Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: Hardball Retrospective (2015)

By Derek Bain

I wonder if Derek Bain has seen the sun in the past few years.

He obviously has put a lot of work into his book, "Hardball Retrospective." It's 435 large pages, and he apparently didn't get much help putting it all together. It's obviously quite a piece of work, and he deserves a great deal of credit for his persistence.

As for the book itself, it's unique ... and will take some explaining first.

Bain went back through baseball history and assigned players to the team that originally signed them. That could include the draft or signings as free agents. Today that would mean international players; in the old days it would be straight signings or purchases from minor league teams. Rob Neyer once wrote a book that had the all-time best signings by position for each team in the majors; it's an interesting list.

Then, Bain magically outlaws trading in baseball and creates major-league rosters for each year. In other words, Nolan Ryan was a Met at the start, so he's placed on the Mets' roster - with the same statistics as he had elsewhere - for the next couple of decades plus. The rosters, by the way, aren't included here.

Then it's time to get out the calculators and computers. Win shares and wins above replacement are totaled for each team, and Bill James' Pythagorean records are calculated. Eventually, Bain came up with season records for each team from 1901 to 2013. I told you it was a lot of work. For example, if only signed players were included, the best team in the American League in 2004 would have been ... the Cleveland Indians. The Boston Red Sox would have gone only 87-75, perhaps because Manny Ramirez was an Indian and David Ortiz would have been a Mariner, instead of the actual 98-64.

Bain also takes the time to look at how teams have drafted over the years, and what clubs do a better job in drafting early and late.

Add it up, and there's plenty of interesting data here. The issue comes with how it is all presented. If you don't pay attention to advanced baseball statistics, this may send you running in the other direction. The book has many tables, numbers and anagrams.

If you can jump past that hurdle, there are several questions that come up along the way. The biggest is how it is presented. Much of the book is a team-by-team breakdown of the numbers, with comments of the highlights of some seasons. (Just asking: Why weren't the teams put in alphabetical order?) For example, Roger Maris' MVP seasons of 1960 and 1961 are mentioned, but in the Cleveland section since that's where he started his career. A question follows - would Maris have duplicated those statistics in Cleveland, in a different ballpark and with different teammates? Tough to say. If he didn't hit 61 homers in 1961, as seems likely, he probably wouldn't have been the MVP either.

That made many of the team comments a little irrelevant, even if they are designed as a "what if?". I think there was a better way to structure the book, by concentrating on the "revised" year-by-year standings. It seems like you could have a lot more fun with that. Interestingly, Bain has started to write up some of those very yearly reviews for websites; a quick search will turn them up.

The other possible flaw with this is that we don't see a year-by-year roster, so we don't know what goes into the year-by-year statistics. Does every player who had more than a cup of coffee in the majors in a given year get assigned to a team? What happens if a roster had 30 such contributors in a given year? (There is a bottom in terms of plate appearances and batters faced, so that teams who don't have many players contributing to the numbers - think expansion teams - aren't counted.) And what happens if, say, five San Francisco Giants outfield "originals" all have big years in the same season? It wouldn't seem fair to credit them all to the Giants, since they couldn't all play at once and some statistics would have to suffer. This issue should have been explained.

"Hardball Retrospective," then, is a difficult book to rate. The concept and effort are fine; it could have been executed in a more interesting way. On the other hand, there's a simple test to determine whether you should buy it if you are a baseball fan. Take a look at the publication, or at least check out the online articles. If you have an interest in it, you'll know right away. My guess is that this will fit a small but appreciate niche in the baseball-loving audience.

Three stars

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review: The Phantom Punch (2015)

By Rob Sneddon

The most unlikely place for a heavyweight boxing championship match is no doubt Shelby, Montana. Jack Dempsey took on Tommy Gibbons in 1923 in a town that was essentially a collection of railroad crossings in Big Sky Country. A stadium was constructed for the bout, the fight was held (Dempsey won), the stadium came down, and a few people left with some money. The site is now partially occupied by a Burger King. I've been there; it (the location of the fight, not the Burger King) was odd then and it was odd now.

The second-most unlikely place for a heavyweight boxing championship match just might be Lewiston, Maine. Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston to retain the title in an unlikely finish.

"The Phantom Punch" is the story of that unique event, when an odd set of circumstances put one of the jewels of the sporting calendar in a small town in Maine.

And after reading the book, you might come to the same conclusion that I did. This is a movie, waiting to be written and filmed.

