Friday, April 22, 2016

Review: Mavericks, Money and Men (2016)

By Charles K. Ross

It was difficult not to think of a story a friend of mine once told me while reading "Mavericks, Money and Men." I'll tell the story in a moment, but a description of the book needs to be told to set up the story.

The history of the American Football League has been told many times over the years. A group of men self-nicknamed "The Foolish Club" started a rival league designed to challenge, or at least co-exist, with the established National Football League. Such actions had taken place in the past, but they were rarely too successful. The All-American Football Conference did all right in the post-war 1940s, and a few of its teams merged into the NFL. But in general, the convention wisdom was that the participants in the new league at an ownership level were throwing their money away.

It turned out the AFL did quite well, thank you. There were growing pains, of course, but the league slowly improved and merged with the NFL in 1966. That led to four interleague championship games (Super Bowls I through IV) that took place before the leagues' lineup was reshuffled. The AFL teams famously won two of them, the Jets in 1969 and the Chiefs in 1970.

Author Charles K. Ross spends a great deal of time reviewing the contributions of African American players to the success of the AFL. That's particularly true in the case of historically black colleges, which had been more or less ignored by the NFL through the 1950s. And this is where the story comes up.

I was friends with Larry Felser, the late sportswriter of The Buffalo News. The subject came up about the number of players who came out of Grambling University, coached by the legendary Eddie Robinson, who found success in the AFL. Felser said the reason behind those signings was simple: AFL teams made payments to Robinson in order to make sure that he steered top talent toward the NFL.

I can't say I've ever seen that story reported anywhere. However, Felser covered the AFL throughout its 10 years of existence. He knew everyone in the league, and was on a first-name basis with owners. I have little doubt that if such payments were being made, Felser would have known about it.

Certainly I wouldn't blame Robinson for taking the money if it were offered. The athletic programs of schools like Grambling weren't exactly overfunded, and I'd bet someone like Robinson would do what he could to improve the football program.

I'm not trying to say that the NFL wasn't as good or as quick as it should have been when it came to the area of integration. The Washington Redskins didn't have a black player until the early 1960s. But Ross carries a certain approach into the story that can make the reader stop and wonder whether he's forcing the events of the time to fit into his version of the story.

For example, Buck Buchanan came out of Grambling for the 1963 football drafts. He was the number one pick overall in the AFL selection process, taken by the Kansas City Chiefs. The Green Bay Packers took him in the 19th round. Ross apparently believes that this was due to the NFL having its head in the sand. It's far more likely that Buchanan, for whatever reason, had agreed to an AFL contract already. By the way, since Buchanan - the first black to be taken No. 1 overall - wound up in the Hall of Fame, the NFL should have tried much harder to sign him. Such arrangement were more common than people realize, depending on the year.

Ross also has an unusual opinion on the career of Marlin Briscoe, who is in the history books as the first black quarterback to start a game in the AFL or NFL. He got that job when injuries and a lack of talent wiped out the Denver Broncos at a position. Briscoe moved into the lineup and played 11 games for the rest for the 1968 season. Ross wonders how good the Broncos might have been had they stayed with Briscoe in the years to come, and some believe racism prevented that chance. I'm not discounting that possibility. However, Briscoe's 41.5 percent completion rate as a passer in 1968 and 5-foot-11 height might not have helped his case either. Briscoe certainly deserved a chance to compete for a job in 1969, but the rest of the story shouldn't get much beyond a "what if?"

Otherwise, this is a rather basic story of the history of the AFL. It covers the teams and their seasons, climaxed with stories of championships. There are a few tales that may be relatively new to football readers, showing that Ross did plenty of homework. On the other hand, an early edition of the book designed for reviewers had a few errors, such as the spelling of the name of Broncos' executive Bob Howsam.

Ross' main point about how the contribution of African Americans helped the AFL become successful is a good one. I wish "Mavericks, Money and Men" had concentrated on that part of the story. Extensive interviews with those pioneers would have been interesting. The book that was written isn't quite as compelling, but it will serve as a quick review of a key time in football history.

