Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Review: The Cost of These Dreams (2019)

By Wright Thompson

Sometimes the author's name is enough to lure you in when you are looking for something to read. When it comes to sports, Frank Deford and Gary Smith were two of the all-time greats.

Wright Thompson has a very good chance of joining those two, if he's not there already.

Thompson is one of those writers that takes his time coming up with a story. His work is on the long side in this Twitter age, but always rewarding. Therefore, it's good to see that his first collection, "The Cost of These Dreams," is now available.

Thompson started his career working for newspapers in New Orleans and Kansas City. He caught a break in 2006, when he was hired by ESPN. Thompson found a home there, as even the Internet was big enough to hold some of his longer works. ESPN the Magazine also gave him the space to stretch out his stories when needed.

If you read the stories before, they are certainly worth another look now. And if you haven't, you are in for a treat. Here is Michael Jordan at 50, still the same personality as we saw in his playing days but without that main competitive outlet. Pat Riley is shown to be torn between the present and a possible more relaxing future. Dan Gable, arguably the best American wrestler of all time, is still fighting some demons. Urban Meyer tries to put some balance in his life; there's more to tell about that football coach down the road.

Two stories jumped out at me that I hadn't read before. "Beyond the Breach" is a look at New Orleans 10 years after Katrina. Yes, there is some football there, but not a ton. It's about a city that keeps crawling back from adversity as it has always done, and it reads a little like a Spike Lee screenplay. There's also the "Ghosts of Mississippi," a look at the 1962 football team at Ole Miss that was one of the best of the country - at exactly the wrong time for all concerned (note the year and location) and thus was more or less forgotten. That one was turned into an ESPN documentary.

My only complaint about the collection is that it could have used a voice from the present. Where did the story appear? What has happened to subject and author since then? Even so, it doesn't get in the way of one's enjoyment. 

I'm not sure what's ahead for Thompson. ESPN recently announced that its magazine would be dying soon, and you'd have to think he might want a similar platform for his work. Then again, times are tough for magazines in general. We'll have to see what happens there.

But, no matter what the state of sportswriting and publication is, Thompson will do just fine. "The Cost of These Dreams" is proof of that. His audience will find him and follow him no matter where he lands.

Five stars

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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Review: Basketball: A Love Story (2018)

By Jackie MacMullan, Rafe Bartholomew and Dan Klores

It's not the usual procedure, but sometimes the movie gets a head start on the book.

That's the case with "Basketball: A Love Story," which fans whose memories go back beyond Stephan Curry will thoroughly enjoy.

ESPN put together something of an oral history of basketball for this project. It grabbed all sorts of interviews from people involved in the game over the years.

At some point, it was decided that there was enough material there for a book, and then some. So Jackie MacMullan and Rafe Bartholomew, two first-rate writers, came on board to help put together a printed version.

You may have seen parts of the documentary over the past few months. It has popped up on television at odd times, with a ton of fresh interviews on a variety of subjects. The filmmaker, Dan Klores, obviously was given the time and space to do everything right.

The first point to know is that the book doesn't go all the way back to the beginning of the NBA, which dates back to just after the completion of World War II. The book is arranged by topics, and the first areas of discussion are the Celtics dynasty (1957-69) and the UCLA run (1964-75), the civil rights era of the Sixties, and the gambling scandal of the early 1960s.

And away we go from there. There are topics that obviously were converted into parts of the documentary and are therefore more complete - Olympic play, North Carolina, New York City ball, the ABA, Michael Jordan, UConn vs. Tennessee, and international play.

It's the voices along the way that you'll remember, though. Time has allowed many of the participants in the game to ability to give a very honest account. Here's Elvin Hayes on the time that his Houston team beat UCLA in the Astrodome - a game that really put college basketball on the map:

"(Lew Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was all-everything, and I wanted to take his star down and put mine up there. ... Before that, we were friends, but after that Houston game, we never talked again. We could play on teh same All-Star team and never talk to each other."

Or UConn women's coach Gino Auriemma on Pat Summitt of Tennessee: "What the outside world wanted us to do was compete like that and then go to dinner and have a great time. I'm saying, 'Where does that happen? What part of the world, in any sporting endeavor, when you've got two fierce rivals like this, do they really enjoy each other's company?'"

