Monday, March 23, 2015

Review: On the Clock (2015)

By Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport

An easy way to sum up the growth of the National Football League is to look at the Draft - the selection process used by teams to pick college players.

Once upon a time, this procedure was done in a hotel ballroom, with little fanfare and hoopla. Now, the Draft has been staged at such places as Radio City Music Hall in New York, and it's going on the road to Chicago this year to spread the excitement.

What happened? Veteran football writers Barry Wilner and Ken Rappoport teamed up to tell some of the stories about the draft. "On the Clock" give the allotment procedure a quick once over.

The authors jump around quite a bit in their coverage after devoting the first chapter to the 2014 proceedings. Jay Berwanger is the answer to a couple of trivia questions - the first NFL draft choice, and the first Heisman Trophy winner. Berwanger turned down the pros because they didn't offer enough money. That hasn't been an issue for some time.

Bert Bell, the former commissioner of the league, gets credit for creating the draft. It was a revolutionary step at the time. Baseball essentially let any team sign anyone it wanted until the middle of the 1960s, something that certainly helped the New York Yankees plant the seeds that led to championships. Football spread out the wealth about 30 years before that, keeping the rich teams and poor teams on a more level playing field.

Still, the draft didn't begin to expand in interest until the early 1980s, when ESPN started televising the show. As the production values grew, the draft served as a bridge between college and pro football. The college fans were interested in seeing where their boys would go in the pros, and the pro fans treated the day like Christmas - teams knew they'd get something good, but they weren't sure what until they got to "open them." The broadcasts led to the rise of such analysts as Mel Kiper Jr.

Wilner and Rappoport have a few other subjects to cover. There's the story about top draft picks who didn't wind up with their drafting team for one reason or another - Bo Jackson, John Elway, Eli Manning. The authors also pick a best pick and a bust pick for each team as well as the top five all-time draft choices by position - which is a lot like just picking something close to an all-time team, since just about everyone in the past 60 years has been drafted.

The material can be read in a couple of hours, and the authors know what they are talking about. Still, this feels like a very basic look at the subject. There aren't many "inside" stories on the teams and players. In fact, my guess is that most football fans will have at least a passing familiarity with the material that's covered here.

Those looking for a primer on this spring tradition could do worse that picking up a copy of "On the Clock." But it's probably going to have trouble finding an audience.

Two stars

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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Review: Dr. J - The Autobiography (2013)

By Julius Erving with Karl Taro Greenfeld

Julius Erving might be the last of the great unseen legends in sports history.

Yes, Erving's career with the Philadelphia 76ers is quite well known. There are videos of his performances with the Sixers, and he compiled enough credentials to be a Hall of Famer just on those years - NBA champion, league most valuable player, etc.

But that's not when Erving was really at his best. When he was playing in the American Basketball Association, it was easy to believe that a man - Dr. J, as he became known as - really could fly.

Those who only remember Erving from his Philadelphia days probably will get the most enjoyment out of his autobiography, "Dr. J." For if you examine his life story, it seems that his timing was just a bit off.

For example, Erving was a fine high school basketball player in the New York City area. Admittedly, he hadn't finished growing yet, but he was good enough to attract attention. Had Erving reached 6-foot-6 as a senior and still been capable of flight in a manner of speaking today, he'd have documentaries done about him before he reached college. As it turned out, Erving went to college at Massachusetts - a respectable program but not the place to become a household name at the time.

Then Erving opted to turn pro before his senior year. While it's difficult to argue with that move as a financial decision, he just missed on playing for the 1972 United States Olympic basketball team. It's fair to say he would have helped that team, which lost to the Soviet Union in the final in one of the most famous finishes in sports history. Erving landed with the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball League, teaming up with such players as Charlie Scott and George Gervin. Again, Norfolk will never be confused with one of the media capitals of the nation, and he played in obscurity. Yet anyone who saw those games knew just how good Erving was.