Three stars

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review: The Best Team Money Can Buy (2015)

By Molly Knight

When a hockey team was in the midst of all sorts of turmoil several years ago, he said that it all reminded him of a soap opera that he watched to kill time during the afternoons before games.

That player would have loved the Los Angeles Dodgers of the first part of the decade.

The Dodgers' story involved front office and ownership drama, big money contracts, stars and lesser lights. Plus, few happy endings. Shakespeare would be proud.

It's a natural story for a book, and Molly Knight writes it all down in "The Best Team Money Can Buy," the head-shaking story of the Dodgers' unfulfilled attempt at glory.

Knight wisely starts off the story with former owner Frank McCourt. He had taken one of the flagship teams in baseball and run it into the ground. There were enough odd details in his personal story to keep everyone from the Los Angeles Times to TMZ entertained. Eventually, the team was put up for sale and snapped up early in 2012 for a mere $2.15 billion.

If that price didn't show that the Dodgers meant business, a trade later in that first year was an even bigger signal. Los Angeles completed a huge trade with Boston - picking up Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford for a few relatively minor players. The key point was that the Dodgers were willing to pay the contracts of these high priced players. Suddenly, money was no object.

The Dodgers were determined to do better the next year, and were willing to spend their way to do so. Zack Greinke was added to the roster as a free agent, giving the Dodgers a powerful combination with Clayton Kershaw at the top of the rotation. One of their biggest additions was Yasiel Puig, a Cuban defector who had immense talent but who was rough around the edges. Very rough. After a slow start, the Dodges found an extra gear and had an amazing run to take charge of the National League West. They came within two games of making it to the World Series.

It was more of the same in 2014. The Dodgers kept spending money, and enjoyed another division-winning year. But playoff losses aren't particularly accepted well when the payroll is above $200 million.

Knight found out plenty of interesting stories along the way here. Puig is a centerpiece, a young man whose behavior often was excused because of his talent. His numbers have gone down since a sensational rookie year, and we'll see how he reacts to that in the near future. Hanley Ramirez comes off as something of enigma. His immense talent at hitting a baseball is still present, but a series of injuries have hampered his ability to field one. Kershaw comes off as one of the good guys, dedicated to his craft and to the idea that his career won't be complete without a World Series championship.

What's striking about reading this book is that the Dodgers never seemed to fit together as a team particularly well. For example, for most of the years described, Los Angeles had one too many starting outfielders (four players with big contracts) and not enough help in the bullpen. It's no wonder that the Dodgers in 2015 went out and signed Andrew Friedman from Tampa Bay to run their baseball operations. After years of pinching pennies with the Rays and creating nickels and dimes, we'll see how he does with dollars to throw around.

It's tough to say whether interest in this Dodgers' era is large enough to captivate fans without a rooting interest in the team. "The Best Team Money Can Buy" isn't overly sensational, but it's certainly well done and a good review of the era.

Four stars

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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Review: The Arm (2016)

By Jeff Passan

Some of the writers of the Baseball Prospectus series have a pet saying: There's no such thing as a pitching prospect.

Naturally, you could call that shorthand for "There's no such thing as a pitching prospect over the long term, because they keep getting hurt."

It's not your imagination. Every so often, a pitcher comes off the mound complaining of a sore elbow, and in a couple of days the diagnosis comes down with painful finality: Tommy John surgery is necessary. That's an operation that tries to fix a broken ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow.

It takes about a year to recover from the surgery, which is named after the first pitcher to have it. While it might be the most successful development in recent sports medicine techniques, there are still no guarantees. If a pitcher does come all the way back, the ligament can break again. And as we ask pitchers to throw harder and harder, particularly at a young age, more and more of them need the operation. Throwing a ball 100 times every fifth day at 97 miles per hour is going to cause stress to the body. I'm not sure "epidemic" is the right word to describe the situation, but the numbers are on the increase.

People who follow baseball from a distance know this is going on. Still, they have only a vague sense of what's going on and what's involved. That's what makes Jeff Passen's book, "The Arm," valuable. He writes at length (about 350 pages) on the issues involved.

