Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Review: Teammate (2017)

By David Ross with Don Yaeger

David Ross is the member of a very small club. After all, how many people are associated with World Series winners for both the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox?

I couldn't easily find someone who played for the Cubs in 1908 and then went on to postseason glory with the Red Sox in the 1910s. However, Ross joined Jon Lester, John Lackey and front office executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer as the obvious connections between those two long-suffering teams.

While Ross might not have been the best player of that group, he might have been the best story of the five at the time. (Epstein, of course, will be able to write a fascinating book about his baseball life whenever he's ready to do so.) Ross meanwhile had announced he was going to retire after the 2016 season.  That happened to coincide with the end of a 108-year drought for the Cubs when it came to championships, and Ross - at 39 - became something of a symbol of that win. No wonder he was and is so beloved by Cubs Nation. Ross was the one that landed a spot on "Dancing with the Stars" after retirement, and the one that authored the inevitable book deal that follows championships in big cities.

"Teammate" is that book. Whether it's worth your time or not is another story, and probably depends on your level of interest in the Cubs.

Until this burst of stardom at the end of his career, Ross had a rather typical career as a backup catcher in the big leagues. Ross broke into the majors with the Dodgers in 2002, and moved on to the Pirates and Padres before joining the Reds in 2006 and 2007. There he had his most productive seasons, playing in more than 100 games in a season for the only time in his career and smacking a career-high 21 homers in 2006. Then it was on to Boston, Atlanta and Boston again (including the title season of 2013) before coming to the Cubs in 2015.

Actually, Ross worked out the book deal before the 2016 season, so good fortune smiled on him in that sense as the season worked out perfectly. The idea was that Ross would discuss the subject of what goes into a good teammate, a reputation that he picked up in the last half of his career. Is there a good book in just that? That is a tough call, but we won't know just by reading this.

Ross points out that he tried to pass information along to teammates, come prepared and energized every day, and lay down the law in the clubhouse when it was necessary. At the end, Ross brings up words that go into being a good teammate: humility, honesty, reliability, communication, problem solving, sacrifice, dealing with change, engagement, positivity, accountability, trust, toughness and fun. It sort of feels like one of those leadership books that some business types swear by but leave the rest of us a little cold.

Ross uses his personal experiences on the day of the seventh game of the World Series as something of a framework for the book. It's a launching point for memories of his career. Those trips backwards into time are somewhat but not necessarily in chronological order. That gives the book a somewhat jumpy feel. Adding to that is that fact that Ross often jotted down a paragraph into his phone during the course of the 2016 season, and those "diary entries" are reprinted throughout the book. But they come off as completely isolated from anything else in the text, and often are at the level of "can't wait to see my family!" It's hard to understand the point of including them.

There are some good sections about the book, as you'd expect from an obviously thoughtful guy like this. What is a player thinking during a Game Seven? Here's Ross's viewpoint. He went from sub to player - making a couple of misplays that cost his team runs to hitting a home run - to bench-warmer, all in the same game. But he had a great seat to watch the Cubs win it all. Soon "Grandpa Rossy" would be the one that's carried off the field a champion by his teammates.

The reviews of "Teammate" on Amazon.com are very, very positive. All sports fans know the feeling when their favorite team wins it all - you can't wait to take in more about the experience. That enthusiasm shows up in the reviews. If you qualify, by all means pick this up. Those who have a few more degrees of separation, though, probably won't feel so warmly about the book. Those baseball fans would be better served reading "The Cubs Way," Tom Verducci's outstanding look about the Cubs' rise to a championship.

Three stars

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Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Review: Calling the Shots (2017)

By Kelly Hrudey with Kirstie McLellan Day

As autobiographies go, Kelly Hrudey's "Calling the Shots" is an odd one. It seems to have something missing - about 19 years of his life.

In other words, it stops when his playing career stopped - back in 1998. Very little is said about life after that, except in passing. Yet, Hrudey has been involved non-stop in hockey during those 19 years. He's served as a commentator on "Hockey Night in Canada."

On one hand, Hrudey seems like a rather unconventional choice to have a book published. He broke in with the New York Islanders right at the end of their dynasty in the early 1980s. Hrudey got to know some of the personalities from those teams that won four straight Stanley Cups, such as Al Arbour, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, and the Sutters. The netminder was on some decent Islander teams after that, but they never were contenders for a title then.

From there Hrudey was dealt to the Kings, where he had the chance to play with Wayne Gretzky. Los Angeles had one good chance at the Cup during the goalie's time there, falling just short in a memorable series with the Canadiens in 1993. Hrudey finished 15 years in the NHL in San Jose in 1998.

