Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Review: Best of Rivals (2012)

By Adam Lazarus

The position of football quarterback is unique in a variety of ways in sports, but in one way in particular. A starter is not merely named, he is the subject of a coronation. For whatever reason, we seem to think that quarterbacks can never be replaced, even temporarily, unless they are ready to be buried on the depth chart for years to come. Heck, NFL coaches don't switch quarterbacks until well past the point of logic, a time when their team is either so far ahead or behind that no one is even paying attention.

The general rule is such matters is that it helps to have one person take over the starting job. In other words, if you have two number-one quarterbacks, you have no number-one quarterbacks.

But there was an exception to that rule, and it's the subject of Adam Lazarus' book, "Best of Rivals."

After the 1992 season, the San Francisco 49ers had two star quarterbacks on their roster. Steve Young was arguably the best quarterback in the National Football League at that point. Joe Montana was arguably the best quarterback in the National Football League in history. There's never been a situation like it.

Thus a recounting of the story involving the two men is worth telling for that reason. Two Hall of Famers, one job.Lazarus tells the story here.

The author gives a brief biography of both players first. Montana and Young were both famous in college, but Montana needed little time to achieve pro stardom. Young began his professional career in the United States Football League, bounced to the lowly Tampa Bay Bucs, and finally arrived in San Francisco ... with Montana ahead of him on the depth chart. It wasn't an easy situation for someone used to starting.

From there, Lazarus gives us something of a game-by-game account of the few years that the two men were together. Sometimes two quarterbacks can have a good relationship, but usually one of them is clearly better and deserves to start -- thus, each knows his role. That wasn't the case here, and Montana was always looking over his shoulder at the younger, talented man backing him up.

What's striking in hindsight at how battered Montana was when Young arrived in 1987, even though Montana didn't even have a full decade on the job yet. He spent much of the next few years on the injured list, but was frequently still very effective when he was healthy enough to play. That gave Young a taste of playing time, but never quite enough to be comfortable until Montana started to miss long stretches of games at a time.

Lazarus obviously put in his time at the library for this one, with several quotes brought back from the past to describe games and events. He also talked to as many principals as possible, including Montana and Young. Indeed, Young sounds as if he was more forthcoming on the subject than Montana in hindsight. But the best moments in the book come this way, such as the time Bill Walsh needed about five minutes from his view in the owner's box at the Super Bowl (he had retired at this point) to say that the 49ers would in the game easily and decisively.

"Best of Rivals" works reasonably well. Since much of the detail comes from the games themselves and the accompanying quotes, it's fair to say that this book will be welcomed more than San Francisco fans who wish to review a unique part of their history. They should definitely give it an extra star. The rest of the football world may find that this bogs down just a little in the stories about games from two decades ago, but most will find this a solid enough recounting of the era.

Three stars

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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Review: Imperfect (2012)


By Jim Abbott and Tim Brown

Former baseball player Jim Abbott always wanted to be more than a curiosity.

Admittedly, he's always going to be known by the general public for the fact that he reached the major leagues in spite of having only one hand. His drive and determination to overcome that disadvantage have always been admirable and made him special.

But now that he's written an autobiography, it's obvious that Abbott is admirable in more ways than one. After reading "Imperfect," it's fair to say that most people will come away thinking that Abbott has written a superb book that details just what it's like to be a big league pitcher - any big league pitcher.

Abbott and co-author Tim Brown use something of a ping-pong approach to the book, alternating subjects for the chapters. Half of the sections are devoted to Abbott's entire career, and it was interesting one.

The left-hander grew up not realizing that he wasn't supposed to play baseball, so he played and practiced whenever he could. Abbott threw against a wall for hours in order to make the smooth transition between throwing and fielding, which involved moving the glove to his left hand after making a pitch. He was a good enough athlete that he even played a little quarterback in high school.

From there he passed up the chance to sign with a major league baseball team straight out of high school, earning a scholarship to Michigan. From there, Abbott landed a spot on the 1988 United States Olympic baseball team, which won a gold medal in Seoul.

He landed a big contract with the Angels, who put him in the rotation without a day in the minors. Abbott didn't need much time to fit in on the field, becoming a regular even if he was rarely dominant. 

