Sunday, December 1, 2019

Review: Play by Play (2018)

By Verne Lundquist with Gary Brozek

The best announcers are the ones that the listeners grow comfortable to their voices.

They are the ones that clearly know their business, handle everything professionally, and know when to talk and when to keep quiet.

That's Verne Lundquist in a nutshell. He carved out a mighty fine career in the broadcasting business for several decades. After retiring, it was clearly time to write down some of his memories.

It turns out he's pretty good at that too. For proof, see "Play by Play."

Lundquist started his career at a radio station in Austin, Texas, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson. You may recognize the name of the 36th President of the United States there. Virtually every announcer in the business has to pay his dues, and Lundquist did that. But soon he was working on the broadcasts of the Dallas Cowboys, and soon after that the networks came calling.

Eventually Lundquist landed a spot at ABC for a few years, which eventually turned into a spot with CBS. That's where Lundquist became part of the furniture. Remember when Jack Nicklaus birdied No. 17 on the final day of the 1986 Masters? That was Lundquist with the emphatic "Yes, sir!" description. How about the fabled Duke-Kentucky basketball game in 1992, which is merely the greatest game in that sport ever? Or Tiger Woods' chip-in on No. 16 in the 2005 Masters? Or the 2013 Auburn-Alabama football game that ended with a 109-yard return of a missed field goal for the winning score? Lundquist was working all of those moments. That's a pretty good run of once-in-a-lifetime events.

That doesn't even include the figure skating shootout involving Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding at the 1994 Olympics. It's surprising to read that Lundquist absolutely loving doing that sport on television, particularly when working with Scott Hamilton. Verne even did some work on "Bowling for Dollars," which ought to stir the hearts of those who remember it from the 1970s.

As you'd expect, there are some worthwhile stories about some of the personalities that Lundquist encountered along the way. That includes broadcast partners such as John Madden, Gary Danielson, Terry Bradshaw, Bill Raftery, and Al McGuire for starters. There are even some tales about athletes and coaches encountered along the way, but not too many.

About the only place that in the book that bogged down for me was the part about some of the memorable games he called involving Southeast Conference football teams. Those contests shouldn't be downgraded, of course, as they involved some great teams and players. And they helped establish Lundquist as one of the top voices in the sport, something of a successor to Keith Jackson. Still, the matchups do blur together at this point; even Lundquist had to go back and do some review work.

"Play by Play" doesn't require a great deal of thought. Just sit back and relax while reading it, and you'll probably swear that you can read Lundquist reading it to you. It's a fine way to spend some leisure time.

Four stars

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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review: NFL Century (2019)

By Joe Horrigan

The National Football League is in the midst of celebrating its 100th season right now, and it is really good at it. The century mark is an important milestone as these things go, and football fans haven't been able to miss the hoopla surrounding it. The NFL has used a variety of techniques in reviewing its history, including small features on their telecasts..

The subject is a natural for a book with a connection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and that's where Joe Horrigan comes in. He is the former executive director of the Hall, and probably knows more about the history of the game than anyone. That's why he's a good choice to write "NFL Century."

Horrigan makes one good decision right from the start in this publication. The basic question about such a book is - what to include? It's been a busy century, naturally, and someone could write 100 books on what went on - one for each year. That would be rather expensive and time-consuming, of course.

Therefore, it's a smart move to break the history of the NFL into 33 bite-sized chapters. You could argue about what events should be included in such a list, but it's hard to complain very much about Horrigan's choices. He includes, as a sampler, the formation of the league, television milestones, commissioners, battles with rival leagues, and great dynasties such as the Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, and New England Patriots. Put it this way - any larger history of the league certainly would include all of those items.

A book like this also has the problem of trying to draw in as many people as possible regardless of age. In other words, readers have lived through parts of the various eras, and bring some knowledge to their reading. But, the book has to hold the interest of people of all ages. A chapter on the great teams of the 1970s has to give the facts for those below 50, but still be fresh enough so that those above 50 will not only enjoy the memories but learn a few things along the way. Horrigan has added enough information through good research to do that.

