Saturday, September 20, 2014

Review: The System (2013)

By Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian

Think of Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian as photographers.

For a couple of years, they went around the country taking snapshots of college football. Sometimes they saw something interesting, stopped for a moment, snapped the picture and moved on. At other times they lingered, looking at different ways to take the picture.

That, in essence, is what "The System" is all about.

Benedict has done variety of investigative articles for Sports Illustrated over the years, while Keteyian works for CBS News. In other words, they bring plenty of credibility to the table.

The best stories might be the ones explored in depth. Benedict and Keteyian jump around the country following the adventures of Mike Leach. He's the head coach who was forced to leave Texas Tech due to some, shall we say, controversy over his methods, but landed at Washington State. Even Leach's detractors would admit that the coach is good at what he does.

Brigham Young University also receives plenty of coverage here, spread over a few chapters. In particular, the story of Ezekiel Ansah is compelling. Ansah, from Ghana in Africa, tried out for football because he was cut from other sports despite some obvious athletic gifts. Ansah essentially started with "this is a football" and worked his way over the couple of years into the starting lineup ... and then some.

Even the biggest college football fans will admit that the relationship between athletics and education at the university level is an odd one. Most schools are forced to look at football as something of a loss leader, a way to introduce the university to the public while losing tons of money along the way. And it comes with baggage, lots of baggage.

There are hostesses, attractive female upperclassmen, hired by the athletic department to lure high school recruits to the program. It's often the hostesses who are the ones with ethical standards there. Boosters range from the wealthy to the ridiculously wealthy, the latter shown by T. Boone Pickens who has donated about $248 million (at last count) to help Oklahoma State's athletic fortunes. There are tutors for athletes who become involved in sexual scandals, a frightening injury rate that has more long-term implications than we realize, and under-the-table offers to recruits involving huge amounts of money and other benefits. Overseeing all of it is the NCAA, somewhat overwhelmed by its job of keeping everything clean but coming on like a lion when it has the chance.

The authors also point out some of the good parts. Alabama gets credit for putting on a first-class program without many incidents while winning. But it's tough to do that, or everyone would be doing it. The mixture of professionalism and fun that is mixed on ESPN's "Gameday" on Saturday mornings is nicely profiled here.

Benedict and Keteyian don't propose any answers here; they are just showing us the landscape. Most of it is quite interesting over the nearly 400 pages. Let's face it; it's difficult to make an NCAA investigation riveting. And they've done their homework, talking to a few hundred people along the way over two years.

"The System" gets credit for where we are in the sport. You probably won't follow college football in the same way that you did before reading it. And it's a great starting point for a discussion about where the entire enterprise should be going in the future.

Four stars

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: Draw in the Dunes (2014)

By Neil Sagebiel

Let's start with the basics - the 1969 Ryder Cup basically is remembered for one moment - a putt that was never attempted.

In fact, it's probably the reason why "Draw in the Dunes," the story of that tournament, was written and published.

Funny how things sometimes work out.

That moment certainly will be mentioned this month, as the Ryder Cup competition resumes on the other side of the Atlantic. The best of the United States and the best of the Europe will square off in a team competition, You no doubt will see players affected by a different type of pressure, and suffer for it as a result.

It's been 45 years since that non-putt, and author Neil Sagebiel takes us back to 1969 and the Royal Birkdale Golf Club to review the competition. The Ryder Cup was in some trouble at that point, as the format matched the United States' pros versus Great Britain's best. That once was more than a fair fight, but by the late Sixties the Americans were dominating the event. The U.S. had lost once since a defeat in 1933.

Entering 1969's competition, the Americans seemed to have all of the big guns. Jack Nicklaus was on that team, followed by Lee Trevino, Ray Floyd, Billy Casper and other solid players. The British team had Tony Jacklin, on the roll of his life, and several guys who might have popped up on a British Open leaderboard once in a while. However, as a team, Great Britain didn't figure to be much of a threat.

In stunning fashion, the Brits jumped out to an early lead and stayed close throughout the competition. Jacklin was a tiger, and players such as Neil Coles and Peter Townsend were on top of their games. It all came down to the last singles competition, Jacklin and Nicklaus, and the last hole, the 18th. Both men had short birdie putts, relatively easy under normal circumstances but certainly much more difficult when a team championship was on the line. Nicklaus rolled in a testy 5-footer, which guaranteed that America would keep possession of the Cup since the U.S. could do no worse than tie.

