Thursday, October 25, 2012

Review: NASCAR Nation (2012)

By Chris Myers with Michael Levin

In 2010, Chris Myers and Michael Levin combined to write the book, "NASCAR is America - How Racing's Values Mirror the Nation's."

Now in 2012, the same combination has come out with a book, "NASCAR Nation - How Racing's Values Mirror America's."

It seems safe to conclude that if you bought the early book, you probably don't need to acquire the later version. Come to think of it, you probably don't need to buy "NASCAR Nation" under any circumstances.

Myers jumped from ESPN to Fox more than a decade ago, and has found a home as part of the "newer" network's coverage of stock car racing. I was easy to guess that a book by Myers would use the subtitle's themes about racing's "values" as a launching point for stories he's seen around the racing circuit.

That's a book that would have been relatively entertaining. But instead, Myers sticks to the subtitle's theme and writes 221 pages about how wonderful NASCAR is. The chapter headings include "Risk," "Patriotism," "Speed," "Tradition," "Pageantry," "Heroes" and "Victory." Get the idea?

Even if the reader buys that premise, there is a big, big problem with how it's told. There are no backing anecdotes or examples of virtually anything along the way. If it is the same book as the one written in 2010, I can't imagine that much updating was done ... because there are only a few references to current news in the sport, It's simply a book filled with Myers telling us how wonderful everything about NASCAR, instead of showing us. And what happens when you do that? After a while, you can't help but repeat yourself. A lot.

By the end, we get a section like this: "NASCAR is at its core an American sport, a sport defined by American values, American sense of risk and rewards, and an American thirst for speed, competition and achievement. America is a nation of risk takers. We can't recognize that you can't change the status quo by hiding from possibility, and so we're a nation of people willing to go out on a limb, to take a chance, whether the outcome we're seeking is a more secure future for our children or just a thrilling weekend afternoon." Change a few words, and you might have a typical political speech heard this fall.

Speaking of politics, there's one odd exception to the relentless positive approach taken in the book. There are about four references to how wonderful it is that NASCAR doesn't have any unions. I'm not so sure that some of the workers would agree with that, but you won't find an opposing viewpoint here.

Any book that's part of the "NASCAR Library Collection" obviously isn't going to criticize NASCAR. The concept behind the book might have worked for some sort of article for an in-house magazine or a race program. But it's just too thin to work in a book-length form.

Myers has always come across as a good, smart guy in his broadcasting career. He'd be enjoyable company over lunch or an adult beverage, I'd bet. He probably has a good book about NASCAR in him. "NASCAR Nation" isn't it.

One star

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: The Longest Race (2012)

By Ed Ayres

The short description of "The Longest Race" certainly doesn't sound like a best-seller: "Runner gives his thoughts on his sport, his life and other subjects while competing in a 50-mile race in 2001."

The first reaction might be "2001? What took him?"

There's no clue inside about the timeline of the book, so we'll have to make due with what has been presented. I think the reactions to this book will be all over the map.

Ayres is the founder of Running Times magazine. The publication is devoted to a rather small niche of the running community, targeted toward ardent runners. Its sister magazine, Runner's World, throws out a wider net of subject material. This, pretty clearly, is more of a Running Times approach.

As it turns out, the year of the race really doesn't matter one bit. Ayres has been running for most of his life, and he's over 70 now. Ayres caught the beginning of the "running boom," as he finished third in the 1970 New York City Marathon. The portions about running 50 miles along the Potomac River in Maryland near the West Virginia border are rather timeless. I doubt the experience will have changed much in 11 years. It's still quite a physical undertaking. By the way, the book has some tips for ultramarathoners at the end.

It took me a while to figure out a way of describing what reading this book is like. Eventually, an analogy came to me, and it's the obvious one. "The Longest Race" is like running along side Ayres for a long time without doing any talking. Thoughts come and go during runs like that, and they come from all sorts of unexpected directions. This is Ayres' point of view, albeit with the chance to do some organizing and editing before presenting them.

You should probably know that Ayres was raised as a Quaker and is a vegetarian. He's also been working for and is sympathetic to a variety of positions on the global stage. As a for instance, Ayres is hardly a graduate of the "drill, baby, drill" school of energy policy. He believes that sort of approach merely delays the inevitable, and does damage to the environment in the meantime.

