Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review: Stat Shot (2016)

By Rob Vollman with Tom Awad and Iain Fyffe

The revolution continues.

Someone I know once wondered how easy it would be to create new numerical ways to look at the sport of hockey, because the game was played a lot like jazz - improvised as it went on.

But a lot of people, a lot of smart people to be more specific, are trying to prove that people wrong.

Rob Vollman has been at it for several years, and he's produced books in one form or another for the past three or so. Here's his latest offering for the fall, "Stat Shot."

Basically, Vollman and a couple of friends in Tom Awad and Iain Fyffe go through some big themes, step by step, in these pages. The subjects include building a team under the current cap restrictions, judging goalies by save percentage and other metrics, faceoff success, junior hockey statistics' validity, shooting, and figuring what trades are the most one-sided in relatively recent league history.

Vollman jumps in quite early and points out that the information covered in these pages is at least a year old. The problems of trying to say something significant between the time that the Stanley Cup playoffs end and the start of the season would cause any publisher to cringe. I believe it. So at least here, some of the studies aren't completely up-to-date - but then again, the points that are made still seem relevant. Luckily, the group of statisticians does have a e-book out with more relevant information. I would guess that the e-book would find a larger audience than this, which is a bit more theoretical in nature.

Vollman and Co. certainly take their time in presenting information, and they make a good case for some of their arguments. The question that comes up from non-analytical types is - will I be able to understand it? That varies to a degree on the reader's openness to accept the information, and to put up with some new concepts and anagrams. From my viewpoint, I did have my eyes glaze over a few times, particularly in the description of shooting.

Personally, I think I'd rather read the updated version. This comes across as something that would be good in a special blog for a narrow group of people that wants the information. But the authors at least are doing some good work here, and NHL teams are noticing. Most front offices have a department doing such research.

My reaction to "Stat Shot" was rather lukewarm, because I don't follow the sport closely any more. (Is there anyone thinking about indoor lacrosse for this stuff?) But if you see it in a bookstore, and pick it up,  you might find yourself entertained and informed.

Three stars

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review: One Night Only (2016)

By Ken Reid

The National Hockey League Guide and Record Book comes out every fall, and one part of the book that always fascinates is the player register in the back of the book. Everyone who has ever played in an NHL game gets a line of type - from Gordie Howe to Trent Kaese.

Howe played in 1,767 games, while Kaese played in one. They get the same amount of type. (I don't mean to pick on Kaese; I just remember him from his days with the Sabres.)

In an odd way, it's almost like being a member of a club. You are in or you are out. The numbers are simply different. And how many young boys grew up wanting to see their name in that list?

Ken Reid probably has looked over that list, and he became more curious than most about the guys who had "one" in the games played column. So he tracked them down, which must have been a difficult task in some cases.

Eventually, Reid found enough one-game wonders to fill a book. "One Night Only" is that book, a nice little tribute to those who briefly served.

The stories generally follow a pattern. During the course of a season, someone on the NHL team gets hurt and a replacement is needed - usually in a hurry. The call goes down to the minor leagues, and someone collects his sticks and heads to the NHL city for a moment of glory. Some of the players take it all in stride, perhaps because they took part in preseason games and figured they would have plenty of more opportunities. Then there are those who know they are catching a break in the middle of a season, and enjoy the ride.

The goalies might draw the most sympathy here. Frequently they are called up as a backup, and essentially needed to fill a uniform and not expected to play. NHL teams keep lists of goalies who had a uniform number but never got on the ice except to pay the starter on the back at the end of the game. But a few did make it into a game in a relief role. One goalie got to go into a game with four minutes left. That's not long, but it was good enough to put him in the club.

As you'd expect, most of the guys are relatively anonymous. The big exception is Don Cherry, who turned up in a Bruins playoff game in Montreal in 1955. Cherry, who became famous as a player and coach, hurt his shoulder the following summer playing baseball and never got another chance. Don Waddell, who worked as a general manager and coach in the NHL, might be No. 2 on the fame list of those in the book. But otherwise, the players returned to the minors and in many cases headed to Europe for a chance to play regularly.

