Friday, April 18, 2014

Review: Drunk on Sports (2013)

By Tim Cowlishaw

Alcohol consumption by journalists is rarely discussed much by journalists in a relatively serious manner. Yes, it happens, just like it does in other parts of society. When deadlines get demanding, at least some reporters feel the need to relax with an adult beverage.

There often is joking about this subject along those lines, particularly among those in the sports journalism field. My guess is that sports carries a bit of a frat-boy aura around it most of the time, and it extends past the participants. There also is the issue of down time while traveling, which some combat in the nearest bar.

But the dark side often is around, usually in the shadows. Alcoholism, or even something close to it if such a thing exists, is the elephant in the room at all times. It's just not discussed much, even though every veteran reporter has seen friends, co-workers and competitors have problems with drinking.

"Drunk on Sports" must be one of the first books out there that specifically deals with the issue of drinking and sports journalism. Others journalists have touched on it, notably Pete Hamill in "A Drinking Life." Tim Cowlishaw's book, however, focuses on the sports business, with his own life as a case study of sorts.

Cowlishaw is the sports columnist for the Dallas Morning News, having held the job since 1988. He's best-known nationally for appearing on ESPN's "Around the Horn." This is a peak at what his life has been like, particularly from the drinking side of the street.

Now, Cowlishaw does something very different here. Most books on addictions - Eric Clapton and Dwight Gooden come to mind - don't have many laughs in them. There are stories of long nights, difficult days and trips to rehab facilities. It's instructive but difficult reading.

This is different.  Cowlishaw obviously is a good writer, and he's not afraid to make fun of everything - including himself and his habit. He tells stories about how meeting for drinks with sources such as former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson actually helped him professionally. This might be the most honest account of how day-to-day journalism works that I've read. There are also tales of good times with friends near and far.

But the danger signs that he was having too much fun eventually started coming. A few drinks each night led to even bigger binges and mornings where he didn't remember what happened. Relationships started to fall apart. And then, suddenly Cowlishaw wound up being picked up for DWI, and found himself bleeding after a fall on the curb prompting a trip to the hospital.

From there, Cowlishaw eventually decided he had a major problem with drinking and gave it up. He didn't go to rehab or AA meetings - just quit, more or less cold turkey. So far, so good, according to the book, although he and readers of such book know that a relapse is always at least lurking around the corner. He says he is enjoying the chance to watch sporting events with a clear-eyed perspective.

This is something of a short memoir rather than a full autobiography, but there are elements of his life story included. Cowlishaw makes this quite entertaining along the way, which makes the basic message - if you think you have a drinking problem, you probably do - a bit easier to take.

"Drunk on Sports," then, is something of a surprise. Cowlishaw made a difficult story readable and interesting. Anyone would find it very good, but those with some sort of stake in the story - personal or professional - will kick that rating up a notch.

Four stars

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Review: Turning Two (2012)

By Bud Harrelson with Phil Pepe

This starts with a rather unusual question for an autobiography.

How much did Bud Harrelson contribute to his book, "Turning Two"?

His fingerprints certainly can't be found too often on the manuscript, and that's the biggest problem in this book. There's not enough Bud Harrelson in it.

As baseball careers go, Harrelson had a fairly interesting one - especially for New York audiences. He started his career in the Sixties, working his way up the ladder from a modest start as a boy in California. Harrelson eventually worked his way to the shortstop's job with the Mets, despite a frame that was, um, on the slight side. This was no slugger - he had seven career homers - but he could slap the ball around and make all the plays at short.

Those skills made him an All-Star once, but more importantly he was on the 1969 New York Mets team that won the World Series in dramatic fashion. It's a team that will live forever when unexpected sports champions are discussed.

Harrelson went on to play several years with the Mets, who returned to the World Series in 1973. He jumped to the Rangers and Phillies briefly, but he'll always be a Met. The fans no doubt were happy to see him return as a coach in the 1980s, and he was the third-base coach when the Mets won another title in 1986. That's him, wearing number 23 on the bottom cover photo, following Ray Knight in to the play to end Game Six of the World Series with the Boston Red Sox. You probably know why the Mets look so happy and why catcher Rich Gedman of the Red Sox looks so somber.

When Dave Johnson's time finally ran out as the Mets manager of that crew, Harrelson was promoted to that same position. New York's mix was rather volatile at that point, and the roster slow fell apart - highlighted by Darryl Strawberry's free-agent departure to Los Angeles. It took the Mets almost a decade to rebuild, although Harrelson wasn't around to see much of it.

Anyone reading this book wants to learn more about Harrelson and some of the personalities on those special teams. There's little such insight here. We hear that Gil Hodges was a father figure, that Tom Seaver was as good a guy as he was a pitcher, and that Strawberry had a big heart for all of his troubles. Otherwise, this reads like a researcher had written portions of the book, complete with statistics and highlights of big games and events.

