Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Review: 100 Things Bills Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die (2012)

By Jeffrey J. Miller

Welcome to a course in the history of the Buffalo Bills. This is your textbook, reasonably priced at $14.95 list.

It is a different sort of textbook, but that doesn't make it any less valid in reviewing the years of play by the National Football League team. "100 Things Bills Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" has more of an emphasis on the 'knowing" as opposed to the "doing," but it's still a worthwhile effort.

Miller is one of the best authors around when it comes to researching the history of Buffalo's football teams. His previous works have been first rate. Miller, then, is a good choice for another in a series of Triumph's books on sports teams designed for a regional audience.

Miller goes through facts about the team, from one through 100. It is in order of importance, more or less. It starts with Ralph Wilson, who brought the Bills to Buffalo in 1960, and number two is Marv Levy. That's followed by the first championship, Super Bowl 25, Jim Kelly, O.J. Simpson's 2000-yard season, and so on.

You probably could argue about the order of a specific chapter if you were so inclined, but it's fair to say that Miller gets to everything worth noting eventually. A little duplication is almost inevitable in this sort of format, but it's not much of a problem. Some of the material features quotes from those who were on the scene at the time, which is always nice to have.

If this is a history textbook, it probably ranks as the intermediate class. In other words, most Bills fans should know some of the stories that are contained here. Speaking as someone who has had plenty of Bills' history, I can assure you that the information here is accurate ... which is more than half the battle in a book like this.

But there are some stories that will either be new to almost any Bills' fan, or at least will shed some light on events. For example, the story of Bills' uniform number 31 is rather charming if mostly forgotten now. The game between the Bills and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League also pops up here, and deservedly so. Extra credit goes to Miller for the chapter on kicker Booth Lusteg.

By the way, the "things they should do" part is about what you'd think it would be - go to a game, visit Canton to see the Bills enshrined, check out the Wall of Fame, attend a draft party, etc.

"100 Things Bills Fans Should Know and Do" definitely works for what it set out to do. It's particularly good for young people, who might not even remember the Bills' Super Bowl run (has it really been 20 years?). Bit it's a worthwhile effort for all ages of Buffalo fandom.

Four stars

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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review: The Good Son (2012)

By Mark Kriegel

Author Mark Kriegel achieved plenty of success with his first two sports biographies on Joe Namath and Pete Maravich. They not only sold well, but they were almost universally acclaimed. In other words, go read them if you haven't already.

Namath and Maravich were both icons of the 1960's, subjects that were close to mythical. His next subject, Ray Mancini comes from a slightly different era, and the name isn't quite as magical.

But that doesn't mean Mancini isn't a good subject for an autobiography. Kriegel delivers another outstanding piece of work with "The Good Son."

There are all sorts of themes running through this particular effort. The starting point, and the reason Kriegel said he picked Mancini, was all about fathers and sons. Ray's father was a boxer, and he was close to getting a title shot when World War II and an injury got in Lenny's way.

Papa Mancini's window therefore had closed, but son Ray was willing to take a look at opening it again. There's a telling portion of the book in which Kriegel asks the question, "How does a kid fight if he's not hungry?" The author comes right back for the answer, "Oh, but he was. For his father's love." Ray was determined to get a world title for the Mancini name.

Somewhat improbably, it worked. Ray Mancini came out of Youngstown, Ohio, and won a lightweight title. The early Eighties were a great time for boxing, with several charismatic fighters. Television, of course, couldn't resist the Mancini story, with the proud papa in the corner while sonny picked up another victory. Kriegel packs the story with great little details, particularly with frank comments by promoter Bob Arum on the state of the sport at the time.

Mancini would have had an interesting but somewhat typical life had he not gotten into the ring with Duk Koo Kim. These were two fighters who didn't know how to take a step back. Duk Koo said before the bout, "Either he dies or I die." He was prophetic; Duk Koo was carried out of the ring on a stretcher and soon after that died of a head injury.

