Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review: Newton's Football (2013)

By Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez, Ph.D.

Mention science to most people, and they go screaming into the night in terror as they think back to their days in high school. Me too.

So it's rare to see a book that can cross that divide and be attractive to those who gave up on science long, long ago. "Newton's Football" is that book. It's a new, fresh treatment that goes down all sorts of avenues in a frequently fascinating and fast read.

Authors Allen St. John and Ainissa G. Ramirez, Ph. D. (you can guess who was in the charge of the football, adn who was in charge of the science) have teamed up for this effort. It's written in the style of "Freakonomics," which a variety of short chapters that examine a variety of issues.

Some of the most interesting chapters in the book deal with the way the game evolved over the years. Seemingly insignificant events turned out to have ripple effects that send football down entirely new paths.

Don't believe it? Think about the simple facemask. You probably have to be drawing social security to remember players who didn't wear them. They were introduced in 1953, and did a dandy job of cutting down on some head injuries. The catch was that, ironically, they cut down on head injuries, which meant the players felt a bit more invulnerable when they made tackles. That meant players were more willing to make harder hits, particularly while leading with their heads. Big hits helped the sport become more popular, but also led to different injuries - like concussions.

There are stories about the development of the West Coast offense. St. John and Ramirez point out how Bill Walsh designed a passing game that essentially resembled digital (on vs. off) decisions. If Option One is covered, go to Option Two. If that's not going to work, go to Option Three. If that's clogged up and linemen are closing in, flip it to a running back in the flat. Passing progressions have become part of the game since then.

What's more, the game really opened up when the rules were changed to discourage bump-and-run play by cornerbacks. It was called the Mel Blount Rule, since he was the prototype for tough, physical defenders. Blount, the authors argue, was something like Thomas Edison, trying all sorts of techniques to find one that worked.

There are a couple of stories on chaos on the football field - deliberate chaos, that is. The no-huddle offense and zone blitz are two such parts of the game designed to create confusion for opponents. Even though they have been around for a while, they still work at some level against foes who at least have an idea that something (but what?) is coming.

By the way, there's a great story in the section on the no-huddle that I've never seen anywhere before. The NFL went to Bengals coach Sam Wyche before the AFC Championship Game in 1988 and asked him not to run the no-huddle because it might make a mockery of the game. Wyche pointed out that this would give an unfair competitive edge to the Bills, and quietly added that some powerful gamblers might not take a liking to the NFL sticking its nose into an outcome like this. After a quick phone call, the league representative told Wyche to do whatever he wanted. The Bengals won.

All sorts of scientific experts, including those who admit they know nothing about football, and a few football ones are consulted along the way. The authors do an excellent job of not getting too technical in the process. This really could have been quite dull, but it never bogs down.

It's usually a good sign when the most stinging criticism of a book is that it should/could have been longer. Maybe a sequel is coming some day; let's hope so. In the meantime, "Newton's Football" works very nicely for those who enjoy out-of-the-box thinking of any kind.

Five stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Review: You Herd Me (2013)

By Colin Cowherd

A full review appeared in The Buffalo News. In short, this is mostly a collection of thoughts about topics that aren't topical. That more or less goes against the immediacy of the sports talk show business, which thrives on emotions generated in the heat of the moment. Therefore, "You Herd Me" is at a disadvantage that is never really overcome.

Two stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Review: Undisputed Truth (2013)

By Mike Tyson and Larry Sloman

Consider the life of Mike Tyson an experiment in social engineering.

Take a kid with virtually no education, and virtually no parental guidance, out of the worst part of New York City. Bring him upstate, give him some world-class instruction in the art of boxing, and then let him loose on an unsuspecting sports world. Then, see what happens after he achieves unimagined success, particularly on the financial end.

That, in a nutshell, is the plot line of "Undisputed Truth," Tyson's autobiography. It doesn't take a mad scientist know that such an experiment might not end well for all concerned.

This may not be the best boxing autobiography ever written - come to think of it, I'm not sure what is - but this certainly must rank among the biggest. It checks in at close to 600 pages of type. My Kindle needed to go out and do roadwork to lose that extra weight after downloading it.

Tyson's life carries a degree of fascination because he was, in some ways, the last heavyweight boxing champion to matter. Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko had better careers, but they didn't light up a ring like Tyson did. The New York native was a destructive machine early in his career, and many paid to watch him at work.

Tyson's backstory also was part of the attraction. He had a generally missing father and an irresponsible mother, and essentially took up stealing well before his age was in double figures. But he somehow found an outlet in boxing, was sent upstate and was virtually adopted by veteran manager Cus D'Amato - the former manager of ex-heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. D'Amato immediately saw big things in Tyson's future even before Tyson had a pro fight, and groomed him nicely. D'Amato also kept Tyson's personality under control.

D'Amato died before Tyson was on top of the heavyweight division, but "Iron Mike" soon became the youngest champion in the division's history. He became one of the top gate attractions in the history of the sport, and the money started flying around. If the history of boxing teaches us anything, it's that people are always willing to try to separate uneducated, less-than-worldly boxers from their earnings. Tyson served as something of a personal ATM for those people.

If that weren't enough, Tyson had some severe self-image problems from his childhood that make him feel less than worthy of that good fortune. Therefore, he just gave away enormous amounts of money. Responsible? One time someone found a sack of money in Tyson's closet that contained a million dollars.