So we've got a good hockey player who spent his entire big-league career in the United States. After retirement, he immediately launches a career in broadcasting in Canada, and he's been good at it ever since. Hrudey is smart and articulate, and offers good opinions on the games and the game. At this point, though, he's north of the border, and it's easy to wonder if fans in the United States will still be interested in his story. Could it have been written sooner? Probably.

The story that has been put on paper isn't a bad one though. Hrudey is honest and interesting throughout the book. He has nice things to say about almost all of his teammates, and doesn't hesitate to criticize some of his coaches when he thinks it is justified. Hrudey sometimes made such criticisms in public at the time, so it's no big surprise that he's not pulling any punches here.

This also offers a look at the mind of a goalie. The position lends itself to unusual thinkers. After all, how would you like it if a red light came on and thousands cheered every time you made a mistake on the job? No wonder Hrudey had some confidence problems along the way that led to something close to depression at times; I would bet most goalies have similar stories.

The pages go by pretty quickly, and it's a pleasant but not overly dramatic read. "Calling the Shots," therefore, is a difficult book to review. The cliche that "hockey fans ought to like it" is true, especially if they followed Hrudey's career in the United States. A more timely book on his days in broadcasting might prove to be an even better story, whenever it comes out.

Three stars

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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Review: The Big Fella (2018)

By Jane Leavy

Think there's nothing more to be said at this point about the life and times of Babe Ruth?

Think again.

Jane Leavy has come up with a slightly unconventional look at the Babe in her book, "The Big Fella." It took more than a decade to write, and her attention to detail shows up on every page.

Obviously, if you don't know at least the basics of the life of Babe Ruth, you probably have stumbled on this website by accident. He was the first and might be the biggest star ever created in baseball and maybe in all of sports - someone who could attract a crowd simply by walking down the street. America could not get enough of him - to be fair, the reserve was also true.

Ruth was a man of large appetites, naturally. He ate big, lived big, partied big, spent big, swung big and hit big - daring to break conventional wisdom that said baseball should be played one base at a time. His 714 career home runs not only shattered every record in the category at the time, but represented a huge leap in imagination in what was possible on the baseball field.

Ruth benefited from a friendly media during his time, hoping to ride the slugger's coattails to fame and fortune. Most of the early writing about Babe was positive if not embellished to make him look better than he was. That changed starting in the early 1970s with Robert Creamer's classic biography. Others have followed; Leigh Montville, for example, was much more willing to tell the stories that his predecessors in biography shied away from writing.

That brings us to Leavy, the author who wrote acclaimed biographies of Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle (the later is one of the best baseball biographies I've ever read). She soon realized that she needed to approach Ruth's story differently. Think of this as a clothesline. Each clothespin represents a stop on a tour that Ruth and Lou Gehrig took across the country after the 1927 World Series - a way to cash in on their fame. But hanging from the clothespin in a thorough and often fascinating look at some aspect of Ruth's life.

Need examples? Start with the Babe's childhood. Leavy found out in passing while interviewing a family member that his parents were divorced. Not many couples did that more than 100 years ago, and offers some insight into Ruth's future actions. She also talks about St. Mary's, the Baltimore boys home for troubled boys that was Babe's residence for most of his childhood. No, it wasn't an orphanage, a legend that keeps getting repeated.

Then there's his family life, which was as best complicated. Ruth's appetites extended to the fairer sex, as the old cliche goes, and he left his first wife for another woman. But the story is complicated by a long separation and by Ruth's continued determination not to take any of his wedding vows too seriously. Speaking of complicated, first wife Helen died in a house fire after splitting with Babe under odd circumstances.

A primary source of material for the book comes from Christy Walsh, the promoter of the cross-country tour and something of an agent/manager for Ruth during his glory days. He left a treasure trove of material behind about his dealings with Ruth. Mix that in with financial records from the Yankees saved from destruction in the 1970s and now safely placed in the Hall of Fame, and Leavy offers a good and previously unknown look at the Babe's finances. It's easy to conclude that Babe was in good hands with Walsh, as the agent made a lot of money for him and made sure he'd be relatively comfortable for the rest of his life through a trust fund.

A great many tiny pieces of information went into the book, no doubt painstakingly accumulated. All of this is helped by modern technology. Records buried in files for years are now available on the internet. Therefore, it only took a few mouse clicks for Leavy to discover Babe's parents were divorced. Creamer, who didn't know that fact, would have had to gone through every Baltimore newspaper in that era by hand to make the same discovery. She also talked to a variety of people, including plenty of grandchildren. It seems that an encounter with Babe Ruth was something that needed to be part of the family heritage, and thus was passed down.

