Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Review: 100 Things Syracuse Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die (2014)

By Scott Pitoniak

Triumph Books has come up with an idea in recent years that's pretty much fool-proof. Pick a team or university, select 100 aspects of the history and tradition involved, research, bake at 400 degrees for 40 minutes, and serve to a hungry fanbase.

The author, or cook if you prefer, of this particular version is Scott Pitoniak. He's well suited for the job, having written other books about Syracuse University athletics and covered many events there in his former job as a sports columnist for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. He has whipped up "100 Things Syracuse Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die."

Stretching the cooking analogy a little further to close to the breaking point, the recipe has become more or less standard. Most of the 100 topics jump out rather quickly. It's just a matter of researching the obvious ones, and then adding a few obscure items that even the biggest of Syracuse diehards might not know. That's more challenging than you'd think.

As you'd expect, football and basketball dominate the proceedings here. Jim Boeheim, who has been on the campus essentially since the fall of 1962, gets the leadoff position as the first item in the book. He's followed by Jim Brown, football uniform number 44, Ben Schwartzwalder, the 2003 basketball team, Ernie Davis, the 1959 football team, Dave Bing, Floyd Little and the Carrier Dome fill out the top 10. As you can see, this is a flexible list in mixing players, coaches, teams, a building, and some laundry.

Other sports don't get overlooked, though. There are some lacrosse items, and some tributes to champions in some of the other sports. From there, Pitoniak jumps into such items as the team colors, mascots over the years, restaurants, and even a movie. You might argue about something else that deserves to make the top 100, but there are no obvious omissions. Some items overlap a bit, but it's not much of a problem.

The surprises might not be many to students of all things orange, but there are a few. Who knew that the man who designed the New York Yankees logo went to Syracuse? Or that actor/producer Sheldon Leonard was a member of Syracuse's swim team? The trip to Lockerbie, Scotland, by the lacrosse team after the plane explosion over that city is also relatively unknown. Several Syracuse students died in that terrorist act.

With 100 chapters, there's hardly time to become bored with any of the subjects. Yes, whole books have been written about some of the players and championship teams, but the goal here is to give quick looks at each subject. Pitoniak obviously knows what he's talking about, and he keeps things moving right along. There are a few sidebar stories, charts and photographs with some of the chapters that are useful.

Obviously, books like this don't carry much interest to non-fans of the particular team. In other words, you might have trouble finding this at the bookstores of Georgetown or Duke. But for those in upstate New York looking for a quick course on Syracuse University's athletic history, "100 Things Syracuse Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" should work very nicely.

Four stars

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Monday, October 6, 2014

Review: The Game Plan (2014)

By Bill Polian with Vic Carucci

The number of football executives - and let's exclude coaches from that description - who have been become relatively well-known for their work to the sport's public at large is extremely small. The names of general managers may pop up frequently in hometown stories, but few make the jump to national figures.

There are only a few exceptions, and the biggest is Bill Polian. Football writers have awarded the NFL Executive of the Year title since 1993, and Polian has won it four times. Only a couple of others have won the award more than once.

Mix that fact with the fact that Polian currently works as an analyst with ESPN, and you have a nationally known figure on the sports stage. Even though he might not be done working for a team, this seems like a good time for him to write a book. Apparently even Polian agreed, as he has written a book on his football experiences called "The Game Plan."

The story essentially concentrates on the football portions of Polian's career. Don't look for many stories about his family, because they aren't there. While there are references to Polian's career before he arrived in Buffalo, the story essentially begins there. But there are, naturally, plenty of references to football philosophy - as promised by the subtitle - along the way.

As an example, Polian outlines what he wanted when he went searching for a head coach. The needed skills include organization, leadership, communication, emotional stability, vision, strategy, flexibility, ability to judge talent, public relations, earning player respect, and character. That's a long list, and Polian adds plenty of related questions under each area. But you've have to say the formula works for him. He did pick Marv Levy and Tony Dungy, among others. Levy is in the Hall of Fame and Dungy probably will be.