From there, the story goes into uncharted territory. How does someone react after his fists led to the death of another person? Boxing is a dangerous sport, but death is not supposed to be part of the equation. I hadn't thought of it at the time, but interest by the American over-the-air television networks dropped considerably after the Mancini-Kim fight. They weren't in the business of televising executions, and lost the stomach for boxing.

Indeed, one of the main attractions here is to find out what happened to Mancini. He opened up with Kriegel about the process, and it's not a pretty picture. Mancini first lost that little edge he needed to be a fearless fighter. That eventually led to the loss of his championship. Mancini missed the glory of the business, but didn't have the drive any more - a discovery he made the hard way through a couple of comebacks. From there he goes through marriage and divorce, and something of an acting career. But it sounds as if Mancini wasn't completely at peace until he met Duk Koo's son, although time still has to write more of that story.

Mancini deserves plenty of credit here. He obviously opened up to Kriegel, even though there was no financial incentive to do so (in other words, he didn't get paid) and it must have been painful. Family members contributed much to the story as well. It's almost as if the Duk Koo fight was a huge rock that was thrown into the ocean, and the waves go out from the originating spot forever and affected all they touched.

No matter how good the source material is, though, someone had to put it together. The story was in good hands when Kriegel sat down to write it. He had a full notebook, as writers like to say, and used it well. Kriegel also supplies that little bit of grit that should be in every boxing book. The sport always has lent itself to black-and-white images told in a noir sort of way.

It's easy to root for Mancini after reading "The Good Son," just as it was during his career. The story about how his life took a huge unexpected turn ought to fascinate even those who find boxing less than attractive. In other words, it's an excellent read.

Five stars

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Review: Winners and Losers (2012)

By Bob Latham

Ever heard of Sports Travel magazine? Me neither.

It's easy to guess that it is devoted to the business of sports tourism. Sports fans all know people who travel to follow a particular team or event; fan doesn't come from the word fanatic for nothing. A magazine devoted to those people certainly doesn't turn up at the local supermarket, but it certainly fills a small niche.

Bob Latham is a columnist for Sports Travel. After reading his collection of columns called "Winners & Losers," it's easy to tell how he got the job. He's not bad at it either.

Latham is a lawyer by trade, so he does have some disposable income for such activities as going to sporting events. He's also been on the board for the United States Olympic Committee and the International Rugby Board. That last part probably puts him in the top one-tenth of one percent of Americans when it comes to knowledge about rugby. No one he was the chairman of USA Rugby.

Latham has been around a bit, obviously, and the column has given him a good opportunity to write about some of those experiences.

The chapters are arranged not by date, but by a broad subject in a particular chapter - "Places I Remember," "Learning from the Game," "Happy to be a Fan," etc. These don't come with a particular point of view or edge in almost all cases. Latham is definitely out of the old school, and can get goose bumps or tears out of watching a particular event.

A book such as this usually comes down to the question, "Does this work?" The answer might depend on the reader.Personally, I like my sports books to be a little more pointed than this one. As essay about Mark Sanchez of the Jets eating a hot dog during a game isn't designed to be anything but fun, but it's obvious rather light in weight. That's multiplied by the fact that Latham is not writing on a tight deadline, so he sticks to subjects that are less dated and read like he picked up the ball on an idle thought and ran with it for two and a half pages.

Latham obviously is a bright guy, and there's a place for something like this. In fact, I would guess that the audience for Sports Travel is a good fit for it. The readers there probably wonder "what's it like there?" when seeing a sporting event, and Latham is in a position to tell them. If they like the column, they'll certainly like the book.

By the way, this is a nice job of publishing by Greenleaf Book Group Press. It's expensive paper with color pictures. The book checks in at 200 pages, with plenty of white space, so it's a relatively quick read.

"Winners & Losers" is hardly life-changing and not filled with deep thoughts, but the purists out there may find it worth the comparatively short time it takes to read it. It's a pleasant effort from someone who seems like he'd be good company in the next seat at a sporting event.