The pitcher became something of a media sensation, as everyone wanted to do a story on him. But that had a side effect; Abbott was sought out by children throughout the country who needed inspiration to face their own challenges. The hurler said he was blind-sided by all of the emotion involved there, but felt an obligation to help. It's compelling material.

Eventually, Abbott was traded to the Yankees, and bounced to the White Sox, Angels (again) and Brewers. There haven't been many descriptions of what it's like to be unable to make the transition from thrower to pitcher at that level, as Abbott slowly lost his ability to get outs at the game's highest level. It's painful to read about the pitcher's unraveling toward what he considered a premature retirement, mostly because it's so easy to root for him while reading this. 

Meanwhile, the rest of the book is devoted to Abbott's no-hitter for the Yankees against the Cleveland Indians in 1993. Each inning receives a chapter. 

Abbott had been bombed by the Indians in his last start, so he didn't exactly come into the game thinking no-hitter. He just wanted a win. The pitcher takes us through the game in a way that brings real insight into the art of pitching. 

Abbott and Brown talked to some of the people in Abbott's life who provide additional background information on the key points of the story, and an Angels' executive opened up his clippings file on Abbott for more memory-jogging. Brown deserves credit for putting the package together in such a good way.
The result is more than simply worth your time. For those interested in inspiring stories, and in baseball, "Imperfect" works just about perfectly.

Five stars


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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Review: A Pirate for Life (2012)

By Steve Blass with Erik Sherman

Steve Blass is a member of a very small group, and for the moment we're not talking about pitchers who have won the seventh game of a World Series with a complete game.

No, we're talking about people who have had "diseases" named after them. If scientists aren't included, the list if pretty small. Lou Gehrig disease, or ALS, comes to mind immediately, but that's about it.

Blass was close to the top of the baseball world, in part because of that Series win, when he suddenly couldn't throw a baseball over home plate. He went from World Series hero in 1971 to unemployed baseball player within a few years, all because he somehow couldn't throw strikes any more. And anytime it happens to someone else, he is diagnosed with having "Steve Blass Disease." Ask Rick Ankiel and Mark Wohlers about it.

The story about Blass and the disease opens "A Pirate for Life," and is the best part of it. What does a person in the prime of his career do and feel when he mysteriously loses his central talent of throwing strikes? You can imagine the mental anguish. What's more, Blass seems like the last guy in the world who would have such a problem, as he prided him on being the life of the clubhouse.

Blass grew up in rural Connecticut and signed with the Pirates out of high school. It took him a while to work his way up the ladder, but he became a good pitcher along the way. Finally, Blass reached the majors in 1964, and eventually earned a regular job in the Pirates' rotation. He was quite good in his prime -- not Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson, but he was a consistent winner and even turned up in an All-Star Game.

As we discover here, Blass provided some of the life in some good Pirate teams of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those teams were known for their ethnic diversity as much as its talents, as whites, blacks and Latins meshed nicely. It sounds like the pitcher was in charge of keeping everyone loose and united, a job he did well and with a great deal of relish.

There's no time for joking when it comes to Game Seven of the Series, and Blass' description of his feeling during that day is quite interesting. No, you don't sleep well the night before, but he was awake enough to shut down the Orioles and bring a championship to Pittsburgh.

That win seems like it was a Faustian bargain -- "Would you trade a World Series title for the end of your career?" -- and Blass soon was out of baseball. He sold high school class rings and beer for a while, but eventually worked his way into broadcasting. Blass has stayed there ever since, relying in part on that goofy side of his personality and his love of the Pirates to become very popular in Pittsburgh.

Blass certainly sounds like he's enjoyed much of the ride, and there are some stories here about his Pirate teammates and other associates that draw laughs. In fact, it's easy to wonder after a while if Blass didn't have a little too much fun. He went to a great many functions and had a lot of late nights. There are lots of drinking stories and some crude language.

After reading this, it's not a surprise that his wife left him for a while. A baseball player has some odd hours, and it's usually the wife who must take care of the household and the children. While Blass admits that he should have been around more for his family, the rest of the book's tone indicates that he doesn't have a great many regrets either.

Those who have grown up listening to Blass as a fun-loving broadcaster ought to like "A Pirate for Life." Indeed, the reviews on amazon.com, mostly from those who are fans, are glowing. Still, after reading this version of his life story, it's easy to wonder if he didn't get trapped playing the part of the jokester, and at times nerve quite had the nerve to leave it completely.

Three stars

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