Saturday, April 18, 2015

Review: Phil Jackson - Lord of the Rings (2013)

By Peter Richmond

Sometimes it's easy to be a little frightened by reviews.

I'm not talking specifically about movies, although certainly that can happen. Who wants to go a film that the experts say it hardly worth your money?

It can happen to a book too. That brings us to Peter Richmond's book, "Phil Jackson - Lord of the Rings."

The reviews on Amazon.com are quite harsh. Admittedly, there aren't many equivalents to the late Roger Ebert reviewing books on there, and in this case only a handful of reviews have been posted - all neutral to unfavorable. It was enough to keep this unread in my household for quite a while.

Still, having finally completed it, I think the other readers probably underestimate the book. It's not an instant classic, but it has its pleasures.

If you've been following basketball for the last few decades, you know Jackson's story. He came out of the Midwest (North Dakota, mostly) and arrived in New York to join the Knicks as a player - just in time to see that franchise go through the most glorious era in its history. The Knicks won titles in 1970 and 1973, and Jackson contributed to the latter team's success. (He was hurt in 1969-70.) That New York squad had a variety of memorable characters, but stories reveal that Jackson was the one mostly likely to be a coach.

It took a while, but he finally got his shot at an NBA coaching job. Not only was he ready for the big time, but he had some great company. Ever hear of Michael Jordan? The Bulls ran off six titles during their dynasty, and Jackson did a fabulous job of keeping the band together during that stretch. No coaches can win without talent, but not all coaches can win with it, and Jackson held together those Bulls teams of Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Co.

Then it was on to Los Angeles, where Jackson fell in with Shaq, Kobe and Co. Same story there, and more rings - an eventual total of 11 in his career. No one has more in basketball history. Richmond calls Jackson the most successful coach in basketball history, and the author has a case. Jackson finally left the Lakers a couple of years ago, but landed as the head executive of the Knicks last year. He's still looking for the next Jordan or Bryant in New York; good luck on that.

Richmond mixes a variety of sources to try to paint a picture of Jackson, certainly one of the most interesting personalities to come along in any sport. He's obviously smart and thoughtful, and comes across as considerate and adaptable when it comes to people. Those are all good qualities for a coach. Many of those who crossed Jackson's path are quoted here, some with direct quotes through interviews.

The author does have one good source for material - Jackson himself, but not directly. He refused to be interviewed for the book, although he promised not to do it any harm either. No, Jackson has written several books himself over the years. The first of those was called "Maverick" in 1975. I recall buying that book, which listed at the time for $7.95, for 88 cents at a used book store and thinking that I had overpaid. Richmond thought it was on the sour side as well. Imagine my surprise when I saw that copies of the book now were going for 100 times more than what I paid for it. Ugh.

The author also quotes several other books and interviews in the search for insight. Any book about Jackson will have some sections devoted to some non-traditional topics by basketball book standards - meaning that Jackson's interest in Native American and personal philosophy come up here. It's all part of the package.

The critics' biggest complaint centered on some silly errors in the text, remarks I usually associated with baseball fans and books on that subject (many such enthusiasts seem to take pleasure in finding such errors). It is difficult to believe that the Bulls were called the Bullets once in this book, and that some game details on playoff games came out wrong. I was surprised that the name of the Buffalo Braves' arena was botched, and that John Havlicek's injury in the Boston-New York series of 1973 didn't come up in the recap - obviously a huge part of the story.

Maybe more to the point, Jackson seems like a person who is hard to pin down here - even in a book that runs more than 300 pages. Of course, to many that's part of his charm.

Richmond has some flair in his writing, and has done some good work elsewhere. He certainly gave this an honest effort, and the book goes by pretty quickly. "Phil Jackson" might not turn out to be the definitive look at this coaching legend, but it does offer some insights that are part of the puzzle.

Three stars

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Review: In Pursuit of Pennants (2015)

By Mark L. Armour & Daniel R. Levitt

The most fundamental question in major league baseball might be this one: How do you win games?

Obviously, scoring more runs than the opposition on a consistent basis is a good start. But, how is that accomplished?

It's a tougher question than many might think. After all, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it ... and every team would wind up at .500. Not only that, but the rules about putting together a winner in baseball keep changing.

