Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Review: The Wax Pack (2020)

By Brad Balukjian

"The Wax Pack" starts with an interesting concept from an unusual baseball author.

Brad Balukjian doesn't have the standard biography. He has a Ph.D. in entomology from the University of California at Berkeley, and currently teaches biology at Merritt College in Oakland, California.

Balukjian admits he's always been a bit of a nerd, probably in part because he's been diagnosed with OCD. He's been a baseball fan for much of his life, and had the thought of seeing what some of his childhood heroes are like now.

Here's the concept - he bought an unopened pack of baseball cards from 1986, opened them up, and tried to figure out a way to meet everyone in that particular pack. Balukjian admits he actually bought a few different selections and picked one, if only so that most of the guys on the cards were still alive about 30 years later.

The 15 cards became 14 players, thanks to the inclusion of a checklist. Balukjian hopped in his car and drove across the country and back to chase them down. The list included everyone from Carlton Fisk to Jamie Cocanower, which you must admit covers a wide range of talents and careers. Al Cowens was the only one of the 14 who has passed away, and Balukjian checks in with a family member and a gravesite there. The author also looks up his favorite player of all time, Don Carman, as well as an old girlfriend and his father along the way as well. When you can see middle age, as Balukjian was at the time this was researched, you start feeling a little more nostalgic.

Balukjian takes a different approach than most journalists would use. He's more interested in the roots of the players and how they are handling life after retirement from playing than the details of their careers themselves. At the front end, he discovers several who came from divorced families, perhaps showing that athletics can be a refuge for the kids in such situations. There was still plenty of games of catch along the way between fathers and sons, though. At the other end, a good-sized number stayed close to the game.

Balukjian makes a a not unexpected but interesting discovery along the way - the level of cooperation to the idea is more or less inverse to the level of stardom that the player obtained. In other words, Cocanower couldn't have been nicer, inviting the writer to the house for a July 4 picnic. Meanwhile, Fisk was totally uncooperative, and Balukjian ended up getting into something of a shouting match with Fisk's agent over the phone. Rick Sutcliffe, a former Cy Young Award winner and television analyst, scores points as the most down to earth of the bigger names of the 14. Good for him. Vince Coleman never was located and Gary Pettis wasn't allowed to do interviews in his role as a coach for the Astros. No one said meeting everyone in the pack was going to be easy.

With that covered, the key question remains: Does it work? That may depend on your viewpoint, Mr. or Ms. Reader.

It's interesting to read about the players who were willing to sit down and talk at length about their lives. They all have a story to tell, partly because they are exceptional simply to play in the major leagues (and, of course, be on the front of a baseball card). But at times this has something of a "What I did on my summer vacation" feel to it. It's more of a journal of the trip, and the personal side of it gives this a less-than-traditional tone.

The early reviews of this book have been rather glowing. Even George Will was willing to supply some happy words for the sake of publicity. I'm not quite ready to go that far. The book held my interest, but I'm not sure I'll remember much beyond the idea for any length of time - well, except about Fisk's prickly personality.

You might find Balukjian better reading company for a long trip like this than I did. Therefore, by all means feel free to take a look at "The Wax Pack." If you like the concept, you'll be willing to go for the full ride.

Three stars

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Sunday, February 9, 2020

Review: The Game (2018)

By George Howe Colt

It seems difficult to grasp the idea that one of the most famous games in college football history - and one that doesn't date back to antiquity - took place in the Ivy League.

In 1968, Harvard and Yale both went into their season-ending rivalry game with undefeated records. It looked bleak for the host Harvard team as it trailed by a good-sized margin. But the Crimson scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds to earn a 29-29 tie. The school newspaper came up with a headline later that summed up the game perfectly (from the school's standpoint): "Harvard beats Yale, 29-29."

That's the starting point for George Howe Colt's book, "The Game." But, naturally, it's a lot more than that.

Begin with the fact that Colt has an interesting group of people that were involved in the game. Some of our best and brightest come out of Harvard and Yale, two of the top universities in the country. So we know from the start that they will have a lot to say, and that they will say it well.

Then we mix all that with the times. You might have heard about the Sixties, when many of our certainties turned to mush. It was a time of movements - the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the anti-war (Vietnam) movement. They were pushing America in different directions.

You can imagine how that all went over at Harvard and Yale, the most conservative of our educational institutions. They had been happy in the past to teach the children of alumni and top prep school graduates to move into the useful places among the elite of society. All of a sudden, that wasn't good enough. The schools had to reach out to those who didn't fit the old stereotypes, and slowly include them. That meant everything from the start of a black studies program to taking the initial steps of making women full partners in the experience.