Oddly, there isn't that much boxing in this book by a boxer. In hindsight, most of Tyson's fights were not particularly memorable. No one could stop him, and the parade of early knockouts provide little to write about. The post-fight partying, though, was another story. Tyson freely admits that he took advantage of every opportunity to enjoy the advantages of being "the baddest man on the planet."

That was eventually led to his downfall. Tyson admits here he was too busy chasing women by the dozens, whether he was married or not, and taking drugs to worry too much about training. He got away with it for a while, but eventually it caught up with him. Tyson eventually lost his title, won it back briefly and then lost it again for good. Along the way he picked up a conviction for rape, sending him to prison for a few years.

In the middle of all of this, "Undisputed Truth" stops being a book about a boxer, and starts being a book about an addict.

In that, Tyson's book reads a great deal like the stories of such people as musician Eric Clapton and baseball player Dwight Gooden. Little else mattered to Tyson except satisfying his appetites for women, alcohol and drugs. The stories is all of these books are quite similar. Tyson certainly brings the language of the street to this particular story, and he also admits that he frequently turned into a jerk along the way.

There are some interesting stories told along the way. Certainly plenty of people have wanted to take a swing at boxing promoter Don King over the years. Tyson actually connected a couple of times. And it's amazing how Tyson still held a fascination for people years after he was relevant as an athlete. His name alone still allowed him to inhabit some powerful social circles. Still, many of the stories sound very much the same after a while. Some serious editing probably could have taken 100 pages out the book easily without lessening the impact of the story.

The book was supposed to end with Tyson happily married and clean, finally getting to know his various children in a relatively stable home life. Alas, a new ending had to be tacked on when he fell off the proverbial wagon a few times in terms of substances earlier in the year.

While few will be too sympathetic of Tyson since he brought many of his troubles on himself, it's fair to say that he never had much of a chance. But as "Undisputed Truth" shows, it's still tough to look away. I suspect that will be true for the indefinite future.

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Review: The NHL (2013)

By D'Arcy Jenish

Here's an interesting idea about writing a history book about professional hockey: Take out practically everything that happens on the ice.

That's what D'Arcy Jenish essentially does with his book, "The NHL - A Centennial History." Yes, he's a little early, since we are about four years away from the actual 100th birthday party for the league.

But there's no reason to complain. No matter when it comes out or when it is read, Jenish's book is a valuable addition to the story of professional hockey in North America.

The author concentrates on the off-ice action here, and when reviewed in this context it's easy to see that hockey has had a rough go of it at times over the years. Any business is going to have troubles at the start-up, but the NHL has faced all sorts of issues in nearly a century of duty. As the author says, the story is all about trying to survive and grow.

The league started in the midst of a dispute. The NHL began in 1917 when the members of its predecessor league got involved in something of a big difference of opinion, and four teams in three cities in Canada essentially said to the others that they were going to go off and start their own league, thank you. And that's what they did.

From there, it was something of accordion time for the league, which grew across the border in the United States in fits and starts. The idea of big arenas was just getting started then, and sometimes it was tough for the owners to make money. Then it became tougher to do so in the Thirties when the Depression hit, and World War II didn't help either. No wonder we got down to the Original Six. It's easy to look over the all-time year-by-year standings in the NHL record book and wonder what happened. This tells the story very nicely.

Jenish got a hold of some documents in the post-WW2 era that have never been released before, and the summaries of official league meetings from that era are full of treasures. Not only do they contain "inside information" on the state of the league during the time, but they supply quotes so we can hear the voices of the game's leaders at the time actually speak to us. There are even some financial statements that show the true fiscal state of the league - it hasn't always been a license to print money.

One of Jenish's good points is that for all of the nostalgia about the "Original Six" days, it wasn't such a splendid time. The league was essentially the haves and the have nots for a couple of decades, and the Board of Governors tried and failed for years to balance out the talent level.

The league shifted its balance of power with the 1967 six-team expansion, although a price was paid with the struggles of some of the new teams to stay afloat - just like the 1920s. By the early 1970s, the arrival of the rival World Hockey Association changed the economics of the game for the worse, at least from the owners' perspective.

One of the best moments in the book, in fact, comes from former NHL President John Ziegler. He tells how, when he took over that job around 1978, he asked about the league's financial situation and was told that the NHL was insolvent. Ouch.

Ziegler has never opened up at length in public about his days as President, and it's quite interesting that Jenish got him to talk here. Ziegler may have gotten too much credit for the NHL's reversal of fortunes in this text, but after reading this he seems more effective at least behind the scenes than most realize.

The book also covers the corrupt Alan Eagleson era with the Players Association, the labor actions of the past 20 years, and the arrival of the league as a legitimate player on the North American sports scene - albeit one that still has its problems.

Taking most of the ice out of the game's history makes this story a little dry (sorry), so that means some people aren't going to bother with the nearly 400 pages plus notes here. Their loss. There's plenty of great information here that makes the record book come alive. "The NHL" definitely is going to be a huge favorite for students of the game of hockey.

Five stars

Learn more about this book from

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: Great Expectations (2013)

By Shi Davidi and John Lott

The first point to be made about the new baseball book, "Great Expectations," concerns the title, naturally. Someone else got there first.