Nicklaus then walked over and picked up Jacklin's ball marker, conceding the putt. He wasn't going to let his friend suffer the possible consequences of a missed putt in front of his home country. In the cutthroat world of sports, then and now, it was a memorable gesture of sportsmanship.

The story  as presented here doesn't have much momentum in the early going. Safebiel goes over some recent (from the 1969 perspective) golf history of the Ryder Cup and the participants. Part of the problem is that from an American perspective, few British players from that group are familiar to golf fans on this side of the Atlantic today. Peter Alliss is one of them, but that's more of a tribute to his work as a broadcaster. If only for that reason, it's easy to think this book might be more successful in reaching a British audience. When the golf balls start to fly in the story, it's also difficult to make the play-by-play of a golf event like this come alive years later, although some of the participants do give some good comments about what they were thinking at the time.

But eventually, the competition slowly winds down to Nicklaus vs. Jacklin, and that remembered and dramatic gesture. Not only do the two principals give their thoughts, but some of the other team members jump in with reactions. It's interesting to discover that opinions have changed about the incident over the course of 45 years.

It's tough to argue successfully that the 1969 Ryder Cup started us on the road to the huge international event that goes on today. The Americans went back to their winning ways through the final four U.S.-G.B match-ups, and only the full participation of European players changed the dynamics of the competition.

"Draw in the Dunes" certainly fulfills its key role - explaining exactly what happened on that famous non-putt, and how it's perceived today. It's difficult to say that most golf fans will want more information on the entire event than that; a long magazine article might have satisfied the curiosity of many. But it's nice to have the information published, professionally written, and available.

Three stars

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Review: Baseball's Greatest Comeback (2014)

By J. Brian Ross

One hundred years later, we still remember the "Miracle Braves." For the ten decades since then, teams that have gotten off to poor stars - meaning sitting in last place at the start of July - have been looking to that Braves team as an example that just about anything is possible.

The 100th anniversary of that team's fabled rise is as good a time as any to refresh the memory of that story. J. Brian Ross takes up the cause by retelling the tale of the Braves' season with "Baseball's Greatest Comeback."

The Braves dug themselves a huge hole in the first two months of the season, getting off to a 10-24 start. That put them well out of the National League pennant race, and a month later they were 15 games behind the New York Giants and still sitting in last.

On July 7, the Braves stopped in Buffalo for an exhibition game with the minor league Bisons. The author doesn't note that manager George Stallings had worked in Buffalo from 1902 to 1906 and in the 1911-12 seasons, winning two championships there, and thus had some incentive to play well in a game that didn't count. Afterwards, Stallings and the rest of the Braves weren't happy about getting thrashed by "bush leaguers," and maybe that loss threw a switch. Or, maybe the Braves simply started living up to their potential.

Whatever the reason, the Braves went from 26-40 on July 4 to 69-53 at the end of the season - a record of 43-13. Boston went from eighth to first to win the division, and unexpectedly swept the mighty Philadelphia Athletics to win the World Series. More modern fans might remember how the New York Mets went on a huge run in the last six weeks of 1969's regular season to win the division, and then raced through the playoffs. This was even more unexpected, since it was a "worst-to-first" story.

Stallings became famous for his work in that season, but he obviously had help. The Braves had a Hall of Fame double play combination in Rabbit Maranville and Johnny Evers, a fine catcher in Hank Gowdy, and two 26-game winners in Dick Rudolph and Bill James. The team also made a couple of relatively important in-season moves that helped improve the roster.

Author J. Brian Ross obviously put in some time doing research, checking over newspaper accounts of games and looking over other sources of material. He even uses some new-age statistics (OPS and WAR) every so often along the way. The back of the book is jammed with notes.

Therefore, there's a lot of information here about the team that's useful. Even so, it comes across as a rather dry literary effort that includes a few redundancies along the way.

Part of it might be Ross' academic background. There's not much enthusiasm expressed to carry the reader along, so it's a little hard to get caught up in the story. Ross also wants to make a connection between the team and the Progressive Era in American history, represented by the reforms started by Teddy Roosevelt and carried forward into the next decade. But the ties aren't really explained fully and seem a little forced. I should add here that the author's use of raising events from the start of World War I in 1914 do supply some context to events on this side of the ocean, as baseball must have seemed quite frivolous to those on the Western Front.