But all of that, as of 1968, had to take something of a backseat to the Vietnam War. The students at both schools were looking at the military draft once their undergraduate education was completed, and thus their concerns and questions about America's participation in the conflict in Southeast Asia were immediate. Could anyone concentrate on a mere football game under those circumstances?

Indeed they could. Harvard and Yale still could have an impact on the national sports media in those days, perhaps out of habit. The idea of those teams playing for a conference title while both of them were unbeaten was too irresistible to ignore. Part of the attraction was that the Bulldogs had two stars on offense that were almost too good to be true. Brian Dowling was the All-American boy as a quarterback, a kid out of Cleveland who hadn't even lost a game since he was in seventh grade. Fullback Calvin Hill could have played anywhere in the country, and a coach once said he could have played at any of the 22 positions on the field. Hill became a first-draft draft choice of the Cowboys and had a fine pro career; you may have heard of his son, basketball Hall of Famer Grant.

Colt takes us through the season nicely, introducing us to the players and their circumstances along the way. The Harvard team is a bit more anonymous because of the lack of star power, unless you could a future movie star - Tommy Lee Jones. (Meryl Streep also has a cameo role in the book as the girlfriend of Harvard player Bob Levin.) The coaches - John Yovicsin of Harvard and Carm Cozza of Yale - also receive their share of attention.

Finally, the game arrives, and Colt - who was there and still has the ticket stub - makes the game come alive nicely. He combines observations of film with personal recollections. It's striking just how much had to go right, in the form of breaks like fumbles and officials' decisions on 50-50 calls, in order for Harvard to pull off the miracle. He ends the book with a non-football event, the student strike at Harvard in 1969 that could be described as a university having a nervous breakdown. The epilogue brings us up to date on what happened to the rich cast of characters after graduation.

The author has a trick, or at least a technique, up his sleeve along the way. Until that epilogue, the story is immersed in the time it happened. The interview questions must have been more "What was it like?" than "What does mean?" It really adds to the feeling of the reader of what it was like to be a part of that turbulent era.

There will be those who don't want to go back and read about any Ivy League football game from more than 50 years ago. That's their loss. "The Game" is a rich mixture of sports and culture that has plenty to teach us about both.

Five stars

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Friday, January 24, 2020

Review: Head Ball Coach (2016)

By Steve Spurrier with Buddy Martin

Football coaches sometimes are the dullest people in sports.

They are the ones who brag about how many hours in a day they work, who never say anything interesting, and don't have much of a life outside the 120-yard playing field.

And then there was Steve Spurrier. Say what you want about the Head Ball Coach, but he wasn't dull.

Spurrier liked having fun on the field, and what's more fun than scoring points? He unleashed offenses wherever he coached, and the results followed: several conference titles, and a national championship.

What's more, he had some fun along the way. Spurrier put it plenty of hours, but wasn't above sneaking off to the golf course for a while when he had some down moments. The veteran coach even liked to take a day or two off when time permitted during the season (perhaps during a bye week) and recharged his batteries.

Spurrier wasn't above throwing a few funny quotes at the opposition. For example, when Florida State had a bit of a scandal involving its players and footwear, Spurrier said FSU now stood for something else: Free Shoes University.

Those qualities come out in "Head Ball Coach," an autobiography written shortly after his retirement from football in 2015.

Spurrier had a rather charmed life when it came to football for the most part. Florida wasn't much of a team when he arrived as a player in the 1960s, but he did more than his share to turn that around - winning the Heisman Trophy as the nation's best player. That earned him a spot as a No. 1 pick of the San Francisco 49ers ... where he sat as the backup quarterback to John Brodie for most of his career.

All that sitting gave him time to learn about the game and ponder his future, and when his playing days were over he smoothly moved into coaching. Spurrier climbed the usual ladder, which included a stop in the United States Football League with Tampa Bay. He actually won games at Duke - no small accomplishment at the time - and moved on to Florida. Spurrier turned the Gators into national powers. As you'd expect, there are plenty of stories about his days there.

After going 122-27-1, Spurrier decided he wanted a new world to conquer and accepted a job as head coach of the NFL's Washington Redskins. He found out the hard way that pro ball wasn't so easy to dominate, particularly when the owner is Daniel Snyder. The chapter is about that stop in Washington is quite brief, and tossed aside as if Spurrier doesn't really want to go back there mentally. That might be the biggest disappointment in the book.

Then it's on to South Carolina. There were no national titles there, but the Gamecocks won plenty of games and made bowl appearances during Spurrier's ten-plus years there. He left when he felt like he wasn't doing a good enough job - in midseason, which is rare enough to be interesting.

