Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: Miracle at Fenway (2014)

By Saul Wisnia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three stars

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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Review: Throwback (2014)

By Jason Kendall and Lee Judge

Jason Kendall might not be the most obvious choice to write a book about baseball, in the sense that he had a good long career but wasn't a household name. In fact, many baseball fans outside of cities like Pittsburgh and Kansas City might have trouble picking him out of a police lineup - not that he's likely to be in one.

Kendall had other ideas in mind. He wanted to write a book on how baseball is really played - filled with information that isn't well known. Kendall teamed up with Kansas City sports writer Lee Judge, and the result is the oddly named but quite interesting "Throwback."

One of the major goals of the book is to show that the game of baseball is time-consuming, physically and mentally tiring, and complicated. There's a lot going on throughout a baseball game; multiply it by 162 games and you'll get the idea of the size of the grind.  

Kendall breaks things down nice and neatly. There's a chapter on the batter, one on the catcher, another on the hitter, through the infield and outfield, then to the manager, and finally to random notes. As you might guess, an ex-catcher has the most to say about the first three subjects. The pitcher-hitter relationship is the key to any game, even if the average fan can't see it easily even on television.

Kendall covers the details in a quick, point-by-point method. He presents some information on one particular area, and then moves along. There isn't much wasted energy, making it to be a relatively brisk read.

For example ... ever wonder how the catcher signals the pitcher when there's a runner on second base? Kendall says many teams use the "first, shake, last" approach. In that case, the first signal is the "live" one, and the rest don't matter. But if the pitcher doesn't like it, he can shake it off. Then the catcher will give a string of signals, and the last one is the one that matters. But - teams can just as easily switch to "last, shake, first" at a given moment too. Or vice-versa. There are signals from the catcher on when to throw a pickoff play, signs on which fielder should cover on throws to second when a runner is on first, and so on.

It's fun to read about the relationship between catchers and umpires. Kendall points out that sometimes he'll go out of his way to make sure that the umpire isn't hit by a stray pitch. That sort of favor can pay off on a close call down the line. He also points out how much talking goes on at the plate between batter, catcher and umpire, even though it looks quiet from a distance. That's because an umpire will become angry if a catcher or hitter turn around to make a point. It's all about appearances and respect.

There are a couple of drawbacks to way the way this information is presented. Most importantly, many of the points made along the way do not come with any accompanying anecdotes. That really would have brought the facts home to the average reader. The book jumps a notch when it points out how defenses had to shift infield play a bit when Derek Jeter came up, because he could go to the opposite field so well. Therefore, a second baseman might not want to cover the bag on a stolen base attempt even when a right-handed hitter was up. But such examples aren't that common. The other is that there is a little repetition of material here, although it wasn't a major issue.

The "throwback" title refers to the attitude that Kendall carries throughout the book. He's definitely an old-school type in a lot of ways. Kendall thought that players should hustle all the time, pay attention, and not try anything dirty or cheap. If they did the latter, they should be prepared to suffer the consequences.

"Throwback" isn't for the casual fan who merely watches the game on television at a mental distance (doing other things, etc.). It also might cover familiar ground for those who played the game at a reasonably high level - high school and beyond. But for those in the sweet spot in between, the book will provide an education into the game you might know pick up anywhere else.

Four stars

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Friday, January 9, 2015

Review: Pete Rose - An American Dilemma (2014)

By Kostya Kennedy

Baseball analyst Bill James once wrote that Pete Rose wasn't one of the top 10 natural hitters in history by any stretch of the imagination.

Yet, there he is, on top of the all-time list of career hits by a major league baseball player. Once upon a time, everyone loved him for that, for the way he attacked the game with complete focus and intensity, day in and day out.

Rose played in the majors for more than a couple of decades, moved smoothly into managing, and then the wheels fell off. Who says American lives don't have second acts?

Rose's story certainly has been well chronicled over the years, but this seems like a good time to go back and review it in depth. Author Kostya Kennedy does exactly that in excellent fashion in "Pete Rose - An American Dilemma."

Kennedy goes over the early years smoothly enough. Rose grew up in Cincinnati, the son of a top local athlete who played organized sports including football into his 40s. Determination was ground into young Pete, who lived for sports and didn't worry about time in the classroom. Rose signed with the hometown Reds, and it didn't take long for him to get noticed - if only because of behavior that led to a famous nickname, "Charlie Hustle."