In other words, don't go to the nearest bookstore and ask for it by name without saying, "It's in the baseball section." Otherwise, you'll be directed to the work of Charles Dickens, who is not a go-to person when it comes to baseball. And don't do a search just for "great expectations" on the computer, either.

With that obligatory joke out of the way, let's start by saying what "Great Expectations" is. It has to be the fastest season review in baseball literary history. Authors Shi Davidi and John Lott, who both cover the Toronto Blue Jays, collectively have written something of a summary of the 2013 season. These books usually come out just in time for the season opener, so it's odd to read it before American Thanksgiving.

The title works because everyone who followed baseball thought the Blue Jays were poised for a great season in 2013. They completed a couple of huge trades that brought them such players as Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and R.A. Dickey, and added free agents like Melky Cabrera. Clearly, the Blue Jays management saw weakness for a change in the American League East, long dominated by the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and struck in an attempt to become relevant again in baseball circles.

Simply stated, it didn't work. The Blue Jays got off to a poor start, lost Reyes to injury, rallied with a long winning streak in June to get to .500, and then collapsed mostly under the weight of a pile of injuries - particularly to the pitching staff.

Give Davidi and Lott credit for a good start. They dug into the mess that the Blue Jays were in at the end of the 2012 season, which eventually led to the trading of manager John Farrell to the Red Sox for a shortstop. (That one worked out pretty well for Boston.)

The Blue Jays didn't immediately think of such a massive remodeling. But general manager Alex Anthopoulos saw opportunity arrive when the Marlins decided to have a fire sale on some of their veteran talent. After receiving permission from ownership to raise the budget, Anthopoulos went to work and put together a team that was a favorite to win the division.There are some good details here about the negotiating process in the trade and in the discussion to extend Dickey's contract.

When the season starts, the coverage is less comprehensive and interesting. The chapters are split between on-field developments and extended profiles of some of the star players, such as Jose Bautista, Mark Buehrle and Brett Lawrie. Munenori Kawasaki even gets his turn in the spotlight, as he became an unexpected fan favorite despite backup status. The mini-bios aren't boring by any means, but there's no sense of urgency involved.They more or less float in space, unattached to the season around them.

And perhaps that's the biggest problem with the book. It reads as if everyone had big plans for the Blue Jays in 2013 and decided to capitalize by planning on publishing this volume. Even when the team disappointed, people were bound and determined to make sure the book still was going to come out at its scheduled time. The writing does feel a little rushed in spots, with some duplication of material. The deadlines must have been oppressive.

Davidi and Lott do review the year to a certain extent at the end of the book. There is some discussion about leadership problems - always tough to get a handle on in a team sport - and "the little things" that are difficult to quantify. But there are few signs of huge problems on the Blue Jays, such as a lost of respect of manager John Gibbons or an unhappy clubhouse.

Sometimes teams simply have off years, as there are no guarantees to success in baseball. That's what makes it a little maddening to those involved, but it also makes it so much fun to watch. "Great Expectations" will be of interest to Blue Jays fans who want to know more about this particular set of players, but the rest probably could do better elsewhere.

Three stars

Learn more about this book

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review: Their Life's Work (2013)

By Gary M. Pomerantz

"Their Life's Work" is the answer to a bookstore's prayers ... at least in Pittsburgh.

There is little doubt that this particular book will be a huge seller in that part of the world. What's more, it should be. For Gary Pomerantz's work will be sought out by everyone who can recite the members of the defensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s - frequently called "The Steel Curtain."

Just for the record, those players are Joe Greene, Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood and Ernie Holmes, and they helped the Steelers win four Super Bowl titles in less than a decade. They were merely part of one of the great runs by a group of players in pro football history. The line's members were joined by such players as Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster and Jack Lambert.

Heck, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton ought to have its own wing devoted to those Pittsburgh teams. The Steelers of that era started out with a ferocious defense that intimidated opponents and had a conservative offense that stuck to the ground. By decade's end, as the rules and game changed, the Steelers could strike quickly via long-distance passes from Bradshaw to Swann and Stallworth.

Pomerantz essentially splits the story into a couple of parts. The initial sections deal with the rise of the Steelers. You could argue that they were one of the last teams to raid an undervalued talent pool in the historic black colleges, adding to some of the best drafts in football history. Four eventual Hall of Famers in one draft is tough to top. Then it was simply a matter of the pieces coming together. It took some time - the so-called "Immaculate Reception" of 1972  was a major steppingstone toward that goal - but the Steelers finally got that first Super Bowl title in January of 1975.

Happily, there are plenty of good stories about that team told along the way. Pomerantz obviously put in plenty of time through interviews and research to get as complete a story as possible. He doesn't get too bogged down in game details, sticking to personalities and anecdotes. You'll love the portion about the Steelers hanging around the Three Rivers Stadium sauna, reviewing games well into the dinner hour - even inviting the odd respected opponent once in a great while.

After a quick review of the remaining years of the dynasty, Pomerantz moves to the story of what's happened to those players and other members of the organization over the years since everyone went their separate ways. The title refers to what happens to players when they are done with football, usually at a young age.