How about Kenny Smith on Shaq and Kobe? "These guys are like Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, but they live in the same house, so they just gotta learn to get along. ... They could have done a better job at it, honestly."

The group also interviewed some media types to provide some perspective along the way. Most of the time, this works well. Who wouldn't want to hear what Bob Ryan has to say about a particular area?

But it's the players and coaches who really shine here. Their first-person accounts are frequently fascinating, and they make "Basketball: A Love Story" a fascinating read for anyone who loves basketball and its rich history.

Five stars

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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Review: Glove Affair (2019)

By Randy Gordon

Sometimes a young boy is asked what he plans to do for a living when he grows up, and he gets it right.

Randy Gordon was one of the lucky ones.

Gordon was taken with boxing almost right from the start. He actually skipped school the day that Rocky Marciano died in an airplane crash to talk about the tragedy with Nat Fleischer, the editor of Ring magazine - at the time, boxing's bible. It took a while, but Gordon got into Fleischer's office, had a nice chat with him, and was told by the publisher to call him when he was done with college. Fleischer would have a job waiting for him.

That's how Gordon got started in the boxing business. He's still at it all these years later. Finally, he has typed out some of the stories he's collected over the years into the book, "Glove Affair."

Gordon's career has done a little winding over the years. He did graduate from college, and got that job writing about boxing. Gordon also became the editor of Ring, and did some television commentating on some good-sized fights on networks.

Then there was the most unusual career move of all - he became Commissioner of the New York State Athletic Commission. That's a big job in the boxing world, mostly because New York City traditionally has hosted some of the biggest fights in the world - at least the ones that don't land in Las Vegas. Gordon now does some radio work with former heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney.

This is not a traditional autobiography - more of a collection of stories in no particular order. Perhaps the most interest will come when Mike Tyson's comes up. The heavyweight champion of the world still has the ability to fascinate us, even years later. Gordon devotes plenty of time to his role when Tyson tried to dump his old manager, Bill Cayton, in favor of the legendary and notorious Don King.

Alexis Arguello, another boxing great, gets plenty of ink here too. Gordon met him by chance when Arguello was walking into an event, and the two became fairly close. Gordon had the chance to chat with Muhammad Ali a few times, and The Greatest still fascinates. The author also recounts the tale of Billy Collins Jr., who was essentially murdered when some shenanigans took place with his opponents' gloves. Gordon is still furious about it, these many years later, as well he should be.

I suppose the rule here is that the fighters are interesting and the hangers-on are sometimes scoundrels. There's a funny story about how Gordon kept "running into" envelopes filled with money when he visited a boxing convention in Mexico City. And there's an odd episode involving an employee of the Athletic Commission who had figured out a way to stay on the job even though no one seemed too sure what he did - besides leak information to the media. Gordon figured out a way to get rid of him through a rather elaborate scheme.

The lack of continuity is a bit of a problem here. There are some references to other parts of Gordon's life that come up as asides that could have used more explaining. A little more editing might not have been the worst idea in the world, either.

Overall, though, "Glove Affair" is a quick and entertaining read. Gordon comes off credibly and as someone who loves the business and wants to see it work in a proper way. Boxing isn't what it used to be, of course, but those with an interest in the sport will like it.

Three stars

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Monday, April 1, 2019

Review: The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL (2018)

By Sean McIndoe

Anyone who has been around the National Hockey League certainly appreciates its rich history. The game dates back to the 19th century, and it has grown well past its roots from something to do in the winter in Canada to an international attraction with millions of fans.

The world's biggest league, of course, is the National Hockey League. It attracts most of the world's best players, and goes back more than 100 years.The NHL's grown has been spectacular in the second half or so of that span, jumping from six teams in the Northeast and Midwest to a 31-team circuit that includes teams from Florida to California.

But the youngsters out there should know that the NHL hardly has been the well-oiled machine that it now resembles over the course of history. It was a men's club of sorts for quite a while, and not a particularly well-run one. The joke back in the 1980s was that "the NHL is a great game, in spite of the people who run it."

Those little quirks always have made the NHL an interesting league to follow. Sean McIndoe is all over that, and he covers NHL's past in a breezy and fun way in his book, "The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL."