There are other insights into building a football team here. There are some good examples at how important it is to find players who fit into specific systems, and how salary cap management is far more important than many would have thought. For example, quarterbacks can make staggering amounts of money in a given year, particularly a veteran like Peyton Manning. They are worth it, but sometimes a team gets lucky with a young and thus cheaper quarterback. Think of Russell Wilson of the Seahawks, who surprised everyone with his play. Wilson isn't making superstar money yet, and thus Seattle had extra dollars to spread around the rest of the roster. That was crucial in its Super Bowl season of 2013-14, and will be helpful until Wilson starts to get the paydays he no doubt deserves.

Still, football fans want to read behind-the-scenes stories about their favorite game, and Polian has plenty of them here. A good portion of the book (more than expected, really) is devoted to his time in Buffalo. If there had been an executive of the year award back then, Polian certainly would have added to his hardware collection for his work with the Bills. He tells about working his way into the general manager's job in 1985, when the franchise was in even worse shape than most thought, and putting together the pieces for the team that went on to appear in an unmatched four straight Super Bowls.

It's great fun to reach at length about negotiations with Jim Kelly, the Hall of Fame quarterback who had started his career in the United States Football League. Kelly wasn't anxious to come to Buffalo, and the talks were difficult. But eventually the quarterback landed with the Bills and went on to 10 great years there. There's also some good details about the trade for Cornelius Bennett, part of a three-way swap that sent Erik Dickerson to the Colts. Polian got one look at Bennett at a practice upon the linebacker's arrival in Buffalo, and told a friend that Bennett was "Mickey Mantle in football cleats."

The Bills never did reach their final goal of being Super Bowl champions, but Polian certainly writes as if he loved the building process immensely. He hands out plenty of credit to other staff members in the Bills' organization along the way - names that will be remembered in Buffalo but in few other places. Just as an example, Kay Stephenson is not exactly an icon because he took over as head coach just after Chuck Knox had left after the 1982 season and the team was headed into a serious decline. Polian joined the Buffalo front office, and he credits Stephenson for some lessons he learned along the way - including one that says it's always correct to do what's best for the franchise, even if it's not strictly in your best interests.

After an unexpected departure from Buffalo - Polian admits he could have handled the internal politics better there - it was on to a brief stop in the NFL office and then to start up the Carolina Panthers franchise. That team decided to try to be respectable in a hurry, and it succeeded in part because it could attract quality free agents.

Then it was on to Indianapolis. Considering Polian's time with the Colts was long and successful, the stories in the book are a little underplayed. However, the most fateful decision in recent football history is well covered. That's when the Colts had the top overall draft choice and needed a quarterback. The decision came down to Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf. Polian and his staff got that one right, as Manning became an all-time great and Leaf washed out in no time.  In the initial interviews, Manning arrived with a number of questions for the Colts' staff. Leaf didn't even show up.

The book can be a little technical in a few spots, and it's easy to wonder why the departures from Carolina and Indianapolis are reviewed so briefly. Still, Polian comes off as an interesting and gracious character thoroughout. You can see why he was so good at what he did.

I was looking forward to reading this even before my old friend Vic Carucci came back to Buffalo to be a co-worker with me at The Buffalo News. I won't give this a rating here now because of that connection. Still, I believe most football fans will find what's between the covers of "The Game Plan" to be quite a interesting peak behind the curtain of how a football team is really run. And if you followed the Bills during the glory years when Polian was running the team, you'll be riveted.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Review: Changing the Game (2014)

By Stephen Laroche

Sports figures will tell you that a good idea is more or less worthless unless it is well executed.

That even applies to books. Case in point is "Changing the Game." Stephen Laroche's reach was longer than his grasp in putting together this publication.

The subject, expansion teams in the National Hockey League, is an interesting one. The league was like an accordian in its first 25 years (1917 to 1942 or so), growing or shrinking due to a variety of factors. The league settled at six teams for another quarter-century, and then started growing and growing. The NHL eventually reached 30 teams.