It's fair to say some of the stories are relatively well-known - Bradshaw is best known for his work with Fox Sports before NFL games, Webster died after suffering from brain damage, etc. A surprising number of people from that team have died already, which is rather sobering. It is a little easy to wonder if some of the other, less-known players on the team had even more compelling stories, but those aren't the ones people care about.

Overseeing it all is the story of the Rooney family. Art, one of the most beloved figures in Pittsburgh history, gets plenty of coverage here as could be expected. He took a chance on pro football in the game's infancy, and it paid off in a big way. Stories about his generosity here still touch the heart. Some of his sons took over the family football business, which took a rather Shakespearean turn fairly recently.

There have been a couple of comparisons here to baseball's "The Boys of Summer," which is a terribly high standard. This isn't quite as sentimental, and therefore probably won't be quite as beloved by a mass audience.

But "Their Life's Work" certainly serves as a glowing valedictory for the most glorious era in Steelers' history. This book will be on the bookshelves of fans of those teams for years and years to come, who probably will want to give it six stars out of a possible five.

Five stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Review: Collision Low Crossers (2013)

By Nicholas Dawidoff

Let's get this out of the way from the beginning.

"Collision Low Crossers" ranks as one of the best pro football books ever written.

The worst part of it might just be the title, which is a phrase (I think) to describe how defenders try to disrupt pass receivers who run short crossing patterns a few yards from the line of scrimmage between the defensive linemen and the linebackers. It's not a phrase that rolls off the tongue at first, but try to remember it the next time you are shopping for a football book. It's worth the effort.

Nicholas Dawidoff, the author of a few other fine books, had the idea of spending a full year with a professional football team. He contacted the New York Jets, who - considering how paranoid pro football is as an industry when it comes to revealing secrets to outsiders - surprisingly agreed to open the doors to him in 2011.

Dawidoff was given total access to everything connected with the team. He had a locker, attended practices, sat with general manager Mike Tannenbaum during games, and so on. Tannenbaum and head coach Rex Ryan are obviously two members of a small group that would even consider something like this. What's more, hardly anything was "off the record." No wonder Dawidoff took 8,000 pages of notes during the year.

The 2011 season might be remembered at first as the Year of the Lockout. Just after the author arrived, the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players expired, and a new one was not in place. So the owners locked the doors and essentially suspended operations. While Dawidoff might have thought this was a bad break at the time, it actually worked in his favor. He still showed up virtually every day at the Jets' complex in New Jersey, and he probably had the chance to develop closer relationships with the members of the coaching staff.

That pays off throughout the book. Most coaches in the NFL come off as slight variations of vanilla in personality, with Ryan as an exception. Here we get to know almost all the coaches as people, and the portraits show that they really do have personalities.

However, the assistant coaches work hard. Very hard. No one seems to ever sleep in the football business, and they all miss countless family events throughout the season. The only thing that makes it even close to worthwhile is winning, and everyone still remembers that only one team out of 32 gets to win that last game of the season in early February - which leaves disappointment lurking for all the rest.

That leads to one of Dawidoff''s main points. The game is so involved and so complicated, that it's difficult for anyone to come close to judging the work of the coaching staff. Few have any idea what's really going on. A glance at the won-loss record by outsiders probably isn't enough.

While the author spends much of his time with the coaches, particularly on the defensive side, he doesn't ignore the players either - although he's not quite as close. There are plenty of good stories there, and the best is the most obvious - the starting quarterback. Mark Sanchez was hailed as the man who would lead the Jets to the promised land when he was drafted, and it looked as if he'd do that after two good years after entering the league. But Sanchez definitely took a small step back in 2011, and that helped to create a split between a solid defensive unit and an inconsistent offensive group. It's more poignant now, since we know Sanchez's career had spiraled downward since then.

There's also insight on fringe players. Take Aaron Maybin, a former first-round draft choice who flopped in Buffalo. Maybin had his moments every once in a great while with the Jets in 2011, and shown to be a fun, interesting person. He's also unable to remember play calls and is the only Jet to even discuss life after football. Very enlightening.

The fun really comes when Dawidoff does his impression of a fly on the wall. What's it like when there is no agreement among football staffers about a particular draft choice? How does a team recruit players when free agency opens in a particular year? How are rookies treated? (Hint to that last one: Think errand boy.)

If that weren't enough, Dawidoff's writing is excellent and thoughtful, and his personal observations on the nature of the game are always interesting. When he writes that football is now designed to produce games and often comes down to a battle of wits between quarterbacks and defensive coordinators, it's easy to nod in agreement.

This runs almost 500 pages and can be a little technical and jargon-filled in spots, but fans of the game won't complain. "Collision Low Crossers" should take its rightful place as one of the best sports books of the year.

Five stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Review: Monsters (2013)

By Rich Cohen

This review appeared in The Buffalo News. Access it with a click here.

Abridged version: Author Rich Cohen goes back and looks at the favorite team of his youth. The 1985 Bears are full of characters, and it's fun to read their stories even more than 25 years later. Still, Cohen doesn't carry much objectivity into the story, and tries quite hard to make the reader notice his writing style.

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Review: Kings of the Road (2013)

By Cameron Stracher

This received a long review in The Buffalo News. You can read the entire text by clicking here.

