Thursday, July 17, 2014

Review: Idiots Revisited (2014)

By Ian Browne

Books looking back on championship teams are a staple of the sports publishing business. The facts of the season are usually well-known to the audience, so it's just a matter of reminding everyone what happened. Then a few new stories and updates are added.

In other words, these books can either be "phoned in" or new information can be collected that adds great insight into what happened ... or anything in between.

"Idiots Revisited" is definitely one of the very good ones in the field.

Author Ian Browne, a reporter for MLB.com, went back and talked to several members of the Boston Red Sox organization from 2004, when the team ended an 86-year drought to win a World Series. They came through for him as Browne adds several new tales about that fairy tale season.

It's impressive just how honest and open several players and other officials were. One of the good things about a book like this is that some of the role players can supply a lot of perspective on what happen. Here, Gabe Kapler and Dave Roberts fill their jobs nicely. But Johnny Damon is almost painfully honest about what took place, and Curt Schilling. Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Trot Nixon chip in with some very interesting comments. You'd expect Kevin Millar to do plenty of talking in a book like this, but the ever-quiet Mark Bellhorn even makes a solid contribution. Others chip in as well. Browne even gets Nomar Garciaparra to open up about the circumstances of his trade.

There's plenty of fascinating stuff here. Damon says the concussion he suffered in the fall of 2003 not only bothered him for the 2004 season, but for many years after that. Schilling talks about how he first hurt his ankle in spring training in 2004; you might recall that he did more damage in the postseason that year. Schilling also mentions how he got into a couple of mild fights with Manny Ramirez, while others talk about how difficult it was to keep Manny in line that season ... but they managed it for the most part. Keith Foulke was particularly driven to keep pitching in 2004's postseason, because he was going through a divorce and was no hurry to start a long winter in an empty house. Manager Terry Francona and general manager Theo Epstein also supply some thoughts and anecdotes.

For the most part, Browne is smart enough to get out of their way. He sets up situations with background information, and let's the players talk about the season - from spring training to that last ground ball to Foulke in the World Series. He also adds an epilogue about the fate of those players after 2004, which again features plenty of honesty.

It's hard to believe that "Idiots Revisited" could be done any better. OK, fans probably wouldn't have minded it the story was even longer - the 220 or so pages go by mighty quickly. "Idiots Revisited"  thus is an ideal read for Red Sox fans who want to look back on a magical year.

Five stars

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Review: Season of Saturdays (2014)



By Michael Weinred

Here's a lesson about jumping to conclusions when it comes to books.

"Season of Saturdays" looks rather straight-forward in its cover description. Michael Weinreb must have picked out the most important 14 games in college football history, and then thoroughly reviewed them in the book.

That's not quite what we have here. Luckily, it's probably better this way.

Weinreb has bigger things in mind. He essentially points to important trends in the game's history, and then picks out milestone games to prove his point. There isn't much play-by-play involved in the game descriptions. In fact, sometimes the game is beside the point, and that gets into a lively discussion about the sport.

For example, the Jan. 1, 1962 Rose Bowl matched Minnesota and UCLA. The game really didn't matter in one sense. What mattered is that Ohio State was the Big Ten champion that year, and passed up the chance to participate in the game. You can imagine how that went over with then-coach Woody Hayes. That's not happening now, not with the economics involved.

It is all part of the argument that has been part of college football for generations, and stays with us to this day. Should institutions of higher learning be involved in this level of athletics? Is it keeping with the mission statement of the college or university? Probably not, especially considering the fact that most schools lose money on athletics, and many have broken rules involving academic integrity in order to win football games.

Yet Weinred still finds the sport itself thrilling. He's feeling a little guilty about that, but not too much. It's partly because football serves a great connection between a university, the students, alumni and the surrounding city/town. Weinred grew up around Penn State, so he knows something about that subject. It's also because the games can be so darn exciting.

There are plenty of interesting aspects to the story told here. A subplot is the entire "Who is No. 1?" argument that has been a part of the game since, well, forever. One is the 1984 Orange Bowl featuring Nebraska and Miami. You might remember that Nebraska came within a point of tying the game in the final seconds. A tie, still possible in those days, would have given Nebraska the national championships in the polls. But Tom Osborne went for the win, and failed. It remains a fascinating decision, just like Notre Dame's action to accept the tie against Michigan State in 1966..

