Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Review: Pedro (2015)

By Pedro Martinez and Michael Silverman

A complicated package, this man named Pedro Martinez.

He's part great athlete, part artist, part personality, part angry young man. There's no male equivalent for the word diva, but that would be Pedro - a brilliant talent who always had a little extra baggage surrounding him. He just pitched for a living and instead of singing at the Metropolitan Opera.

The various aspects of Martinez's personality are very much on display in his autobiography, "Pedro." That's what makes the book so interesting. It's hard to look away, even in retirement.

Pedro came out of the Dominican Republic to play baseball, following in the footsteps of brother Ramon. He was the little brother in age as well as size, and always was a little underestimated by scouts along the way. You can understand where that first chip on the shoulder came from. However, as one scout put it, he had a heart as big as a lion, and that gave him the chance to shine at the sport's highest level.

That's not to say that Pedro ever forgot a slight. This book is evidence of that. He felt he didn't get a fair shot with the Dodgers, who traded him to the Expos for a player (Delino DeShields) whose career fell apart in no time at all. The deal is considered one of the worst in Dodger history. Martinez got a chance to be a starter in Montreal, and thrived. By 1997, Martinez was the National League Cy Young winner (18-6 record, 1.74 ERA), and it was obvious to everyone that the financially struggling Expos couldn't afford to keep him.

Pedro went off to Boston in a trade at that point, but he wasn't happy about it. Martinez wanted to cash in on his status as an elite pitcher. Then the Red Sox offered to make him the highest paid pitcher in baseball, and Pedro didn't need to go anywhere. Instead, he put together a couple of the greatest seasons in pitching history. Martinez was beyond brilliant in 1999 and 2000; he didn't play baseball, he put on performances. All of that was done while he was spending some time ignoring and/or hating his pitching coach, Joe Kerrigan, which is at best unusual.

Martinez always found a way to fuel his emotions. Get booed in Boston because of a rare poor outing? He wasn't going to do the fans any favors after that. Opposing players do something wrong in Pedro's eyes? Here comes a fastball at your back, pal. Indeed, he was involved in a lot of incidents over the years, and Pedro seems to remember every detail. Martinez's best-known incident might have been in the time in the 2003 playoffs when Yankees coach Don Zimmer came charging after him in a brawl between the teams, and Martinez gave him a little push - leading to the sight of a 72-year-old man tumbling to the ground. No one looked too good at that moment.

Martinez also had stretches where he became sick of the media for one reason or another and stopped talking to reporters. Those Yankee-Red Sox rivalries were overheated times all the way around, and Pedro's reaction here is at least understandable. Martinez, naturally, reviews the loss to the Yankees in Game Seven in 2003 - taking the blame instead of passing it to manager Grady Little for leaving him in too long - and revels in the World Series championship Boston won a year later.

By then, Martinez's skills had started to diminish, thanks in part to injuries. He wasn't the biggest of men, and he put a lot of abuse on that body over the years. Pedro went to the Mets as a free agent, where he eventually broke down physically. Martinez at least got to leave baseball from a big stage, as he pitched his final game in the 2009 World Series in Yankee Stadium. He's going into the Hall of Fame this summer.

This book works quite well because Martinez is quite honest in his recap of his life to date. It's sort of like him throwing a fastball in his prime - here it is, see if you are good enough to handle it. English may have been a second language for Pedro, but he comes across very well and articulate here. Co-author Michael Silverman also interviewed several people from Pedro's life, and their quotes provide some good perspective about what was going on at a specific time. By the way, there are a few typos of names along the way; let's hope they are fixed for the paperback edition.

Your opinion of Pedro Martinez after reading "Pedro" probably won't change much. The talent was overwhelming, the personality was never boring. All he asks that you accept him on his terms, and that seems like a fair bargain.

Four stars

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Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: Every Town is a Sports Town (2015)

By George Bodenheimer with Donald T. Phillips

"Every Town is a Sports Town" is billed as appealing to sports fans, business readers, and corporate executives alike. That's a rather diverse group, even for allowing for the fact that the business types have been known to read the sports page first at times. So let's take a look at what we've got here, and see where it fits.