Three stars

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Review: 100 Grey Cups (2012)

By Stephen Brunt

What's an American doing reading a book about the history of the championship game of the Canadian Football League?

Easy - the publisher sent me a review copy. I can see Canada on my way home from work every night (insert Sarah Palin joke here), so someone must have thought I'd be a little interested. And, that person was right. News of the CFL leaks its way here every so often, and some famous players (Doug Flutie, Warren Moon for starters) have been very successful north of the border.

One hundred championship games are an obvious reason for a celebration, and the CFL was smart to call in Stephen Brunt, a fine journalist, to do the lifting here for a coffee-table style book. His approach is the most interesting part of the story.

Instead of doing a review of each and every game in Grey Cup history, Brunt instead takes more of a big picture approach. He focuses on less than a dozen games that he considers particularly noteworthy or indicative of the league's history as viewed by teams.

In a sense, then, each chapter is something of a recap of one of the teams that have played in the CFL over the years. The glory years for each team are reviewed, with plenty of pictures from a variety of eras represented.

The exception is the team from Baltimore, which popped up in the CFL briefly when the league tried to expand to America in a fruitless attempt to change its business model. Baltimore did win a title and supplied some top talent when it and the other U.S. teams gave up. It gets reviewed here. Speaking as someone who hasn't been paying close attention to the league's financial situation, it's good to get a summary of what happened over the years.

Brunt also has plenty of sidebars along the way, covering a variety of subjects. It's a good fit in a format like this. And the pictures are very nice; they obviously cleaned out the attic and basement for this effort.

What's wrong, then? It seems a little thin for a book of this type. There are less than 200 pages of type here, and it can go by very quickly. That ties into the price, set at $45. That's probably a bit high even in Canada, where prices are more than they are at the United States.

"100 Grey Cups" is quite attractive and covers the required ground well enough. Whether you find it worth the price tag is entirely up to you, and not for an American to judge.

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2012

Michael Wilbon, Editor

It's always fun to see what the guest editors are thinking when the new edition of "The Best American Sports Writing" comes out. Do they like their stories traditional or off-beat? Do they have some unexpected choices, or do they prefer the traditional outlets? What adds to the fun is that the editors often don't have an idea what the source of the article is (I'm assuming they see a few of the possible choices along the way), so the process is almost subconscious.

Curiosity is heightened when someone like Michael Wilbon has the distinction of picking the entries in the annual series. We know Wilbon a little bit more than the others. After a long career in print journalism, including a lengthy tenure (31 years!) with the Washington Post, Wilbon jumped to working for ESPN. There he splits the hosting duties of "Pardon the Interruption" and does work on the network's NBA telecasts, among other responsibilities. We feel as if know him a bit through television.

A look at the contents page offers some obvious clues to Wilbon's intent. The stories come from Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, the New York Times, the Washington Post, etc. The only slightly outside-the-box source might be a story from Deadspin, a website that has its tabloid moments.

And then we read the book itself, and it's almost like watching Wade Boggs taking batting practice. Nothing but line drives, nothing but excellent stories - one after another.

As a subscriber to many of the outlets represented here, the first reaction to seeing them in the book is something like "well, of course that one is in here." Football in a troubled suburb of Pittsburgh. Marathon runner Frank Shorter goes public with stories of abuse by his father. The retirement of a uniform number at Williams years and years after the number was taken out of circulation for reasons that had been forgotten. The poisoning of some old trees in Alabama.

I remember reading a story on cricket in Indian in ESPN the Magazine, and marveling how well author Wright Thompson made that sport, which is an absolute puzzle to American audiences, come alive. He really helped the reader care about cricket, no small task. It's in here. And so is Taylor Branch's epic on the contradictions and problems in college athletes.

Wham, double to left. Whap, triple up the gap. Boom, the outfielder doesn't even have to look as it goes into the seats.

Then there are the new stories to this reader, always a highlight of this collection. "Punched Out: The Life and Death of Hockey Enforcer" obviously took a ton of time to research and write, and it shows. It's one of a few articles on the issue of head injuries in sports, a subject that was well-represented last year as well. We'll be hearing more about it in the years to come, too.