Along those lines, here's a stunner. There is a little more than a page devoted to the 1988 team, which won the National League East title. Any baseball fan who goes back that far remembers who made that year's playoff his personal property - Orel Hershiser of the Dodgers. He dominated the playoffs. Care to guess how many times his name comes up here? Zero.

When Harrelson does get to tell a story here, he shows himself to be a pretty good guy with a nice sense of humor. He still apparently owns a share of the Long Island Ducks, an independent league team. If he hasn't signed an autograph for every Mets fans in the New York City area yet, well, he's working on it. Harrelson sounds like he's still thrilled someone asks for one, which is nice to hear.

"Turning Two" isn't a disaster of a book by any means. The publications reads well enough and doesn't seem to contain any huge mistakes (there are a few relatively small ones). It offers a casual and quick look back at a couple of memorable Mets eras, and burns no bridges. That's all fine if that's what you are looking for. Most people, though, probably have good reason to expect more.

Two stars

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Review: I'm Almost Out of Cha (2014)

By Woody Paige

Not many books contain a surprise inside, but this one did.

When "I'm Almost Out of Cha" came in the mail, I didn't open it for a while. I knew Woody Paige from his work in newspapers and broadcasting, and figured without thinking that it contains stories about his career.

Imagine my reaction, then, when I actually opened it and discovered it contained short little expressions of thought.

Stressed spelled backwards is DESSERTS.
Some folks are wise, and some otherwise.
Oscar Madison nominee.
Accountants can count on me.
Someone claimed I sound like an owl. Who?

I quickly realized - I'm not as dumb as I look, you know - that this was a collection of the writing on chalkboards that Page has done over the years for a television show. That explains the title, naturally, but otherwise deserves a bit of an explanation for the non-viewing public.

Paige, a columnist of the Denver Post, is one of the regulars on ESPN's "Around the Horn." Four sports reporters are invited to spend a half-hour together electronically to discuss the latest developments in sports. Host Tony Reali moderates the show, in part with the help of a mute button, and awards points for good arguments. Somehow, a "winner" is declared.

What's the most famous part of the show? Paige's chalkboard, which he posts over his shoulder during his screen time. Paige comes up with the phrases, and an assistant with better penmanship puts them on the chalkboard three times per show. It is fun to read them.

2B or not 2B? That is the pencil.
Violinists don't work; they just fiddle around. 
Dear Santa, I can explain.
Gravity: It's not just a good idea. It's the law.
My reality check bounced.

A relatively small percentage of the expressions are about the show, or mild insults about some of the other panelists on a given day. Otherwise, some are funny, some are pun-ny, many are clever. Paige says some have turned up on bumper stickers, which oddly is a good format for them.

Paige says the reaction has been terrific to the one-liners. People are constantly telling him how much they enjoy them. Even Bill Murray commented how much he liked the chalkboard when he and Paige passed in an elevator. Many people told Paige that the phrases should be collected into a book. Now after a more than a decade of broadcasts and a lot of chalk, here it is.

But is it a book worth reading? My goodness, I have no idea what to say in the case of you, dear reader of this space.

I'm more of a fan of the chalkboard than the show, and I found this to be pleasant enough and quick reading ... but probably not something I'd buy at full price. My guess is that one of those one-day-at-a-time calendars is a better fit for the format, but then again calendars aren't exactly the path toward financial security for publishers and authors. Books don't get burned or buried if they aren't sold by Dec. 26.

Your mileage may vary on this title, which is another way of saying that this may leave you unable to control your bodily functions because of intense laughter, as one review on amazon.com delicately put it more or less.

Put it this way - big fans of the show, and of the chalkboard, definitely should at least take a look at "I'm Almost Out of Cha." You just might like it a lot, and the paperback price probably won't break your bank account. It gets three stars here, a rather neutral position to convey the feeling that basically, you're on your own on this one.

Here I am! What are your other two wishes?
At my age middle of the night is 11 p.m.
Without geography you're nowhere.
Tan, rested and Helen Reddy.
Do pediatricians play miniature golf on Wednesday?

Three stars

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review: Up, Up and Away (2014)


By Jonah Keri

You might remember "The Extra 2%," in which Jonah Keri took a very indepth look at the Tampa Bay Rays. Not only did it show how the Rays figured out a way to compete with the Big Dogs of the American League East, but it was insiders' view of what the baseball business is actually like these days. If you haven't read it yet, go do so. It's still relevant.

The book was a big success commercially, and gave a major boost to Keri's career. He's done a variety of writing since then, and is one of the many members of the Baseball Prospectus Alumni Association (if they don't have one yet, they should) to become quite successful. Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com should be the honorary president of the group.