Thus Ayres finds tangents in a variety of ways. Suddenly, the reader is presented with thoughts on Mikhail Gorbachev, or the man who helped design the world's largest nuclear bomb. It's fair to say there is plenty told about running and anthropology along the way, mostly in the form of our ancient ancestor's running roots. Ayres argues -- and others have echoed the thought -- that running long distances helped us survive as a species way back when, when we could outlast the potential food supply during the chase and strike when the animal at the lower end of the food chain when it was forced to rest.

Ayres obviously a bright person, and he writes nicely enough. The big question comes on whether this sort of book works, and that's going to come down to a very personal reaction. Based on the blurbs on the covers and the reviews on amazon.com, this sort of thoughtful approach works quite well for some.

But it didn't work particularly well for me, even though I'm relatively sympathetic to some of his points of view. The lack of focus was a little distracting, and the road to the non-running sections struck me as a little too winding. That leads to a problem of a rating here; I chose to give my personal reaction to the book rather than solely on its merits. There's something to be said for grabbing the reader, even loosely, and bringing him along.

I don't want to discourage anyone interested in running from at least pondering a look at "The Longest Race." This may sound interesting to you, so by all means give it a try. The book probably will find an audience, but my guess is that it will be a relatively small one. And that's O.K. ... every book doesn't have to sell in the millions.

Two stars

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Review: Breakaway (2012)

By Tal Pinchevsky

For those of you under the age of 30, it's difficult to describe what international sports were like in the Cold War era.

From the Western viewpoint, the teams from the other side of the Iron Curtain (the Soviet Union and its affiliates) were the subject of curiosity. We didn't know much about them, we knew they came from a different economic and cultural system, and we thought they were something close to robots.

It was particularly true in hockey. The West found out just how good the Soviets were during the 1972 series matching its best with their best, and in succeeding competitions and special tours. We on this side wondered what these players would do if they played full-time in the National Hockey League.

Eventually we found out ... and got the answer a little earlier than expected. For before the Soviet Bloc broke into pieces, several hockey players figured out ways -- mostly sneaky ways filled with danger and intrigue -- to come to the Western Hemisphere to give the NHL a shot.

The stories were kept quiet at the time for security reasons in some cases, although details have come up in dribbles over the years. When "Breakaway" was released, anyone who followed the sport during that era must have instantly realized what a great idea for book it was.

Author Tal Pinchevsky talked to as many people as possible about hockey's high-profile defections and transfers over the 1980's and early 1990's. Former NHL general manager Mike Smith compares it to an 'international political spy thriller" on the back cover of the book, and everyone will have that same thought.

The first high-profile move came when the Stastnys of Czechoslovakia made the jump to the Quebec Nordiques. Not only did Peter, the best player of the bunch, make the jump, but brothers Anton and Marian made the jump too. Other followed, such as Petr Klima, Peter Ihnacek, Petr Svoboda, Peter Bondra, etc.

Then the Soviets started to come. While aging players like Slava Fetisov wanted to make the move with permission of government authorities, the young players saw many years of indentured servitude in front of them and decided to bolt first. Alexander Mogilny caused a sensation when he defected in the spring of 1989, and Sergei Fedorov did the same a short time later.

The details of the actual defection are always interesting as told by Pinchevsky. There are discreet meetings in woods, people changing hotels every day, high-speed drives, bribe money, government officials, and so on. There are plenty of reminders about how much nerve and courage it took to make that move, even with the promise of huge financial rewards at the other side of the border. After all, family members were often left behind, not to mention a lifetime of possessions and memories. They thought they'd never be able to go back, although that changed when the Iron Curtain crumbled at the end of the Eighties.

A book like this essentially depends on how open the sources are. Some of the players involved still don't like talking about the specifics, or what the move meant to relationships in their families ... and it's been more than 20 years. That means some of the stories told here are better than others. For example, Petr Nedved, the last defector, who came over at 16, is particularly open about the experience of coming to the West at that age on the hope that the NHL would call. I also found myself wondering if the 20-somethings and younger would find this to be ancient history, so this book isn't for everyone.

