Sunday, July 10, 2016

Review: The Only Rule Is That It Has to Work (2016)

By Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller

The battle in baseball front offices has been going on between old-time scouts and executives and young analytic experts who think the truth is in the numbers. The analytic people are probably winning, based on numbers like OPS and WHIP crawling into the mainstream conversation.

But there's still some tension there. It could be summarized by one question: "Would you give the analytics side the keys to the car?" In other words, would they be good with complete control of the baseball operation.

Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller decided to try to find out.

The two Baseball Prospectus graduates talked the owner of Sonoma of a California independent league - just about at the bottom of such groups as these things go - into letting them take charge of the baseball decisions. They kept a diary of their experiences, and the result is "The Only Rule Is It Has to Work."

Lindbergh and Miller got some help along the way. They picked up some software that could help determine a variety of on-field factors, like velocity on contact. They also were sent a database that included players who had excelled in college but had not been picked in the draft for one reason or another, thus making them potential candidates for employment with the Stompers.

The authors also had a few tricks up their sleeves. Eventually they shifted defenses much more teams at that league usually do, and they tried such tactics as a five-man infield in certain situations. Actually, they worked pretty well as these things go. But along the way, there were "spirited" discussions with the manager, who knew what had worked for him over the years and who wasn't about to change because a couple of kids in jeans told him to do something different.

It's tough to say whether this approach was a drastic improvement over the status quo, mostly because real life got in the way. Independent league teams aren't the majors for a number of reasons. Players take off early to register for fall semesters of college, or they are scooped up by other teams in different parts of the country who can pay a little more. But for the most part, Sonoma did fine, and Lindbergh and Miller were generally accepted despite some gimmicks.

While the analytics stuff is what might draw many people in, the charm of these leagues are going to be a big selling point to a lot of people. These are players, for the most part, who are postponing the end of their childhood for a year in a sense, giving it one more chance to find out if they can play baseball for a living instead of buying a suitcase and trudging off to the office. They become, in most cases, easy to root for. It will be fun to see what happened to them all when the paperback edition comes out in 2017.

At first glance, it's tough to make the reader care about a pennant race that few care about. Even the players are using the team as a potential way-station toward something better. But Lindbergh and Miller care, and care a lot, about wins and losses, and that will rub off on many.

The book found its audience in no time; it seems those who like their numbers mixed with their baseball have loved it so far. Other baseball fans probably won't be attracted to it. That's fine; there are all sorts of entrances into the love of the game. "The Only Rule Is That It Has to Work" fulfills its main mission, though: as a book, it works.

Four stars

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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Review: Fun and Games (2016)

By Dave Perkins

When any self-respecting reporter retires, his initial thought is to write about his experiences. After all, he or she has all sorts of experiences along the way, and they usually are interesting.

The lucky ones get to actually do it. And Dave Perkins is one of the lucky ones.

Perkins is stepping away from his duties as a reporter and columnist with the Toronto Sun, after about 40 years on the business. His look back is appropriately called "Fun and Games," since it's a lot of fun and frequently dealing with games.

Perkins' initial start is pretty typical in this business, demonstrating how much luck can be involved. He already had been told by a faculty advisor that he didn't have the looks or the voice to consider broadcasting - thanks, pal - and that print journalism would be a good outlet for his talents. Perkins had been working on some background information on Watergate when he went down to work part-time at Toronto's Globe and Mail one night. It was part of a two-week tryout the college had arranged for some journalism students. By chance, he knew more about Watergate than anyone in the building, and helped the coverage of that time period in a particular night. Someone was impressed, and he started working his way up the ladder.

From there, it's a case of letting the stories begin. About smoking a Cuban cigar in front of President Bill Clinton. Listening to Jack Nicklaus show total recall about rounds shot decade in the past. Chasing down David Cone in an unusual place in order to get a quote on baseball labor. There are stories about those sports along with everything from harness racing to cricket.

The biggest chapter is saved for the Olympics. Perkins saw a bunch of them over the years, and they have all sorts of thrilling moments as well as logistical nightmares. I particularly liked the story where his newspaper's team of reporters was sitting around watching television - when they realized that no one was covering a Canadian's attempt at a medal. Somehow it had slipped through the cracks. This stuff really does happen, much to the editor's dismay.

