Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: Playing Hurt (2017)

By John Saunders with John U. Bacon

Most books by nationally-known sportscasters follow a pattern. There are entertaining tales of the early days, jumping from outlet to outlet, and then the story moves into a recounting of games and personalities encountered over the years.

"Playing Hurt" is definitely not that book.

The late John Saunders had a lot happen to him in his too-short life. He tells us about many of them in his memoir, which in spots is painful to read.

From a distance, Saunders was a rather typical success story. He first became nationally known when he landed at ESPN in the late 1980s, just when the outlet was ready to take off. Saunders did a lot of events over the years, and did them well. He wasn't a polarizing figure on the air, content to merely tell you what was going on.  There's a certain dignity in that approach that was welcome; you don't have to shout all the time to get attention.

What's more, Saunders was a black from Canada, which made him different in a professional world filled with white males. If you were a youngster of color looking for a role model, Saunders certainly could fill that role. 

That's all well and good, but there is little about that side of Saunders in the book. He starts off in dramatic fashion, telling about a trip he took in 2012 to the Tappen Zee Bridge north of New York City. Saunders pulled to the side of the road of the bridge, got out of the car, walked to the edge, and thought about jumping. Depression, it turns out, came along with Saunders throughout his life, and he had to battle the demons almost every day. It's not what you'd expect out of person with a dream job and a lovely wife and two daughters.

Saunders goes into his childhood in Canada from there, and it's not pretty. His father was abusive (physically and verbally) when he bothered to be home, which wasn't often because he was usually in Ohio. His mom usually had to raise the family of three children by herself, and she had plenty of her own problems. Saunders was sexually molested by the daughter of a friend of the family before he became a teenager, causing problems in relationships for the rest of his life. Moving around a bit probably didn't help either. Saunders developed problems with alcohol and drugs, and his relationships with women were frequently distant and brief. And depression started to turn up with frequency; it would be a lifelong passenger along with diabetes.

At that point, it's easy to wonder how Saunders turned out so well professionally. A bright spot was that he was pretty good at hockey, which got him an invitation to play for a couple of colleges. Saunders sort of stumbled into a broadcasting career, starting with a job in Espanola, Ontario - I've been there, and it's even smaller than you might think it is. From there it was on to other stops, including Toronto and Baltimore, before landing at ESPN. There were some mental health issues along the way, but apparently he made his life work.

If all of that weren't enough, and it certainly would be for most people, Saunders blacked out and hit his head at work in September 2011. That caused a serious brain injury that would need a great deal of therapy. It also led to what could be called an addiction to a strong prescription drug that was issued by a doctor for reasons only known to him; other doctors were shocked at the dosage.

The story essentially ends in 2013, when Saunders has been weaned off the prescription drug and he was feeling better. Some readers will remember that when Saunders died in 2016, not a great deal was said about the reason or reasons why. While reading the book, it's easy to wonder what might have happened and why. Thankfully, co-author John U. Bacon writes an afterword about the next three years. Saunders collapsed in a bathroom and could not be revived. Doctors said he died of a combination of an enlarged heart, complications from diabetes, and another disease that affected the regulation of breathing, blood pressure and heart rate.

"Playing Hurt" isn't a happy story, of course, and it's sad that this almost-universally liked man left us too soon. Reading the story was almost shocking, and such stories aren't going to be brought to the beach to serve as a summer diversion. Still, Saunders' hope was that a book would show others with mental health issues that they aren't alone and should reach out for help. This should do that, and more.

Five stars

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: Best Canadian Sports Writing (2017)

Edited by Stacey May Fowles and Pasha Malla

"Best Canadian Sports Writing" comes across as something of an interesting experiment.

Readers of this blog know that I'm attracted to the series of anthologies highlighting some of the best sports writing in America for the past 25-plus years. Therefore, it's easy to be interested in how the format and approach might work in Canada.

Apparently, a couple of people thought the same way. Stacey May Fowles and Pasha Malla have done a variety of articles and books over the years. The call went out for contributions, people responded with stories on all sorts of different subject, and - poof! - you've got yourself a book.

The first question, then, is: does the book work? I have rather mixed feelings about that, and not just because I'm an American reading a book about Canadian sports. Living in a border city will knock down a few of the barriers that might exist in such a situation.

The biggest difference might be that the American series relies quite a bit on some established sources for stories - Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine, for starters, plus some big-city newspapers. That's not to say those sources have been come more diversified in recent years, because clearly they have - the on-line world is touching the entire world of journalism.

There are some stories in Canada's version that were somewhat surprising to read. I should start with the good news; I liked some of the efforts.