For his next major project, Keri turned to an affair of the heart. If you've ever lived in a city in which one of the major league teams moved to another location, such an action can be an emotional experience. Many never get over that emotional attachment. Ask any big fan of the Buffalo Braves (NBA), for example. (Guilty)

Keri had that sort of relationship with the Montreal Expos, stretched out over 30 years. It's been 10 years since the Expos moved to Washington. Now he's gotten the entire story on paper with "Up, Up, & Away." In case you don't hail from Montreal, that refers to announcer Dave Van Horne's home run call.

The Expos had a very odd history. They came into the league for the 1969 season, without a great deal of time to prepare on and off the field. Montreal didn't have anything close to a major-league stadium ready, and had to play in tiny Jarry Park - mostly known for the pool in right field. Willie Stargell deposited a baseball there one day. The Expos also lost a lot, which was sort of expected of expansion teams back then.

Montreal couldn't rely on those excuses after a while, but developed some new ones. They got a new stadium after the 1976 Olympics were held, but it was not exactly a quaint ballpark - and the roof never worked well either. When the Expos got good in the years to come, industry labor troubles got in the way. Montreal made the playoffs for the only time in its history in 1981, a strike-shortened season in which the team just fell short of the World Series. Then 13 years later, the Expos looked to have a team that could go all the way ... only to see the season cancelled by a players strike before it ended. Ouch. The team never really recovered, in part due to ownership woes, and played out the string for the most part for the next several seasons through 2003.

The Expos did have some stars along the way, like Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Vladimir Guerrero and Steve Rogers. They also had trouble keeping them and some others around for the most part, due to finances.

Certainly Keri threw himself into this project fully. He talked to dozens and dozens of people involved with the team over the years, many of whom were happy to give uncensored answers to all of Keri's questions. Therefore, the book contains a variety of stories about the drug use of some of the players, which explains a few things about the outcome of careers. The story about how one front office employee was fired because of an affair with another staffer's wife isn't exactly typical baseball writing, but it fits in nicely to the hijinks surrounding the franchise history.

Still, it's not the gossip that's the highlight here. Keri brings an analyst's eye to the proceedings. He looks back at player moves that worked out well and not to well, using such modern statistical tools as OPS along the way. It's a fun way to examine the past with a current toolbox.

There's basically only one catch in all of this. Keri can't resist the chance to put in some references to his own fandom here, mentioning games that he saw along the way and friends that he saw those games with. Usually, personal stories are just that - personal - and it's tough to make points about such experiences in a larger contest. The tales are a little cute, but I think they could have come out for the most part without much damage. After all, this book runs almost 400 pages.

Then again, without that passion "Up, Up, and Away" probably would never have been written. Most baseball fans certainly will thoroughly enjoy the full story of a franchise that always appeared to be playing with some sort of handicap. For those who lived through the Expos' experience up close in Montreal, they'll understand what Keri was doing. So those people should give this an extra star. It will stay on your bookshelf forever.

Four stars

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: They Called Me God (2014)

By Doug Harvey and Peter Golenbock

Sporting events have had all sorts of officials over the years, but there's only been one to my knowledge with the nickname of "God."

Longtime baseball umpire Doug Harvey had it; the title would occasionally come up in the broadcasts of games that he worked. Harvey was known for his knowledge of the rules and his command while on the playing field. There was no question who was in charge when Harvey was involved in a game.

Harvey was good enough, and lasted long enough, to become one of a handful of umpires to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It's always good to hear from such immortals in book form, and Harvey checks in here with "They Called Me God."

Books from officials and umpires are a little odd. Their goal on the job is to stay anonymous and make the game go smoothly. Still, their books usually concentrate on the players and managers that are part of their workday, and on the times when events got out of hand in unexpected ways.

Harvey goes through the details of his life in a straight-forward and brisk manner. He bounced around a bit with his family as a child, and eventually found a home in sports. Harvey was good enough to earn a college athletic scholarship, but opted to drop out and go to work when he married for financial reasons. But the love of the games never left, and Harvey decided to try umpiring in the late 1950s. His rise through the ranks was astonishingly quick, as he reached the majors in only a few years. By the way, Harvey also did work in officiating basketball games, reaching the American Basketball Association in short order.

From there, the book follows the usual patterns. There are comments about stars and unknowns, great managers and one-and-done types, and fellow umpires. If nothing else, Harvey pulls no punches. For example, he still seems angry at Bob Gibson for his constant complaining during games played more than 40 years ago. However, some others in the game - from umpire crew chiefs to administrators - take more of a pounding here. The language along the way can be, um, colorful.