This all has a Canadian tint to it, of course, since it's a Toronto writer, but there's not much hockey in here. Yes, there are a few shots taken at Maple Leaf management over the years, which goes into the "shooting fish in a barrel" department of the newsroom. But most of the stories are pretty universal, which means they are enjoyable for anyone who pays attention to sports in general. And there's just enough venom and score-settling along the way to keep it interesting. Some come in the form of quotes from past stories and columns, while other thoughts are quite fresh.

Perkins got to the finish line just about at the right time. The business has changed greatly in the past several years, and it's taking a different - not necessarily better or worse, but certainly different - set of skills to be a journalist these days. "Fun and Games" is something of a look back at a business life that's close to being gone forever, but there's enough fun along the way to keep sports fans who read it entertained.

Four stars

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Review: Great Men Die Twice (2015)

Edited by Mark Kram Jr.

To get personal for a moment, my timing was quite good when it came to this collection of stories from a well-known magazine writer from late in the 20th century, Mark Kram.

He more or less made his reputation with his coverage of boxing in the 1960s and 1970s with Muhammad Ali. Kram spent enough time around Ali to known him and his entourage well, and it was reflected in his stories about the era in Sports Illustrated magazine.

So I was reading some of those stories in the book, "Great Men Die Twice." It was an anthology of his work put together by his son, Mark Jr. Then came the news that Ali had died, making it quite appropriate to review some of those landmark moments.

The title is a reference a magazine article Kram wrote about Ali in 1989. The first time great men die is when they stop being great; the second is when they stop living. Ali, as we know, had a final act of his life that was particularly difficult for many to watch. The man we remembered as so full of life was mostly silent for the final couple of decades due to illness. Ali seemed at peace with fate's decision, but there's a certain joy in these pages of reviewing those times when the boxing champion was at his peak.

After those first 100 pages, all sorts of subjects pop up. There's a profile of a city (Baltimore), and of a family and its obsession with a waterfall (Niagara Falls). A story about former baseball slugger Hack Wilson, written from the first-person perspective well after his death, was quite memorable at the time because of its unique approach when it was written in 1977. That's about the time that personal problems started to catch up with Kram, who lost his job and battled some demons. Some other magazine stories are represented here, in the form of articles on Edwin Moses and Marlon Brando. A 1991 article on the price football players pay for playing such a violent game was well ahead of its time.

The book comes with a good-sized catch. Kram was obviously a smart man, well-versed in all sorts of subjects, and he wasn't afraid to display that intelligence. That can have its drawbacks. There are all sorts of references that can go flying over the head of the reader, and some stories that just never drew me in for one reason or another. That may be the problem of dated material; George Best and Jerry Glanville are names from 30 to 45 years ago.

When the stories in "Great Men Die Twice" work, they work very well. That will make the collection worthwhile to some, and it's nice to have it available. But all the stories aren't for everyone, so you may find yourself picking and choosing a bit as you go along.

Three stars

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Review: 14 Minutes (2012)

By Alberto Salazar and John Brant

There aren't a great many magical names when it comes to marathon running among Americans. Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers come to mind, and so does Alberto Salazar. The latter had a rather odd career, leaving a variety of questions behind.

Here, then, are some answers. Salazar's autobiography, "14 Minutes," covers the high and low points in his life, and it's all relatively dynamic.

For our purposes, let's start with the title. Ask a runner about 14 minutes, and the response probably will be along the lines that it's a really, really good time for the 5,000 meters on a track. As of this writing, the world record is 12:37 for men and 14:11 for women. So 14 minutes is a quite good time for the men, and a goal for women.

But that's not what Salazar means by the title, even though he ran the distance well in his career. It refers to how long his heart was stopped during a heart attack in 2007. If you are thinking that 14 minutes is a long time for a heart to stop, you are exactly right - most never revive from such a stoppage. Yet Salazar had few after-effects of the incident, and has continued his coaching career.

As you'd expect, the heart attack makes for dramatic reading. But there's other drama along the way. Salazar was born in Cuba and moved to the United States at a very early age. His father knew Fidel Castro during the Revolution, and suffered a falling out with the Cuban leader over Castro's rejection of religion - specifically, cancelling the construction of a new church - shortly after the change in government leadership. Salazar's father, a fiery personality and then some according to his son, remained angry at Castro and was part of anti-Castro groups for years to come.