Short version - this is the abbreviated story of the era when American runners dominated the world stage when it came to marathons. It focuses on men like Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar. The book makes some very interesting points along the way about the history of American running, and what prompted a couple of major changes. I just wish it had been longer.

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Review: Orr (2013)

By Bobby Orr

I once heard a story about Rick Reilly when he was working with hockey great Wayne Gretzky on an autobiography. Reilly said that Gretzky was such a modest, good person that it was tough to get him to open up about much. For example, Gretzky said winning that first Stanley Cup was "special." Reilly asked how, and Gretzky answered, "Well, it was just ... special."

Wayne Gretzky, meet Bobby Orr.

Orr is usually considered one of the three greatest hockey players ever, and maybe the best ever for a particular season. He revolutionized the game with his offense style as a defenseman. Injuries shortened and hampered his career, but Orr had accomplishments that were unmatched before or since.

About the only thing Orr didn't do was write his autobiography, and he's finally taken on that job in "Orr."

The problem here is that Orr is so modest, and such a nice guy, that he has trouble talking about his life. These are qualities that make him a fine person and a good friend, of course. Stories to that effect have come out over the years from a variety of sources. Many friends have talked about how when they were a bit down and out, Orr was always there to pick up the pieces. When baseball writer Peter Gammons switched hospitals once while recovering from a serious illness, who was waiting for him at the new place but Bobby Orr. In his playing days, Orr would take reporters to hospitals, and the journalists would see the Bruins' defenseman cheer up sick kids ... but the reporters were sworn to secrecy.

Orr resisted opportunities to write a book for decades. He's finally done it now. Basically, it's a thank-you letter to everyone that helped along the way. Parents, relatives, coaches, teammates - you'd think Orr was the luckiest guy on the face of the earth to be associated with such good people, although the truth just might be the other way around. That includes people he's encountered along the way, including Don Cherry - who gets his own chapter and an endorsement for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

There is one exception to the rule, and that's his former agent, Alan Eagleson. Orr gives Eagleson his own chapter after not talking about him by name throughout the book. Eagleson went to jail for criminal business activities, and was kicked out of the Hockey Hall of Fame among other disgraces. Eagleson represented Orr from an early age, and became famous in part because of that association. Orr doesn't go into great detail about the financial losses he might have taken - except for the fact that Eagleson didn't even tell Orr when the Bruins offered Orr part-ownership in the team to prevent him from leaving for Chicago as a free agent. Orr seems more upset that Eagleson became a bully along the way, and that the superstar lost a once-good friend in the process.

The book leaves some questions unanswered about Orr's life. For example, what was it like to come up to the NHL at 18 in 1966 and be considered the savior of the Bruins' franchise? Did it hurt as much as I think it did to be stunned by Montreal in the first round of the 1971 playoffs? Would today's medical techniques made his career longer and even better? What sort of reaction does Orr get from families when he walks in the front door to talk about representing a young hockey player in his current job as agent? Even the Stanley Cup championships don't get long reviews, which is surprising.

Orr wraps up the book with a discussion of the game of hockey, and his comments are another example of his good, common sense. He remarks on how important passion for the game is, the role of agents, and possible rules changes. Orr's ideas are logical and sensible - just like most of the comments here. Then there's one last bit of modesty - when listing the various honors he's received for hockey, he doesn't even mention the three consecutive Hart Trophies he captured as the league's most valuable player. That's our Bobby, still the Parry Sound, Ont., boy at heart.

'Orr" certainly has a place on the bookshelf; you can give it to your kids to learn about an admirable sports superstar. There's no controversy here. But if the idea of an autobiography is to give others an insight into the life of the writer, Orr keeps the curtain mostly closed.

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2013

J.R. Moehringer, Editor

This space has contained reviews of the annual book, "The Best American Sports Writing," for years. It's always been very, very good reading, often receiving the relatively rare five-star rating. It's to the point where I'm hard pressed to come up with something different to say each year, other than "go buy it, you'll be glad you did."

This year ... was different.

Series editor Glenn Stout, was always opens the book with a thoughtful introduction, sets the tone right from page xi. He reminds us that sports can be a path to finding out more about a particular person or situation, although not necessarily the path. That meshes with my own experiences, particularly when it comes to the running stories I write. Runners run for a variety of different reasons, and it's often fascinating to find out the details as a clue to a bigger story about human behavior.

That led into an introduction by this year's guest editor, J.R. Moehringer, who started as a daily sportswriter but moved into different areas - drawn by the stories that sports can create but not necessarily drawn by the sports themselves.

After a handful of pages went by, I didn't need much more time to reach a conclusion. Moehringer was going to be using a much bigger net to capture stories that previous editors.

There are a couple of ways of expressing that. First, only a handful of stories are about athletes in the public eye. Most deal with people we don't know dealing with extraordinary situations; in other words, nothing about Tiger Woods here. Second, there are stories in here from sources such as Sports Illustrated and ESPN the magazine that I didn't read the first time around. I don't recall that happening often in this series, but I read them here because I had faith in the selections that they would be worth my time.

Let's add a third - the first story in the book, arguably designed to be the showcase piece of all 25 picks, is on bullfighting. While the story is very well done and full of drama, bullfighting isn't something that pops up on sports talk radio of SportsCenter very often. OK, never. It's followed by an article on bowling, and then by two athletes dying young. No, it's not your older brother's anthology.