Passen went searching for a pitcher who was willing to be open and honest about the recovery process, and he was lucky enough to find two. Both went through their second Tommy John surgery and rehab during the time frame of the book. One was Todd Coffey, a major league veteran hoping for one last shot. The other was Daniel Hudson, a promising Arizona Diamondback pitcher (see first paragraph) who blew out his elbow, worked hard on rehab for a year, and then blew it out again. The two are both painfully honest about the recovery process and how difficult it is, physically and mentally. Their wives' thoughts along the way add nicely to that part of the story.

There are plenty of other aspects to the story as well. Passen reviews in an early chapter what actually takes place in a Tommy John operation. You can almost hear the drill making a hole in the bone at one point. The author heads to Japan to see how they are handling the rising tide of injuries, in spite of a culture that essentially glorifies the idea of "shut up and pitch" no matter how much pain there is. There are elite programs in the United States that try to identify top players at a young age. A few extra miles per hour can turn into hundreds of thousands of dollars if a pitcher moved up in the amateur draft.

Passan also talks to some people who think they have some answers to curing the epidemic. There is not much proof that they help the situation much, perhaps because of the randomness factor. One pitcher can do everything wrong and still have a long career, while another may do everything right and crumble at age 17. Some medical professors are doing some good work, including one that has created a new type of elbow operation that sounds promising for certain cases. But many admit that we are a long way with coming up with any sort of predictive formulas.

There's also an interesting chapter about Jon Lester, who gave Passen access when he was negotiating with teams as a free agent a little more than a year ago. Lester was an outstanding pitcher who had been healthy throughout his career but had crossed the magic line of 30 years old - and thus statistically was at risk for some sort of decline in the relatively near future. The Cubs bet $155 million before the 2015 season that Lester would continue to pitch well.

There are a few moments along the way here that are a little dense. The human body is a complicated structure, particularly when it throws a baseball hard. I'm not saying a degree in kinesiology (human movement) is necessary to read the book, but those portions aren't a breezy read. Then again, those who pick up a book like this aren't expecting a breezy read.

What "The Arm" does, then, is define the issue and set the table for conversations going forward. That's quite an accomplishment, and it should make it very worthwhile for those who want an extended peak at a situation that figures to get worse before it gets better.

Five stars

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Sunday, March 27, 2016

Review: First Ladies of Running (2016)

By Amby Burfoot

Change usually comes with resistance in any aspects of life. We tend to think at the time that progress is barely taking place in a given area. Then we look back a while later and think that it happened in a blink.

Such was the case when it came to distance running for women. The first American woman to run more than a lap around a track in a competition did so in 1959. By 1984, the first marathon in the Olympics for women took place. Twenty-five years is a generation, more or less, but a lot of attitudes had to change to get there.

There are a variety of ways to look back on such a revolution. A chronological story is the most popular approach, but personal histories work too. Amby Burfoot, a top writer in the world of running as well as a former Boston Marathon winner himself, has taken the latter approach with "First Ladies of Running." It's a worthwhile effort and read.

Back in the 1950s, women were considered too" delicate" to take part in races longer than a sprint. Besides, it wasn't lady-like to get sweaty. It was better, the thinking went, for women to stay home and raise a family than to get in good physical condition. A few pioneers, though, thought otherwise, and they ran for the sheer joy of it. Eventually, they saw men's races and asked, "Why not me?", and went on to revolutionize the sport.

Burfoot, who won the Boston Marathon in 1968, knew some of those pioneers personally. He interviewed several others for a total of 22 short chapters on women who made a difference. The stories at times feel like they are from a century ago instead of from the 1950s through 1970s.

There are some common threads that go through the stories. One is that it would seem that few male runners objected to females joining them on the roads. Many of the women profiled had stories about how men went out of their way to be helpful. One woman talked about how some men formed a human wall around a car, all with their backs to the inside of the car, so she could change clothes at a track. There was no women's locker room.