George Bodenheimer wasn't an original at ESPN, but he could more or less see or at least learn about the creation first-hand. He joined the company in 1981, less than two years after it had started. Bodenheimer was employee no. 150, for the record.

ESPN had grown a bit from the first days when no one was too sure what they were doing and where they were going. They were the first to start a 24-hour cable channel dedicated to sports, offering a modest challenge to the status quo in broadcasting. The big three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, were still in charge, but this at least was an interesting gamble.

Bodenheimer arrived on the scene, doing whatever his boss at the moment thought necessary. One of his first responsibilities was to drive from Bristol, Conn., the corporate headquarters, to the Hartford/Springfield airport to pick up Dick Vitale. You might think that driving Vitale somewhere would be an exercise in silence in the car for everyone but Vitale, but they actually struck up a good relationship in those drives.

Eventually, Bodenheimer moved up from driver to a variety of positions of the business world. The company was small enough at the beginning so that young talent was rewarded pretty quickly, and new ideas were accepted readily. After all, on some level they were making it up as they went along. After some time out in the field, working with affiliates, etc., Bodenheimer eventually came back to Bristol.

It turns out he had a pretty good seat for the development of the company there. The author goes through the highlights, including such events as the addition of Sunday (and later Monday) Night Football, ESPN2, College GameDay, the X Games, the merger with Disney, SportsCentury, 30 for 30, and so on. Viewers - come to think of it, maybe customers would be a better word with all the platforms ESPN uses these days - will remember those developments.

Eventually, Bodenheimer became the president of ESPN. He certainly comes across here as a good boss, taking pride in a personal relationship with all employees and accepting ideas no matter what the source. It's probably not a coincidence that ESPN had a long run of success under his tenure. And when things went a little bad, he rolled up his sleeves and figured out a way to fix them.

Now to the difficult part - what sort of book is it? I'm not so sure sports fans will love this effort. Many of the developments in ESPN mentioned above have been covered in other places, so there's not much new in that sense. Besides, Bodenheimer doesn't have that many stories about the on-air personalities that can draw a sports fan in.

Business types might be able to take a bit more out of this. This is a success story, after all, and it's instructive to see how ESPN reacted to situations over the years. Business books sometimes can get bogged down in anagrams and four-point plans for success. Luckily, Bodenheimer avoids that for the most part. Yes, there are sections devoted to how ESPN came up with a mission statement - my eyes gloss over when I see such things - but mostly it's how he dealt with real-world situations. It's fair to say this is a mostly positive look at the ride at the network. Even the failures seem to be handled properly. The people Bodenheimer encountered along the way come off well here.

"Every Town is a Sports Town," then will work for those seeking the details of an impressive business achievement - how ESPN conquered the sports world. If you are in that narrow classification, you'll enjoy it and maybe get a few good tips along the way.

Three stars

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Friday, May 15, 2015

Review: Ty Cobb - A Terrible Beauty (2015)

By Charles Leerhsen

Baseball great Ty Cobb never needed much help on the baseball field. This name from a century ago is all over the record book, as he is one of the great hitters and base stealers in history.

What he needed was someone who knew something about public relations and marketing. Somewhere along the way, it became accepted that Cobb was a racist madman who skirted the edge of the rules while compiling such an incredible record.

Author Charles Leerhsen investigated the facts extensively for his new book, "Ty Cobb - A Terrible Beauty." It turns out that Leerhsen is just about as much of a game-changer as Cobb was in his time.

Cobb was raised in Royston, Georgia. His father was William Herschel Cobb, an educator and politician who seems to be an intelligent, rational man and who tried to make sure his family followed the same paths. You can guess his reaction when Cobb announced that he wanted to try his hand at playing baseball for a living. But Ty did it anyway, and stayed with it even though early in his career he heard that news that his mother had shot and killed his father, believing that he was an intruder lurking outside the house.

Cobb always said that the incident drove him for his baseball career, and he did play a certain amount of fire at all times. There were fights and feuds along the way, but these weren't uncommon. In fact, Leerhsen does some of his best work in describing what baseball was like in the first two decades of the 20th century - a time that was not for the faint of heart. Educated players were a rarity at that point, and gambling and hazing surrounded the game. As for baseball itself, it was the so-called "dead ball era," when runs were hard to find. Cobb was a perfect fit for that time, ripping line drives to all fields. Then when he was on base, he drove fielders to distraction as he presented a constant threat to catch the opposition by surprise. But the author couldn't find any evidence that Cobb was a dirty player, the sort who filed his spikes before a game in order to inflict more damage to opponents. Put it this way - it's easy to understand why he was such an attraction.