But for those who remember the era, "Breakaway" fills in some gaps in a unique time in hockey history quite nicely. Pinchevsky puts a human face on those then-faceless men who risked everything for the chance to play a game in North America.

Four stars

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Review: How the SEC Became Goliath (2012)

By Ray Glier

The most impressive part of "How the SEC Became Goliath" might be revealed in the acknowledgements.

Author Ray Glier mentions in passing three that he wrote this entire book in two months. Wow. There's no doubt about the validity of his claim that he was up until 2:30 a.m. a lot in order to get it done.

Glier probably was driven by the nightmare that the Southeastern Conference might fall on hard times once the actual season began, leaving his book as something of an anachronism. He had nothing to worry about there, as it turned out. The first BCS standings came out in mid-October, and the SEC had seven of the top 25 teams in the country including the top two.

The SEC has become a great success story, having won the last six national championships. It's a good idea to take a look at what's gone right for a conference that seems like it is the NFL's top minor league - along the lines of Triple-A baseball.

Glier makes a couple of great points early in the book, pointing out that Southern schools have always taken a outsized share of interest in their football teams. The South had a bit of an inferiority complex, probably dating back to the Civil War. Professional teams didn't really arrive in the Deep South until the 1960's, when expansion teams finally landed in such places as Atlanta, Miami and New Orleans. Before that, schools such as Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia were fans' representatives in the bid for national sports exposure.

But that doesn't fully explain the recent dominance. Glier goes through a list of reasons for the SEC's good teams. Top coaching certainly has been high on the list, especially lately. Nick Saban, Les Miles and Steve Spurrier are clearly around the top of any list of the best in the sport. Then there's a general philosophy that football games are won from the inside out -- in other words, on the offensive and defensive line -- rather than the outside in. It's caught on throughout the conference.

Then there's a commitment to strength and conditioning on a huge scale. Anyone with a degree in that field apparently won't be unemployed for long, based on the number of people working at SEC schools in that department. And the conference's members have tried to stay on top when it comes to recruiting -- good players always help -- and facilities, which help impress the best recruits.

It's all done on a professional basis, and Glier does talk to some people who know plenty about football, SEC style. Still, there are some signs of the compressed time schedule.

Portions of the book feel a little disorganized and padded in spots. There aren't a great many sources of information here, understandable under the circumstances. You also could argue that it's a good subject for a long magazine article, but perhaps not quite interesting enough to many for a full-fledged book.

Those in SEC Country, though, might disagree. They'll certainly enjoy this quick look at the subject, and probably learn a few things along the way.

Three stars

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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review: As I've Seen It (2012)

By Ed Kilgore

The story of how I first saw this book is worth telling.

I walked into a Barnes & Noble for a book signing by ex-boxer Ray Mancini and author Mark Kriegel when I saw Ed Kilgore standing by the service counter. Right next to him were copies of his new book, stacked up on the counter. I knew the book was coming but didn't know when it would go on sale.

When I asked him a smart-aleck question like, "Ed, are you using the personal touch to sell books now?", he laughed and said he didn't even know it was even there. But we quickly negotiated a good-natured deal: If I agreed to buy the book, he's autograph it on the spot.

Kilgore has been part of the Western New York sports scene for almost 40 years. We probably met about 30 years ago at one sporting event or another, and he's always been helpful and friendly for me. When I worked for the Sabres, he said whenever he got a telephone call from some drunk asking a trivia question, he'd give him my number because he figured I had a better chance of answering it. Thanks, Ed ... I think.

This sort of longevity is fairly rare in the television business, since most people try to move up and on. Kilgore used to be the new kid on the block while competing with Van Miller and Rick Azar; now he's the proverbial grizzled veteran. He's written down some of his memories in "As I've Seen It."

This is exactly what you might expect out of a longtime local sportscaster, with an extra surprise thrown in at the end. The early chapters are dedicated to a bit about his pre-Buffalo years -- who knew that his real name was Kim? The road to Buffalo that he took is a good reminder about just how much luck plays into the job-seeking process for those looking for work in the media. Kilgore more or less stumbled on to a job lead through a connection and got hired. He'd be the first to tell you that it could have been anyone else who happened to be in that age-old cliche of the right place at the right time.