Dan Robson's story on a youth hockey team coming south from the area around Hudson Bay was very well done. I'm not sure I've read many fishing articles in my day, as I have no familiarity with the subject, but Cathal Kelly raised the subject in a way that was appealing and informative to this novice. John Lott's profile of the Toronto Blue Jays' batting practice pitcher was well done. Kristina Rutherford's profile of hockey player Harrison Browne was nicely written. Stephen Brunt's profile of the Blue Jays' Roberto Osuna was long but worthwhile.

But there were some stories about odd subjects that just didn't draw me in. Two articles on professional wrestling might have been one too many. There are tales of sumo wrestling, street drag racing, ice climbing, and ski ballet. I try to avoid stories on the UFC when possible. The transcript of a discussion of sports journalists in color struck me as relevant, but the writing didn't require more than a stenographer. And some stories, such as the essay on why a video of the Sun's surface was sort of like the New York Knicks, could have been avoided.

There were a few opinion pieces scattered along the way, and again some worked better than others. The article on how women's soccer has a chance to break through had me nodding in agreement at times, while a story on Kobe Bryant's appeal to Muslim got points for originality - although it might be a tough sell in most publications.

In the meantime, few of the stories were particularly topical. I'm not sure if that was a deliberate decision, but it sure would have been nice to read something about someone in the mainstream.

"Best Canadian Sports Writing" might have some appeal to the adventurous reader out there. I'd like to think I can qualify for that category, but it's a little over the line for me some of the time. Let's hope this became an annual effort, though, and perhaps the batting average will get better.

Three stars

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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Review: Ahead of the Curve (2016)

By Brian Kenny

If you are a baseball fan, you may have noticed that a statistical revolution has been taking place over the last couple of decades. We've come up with all sorts of new ways of more accurately measuring performance on the diamond, but it all can be a little confusing - maybe a lot confusing in some cases - to those who haven't been paying attention.

Television host Brian Kenny takes a look at the revolution in his book, "Ahead of the Curve," taking some of those advances principles and applying them to the present and the past. That's not a bad idea at all, although what he writes about may strike you as more pleasing as how he writes about it.

Some of the numbers that are kept in baseball have been with us for well over a century - batting average, pitching wins, fielding percentage, and so on. We have come to believe that a .300 hitter in baseball is a good hitter, and that a 20-game winner on the mound is a great pitcher. But there are obviously problems with those numbers. Batting average doesn't account for walks and power, which makes it less effective than on-base percentage and slugging percentage (now combined into one number by many called OPS) in making those judgments. Pitching wins have an obvious bias toward good teams (the more games you win ...) and offensive support. Sometimes a pitcher gets eight runs scored for him every time he takes the mound, and suddenly he has a 14-2 record. Earned-run average is a better tool to judge pitchers, although that has its drawbacks too.

It's rather remarkable how much information is now available to baseball teams, and they are busy coming up with more of it. Every major league franchise has an office full of bright people who are looking for an edge. Sometimes they find one. If you saw or read "Moneyball," you realize how on-base percentage was overlooked for sometime, giving the Oakland Athletics an edge. The Pirates jumped on board the concepts of defensive shifts and pitch framing early, which helped their rise from sub-mediocrity.

Kenny goes through a variety of topics here along those lines. He thinks the save isn't really a good barometer of relief pitching, and that teams are on their way to changing their use of pitchers so that more hurlers appear regularly in a game for a shorter length of time. If you watched the Indians last year work their way to the World Series, you realize that he may be right. Kenny throws in a look at MVP selections over time and who should have been taken in a given year. That might not be fair in spots, since sports writers didn't have today's tools, but it's a fun exercise. That includes the 1941 American League debate, which pitted Joe DiMaggio and his 56-game winning streak against Ted Williams and his .406 average. Kenny eventually goes with DiMaggio, who did win it at the time, but wavers along the way.

This is all fine, and if you are looking for a course in such matters, you'll be well-served in that sense. But I found myself coming back to the question, did I like reading this? That's a tougher one.

I remember Kenny from his days at ESPN. I don't see him on the air now because he's on the MLB Network, which isn't on my cable package. Kenny comes across in the book as really sure of himself, as if anyone who disagrees with him isn't worth his time. Some of the reviews on amazon.com indicate that he's like that on the air too.

I always like to say that if I'm going to read a book about something, I want to enjoy the author's company along the way. I found myself getting tired of baseball people and reporters being insulted here. I would have preferred to have been given the facts, which are on Kenny's side, and gone on from there. I know, though, that television these days prefers loud to reasonable.