Once Rose arrived in Cincinnati, he became the heart of some great Reds teams. He played four different positions there (Rose added a fifth after leaving), piling up batting titles and All-Star Game appearances (hello, Ray Fosse) along the way. Rose knocked down barriers in the clubhouse, mixing with all nationalities and races easily. No wonder everybody loved him. After a few stops as a free agent, Rose finally came home to Cincinnati as a player/manager.

And here's where the story turns into a Shakespeare-like epic, and where Kennedy's book becomes fascinating.

Rose was discovered to be a chronic better, often on baseball and always on his own Reds team. After a thorough investigation, Rose was banned from baseball in any capacity and eventually ruled ineligible for the Hall of Fame. He spent some time in prison, and has floated in the mist for more than 25 years since then - associated with baseball but not part of it.

Rose famously denied betting on baseball for years and years, and then came clean in a book of his own. It didn't help his case to be reinstated. Rose currently is Pete Rose for a living, signing autographs and making personal appearances. 

Kennedy covers many bases here, talking to Rose, his family, his friends, baseball associates and others. Rose was giving off hints about his problems in the gambling field, but maybe we didn't want to listen. His mother once told a reporter almost without thinking that her son had lost a bundle on the 1984 World Series. Some of his players noticed how nervous Rose got when watching an out-of-town game on the clubhouse television. As one media person said in the 1980s, "Pete is a helluva guy, but he'd bet on what time it is."

The dilemma in the title might be partly a reaction to revelations about steroid use by players in the 1990s. Those players haven't been banned for harming the game's integrity, while Rose was banned because his gambling might have hurt the game's integrity. On the other hand, rule number one in baseball is team members absolutely can not gamble on the sport. That's why it's on the wall of every locker room in professional baseball. What to do with Rose, then, who broke that rule?

Kennedy, who wrote a fine book about Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak, is in even better form here with this fair and slightly sympathetic portrait. It's easy to write off Rose at this point in his life, but the story still draws can draw us in. "Pete Rose - An American Dilemma" has been ranked with the best baseball books of 2014, and it's easy to see why.

Five stars

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Monday, January 5, 2015

Review: You Can't Make This Up (2014)

By Al Michaels with L. Jon Wertheim

One of Al Michaels' best qualities as a broadcaster is that he is durable. No, that isn't a comparison to tires. It's that he has lasted.

Michaels first popped up in the national spotlight in the early 1970s as the voice of the Cincinnati Reds, when he did a little work on the World Series. A few years later he landed with ABC, and Michaels has been with us ever since.

Don't discount the skill about being durable at this level. Those who are on the air all the time sometimes become overexposed and become targets. The obvious comparison is Curt Gowdy, who did a variety of sports over the years and did them very well. But after a few decades on the job, people (viewers and network executives both, I would guess) tired of his work and it was on to semiretirement.

That hasn't happened to Michaels. It's not a surprise then, that a book by Michaels about his broadcasting career would be interesting and pleasant. "You Can't Make This Up" follows that description perfectly.

Michaels split his childhood between New York and Los Angeles, almost staying with the Dodgers who also moved in the Fifties. He went to college at Arizona State, and paid his usual dues looking for broadcasting work. Check that - there was nothing usual about working for Chuck Barris briefly. Yes, Michaels searched for contestants for "The Dating Game" at one point in his life.

But eventually, he landed a sportscasting job in Hawaii, where he picked up a ton of experience, and then moved on to the Reds and San Francisco Giants. It was on to ABC from there, where he had the signature moment of his career. Michaels found himself announcing hockey in Lake Placid at the 1980 Olympics, which didn't figure to be much of an assignment. Then came the march of the United States team, and Michaels' "Do you believe in miracles?" moment right after the win over the Soviet Union. The announcer's story of those Games and that game still delivers goosebumps.

From there it was on to baseball and football for the most part, usually on Monday nights but eventually on Sunday nights. Michaels has become part of the furniture over the years, having done so many big games. He's worked with great analysts and seen many memorable moments. It's fun to go along for the ride in a manner of speaking.

Michaels delivers the story in a good-hearted manner too. Only a few people get carved up a bit. Michaels didn't know Howard Cosell until the late 1970s, when the latter had started a transformation into a bitter, angry man. It's tough to blame Michaels for not wanting to work with Cosell at that stage. Boomer Esiason and an ESPN executive named Mark Shapiro are about the only others who don't come off too well.

The pages fly by here, as Michaels mixes some of his own life with encounters with some stars. It's all quite entertaining, exactly as you'd expect. "You Can't Make This Up" is like having a nice, long conversation with Michaels, in which you know you're going to have a good time.