The book has a couple of good-sized problems that prove difficult to overcome. This is a rather short effort, particularly for the suggested price of $27. My Kindle tells me it takes about two hours to read, and it feels like it. The chapters are broken up into short segments. Even if the stories are grouped together by content, it's still a bit choppy. There aren't many opinions about umpires' labor troubles over the years and on how the game has changed since he left it, either. That would have been helpful.

Then there's the obvious delay in writing this. Harvey retired more than 20 years ago after a career than spanned more than 30 years. For those who remember the 1960s and 1970s, stories about games from that era become something of an exercise in nostalgia. That's fine, but there's aren't many of us out there who remember the Reds' Fred Hutchinson as a manager. It would have been far better to get this done almost 20 years ago, when the names were fresher.

Harvey mentions at the start of the book that he's battled some serious illnesses lately. Maybe he wanted to get his memories down on paper while he could. But for whatever reason, the delay limits the audience drastically.

Based on Harvey's tone here, you can tell why he was such a good umpire. He still carries a great deal of self-confidence, perhaps dancing around the point of arrogance, with each statement. That certainly will turn some people off.

Add it all up - the brevity, the dated material, and the lack of humility - and "They Called Me God" becomes a difficult book to like. Harvey's on-field work remains his best legacy in his profession.

Two stars

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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Review: Showtime (2014)

By Jeff Pearlman

Former Sports Illustrated senior writer Jeff Pearlman has written five other books besides "Showtime" in the past several years. I've read most of them, and they've all been fine reads.

Yet "Showtime" is the best of the bunch. Let's talk about why.

Pearlman always takes interesting subjects. The first book was on the 1986 New York Mets was certainly a wild but talented bunch. Since then, Pearlman has uncovered stories about the Dallas Cowboys' glory years and their tendencies to party hardy, and about the dark side of football superstar Walter Payton. His books on Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens weren't too flattering either, but in fairness that's sort of like shooting fish in a barrel.

The Los Angeles Lakers from 1979 to 1991 certainly qualify as interesting. Not only did they win championships, but they had a memorable cast of characters. You've probably heard of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pat Riley if you at least know what a basketball is used for. Yet the "sensational" material isn't so front-and-center here, and that makes it an even better story than most from a sports standpoint.

Pearlman brings his usual tools to the job here. He's obviously a thorough researcher, having gone through stories from a variety of media sources. Pearlman also talked to as many people as possible. Indeed, some of the best stories are either about or from the guys on the end of the bench. You know about Magic and Kareem, but you don't know much about Mark Landsberger, Earl Jones and Wes Matthews.

The author also spoke with those around the team, such as the public relations department and the newspaper beat writers. It's impressive just how many people were willing to be interviewed from that group, and how many were willing to be quoted on the record about that era. Some of those quotes can really sting. Teammate Michael Cooper says about Landsberger, "Good lord, Mark was the dumbest person I've ever met. Friendly, but historically dumb."

Pearlman is perceptive enough to put all the pieces together nicely too, and he has a good way with a paragraph. Therefore, the finished product gives what certainly come across as an excellent representation of what that team went through in those years.

The portraits of the personalities are certainly vivid. Johnson is much more than the happy-go-lucky personality he presents in public, making every practice as tough as most teams' games. Abdul-Jabbar is shown to be so aloof that even some of his teammates didn't like him. Riley turns into an egomaniac right before our eyes, going from someone who just wanted to survive as a coach to someone who demanded something close to dictatorial powers ... and was essentially fired despite a run of championships.

If you want some dirt served up with the basketball, well, there's some of that too. While Magic and Kareem stayed away from drugs, much of the rest of the team and the league wasn't too afraid to partake. But the vice of choice for the Lakers seemed to be women. Johnson's house parties seemed like something out of "Caligula." Sometimes it's tough to believe the Lakers had the energy to practice on road trips.

The whole operation was run by such figures as Dr. Jerry Buss, the owner who never saw a 20-something attractive female he didn't at least think about dating, and Jerry West, the driven general manager who was so wound up that he couldn't even stand to watch the team play in person at times.

Add this all up, and the reader not only see what those Lakers teams were like from a variety of angles, but understands why they won most of the time and occasionally lost.

"Showtime" checks in at more than 400 pages, but there aren't many dull spots along the way. The Lakers had quite a ride, and this entertaining book gives the reader a seat right next to the driver on it. Basketball fans of this era will absolutely love it.

Five stars

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: Brooks (2014)

By Doug Wilson

This review was written for The Buffalo News. You can read it by clicking here.

The synopsis: Robinson might not be the best subject for a biography, simply because there's not much conflict in the story. By all accounts, he was a better person than a ball player ... and he was a great ballplayer. Still, for those who like to read about heroes, this is a good example of someone in sports who really can be a role model to all. And I have no doubt that everyone in the Baltimore area will love this.

Three stars

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