One of the few articles on someone in the public eye could have been published in an anthology of business stories. It's the story of Curt Schilling's spiral into corporate bankruptcy with his video games company. "End Game" is fascinating reading, but baseball barely takes even a supporting role.

There is much to enjoy here. Charles Siebert's look at an undrafted free agent's attempt to stick in the NFL was very enlightening. "At the Corner of Love and Basketball" by Allison Glock held me more or less captive. A look back at a "Simpson's" episode on baseball was terrific. I also remembered stories on principled athletes and Urban Meyer from the first time I read them, and they were worth reading again here.

On the other hand, there were a couple of stories that I quit reading well before the halfway point, and a few others that didn't quite add up for me - emphasis on "for me."

And that's the charm of the series. I don't have to like all of the picks, but the selections of "The Best American Sports Writing" force me to try to read stories that I wouldn't normally cover. Moehringer's success rate wasn't quite as good as some of the other editors, at least to me, but you may have a different experience. The journey, though, is always worth taking.

Four stars

Learn more about this book

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Review: My Best Race (2013)

Edited by Chris Cooper

Simple, simple, simple.

Go find some famous runners, and ask them what's the race that they never forget.

It's another one of those slap-your-forehead-and-ask-why-you-didn't-think-of-it books. Thankfully, Chris Cooper did.

He's the editor of "My Best Race," although he probably could have gotten away with a writing credit. Cooper supplies the background information around the quotes, and handles those duties well.

He talked with 50 different runners. All of them are accomplished in the sport in one way or another. Luckily, they aren't all marathoners, so there's diversity in their backgrounds.

What's more, the stories go in unexpected directions. Few give their most famous races in describing their favorite races. Some go back to high school, for instance. Ed Eyestone knocked off an undefeated prep athlete in a very unexpected time and place, and went on to become a two-time Olympian.

A few even go to the end of their careers, like Bart Yasso's participation in an ultra-marathon in South Africa. I wasn't expecting Kathrine Switzer to talk about anything about her first Boston Marathon - but she did, talking about her trip to Athens to run a marathon. But all the stories are quite interesting.

If you follow the sport of running, you know many of the names. Jeff Galloway was a pretty fair runner until he became one of the nation's leading authors on the subject. Zola Budd was a sensation when she came out of South Africa in the Eighties. Steve Scott is one of America's greatest milers. And on it goes.

Each chapter has a little tip for the running population that more or less relates to the story. It's probably not necessary, but if it helps get someone out the door - fine.

I didn't count the non-Americans in the book, but I don't recall many if any. The biggest names of the sport aren't overly represented, although Kara Goucher - which leads the book - is a fine exception. Wonder if Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, Alberto Salazar or Joan Benoit Samuelson were asked to participate?

This is an e-book, so it's not available to everyone, and might not be something you'd want to keep forever anyway. But it's a nice quick read, with many worthwhile tales, and at a low price. You'll be happy with your investment of time when you reach the finish line of "My Best Race."

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review: The Sons of Westwood (2013)

By John Martin Smith

For those who are looking at a somewhat left-wing historical look at the UCLA basketball dynasty, "The Sons of Westwood" is that book.

That's actually not as bad an idea as it might sound, even to conservatives.

John Martin Smith's book concentrates on the years between 1964 to 1975, when the Bruins won 10 NCAA titles in 12 years. That's a remarkable achievement by almost any standard, especially when you consider that players left after a maximum of three years of play. The Celtics won 11 NBA championships in 13 years in one stretch, but Bill Russell was the center for all of them. The UCLA roster was usually in flux, although not as much as when today's teams see top freshmen turn pro.

"The Sons of Westwood" - the title of the school fight song, by the way - starts with a rather basic look at Wooden's life. The story is familiar to many by now - he grew up in the Midwest, became one of the best players of era, turned to coaching and landed at UCLA almost by accident. After arriving in Westwood, Wooden once said that he tried too hard to win because he wanted a championship too much. Once that first one came, they kept coming - thanks in part of a national recruiting effort that was ahead of its time.

It's here that we get to the premise of the book. Society was going through all sorts of changes in those years, and basketball was part of those changes. The rise of the African American athlete was one of the big stories of the Sixties. A center named Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was directly involved in that. He joined with such players as Lucius Allen,  Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe who were willing to challenge the rules as they had always been handed down.

That couldn't have been easy for Wooden, who certainly used one set of principles throughout his life because they had worked for him, and then had those principles challenge by a bunch of people under the age of 21. Wooden also had to deal with the pressure of playing not to lose, since Alcindor and Co. were considered so talented by some that they weren't allowed to have an off-night.

And if that group was "interesting" to coach, Wooden couldn't have predicted what would happen later on when the Bill Walton era ran from 1971 to 1974. Walton was a full-fledged member of the counter-culture during much of his time at UCLA. That meant protests over the Vietnam War and marijuana use. The situation blew up, by UCLA standards, in 1974 when the Bruins didn't win a title.

Smith certainly comes across as being on the players' side in such discussions. That's fine - and I'd agree with him on many points - but some of the issues of the time weren't as cut and dried at the time as the author makes them out to be. It's tough to criticize Wooden too much for sticking to his old beliefs, because that's the path he knew. And for his faults, UCLA did win basketball games under Wooden, even with some turmoil around the team.