The story is irresistible. Cassius Clay had just knocked out Sonny Liston in 1964, and prompted changed his name to Muhammad Ali to reflect his religious viewpoints. America at that point knew it was scared of Liston, a man not unfamiliar with the nation's law enforcement system. He was something of "The Boogie Man" to many. But some Americans preferred that image to the one portrayed by Ali at the time, as he had joined the Black Muslims. As a result, no one was too anxious to try to host the rematch. When Ali had an operation for a hernia just before that second bout between the men, it gave forces in Boston time to come up with enough power to ban it from that Massachusetts city.

The date for the rematch was set, but where should be held? Maine promoter Sam Michael stepped up and offered an arena in Lewiston. Since the backers were more interested in pay-per-view sales than attendance at the bout itself, the offer was accepted.

It's tough to imagine what Lewiston must have been like in the days around the fight. It was a small, almost all white, working-class town that had seen tough times. Suddenly, two of the most famous black men in the world turn up for the fight. The dynamics are fascinating, and the book is at its best when describing what went on. For example, Liston - who had a weak spot for kids - spent a morning at an elementary school on a night's notice. He didn't just visit someone's son (who had asked for the visit), but made the rounds of every room in the school. According to all, Liston couldn't have been nicer, and is still well-regarded in Lewiston for his behavior.

Then there's the fight itself, which instantly became legendary. With rumors of fixes and murder attempts everywhere, Liston was knocked down by a punch that a lot of people at ringside didn't even see - hence the title of the book. The referee botched the count badly, and the fight resumed ... only to be stopped and declared over.

The movie could almost write itself - media members and celebrities arrive in Lewiston, Ali driving a bus down the main streets of the city, residents grabbing a case of soft drinks in order to pose as a delivery person and sneak into the arena.

"The Phantom Punch" probably lingers a bit much on the story of the promoter and the business deals involved in the fight. It's a little difficult to make that interesting. But author Rob Sneddon knows the boxing business, and makes a good case that Liston at that point in his life was no match for Ali under any circumstances. It's the background story, though, that supplies some charm.

It makes for a worthwhile, if a bit short, book. Let's hope Sneddon can sell the movie rights.

Four stars

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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Review: Two Hours (2015)

By Ed Caesar

Every once in a great while, a magic number comes along in track and field that seems to capture the public's imagination.

Back in the 1950s, the number was four, as in four minutes. Could someone run a mile in under four minutes? Some thought it impossible, but Roger Bannister showed everyone that it could be done. Then, with the psychological barrier gone, others followed in his footsteps, so to speak. High school athletes were breaking the number by the 1960s.

That brings us to what might be the next magic number, two, as in two hours. Could someone run a marathon - 26 miles, 385 yards - in less than two hours? We're getting closer.

That's the subject for Ed Caesar's very good book, appropriately named "Two Hours." More than that, the story covers the state of men's marathon running in the world at this point in time.

Caesar does it for the most part through the eyes and legs of Geoffrey Mutai, a Kenyan runner. He is best known for running the Boston Marathon of 2011 is 2 hours, 3 minutes and 2 seconds. It wasn't recognized as a world record because of the downhill nature of the Boston course, but it was still a very quick trip by foot over more than 26 miles. Caesar obviously spent a great deal of time talking with Mutai about what life for a world-class marathoner is like. Mutai did a good job of describing it, even if English is his third language.

Caesar deals with other issues as well. One of the great mysteries of distance running is that most of the world's best runners for long distances come from the same region in Kenya. Even though this sort of fact seems ripe for scientific study, no one has come up with a particularly good reason why it happens. Is there something in the gene pool? Diet? Altitude? Relative poverty? A combination of all of them? We're working on it.

Then there's the matter of drug use, which has been discussed for the most part in whispers. Certainly when there's a mix of athletes coming from poverty, life-changing sums of money to be won, and available performance-enhancing (if illegal) drugs, then there will be a temptation by some to cheat. Some users have been caught, but suspicions remain.

Still, it's the 1:59:59 marathon that draws us in. The current is less than three minutes away from that number, but the arithmetic is more daunting than you might think. After all, a current world-record holder would have to run more than six seconds per mile faster to break two hours. That's quite daunting, even for the world's best.

Caesar, a freelance writer with a number of impressive credits, obviously put in his homework here. He went to Africa to watch training sessions, and attended the biggest races in the world. Caesar also has a nice way with words. A runner doesn't just increase his lead, he stretches the margin "like a torn shirt."