The biggest problem faced by the women were the attitudes of the male officials, who were older and more set in their ways. The best example of that happened to Kathrine Switzer, who while running in Boston in 1967 encountered unofficial race director Jock Semple on the course. "Get the hell out of my race," he barked in trying to take her race number away. Switzer's then-boyfriend gave Semple a body block and told Switzer to start running fast. By the way, I believe Semple and Switzer later became friends.

The women Burfoot interviewed all seemed quite smart and articulate about their experiences as well. Many runners are like that. Maybe it's all that solitary training which gives them time to think. But based on this book, every runner profiled seems like an interesting person. That helps the story quite a bit.

The chapters are rather bite-sized, which means the book moves along quite quickly. There is a little repetition, or at least similarities, in some of the experiences these women had along the way. That's probably unavoidable under the circumstances. Burfoot has a chapter at the end with updates on all their lives, as well as another section on those that just missed the cut for a full chapter. Both are good ideas.

Many of our sports have been around for a long time, so it's unusual to read about those who were around at the creation without going deep into the back shelves of a library. "First Ladies of Running" is a good reminder that running wasn't always so democratic when it came to women. They really have come a long way, baby.

Four stars

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Review: Big Data Baseball (2015)

By Travis Sawchik

To quote a song from the 1960's, the revolution's here.

The analytic revolution in baseball, that is. Teams have hired a group of "smart guys" to pour over data to see how to improve a particular team. It's influencing everything from free agent signings to defensive positioning, and it's not going away any time soon.

Baseball reporter Travis Sawchik takes that premise and gives us something of a case study in his book, "Big Data Baseball." The team to be studied is the Pittsburgh Pirates of 2013, which finally had a winning season after 20 years in the wilderness.

But before we look at the Pirates situation, let's go back to a great point made by Sawchik about the "dark ages" in baseball analysis.

Bill James was a baseball fan who earned money as a night watchman. That meant that after doing his hourly rounds, he had plenty of time to look over box scores and come up with questions about the sport. The drawback was that he did not have the information to answer those questions. He did some counting as best he could (which resulted in the publication of a series of revolutionary books) but eventually hit several walls. The bits of information, he discovered, just weren't out there. But James saw a day when the data would be there, and curious people could investigate all sorts of baseball-related questions.

In the last several years, that data has arrived like a flood. Those curious people now work for baseball teams. In fact, some of them were employed by the Pittsburgh Pirates - which brings us to this particular book.

The Pirates had been losers for a couple of decades and were near the bottom of the league in revenues so that there were no quick fixes out there. They wanted to get better, and they wanted to do it relatively cheaply and efficiently. Luckily for the Pirates and their fans, analysts Dan Fox and Mike Fitzgerald had some ideas on how to do that. What's more, the pair had a receptive audience in general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle.

The Pirates wanted to be more efficient on defense, so they shifted their player alignment much more than other teams based on statistical patterns. Suddenly, ground balls were gobbled up by fielders instead of leaking through for singles. The Pirates wanted more strikes from their pitching staff, so they signed catcher Russell Martin to "frame" pitches - a technique designed to get more borderline calls from umpires. Suddenly, ERAs of Pittsburgh pitchers went down. The organization wanted more ground balls, so pitchers were told to start throwing more two-seam fastballs. That worked too.

Presto - the Pirates were winners again. They made the playoffs in 2013, starting a renaissance in Pittsburgh baseball that continues to this day.

Sawchik goes into good-sized detail here about how important it was for everyone to buy into the program, so to speak. The Pirates made sure that Fox and Fitzgerald were around the team a lot to answer questions, and their ideas were accompanied by easy-to-understand charts and illustrations. See how this batter always, always, always pulls the ball over the course of a year? Doesn't it make sense to move the infield and outfield that way? Eventually, everyone got it.

It's at first surprising to see the level of detail that the Pirates were willing to disclose about their methods. But then again, the sport remains dynamic, and this year's trends won't be next year's realities. All teams are shifting more these days; it's just a matter of degree. When hitters learn to go to the opposite field more - and be good at it - it will cause a reaction on the defense. And so it goes.