Alberto, though, pushed his passion into other areas - mostly running. He ran in high school and college. It's tough to know how much pure talent was involved - certainly some - but Salazar's blessing and curse at the same time was his fanatic drive for success. No one outworked him, and no one outtrained him. Eventually, that translated to a world record although the course was shown to be short. Salazar won three straight New York City marathons, and one Boston marathon; the latter was the famous "Duel in the Sun," beating Dick Beardsley in one of the great marathons in history.

Then, the winning essentially stopped. No more wins in New York, no Olympic medals. As Salazar recounts his time here, it seems pretty obvious that he wasn't too good at listening to his body and was a little too willing to ignore pain when it popped up. Salazar was never the same, although he did climax his career with an ultra-marathon win in South Africa. He also had a religious awakening along the way, which he discusses here in a sincere manner.

After leaving competitive running, Salazar moved on to coaching. He took on a job with Nike and has tried to help runners. Salazar has had some successes, although Americans still aren't catching up to the East Africans very often in the distance events.

Salazar moves the story along pretty quickly. Credit probably should go to John Brant for some of that. It's only 260 pages of text, and there's enough drama to hold your interest.

It's tough to look at Salazar and wonder about what might have been. Still, it's interesting to know that the same qualities that made him such a good runner probably contributed to his somewhat sudden downfall. It's an interesting story, particularly to runners, and that makes "14 Minutes" a worthwhile effort.

Four stars

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Monday, May 23, 2016

Review: The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism (2016)

By Matthew P. Llewellyn and John Gleaves

I once read a handy definition of "amateurism" when it came to sports. It was along the lines that amateurism was a way of keeping money out of the hands of those who actually earned it. That's oversimplified a bit, but you get the idea.

The event most closely associated with amateur athletics over the course of relatively recent history is the Olympic Games. Organizers have struggled over the years with coming up with a definition that works for all, until they more or less gave up about 25 years ago and let anyone in the door. You still hear complaints that the purity of the Games was spoiled a bit by that decision, even though there's never been much purity associated with the subject.

Now comes along a book on the amateurism by Matthew P. Llewellyn and John Gleaves, two associate professors of kinesiology at California State University at Fullerton.
"The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism" fills in some gaps in our knowledge of this particular subject nicely if perhaps not neatly.

Speaking of oversimplifications, I've always thought that amateurism essentially started a way for organizers of sport to keep the lower classes out of their fun and games. The idea mostly was associated with Great Britain. The theory was that only rich people could afford to take up a game and practice it enough to become really good at it without compensation. Lower classes had to eat and didn't have the time to devote to pastimes.

There is some truth to that. However, the authors point out that some sports, such as soccer, had a professional aspect to them dating back to the 19th century. That's in part why soccer's big event is the World Cup and not the Olympics, although the story took some twists along the way.

Pierre de Coubertin usually gets the credit for playing the lead role in bringing the Olympics back as a world festival in 1896. It had been a Greek competition a couple of thousand years before that. De Coubertin was something of a romantic and probably didn't have his history straight, but the Games did get going. The problem when it came to amateurism is that standards were all over the place. For example, Jim Thorpe was ordered to give back his medals from the 1912 Games because he had taken a few dollars to play baseball before those Games, which was perfectly legal in some cases. The action was taken so quickly that Thorpe wasn't allowed a hearing. (Note: he was put back in the record book about 70 years later.)

But if there's a central figure to the story presented by the authors, it's Avery Brundage. The head of the International Olympic Committee was a strong believer in the concept of amateurism, to the point where athletes couldn't serve as coaches or commentators on their sports even after they had competed. As the Games grew in popularity, Brundage kept one foot in the past.

However, he was smart enough to change his views on some of the eligibility rules as world conditions changed. When the Soviet Union and its associated nations decided to make a huge effort to become athletic powers, suddenly Brundage forgot about rules designed to prevent government sponsorship and support of the athletes. And when television and endorsements became part of the situation and money was starting to get serious, well, it was fine for the IOC to take it in - but not the athletes themselves. You might call someone who acts that way a hypocrite, and you'd be right.