This isn't the type of book that will reel in the casual reader who goes for a jog every once in a while. There are a few sections that are necessary but a little less than compelling. Even so, "Two Hours" offers a fine overview of the sport at its highest level. It's an impressive literary effort.

Four stars

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Friday, July 24, 2015

Review: Been There Done That (2010)

By Steve Ludzik

You never know what you might find when looking for sports books ... even when you are in a foreign country.

That deserves an explanation.

While attending a large used-book sale in Niagara Falls, Ont., a while back, I came across a book written by former NHL player and coach Steve Ludzik. I had never heard that he had written a book, but I'm interested any time a Sabre writes a book - even if his stay was a brief one. Besides, Ludzik's roots in Niagara Falls run deep. This copy was only a Canadian dollar, and it came personally autographed. So, Andrew, whoever you are, you should be happy that the book found a good home the second time around.

As for "Been There Done That," it's certainly a comprehensive look back at Ludzik's career. It checks in at almost 350 pages, and hockey is on every one of them. He promises that it's the most honest hockey book ever written, and the stories he tells here do come across as authentic. It's not the story of a star, at least in the sport's highest level.

Ludzik grew up in Ontario and played junior hockey there. He had the good sense to become pals with Steve Larmer, who went on to become one of the best goal-scorers of his era. Ludzik spent three years with the Niagara Falls Flyers, racking up 50 goals and 142 points in his last season - 1980-81. He played for one of the legendary coaches in junior history in Bert Templeton, who had some, um, unusual methods. Let's say he wouldn't like today's era where he couldn't be in total control.

Ludzik was drafted in the second round by Chicago, and discovered someone waiting for him there - Denis Savard. Hockey fans know what that means - Ludzik's days as a big scorer were over. He wouldn't play on top lines or the power play with Savard, a future Hall of Famer around. Ludzik adapted, becoming a pest - working hard, staying on the edge of playing dirty. Sometimes he might have been over that line. But even general manager Bob Pulford said you knew what you'd get out of him, and you got it every night. Ludzik became well known, as these things go, for trying to slow Wayne Gretzky. No, he didn't have too much luck at it either.

Ludzik did pick up another interesting coach in Orval Tessier. The two started together in the minors and moved up to the Blackhawks together. Tessier had his quirks too, but did some things right in leading the Hawks to the division title in his first year. He was gone by the middle of year three, and never got another chance. It's a tough business.

Ludzik lasted for most of the 1980s with Chicago, and then was traded to Buffalo - where he became a spare part, stashed in the minors until needed because of injuries. But Ludzik was pretty battered by that time, and was out of hockey after a year in Europe. From there it was on to coaching, working his way up the ladder until he got to Tampa Bay with the Lightning. Ludzik didn't have much talent there, but he and executive Rick Dudley did do some good foundation work on a team that eventually won a Stanley Cup.

That's the bio - good to know when considering a read on someone like this. But how well is it done? The easiest answer is that it gets better as it goes along.

Early portions of the book are devoted to pranks and practical jokes to go with fighters and fights. You can always count on the tough guys for odd behavior, especially at the young levels of play. Tastes differ about how such stories go over, so be warned. There's an explicit language label on the back cover, and it's fair to say it is needed. No need for the younger kiddies to learn some new words.

Once we arrive in the NHL, though, things pick up. Some of the names become more familiar, and there are still a few laughs. As for his coaching days, Ludzik was never blessed with too much talent on his rosters. The problems of trying to coach some mediocre players come out pretty nicely here.

Two other points to make - this looks to be self-published. It probably could have been put together a little better. Hyphens seem to have disappeared from the text at times, and the story is a bit disorganized. At least factual errors are kept to a minimum - Dennis, and not Denis, Potvin popped up. It happens.

And, Ludzik revealed two years after publication that he has had Parkinson's Disease since 2000 or so, and is suing the league for medical problems resulting from concussion issues. Sounds like he might have a better, fuller story to tell now.

The 2010 version, though, is what we have, and "Been There, Done That" serves a nice reminder of some good times for Ludzik and his friends. The book is now out of print, so look for it at a used book sale near you.

Three stars

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Review: The Game (2015)

By Jon Pessah

At the start of 2015, Rob Manfred took over as baseball commissioner from Bud Selig, thus ending an eventful run of more than 20 years.

It's a natural time, then, to look back on that era. That is the primary goal of Jon Pessah, who takes on the job in full with "The Game."

And when I say in full, I mean in full. Pessah checks in with about 600 pages of text, with a long list of interviews and other sources for material.

That's a little overwhelming, but almost all of it is interesting.