Complaints? Well, a few names get mangled and a few facts go unchecked along the way. It happens. You may have a favorite player, team or moment that might be overlooked in the process. That comes with the territory here. The writer can't make everyone happy.

Still, if you want to know what the NFL has been all about for the these past 10 decades, this would seem to be a good starting point. And even if you already know some of those facts, you'll still think of "NFL Century" as a very good retrospective.

Four stars

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2019

Edited by Charles P. Pierce

It's never easy to come up with a new way to review a book in an annual series - particularly one that is as consistently good as "The Best American Sports Writing."

This year, though, was easier - thanks to a Tweet.

A sportswriter made a comment on Twitter about the "real world" the other day. He received a reply about how the reader hates it when sports columnists write about something other than sports. In other words, they should stay in their lane, or something like that.

I'd quote the Tweet completely, but after it was pointed out in loud terms (full disclosure: by me, and perhaps others) that sports reflects real life as a whole, he deleted his message. I'm always arguing that as a sports reporter, I can talk about issues involving medicine, marketing, law, immigration, crime, etc. The list is rather endless.

But maybe it would have been easier to tell the guy to read this book.

This has some of the best in sports journalism from the year, and there aren't too many home runs, touchdowns, baskets or goals described along the way.

There is a story about mental illness in the NBA. Sexual abuse in gymnastics. A terrible culture within a college football program. Race relations over the past 50 years. A profile of football player Aaron Hernandez, who had a series of conflict with real-world issues in his too-short life. The murder of a former NBA player.

These aren't the only stories included in this anthology, which runs for more than 300 pages. Profiles of Joel Embiid, Ichiro Suzuki and Becky Harmon are included. There are even a couple of fun entries, like a scavenger hunt in the Super Bowl and the annual Rubik's Cube championship. But Pierce obviously has an eye for bigger things, and most of the choices reflect that.

In fact, if anything Pierce heads a little too far for my tastes (but perhaps not yours) into non-traditional matters. That means there are stories about a round-the-world boat race, mountain climbing, unorganized boxing in Australia, and the lionfish. I had trouble getting through them, but that's probably more my fault than the story's. I did enjoy stories on a prisoner who fixed bicycles and a skier who loved to take risks when it came to locations. Add it up, though, and the number of articles on subjects that didn't draw me in was on the high side.

Therefore, I probably didn't enjoy this book quite as much as other editions of "The Best American Sports Writing" - which I have purchased faithfully since 1991, its inception. Still, those who enjoy mixing sports and "the real world" should not hesitate to pick up a copy of edition No. 19. It's always worth your time and money.

Four stars

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Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Review: The Incomplete Book of Running (2018)

By Peter Sagal

It's difficult not to be a fan of Peter Sagal.

He's best known as the host of "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me" on National Public Radio. It's something of a comedy quiz show that mixes the quick wit of Sagal - he really makes the show work - with some smart "contestants." Sagal also has written a column for Runners' World magazine, with his stories about his exploits and experiences on the road. He's funny there, too. 

If you check off the listener box and the reading box when it comes to Sagal's work, you no doubt will at least want to glance at his book, "The Incomplete Book of Running." And yes, the title is a take-off of the best selling book from a few decades back (1977, to be specific), "The Complete Book of Running" by Jim Fixx.

Sagal has been running long distances on and off for years, and this is essentially a collection of his running stories and wisdom. The good news is that he knows his way around a joke, and displays that ability here throughout the book.

The most space in the book that is devoted to one subject covers a couple of Sagal's runs in the Boston Marathon. The first one came when he volunteered to guide a runner with visual issues on the 26.2-mile jaunt in Eastern Massachusetts. That would be quite a moving experience on its own. The catch is that the year he first did it was 2013. That was the race when bombs went off near the finish line. Sagal had crossed that line about five minutes before the explosions. He and his partner weren't hurt, but he had quite a story to tell.