Then there's the curious case of Texas-Arkansas in 1969, when President Nixon announced that the winner of the game would be the nation's best team - even though Penn State was just as undefeated as the other two teams. Weinreb hints that politics might have had a roll in that move; there was an election to be won in 1972, after all.

The book goes in other directions from there. The author points to the Miami teams of the 1980s as ones that did whatever it wanted on and off the field, breaking the mold in that area. Then there's the rise of the passing game involving coaches such as Mike Leach and Steve Spurrier, who used the pass to set up the run instead of the other way around.

Finally, there's the unpredictable nature of the game, best shown by Auburn-Alabama last year. Alabama's coach was/is Nick Saban, master of taking as many variables out of the game as possible and perhaps the best college football coach ever. Even he couldn't compensate for the moment when an Auburn player ran a missed field goal back more than 100 yards for a game-winning touchdown on the final play of the game. Those moments, and there have been a lot of them, have made the sport special.

Weinred has clearly done his homework, and he never comes off as an apologist for the game. It's short but generally to the point. You might not like the personal stories about Penn State, but they work pretty well here. "Season of Saturdays" is a worthwhile read as we get ready for another season.

Four stars

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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Review: The Dirtiest Race in History (2012)

By Richard Moore

The subject of steroids and sports has become rather tiring.

How many more surprises are out there?

Just this week, at the time of this writing, a book revealed that Alex Rodriguez received permission from major league baseball to take testosterone in 2007, which may have helped him turn in a banner year and sign a $252 million contract with the New York Yankees. That's only the latest in a series of developments in baseball over the past several years.

Then there have been similar stories involving athletes in such fields as cycling and track. While the story of what happens to someone like Lance Armstrong for the rest of his life has some drama, some sports fans probably would prefer to simply write him off for good as an arrogant cheater.

This brings us to the biggest track story of the 1980s, the sprinting rivalry between Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis. It's all recounted in the book, "The Dirtiest Race in History."

You might remember the basics. Lewis won America's respect, if not love, for his performance at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He won four gold medals there, including the 100-meter dash. That put a target on him for the next Games, in Seoul in 1988. Lewis found his rival, and vice-versa, in Ben Johnson, a short, powerful Canadian.

There was all sorts of anticipation about the Seoul matchup, and the race met those expectations. Johnson set a world record, with Lewis right behind. That made it all the more shocking when, less than two days later, it was discovered that Johnson had failed his drug test. He was disqualified and Lewis was given the gold medal ... quietly, and out of the public eye, in an office. No use making a ceremony out of this result.

Author Richard Moore went back about a quarter of a century and more to review those times. Several people are quite open about what was happening in the 1980s. That includes Johnson, although some of his explanations and stories still don't add up. Lewis was less cooperative and remains a slightly enigmatic figure. Most importantly, Moore captures the feelings that the Eighties were the Wild, Wild West, when anything went, when it came to track and drugs. Most of the contenders were doing steroids, in part because they were afraid to be left behind.

Meanwhile, Olympic and track officials were more than happy to turn away from any evidence of steroid use. They didn't want to know what was going on, so they didn't look. That includes a study of Lewis, who had a small amount of illegal substances in his system at the Olympic trials; nothing was done from there. If you want to compare that to major league baseball in the late 1990s, well, feel free.

The best part of Moore's book comes when every arrives at Seoul for the showdown. The author gives a moment by moment description of what happened before, during and after the race. That includes comments from top officials like Dick Pound. Moore even talked to the woman who had to go retrieve Johnson's medal after the results of testing had been revealed. There are also some good stories here. For example, one official describes how he went under the grandstand of a major meet once, and found all sorts of syringes. Then there's the tale of the hot line for athletes set up after Seoul, designed to answer questions about steroids. Most of the questions were a variation of "How do I get what Ben Johnson got?"

I have little doubt that there's an audience for this, based on the reviews on Amazon.com. It's a thorough job of reporting and writing. For those who qualify as track fans who want a full look back, this serves the purpose. Please give it an extra star.

Still, some of the material, particularly the scientific portions, is a little dry. And let's face it, we're not dealing with model citizens here. Instead, we are hearing from cheaters in many cases. Whether you want to hang around these people for 300 or so pages is entirely up to you. I came away feeling impressed by the work but not too enthusiastic about learning more about the subject.