Mark L. Armour and Daniel R. Levitt have taken on the big job of explaining how that task has changed in the past 110 years or so. No wonder the text of "In Pursuit of Pennants" checks in at more than 400 pages.

The short answer is that as the game has become more complicated, and more financially rewarding, the number of people in charge of such decisions has grown almost exponentially. We've gone from one or two people to dozens and dozens over the years as the stakes have gotten bigger.

That was a slow process, of course. This book starts in the 1890s, when baseball was just starting to move past the original concept where the captain was also a recruiter of local talent, and the games really were my town's best against your town's best. Before long, though, owners such as Barney Dreyfuss of Louisville and Pittsburgh started to take a role in putting together the team. That got to be a big job, so managers received a larger role in selecting the roster.

Eventually, the business of the game grew a bit, and the owners needed someone to oversee the ball club. That spot eventually became known as a general manager. Naturally he needed assistants as the organization grew in size.

Every so often, something came along to change the rules when it came to player acquisition. Let's list some of them - minor league teams became part of a major league organization, African-Americans (and later Latins and Asians) entered the talent pool, the amateur draft came long, the league expanded, and free agency arrived. It wasn't always easy to keep up.

The book, then, becomes something of a collection of case studies of certain teams in particular eras. The great Yankee teams and the Big Red Machine are profiled, as you might expected. But there are surprising choices as well. The Kansas City Royals, for example, rarely missed a step when they entered the American League in 1969, and became a constant contender in about seven years.

It's often very interesting to see how teams got better. For example, the Boston Red Sox of the early 1960s were rather awful. General manager Dick O'Connell cleared out many of the veterans, put in some talented youngsters, and watched the win-loss record slowly improve. The surprise 1967 pennant was followed by years and years of winning seasons, and it's great fun (at least for those who are familiar with the team) to see how things were put together in hindsight.

The narrative concludes in the present day, where teams like the San Francisco Giants used the latest analytics and technology advances to seek out an edge on the competition. It seems to be working, based on their record of success lately.

Credit goes to Armour and Levitt for some comprehensive research into the subject. There are plenty of interesting facts presented along the way. Drawbacks are few in number. It can be a little dry in spots, and a little editing would have gotten the manuscript down a bit to a slightly more readable length.

Plus, "In Pursuit of Pennants" obviously is designed with the good-sized baseball fan in mind. In other words, members of the Society of American Baseball Research will thoroughly enjoy this. Others might not open this volume, but it's nice that such a smart work about an important aspect of the sport is there for the reading by those who wish to get an advanced education on the subject.

Four stars

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Review: On the Clock (2015)

By Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport

An easy way to sum up the growth of the National Football League is to look at the Draft - the selection process used by teams to pick college players.

Once upon a time, this procedure was done in a hotel ballroom, with little fanfare and hoopla. Now, the Draft has been staged at such places as Radio City Music Hall in New York, and it's going on the road to Chicago this year to spread the excitement.

What happened? Veteran football writers Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport teamed up to tell some of the stories about the draft. "On the Clock" give the allotment procedure a quick once over.

The authors jump around quite a bit in their coverage after devoting the first chapter to the 2014 proceedings. Jay Berwanger is the answer to a couple of trivia questions - the first NFL draft choice, and the first Heisman Trophy winner. Berwanger turned down the pros because they didn't offer enough money. That hasn't been an issue for some time.

Bert Bell, the former commissioner of the league, gets credit for creating the draft. It was a revolutionary step at the time. Baseball essentially let any team sign anyone it wanted until the middle of the 1960s, something that certainly helped the New York Yankees plant the seeds that led to championships. Football spread out the wealth about 30 years before that, keeping the rich teams and poor teams on a more level playing field.

Still, the draft didn't begin to expand in interest until the early 1980s, when ESPN started televising the show. As the production values grew, the draft served as a bridge between college and pro football. The college fans were interested in seeing where their boys would go in the pros, and the pro fans treated the day like Christmas - teams knew they'd get something good, but they weren't sure what until they got to "open them." The broadcasts led to the rise of such analysts as Mel Kiper Jr.