A year later, Sagal was back - guiding another runner along the course while showing that a terrorist attack wasn't going to stop him from running. Good for him.

There are other stories here, of course - of other marathons and other races, training schedules, digestive problems, running as a "bandit," and working as a race volunteer. And that's just the running part. Sagal also writes about how his personal life affected his running. Earlier in the decade he went through what sounds like a rather messy divorce with three daughters caught in the crossfire. Sagal also has suffered from depression. This serves to remind us that if you want to trade lives with someone relatively famous, maybe you ought to do a little research about what you are getting yourself into. Happily, Sagal soon became involved in a new relationship, and medication apparently has helped with the depression (when he remembers to take it).

After reading this book - and it doesn't take long to go through its 185 small pages - the question becomes, "Is it worth reading?" That's tougher than you might think.

The biggest flaw is that this is rather disorganized. The writing is broken into chapters, but I can't say there is a unifying theme to most of them. We bounce around from topic to topic in no particular order. It's also a surprise that others are mentioned more often. Yes, it is his book, but relating more experiences from others might have made some points too and come off as a little less self-indulgent.

Based on the reviews, plenty of people felt inspired to put on some running shoes and open the door outside after reading this. If so, good for them. Sagal at least jokes his way through the book, as the material like that can get ponderous rather quickly.

"The Incomplete Book of Running" will put a smile on your face, perhaps when you need one when you are going up a hill after running several miles. It's easy to wish, though, that it was a little bit better.

Three stars

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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Review: "We Did Everything But Win" (2017)

By George Grimm

It's not easy to be a fan of a very good but not great team.

It's sort of like knocking on the door for a long time, and no one answers.

The New York Rangers of the late 1960s and early 1970s were like that. After years of serving as plankton to the National Hockey League's whales, the Rangers finally got their act together around 1964 when Emile Francis came in as general manager and coach.

It started a run of about a decade in which the Rangers were frequently Stanley Cup contenders, which sounded mighty good to the team's loyal fan base that had endured years of suffering with little hope. Those boosters are clearly the target of "We Did Everything but Win."

The formula for such oral histories is a rather simple one. Find the people involved, let them talk into a recorder, add some background information, and - presto! - you have the makings of a book. Author George Grimm, a veteran Rangers' fan and sometimes hockey writer, obviously had the chance to talk with Francis for long periods of time, and his comments are the centerpiece of the book. The former GM/coach has a great memory for what happened during his time in New York, and he has plenty of good stories.  Some of the key games, personalities and player moves come alive nicely here.

The list of players quoted here is a long one - everyone from Phil Goyette and Earl Ingarfield to Walt Tkachuk and Brad Park. There are some stars missing for one reason or another, but we still hear plenty about such players as Harry Howell, Jean Ratelle, Ed Giacomin and Rod Gilbert.

Grimm concludes - with the help of some other people's opinions - that the Rangers just didn't have the star power to compete some of the league's best teams in that era. I might go a step farther than that. The Cup winners of that era included the great Montreal squads of the late 1960s, the Boston Bruins with Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito in the early 1970s, and the back-to-back Cup winners in Philadelphia in 1974 and 1975 (led by Bernie Parent and Bobby Clarke). There usually was someone better in the Rangers' way. That happens at certain times in sports history. For example, the Buffalo Bills of the NFL lost four straight Super Bowls, but the only time they might have had the better team was the first one in 1991.

There are a couple of flaws here. A little more editing would have been nice. A few stories get repeated along the way, and some of the quotes could have been edited down a bit to improve the flow of the story. The game and season descriptions were rather dry; the latter could have been replaced by a table or two quite easily.

It's been 50-plus years since some of the people in "We Did Everything But Win" were skating around Madison Square Garden. Therefore, the demographic for the book is shrinking fast. But for those who remember those very good teams, this will bring back some good memories - which will cover a few shortcomings.