Once Brundage left the IOC in 1972, the Olympics fell into deep problems for a while. Eligibility issues were on people's mind, but boycotts, doping scandals and concerns on how to split up a growing financial pie among organizers caused problems. But the 1984 Los Angeles Games revitalized the competition in almost all ways, and in 1988 pro tennis players took part in the Games in Seoul. In 1992, the Dream Team showed up in Barcelona for basketball, essentially knocking the barriers down.

Llewellyn and Gleaves are obviously smart people, and they've done their homework. The University of Illinois, which published this book, is the home of Brundage's archives, and certainly the two authors spent lots of time there and well as going back through all sorts of other records and transcripts. They come to some sharp conclusions that appear to be right on target.

However, this is not a book for the beach. The story is mostly told from an administrative viewpoint, and it's a little too easy to get lost along the way. Meanwhile, Llewellyn and Gleaves use plenty of words that may add to your vocabulary; even my Kindle didn't have the definitions of some of them.

"The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism" is an interesting story that fills in several gaps in the subject, and it's not entirely fair to judge a book designed more for an academic audience than for the general public. But it's easy to come away wishing that it was a little more down-to-earth in its storytelling. If you are willing to get through the dry spots and have an interest in the subject, then take a look and give it an extra star. Otherwise, some may not find it worth the effort.

Three stars

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Review: I'd Know That Voice Anywhere (2016)

By Frank Deford

The Buffalo News gets the entire review, which you can access by going here. The shorter version would be that this is a collection of work of Deford's from National Public Radio. It is made up of commentaries about two pages long (three minutes or so of air time). Deford is considered the finest feature writer in sportswriting history, but he's pretty good at this too. Fans of Deford - which should include everyone - should like this.

Four stars

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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Review: I'm Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies (2016)

By Tim Kurkjian

It doesn't take long to know what you're going to read when you look at the cover of this book. "I'm Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies" tells you right away that the author is a man who loves, loves, loves baseball and all its quirks.

Then Tim Kurkjian goes about proving it over the 232 pages in the book.

It's baseball book No. 2 for Kurkjian, the fine baseball reporter for ESPN. The first was "Is This a Great Game, or What?" That was an easy read with stories and facts about the game.

Now he's back, about nine years later, with a repeat performance. Kurkjian goes through the notebooks once again in search of stories and information.

The title of the book comes from a remark Kurkjian made in 2007 on "Baseball Tonight" on ESPN. Carlos Lee had his 13th sacrifice fly of the season. That broke the club record, and it looked as if Lee was headed to break the major league record of 19 set by Gil Hodges. That's a launching point for a series of facts about this narrow part of baseball history. Chili Davis once drove in 112 runs in 1993 without a sacrifice fly, while 10 players have hit three of them in a game. By the way, Lee didn't have another sacrifice fly for the rest of the season.

For part of the book, Kurkjian names a subject and devotes the rest of the chapter on stories on that particular area from a series of people. What's it like to get hit by a pitch? What do players think of superstitions? What sounds are made during a game that the players notice? There are a few chapters devoted to some statistical oddities of the sport, and even one on the fascination of box scores. If you haven't figured out that this book is designed for BIG baseball fans, you probably are on the wrong website.

Kurkjian's best work in the book comes at unexpected times. The first chapter is about how difficult the game is to play. Anyone who has been cut from a Little League team or gave up the sport in frustration knows something about that, but it's tough for the big leaguers too. Then there's a tribute to baseball personalities like Earl Weaver, Tony Gwynn and Don Zimmer who are no longer with us. It's a nice contrast to the three paragraphs and out approach of much of the rest of the book, and Kurkjian's feelings come across nicely.

One more key point - this might be the first review in this space to criticize the foreword. George Will is the author in question, and his approach is to quote several of the items contained in the book. This has the effect of making the reader ask the question, "Haven't I read that already?" when it comes up in the actual text. At least Will read the book, but it's an annoying technique.

"I'm Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies" comes off as a bit unfocused, but there's enough good information there to keep the reader going through it at a brisk pace. Kurkjian's good nature and his admissions about how he's a true "baseball nerd" help as well. His latest book might not be a keeper forever, but it will leave fans entertained.

Three stars

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