There's Allen Iverson in Turkey, Stephon Marbury in China. The Deadspin story is a profile of the late George Kimball, a legendary Boston sports writer. They don't make them like Kimball any more, and the story fits here in such a collection.

To stretch the baseball analogy to its breaking point, the only story that was something of a pop-up to the infield for me was one on soccer star Lionel Messi. The language on that one is used adroitly, but the description of Messi's particular skills were a bit technical and somewhat wasted on a casual soccer fan like me. It's probably more my fault that the author's.

"The Best American Sports Writing" series has been coming out since 1991. There's still no sign of slippage. Its arrival at the bookstores remains one of the best parts of autumn.

Five stars

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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Review: I Run, Therefore I Am Still Nuts (2012)

By Bob Schwartz

Is there anything more subjective than written humor? Probably not.

Everyone has a different reaction to attempts to be funny on the printed page. What strikes one person as flat out hilarious leaves another cold.

That brings us to "I Run, Therefore I Am Still Nuts!"

Bob Schwartz wrote a book that mixed running with humor more than a decade ago. If you've visited the running section of the bookstore over that time, you've probably seen it. I've done that, but moved along pretty quickly.

A review copy for the sequel came along recently, giving the chance at an honest try at reading it. For me, at least, it fell short.

The book is essentially a collection of stories or essays (43 in fact) about the sport. (By the way, each chapter gets a cute illustration - good work by B.K. Taylor, who has a nice style.) Schwartz obviously has been a good runner in his long career, breaking three hours in marathons. He's also run long enough to realize that his best days are behind him, and like all of us is doing his best to avoid the march of Father Time.

Is this a case of some essays are better than others? Well, no. I wish I could use the "the essays are good one at a time, but a collection is a little difficult" excuse, but I can't. Let's give a "for instance." One essay is about a trip to the doctor, as Schwartz worries what the diagnosis will be when the doctor is done taking a look. The author works hard to make comments along the way as he tells the story, but I just didn't think the situation lent itself to laughs too well.

It's all done good-naturedly - Schwartz probably would be good company for a run - and in a slightly technical way. In other words, maybe veteran long-distance runners (as in half-marathoners or marathoners) will pick up on the humor a bit more than I did..

The problem, from my perspective, is that there's a good chance you might disagree with my reaction. Schwartz has written a few books over the years, and has been nominated for several awards in the humor column. The comments on Amazon.com about the first book are glowing. If it comes down to "is this funny?" I get the feeling I'm on the outside looking in.

So use my technique and carry "I Run, Therefore I Am Still Nuts!" over to a chair at the bookstore, or read the sample chapters on Amazon.com. The odds are at least good that you'll think I had something of a sense of humor transplant somewhere along the way.

Two stars

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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Review: Dropping the Gloves (2012)

By Barry Melrose with Roger Vaughn

This should have been the starting question when "Dropping the Gloves" was written: Why is Barry Melrose famous in the world of hockey?

There are two big reasons. He was coach of the Los Angeles Kings when they went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1993. And, he's been an ESPN hockey commentator for most of the past 17 years.

Surprisingly enough, those portions of Melrose's life are comparatively overlooked. That's a big reason why "Dropping the Gloves" is less than compelling for the most part.

Melrose has a rather typical Canadian hockey success story to tell. He grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, and played hockey when he wasn't helping out. Melrose was one of the lucky ones who got to follow his dream. He went through junior hockey, was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the National Hockey League draft, and bounced around the World Hockey Association and National Hockey League as well as the minors for several years. I covered the NHL during his time there, and I can't say I remember him making any sort of impression as a player.

Melrose followed a similar path when he retired from playing and moved into coaching - junior hockey, American Hockey League, and National Hockey League. The time at ESPN was briefly interrupted by a coaching job in Tampa Bay that didn't work out, but Melrose seems to be in a good spot in broadcasting. He's a bright guy with some insight and personality - I interviewed him once for a story I wrote, and he was friendly and helpful.