"Big Data Baseball" isn't as technical as the title might indicate, and Sawchik wisely puts a human face on the principals involved. The Pirates' adaptations to analytical trends aren't the whole story behind their rise in the standings - a little talent helps too - but it's a good-sized part of that tale. The book accomplishes its goal nicely of offering a close-up view of one team's moves in the information age, and therefore will be well received by those seeking an understanding of the game today. In simpler terms, nicely done.

Four stars

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Review: The Selling of the Babe (2016)

By Glenn Stout

When Glenn Stout isn't busy organizing his annual collection of top sports writing, he veers off to do some research and writing of his own. Stout does mighty good work there too.

Many of his books have been keepers, including massive histories of major league teams such as "Red Sox Century" and "Yankees Century." Those two volumes make him well qualified to take a good long look at the biggest transaction in baseball history - and shoot down some myths about it along the way.

Has there ever been a bigger trade than the one that sent Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees for cash? Probably not, considering the huge effect it had on both teams and the sport itself. While a little of the situation surrounding the move was covered in the two books mentioned above, Stout gives the situation an excellent book-length treatment in "The Selling of the Babe."

The standard version of the mythology surrounding Ruth is that a cheap Red Sox owner, Harry Frazee, sold Ruth to the Yankees in an effort to drag the Red Sox down while building up the theatrical end of the business. (There's often a reference to "No, No, Nanette," which brought the musical to Broadway.) Ruth arrived in New York and became a sensational hitter, popularizing the home run and curing the hangover caused by the 1919 Chicago "Black Sox" scandal. The Red Sox spiraled downward and started a championship drought that lasted 86 years.

Much of the story isn't true, and some is at least exaggerated. Stout points out that in 1918, when the Red Sox were on their way to a World Series title, Ruth was already a handful. He was wrapped up in his own interests rather than the team's, which meant contract renegotiations, leaving the team without warning, and binges related to alcohol or women. It's fair to call him a man of big appetites. But ... Ruth could pitch, setting a World Series record for consecutive scoreless innings, and he could hit when given the chance.

Ruth's hitting suffered in the second half of 1918, when Stout speculates that the materials used in baseball were subpar - World War I and all that - and weren't traveling as far when struck by a bat. Intuitively, that makes sense. When the quality of baseballs returned to normal in 1919, they may have remained a little tightly wound because fans had discovered that offense and general and the home run in particular were exciting to watch. That means people in the stands, which meant dollars in the pockets of the owners. The "Black Sox" scandal hadn't arrived yet, but baseball could see the future at that point, and better times were clearly ahead no matter what happened in Chicago. Ruth broke the one-season home run record while playing for the Red Sox in 1919.

So why trade him? Stout has a few factors entering into the equation. An obvious one that Ruth was still marching to his own beat, and it was tough to know if he'd self-destruct at some point. Less obvious was the fact that the Red Sox at that point were a relatively small-market team, sharing Boston with the Braves. Frazee knew that Ruth would eat up much of Boston's payroll if he stayed after becoming a drawing card that season.

More importantly, Frazee wasn't poor by any means but was in a difficult situation. He was renting out Fenway Park, and the building was not in good shape. Some of his financial assets were tied up in the theater, meaning at times they weren't liquid. Frazee also wasn't getting along with league official Ban Johnson, and there were other shareholders in the team complicating everything. The trade/sale of Ruth came with a hidden benefit - the Yankees gave Frazee a mortgage on Fenway Park, thus further solidifying his financial situation.

As for the trade, Ruth got to New York and became a sensation. The Yankees played in the Polo Grounds, with short distances down the lines that were perfect for a power hitter. New York didn't win the pennant in 1920, but became a regular participant in the World Series after that. The Yankees' ownership made enough money to build their own ballpark, something called Yankee Stadium, a few years later. It had a "short porch" in right that was perfect for Ruth. Frazee sold the Red Sox in 1923 at a hefty profit; Boston's dark ages began soon after that. "No, No, Nanette" started to become a license for Frazee to print money in 1924. The biggest losers in the deal were the Red Sox fans, who saw Ruth leave without the team receiving any help on the field.