In addition, it would have been nice to have seen a good breakdown between what went wrong at the start of the season and what went right at the end. There are a few statistics mentioned, but the story could have used more analysis.The writers of the time often credited Boston's "fighting spirit," but obviously the long winning streak (19-1) by pitcher James - which came out of absolutely nowhere - was a little more helpful. James, by the way, never came close to matching his 1914 performance.

The story checks in at less than 170 pages including the introduction, and that includes short biographies of some other large baseball personalities who didn't play for the Braves - Cy Young, John McGraw, Connie Mack, etc. That's not much for a book listed at $38. It might have been nice to read an epilogue on what happened after the World Series victory - individually and collectively. The Braves remained good for a couple of years after the Miracle, but didn't win anything.

"Baseball's Greatest Comeback" supplies well-documented information on the 1914 Boston Braves, and those looking for the basic story of the team will find it here. Even so, I found myself using an old analogy when thinking about the publication - all of the notes are there, but there's not much music.

Three stars

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Review: Second to None (2014)

By Joseph Valerio

The Buffalo News received the full-length review of this book. You can find it by clicking here.

The much shorter version - Bills fans who long to read about a time when their team was an NFL powerhouse ought to gobble up this book, which is short on game-by-game analysis but long on personalities and perspective.

Four stars

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Friday, September 5, 2014

Review: Baseball - It's More Than Just a Game (2014)

By Greg Lucas

Take it from a former co-worker of Greg Lucas - the man loves baseball.

We worked together at a radio station, and Greg was happiest when he was broadcasting Buffalo Bisons' games. The games were played in something of a funhouse, as War Memorial Stadium had some bizarre dimensions, but the games were never boring. You could tell then that Greg would like nothing more than to be around the game full-time.

A couple of stops later, he did that. Lucas worked on the broadcasts of the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros. That eventually got him into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame.

There are other ways to stay connected to baseball, of course, and Lucas has found one of them. His first book, "Baseball: It's More Than Just a Game," is now out. It's worth a look.

The subtitle of the book sort of sounds like something that could be a segment on a television broadcast. Sure enough, Lucas did do a long-running TV segment called "Tales of the Game." They included bits of odd history about baseball, based partly on questions from viewers. It's an easy jump from there to the book.

The publication is loosely broken into categories, such as equipment, hitters, pitchers, first, stadiums, the minor leagues, etc. Each chapter is organized into bite-sized portions, which go down quickly and easily. This actually isn't as easy as it sounds. Take it from a guy who wrote a book last year with a similar format - it takes a lot of research to come up with so many individual bits. I'm happy to report that I didn't spot any obvious historical errors here. Lucas obviously discovered that the 19th century was a fruitful place to look for bizarre stories and the sport's beginnings.

It checks in at just over 200 pages, so reading it is not a major project. There are some good, historic pictures passed along the way too. Lucas adds a few other photos from his personal collection. The writing is fine - clear and concise. Sometimes regional book publishers can make a book look a little amateurish at times, but Chart House Press did a good job in that department.

If there's a surprise here, it's that Lucas resists the temptation to make some of the stories a bit more personal. Yes, it opens with his early memories of the game and has some other anecdotes of a personal nature. Otherwise, this could have been written by any baseball author just about anywhere. That means, of course, that you don't have to be a fan of the Rangers or Astros to like this book. It ought to work about for just about anyone anywhere who enjoys reading about some off-beat elements of the game. Lucas is said to be working on a second book; maybe that one will be more personal.

I'm not going to give this a rating because of my personal connection to the author. I'm pretty confident that baseball fans of all types were learn a few things by reading this, and enjoy the material that they already committed to their memory banks.

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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review: Rock 'n' Roll Soccer (2014)

By Ian Plendelieith

The attention that the United States team received in the World Cup soccer tournament this summer caught many by surprise. Suddenly, thousands were living and dying with each play of the tournament in Brazil. Large-screen television broadcasts the games to thousands in public squares in cities throughout America. For a country that had yawned at the game for the most part for decades, it was a shock.

However, for those who remember the North American Soccer League, particularly in its glory days of the 1970s, the explosion of interest seemed a bit more credible.