Most of the players here are a bit proud of the fact that they reached the NHL at all, even if they take a little kidding about it. Others just considered it part of their hockey experience, and don't exactly brag about it.

If there's a drawback to the format, it's that the stories start to read the same way after a while - and this isn't a long book. After all, there are only so many ways that a one-game career can take shape. My guess is that a collection of such stories from all sports might have worked a little better for some readers.

On the other hand, limiting the subjects to hockey players might make it more interesting for those who follow hockey closely, and thus would be a good target for purchasing. "One Night Only" is pleasant and easy reading, and those who read it probably will come away satisfied.

Three stars

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Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: Any Given Number (2014)

By Bill Syken

When it comes to ideas for Sports Illustrated's books, this was something of a lay-up.

Have someone pick out the greatest "uniform" number (NASCAR numbers are included as well) for every number from 0 to 99. Then go through the files to find pictures, and add a few facts about unusual circumstances for a few of the sports figures and their numbers.

Presto. Instant book.

There are no right or wrong answers here, but all of the choices seem as if they can be justified pretty well. Author Bill Syken (you have to look really hard here to find out that he did the writing) supplies plenty of facts to go along with the top candidates, and each number has a flurry of "honorable mentions."

From there, let the arguments begin. For example, let's look at No. 7. Old-timers always will think of Mickey Mantle, while younger people will lean toward John Elway. That's a pretty tough call.

The standards seem to change a little bit when it's convenient to make an argument. At certain points players get credit for being the best ever in their sport or at a position, while at other times they don't. For example, Gordie Howe probably is at worst in the top three of all-time great hockey players, but falls short on No. 9 to a baseball player named Ted Williams. Both are legends, and baseball is more popular. Williams gets the nod in the book. On the other hand, Bobby Orr is picked over Brett Favre at No. 4. As I said, it's an inexact science.

The packaging is fine, as there are plenty of good photos from the SI files. They did a good job of players who popped up in unusual numbers for one reason or another - players who took numbers for the date they were born or date they arrived in a new country or for their old neighborhood.

Basically, there's one big drawback - the price. In hard cover, it checks in at $19.95 new. There's really not much to read here; you can zip through it all pretty quickly. For that sort of money, you need more to read - and it's not coming. Maybe a paperback edition would have been the route to use.

However, the book has been out for a couple of years now. I picked up a copy at a discount store for $1.99. I've paid more for a bottle of soda pop at a baseball game, and this is well worth that.

We're all a little fascinated by the numbers that athletes wear; it almost becomes part of their identity. "Any Given Number" capitalizes on that so that it's best possible treatment of a relatively silly and fun subject.

Three stars

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review: On Someone Else's Nickel (2016)

By Tim Ryan

During Tim Ryan's long career as a sportscaster, he always showed up well prepared, never grabbed the spotlight, and did a solid job. You knew what you were going to see when he appeared on television.

In other words, he was a professional.

You wouldn't expect a book by Ryan to be anything different. Sure enough, his autobiography is told in a readable, straight-forward manner. It's interesting to go through "On Someone Else's Nickel" just to see how the life of this sometimes ever-present announcer allowed him to turn up at so many types of events - from the first Ali-Frazier bout to the Olympics.

Ryan might not have had much choice about entering the sports business. He was born into it, as his father was a sports executive in Canada. The Ryans bounced around Canada as a youth, and Tim eventually went to Notre Dame and then was lucky enough to land a job in Toronto when a new television station signed on the air.

After about a half-dozen years there, Ryan noticed that the National Hockey League planned to expand in 1967 and applied for some jobs as a play-by-play announcer. The author says that his Canadian background probably impressed some executives, although he obviously had some talent. Ryan landed a spot as the voice of the Oakland Seals, and doubled as public relations director. From there it was on to New York City, where he attracted attention from the people at the networks, and it was up, up and away from there.

During the next 40 years ago, Ryan worked for all sorts of networks and covered a variety of sports. That said, he established a good reputation no matter where he popped up on the dial. For whatever reason, Ryan became associated mostly with individual sports such as tennis, boxing and skiing. (There was plenty of work with CBS on NFL games, too.) The veteran even was doing a lot of work with equestrian events around the end of his run, since networks knew he would study hard and be a pro at it. Ryan probably surprised himself with that path in its entirety, but it gave him a career.