By the time the 1920s arrived, Babe Ruth had turned baseball into a slugging contest. Cobb was player/manager of the Tigers for a few years, was involved in a vague betting scandal that also affected Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, and ended his career in Philadelphia. His place in history was assured, to the point where he received more votes for the initial Hall of Fame class than Ruth - which pleased Cobb throughout his life.

It's easy to stereotype someone coming out of rural Georgia in the early 1900s as a racist, and Cobb picked up that reputation along the way. Yet there are no signs of that here. Cobb defended Jackie Robinson's right to be a big leaguer, and apparently had good relations with blacks from childhood on. He was fierce when it came to defending himself and opinions, a smart man who didn't suffer fools easily. The picture Leehsen paints of Cobb is more complete and nuanced, and more interesting than we could have imagined.

The only minor complaint that could be made here is that the book qualifies as "revisionist history" and the author isn't subtle about pointing that out. There are a couple of relatively famous books about Cobb that have been printed in the past, and Leehsen found them after investigation to be full of inaccuracies. He points them out with a certain amount of, well, glee. That can be a little uncomfortable to read. But it's probably necessary, since the point of the book is to change minds.

And "Ty Cobb - A Terrible Beauty" does exactly that. Our perception of one of the top 20 baseball players in history, and that might be too liberal an estimate, moves a bit with publication of this book. That makes it more than just another biography; it's almost a public service.

Five stars

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Friday, May 1, 2015

Review: Underbelly Hoops (2012)

It's been said that one of the basic stories in literature centers around a stranger in a strange land. The hero wanders through new adventures, meeting strange and different people along the way.

Welcome, then, to "Underbelly Hoops." Your tour guide is Carson Cunningham.

Cunningham probably struck some people as a bit of an enigma. He played Division I college basketball, earning academic All-American honors at Purdue. He was a good college player, but not quite good enough to earn a shot at the National Basketball Association. Even though he had all sorts of options after college, he was unwilling to do some of them - at least on a full-time basis - until he thoroughly got basketball out of his system.

That meant it was off to places like Estonia to play professional basketball. You can almost hear family members saying, "You're going where?" Cunningham eventually bounced back to the United States, where he played in the Continental Basketball Association for a year, and took a year off, and then tried it one last time starting in the fall of 2004. (By the way, "underbelly hoops" is Cunningham's term for those small leagues that operate mostly off the radar screen.)

For those who aren't hoop-ologists, the CBA grew out of the Eastern League, the sport's only minor league for years. Most of the teams either lost money or folded completely, and eventually the whole league went under. The NBA responded by starting its own developmental league, proving the point that some sort of minor league is necessary.

Cunningham lands with the Rockford Lightning, a previous stop on his basketball tour. And there he reunites with Chris "Dales" Daleo, who comes off for the most part as the proverbial maniac. Daleo also becomes the star of the book, as it's easy to wonder what crazy stunt he'll pull next. The highlight was when Cunningham's pregnant wife faints in a store and is taken to a hospital, and Daleo waits until after practice to tell Cunningham about it. Mostly, though, in Daleo's world everybody is a terrible player who is on the verge of a one-way trip to a fast-food stand for his next job. It's fairly entertaining to read about Daleo's antics, although it's fair to say that playing for him is not for the faint of heart.

It's obviously not a spoiler to say Cunningham makes the team in training camp, since there's no book without that step. He works with a wide variety of people who are in theory one step from the NBA, but find out it's a long step. Cunningham takes the time to give the biographies of the most interesting cases. There are men who got involved with gangs in high school, and finally worked their way through the back door to move this close to the big time. There are men with flaws, such as the center whose father gave him alcohol as a toddler to keep him quiet. It worked all right, but it also started the son on the road to alcoholism.