In other words, don't make me read about A-Rod or Lance in the near future.

Three stars

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Review: 56 (2011)

By Kostya Kennedy

There's only one magic number in baseball. The numbers 714 (Babe Ruth's home runs in a career) and 61 (Ruth's home runs in a season) are diminished, thanks first to the good work of Henry Aaron and Roger Maris respectively and to the steroid boys of recent history. No one is likely to win 30 games as a pitcher in a season again under the present circumstances (five-man rotations, mostly).

The clear leader in this department is 56. If you know anything about baseball history, you know that's how many games were in Joe DiMaggio's record-setting hitting streak in 1941. It could be argued that the number that comes closest to it is .406, the batting average of Ted Williams in 1941 (by coincidence) in which he became the last man to bat over .400.

The 56-game streak has grown in significance over the years. No one has come within 12 games of it before or since. Thus, a book on the subject is always relatively timely, even 70 years after the fact. What got into DiMaggio way back when?

Kostya Kennedy, the Sports Illustrated editor and writer, takes on that daunting assignment with "56." His subtitle takes it a step further by calling it "the last magic number in sports." I'd argue that "100," as in Wilt Chamberlain's record number of points in a game, might be the basketball equivalent. Still, two months of success as opposed to one night's worth gives DiMaggio's figure the edge.

The streak gets a full review here. Every game gets a mention, with the close calls, the big days and the milestones all receive complete attention. Yet Kennedy answers a bigger question here that is quite invaluable - why did the streak resonate as it did back then?

For that, he has to tell us what life was like in 1941, and the author does that in superb fashion. While America was just coming out of the Great Depression, there was little doubt that war was right around the corner in some fashion. The draft had started, materials were being shipped to England, and President Roosevelt spoke about the difficult road that appeared to be ahead. Normally, I'm not a big fan of tying current events to a sports book, but it works very well here.

With bad news lurking, America was happy for a long-lasting story of good news, and DiMaggio provided it. Every day, people wanted to know, "Did Joe get his hit?" The answer, at least during that stretch, was always yes. DiMaggio was the latest in a line of Yankee stars that stretched back about 20 years through Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Throw in the fact that DiMaggio became something of a symbol of how children of immigrants were assimilating into American society as a whole,and you have a figure that became a hero to millions.

For his part, DiMaggio remains a tough figure to decipher. Even he admitted that he had mixed feelings about the streak. DiMaggio wanted records and excellence, but didn't particularly want much of the attention that came with it. The portrait here of his private life is almost difficult to read. Dorothy Arnold, DiMaggio's first wife, has often been overlooked in the baseball player's narrative; she has been closeted by the towering shadow of another actress/DiMaggio wife named Marilyn Monroe. Dorothy did work on the big screen of her own, but more or less gave that up after marriage. That was Joe's wish, but he comes off as clueless when it comes to the effort needed to maintaining a good relationship. They split a couple of years after the streak ended.

Kennedy even goes off on a few tangents in chapters to put matters into historical significance. He does a little statistical work to show just how impressive a 56-game hitting streak is, and how likely it is that it could be repeated. (The answer to the last part: hard to say, but not very.) There's also a conversation with Pete Rose, who had a 44-game streak and thus has come the closest to the record of anyone since DiMaggio reached 56.

There is a catch in the story-telling, and it involves a literary technique that admittedly is one of my pet peeves. Kennedy does some "mind-reading" along the way here, telling what people were thinking at a given moment of the story. Sometimes that comes with a description of events that, while realistic, is difficult to verify. For example, there's a portion of the book details about what DiMaggio did one day after getting out of bed in his home, complete with a description of his thoughts while reading the paper. It's particularly difficult to believe that DiMaggio would tell anyone what he was thinking in a given moment, considering his standoffish nature. I am willing to admit that the technique helps make the book easier to read, but still speculation as fact is less than comforting in a nonfiction publication.

Otherwise, though, there are no complaints to be found here. "56" won the Casey Award as the best baseball book of its publication year, and it was a good choice. This is a great way to find out what all the fuss is about, then and now.