It was more of the same in his next stop, the New York Nets. Erving led the team to a couple of ABA championships, and hardly anyone saw it. ABA games weren't televised very often, so basketball fans merely had to hear second-hand stories about this dynamic forward who was reinventing the game before people's eyes. When has someone who played in New York been overlooked? But when Erving finally made it to the NBA after 1976 merger, he and the 76ers packed arenas from coast to coast.

The story finally gets told in the autobiography. Considering there was a time span of more than 25 years between retirement and publication, it's easy to wonder what took so long. But Erving certainly has plenty to say in an autobiography that stretches out for more than 420 pages.

The basketball stories are generally well told and fairly straight forward. Erving doesn't go out of his way to rip people, although there are hints that Gene Shue, coach of the 1976-77 Sixers, didn't know how to coach the boatload of talent he had on the roster. Erving's time in the ABA was spent with some characters, including one guy who used to keep his drug stash in his socks during practice.

There are some surprises here. Erving had some odd contract moves in his career. He tried to jump from the ABA to the NBA's Atlanta Hawks at one point, even though he hadn't been drafted yet. When Milwaukee picked him, it set off a good-sized legal fight. Then when the merger arrived, it's hard to say if a way could have been found to keep Erving in New York. The Nets could have used him in that era.

Erving does write a bit about some cases of infidelity, as he gave in to some of the temptations of superstardom. He received some publicity when the fact that he was the father of a pro tennis player was revealed. Welcome to the fish bowl. And Erving has had all sorts of personal tragedies in his life - more than his share, to be sure. Fame does not offer immunity to that sort of pain and loss.

All of this is told in the present tense, by the way. That's an unusual technique, and a little jarring at first. But after a while, it's easy to adjust to it.

"Dr. J" has received great notices from reviewers. I'm not sure it quite lives us to those reviews. Still, Erving comes off as humble and modest throughout his book. If you want to find out what all the fuss was about, or what the gaps in a lively life story, this should work nicely.

Four stars

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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: The Outlaw League ... (2014)

By Daniel R. Levitt

It's probably not possible to send an anniversary card to a defunct baseball league. Who would you send it to? And where would it be delivered?

Still, we're in the middle of a relatively significant baseball anniversary, especially in the business sense. The Federal League fielded teams in 1914 and 1915, and is the last on-field competitor to Major League Baseball as we know it. Its remaining legacy in terms of baseball is Wrigley Field in Chicago, which was first built to house a Federal League team.

The tale of the Federals pointed baseball, and in some ways all sports, down a particular path in the years to come. Thus a complete story of the Federal League's tale from creation and demise is worthwhile from an historic perspective.

Daniel R. Levitt has written that book. It comes complete with a very long title, "The Outlaw League and the Battle that Forged Modern Baseball." Come to think of it, the book and its title both have plenty of detail.

A little history lesson: The Federal League started as a minor league in 1913, but had the idea to try to join the American and National Leagues the following year. Owners were found, parks were built or leased, and players were pursued. The league did indeed open on time in 1914.

But its two years of operation was a constant battle. Everyone involved took a financial hit, mostly in the form of decreased attendance and higher salaries. The legalities of contracts were open for question, depending on the judge, and some players initially jumped to the Federal League only to jump right back. Finally, the Federal League worked out a settlement with the majors, and we returned to one baseball operation. It has stayed that way until the present day.

The settlement's most interesting part led to a lawsuit with huge legal implications. Baltimore was left out of the "merger," and filed an anti-trust suit. This is the one in which the Supreme Court decided that baseball was not interstate commerce and not subject to anti-trust laws. That has affected operations for more than 90 years, even though the reasoning for the decision puzzled scholars and lawyers then and now.

Levitt obviously spent lots of time doing research, which shows on every page. There are tons of stories about how the leagues were formed, and how contract negotiations took place. Some court testimony is used effectively to tell how negotiations at critical stages went. If someone wants to call this the complete business recap of the Federal League, I'll agree fully.