The book is something of a goodbye to a successful part of his life. Spurrier hands out plenty of credit to the players and coaches he encountered along the way. His family gets its own chapter at the end; the wives of football coaches all should be candidates for sainthood. There are a great many games and scores that get the once over here. That may work for big fans of Spurrier, who followed his career closely, but it's a little tougher to be involved in the tale for those who watched from a distance. A few coaching tips and philosophical thoughts are thrown in for good measure.

"Head Ball Coach," then, is a pleasant enough is a bit guarded read, and his fans in Florida and South Carolina certainly will enjoy hearing about the big wins from the past. Whether others will find it compelling is another story.

Three stars

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Friday, January 17, 2020

Review: The Making of a Miracle (2020)

By Mike Eruzione with Neal E. Boudette

Right man, right place.

Mike Eruzione will be the first person to tell you how that particular phrase can describe the biggest moment of his life perfectly.

Eruzione scored the game-winning goal in what probably was the most dramatic sporting event of the 20th century: America's win over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Team USA went on to win the gold medal in that tournament two days later.

The players and coaches will be remembered forever. The team went its separate ways immediately after a stop at the White House after the Olympics, but they always will be linked by their participation in those Games.

Here we are, 40 years later, and we still remember the details vividly. And, 40 years later, Eruzione finally has gotten around to writing his autobiography, "The Making of a Miracle."

Eruzione begins his story with tales of origins and place. He was part of a big family, filled with relatives who got together on regular occasions and filled up whatever house they happened to be in. The center of attention was Winthrop, Mass., a insular suburb of Boston that probably would be called a classic American community. Eruzione was a good athlete growing up, but not a great one. He was about to play small college hockey in Massachusetts when his sense of timing first came into view. A scholarship opened up at Boston, and coach Jackie Parker offered it to him at the last minute. The pair stayed together through four straight Frozen Four appearances.

After a little time in minor-league pro hockey under a tryout contract, Eruzione decided to try out for the 1980 Olympic team - and made it. There he joined such future NHL players as Neal Broten, Mark Johnson, Mike Ramsey, and Ken Morrow - all of whom were coached by Herb Brooks, taking a year off from duties at Minnesota to guide Team USA. The book gains steam, at that point, as you'd expect - even though you know how the story turns out. Eruzione says when his friends want to kid him, they point out that his game-winning shot against the Soviets was three inches from missing the net and making him anonymous.

There have been good books (ones by Tim Wendel and John Powers, for example) about the run-up through Lake Placid, and the story hasn't lacked for coverage since then. What's somewhat striking here is how much of a bubble Eruzione and his teammates were in. They thought they were just playing a hockey game. They didn't realize that they were firing metaphorical shots in the Cold War, which was at a tense point because of the Soviets' invasion of Afghanistan.

One of the striking points of reading this now is that the game of hockey has changed so much in the past 40 years. The Americans essentially used the game of speed, passing and puck possession that the Soviets first displayed to the West in the Canada-USSR series in 1972. Now everyone plays that way, and most of the physical nonsense that was preached in the 1970s has been left in the history books.

Once life calmed down for Lake Placid, Eruzione decided that a gold medal was a tough act to follow. He passed up the chance to play in the NHL, and instead has been Mike Eruzione for a living. Good move. He's still in Winthrop, and seems more than happy to chat with anyone who asks about Lake Placid. Mike gets to see the gang for a variety of reasons on a fairly regular basis - they probably didn't guess for a while that they would be linked forever .

"The Making of a Miracle" has its charms, and it is told in a friendly if compact style. There are those who have consumed all available stories about Team USA's win, and they won't find a whole lot here about the road to Lake Placid that's new to them. (I will confess to being in that minority.) However, for those who weren't around at the time or never bothered to consume any of it, Eruzione's book is a good catchup on what all the fuss is about and why we cherish the moment.

Three stars

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Thursday, January 9, 2020

Review: Chuck Noll (2016)

By Michael MacCambridge

You might have heard a lot about the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s. Coming from a 1-13 season in 1969, the Steelers built up their base of talent quickly and won four Super Bowls between the 1970 and 1979 seasons.

The Steelers sent a huge contingent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton when all was said and done. Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, Mike Webster and Jack Ham have all been inducted.

Someone had to coach those guys, of course. Sure enough, Chuck Noll led the Steelers to a 4-0 record in Super Bowls. It was part of a record of excellence that lasted almost a quarter-century in Pittsburgh, one that will be remembered for the lifetimes of their fans.