Along the way, most expansion teams suffer severe growing pains. The league record book is littered with numbers of pure futility from these teams - the Capitals and Senators, for example. The stories behind the numbers - trades, coaching changes, ownership problems, etc. - are just as gruesome.

Laroche, who has a book on trading cards to his credit, has a simple format. Each expansion team, which covers almost every team that entered the league in the past 90 years, gets a chapter. There's a brief overview of the team's history, followed by capsule descriptions of players from that first year. Laroche talked to close to 100 people who played on such teams, starting with those in the six-team expansion of '67 and going through the WHA merger of 1979 (there are a few exceptions after that, but not many). The author also poured over plenty of newspapers, including The Hockey News, and web reference sites.

Alas, plenty goes wrong along the way. Let's start with the biggest one, an error that left me a little stunned. There are a variety of quotes included here from what seems like a variety of sources. Some obviously come from newspapers, others from current interviews. There is no attribution on any of them. What's more, there's not even a "he said" in the middle of most of the quotes; it's simply what was said in quote marks.

The legalities of such matters are tough to determine. Clearly, though, the least that should have been done with borrowed quotes is to write something like "Goyette told the New York Daily News after the game" in the middle of it. Otherwise, you can't tell the difference between the quotes you personally obtained and the quotes someone else contained. That's considered plagerism. I've seen people lose their jobs for this - in fact, that just happened to a Florida writer in the past week. Crediting some hockey writers in the acknowledgements isn't good enough. I'm surprised this aspect of the book made it through the publishing process.

Meanwhile, there is one easy way to tell the difference between new quotes and old ones - a few of the new ones contain profanities. While they were said on the record, they feel out of place here. Removing them wouldn't have hurt the book at all. Those are words best saved for oral histories, if that.

There are other, less important issues here:

* Some of the capsules are only a couple of paragraphs long, really too short to be of much use. Since not every player is profiled, why bother? The book is more than 400 pages as it is. And the writing style in them has sort of a "gee whiz" approach. This includes recap of the odd good game for a player, such as a two-point night for a defenseman, without much context. The author sure likes his game-winning goals, even though at times it's pretty useless in determining an important goal (as in an 8-0 game). That also applies to a description of someone like Dickie Moore, who becomes "ageless" for scoring a goal in a playoff series (he actually had a good series and five more goals in 1968, although you wouldn't know it by reading this), or that Gordie Howe "hadn't lost a step" while playing hockey in his late 40s - dubious at best.

* Statistical recaps of each team's season would have been very handy - even if it's just a roster with goals, assists, points, penalty minutes, etc.. That would have filled in several gaps in the player capsules.

* There are very few interviews with coaches for the expansion teams, and none with general managers, other team officials, or media representatives. Such material could have been useful, especially in the initial team history which is quite dry. A few laughs would have been nice along the way.

* Expansion drafts are ugly processes. The rules have different every time, which affects how those teams are put together. There are references to it in the player capsules, as they pertain to how a player arrived with the expansion team, but it's confusing. A brief description of each year's method of dispersing talent would have been helpful, and the list of expansion selections by team over the years would have been nice too. (Based on my Kindle copy, it was planned - but the finished product doesn't have it.) It is particularly needed for the WHA teams of 1979, because that merger featured a bizarre set of ways to send players bouncing around the NHL.

In fairness, this book certainly displays the effort that went into it. There are some facts in here that are relatively unknown, and some of the first-person comments are interesting.

That's what makes "Changing the Game" frustrating, and that's the reason why it's not ranked lower here. It's easy to wish it were better. Let's hope Laroche learns some major lessons - particularly on attribution - and tries again, because he obviously has a passion for the game.

Two stars

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Review: Ivy League Athletes (2014)

By Sal Maiorana

After reading such books as "The System" (see below), it's easy to become a little discouraged about the state of athletics at our nation's universities. There certainly is a lot of cheating going on, and even the biggest supporters of college sports probably could be convinced that the competitors often should be called athlete-students instead of student athletes.

Well - Sal Maiorana to the rescue.