There is a problem associated with all of this, at least in a sense. There's no baseball in it. The pennant race of 1915 is briefly covered, and that's about it. You don't get any flavor about what the game or individual teams were like in that era. Levitt obviously set out to write the business site of the story, and he followed through on that.

Still, I have the feeling that only a small part of the baseball-loving public will find this overly interesting without the weaving of games and seasons involved. In other words, this won't be popping up on any beaches for reading this year.

Be warned, then, that "The Outlaw League..." will be a little too dry and scholarly for many. But those who like this sort of material will learn a lot as they read it. 

Four stars

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review: Marvin Miller - Baseball Revolutionary (2015)

By Robert F. Burk

At one point in Robert F. Burk's on Marvin Miller, there's a comment from Red Barber about how the three most important people in the development of baseball have been Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Miller.

That's a rather high bar to pass, but Burk makes a rather good case for it in his biography, "Marvin Miller - Baseball Revolutionary."

Miller led the first professional sports union to have any clout. That may sound impossible in a day when owners and players are essentially partners in the operation, but that's a tribute to just how far the relationship has come. What's more, both sides have gained, and Miller was the catalyst.

If there's a theme here, it's that Miller was the right man at the right place at the right time. Oddly, though, this was hardly always the case for him.

After graduating from college, Miller fell into a variety of jobs that saw him bounce along the East Coast for several years. World War II played a role in that, although he didn't see military duty because of a shoulder issue. Eventually Miller landed with the Steelworkers Union in 1950, and moved up the executive ladder.

This section of the new book contains some information and insight into Miller that's not too common. Miller himself was told to downplay it in his own autobiography, with the publisher no doubt thinking that most people buying such a book wanted to read about the baseball years. Burk goes into Miller's family background at length, and covers Miller's personal political views - which were quite left of center. When you consider the times of the late 1940s and early 1950s, it wasn't exactly a career boost to be outspoken about such stances.

Miller spent more than 15 years with United Steelworkers. It's difficult to turn labor negotiations in that industry into riveting (sorry) material, and it's a little tough to get through this without some familiarity with the subject. Still, it's interesting to read what happened to the business in that era. Very short version - America was the king of steel after World War II, because the rest of the world's plants were in ruins. But as production in Europe and Japan started to ramp up, American business shrank - and conflicts grew on how best to handle that ever-changing situation.

By 1966, Miller was ready for a new challenge, and he found one when he was named the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. It was a group that had virtually no rights in the workplace, starting with the freedom to choose an employer. As the book details, Miller slowly built up support within the union and took on management on a variety of issues. He was helped by the fact that he was good at this, and those on the other side were simply awful at it. Baseball owners were outflanked at virtually every opportunity during Miller's time on the job.

Along the way, owners predicted doom after every step, and they were proven spectacularly wrong. Arbitration arrived, the reserve clause died, free agency became a reality, and revenues, salaries and franchise values spiraled upward. Burk gives most of the credit to Miller for this, which matches what most sports historians say.

After Miller stepped down from a formal role with the MLBPA in 1982, he remained in the picture in one way or another. Miller did do some advising of the association at times for the next few years, formally and informally. After that, he was always willing to give his views on a labor situation to anyone who called. You could count on him to be consistent, a fact that led him to being an outsider when the steroid problem reared its head in the late 1990s and the 2000s. In fact, Burk unleashes some rare criticism of Miller in the book, pointing out that baseball had to do something about PEDs in order to maintain good will with its fan base. Miller died in 2012 at the age of 95, equal parts confident, articulate and defiant until the end.

Burk had several long interviews with Miller for the book, and he also did a few other interviews as well as mined print sources for information. There aren't too many fresh quotes from outsiders here that may have added some perspective, but this still is a substantial biography.