It's interesting that the players have become more famous than their coach, which probably isn't true for most dynasties. Part of the "problem" is that Noll was never good about talking about himself, and didn't really like doing it anyway. He went to work, did the best he could, and went home. Day after day.

Therefore, Noll's story is something of a doughnut - we never knew what was in the middle of it. It took Michael MacCambridge to supply the filling.

MacCambridge put together a biography called "Chuck Noll" over the course of three years. It answers the basic questions about the now-legendary coach. What was he like? What did he value? Who surrounded him?

The author spent three years tracking down people and facts surrounding Noll, who died a few years before this book was completed. He was a smart man from Cleveland who loved to teach - indeed, he probably would have been a teacher if he didn't find his way into football. It led to a playing career with the Browns, and from there he went on to coach. Noll eventually became an assistant coach with the Baltimore Colts, and was a hot commodity as a potential head coach after the Colts' 1968 season that ended with a surprising loss to the Jets in Super Bowl III.

The Steelers convinced Noll to take over the coaching duties there, and slowly he brought professionalism and judgment to the organization. It took a few drafts to build up the base of talent, but Pittsburgh was in the playoffs in 1972. In January 1975, the Steelers won their first-ever Super Bowl. Western Pennsylvania had always been a blue collar area associated with mining and manufacturing, and it had always loved its football. Now it head a team to celebrate, and Noll was the primary reason why - even though he'd be the last to take credit.

MacCambridge collects stories from those associated with those teams, and it's amazing how many co-workers say they never had a one-on-one conversation that lasted more than a few minutes. But many of those same people found themselves paraphrasing Noll in terms of passing on life lessons, such as how striving for excellence should never be a part-time portion of your personality.

Apparently visitors to the Noll household could tell what was important as soon as they walked in the front door of his home. There were family photos everywhere, while football mementos were stashed elsewhere. Chuck was the curious sort, always searching to become an expert at flying or photography or stereos or something else. And when a member of the extended family needed help, Noll was there to provide it.

All of the family members contributed to the book - Chuck himself when he was alive (he died in 2014 after a long battle with Alzheimer's), wife Marianne, son Chris and niece Joanne all were extraordinarily open in discussing the family's life. About the only person of consequence who didn't talk to MacCambridge was Bradshaw. The quarterback apparently still hasn't come to terms with his feelings about his coach, which is more than a little sad.

It's as simple as this - you won't read a better biography than "Chuck Noll." It fills in the gaps in his personality that were public knowledge at the time, and it explains why those Steeler teams were so good. Fans in Pittsburgh certainly have been reading this book since it came out. Those of us who are late to the party will enjoy it thoroughly as well.

Five stars

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Sunday, January 5, 2020

Review: No Way But to Fight (2020)

By Andrew R. M. Smith

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York's boom days." It's interesting that the first part of the line is the one that usually gets repeated, if only for the author of the new story to point out that it isn't true.

Let's give credit, then, to Fitzgerald for the set-up for a new book on George Foreman called "No Way But to Fight." There certainly was a second act to George Foreman's boom days.

Andrew R.M. Smith delivers an almost scholarly look at the life of the twice heavyweight champion, and that in itself is rather funny. After all, Foreman seemed to only have a passing acquaintance with the educational system of Houston during a childhood that was mostly noted for its poverty. What happened from there was almost stunning in hindsight.

Foreman signed up for the Job Corps, an anti-poverty program in the Johnson Administration, and had three square meals a day for the first time in his life. He became big and strong enough to attract attention from people who were running amateur boxing programs. It led to a gold medal at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, with George waving tiny American flags in the ring after the victory. Remember, that was the Olympics of the protests of Tommy Smith and John Carlos, so Foreman made an impression.

From there, a pro career was a natural next step. The quality of his opponents was rather poor, but he beat up on all comers and eventually earned a title shot against Joe Frazier. As Howard Cosell screamed out in the blow-by-blow description, "Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!" In less than two rounds, Foreman was world champion. But then he ran into Muhammad Ali in Zaire in 1974, losing one of the most famous boxing matches in history. Foreman soon retired, and the story seemed over for 10 years.

Or was it? Foreman became a preacher and decided to use boxing as a way to raise money for charitable efforts. It was a curiosity at first - a 38-year-old starting up the mountain again - but the wins against mediocrities kept coming. And Foreman discovered he could make people laugh along the way, making him more acceptable to boxing fans than the sullen personality he offered to the public the first time around. So there was joy when Foreman hit the highest peaks of the sport again.