McIndoe has done a lot of hockey writing over the years. He has a website called, you guessed it, "Down Goes Brown." That appears to have something new just about every day in season, although some of the material is blocked as it links to full stories behind a paywall at The Athletic. Who am I to deny someone the right to earn some money via writing?

Sometimes bloggers try a little too hard to be edgy, and I had that worry when I first dove into the book. Luckily for all concerned, McIndoe's primary concern in his book is to compile a readable account of the NHL's story - as opposed to looking for laughs first and facts later. He is under control, and thus scores big points.


From that point, we take off into the world of NHL history. We should have known that it was going to a bumpy ride from the start. The original owners were part of another league, but they got fed up at an owner of a Toronto team and essentially started another league without him. The league grew out of a small all-Canadian loop but had some major growing pains that are rather typical. Teams frequently moved or folded, as it took time to find a business model that worked. Remember that these guys were pioneers in winter sports leagues, since a pro basketball league wouldn't really become a major entity until after World War II.

In 1942, the NHL settled into a six-team league - the Original Six, if you will, and stayed that way for a quarter-century. The Canadiens, Red Wings and Maple Leafs won most of the titles in that era, while the little sisters called the Rangers, Black Hawks (later Blackhawks), and Bruins usually were on the outside. The owners were never really interested in strong leadership, and found someone who wasn't interested in it. The teams sold a lot of tickets, but didn't have many ways to increase revenues. And if you weren't one of the best 120 players in the world, you were playing for peanuts in the minors - a high bar to hurdle.

Expansion finally arrived in 1967, and we were off on the second 50 years of the league. McIndoe starts to crank it up here, telling stories that you might find hard to believe now. Did you hear the one about the city that received an expansion team without applying for one? Or the time the league president was nowhere to be found when a playoff game had a confrontation between coach and official? How about when one team tried to buy another team's best player for a million dollars?

The format here is pretty simple. There are 25 chapters, and 24 of them either cover some chronological history or deal with a certain subject. No. 25 is about the future. Samples include the international invasion, the Gretzky trade, fighting and labor dispute. The first 24 also have a "strange but true" sidebar. Buffalo fans know all about one of them, the drafting of Taro Tsujimoto. No, make that two of them - the odd story about using a roulette-like wheel to determine the first draft pick in 1970. The Sabres won that spin, eventually, and Gil Perreault was the prize. But there are stories you don't know about too, like the time the Stanley Cup was missing at the Finals - or at least was late in arriving.

That's not surprising, because there are plenty of facts that I didn't even know, and I've read a lot of stories about hockey history.The footnotes are particularly good for such matters. It's all organized quite well, too.

This is hardly a definitive book on the NHL's past at 249 pages, but that's fine. There are big reference books for that sort of knowledge. This is designed to be a quick, fun read, and it succeeds in its goal quite nicely. Big fans of hockey certainly will love "The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL," and they might learn a few things along the way. The reviews on Amazon.com are overwhelmingly good. As for me, it's going to stay on my bookcase for quite a while.

Four stars

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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Review: After the Miracle (2019)

By Art Shamsky and Erik Sherman

The blitz of books about the 1969 World Series Champion New York Mets continues, with a contribution in this case by someone who is well qualified to write the story.

Art Shamsky already had one book on his resume when the Mets outfielder decided to put some memories down on paper. The result is "After the Miracle," which ought to satisfy any fan's curiosity about what it was like to live through that season as a participant.

Shamsky spent that season splitting duties in right field with Ron Swoboda (who by the way has his own book on the '69 Mets coming out this year). He obviously had been thinking about such a project for a long time, because the bookends of the text are devoted to a mini-reunion of players staged in 2017.

In between is a review of the season. For those who are too young to remember or haven't studied their baseball history, the Mets were the laughing stock of baseball from their birth in 1962 through 1967. They showed improvement in 1968 but still finished ninth in a 10-team league. It all made their nearly worst to first rise in 1969 that much more unexpected and spectacular. Sometimes sports fans from other parts of the country don't like New York sports teams because they received an outsized amount of attention for their efforts. But, trust me, everyone fell in love a bit with those Mets if you weren't a Chicago Cubs fan. (Every story needs a villain, and the Cubs filled that role nicely.)