Four stars

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Revew: Slow Getting Up (2013)

By Nate Jackson

Let's start the discussion about "Slow Getting Up" in an odd way, using the mathematical term subset.

There are many thousands of people who would like to play in the National Football League in a given year. Only a relatively handful make it. Think about all of the college players on all levels who would like to graduate to that last step, but don't. That gives you an idea about the odds involved.

Then out of that set of people, consider how many people are good writers. It's a handful of a handful. That's not a reflection of intelligence, since pro football players have to be smart in most cases to play a complicated game. It's more a matter of will, time and effort.

Say hello, then, to Nate Jackson, former pro football player. There's a blurb on the front cover that reads, "Man can write." And it's true. You know it after the first few pages. Thus begins a story of a football career that isn't told very often.

Jackson lasted six years in the National Football League, almost all of them with the Denver Broncos. He started his career as that rarest of breeds, the white wide receiver. But soon he was told to put on weight, move to tight end and play special teams. Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir. And he lived the dream.

It was never easy. The most interesting and eye-opening portions of the book deal with injuries. If you don't believe pro football is an incredibly rough and taxing game, you will after reading this. Jackson seems to be always hurt a little. Even the practices can be difficult, and Mike Shanahan, Jackson's coach in Denver, was relatively easy on the players in that area.

At other times, Jackson's body betrays him completely, with muscles being pulled away from bones and hamstrings getting severely pulled. That, in turn, leads to prematurely finished seasons, rehabs, and worries about getting cut. Pro sports is a good life as long as you can stay on the ride, but most people are constantly worried that the merry-go-round will stop for them at any moment - especially when they have little to do but heal. That insecurity infects every player in one form or another.

There are plenty of other insights into the life of pro football here, observations that are timeless even though the book ends when Jackson's career does in 2009. Are there, um, fringe benefits to being an NFL player off the field? Absolutely, and Jackson explores them. The title "NFL Player" can get you through some locked doors.  Assistant coaches still come in all shapes and sizes. Head coaches do too; two Bill Belichick disciples - Josh McDaniels and Eric Mangini - come off really badly here.

The most poignant part of the book comes when one of Jackson's teammates dies in an off-field incident. He writes about how football players are so focused on the task at hand, so insulated in the bubble, that they are completely unprepared for the emotions involved.

There are only a couple small aspects of the book that don't work particularly well. Terminology is difficult to the uninitiated, and a couple of sections get a little bogged down in it. Jackson does get credit for making most of it readable. There are also plenty of first names and nicknames after a brief introduction, and sometimes it's a little tough to remember who is who.

This is a relatively quick read that covers a career in only 240 pages. For those looking for a literate discussion of an interesting but somewhat mysterious business, "Slow Getting Up" works extremely well and sheds light nicely. Jackson ought to be able to have a fine and long "second life" in writing if he chooses to do so, and it won't be so hazardous to his body.

Four stars

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Review: 26.2 Miles to Boston (2014)

By Michael Connelly

The book "26.2 Miles to Boston" has a rather interesting history.

Author Michael Connelly first came out with a book called "26 Miles to Boston" about a decade ago. Based on the comments on Amazon.com, readers seemed to like it's recap of the history of the Boston Marathon - except for those who were enraged that Connelly ran the race as a bandit as part of his research.

Now comes an updated version. As you'd expect, some of the information including this time around centers on the 2013 race, with its terrorist bombing near the finish line. The author's tale about running as a bandit opens the book here, and thus will anger those same people over again.

That makes it a little difficult to judge the remake. But that's our job here, and "26.2 Miles to Boston" is something of a mixed bag.

Connelly has a simple idea for the book. He takes the fabled route, mile by mile, and breaks it down. Since the race has been taking place since the 19th century, there's plenty of running history on those roads.

Sometimes the author covers a description of the course itself, launching a discussion of a particular strategy along the way. Sometimes there's a review of the neighborhood - as in some background on the cities or establishments that the Marathon touches. At other times there's a launching point into a discussion of the great races over the years. Those may only briefly touch on the particular mile at the time, but there are plenty of good stories that come out here. Connelly talked to a variety of runners - champions and also-rans - and spent some time scanning microfilm.

The result is rather uneven. The historical parts work best and are often quite interesting. However, the tangents off into the history of towns don't work quite as well. It's a little dry.