The team wanders through the schedule, playing in small cities or big towns, depending on your definition, before good-sized crowds and intimate gatherings. It's an odd, stressful living, as the players go from arena to arena hoping someone in the NBA impressed and make the call for even 10 days. Quite a few players did do just that in the CBA's life. The biggest name on the team is Kenny Fields, a Chicago high school legend who didn't quite reach the predicted heights.

Cunningham is a good tour guide to all of this, and throws in some references in passing that reveal that he's a little different than the rest of the members of the team.

There are a couple of problems with the story, and the most obvious is the timing. The book was finally published in 2012, more than seven years after the season in question. Even the biggest of basketball fans might have had a chance to remember some of the characters if the book had been done earlier. But since after some of the characters had moved on with their lives, and after the league itself had folded, it dropped a couple of notes in the compulsion rankings. (That's even more true if you read the book three years later.)

The other involves the season. I won't get into the details, but there's not much drama building in the story. That to a certain extent centers on luck - you get the season you get. Admittedly, there's an odd dynamic here in that the players are much more interested in moving up personally than winning games. But wins and losses usually provide a thread for such stories.

"Underground Hoops," then, works reasonably well ... and perhaps better than it should under the circumstances. I found myself caring enough for some of the characters to look into what they are doing now. Cunningham teaches history at DePaul University, has a PhD and has written a book on Olympic basketball. Daleo is still involved in minor-league basketball. He's still thinking that he's dribbling the ball while the reality is that the ball is chasing him.

The rating here might be a touch low (I went back and forth on it), but basketball fans who stumble on this ought to enjoy it.

Three stars

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Review: Joining the Clubs (2015)

By J. Andrew Ross

Here's an interesting concept: a hockey book without much talk about hockey.

All right, that's not completely fair. The hockey business certainly pops up in this work by J. Andrew Ross. There are a few references to rules changes that popped up in the early years of the National Hockey League.

Still, this is a business book. There's barely a reference to the game's great players. As you'd expect, that's going to limit the potential audience of a book like this.

Ross starts back in the pre-NHL days of the 19th century. The structure of hockey evolved about how you'd expect it to do so. Amateur leagues popped up in major Eastern Canadian cities. When they proved popular with players and fans alike, someone came along to try to turn it into a money-making proposition. That led to cities have a super-team, or teams, to compete against the other cities' best players. As soon as admission was charged, you can bet that the players wanted their shares of the proceeds.

After some stops and stars, pro hockey finally was headed on the right track with the formation of the National Hockey League in 1917. By the way, I never paid much thought to the fact that the NHL kept its name all these years, even though "National" is in the league name, despite expanding across the border. The NHL essentially was formed over a fight about the Toronto market. As Ross patiently explains here, it took a while for the game to catch on.

Eventually, though, the business took off. Mix that with the construction of arenas that were much bigger than anything that had been seen in North America before, and a business opportunity comes into focus. Cities such as New York and Boston saw an opportunity to book events in the form of hockey games over the winter, and soon many cities throughout North America wanted to get in on the fun. Look at the standings of the NHL in the 1920s sometime, and you'll see cities that didn't get a big arena built and thus quickly disappeared from the scene (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Ottawa).

The Thirties, as Ross outlines, was a time to try to gain stability in membership, no easy task with the Depression. It also was a period when teams were trying to work out rules involving acquiring amateur players and setting up farm teams. When World War II arrived in 1939, the book spends much of its time concentrating on what the rules would be concerning players, the draft, and international travel by members of teams in two countries.

Ross obviously put in his time at the library here. The footnotes go on for pages and pages. I've read a variety of books on National Hockey League history over the years, and this has a great deal of new information. Therefore, it's exactly the type of book that a university should publish. Syracuse University is the owner of the press in question. This also reads like most of the scholarly efforts I've come across, with long summations about what was covered in the chapter.

In other words, it's not written for a mass audience. There are sections here that are a little dry, and there are other parts that are dry to the point of being dusty (mostly the beginning and ending portions). My guess is that not many people are going to be able to get through all of this.

It's good that people do care enough to write a book like this, in the sense that it fills in the gaps of hockey history. But it's tough to picture someone paying the $45.68 to get it. Those looking for something of a readable business history of the NHL should stick to "The NHL," which will be much more accessible to a mass audience.

Three stars

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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 and 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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