The NASL at one point was selling out Giants Stadium in New Jersey to the tune of 76,000 fans, and some of the biggest names of the game - admittedly past their prime in most cases - were playing on our shores.

It's nice then to have a hard-headed, objective look at what went right and what went wrong with the NASL. Ian Plenderleith supplies exactly that in his book, "Rock 'n' Roll Soccer."

The author takes through the start of American pro soccer in the early Sixties, when we were just starting to figure out how the pro league should get going. After some starts and starts that included a league and teams folding, the NASL got going in earnest.

While you could argue that the Cosmos were the league's flagship team, complete with names like Pele, Chinaglia and Beckenbauer, Plenderleith takes a wider approach. He talks to a variety of people from throughout the league in history. That gives a balanced approach to the NASL as a whole. Some of the names and teams mentioned ought to bring back memories. It would be easy to stick to the Cosmos, since they were the glamour team that attracted most of the publicity and are the subject of many of the books covering that time period. Plenderleith is after a wider story, one sticking to soccer as opposed to delving into drugs and parties off the pitch.

The NASL did plenty of things wrong, as the author points out. It expanded too quickly and was too optimistic about future success. Few of the teams could make money in those days, and eventually the dollars dried out. When the fad faded, the league came crashing down rather quickly in the early 1980s.

But Plenderleith points out that the NASL has had an influence on the game that still is felt today. The rest of the world was content with 0-0 or 1-0 games that left soccer with a reputation for boredom here. The NASL encouraged scoring at all costs, and thus increased the entertainment value. It also worked to teach the game to newcomers, and brought show biz to the game presentation. Teams in other countries were taking notes, and international soccer evolved to encompass those qualities.

Plenderleith serves as a good guide for all of this. He obviously knows the game, and it's interesting to read his comments after watching games on DVDs years later. The NASL's level of play seems to surprise him. Plenderleith, an Englishman who has spent many years here, does a little bashing of Washington as a representative of American society as a whole in one section. There's a little anger there, and it doesn't really fit in with the rest of the book. Otherwise, though, he's supplies knowledge and perspective.

"Rock 'n' Roll Soccer," then really fits a nice little niche in reviewing an era with American soccer in a way that appeals to fans of the sport. It's a valuable addition to the library of those who qualify, even if that number won't be overwhelmingly large.

Four stars

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review: The Devil's Snake Curve (2014)

By Josh Ostergaard

The best way to review "The Devil's Snake Curve," a unique baseball entry of the literary season, is to describe it. And that takes some doing.

At its most basic level, the book is a collection of anecdotes about the game. They range from a paragraph or two to about five pages, although for the most part they are on the short side.

The stories are mostly about professional baseball - the majors in particular - but not completely. There are some personal tales thrown in along the way. And they are in chronological order - but not completely. The personal stories are added in no particular interval, as author Josh Ostergaard doesn't follow the chronology rigidly.

There are a few themes in here. There are plenty of entries on facial hair and baseball through the decades. The New York Yankees - sometimes as a symbol of hatred, sometimes as a symbol of American power - pop up quite a bit. Some left-wing politics also turn up here and there.

It's easy to give credit to Ostergaard for research. There are all sorts of stories about major league baseball in the 227 pages of text, and I'd have to say that I haven't heard of many of them. A few might be familiar to baseball fans who study the obscure, but even then Ostergaard has a way of putting a different spin on a particular situation.

Your first reaction might be a bit similar to mine - it's impressive that such a non-mainstream book even was published. It's put out by Coffee House Press, a nonprofit imprint that receives grants to public interesting writing. Ostergaard's approach certainly qualifies. He mixes facts and opinions in unique ways.

You also should know that the manuscript was finished in the spring of 2013, so don't look for timely stories about the last couple of years. This is all told in bite-sized amounts, so those who don't like a particular story can just move on and perhaps find something of interest a moment later.

So, dear reader, will you like this? That's a decided "maybe." Certainly conservatives and Yankee fans won't love it. But "The Devil's Snake Curve" certainly has some merit, as it's frequently entertaining. Fans who like obscure history mixed with their baseball certainly should take a look at this if they come across it at a bookstore. They might find after a few bite-sized morsels that they want to make a full meal out of it.

Three stars

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