Shamsky spends most of the time reviewing that season, of course, and he throws in plenty of stories about the players, coaches, etc. on the roster. The big games, including everything in the postseason, are covered in detail, and it's nice to here about what players were thinking at the time. By the way, a Baltimore Orioles fan will be a little angry when they read what really happened during a controversial play during the World Series. (No spoiler from me on it.)

It was one of those great years in sport when everything seems to fall into place. Obscure players did heroic things on a regular basis. It was all nicely put together by Gil Hodges, the former Brooklyn Dodger hero who managed the team with skill while commanding complete respect in the locker room.

The author does spent plenty of time talking about how close the team was and how it eventually expected to win. Such an overwhelming experience surely drew the team together for life; they'd be thrown together for the rest of their lives, giving everyone a chance to relive the experience over and over.

It would have been very interesting to hear Shamsky's perspective on what happened after that championship season. The Mets slowly sank from the heights of '69, as some of the inevitable roster changes didn't pan out. Hodges died in 1972, which obviously had an effect on the organization. New York was lucky to reach the postseason in 1973 with a record a touch above .500, and that was it until 1986.

While the season is covered in a satisfactory way, the book picks up steam at the end. Shamsky arranged to have Jerry Koosman, Swoboda, Bud Harrelson and co-author Erik Sherman join him on a trip to see star pitcher Tom Seaver at Seaver's house in California. Seaver was suffering from the effects of Lyme disease, but the group caught him on a good day and obviously enjoyed the get-together. You might recall David Halberstam's book, "The Teammates," on some 1940s members of the Boston Red Sox getting together to see Ted Williams. This has some of that same nostalgic sweetness in it, although it comes in a smaller dose. It's sad that Seaver is unable to participate in what will be a season-long celebration of that team because of his health problems.

It's tough to say how much an interest a 20-something might have in reading about a team from 50 years ago, no matter how universal some themes are. But "After the Miracle" ought to be a great fit for those who lived in the first time.

Four stars

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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Review: The Team That Couldn't Hit (2019)

Edited by Steve West and Bill Nowlin

I am back in the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) after more than 30 years, and during that time the organization has prospered. This is a group of dedicated baseball fans - and that's an understatement - who deeply care about such matters as Joe Jackson's eligibility for the Hall of Fame so many years after he was banned from baseball.

SABR always had some interesting publications, and now they are able to issue them in an up-to-date form. In other words, the group can put out its books in an e-format such as Kindle, and give it away. In this case that's a $30 savings over an actual paperback copy of it, so it's a nice bonus.

This offering is about the 1972 Texas Rangers, and it is very accurate to say that they were "The Team That Couldn't Hit." Toby Harrah had the best batting average among the regulars at .259. There was one other starter who cracked the .250 mark - catcher Dick Billings. Three regulars were under .225. If you were thinking there might be some talent on the bench, well, 10 players who suited up in Texas uniforms that season were under .200. So they got the title right.

And who was the manager of that team? The answer is a rather unlikely one. Ted Williams is considered one of the greatest hitters of all time, maybe the single best hitter. Yet he couldn't do much to help this team hit more than .217, one of the worst such numbers in history. Some of the players on that roster with name recognition to a certain degree were Frank Howard, Lenny Randle, Elliott Maddox, Don Mincher, Dick Bosman, and Don Stanhouse.

At first, it's easy to wonder how a book on this team and its poor season filled up 404 pages. But pick it up and start reading, and you'll figure out why. After a couple of introductory chapters on the team's past, the book starts to go through the roster, one by one, with good-sized biographies of every player and coach. Other people, such as front office staff, ownership and the media, are covered as well. My guess is that this is part of the SABR biography project, which tries to compile as many bios as possible of those in the game. It doesn't stop at 1972, but rather covers an entire career and in some cases life.

That means a bunch of different people wrote for this book, since the workload for a solo effort would be staggering, and the results are naturally uneven. The stories that feature long interviews with a given person in the biography are easily the best; I'd bet a long-forgotten reserve from the past was happy to be remembered at this point. But some of the stories are rather dry, coming off as more scholarly rather than written for a mass audience.

The book also contains other features devoted to the team, such as chapters on big games and a listing of every game of that season with a couple of sentences of recap. It's nice to have them here.