The problem here is that the stories for the most part have been told before by others, in a sense. What the authors probably needed to do was to personalize the storyline with anecdotes along the way. You can talk all you want about chemistry in the locker room being a necessary ingredient to success, but a few more vivid examples would have been helpful.

There are a few stories like that. Melrose does go into some detail about coaching Wayne Gretzky. The coach first admits that he was a bit scared of coaching a superstar like Gretzky, but that the two quickly had a meeting of the minds about how the game should be played, and there were no problems from there. Too bad there weren't more anecdotes like that.

Melrose also spends less than a chapter about his time at ESPN. It's been a part of his life for quite a while, so that's surprising. Surely he could have spun a few tales about the personalities there, the way ESPN uses him since the games aren't shown there, etc.

"Dropping the Gloves" isn't a terrible book by any means. Melrose does have some good analysis about the sport, and he shares some thoughts on such subjects as fighting and coaching techniques here. A little tilt in the emphasis of certain areas, though, might have made this more interesting to more people.

Two stars

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Monday, November 5, 2012

Review: Total Mets (2012)

By David Ferry

Has David Ferry had time to do anything but work on "Total Mets" in the past few years? Has he talked to his wife in that span? Does his child recognize him?

Goodness, the first impression from this book is that it is a very impressive piece of work. I'm relatively sure that it contains the longest known description of Jay Hook's career in the 700-plus pages within the covers. (For the record, Hook pitched for a bit more than two seasons for the Mets and gets almost four pages here.)

The idea behind "Total Mets" is to celebrate the first 50 years of play by New York's National League baseball team. And then celebrate it some more. You'll never see any subject covered more thoroughly.

The book starts with a year-by-year description of the team's fortunes in those 50 seasons. For what it's worth, it's a bit of a surprise that Ferry didn't cover how the team came about. It's an interesting story, as New Yorkers worked to get a replacement team once the Giants and Dodgers packed up for the West Coast after the 1957 season. One plan even involved setting up an "expansion league" called the Continental.

Even so, we jump right into the opening 1962 campaign, one of the worst seasons in baseball history. There are plenty of details about the next 49 years told along the way, and no season gets overlooked. There are full individual statistical recaps of each year included too. The 1969 and 1986 seasons don't dominate the narrative in this section ... which is a good idea in a book like this.

Then it's on to the player biographies. Ferry originally wanted to write biographies of every Met who every suited up for a game - and still has plans to publish such a book - but someone probably realized that doing that here might have collapsed some bookshelves. So we get 50 biographies, hitting everyone from Marv Throneberry to Mike Piazza. Tom Seaver goes from page 346 to 364. It's tough to say whether a little trimming might have made it more likely for readers to dive into a particular portion, but it is, after all, "Total Mets."

General managers and managers get their due in succeeding chapters. It's a great idea to look back on the GMs and cover what they did while on the job. It's followed by good-sized reviews of the postseason games that have been played over the years (good to have the box scores), plus plenty of team and individual records. Just don't think that the records are completely up to date, as they don't include the 2012 season.

What helps the text considerably is that Ferry, while admittedly a Mets' fan from childhood, takes a journalist's approach. He'd better, since he works for the Associated Press. In other words, Ferry is not constantly glowing in his words. He's willing to criticize when necessary, and that covers more than the Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi trade. That helps gives praise that much more credibility.

If there's a complaint to be had here, it probably centers on a lack of pictures. There are some photos scattered about here, but there are plenty of pages with nothing but text on them. That makes it a little less than inviting, at least on a skim basis. My guess is that it's a matter of economics. After all, this book checks in at under $30 retail, which is something of a bargain considering the information involved.

"Total Mets" obviously isn't for everyone, as its overwhelming nature will limit sales to true believers. But those fans who remember the night when Tug McGraw beat Sandy Koufax in Shea Stadium in 1965, as a for instance, will give this an extra star. This is nothing if not thorough.

Four stars

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