"Ahead of the Curve" accomplishes its goal, and I can understand why many readers have liked it. Maybe they'll now understand I'm a little less enthusiastic about it.

Three stars

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Monday, June 12, 2017

Review: Hockey Towns (2015)

By Ron MacLean with Kirstie McLellan Day

Ron MacLean, best known north of the border for his hosting work on Hockey Night in Canada, apparently has become something of an author in his spare time.

His first book was something of an autobiography, "Cornered," which was a rather entertaining look at his career and his encounters with interesting people along the way.

In 2015, MacLean came back with "Hockey Towns." My guess, and it's only a guess, that MacLean probably was even more comfortable with the approach this time around. Here he pretty much stays out of the picture, and tells stories about some people in hockey across Canada.

CBC has traveled across the country over the years to look at the relationship of Canada and its national pastime. The hockey community really is closely knit up there. While the format salutes a variety of locations crossing this giant nation, MacLean and Kirstie McLellan Day stick to other people here.

Some of the best stories here answer the question "Whatever happened to ...?" There are a variety of NHL players who pass through our lives as fans, sometimes not stopping long enough in one place for us to get to know them. There's Trent McCleary, who almost died after blocking a shot but recovered enough to give the sport one last shot. Steve Bozek scratched out 12 years in the NHL, a few more than even he hoped for. Brad Dalgarno's career didn't work out the way he hoped, but he did get to play guitar on stage with Garth Brooks.

There are tales about names you know. Doug Wickenheiser was a No. 1 overall draft choice who drew comparisons to Wayne Gretzky, but that's a rather high bar to reach - particularly when you get hit by a car that wrecks your knee along the way. Speaking of Gretzky, you'll love a story about a childhood friend signed him to a "book contract" - in high school. There are also tales about some of the other people in hockey - officials and administrators and a broadcaster and parents, including the remarkable story of the father of Zenon Konopka.

Does it all work? Not completely. A few of the stories aren't that interesting to an outsider. Some of the tales don't have happy endings, if you are looking for such work. And in a few cases, such as the subchapter on Eric Lindros, more information would have been nice.

While MacLean does write introductions to the chapters, he doesn't seem to have too much involvement with most of the stories themselves. Based on the credits, it seems like the two names on the cover had plenty of help putting this together. That puts a little distance between the authors and their stories in some cases, and a more personal touch might have worked better.

Put it all together, and "Hockey Towns" is a pleasant enough read for hockey fans. I wouldn't go much farther than that, though.

Three stars

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Sunday, June 4, 2017

Review: The Last Innocents (2016)

By Michael Leahy

We all thought, at the time, the Los Angeles Dodgers were an interesting team in the 1960s.

This was a team, after all, that played baseball as if it were the Dead Ball Era (pre-1920). Not every game was 1-0, but it seemed that way. The Dodgers had a couple of Hall of Fame pitchers, and scratched out a run or two to help them win. A rally was a walk, two stolen bases and a sacrifice fly. John McGraw would have loved it.

But they may be even more interesting now, thanks to the work of author Michael Leahy. His thoroughly research book on those Dodgers, "The Last Innocents," does an excellent job on shedding new light on a team that came very close to being a dynasty.

Just for background's sake, let's review what the team accomplished in that era. The Dodgers moved out of Brooklyn in 1957, and started to turn over their roster. Their World Series win in 1959 was something of a mixture of the old and new, but the team had a new look by the team the team moved into Dodger Stadium in 1962 - a pitcher's park in which runs would be hard to come by.

Sandy Koufax was about to become, well, Sandy Koufax, and Don Drysdale was mighty good too at the top of the rotation. A scrawny shortstop named Maury Wills, considered a nonprospect by most, grabbed a starting job and revolutionized the game by bringing the stolen base back. The Dodgers almost won the pennant in 1962, took the Series in 1963 and 1965, and lost to Baltimore in the Fall Classic in 1966. After that, Koufax retired, Wills and outfielder Tommy Davis were traded, and the Dodgers needed several years to regenerate their talent base.

Leavy looks at those teams mostly through the perspective of seven players - Wills, Koufax, Davis, Wes Parker, Jeff Torborg, Dick Tracewski and Lou Johnson. That's an interesting mixture of players - from stars to subs. All but the reclusive Koufax were willing to talk at length about those Los Angeles teams.

The games mostly take a back seat to the people here, which is a good idea in a book about a team from more than 50 years ago. Wills grew into a team leader on and off the field, but along the way would barely make a peep about what he sought at contract time. Parker, the son of rich parents, apparently had what looked like an easy life - except that his family life as a youth was a nightmare and baseball was his way of escape. The two life stories of the two Dodger infielders are at the center of the story. Torborg and Tracewski were mostly backup but provide plenty of insight here, while Johnson remains a fun character to this day.