Wilner and Rappoport have a few other subjects to cover. There's the story about top draft picks who didn't wind up with their drafting team for one reason or another - Bo Jackson, John Elway, Eli Manning. The authors also pick a best pick and a bust pick for each team as well as the top five all-time draft choices by position - which is a lot like just picking something close to an all-time team, since just about everyone in the past 60 years has been drafted.

The material can be read in a couple of hours, and the authors know what they are talking about. Still, this feels like a very basic look at the subject. There aren't many "inside" stories on the teams and players. In fact, my guess is that most football fans will have at least a passing familiarity with the material that's covered here.

Those looking for a primer on this spring tradition could do worse that picking up a copy of "On the Clock." But it's probably going to have trouble finding an audience.

Two stars

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Review: Dr. J - The Autobiography (2013)

By Julius Erving with Karl Taro Greenfeld

Julius Erving might be the last of the great unseen legends in sports history.

Yes, Erving's career with the Philadelphia 76ers is quite well known. There are videos of his performances with the Sixers, and he compiled enough credentials to be a Hall of Famer just on those years - NBA champion, league most valuable player, etc.

But that's not when Erving was really at his best. When he was playing in the American Basketball Association, it was easy to believe that a man - Dr. J, as he became known as - really could fly.

Those who only remember Erving from his Philadelphia days probably will get the most enjoyment out of his autobiography, "Dr. J." For if you examine his life story, it seems that his timing was just a bit off.

For example, Erving was a fine high school basketball player in the New York City area. Admittedly, he hadn't finished growing yet, but he was good enough to attract attention. Had Erving reached 6-foot-6 as a senior and still been capable of flight in a manner of speaking today, he'd have documentaries done about him before he reached college. As it turned out, Erving went to college at Massachusetts - a respectable program but not the place to become a household name at the time.

Then Erving opted to turn pro before his senior year. While it's difficult to argue with that move as a financial decision, he just missed on playing for the 1972 United States Olympic basketball team. It's fair to say he would have helped that team, which lost to the Soviet Union in the final in one of the most famous finishes in sports history. Erving landed with the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball League, teaming up with such players as Charlie Scott and George Gervin. Again, Norfolk will never be confused with one of the media capitals of the nation, and he played in obscurity. Yet anyone who saw those games knew just how good Erving was.

It was more of the same in his next stop, the New York Nets. Erving led the team to a couple of ABA championships, and hardly anyone saw it. ABA games weren't televised very often, so basketball fans merely had to hear second-hand stories about this dynamic forward who was reinventing the game before people's eyes. When has someone who played in New York been overlooked? But when Erving finally made it to the NBA after 1976 merger, he and the 76ers packed arenas from coast to coast.

The story finally gets told in the autobiography. Considering there was a time span of more than 25 years between retirement and publication, it's easy to wonder what took so long. But Erving certainly has plenty to say in an autobiography that stretches out for more than 420 pages.

The basketball stories are generally well told and fairly straight forward. Erving doesn't go out of his way to rip people, although there are hints that Gene Shue, coach of the 1976-77 Sixers, didn't know how to coach the boatload of talent he had on the roster. Erving's time in the ABA was spent with some characters, including one guy who used to keep his drug stash in his socks during practice.

There are some surprises here. Erving had some odd contract moves in his career. He tried to jump from the ABA to the NBA's Atlanta Hawks at one point, even though he hadn't been drafted yet. When Milwaukee picked him, it set off a good-sized legal fight. Then when the merger arrived, it's hard to say if a way could have been found to keep Erving in New York. The Nets could have used him in that era.

Erving does write a bit about some cases of infidelity, as he gave in to some of the temptations of superstardom. He received some publicity when the fact that he was the father of a pro tennis player was revealed. Welcome to the fish bowl. And Erving has had all sorts of personal tragedies in his life - more than his share, to be sure. Fame does not offer immunity to that sort of pain and loss.

All of this is told in the present tense, by the way. That's an unusual technique, and a little jarring at first. But after a while, it's easy to adjust to it.

"Dr. J" has received great notices from reviewers. I'm not sure it quite lives us to those reviews. Still, Erving comes off as humble and modest throughout his book. If you want to find out what all the fuss was about, or what the gaps in a lively life story, this should work nicely.

Four stars

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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: The Outlaw League ... (2014)

By Daniel R. Levitt

It's probably not possible to send an anniversary card to a defunct baseball league. Who would you send it to? And where would it be delivered?