The Rochester sports writer is back with yet another book - he's practically a one-man industry as such things go - and this is one of his most interesting projects. It's called "Ivy League Athletes," which isn't exactly catchy but gets the point across about what the book is all about.

Maiorana spent much of the 2011-12 school year keeping up with nine different Ivy League athletes from seven different schools. (Princeton opted out, for no obvious reason.)  He wanted to see what a season was like for them.

Maiorana chose his subjects wisely. Yes, they are mostly overachievers, decidedly on the brilliant and articulate side. Not only do they go through a full course load during the year, but they also play sports at a high level in their spare time - even if they don't have much spare time. Melanie Baskind of Harvard gets extra credit in that sense, because she played soccer in the fall and lacrosse in the spring.

What's more, the backgrounds of those followed are very different. Lucky Mkosana came all the way from Zimbabwe to play soccer at Dartmouth. Andy Iles came all the way from Ithaca, New York, to play hockey at Cornell. Greg Zebrack came from a typical Southern California family to play baseball at Penn; Sheila Dixon was adopted by a woman who already had 14 children after Dixon's drug-abusing mother put Sheila up for adoption. Some had hopes of playing professionally once they were done in college, but all of them wound up with a degree (or appeared to be headed toward one when the book was finished).

It's difficult to play high level sports and go to school at the same time, and many have to cut corners at other schools. There are no such corners at Harvard and Yale, but the players come across as interesting individuals because of the experience. It must have been odd for Maiorana to do interviews where so many of the answers were better than the questions.

The book comes with a couple of slight drawbacks, and I'm not sure they could have been easily fixed. First, there are plenty of descriptions of games and teams from a couple of years ago, and it's difficult to make some of those interesting even thought we certainly don't know how the story is going to come out. About the only exception to that is the experience of Harvard men's basketball; some might have a vague recollection of the outcome of that particular season.

Second, the book winds up in the summer of 2012. That's more than two years ago at the time of this reading. My guess is that it took some time for the book to find a publishing home (Northeastern University Press finally came through in that department). That extra year of narration could have changed the epilogue a bit, telling us whether certain athletes went on to success well after graduation.

It's difficult to complain too much about those issues, though. "Ivy League Athletes" shows that it doesn't take a national championship for athletes to become success stories, because there are plenty of good tales going on in other places. Those looking for some will find their fill here.

Four stars

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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Review: The System (2013)

By Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian

Think of Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian as photographers.

For a couple of years, they went around the country taking snapshots of college football. Sometimes they saw something interesting, stopped for a moment, snapped the picture and moved on. At other times they lingered, looking at different ways to take the picture.

That, in essence, is what "The System" is all about.

Benedict has done variety of investigative articles for Sports Illustrated over the years, while Keteyian works for CBS News. In other words, they bring plenty of credibility to the table.

The best stories might be the ones explored in depth. Benedict and Keteyian jump around the country following the adventures of Mike Leach. He's the head coach who was forced to leave Texas Tech due to some, shall we say, controversy over his methods, but landed at Washington State. Even Leach's detractors would admit that the coach is good at what he does.

Brigham Young University also receives plenty of coverage here, spread over a few chapters. In particular, the story of Ezekiel Ansah is compelling. Ansah, from Ghana in Africa, tried out for football because he was cut from other sports despite some obvious athletic gifts. Ansah essentially started with "this is a football" and worked his way over the couple of years into the starting lineup ... and then some.

Even the biggest college football fans will admit that the relationship between athletics and education at the university level is an odd one. Most schools are forced to look at football as something of a loss leader, a way to introduce the university to the public while losing tons of money along the way. And it comes with baggage, lots of baggage.

There are hostesses, attractive female upperclassmen, hired by the athletic department to lure high school recruits to the program. It's often the hostesses who are the ones with ethical standards there. Boosters range from the wealthy to the ridiculously wealthy, the latter shown by T. Boone Pickens who has donated about $248 million (at last count) to help Oklahoma State's athletic fortunes. There are tutors for athletes who become involved in sexual scandals, a frightening injury rate that has more long-term implications than we realize, and under-the-table offers to recruits involving huge amounts of money and other benefits. Overseeing all of it is the NCAA, somewhat overwhelmed by its job of keeping everything clean but coming on like a lion when it has the chance.