That path also allowed him to do some traveling, and Ryan took to that quite easily - especially when someone else was paying the bills. So he literally got to see the world on the tab of sports networks. It's a pretty good gig if you can get away with it, and Ryan worked at several glamorous locations. He also worked several Olympics, summer and winter. What's more, Ryan got to the point financially where he could, for example, afford a second home in Switzerland.

The major dramatic portion of the story comes when wife Lee is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease when she is around 50 years old. Her mind slowly fades away in the years after that, and the story like all such tales in that area is heart-breaking to read. To his credit, Ryan did plenty of work to increase awareness of Alzheimer's. After Lee's death, Tim remarried and went on his wife.

A couple of points jump out about the telling of this story. It has 73 chapters, although quite a few of them only take a minute or two to read. I suppose it's a little choppy that way, but I can't call it annoying. Meanwhile, the story is littered with references to many "close friends" along the way, a few famous but most not so well known. Ryan seems to remember most of the restaurants he's visited over the years, and what type of wine he had along the way. A little editing could have been useful there. Some of the stories you'd expect in a book like this do entertain, thankfully. He covered some great moments and met interesting sports personalities, and they are always fun to read.

It's tough to call "On Someone Else's Nickel" particularly memorable. But Ryan provides his life story in a pleasant way. Those with an interest in the subjects will find some rewards here.

Three stars

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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Review: My Marathon (2016)

By Frank Shorter with John Brant

The full review of this book was written for "The Buffalo News." You can find it here.

Short version - Shorter is one of the best interviews in the sports business, and his life has taken all sorts of unexpected turns and dramatics over the years. No wonder his autobiography is worth your time. It will help if you are old enough to remember his exploits in the 1970s, but I think it works well for most runners who like to read after a good run.

Four stars

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review: Born into Baseball (2016)

By Jim Campanis, Jr. 

This book might be a first. It seems to have started on Facebook, more or less.

If you are a major baseball fan, the name is a little familiar. Jim Campanis Jr. comes from a veteran baseball family. His father made it to the major leagues for a while, and his grandfather was a veteran executive for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The youngest Campanis got the baseball gene, but things didn't work out so well. After he played in high school and college (Southern California), Campanis was drafted by the Seattle Mariners. But there are no happy endings in this story, as least for baseball. Campanis never made it to the majors. The closest he came was when he was told before a late-season game that he'd be going up to join the Mariners in September, only to break his wrist on a freak play in that day's game. He never had another chance.

Campanis gave the minors a full shot, but eventually was released for good and figured out he had to get on with the rest of his life. After a period of being admittedly bitter, Campanis started telling stories on his Facebook page about his experiences. He posted bunches and bunches of them, and they were popular with his friends. An editor came along and did some arranging of the stories by theme.

Presto! Campanis had a book, and it's called "Born into Baseball."

The most interesting section of the book might be the first one. Campanis had some unusual opportunities to mix with some of the game's best. He got to work out with some of the Dodgers as a kid, and he was a bat boy for the Angels. There are some unusual encounters with players like Reggie Jackson and Henry Aaron along the way. It's not a perspective that's a common one.

Campanis also reviews an incident involving his grandfather than essentially defined the executive, unfairly or not. Al Campanis went on ABC's "Nightline" one time and made some unfortunate remarks. He said blacks did not have the "necessities" to become a manager or general manager. When given a chance to climb out of the hole, Campanis dug himself a deeper hole. He soon was unemployed. As his grandson points out, this was someone who was Jackie Robinson's roommate in the minors and couldn't have been more supportive of blacks and Latins breaking into the majors. The program always will be associated with the Campanis family, and Jim Jr. heard plenty about it growing up.

From there, Campanis' stories move into the rest of his career. You can probably split them into two categories. It's often fun to read about guys on their way up who didn't look like prospects but beat the odds and made it to the majors, such as Jeff Kent and Trevor Hoffman. Some of the funny things that happened on and off the field also will entertain the reader. But Campanis also comes across as someone who misses the banter among the players and the life of those in the game, and frequently it's tough to be interested in those unknowns along the way.