Selig took over the job under unusual circumstances. Fay Vincent was his predecessor, but the baseball owners - also known as his bosses - thought that Vincent kept forgetting who was paying his salary. That independence cost Vincent his job.

But who should replace him? Selig, who owned the Milwaukee Brewers at the time, seemed to be something of a consensus-builder in the owner's ranks. He was given the job on an interim basis, an appointment that eventually became permanent to the tune of a couple of decades.

It was, as baseball fans know, a lively time. The 1994 World Series was cancelled due to labor issues, but the sport rebounded to set records in attendance and revenues. Selig deserves some of the credit for that, even if he and other members of baseball management turned a blind eye to the increasing use of steroids by those in the sport. Selig even is shown to have tried to rewrite history on that last subject, changing his public statements on what he knew and when he knew it.

If that weren't enough to fill a book, and it probably was, Pessah made the decision to add a large subplot to the story. During that period of time, the New York Yankees were sometimes hated, sometimes loved, usually winners, and never boring. For the most part, George Steinbrenner took care of that last part while he was still in charge of the team. Steinbrenner may have been the world's worst boss at times, and whether the team's results justified his behavior probably depends on the reader's point of view. But our fascination with his actions remain strong, even a few years after his death.

The stories of Selig and the Yankees run concurrently here, and naturally overlap once in a while. Still, it's easy to wonder whether Pessah would have been better off writing two different books.

What's in this big book, though, is frequently fascinating. The story delights in putting the reader on the scene of events, whether it's in a meeting room among owners, in labor negotiations, or even with movers and shakers as they hear about the attacks on 9/11. There's plenty of "inside stuff," such as details on Joe Torre's relationship with other members of the Yankee organization (it was rocky), to put the events of that era in perspective.

In addition, it's great to have all of the events of this time period put into chronological order. Some developments in the steroid scandals came out immediately, but others dribbled out well after the fact. For example, the government's seizure of drug testing records - held to be illegal years later - didn't receive much publicity at the time.

Pessah doesn't shy away from jumping to some conclusions here. He thinks Selig was a little too consumed with his legacy to act correctly in some cases. And, inevitably at this point, Alex Rodriguez takes a bit of a pounding. Most of the time, he seems to be on the right track.

"The Game" can be a little overwhelming, and it's easy to wonder if the Yankees' story was a bit overtold. But it's hard to argue that all of this didn't deserve to be read somewhere. Baseball fans seeking a good look at the recent past would be well served to dive into this one.

Four stars

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Monday, June 15, 2015

Review: Split Season: 1981 (2015)

By Jeff Katz

The author of the book "Split Season: 1981," has another job. Jeff Katz, it seems, is the mayor of Cooperstown, N.Y. If that doesn't put a smile on your face for a moment, you're on the wrong blog.

Hizzoner already has one book to his credit, the story of the Kansas City Athletics in the days when they traded the stars to the New York Yankees for basically the Yankees' leftover scraps from the dinner table. The former day trader has raised the stakes here by taking on the story of an entire calendar year, and he covers it nicely.

For those older than, say, 45, the 1981 season was unique. It was the first "mid-course correction" from the path of free agency that the sport entered after the 1976 season with the Peter Seitz decision and the ensuing collective agreement between players and owners. The players saw their salaries go up in the years after free agency, while the owners and their representatives complained about increased costs.

The players were ready to strike in 1980 over a proposal to introduce compensation into the system, something that would have restricted movement from team to team. The two sides agreed on everything but compensation in talks about a collective bargaining agreement in the summer of that year, and agreed to study the matter together for a while. Sadly, the two sides remained entrenched in those decisions, with little actual bargain taking place for months.

By 1981, a walkout seemed likely, and the players used a tactic that hadn't been unveiled before - the midseason strike. That way, the players already had some paychecks in the bank, and the owners were looking at missing games in the summer when crowds were bigger. The Summer Game took much of that summer off. There were the usual legal moves that comes with the territory, as well as a variety of combinations of negotiators as everyone searched for a solution. Finally, the two sides came up with a settlement - a compensation plan that was so bad and ineffective for reducing costs that the owners dropped it the first chance they had.

Katz does his best work here on the strike, having talked to many of the principals involved and doing good research. The settlement really did mean that free agency was here to stay, and thus the story has some historical impact. It's valuable to have the tale all in one place. One warning for what it's worth: Katz is decidedly on the side of the players, as owners' negotiator Ray Grebey and commissioner Bowie Kuhn get pounded here. They probably deserve it. It's difficult for anyone to be on the owners' side in this one, especially because they had been so arrogant in the past and didn't handle the new relationship with the players well. Still, the author's point of view does come across loud and clear, which is worth noting if you prefer your history to be a little more even-handed.