This is rather dramatic material. It's only sweetened by the fact that Foreman sold his share of the profits to a grilling machine for more than $100 million after getting out of boxing for good. Boxers are not known for their money management skills, but Big George did fine on this one.

Smith certainly put in the time on this project, which began as a doctoral dissertation. He interviewed Foreman several times, and scoured all sorts of sources for information. The footnotes section of the book goes on and on - detailing Smith's large task.

Still, the book is missing something - fun. Foreman had so many transformations over the years that it's difficult not to smile when thinking about him now. But that quality doesn't come across too well here. The only time that the writing has some flair is when some of the big boxing matches in Foreman's career are described.

Part of the problem is that there are virtually no fresh quotes here - even though Foreman must have provided some in the interview process. Many of Foreman's opponents, such as Ali and Frazier, have passed on, but a little outside perspective might have been nice.

I have used this analogy elsewhere - "It has all of the notes but none of the music." It works on "No Way But to Fight." The book will fill a need for information about all of Foreman's life story, but it's not quite as good a read as it could have been.

Three stars

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Friday, December 27, 2019

Review: The Russian Five (2018)

By Keith Gave

"The Russian Five" starts in a very unusual way for a sports book. Author Keith Gave goes back in time almost 30 years to 1990 when two Soviet hockey players found out in Helsinki that they had been drafted by the Detroit Red Wings.

The catch is that Gave, a hockey reporter in Detroit at the time, was the person who told them.

And then it gets better. Gave handed Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov some materials that included a Red Wings media guide ... and a handwritten note by Gave in Russian that said the Red Wings were ready to offer both of them large contracts (by the standards of the day - $250,000 per year) to come to the United States and play hockey in Detroit.

That started the wheels in motion of something of a hockey revolution. Those changes also included political ones, as the relationship between the United States and Soviet Union/Russia changed drastically as the Cold War between the countries came to a close in the early 1990s. The hockey revolution, in a sense, when the Red Wings - with five Russian players playing key roles - won a Stanley Cup in 1997 for the first time in decades.

That's quite a story, and Gave gets to tell all of it at length in his fascinating book, "The Russian Five."

Gave's route to becoming a hockey writer was an unusual one. He had joined the National Security Agency earlier, where he learned the Russian language and was part of a monitoring service in West Germany. Therefore, he was in the right place at the right time to serve as the go-between in the story that reads something out of a spy novel. Fedorov defected in 1990, following his linemate Alexander Mogilny who left the Soviet Union in 1989 to join the Buffalo Sabres. Konstantinov needed some serious help to get out of the USSR, which included doctors signing statements that the talented defenseman was dying of cancer. (Yes, good old American cash help lubricate the process.)

Eventually, those two players had company in the form of comrades. Slava Kozlov was another Red Wings draft choice. He came close to defecting before 1991, and it took some behind-the-scenes maneuvering to get him to Detroit.

The final two pieces arrived in the form of Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov. Those two were veterans who were considered all-time greats but perhaps a little old. They were acquired in trades with New Jersey and San Jose respectively. Coach Scotty Bowman opted to put the five players from Russia together on the ice at times, and the result was almost magical. Not only did the Red Wings win a Stanley Cup thanks to the "Russian Five" in 1997, but the "foreigners'" style of play changed North American hockey forever after a while. Today we see a sport that resembles the style of the great Soviet teams that dominated international play from the 1960s through much of the 1980s - with only a few exceptions, like in Lake Placid in 1980.

The early chapters of the book are absolutely fascinating, as cloke-and-dagger stories usually are. it would be difficult to match that the rest of the way, and the story falls off slightly once everything is in place. The book turns into a tale of the rise of the Red Wings to become champions, only to receive a terrible shock once they reach that pinnacle.

Gave apparently was part of a documentary done a while back that reviewed the story. He has first-hand material from the time it all happened, of course, but has the advantage of using interview material from 20 years after the fact that provides additional stories and valuable perspective.

Here's an example of the effect this story of hockey and cultural history can have. Once the 1997 Stanley Cup was won, captain Steve Yzerman took a spin around the rink with it - and then handed it to Fetisov. The defenseman then called Larionov over, and the two skated around Joe Louis Arena together with the last remaining prize to be won their brilliant hockey careers. After reading about the emotions of the two players, I headed to the computer for a bit to watch the scene on YouTube. Great stuff.

The only complaint here is a small one in the form of editing - some stories get told more than once, and the jumps in the book's time line may confuse some a times. Still, the best sports books are the ones in which more than sports are involved. "The Russian Five" will touch all sorts of buttons to all who read it.

Five stars

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