This sort of book is really difficult to rate, because much of the material in the biographies has little to do with the '72 Rangers. Therefore, most people will not have much interest in reading so much about that team. However, if you followed the Rangers closely back then, there is little doubt that you will thoroughly enjoy "The Team That Couldn't Hit" and have it on your bookcase forever. In either case, the amount of work and scholarship that went into this publication is admirable. We will see what else is coming down the road from SABR in the future, and look forward to its arrival.

Three stars

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Review: The Phenomenon (2017)

By Rick Ankiel and Tim Brown

Rick Ankiel had a gift, one that he came to use in a path toward a better life. And then that gift left, in a sense, never to return.

That's the Rick Ankiel story in two sentences. Naturally, there's a lot more to the story, but it's something of a starting point for his autobiography, "The Phenomenon."

The gift resided in his left arm. He could throw a baseball hard and accurately. The gift made sure that Ankiel attracted attention from professional baseball scouts, who eventually would come along with seven-figure contracts from him. It was also a ticket out of where his life was headed.

Ankiel was born out of wedlock, and his father sounds like he'd be a first-round draft pick of people you wouldn't want to have as a parent. The father dropped in occasionally to see his kids, delivering all kinds of abuse on to the kids and mother whenever he had the chance. Then he went back to his life with another family when he wasn't dodging the authorities for illegal activities. The surprise, I guess, isn't that Rick's brother wound up in jail. It's that Rick avoided that fate.

He signed a $2.5 million contract, sailed through the minors with the St. Louis Cardinals, apparently landed in St. Louis for good in 2000, and was the starting pitcher for the team in a playoff game.

Then the wheels fell off, and the story becomes much more uncommon and interesting.

What's it like to forget how to throw a strike in front of a sellout crowd and a national television audience? Ankiel is about the only person who knows. All of a sudden, he couldn't throw a pitch within range of the catcher's glove, let alone the strike zone. Ankiel made a quick exit from that particular postseason game, and discovered the gift had gone away because something inside had gone very wrong.

It's called "the yips," mostly in golf, when you just can't pull the putter back and make it follow orders to develop a smooth stroke to put the ball in the hole. Others call it "the Thing" or "the Monster." The most famous case of it happened to 1979 World Series hero Steve Blass, who shortly after that magical moment caught the bug. Naturally, the malfunction is called "Steve Blass Disease." No one knows what causes it, or how to cure it. It comes, and usually stays.

I saw something like that happen in the minor leagues one time. Darrell Miller was a Double-A catcher who simply couldn't throw the ball back to the pitcher after each pitch. Oddly, Miller had no trouble throwing to second on a stolen base attempt. It was incomprehensible at the time and painful to watch. By the way, Miller made it to the majors for a few years, and played about half of his games as a catcher. Maybe he found a way to cope with it.

It's easy to feel the emotion involved from Ankiel, who was on the verge of having it all - only to have it snatched away without any notice. He tried everything. Ankiel talked to coaches, teammates, fellow victims, and psychologists. He stopped throwing for a while, and threw constantly. Ankiel tried alcohol, drugs, etc. - even pitching in a game with shots of vodka in his system. Nothing helped.

Finally, Ankiel made it back to St. Louis at the end of the 2004 season, and retired the next spring - only to come back the next day as an outfielder. Yup, an outfielder. And by 2007, he was back in a Cardinals' uniform. In his first game as a starter, Ankiel hits a storybook home run late in the game - which is where the movie version of this book no doubt will end.

It took a while for Ankiel and co-author Tim Brown to find a rhythm in their writing. Sometimes the sentences go on too long, featuring 20 words when 10 would have gotten the point across. In addition, there are stretches of the story that hardly receive any words at all, such as the climb up the ladder to reach the majors the second time. It feels in those spots like someone put space limitations on the story, and something had to go.  

On the other hand, Ankiel fully explores one of those issues that is never discussed much in the macho world of pro sports. We're not supposed to talk about something connected to mental health there, and the permanence of the ailment's sentence would scare anyone.

It couldn't have been easy to go over this subject all over again, so Ankiel deserves credit for writing about it in "The Phenomenon." Maybe people will be a bit more understanding the next time someone can't find the strike zone, and that's a step forward.

Four stars

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