In terms of writing, this is a tough assignment. Campanis has the habit of capitalizing words at certain times for emphasis. It's a little amateurish. Some of the language isn't for the kids, although the really bad stuff is bleeped out. And with any collection of stories like this, some of the information gets repeated along the way.

It seems like Campanis' stories work better in the original format, one at a time. Still, I think there's an audience for books like "Born into Baseball." Some fans who have posted reviews are very enthusiastic in their descriptions. Who am I to strongly disagree? Campanis seems like he'd be good company over a beer if baseball came up for discussion, and reading this book has those qualities.

Three stars

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Monday, July 25, 2016

Review: The Yucks (2016)

By Jason Vuic

It's 2016. Time to "celebrate" a big milestone in the history of Tampa Bay football.

It was 40 years ago that the Buccaneers entered the National Football League as an expansion team. That's always a good time for a look back at the good old days, which in the case of the Bucs weren't so good.

Tampa Bay needed little time - less than two years, actually - to become the standard for bad football teams. Author Jason Vuic takes a look back at the time in his brisk book, "The Yucks!"

The Tampa area wasn't well-known to many Americans in 1976. There had been a wave of movement by people to the sunbelt around that time, but the land around Tampa Bay - including Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, among other towns - didn't have much of an identity.

Some city leaders thought an NFL team might change that. When the league expanded in 1976 by two teams, Tampa and Seattle were the winners. If that's the right word. Seattle got lucky and picked up a quarterback, Jim Zorn, and a wide receiver, Steve Largent, who were capable of making plays in the NFL. The Bucs had no such luck, in part because the rules for stocking the new teams were very tight and not much talent escaped the grasp of the established teams.

Thus former Southern California coach John McKay didn't have many good players when he arrived in training camp in 1976, and most of those were on the defensive side of the ball. You don't score, and it's hard to win. Sure enough, Tampa Bay lost its first 26 games. I'm not sure that record will be broken any time soon.

Those first two seasons, featuring 0-14 and 2-12 records, represent the heart of this book, which goes by rather quickly. Bodies came and went quickly, as the team desperately search for anyone who could play football at the highest level. McKay provided the soundtrack to those two seasons, as he usually came up with quotes that were funny to some (mostly the news media) but which had an edge that didn't make him too popular with the players at times. It's fair to say, though, that all of that losing put everyone on edge.

The Bucs did add a quarterback in 1978 in Doug Williams, and better times soon were coming. Williams led Tampa Bay to the NFC Championship game in the Bucs' fourth year of play in 1979. No one could believe it then, either, considered what came before it. Tampa Bay did win a Super Bowl once, but otherwise the story has been pretty bleak for many of those 40 years.

Vuic knows something about bad products. He wrote a book on the Yugo, a car from the 1980s that didn't last long either individually or collectively. Vuic clearly did his homework here in looking up newspaper articles and books, and found many of the head-shaking moments that come with such bad teams.

There are a couple of drawbacks, though. There is less material on the two bad seasons than you might think. That may be because there are surprisingly few "I remember when" stories from interview subjects. Vuic obviously talked to some people associated with the franchise as part of the research, but more quotes from them would have been helpful. Material on the origins of the franchise and the history of the team come before and after those two seasons, and the former is more interesting than the latter.

Vuic also has a slightly quirky writing style. For example, he sometimes deals in absolutes in unexpected ways. Charles Nelson Reilly is described as the worst comedian in the history of planet Earth, a bit harsh since Reilly was mostly a comic actor who was in some top Broadway shows. The deal that sent Largent to the Seahawks for a low draft choice was the most one-sided in history. It's a candidate in a question that doesn't really have an answer.

Newly-born expansion teams usually hold a place of honor in the hearts of fans, in part because everyone is so innocent at the start. It's almost like a first crush. It's probably a strain to compare the 1976 Bucs to the 1962 New York Mets, but "The Yucks" certainly will bring back some funny memories to fans of that Florida team. In that sense, the book accomplishes its goal.

Three stars

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