Still, we're in the middle of a relatively significant baseball anniversary, especially in the business sense. The Federal League fielded teams in 1914 and 1915, and is the last on-field competitor to Major League Baseball as we know it. Its remaining legacy in terms of baseball is Wrigley Field in Chicago, which was first built to house a Federal League team.

The tale of the Federals pointed baseball, and in some ways all sports, down a particular path in the years to come. Thus a complete story of the Federal League's tale from creation and demise is worthwhile from an historic perspective.

Daniel R. Levitt has written that book. It comes complete with a very long title, "The Outlaw League and the Battle that Forged Modern Baseball." Come to think of it, the book and its title both have plenty of detail.

A little history lesson: The Federal League started as a minor league in 1913, but had the idea to try to join the American and National Leagues the following year. Owners were found, parks were built or leased, and players were pursued. The league did indeed open on time in 1914.

But its two years of operation was a constant battle. Everyone involved took a financial hit, mostly in the form of decreased attendance and higher salaries. The legalities of contracts were open for question, depending on the judge, and some players initially jumped to the Federal League only to jump right back. Finally, the Federal League worked out a settlement with the majors, and we returned to one baseball operation. It has stayed that way until the present day.

The settlement's most interesting part led to a lawsuit with huge legal implications. Baltimore was left out of the "merger," and filed an anti-trust suit. This is the one in which the Supreme Court decided that baseball was not interstate commerce and not subject to anti-trust laws. That has affected operations for more than 90 years, even though the reasoning for the decision puzzled scholars and lawyers then and now.

Levitt obviously spent lots of time doing research, which shows on every page. There are tons of stories about how the leagues were formed, and how contract negotiations took place. Some court testimony is used effectively to tell how negotiations at critical stages went. If someone wants to call this the complete business recap of the Federal League, I'll agree fully.

There is a problem associated with all of this, at least in a sense. There's no baseball in it. The pennant race of 1915 is briefly covered, and that's about it. You don't get any flavor about what the game or individual teams were like in that era. Levitt obviously set out to write the business site of the story, and he followed through on that.

Still, I have the feeling that only a small part of the baseball-loving public will find this overly interesting without the weaving of games and seasons involved. In other words, this won't be popping up on any beaches for reading this year.

Be warned, then, that "The Outlaw League..." will be a little too dry and scholarly for many. But those who like this sort of material will learn a lot as they read it. 

Four stars

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review: Marvin Miller - Baseball Revolutionary (2015)

By Robert F. Burk

At one point in Robert F. Burk's on Marvin Miller, there's a comment from Red Barber about how the three most important people in the development of baseball have been Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Miller.

That's a rather high bar to pass, but Burk makes a rather good case for it in his biography, "Marvin Miller - Baseball Revolutionary."

Miller led the first professional sports union to have any clout. That may sound impossible in a day when owners and players are essentially partners in the operation, but that's a tribute to just how far the relationship has come. What's more, both sides have gained, and Miller was the catalyst.

If there's a theme here, it's that Miller was the right man at the right place at the right time. Oddly, though, this was hardly always the case for him.

After graduating from college, Miller fell into a variety of jobs that saw him bounce along the East Coast for several years. World War II played a role in that, although he didn't see military duty because of a shoulder issue. Eventually Miller landed with the Steelworkers Union in 1950, and moved up the executive ladder.

This section of the new book contains some information and insight into Miller that's not too common. Miller himself was told to downplay it in his own autobiography, with the publisher no doubt thinking that most people buying such a book wanted to read about the baseball years. Burk goes into Miller's family background at length, and covers Miller's personal political views - which were quite left of center. When you consider the times of the late 1940s and early 1950s, it wasn't exactly a career boost to be outspoken about such stances.

Miller spent more than 15 years with United Steelworkers. It's difficult to turn labor negotiations in that industry into riveting (sorry) material, and it's a little tough to get through this without some familiarity with the subject. Still, it's interesting to read what happened to the business in that era. Very short version - America was the king of steel after World War II, because the rest of the world's plants were in ruins. But as production in Europe and Japan started to ramp up, American business shrank - and conflicts grew on how best to handle that ever-changing situation.