Three stars

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Friday, October 25, 2019

Review: Don't Be Afraid to Win (2019)

By Jim Quinn

There are plenty of things going on off of our sporting fields that affect what happens on the actual playing surface.

Jim Quinn knows all about that.

He's been around at many of the major legal battles concerning collective bargaining agreements concerning sports and their players for many years. Quinn has something of a grand slam in this area, having worked on cases in baseball, football, basketball and hockey. If you want someone who doesn't think a salary cap is something worn on your head, Quinn is your guy.

Quinn started with basketball almost 50 years ago, and has been around for plenty of game-changing moments. Through that time, he's managed to make himself relatively anonymous, since he's always worked on the outside rather than for the respective players associations directly. But make no mistake - his fingerprints have been all over some of the major American sports negotiations in history.

You'd think he'd have some stories to tell after all that, and he does. Quinn has written a book called "Don't Be Afraid to Win." The title comes from football's Gene Upshaw, who said those words to Quinn shortly before Quinn was to make the closing argument in a major legal action involving free agency in professional football. Upshaw was a Hall of Fame player with the Oakland Raiders who went on to a long "second career" with the NFL Players Association.

But Quinn actually got his start with basketball. He had joined a law firm in New York in the early 1970s, and there was a "basketball case" kicking around the office involving the NBA and its players over a possible merger. Quinn became part of the legal team for the players' side, and helped push through the agreement that allowed the 1976 merger between the NBA and the American Basketball Association to take place. That was a crash course in sports law, a very insignificant part of the legal landscape at that point that grew as the business of sports grew.

Quinn starts with some background about the NBA's legal battles, and moves on to something of a play-by-play of his big cases from there. After a while, he became something of a go-to figure for players in all sports, since he developed a large amount of expertise in the field. The sports business exploded economically in the past 60 years or so, which means a lot of money has been coming in. Quinn has been a loud, forceful advocate for the players to make sure the participants received something of a fair share.

It hasn't been easy at times. Two of the great truisms in sports are said to be that "a baseball team never has enough pitching," and that "no owner ever seems to make money." But no matter what you might have thought about player salaries at a given moment, the money is out there. It's not as if ticket prices will go down considerably if the average salary goes down by 50 percent.

It's quite obvious after reading this book that Quinn is smart and knowledgeable. It's easy to see why he has been hired so many times. Yes, there is a little arrogance there, and we could have done without some of the great restaurants' names that are dropped along the way. Quinn also is very loyal to his side in telling the stories about his sports-related cases (he's done plenty of other work in the business world as well). There are a few people on the players' side who don't come off particularly well (hockey's Alan Eagleson, an eventual felon who served jail time, tops the list), but not many.

Most of those on the other side of the table don't come as well, particularly the hard-line owners. NFL Commissioners Pete Rozelle and Roger Goodell aren't two of Quinn's favorites, and NBA Commissioner David Stern only earns a little grudging respect. It's a surprise how hard he comes down on the current head of the Green Bay Packers, Mark Murphy, whom he describes as a 'turncoat" (Murphy formerly worked for the NFLPA) and "obnoxious." Quinn might have made a better case if he hadn't called him "Mike Murphy" in the book. Others do a bit better. For example, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, according to Quinn, was a worthy adversary and a class act. Every story has two sides, and this has one for the most part. That's fine; it's his book. 

The author deserves plenty of credit in one important area, though. This is a relatively easy book to read; you need no legal training to get through it. Quinn makes his points quickly, and the process is relatively simplified.

I'm not going to tell you that collective bargaining is a subject that will keep even the biggest sports fan engrossed. But like it or not, such sessions are part of the sports landscape. "Don't Be Afraid to Win" offers a look behind the curtain behind some of the major moments in sports that didn't involve a game. Therefore, it should work nicely for its target audience.