Even so, Koufax might be the most fascinating person in the narrative, even from the distance of second-hand information. He was (and still is, no doubt) intelligent and well-rounded, but far more competitive and proud according to teammates that the outside world might have thought. All were in awe of what he was able to do with an arm that seem to degrade with every pitch.

There are plenty of stories here about Dodger management, which for the most part center on general manager Buzzie Bavasi. The franchise was a money machine in those days, and Bavasi was in charge of keeping it that way. He was a man of contradictions - someone who would lend a hand to a Dodger down on his luck one minute, and then pull deceptive negotiating methods the next. It's interesting, though, that Walt Alston, the team's manager barely comes up in the discussion. It sounds like he didn't make much of a footprint, although someone had to be pressing some buttons correctly for the team to do well.

The book has the subtitle of "The Collision of the Turbulent Sixties and the Los Angeles Dodgers." It's difficult not to touch on the surrounding events of the Sixties when writing about any part of it. The players were visible at a time when Vietnam and civil rights were becoming major issues throughout the country, and had to be careful expressing viewpoints while working for a quite conservative business. Internally, the baseball players union more or less started in the 1960s once Marvin Miller came aboard, and that changed everything - although not during the Dodgers' run. Those events, though, take a back seat to the team itself.

Leahy jumps in with a couple of strong opinions along the way. He believes Wills should be in the Hall of Fame, and that the Dodgers handled Koufax's arm problems terribly. Both are very defensible positions. In fairness, Wills' addition of speed to the game changed baseball, but may not have had the long career that is the usual prerequisite for a trip to Cooperstown. It's always tough to judge the revolutionaries in that context. Hindsight is 20-20 with Koufax, and there's no way he would be treated the same way medically now. But it wasn't uncommon in the mid-Sixties to work a pitcher on two days rest when someone thought it was necessary, and complete games were much more common. We're all learned a lot on the subject of arms since then, even if there's still some mystery about it.

This is a fairly long book at more than 450 pages, but the material is frequently fresh and almost always interesting. "The Last Innocents" won the Casey Award as the best baseball book of 2016. I haven't read all of the nominees, but my guess is that this one is a very worthy winner.

Five stars

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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Review: Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic (2017)

By Jason Turbow

Those old to remember have heard a lot about the Oakland Athletics of the early 1970s. I mean, a lot about the Athletics.

It's a group that won three straight World Series titles from 1972 to 1974 inclusive. That means they won six straight postseason series, which was a record at the time. They did it in a unique way too, fighting with the owner and fighting with themselves. The former was legal and financial, the latter was more physical.

Some of the stories spilled out into the public, where the media was more than happy to pass them along. You could almost see the heads shaking as the information got distributed. But we didn't know everything.

It took a while, but it's nice to get the whole story in one place now. That's the job Jason Turbow does in "Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic." Plenty of books have covered this era in one form or another, but - without reading them all - my guess is that this is the best one.

The Athletics would have been an interesting story even if they sang songs together around the campfire. The franchise spent a great deal of money on prospects in the late 1960s, as owner Charlie Finley tried to end a skid that dated back for decades. Not every dollar was well spent, but Finley's money went to enough good causes to make it work.

The A's, as Finley liked to call them, had quite a cast of developing stars and solid workmen. It was headed by Reggie Jackson, a fabulous talent who carried some baggage along in terms of ego but was kept under control by teammates who had been with him since they were all in the minors. Jim "Catfish" Hunter recovered from a shot to the foot to become a Hall of Fame pitcher. Rollie Fingers found his niche in the bullpen, providing another ticket to Cooperstown, He probably received more publicity for his distinctive mustache than his pitching. Joe Rudi was called "underrated" so often in his day that someone once said he should be simply "rated" - because we all knew how good he really was. Then there was Vida Blue, who when good was very, very good and had a name so lyrical that, as sportswriter Jim Murray once said, made you want to go home and yell at your parents for naming you Jim.

The other guys on the roster may not have gotten the attention of the others, but were pretty good too. Sal Bando was the glue of the team, Bert Campaneris was the sparkplug, Billy North added speed and defense, Dick Green was a defensive wizard, and Ken Holtzman was a dependable starter. Yes, they didn't get along so well at times, but they were united by a hatred of Finley. As Turbow recounts, it was always something new with Finley. Not only was playing for the Athletics of that time frustrating and maddening, but it was also exhausting. Finley appreciated his femployees, but only on his terms. When crossed, the owner could be petty and bizarre. Like most bullies, he tried to get his way all the time - and he roared (and sued) when he didn't.