Those who are looking for the basics on the life of Ruth should look elsewhere. "The Big Fella" is more of a second read on the subject, who remains part of the national conversation when it comes to baseball and sports stars in general. Those who can pick it up and read it - it checks in 620 pages including notes, etc. - will find it to be very worthwhile.

Five stars

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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Review: The Pride of the Yankees (2017)

By Richard Sandomir

The first question you might have about the book, "The Pride of the Yankees," is a simple one.

Is this a book about movies, or is it about baseball?

To be fair, it's probably more about the movie on the life of Lou Gehrig that came out in 1942. But, there's certainly baseball involved in it, and I would bet that most baseball fans who have been around for a while probably seen it at least once - and maybe more. Even Red Sox fans feel like the room is getting a little dusty when they watch Gehrig's character say, "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

Therefore, I think it's of interest to sports fans and gets included on this site.

Most baseball fans like to watch movies about their favorite sports. You can start a good-sized debate about the merits of such films as "Bull Durham," "Field of Dreams," and "The Natural."

"Pride of the Yankees" is considered a very good movie. But, baseball fans, consider this fact: there is very little baseball in it. A few scenes contain action shots, but probably it's a smaller number than you think it is.

This keys in on the love story between Lou and Eleanor Gehrig, nicely cast with Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright in the starring roles. Cooper made a career in Hollywood out of playing strong, silent types, and Gehrig is a good fit here. That's a key point made by author Richard Sandomir, who reviews the film's history from start to finish here.

Cooper was an obvious choice for the role, according to everyone involved. That's in spite of the fact that not only did he have absolutely no baseball experience, but he was right-handed. That's a problem when you are trying to portray a left-handed first baseman. Cooper took six weeks of instruction from Lefty O'Doul, but that didn't replace a lifetime of interest in the game. So the baseball shots of Cooper are kept to a bare minimum. He's shown in some long shots, but major league Babe Herman was the one who was actually shown in such moment. A few other small portions of the film probably featured flipped negatives, so that the right-handed Cooper comes off as a lefty. Accounts differ on exactly how often that technique was used.

There is plenty of good background on all of the major players in the film. That starts at the top with Sam Goldwyn, the studio executive who knew nothing about baseball but knew a good story when he saw one. There are biographies of the stars and co-stars, and Eleanor Gehrig's role in the production is examined closely as well. There's also some digging into Lou's life; it seems that the relationship between Gehrig's wife and parents didn't have the Hollywood ending that was needed, so it was changed a bit.

Sandomir does his best work, though, with some research into the story. Movie scripts go through all sorts of changes before reaching the screen. The author was lucky enough to get a copy of the original script here, and had notes on how it was altered, and not altered, along the way. It's a fun look at the creative process in action.

Sandomir also uncovers a few facts in the film that don't quite match up with reality. They aren't major flaws, unless you are one of those baseball fans that insists that everything in a movie is historically accurate.

There's one necessary suggestion when it comes to reading the book. Go watch the movie. If you haven't seen it lately, go watch it again. Those who don't have it memorized at this point will enjoy the book much more if the scenes are fresh. Sandomir makes the point that the chemistry between Cooper and Wright really makes the movie work. They are totally believable as a happy couple, and it's easy for the audience to get swept along in their story.

Those who have no interest in the story obviously don't need to pick this up. But others will want to know more about "the making of ...", and this should work quite nicely for them. "The Pride of the Yankees" is a quick, interesting read about a film that will be watched for years to come, and deserves some applause of its own.

Four stars

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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2018

Edited by Jeff Pearlman 

I've been reviews books in this series for several years, and reading them since its inception in 1991. They've all been good; I think there was only one that received less than a four-star rating.

It's with a little surprise, then, that I can say this offering of "The Best American Sports Writing" might be the one of the best of the entire bunch. I don't have the other 27 copies handy, but I feel rather confident in going that far.

That's because of the story selection. Jeff Pearlman is this year's editor, and he has selected stories that make a strong impact. Let's make that word stand out a little bit - impact.

It would be easy to guess that all of the stories that reach the "finals" are well done, year after year. Then it becomes a matter of individual taste as to which articles turn up in the book, and which ones are left to the honorable mention portion of the book. It's easy to guess that Pearlman did a particularly good job of finding stories that hit readers hard in many cases.