Four stars

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Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Review: Rocky Colavito (2019)

By Mark Sommer

Baseball writer Bill James once started a long article on the Cleveland Indians in 1981 by explaining why the trade of Rocky Colavito mattered more than two decades later.

"Across the history of the Cleveland franchise a line is sharply drawn, and by that line the present condition of the Cleveland Indians, uniquely can be dated to that hour. On April 12, 1960, the Indians cesed to be what they had been for thirty-one years and became what they remain now."

The Indians had been good for about 30 years before that day. Then they traded Colavito to Detroit for batting champion Harvey Kuenn. And everything changed.

"For what they traded him is not the point. The point is that the Indians possessed tradition, that Colavito was carrying a torch which had been passed to him from Earl Averill by way of Jeff Heath and Larry Doby, and when he was traded the fire went out. ... The point is that the Indians of 1959 knew they could win because they always had won, and they knew how to go about it. And when the leaders of their offense were gone, the Indians did not know whether they could win or not."

I would argue that the Colavito trade still matters in that sense, even though the Indians have had some good stretches since then (World Series appearances in 1997 and 2016). But interest in the Indians may not have ever recovered from the trade, and that has meant the franchise rarely has been able to maintain winning teams for very long, sinking back into rebuilding mode. And that's why Mark Sommer's book, "Rocky Colavito," should have some relevance for baseball fans today, particularly those in northern Ohio.

Colavito came out of the Bronx to join the Indians in the mid-1950s, and he brought three primary characteristics with him. The outfield had a powerful bat, capable of smacking a home run anytime he was at the plate. He had a throwing arm that was almost legendary, to the point where he probably would have been a full-time pitcher had his bat been a little weaker. And Rocky had flat feet, to the point where he was excused from the military draft, and was relatively slow.

The power was the important part. Once he settled in as a regular, he hit 41 home runs in 1958 and 42 in 1959 to become one of the most feared sluggers in baseball. Colavito loved Cleveland, and Cleveland loved him back - to the point where, as Sommer writes, one movie theater interrupted a film to announce Colavito's trade. From there, the outfielder did some bouncing around - to Detroit, to Kansas City, and back to Cleveland. In 1966 he still hit 30 homers at the age of 33.

Almost in the blink of an eye, though, it ended. The Indians traded him again to the White Sox, and he moved on to the Dodgers and Yankees after that, but he was done after the 1968 season. It's tough to say what happened, but sometimes big sluggers who are slow age quickly. Baseball-reference.com says the most similar player to Colavito was Frank Howard, who was still a feared batter at age 33 but was out of baseball at 36. Colavito also points to an arm injury suffered along the way that hurt his throwing for the rest of his playing days.

Big credit goes to Sommer for being thorough here. He spent dozens and dozens of hours talking Colavito himself, and then tracked down a variety of other sources for information. Sommer really tells the story about what the fuss was about. Colavito's teammates still love him, pointing out what a classy, helpful person he was (and is). Even the founders of fan clubs in Cleveland and Detroit turn up, saying that couldn't have picked a better subject.

Even so, Colavito seemed to have problems with a great many of his bosses - an avenue that really isn't fully explored here. But Rocky says he didn't have a lot of respect for quite a few managers, general managers and owners he encountered along the way. Perhaps he was born 15 years too early, as questioning authority wasn't considered a good idea in baseball at that time.

Sommer exits with a discussion of Colavito's Hall of Fame chances, using modern statistics. I can argue that the outfielder probably played like a guy headed for Cooperstown from 1958 to 1962. But that's only five years, and longevity is a big part of the equation for induction to me. Therefore, I don't think he belongs in baseball's Hall. But, Colavito certainly had an impact on the game during his playing days, especially in Cleveland.

That makes him worth remembering, so it's good to have a full biography on the shelves. "Rocky Colavito" won't take up much room on the bookcase (the type is small and smaller), but it's unusual story. Sommer (a former co-worker of mine) thought a full biography was a worthwhile idea, and he was right.

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