Meanwhile, Connelly covers the text with flowery language about the various aspects of the race.You'd call it hero worship if it were written about a person, but since it's about an athletic event it's simply fawning.

Let's put it this way. One of the great pieces of advice in writing is "show me, don't tell me." The Boston Marathon has had plenty said about its charms and place in athletic history, and this book has a lot of it down on paper. A book about it doesn't need a reverent, flowery approach. A straight-forward telling of the story would have been fine.

This book certainly has some appeal to those who run and/or love the race, and fits that niche nicely. However, "26.2 Miles to Boston" doesn't quite fully execute a good idea to take in more casual observers.

Three stars

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Review: 1954 (2014)

(Note: This review appeared in abbreviated form in The Buffalo News on June 8. Since I have all sorts of space here, this is the DVD version.)

By Bill Madden

Life is good when you get to talk to your childhood heroes ... and earn money from those conversations.

Bill Madden knows all about that.

Madden is the veteran baseball columnist for the New York Daily News. He had considered for years writing a book about the mid-1950’s, when the game and the game’s business was going through its first major upheavals in about a half-century.

That book now has been published. “1954” is a clear-eyed look back at that time, written by someone who has been around long enough to put matters in perspective.

Books on specific years in a sport’s history are fairly common, and 1954 is a good one to use for its impact on baseball history. There are three basic themes that run through Madden’s story.

The first is the rise of the black player. Jackie Robinson had entered the major leagues in 1947, but African Americans followed in something closer to a trickle than a flood. Still, the pool of talent was getting deeper, and young stars were starting to arrive.

In other words, this was the year that Willie Mays became, well, Willie Mays. He wasn’t a rookie, having broken in with the New York Giants during the 1951 season, and then he spent 18 months in the Army. But Mays arrived for keeps at spring training in 1954, and it took about two swings and a catch in the outfield for everyone to realize that a potential Hall of Famer was about to bloom.

What’s more, Mays had company. Milwaukee had a good prospect of its own, who earned a chance when Bobby Thomson broke an ankle in spring training to open up an outfield spot. Henry Aaron - who was scouted by the Braves while playing in a Negro League game at Riverside Park in Buffalo in 1952 - took that spot for about 20 years.

In Chicago, the Cubs debuted the first African American double play combination in history. Shortstop Ernie Banks would go on to become one of the Cubs’ all-time greats. Second baseman Gene Baker later became the first black to manage a team in organized baseball in the 20th century when he took over in Batavia in the middle of the 1961 season.

Another change to the industry came in the form of franchise relocation. The Boston Braves had moved to Milwaukee in 1953, changing a lineup of cities and teams that hadn’t been altered since just past the turn of the century. A year later, the St. Louis Browns gave up trying to compete with the Cardinals and packed for Baltimore. By the end of 1954, the Philadelphia Athletics were ready to give on that city and try their luck in Kansas City under new ownership. And the Dodgers and Giants were only a few years away from moving to new homes on the West Coast.

Then there were the actual games of 1954, which offered some surprising results. In other words, the Yankees didn’t win. New York had won five straight World Series titles from 1949 to 1953, but they fell short in 1954 despite winning 103 of 154 games. They finished eight games behind the Cleveland Indians in the American League.

Over in the National League, Mays was a catalyst for a Giants team that rebounded from a 70-84 season in 1953 to win the pennant with a 97-57 record. New York wasn’t supposed to be a match for Cleveland, but the Giants - including Niagara Falls native Sal Maglie - took the Series in four straight.

Madden covers all of those events thoroughly, and takes the time to look at some events from that time that have been forgotten by most at this point. For example, Charlie Dressen was the manager of the Dodgers when they won back-to-back National League titles in 1952 and 1953. Dressen thought was good for a multi-year contract, the Dodgers disagreed - and hired Walt Alston, who stayed for more than 20 years.

Madden, who was born in 1946, interviewed several of the principals from that season, and found other sources of reference material elsewhere to fill out the portrait of the year. Oddly, perhaps the dullest part of the book deals with the actual pennant races, which weren’t cliffhangers. Madden couldn’t do much about that.

Admittedly, “1954” is going to read like ancient history to some. But for those curious about this transformational era in baseball history, or who simply remember the names involved, the book serves as a readable and informative recap.


Four stars

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