From there, Kilgore mostly sticks to stories about others, everyone from Jim Kelly and Rick Martin to O.J. Simpson and Scotty Bowman. But there's time for some anecdotes about his family, co-workers and celebrity sightings along the way. I particularly liked reading about Ron Hunter, a legendary anchorman who passed through Buffalo, and Jerry Fedell, a news director at Ch. 2 in Buffalo whom I worked with in radio for a while. .

The last chapter is devoted to Kilgore's climb of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa. While that trip came up on the news and through his Facebook posts, it comes across as a larger adventure when fully told here. Any buried feelings about trying mountain climbing of mine have been fully submerged again.

On books about Western New York, I tend to be particularly tough on looking for incorrect facts and typos, but Kilgore has a good batting average here. His writing style is quite conversational, as it's easy to hear his voice while reading it.

I don't rate books by friends, but those who have lived in the Buffalo area during the past 40 years should find "As I've Seen It" an easy, enjoyable read.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

Review: Baseball in the Garden of Eden (2012)

By John Thorn

Ask the casual baseball fan who invented baseball, and the answer probably will come back as "Abner Doubleday." He is said to have created the national pastime in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839.

This is despite the fact that Doubleday was a student at West Point at the time. Indeed, his historical claim to fame was actually that he was at Fort Sumter when the Confederacy attacked to start the Civil War in 1861.

But if not Doubleday, then who?

John Thorn, the official historian for major league baseball, took that task on. His long, long search covered decades, and the story of his investigation is smartly recounted in "Baseball in the Garden of Eden."

Many games don't have a simple genesis; basketball and Dr. James Naismith might be the exception that proves the rule. It doesn't take a historian to take a look at the British game of cricket to conclude that the English brought the game over to the New World, and it went through some unknown adaptations to get to be baseball. An intermediate step probably was the English game called "rounders."

But that's merely the outline of the story. Ball and bat games have been around for centuries. If you are looking for absolute proof that baseball predates Doubleday's alleged invention, check out the town laws of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1791. It seems that a game called "baseball" if played too close to a meeting house, was declared illegal.

Slowly but surely, baseball evolved during the 1800's. The number of bases and players increased to the point where we might recognize it -- although Thorn doesn't spend much time trying to help the reader picture what the early variations of the game resembled. Regional differences in the rules slowly disappeared, with the Knickerbockers of New York getting plenty of credit for standardization along the way. Eventually the game reached the point where nine men on the field and nine innings was more or less than standard. From there it was an easy jump to professionalism, which arrived in a manner of speaking in 1869, and a full national league, in the form of a National League, in 1876.

The road was pretty bumpy from there, as Thorn nicely recounts. Teams came and went, and the reserve clause was born along the way -- a device to control salaries that lasted almost a century. We even saw the rise and fall of The Players League in 1890, and the arrival of the American League at the turn of the century. But somehow baseball survived and prospered.

Thorn knocks down plenty of myths about the game's early days. Alexander Cartwright has been given plenty of credit for his role in the development of the game, but Thorn can't find much support for such claims. Henry Chadwick at least tirelessly promoted the game, in part through writing and editing.

So where did Doubleday come from? Thorn recounts the work of a commission in 1907-08 created to find out how baseball came about. It was a rather nationalistic time, and coming up with a story that said the game had evolved from a British ancestor just wouldn't do. One person came forward to claim he had been in Cooperstown when Doubleday's work was introduced. Even though the witness didn't have much credibility, the story was accepted as fact without any backing research.

Why Doubleday? Thorn goes into the history of theosophy, a philosophy designed to promote brotherhood as well as the study of other religious and unexplained laws of nature. Al Spaulding - a baseball player who went into the sporting goods business - was connected to theosophy through his wife. Doubleday was also a follower, so when the connection more or less fell out of the sky, the group issued its finding.

The obvious danger of a book like this is that it can be dry. Thorn does a good job of keeping the material fresh. Some quoted material from the 19th century can be slightly slow going. Even so, the only part that really drags is the sections on theosophy. They are probably necessary to the story, but they do glaze the eyes.

Overall, though, "Baseball in the Garden of Eden" puts the pieces of baseball's development together and makes some sense out of them. Those interested in the subject will find much to enjoy here, and maybe it smashes for good a few misconceptions about the game's roots that have been around for far too long.

Four stars

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