Four stars

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: Black Ice (2015)

By Val James with John Gallagher

Buffalo Sabres' fans were used to having a black man on their favorite team in the early 1980s. Tony McKegney had broken into the NHL during the 1978-79 season, and he was still around in the 1981-82 campaign when he received some company.

When Val James came up from the minor leagues to make his NHL debut in 1982, he was something of a curiosity. Coach and general manager Scotty Bowman thought the Sabres needed some toughness, and James certainly could supply that. James played in seven regular season games and three playoff contests - not seeing much ice time along the way - and that was it as a Sabre.

However, Game One was a milestone of sorts. James became the first African-American to reach the NHL. That makes him a pioneer of sorts, and is something of a starting point for a book on his life in hockey, "Black Ice."

And speaking of starting points ... the very first part of James' book is the most compelling. He had just completed playing for the Sabres in a game in the Boston Garden against the Bruins. Afterwards, the Sabres' team bus was surrounded by a mob that broke the front windshield and chanted a racial slur. I'd never heard that story before, and I was covering the team at the time for a radio station. By the way, it's interesting that teammate McKegney didn't come up there or in any other part of the book. 

From there, the book is a straight-forward recap of James' hockey career. It's an unusual story. His parents moved from the South to Long Island in search of a better life. James' father eventually became a rink manager in Commack, where a minor league team played. Thus James had a connection to such personalities as John Brophy and John Muckler. James picked up the game pretty quickly, and his great size and condition quickly gave him a reputation in hockey circles as a physical force to consider at all times. As a youngster he played in a league that was spread out around the New York City metro area.

It was on to Canada and a shot for James to improve his hockey skills at a teenager. He was good enough to be selected by Detroit in the 16th round of the NHL draft in 1977. That allowed him to meet current Sabre coach Ted Nolan (another Red Wings draft choice) at training camp, but he was quickly cut. James bounced from senior hockey to a pro team in Erie, where Nick Polano used him as a security blanket for Erie in the Eastern Hockey League. In a league full of tough guys, James was as tough as anyone, and he played a role in helping Erie win three straight championships.

When Polano jumped to the Sabres, James came along to the Sabres' organization. The rugged forward spent four years in Rochester in addition to his cup of coffee in Buffalo. Then it was on to the Toronto organization, and four more games in the NHL with the Leafs, before retiring in 1988. As you can see, this is not the places for pages and pages of memories about NHL experiences.

The key point of the book centers on his treatment as a black player in a virtually all-white world of hockey. It wasn't too pleasant at times. Teammates told James to simply ignore such ignorant talk, but that's easier said than done. Opposing players sometimes offered slurs, and James "rewarded" them with a good-sized beating the first chance he got. Payback was more difficult with opposing fans, though. Heading into the stands in search of justice can get a player into trouble with the law as well as the league office.

While those sorts of stories are sad but interesting, the rest of the book won't be of much interest to most readers. He recounts fights and games from minor league games from 30 years ago, and it's difficult to make those gripping. For what it's worth, some of the material in the book is definitely R-rated. The book contains a brief reference to James' wife and a short, vague description about his current job, but otherwise this could have been written in 1990.

Most hockey enforcers generally are honorable people, who make the conscious decision to get punched in the head for living. James certainly comes across that way here, and as a good guy. It seems like his life would have made a good magazine story, but there probably aren't enough interesting details to stretch it into a book. "Black Ice," then, probably will only be of interest to those with a connection to James' career ... which doesn't cover a great many people.

Two stars

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Saturday, December 6, 2014

Review: We Are Your Leafs (2014)

By Mike Ulmer

Give the Toronto Maple Leafs credit for one thing - they know how to plan ahead.

The Leafs will celebrate their 100th season later in this decade. The team's marketing department decided to celebrate with not one book of reviewing all that history, but eight - and by not waiting for the actual anniversary season to start.

"We Are Your Leafs" is one of the first shots over the bow, so to speak.

The Leafs have an odd place in North American sports. They were part of the "Original Six" teams from 1942 until 1967, and shared Canada's fan enthusiasm with the Montreal Canadiens. Since Montreal was the obvious choice for French-Canadian fans, the Leafs earned the rest of the country. Even though other NHL teams from Canada are around now, there are no doubt Leaf fans across the country in strange outposts to this day.