Books on the business side of sport can be a tough sell for many. They only want to know about what happens between the lines. Still, off-field developments in baseball over the half-century are interesting in their own light, and have influenced the game greatly. Those wishing a course in how we got to where we are now will find "Marvin Miller - Baseball Revolutionary" quite helpful in that sense.

Four stars

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Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2015

Edited by Sam Miller and Jason Wojciechowski

We've hit the 20-year milestone in the publication history of the Baseball Prospectus. In that time, it has become a welcome sign of the approach of spring. Along the way, the series has taught us much about baseball, how it's played and what might happen in the months and years to come.

So what do people want to talk about when it comes to reviews on Amazon.com? The layout of this year's book. That's a new one, for this book and almost every other published volume.

Two points do come out rather quickly when taking the quickest of glances at this year's book. It's smaller than the 2014 edition by around 100 pages or so. When it comes to data, this is sort of like going from the Los Angeles phone book to the Dallas phone book. Huge to very big. There are a few players dropped from the sum total, but the 2015 version still has more than 2,000 players ranked. Someone who turns out to be significant might have slipped under the cracks, but the odds are against it. It's not a major problem for most.

Then there's the matter of design. The player capsules have been redone, so that there is less white space between lines and it might be a point of type size smaller. (OK, you try to tell the difference between 8 pt. and 9 pt.) It's a little bit more difficult to read. That's particular true because the line of type goes across almost seven inches of the page. It might work better to make each comments fit into two columns, with a little canyon of white space in between. Yes, it would expand the size of the book, but that could be attacked with slightly shorter comments or moving a few more players into the list of other players covered at the end of each team chapter.

Speaking of those catch-all sections, the type size and leading definitely has been reduced, making it somewhat intimidating to read. Personally, I glanced over the list looking for familiar names, and then moved on quickly. That's not the best idea in a book.

Otherwise, everything works out nicely. The writers obviously know what they are talking about, and there's a major effort to make the writing of each player capsule filled with fun and information. The team reviews, a couple of pages that serve as the introduction to the chapter, are for the most part well done.

The group at Baseball Prospectus have adopted the new statistics that have entered the game with zeal. There are all sorts of figures that come out here, and not just anagrams. There's good information on a variety of aspects of the game, and how that might affect future performance. In other words, there are such things as FIP and FRAA calculated, but they won't hurt your enjoyment of the book. If there's a lesson to be learned out of such work, it's that it's a reminder how athletically we all start declining in the mid-to-late 20s, and a typical player doesn't get very long to prove he should be or can stay a major leaguer.

As I've said before, "Baseball Prospectus" gets read here when it comes out, and then put away for reference during the course of a season. If there's a trade involving prospects, it's a primary resource for background information. It's a must-read for the major baseball enthusiast. Just make sure your glasses are clean before you start reading.

Four stars

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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Review: If These Walls Could Talk - Detroit Tigers (2014)

By Mario Impemba with Mike Isenberg

Let's start this with a personal observation. I've had the chance to meet a variety of play-by-play announcers over the years, and they have a great many similarities.

They generally have worked their way slowly up through the ranks after dreaming of doing exactly this job when they were children. Therefore, they tend to enjoy just about every minute of the workday, no matter how many curveballs can be thrown (bad teams, technical difficulties, ridiculous travel, etc.)

Radio and television broadcasters also tend to have an outgoing personality. Not many shrinking violets last in the business. They make friends pretty quickly, mostly because they are generally nice people.

This brings us to "If These Walls Could Talk - Detroit Tigers." Mario Impemba is a television announcer for the Tigers, and he's teamed up with writer Mike Isenberg to present some recollections of his career. It's part of a series from Triumph Books designed to offer a backstage look through some of those who are around sports teams.

Impemba certainly follows the pattern described above. He grew up in the Detroit area and was a big Tigers fan. After graduating from Michigan State, Impemba tried his luck at announcing minor league games. He obviously paid his dues - you have to do so at that level - and he bounced through such places as Peoria, Quad Cities and Tucson.