The rest of the coverage of the year features the unusual season, split into two parts. The story has a little trouble generating much momentum, in part because the season never did have much momentum. Fernando Valenzuela really got off to a remarkable start with the Dodgers; it's easy to wonder what might have happened to him had the season been played in its entirety.

However, Katz's tale gets back on track with the postseason, which features fewer moving parts and no distractions. The Yankees contributed with their usual hijinks of the era; the stories of disharmony mixed with victory remain as astonishing now as they were then. We even got a good World Series between two very high-profile teams.

Most of the value of "Split Season" will come from the strike coverage, but those looking for a quick lesson in the season itself will find this satisfying. Let's hope there's more to come from this author, assuming he can get away from village board meetings every so often.

And, by the way - if Katz has higher political aspirations, he'll be happy to know that the prime minister of Canada wrote a very good hockey history book last year. Maybe sports books have become a launching pad for political hopes.

Four stars

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Friday, June 5, 2015

Review: The Secret of Golf (2015)

By Joe Posnanski

There's a certain aura of heavyweight boxing champion that surrounds the world's best golfer, at least to the public. Usually there's one player who is the person to beat in a given major tournament.

This might have started with Arnold Palmer, who came along in the late 1950s just as the television age was arriving and the sport was exploding. They didn't call Arnold "the King" for nothing. But soon someone came along, younger and better. Jack Nicklaus proved to be tough to push off the mountain. Plenty of books have been written about the dynamics involving Palmer and Nicklaus.

Jack's reign was a long one, and he had some challengers over the years who eventually fell by the wayside. It took until Tom Watson came along in the late 1970s before there was a new No. 1.

The trees needed to chronicle that change of command have mostly stayed in the ground, but finally we have a book on the subject - and it's a good one. "The Secret of Golf" is about their relationship.

Joe Posnanski is the author here, and he's well suited for the job. He got to know Watson when he worked in Watson's home of the Kansas City area. Posnanski's first two books about the Reds of the 1970s and Buck O'Neil were nostalgic and sweet. Then he started working on a book on Joe Paterno, and, well, you probably know what happened to the ending of that story - an unexpected curve ball that was anything but sweet.

Here Posnanski is back writing about mythical figures from the past, who have the ability now to put their relationship into perspective. The book mostly focuses on Watson, who was a little unheralded when he arrived on the PGA Tour but quickly became one of its most promising young players. His problem was, he couldn't close the sale at first. The phrase "you have to learn how to win" may not have been invented for Watson but it was close. Eventually, though, he figured things out and won eight major titles. The moment that torch was passed probably was the 1977 British Open, when Watson and Nicklaus played magnificent golf for four days and left the world's best golfers in their dust. And Watson won by a stroke. Winner, and new champion.

Watson stayed number one for quite a while, and some of the most interesting parts of the book deal with what Watson lost that title. His swing changed a little at the age of 35 or so, and he stopped drilling nearly impossible putts into holes at opportune times. Watson was still good, but rarely good enough to win. A side-effect comes across as unexpected - this golfer who had such discipline to hit practice balls until his hands bled, apparently had a little too much alcohol a little too often. It didn't help matters. Watson found his swing eventually and lost the desire to quench his thirst, but the putting stroke never came completely back.

The main story is divided into 18 holes, and between chapters is a short section devoted to a "secret" of golf as told by either Nicklaus or Watson. You may think you're reading a golf book at the beginning of these sidebars, but you may be reading about life in some cases. For example, when Watson hit a bad shot - these guys do hit bad shots once in a while, because golf is difficult - he tried to remember not to overcome it by trying to hit a spectacular shot. Watson preferred to hit a safe shot, get back in the fairway, make a par, and move on. There's something to be said for that approach to life - don't let the mistakes snowball.

Posnanski is always enjoyable to read, and here he makes the pages flow by quickly. It's not a long book, and it certainly doesn't take long to get through it. But the publication still feels fulfilling, along the lines of an extended short story.

Admittedly, stories about 1970s golfers aren't for everyone. Maybe someone will write a book about Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth like this someday, which today's 20-somethings will enjoy. But the publisher certainly had a thinking cap on when it decided to release "The Secret of Golf" within a couple of weeks of Father's Day. It's a fine June present for the older golfer on the gift list.

Four stars

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