By 1966, Miller was ready for a new challenge, and he found one when he was named the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. It was a group that had virtually no rights in the workplace, starting with the freedom to choose an employer. As the book details, Miller slowly built up support within the union and took on management on a variety of issues. He was helped by the fact that he was good at this, and those on the other side were simply awful at it. Baseball owners were outflanked at virtually every opportunity during Miller's time on the job.

Along the way, owners predicted doom after every step, and they were proven spectacularly wrong. Arbitration arrived, the reserve clause died, free agency became a reality, and revenues, salaries and franchise values spiraled upward. Burk gives most of the credit to Miller for this, which matches what most sports historians say.

After Miller stepped down from a formal role with the MLBPA in 1982, he remained in the picture in one way or another. Miller did do some advising of the association at times for the next few years, formally and informally. After that, he was always willing to give his views on a labor situation to anyone who called. You could count on him to be consistent, a fact that led him to being an outsider when the steroid problem reared its head in the late 1990s and the 2000s. In fact, Burk unleashes some rare criticism of Miller in the book, pointing out that baseball had to do something about PEDs in order to maintain good will with its fan base. Miller died in 2012 at the age of 95, equal parts confident, articulate and defiant until the end.

Burk had several long interviews with Miller for the book, and he also did a few other interviews as well as mined print sources for information. There aren't too many fresh quotes from outsiders here that may have added some perspective, but this still is a substantial biography.

Books on the business side of sport can be a tough sell for many. They only want to know about what happens between the lines. Still, off-field developments in baseball over the half-century are interesting in their own light, and have influenced the game greatly. Those wishing a course in how we got to where we are now will find "Marvin Miller - Baseball Revolutionary" quite helpful in that sense.

Four stars

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Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2015

Edited by Sam Miller and Jason Wojciechowski

We've hit the 20-year milestone in the publication history of the Baseball Prospectus. In that time, it has become a welcome sign of the approach of spring. Along the way, the series has taught us much about baseball, how it's played and what might happen in the months and years to come.

So what do people want to talk about when it comes to reviews on Amazon.com? The layout of this year's book. That's a new one, for this book and almost every other published volume.

Two points do come out rather quickly when taking the quickest of glances at this year's book. It's smaller than the 2014 edition by around 100 pages or so. When it comes to data, this is sort of like going from the Los Angeles phone book to the Dallas phone book. Huge to very big. There are a few players dropped from the sum total, but the 2015 version still has more than 2,000 players ranked. Someone who turns out to be significant might have slipped under the cracks, but the odds are against it. It's not a major problem for most.

Then there's the matter of design. The player capsules have been redone, so that there is less white space between lines and it might be a point of type size smaller. (OK, you try to tell the difference between 8 pt. and 9 pt.) It's a little bit more difficult to read. That's particular true because the line of type goes across almost seven inches of the page. It might work better to make each comments fit into two columns, with a little canyon of white space in between. Yes, it would expand the size of the book, but that could be attacked with slightly shorter comments or moving a few more players into the list of other players covered at the end of each team chapter.

Speaking of those catch-all sections, the type size and leading definitely has been reduced, making it somewhat intimidating to read. Personally, I glanced over the list looking for familiar names, and then moved on quickly. That's not the best idea in a book.

Otherwise, everything works out nicely. The writers obviously know what they are talking about, and there's a major effort to make the writing of each player capsule filled with fun and information. The team reviews, a couple of pages that serve as the introduction to the chapter, are for the most part well done.

The group at Baseball Prospectus have adopted the new statistics that have entered the game with zeal. There are all sorts of figures that come out here, and not just anagrams. There's good information on a variety of aspects of the game, and how that might affect future performance. In other words, there are such things as FIP and FRAA calculated, but they won't hurt your enjoyment of the book. If there's a lesson to be learned out of such work, it's that it's a reminder how athletically we all start declining in the mid-to-late 20s, and a typical player doesn't get very long to prove he should be or can stay a major leaguer.

As I've said before, "Baseball Prospectus" gets read here when it comes out, and then put away for reference during the course of a season. If there's a trade involving prospects, it's a primary resource for background information. It's a must-read for the major baseball enthusiast. Just make sure your glasses are clean before you start reading.

Four stars

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