Muhammad Ali can still fascinate us, even in death, thanks to Tom Junod's moment-by-moment description of his death and the timeline to his burial. Speaking of funerals, there are a bunch of them in the story of a plane crash of a South American soccer team from Sam Borden. Football head injuries receive a young face from Reid Forgrave. Steve Friedman profiles a woman who just can't stop running - and there are many answers to the "from what?" that lurks at the end of that sentence. You've never heard of boxer Ed "Bad Boy" Brown, but you'll find it tough to forget his story. The list goes on from there. Some certainly will say the dramatic side of sports and life is over-represented here, but the stories must be considered well done.

Still, not every story is a gut-punch. Wright Thompson is a regular in the series, and his look at basketball legend Pat Riley as someone not quite in the winter of his life is detailed and fascinating. We know Dave Kindred can make the phone book interesting, but mix him with someone like Lefty Driesell - speaking of a lion in winter - is fun and poignant. And how about Cody Decker, one of those minor league baseball lifers who is still trying to crack the big leagues on the wrong side of 30?

The percentage of readable, interesting stories wasn't quite perfect. One of the few that didn't work for me was David Roth's attack on the National Football League, "Downward Spiral." There's an argument to be made there, but it should have been more clear and more simple. But in the very next story in the book, Tyler Tynes comes through with "There Is No Escape from Politics." There's just as much rage there, but the argument is better. Tynes forces you to at least listen, which is crucial.

Pearlman obviously is on something of a role this year. His book on the United States Football League was terrific, and now he's here with a connection to another bit of reading in "Best American Sports Writing 2018." Time to bet on the lottery, Jeff. Don't miss this frequently fascinating anthology.

Five stars

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Sunday, November 25, 2018

Review: Quarterback (2018)

By John Feinstein

John Feinstein has hit the magic number of 40 when it comes to books. Even if you consider that some of them were for children, and thus required a little less effort, that's a lot of books.

The number could inspire a discussion about what sport he does best. My guess is that his two biggest loves - and thus his best efforts - are college basketball and golf. Feinstein got off to a flying start in the book business in the late 1980s with "A Season on the Brink." He spent a season with the legendary and fascinating Bobby Knight at Indiana. From there he has bounced around a bit in terms of sports, with stories about pro basketball, major and minor league baseball, and college football to his credit. With that sort of range, it's easy to conclude that Feinstein merely is in search of good stories from people who can tell them well - and consistently finds them.

"Quarterback" represents a relatively rare jump into pro football for Feinstein. He did spent a year with the NFL with "Next Man Up," which (as I recall) spent most of his time with the Baltimore Ravens. But this is more general, and it's still a pretty solid effort, as usual.

The NFL is, at its base, all about quarterbacks - the most important position in any team sports. If you don't have a good one, well, you can wave goodbye to a good chance at becoming a champion team. Yes, there are exceptions, but not many. An injury to a starter usually dooms a team to mediocrity or worse. The quarterbacks receive most of the publicity; casual fans who don't know more than one name on the Green Bay Packers can identify Aaron Rodgers easily.

Feinstein picked out five quarterbacks to follow during the course of the 2017 season. Alex Smith, a former No. 1 overall draft choice, was hoping to lead the Kansas City Chiefs to the Super Bowl in what figured to be his final year in Kansas City. Andrew Luck of the Colts  was hoping to put an injury-filled year behind him in 2017. Joe Flacco had become the face of the Ravens' franchise, even though he wasn't at the very top tier of players at the position. Ryan Fitzpatrick came out of Harvard merely looking for a chance to land on an NFL roster, and has thrown for more than 25,000 yards and earned more money than almost all of his college classmates. He had bounced from team to team before finally landing in Tampa last season. The final choice is an odd one - Doug Williams is a retired quarterback. He had his big moment when he passed the Redskins to a Super Bowl title; now he's trying to help Washington do that again in the team's front office. 

The first part of the book is devoted to the back stories of the quarterbacks involved, and it's quite good. Feinstein always has been good about paying attention to detail, and it's on display here. All five players have stories to tell about their days in the game. Luck, for example, was a golden boy as a No. 1 pick out of Stanford, while Flacco came out of Delaware and Fitzpatrick was a seventh-round draft choice. They all have some things in common. The five of them realize that the quarterback gets too much of the credit when things go well for the team, and too much of the blame when things go badly. Oh, right - quarterbacks are usually in pain, even when they aren't injured.