There's also the fact that the Maple Leafs haven't given their fans much to watch often since 1967, the year of their last Stanley Cup. They have been generally mediocre since then, with some close calls at greatness and some lapses into farce. Baseball fans know how the Cubs haven't won a World Series in more than 100 years but still have loyal backers throughout the country. That's probably the closest comparison to Leaf Nation.

This particular book shines the spotlight on the Maple Leafs players and management over the years. It starts with Conn Smythe and ends with current coach Randy Carlyle. What's striking about the list of players, and certainly everyone close to important has a small section dedicated to him, is that Toronto has never relied on hockey icons. The best runs came in the late 1940s and the mid 1960s. I suppose the best players in team history were Frank Mahovlich and Mats Sundin, with exceptions made for those who played in the 1920s and 1930s and are tougher to judge from the perspective of today.

They all are represented here, though. Everyone gets a page or two or three, with some good pictures for each one. Ulner, a fine veteran journalist from Toronto, comes through with appropriate text for each personality. Therefore, it's a good-looking package.

But is "We Are Your Leafs" worth buying? That's a fair question. The listed price is $40, which seems a little steep for a book that only takes a day or two to buzz through. It might have been nice to have made it a little bigger, with more text on each player. Some Toronto boosters probably are a least vaguely familiar with the top names in team history.

Then again, I'm not in the target audience since I'm not a Maple Leafs fan. Those who qualify probably will find this to be a good keepsake. It's still not going to be a "best buy" from a consumer magazine, but I could see it being a very suitable gift for that Toronto hockey fan on your holiday shopping list.

Three stars

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Review: Hockey Confidential (2014)

By Bob McKenzie

About the biggest complaint anyone could have with Bob McKenzie's new book is the title.

It sounds like it should be a Canadian pulp magazine from the 1930s, full of slightly scandalous stories and material a little south of the truth. In fact, a friend saw the book cover and asked, "Is it full of raw material about the players?"

Well, no. McKenzie tackles the issue of the title right at the start of "Hockey Confidential." He says he didn't have anything better than "A Bunch of Stories Bob Would Like to Tell." That wouldn't sell too many copies.

Come to think of it, maybe it might. McKenzie, who had a long newspaper career before becoming a reporter for Canada's TSN, is actually the most respectable of journalists. He's had to be talked into the social media responsibilities of the business with the odd kick and screams. McKenzie prefers a more leisurely approach at telling stories than revealing facts 140 characters at a time.

Therefore, he feels right at home with the book-sized format. Most of the accounts here have not been covered at great length before, especially in this way, so they feel new and fresh. But the tales take a leisurely, thoughtful approach.

A good example of this comes in the early going. Take it from someone who covers lacrosse for a living, McKenzie is right on target with a profile of John Tavares. If you thought I was talking about the New York Islanders' young star, you'd be right. And if you thought I was talking about the indoor lacrosse legend of the Buffalo Bandits, you'd be right. The lacrosse player is "Uncle John" to the hockey player, and the connection has been well publicized in the lacrosse community. After bios of both, McKenzie sits down with both of them and has them compare notes, if you will. It's a good enough conversation to have been video taped and shown on television somewhere.

Other chapters cover a variety of hockey-related talk. Former NHL player and executive Colin Campbell tells about how he almost drowned when he drove his tractor on to a frozen lake when the machine sank through the ice. Some of those in the information revolution in hockey get their chance at explaining what's going on - to someone who was lucky to get out of high school math. McKenzie watches a youth hockey game with Don Cherry and his son. Connor McDavid, the Next Big Thing in hockey, gets a long look, particularly concerning the pressures that come with that sort of title.

Some of the story subjects branch off the mainstream a bit. There are chapters on a massage therapist, a skating coach, and the lead singer of Canada's top band who is a huge fan of the Boston Bruins. Then there's the Subban family, a most unlikely group that has produced three NHL draft choices - including one of the league's best defensemen.

The chapters were designed to be about the same size at first, but some expanded when necessary. Two - the McDavid saga as well as the story of Sheldon Keefe, a junior hockey coach - both get 45 pages or so each, and they are the longest of the bunch.

Does it help to be Canadian to read this? Maybe a little. For example, the Mike Danton/David Frost story, in which Keefe plays a small role, probably was a much bigger story in Canada than the U.S. But Americans who like hockey, or who merely like a good story, well-told, will find this worthwhile.

I'd like to think that there's still room fora collection of stories like this, and McKenzie is a good choice to come up with them. "Hockey Confidential" is a good way to spend time on a cold winter night waiting for the next hockey game to begin.

Four stars

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