Finally, Impenda got called up to the majors, as he joined the broadcast team of the California Angels in 1995. That's a pretty good job, and he could have been pretty well set working in the Los Angeles market. But when the Tigers called about a television position, Impenda couldn't resist the chance to head home. He's been there since 2002.

As the cover says, this is more or less a collection of stories about Impemba's baseball experiences. It starts with the time he used a roll of toilet paper to help him with a broadcast in the minors, and goes right through the 2013 American League playoffs. Since he's a television announcer, Impemba won't get to actually describe a World Series title for Detroit. But he will call many of the games of such a team and work on the cable pregame and postgame broadcasts in the playoffs.

Also, Impemba has gotten the thrill of seeing some major events. Some involve the Tigers and Angels, including Miguel Cabrera's Triple Crown season and some no-hitters, and some don't, such as Cal Ripken's breaking of the consecutive games record. Impemba even called Mariano Rivera's first big league save, although he didn't know it would be the start of a run that surely will put Rivera in the Hall of Fame.

Impemba goes through a variety of other subjects along the way. He writes about managers and players he's known over the years, his workday, his scorebook (don't touch!), working a little with Ernie Harwell, etc. This all goes down rather smoothly and easily. There's no controversy to be found here, and the only reading problem is that a few of the tales are more or less repeated along the way. It's not an indepth story, but this isn't designed to fit that description.

I don't have any connection with the Tigers, and I found "If These Walls Could Talk - Detroit Tigers" to be a pleasant reading experience. Fans of the Old English D, as they say in Detroit, ought to enjoy it.

Three stars

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Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: Miracle at Fenway (2014)

By Saul Wisnia

Those that thought fans of Boston Red Sox had an unquenchable thirst for books reviewing the 10th anniversary of their memorable season put those boosters to a good test in 2014.

At other points on this blog, you can find reviews of Ian Browne's "Idiots Revisited" and Allan Wood and Bill Nowlin's "Don't Let Us Win Tonight." Now comes "Miracle at Fenway" from veteran writer Saul Wisnia. I think I'm close to done.

Wisnia has done other books, including one on Fenway Park, and has a blog on baseball. At last look, he works for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, regionally famous in New England for its Jimmy Fund, which has a long relationship with the Red Sox.

While the other two books concentrate almost entirely on the 2004 season, Wisnia widens the scope of this book quite a bit. It essentially starts in 2000 with the beginning of the process that saw the team be sold. The new ownership group headed by John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino took over in 2002. And away we go.

After a variety of changes in 2002, the Red Sox were ready to contend again. In 2003, the team came close, losing in Game Seven to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series. If you believe that a season begins the day after the previous season ends, then the story of the 2004 campaign begins on page 125 of the 278 pages of text. That's later than was probably expected.

Wisnia goes through the story of the season in a straight-forward manner. Red Sox fans can recite the details by heart, of course. There's the hot start, a mediocre middle, the Varitek/A-Rod scrum, the Garciaparra, the run to the playoffs, and the postseason itself. To fill in the details, the author checks in with a variety of people. Surprisingly, the players contribute a rather small percentage of the material - and few of the stars provide fresh material, although they turn up with quotes from other sources. We hear from Lucchino, and we hear from a Fenway Park peanut vendor. And some people in between - including Jason Varitek's parents, but not Varitek himself.

This is written with a little distance; in other words, Wisnia is obviously a fan of the team, but his editorial judgments on what happened during those years seem to be more or less on target. This is also a quick read, but in fairness this may be a case of the events being so familiar that it's easy for some (well, me) to go through it.

There are better books out there on that Red Sox team. There aren't many revelations here, and some of the fan experiences related in the book aren't overly gripping. But "Miracle at Fenway" still works as a to-the-point, easy-read recap for casual fans of a magical time for an iconic franchise, which I think partly explains the glowing reviews on Amazon.com. Therefore, if you want a one-volume recap of what happened then, this is a good destination.

Three stars

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