Stout made the decision to rely mostly on the newspapers accounts of the time, since the myths surrounding the principals - particularly Ruth - have become part of the story over the years, even to some biographers. Ruth himself probably never even bothered to read some of the ghostwritten stories that were written under his name over the years.

It's all quite a story, and nicely told in a relatively short period of time (255 pages plus notes). "The Selling of the Babe" will appeal to just about anyone who likes baseball history served up with facts and intelligence. I'll bet the house that this book is nominated for a Casey Award as one of the top baseball books of 2016.

Five stars

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Monday, March 14, 2016

Review: Game 7, 1986 (2016)

By Ron Darling

Many books about sports carry themes about heroic success stories, as men and women overcome great odds to become "winners."

"Game 7, 1986" isn't like that. At all.

And that's what makes it interesting.

The subtitle, "Failure and Triumph in the Biggest Game of My Life," tells the story enclosed in a few words. Those who were baseball fans at the time know exactly what that subtitle is about. But here's a quick refresher course.

The New York Mets trailed the Boston Red Sox, three games to two, in the 1986 World Series. Their hopes for a title appeared doomed when they rallied from a two-run deficit in the bottom of the 10th inning to pull out Game Six. That set up a Game Seven, the biggest moment of any baseball season.

Ron Darling was the man picked by the Mets' manager, Davey Johnson, to start Game Seven. Immediately, he started to feel the pressure, which was certainly multiplied by the circumstances of the Mets' Game Six rally - making a Game Seven win seem almost inevitable to some. This would be a Big Moment - for the pitcher, for the team, for the fans, for the city. Darling had pitched well in his first two starts of the World Series, but he well knew that there were no guarantees.

After thinking about it overnight after Game Six, Darling prepared to pitch Game Seven ... except that it rained. That pushed back the game a day to Monday night, and gave Darling another 24 hours to think about what was coming - which he admits he didn't really need at that point. It also gave the Red Sox 24 hours to put the events of Game Six behind them. Boston also had the chance to start Bruce Hurst in Game Seven, and he had dominated the Mets so far in the Series.

The game finally started, and Darling admits he was shaky at the start. In the book he goes over the game batter by batter, revealing what he was thinking at a given moment. He gave up back-to-back home runs in the second inning, and later gave up a third run. With no tomorrows, as the cliche goes, Darling didn't go deep into the game and was pulled with his team trailing, 3-0. That left him in the odd position of hoping his teammates bailed him out in a sense.

That they did, going on to rally to win the game. The celebration was a New York-sized one, naturally, but Darling writes how everything was a little tempered for him personally because he hadn't contributed as much as he had hoped. Yes, he had pitched well throughout the season and playoffs, and was a valuable member of the team. But Darling was in the middle of an unusual situation, and that's what makes the book work quite well.

While reading this book, a couple of times I turned on the computer to watch a tape of the game on YouTube. It's instructive to do so. At one point, Darling throws a pitch that appears to catch the bottom of the strike zone but is called a ball. The announcers don't mention much about it, but Darling writes about how upset he was at the time. If that's a ball, he thought, it's going to be a difficult, and short, evening for him. Darling is shown off the mound, rubbing the baseball with vigor.

There are some tangents along the way. Darling grew up in Massachusetts and was a Red Sox fan. He even played with Boston's catcher at the time, Rich Gedman, while growing up. There are a few stories about his Mets teammates and their antics as well. But mostly, this is about Darling, who many people today know through his fine work as an analyst for Mets' broadcasts and for national channels such as TBS. Pitcher is one of the loneliest positions in sports this side of hockey goalie, and this is a vivid demonstration about how even professionals are a far less confident bunch than the general public believes.

A little familiarity with a game from 30 years ago will help a reader's enjoyment of "Game 7, 1986." Still, the book's unusual approach ought to give it some degree of universal appeal. It's a quick, interesting read, and might help you think about the sport in a little different way.

Four stars

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