the United States, where he played in the Continental Basketball Association for a year, and took a year off, and then tried it one last time starting in the fall of 2004. (By the way, "underbelly hoops" is Cunningham's term for those small leagues that operate mostly off the radar screen.)

For those who aren't hoop-ologists, the CBA grew out of the Eastern League, the sport's only minor league for years. Most of the teams either lost money or folded completely, and eventually the whole league went under. The NBA responded by starting its own developmental league, proving the point that some sort of minor league is necessary.

Cunningham lands with the Rockford Lightning, a previous stop on his basketball tour. And there he reunites with Chris "Dales" Daleo, who comes off for the most part as the proverbial maniac. Daleo also becomes the star of the book, as it's easy to wonder what crazy stunt he'll pull next. The highlight was when Cunningham's pregnant wife faints in a store and is taken to a hospital, and Daleo waits until after practice to tell Cunningham about it. Mostly, though, in Daleo's world everybody is a terrible player who is on the verge of a one-way trip to a fast-food stand for his next job. It's fairly entertaining to read about Daleo's antics, although it's fair to say that playing for him is not for the faint of heart.

It's obviously not a spoiler to say Cunningham makes the team in training camp, since there's no book without that step. He works with a wide variety of people who are in theory one step from the NBA, but find out it's a long step. Cunningham takes the time to give the biographies of the most interesting cases. There are men who got involved with gangs in high school, and finally worked their way through the back door to move this close to the big time. There are men with flaws, such as the center whose father gave him alcohol as a toddler to keep him quiet. It worked all right, but it also started the son on the road to alcoholism.

The team wanders through the schedule, playing in small cities or big towns, depending on your definition, before good-sized crowds and intimate gatherings. It's an odd, stressful living, as the players go from arena to arena hoping someone in the NBA impressed and make the call for even 10 days. Quite a few players did do just that in the CBA's life. The biggest name on the team is Kenny Fields, a Chicago high school legend who didn't quite reach the predicted heights.

Cunningham is a good tour guide to all of this, and throws in some references in passing that reveal that he's a little different than the rest of the members of the team.

There are a couple of problems with the story, and the most obvious is the timing. The book was finally published in 2012, more than seven years after the season in question. Even the biggest of basketball fans might have had a chance to remember some of the characters if the book had been done earlier. But since after some of the characters had moved on with their lives, and after the league itself had folded, it dropped a couple of notes in the compulsion rankings. (That's even more true if you read the book three years later.)

The other involves the season. I won't get into the details, but there's not much drama building in the story. That to a certain extent centers on luck - you get the season you get. Admittedly, there's an odd dynamic here in that the players are much more interested in moving up personally than winning games. But wins and losses usually provide a thread for such stories.

"Underground Hoops," then, works reasonably well ... and perhaps better than it should under the circumstances. I found myself caring enough for some of the characters to look into what they are doing now. Cunningham teaches history at DePaul University, has a PhD and has written a book on Olympic basketball. Daleo is still involved in minor-league basketball. He's still thinking that he's dribbling the ball while the reality is that the ball is chasing him.

The rating here might be a touch low (I went back and forth on it), but basketball fans who stumble on this ought to enjoy it.

Three stars

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