The second portion of the book is devoted to the 2017 season. While the four playing QBs and the Redskins' quarterback situation receive the most attention, the whole league's season comes under scrutiny. That season is relatively fresh in some memories now, but others might think the story line jumps around too much and tries to cover a little too much territory. 

Be prepared for a little analysis along the way too. Feinstein usually has felt free to express his own personal viewpoints along the way. For example, here he has a few opinions about Donald Trump's remarks about players who knelt during the National Anthem, which caused quite a stir. Feinstein wasn't happy about it. If you don't like a dash of politics mixed with your sports, then don't say you weren't warned. But it shouldn't bother most readers.

There isn't much controversy about what's said in here by the quarterbacks involved. The subjects, though, are generally insightful and interesting people. It's nice to spend a few hours with them all. "Quarterback" isn't Feinstein's best book - and I've read all of the ones for adults - but it's another worthwhile effort.

Four stars

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Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Review: The Cubs' Way (2017)

By Tom Verducci

If you are a baseball fan, you might have heard that the Chicago Cubs' World Series win in 2016 was the team's first in more than a 100 years.

This had two obvious effects.

1. Cubs' fans, and there are bunches of them across the country, could no longer describe themselves as "long suffering."

2. The championship was sure to be followed by the publication of enough books to deforest large regions of the country.

Since I'm not a member of Cubs Nation, I chose to wait a while and try to pick up a copy of what figured to be the best book on the team's rise. After looking over the crop of publications the following spring, I knew that Tom Verducci's book would be the one to get at some point down the road.

Now that I've actually read it, I can safely say that "The Cubs' Way" was an absolutely perfect fit between subject and author.

Verducci is running out of mediums to conquer. He already covers major league baseball for Sports Illustrated, and is one of the best in the business there. Verducci does work for Fox Sports on baseball, and displays his insight nicely in that role. Here he is out with his second book. The first, which was done with Joe Torre, vaulted into best-seller land. This may not sell like that one, but it's an even more impressive effort.

This story more or less starts in the fall of 2011. That's when Theo Epstein, the "boy wonder" of the Boston Red Sox, decided he had become living under the microscope of running the Red Sox. He had already ended that team's curse - with plenty of help, of course - and the thought of doing it again in Chicago was appealing. So he jumped to the Cubs' presidency, surrounded himself with smart people, and went to work.

The Red Sox were almost a finished product when Epstein took the general manager's job in Boston; fixing the Cubs were a matter of starting from scratch. Epstein started by looking for building blocks that could be the foundation of a good team. He found them in the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell. Verducci nicely reviews the histories of those players, who panned out as well as the team could have hoped and then some. The Cubs specialized in taking hitters in the draft in those earlier years of the rebuild, they added pitchers from any available source such as free agency and trades.

It took time for everything to come together. Hiring Joe Madden as a manager after the 2014 season was a big move, since he was well regarded as one of the best in the business at his profession. Chicago reached the playoffs in 2015, losing to the Mets in the NLCS. Many thought the Cubs were ready for the next step. As you know if you've gotten this far, they were. But it wasn't easy, as Chicago had to rally from a 3-1 deficit in the series and a blown lead late in Game Seven to win the Series. Epstein certainly is headed for the Hall of Fame now, and others probably will follow.

Verducci had a great story as a foundation for the book, which jumps back and forth from each game of the Series to the development process. Plenty of authors have that initial idea for a story. He lifts the book up a couple of notches with his own good work.

First, he had a good group of individuals as major sources. Madden is one of the most interesting people in the game, a manager who is always willing to look for new ways to bind his team together. I've heard people say this book could be placed in the management section of the bookstore, as Madden has many tips on such subjects as communication that would work with any business. Madden, Epstein and some players are good talkers, people who can provide information and perspective on the situation.

Then there's the research. The book is filled with little facts that draw the reader in along the way. For example, the Indians' last surviving player from their 1948 championship team was first baseman Eddie Robinson. He was 95 in 2016, and he played his first big league game against the Philadelphia A's in 1942. The opposing manager for the Athletics that day was Connie Mack - who was born in 1862 and managed Philadelphia for 50 years. The entire history of baseball (the first pro team was formed in 1869) is more or less covered in that item. Verducci also is a talented writer who isn't afraid to throw in a rhetorical flourish every now and again.

It took about two chapters to realize that "The Cubs" Way" was going to be special. The other 18 chapters were confirmation of that judgment. I can't imagine this subject being covered any better than it is here. Cubs Nation, if you haven't gotten around to this yet, go find it now.

Five stars

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