Wooden also takes some hits here for the presence of booster Sam Gilbert, who was something of an underground legend in basketball circles. Gilbert was close to the players, sometimes helping out with financial problems and even going as far as arranging abortions. Smith hits Wooden for at the least looking the other way while all of this was going on, and the coach probably deserves it.

There are a couple of other problems along the way here. Some of the material, such as quotes from Adolph Rupp about blacks, cry out for some sort of immediate attribution. There's also a few odd statements that come off as naive. One is the criticism of UCLA for scheduling easy games at home at the start of the season in order to rack up wins and revenues. Is there anyone who doesn't do that these days, except when there's the odd good game to accomodate television? Back then, national TV wasn't even an issue.

One aspect of the entire story is overlooked here. After Wooden retired, he still stayed in touch with most of his ex-players - including some of those who had troubled relationships with him. Andy Hill, who comes up as one of the critics, even wrote a book with Wooden. It's a credit to both sides that issues were settled.

"The Sons of Westwood" will make college basketball fans do some thinking about those UCLA teams, and that's good. Smith's arguments don't all work, as he may be reaching for more than he can grasp, but the effort should be appreciated.

(Note: This book is scheduled for release on September 30.)

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: Rising Tide (2013)

By Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski

Alabama had some "interesting times" in the 1960s. It essentially was Ground Zero of the civil rights movement during much of that time, the Deepest of the Deep South. From a national perspective, much of the nation thought of the state as racist and backward.

But there was always football. The University of Alabama had Bear Bryant, the legendary coach. Plus for three seasons the football team had Joe Namath as its top quarterback. The Crimson Tide often was a contender for the national championship, even though it played with an all-white roster against teams that generally were all-white as well.

It all comes together in "Rising Tide," a book on that era by Randy Roberts and Ed Krzemienski.

The story is bookended by Namath's arrival and departure from Alabama. He came out of Beaver Falls, Pa., as one of the nation's top quarterbacks in the nation. Once Namath discovered he couldn't qualify academically in the Big Ten and saw a trip to Maryland fall through, he landed at the last minute at Alabama.

Bryant was waiting for him, even having him up to his fabled coaching tower when Namath arrived. We forget what a great athlete Namath was in those pre-knee operation days, but he was a standout in all sports (he could dunk a basketball without a running start) and had excellent speed.

The authors do capture the atmosphere that greeted Namath in Alabama. This is someone who had black friends back home, and who therefore wasn't used to the idea of separate drinking fountains and bus lobbies. We couldn't see what was  Joe did what he wanted - being a special athlete always has had its advantages -  and while it ruffled some feathers he was good enough and friendly enough to make it work.

Most of the book is devoted to a game-by-game account of Namath's seasons there. There's some good research involved here and the story moves along, although it is a little difficult to make football games from 50 years ago fresh and interesting. It's striking how much the game of football has changed since then. Namath had games where he only threw a handful of times, something of a waste of his talent. But, when he had to throw, he was a sight. Namath did more than enough for people to realize he was something special.

It's difficult to describe just how Bryant dominated the landscape in Alabama back then. There was always talk of him running for Governor, although he probably wasn't interested in the pay cut, loss of influence and the headaches in that job. He won, year after year. Bryant's involvement in a law suit involving an article from the Saturday Evening Post about an alleged fix of a game with Georgia receives plenty of coverage here, and Bryant won that one as well.

There is some detail given to the general troubles of the time. It's interesting to read stories about people who take a wrong turn while driving and find themselves on the edge of a race riot, the effects of which were felt across the nation. The connection between the civil rights movement and Alabama football isn't really a strong one - they were two separate worlds, naturally - but it is interesting to read about the problems taking place. For those not familiar with the times, this will be a good introduction. But it's a reach to say the sociology equals athletic portions of the book.

"Rising Tide," then, is mostly a football book, and a good one. Namath and Bryant's names still carry some weight in the sport years later, and it's a good idea to explore in depth their time together a half-century later.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: Marathon Man (2013)

By Bill Rodgers and Matthew Shepatin

Here's an interesting coincidence when it comes to legendary marathoner Bill Rodgers.

I had the chance to write a story a few years ago on Rodgers, which involved the chance to interview him at some length by phone and then talk to him in person for a while. Someone asked me later what it was like to talk to Rodgers.

"It was sort of like trying to watch a butterfly," I answered. "The conversation seemed to dart all over the place, but it was pleasant following it."

Imagine my surprise, then, when I read Rodgers' new autobiography, "Marathon Man." He describes how he used to chase butterflies while growing up, and developed a love of running that way. In fact, he still had a collection of butterflies years later. By the way, the runner reveals here that he suffers from ADHD.

This is the second of two Rodgers' autobiographies, in a sense. The first came in 1980, right at the end of a run that saw him dominate the sport for several years. It was an odd book, combining a rather superficial review of Rodgers' life to date mixed with some tips for runners. That made it a case of one foot in one place and one foot in another, and neither completely satisfying.

Rodgers certainly has led an interesting enough life to warrant a full-fledged autobiography. Well, this is it, finally, and it's well done.