The authors also point out some of the good parts. Alabama gets credit for putting on a first-class program without many incidents while winning. But it's tough to do that, or everyone would be doing it. The mixture of professionalism and fun that is mixed on ESPN's "Gameday" on Saturday mornings is nicely profiled here.

Benedict and Keteyian don't propose any answers here; they are just showing us the landscape. Most of it is quite interesting over the nearly 400 pages. Let's face it; it's difficult to make an NCAA investigation riveting. And they've done their homework, talking to a few hundred people along the way over two years.

"The System" gets credit for where we are in the sport. You probably won't follow college football in the same way that you did before reading it. And it's a great starting point for a discussion about where the entire enterprise should be going in the future.

Four stars

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: Draw in the Dunes (2014)

By Neil Sagebiel

Let's start with the basics - the 1969 Ryder Cup basically is remembered for one moment - a putt that was never attempted.

In fact, it's probably the reason why "Draw in the Dunes," the story of that tournament, was written and published.

Funny how things sometimes work out.

That moment certainly will be mentioned this month, as the Ryder Cup competition resumes on the other side of the Atlantic. The best of the United States and the best of the Europe will square off in a team competition, You no doubt will see players affected by a different type of pressure, and suffer for it as a result.

It's been 45 years since that non-putt, and author Neil Sagebiel takes us back to 1969 and the Royal Birkdale Golf Club to review the competition. The Ryder Cup was in some trouble at that point, as the format matched the United States' pros versus Great Britain's best. That once was more than a fair fight, but by the late Sixties the Americans were dominating the event. The U.S. had lost once since a defeat in 1933.

Entering 1969's competition, the Americans seemed to have all of the big guns. Jack Nicklaus was on that team, followed by Lee Trevino, Ray Floyd, Billy Casper and other solid players. The British team had Tony Jacklin, on the roll of his life, and several guys who might have popped up on a British Open leaderboard once in a while. However, as a team, Great Britain didn't figure to be much of a threat.

In stunning fashion, the Brits jumped out to an early lead and stayed close throughout the competition. Jacklin was a tiger, and players such as Neil Coles and Peter Townsend were on top of their games. It all came down to the last singles competition, Jacklin and Nicklaus, and the last hole, the 18th. Both men had short birdie putts, relatively easy under normal circumstances but certainly much more difficult when a team championship was on the line. Nicklaus rolled in a testy 5-footer, which guaranteed that America would keep possession of the Cup since the U.S. could do no worse than tie.

Nicklaus then walked over and picked up Jacklin's ball marker, conceding the putt. He wasn't going to let his friend suffer the possible consequences of a missed putt in front of his home country. In the cutthroat world of sports, then and now, it was a memorable gesture of sportsmanship.

The story  as presented here doesn't have much momentum in the early going. Safebiel goes over some recent (from the 1969 perspective) golf history of the Ryder Cup and the participants. Part of the problem is that from an American perspective, few British players from that group are familiar to golf fans on this side of the Atlantic today. Peter Alliss is one of them, but that's more of a tribute to his work as a broadcaster. If only for that reason, it's easy to think this book might be more successful in reaching a British audience. When the golf balls start to fly in the story, it's also difficult to make the play-by-play of a golf event like this come alive years later, although some of the participants do give some good comments about what they were thinking at the time.

But eventually, the competition slowly winds down to Nicklaus vs. Jacklin, and that remembered and dramatic gesture. Not only do the two principals give their thoughts, but some of the other team members jump in with reactions. It's interesting to discover that opinions have changed about the incident over the course of 45 years.

It's tough to argue successfully that the 1969 Ryder Cup started us on the road to the huge international event that goes on today. The Americans went back to their winning ways through the final four U.S.-G.B match-ups, and only the full participation of European players changed the dynamics of the competition.