Finally, Finley's stubborness proved to be past of the reason for his downfall. He didn't honor a contract with Hunter, and thus lost him as a free agent to the Yankees. The reserve clause soon passed away after that, and Finley couldn't come close to afford what it would take to keep the team together - particularly with the shoestring organization that he had put together around the team. The pieces soon scattered with the wind.

Turbow talked to as many members of those teams as he could, getting an impressive amount of people to look back. Their memories can be a little rough in terms of language. On the other hand, it's tough to picture the little ones even picking this story up. The author also does a nice job of putting the story together without too many details of the games. Yes, some moments of the big playoff games get highlights, but with the hindsight of around 45 years, they are less important than the stories about the principals and their personalities. The story moves along nicely.

"Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic" has more than enough going for it to keep just about any baseball fan entertained by a unique story line - especially if you are old enough to remember the story. And if this group remains your favorite all-time team - which probably hits quite a number of people in the Bay Area - do yourself a favor and buy this book right now.

Four stars

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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Review Sting Like a Bee (2017)

By Leigh Montville

Ever since Leigh Montville stopped writing newspaper and magazine articles and started writing books, you can never tell what he's going to work on next. Let's see - there have been books on Babe Ruth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ted Williams, Evel Knievel, and Manute Bol among others.

This year, he's added another interesting choice to the list. Admittedly, forests could have been spared if Muhammad Ali hadn't come around when he did. All sorts of books have been written about him over the years. It's hard to turn away from his personality.

But this is different. Montville opts here to write about the time when he had an epic fight with the United States government over his draft status. That's a big part of the Ali legend at this point, but it's not a particularly well-known story. That's why "Sting Like a Bee" is a useful addition to the library.

For those of you too young to remember, Ali really did shock the work when he defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight boxing title in 1964. Then he did it again the next day by announcing that he had joined the Nation of Islam, a controversial Muslim group. Ali eventually changed his name from Cassius Clay. To say this all was unpopular would be a great understatement. Put it this way - most people thought the reputation of the boxing championship was tarnished - and Liston was known to be under the influence of organized crime. Plenty of people refused to call Ali by his new name; you'd think it would be easy to respect someone's personal wishes in this department.

Ali zipped through the heavyweight division's contenders, with his only roadblock being the draft board. After flunking an intelligence test, the military opted to reclassify several people by taking them into their ranks and giving them special training. Suddenly Ali was 1-A, and he claimed that his religion would not allow him to fight in Vietnam. Besides, Ali added, the Viet Cong had never discriminated against him. (His language was more colorful, but you get the idea.)

Montville gives the blow-by-blow account of the legal battle over Ali's status. There are a variety of stops and starts, but a key side issue was that Ali lost his boxing license once he refused induction - thus taking away his right to earn a living while he was fighting the case in court. It's a strange tale for the author - a book about a boxer without a heck of a lot of boxing along the way. Ali's journey almost is more of a legal expedition, as lawyers keep looking for a way for Ali to avoid military service.

The author makes a great point when he writes that as the Vietnam War became less and less popular, Ali's defiance became more and more mainstream. He eventually won his case to get his boxing license back, and fought a couple of times before the epic bout with Joe Frazier. Right after that, Ali won his case in the Supreme Court - and as Montville reminds us, he won it mostly because the Court Justices worked hard to find a legal loophole so that Ali wouldn't become a martyr in jail.

Montville did lots of reading about Ali and the Nation of Islam, and he sought out all sorts of people who played some sort of role in the story. The author even gets a lot of material from Ali's second wife, although some of it feels like it's from a different book in terms of content. Some of the twists and turns weren't particularly well publicized at the time, so it's good to catch up with it here.

There is one stumbling block here, and it's a good-sized one in terms of some readers' enjoyment of the story. There is plenty of legal stuff here, and it's quite dry. Montville includes quite a bit of legal testimony and documents verbatim, and it's hardly brisk reading. And that's an odd combination with Montville's wordy writing style, which can be a little tough to navigate if you aren't used to it. Ali certainly doesn't come off as a saint here either, mostly because of his wife's comments. That may not please the big fans, and disillusion others.

"Sting Like A Bee" is a good addition to the Ali library, filling in a literary gap. I'm just not sure it's going to work for everyone; I've read most of Montville's books (and loved him as a columnist) so I'm a little biased. If you are willing to put up with the lack of fun and excitement in a book about a fun and exciting public figure, dive in and receive an education.

Four stars

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