"Draw in the Dunes" certainly fulfills its key role - explaining exactly what happened on that famous non-putt, and how it's perceived today. It's difficult to say that most golf fans will want more information on the entire event than that; a long magazine article might have satisfied the curiosity of many. But it's nice to have the information published, professionally written, and available.

Three stars

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Review: Baseball's Greatest Comeback (2014)

By J. Brian Ross

One hundred years later, we still remember the "Miracle Braves." For the ten decades since then, teams that have gotten off to poor stars - meaning sitting in last place at the start of July - have been looking to that Braves team as an example that just about anything is possible.

The 100th anniversary of that team's fabled rise is as good a time as any to refresh the memory of that story. J. Brian Ross takes up the cause by retelling the tale of the Braves' season with "Baseball's Greatest Comeback."

The Braves dug themselves a huge hole in the first two months of the season, getting off to a 10-24 start. That put them well out of the National League pennant race, and a month later they were 15 games behind the New York Giants and still sitting in last.

On July 7, the Braves stopped in Buffalo for an exhibition game with the minor league Bisons. The author doesn't note that manager George Stallings had worked in Buffalo from 1902 to 1906 and in the 1911-12 seasons, winning two championships there, and thus had some incentive to play well in a game that didn't count. Afterwards, Stallings and the rest of the Braves weren't happy about getting thrashed by "bush leaguers," and maybe that loss threw a switch. Or, maybe the Braves simply started living up to their potential.

Whatever the reason, the Braves went from 26-40 on July 4 to 69-53 at the end of the season - a record of 43-13. Boston went from eighth to first to win the division, and unexpectedly swept the mighty Philadelphia Athletics to win the World Series. More modern fans might remember how the New York Mets went on a huge run in the last six weeks of 1969's regular season to win the division, and then raced through the playoffs. This was even more unexpected, since it was a "worst-to-first" story.

Stallings became famous for his work in that season, but he obviously had help. The Braves had a Hall of Fame double play combination in Rabbit Maranville and Johnny Evers, a fine catcher in Hank Gowdy, and two 26-game winners in Dick Rudolph and Bill James. The team also made a couple of relatively important in-season moves that helped improve the roster.

Author J. Brian Ross obviously put in some time doing research, checking over newspaper accounts of games and looking over other sources of material. He even uses some new-age statistics (OPS and WAR) every so often along the way. The back of the book is jammed with notes.

Therefore, there's a lot of information here about the team that's useful. Even so, it comes across as a rather dry literary effort that includes a few redundancies along the way.

Part of it might be Ross' academic background. There's not much enthusiasm expressed to carry the reader along, so it's a little hard to get caught up in the story. Ross also wants to make a connection between the team and the Progressive Era in American history, represented by the reforms started by Teddy Roosevelt and carried forward into the next decade. But the ties aren't really explained fully and seem a little forced. I should add here that the author's use of raising events from the start of World War I in 1914 do supply some context to events on this side of the ocean, as baseball must have seemed quite frivolous to those on the Western Front.

In addition, it would have been nice to have seen a good breakdown between what went wrong at the start of the season and what went right at the end. There are a few statistics mentioned, but the story could have used more analysis.The writers of the time often credited Boston's "fighting spirit," but obviously the long winning streak (19-1) by pitcher James - which came out of absolutely nowhere - was a little more helpful. James, by the way, never came close to matching his 1914 performance.

The story checks in at less than 170 pages including the introduction, and that includes short biographies of some other large baseball personalities who didn't play for the Braves - Cy Young, John McGraw, Connie Mack, etc. That's not much for a book listed at $38. It might have been nice to read an epilogue on what happened after the World Series victory - individually and collectively. The Braves remained good for a couple of years after the Miracle, but didn't win anything.

"Baseball's Greatest Comeback" supplies well-documented information on the 1914 Boston Braves, and those looking for the basic story of the team will find it here. Even so, I found myself using an old analogy when thinking about the publication - all of the notes are there, but there's not much music.

Three stars

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