Rodgers was a decent enough high school and college runner, and friendly with 1968 Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot. But after college, Rodgers famously gave up the sport, spending his free time smoking in bars and chasing - although apparently not catching - women. He became a conscientious objector when his draft board came calling during the Vietnam War, and worked at a Boston hospital doing the absolute worst tasks in the field.

Somewhere along the way, the running bug returned, and Rodgers headed for the roads again. He was part of a Boston running scene that was starting to boom, and he discovered that he had some talent at the discipline as long as he put in the hours of training.

Rodgers' main breakthrough came in the 1975 Boston Marathon. It wouldn't be completely fair to say he came out of nowhere to win that race, the first of four titles, but he wasn't on anyone's radar as a potential winner either.

Co-author Shepatin made the decision for the first two-thirds of the book to ping-pong from a description of that 1975 race to the chronological story of Rodgers' life. The Boston Marathon was much more innocent back then. Left unstated in that comparison is thoughts about the bombing of the 2013 edition, which obviously happened after the book was written.

Once those two tracks merge at the finish line in 1975, "Boston Billy's" career took off. He went on to win marathons all over the world, and became personally popular as well. I hadn't heard the stories about what happened at the Olympics or why he went into the running gear business, but they broaden the story nicely.

If anything, Rodgers doesn't spend enough time with what he's been doing lately. The runner has become "Bill Rodgers" for living, making personal appearances and talking with runners today. I have friends that still talk about the time they joined Rodgers for a beer or two after a local race.

Rodgers today remains an interesting, intelligent person, so it's no surprise that "Marathon Man" follows that description. The book does a good job of catching the butterfly.

Four stars

Learn more about the book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review: Breaking the Line (2013)

By Samuel G. Freedman

Can you picture a Southeastern Conference without an African Americans on the rosters of the team? An Atlantic Coast Conference with only white faces on its football teams?

Probably not if you are under the age of 50. But not only was it once true, but it was accepted until it all changed a little more than 40 years ago.

Before that, separate and not particularly equal was the rule for blacks and whites in college football. The big state schools such as Alabama and LSU were very pale when it came to that game. The black players, at least those who stayed in the South, frequently wound up at colleges such as Grambling and Florida A&M.

In 1967, feelings about the state of race relations in the United States were at the boiling point. Change was clearly coming, but the old system persisted.

That's the setting for Samuel Freedman's fine book, "Breaking the Line." The author takes a look at two teams' seasons, and sets then into context of time and place. In other words, there's plenty of football here, but it's not all football. And rightly so.

The coaches were legendary. Eddie Robinson piled up more wins than any other college football coach, 408 when he retired in 1997. Grambling became a household name, at least in football-oriented homes, through his work. Hall of Famers Willie Davis, Buck Buchanon and Willie Brown played there. Meanwhile, Jake Gaither didn't have Robinson's longevity, but he did have an .844 winning percentage at Florida A&M.

Picture a Southeastern Conference without black players, and you get an idea of just how much talent was available for these schools and their regular rivals. Games involving Grambling and Florida A&M along with other schools such as Tennessee State, Southern, Texas, Southern, and Prairie View A&M back then were filled with recognized names - Kenny Burrough, Eldridge Dickey, Charlie Joiner, Essex Johnson, etc.

Two of the biggest names quarterbacked in the end-of-the-season clash between Grambling and FAMU: James Harris and Ken Riley. Harris went on to a good-sized career in the NFL, while Riley - converted to defensive back in the NFL - comes up in Hall of Fame conversations as one of the leaders in career interceptions in league history. They were both smart, and dedicated as well as athletic, knocking down stereotypes at the time about black quarterbacks.

Freedman ping-pongs between the two schools in the text. An interesting chapter shows what happened when ABC came to film a documentary on Grambling - only to turn up on a week when demonstrations had the campus in turmoil. It wasn't an easy time, especially when it came to picking sides in the debate over civil rights. Do the best you can to slowly change the system, or angrily protest in an attempt to speed the process along? Players, coaches and administrators were all caught up in the argument.

As you'd expect, the teams meet in an informal championship game at the end of the season/book, and it's a good one. Few readers will remember the outcome, so it all seems fresh several years later.

If there's a flaw here, it's that Freedman is obviously fond of the subjects involved - which is understandable. For example, Harris does indeed start on opening day for the Buffalo Bills in 1969, when Jack Kemp and Tom Flores are hurt. But that was his only start of '69, as Kemp - a former league MVP - returned to duty and sent Harris to the bench. Freedman writes that Dennis Shaw, "a white rookie from San Diego State," moved ahead of Harris in Harris' third year, and that Harris won several games in relief of Shaw. Shaw actually arrived in Harris' second year, 1970, and Harris never did win a game in relief according to

Freedman is right that Harris had a lot of good moments with the Rams, yet the QB found himself on the bench rather quickly. Owner Carroll Rosenbloom supposedly ordered coach Chuck Knox to play Pat Haden at quarterback at one point in 1976. Still, Harris is the first to say that being a pioneer as a black quarterback put enough pressure on him to prevent him from fulfilling his potential as a pro.

The book's subtitle - "The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights" - might be a slight exaggeration too. It's tough to point a finger at a particular year and say it was the most significant of the era. Still, it was an interesting time, in sport and society. "Breaking the Line" captures the dynamics of it all quite well.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review: The Syracuse Fan's Survival Guide to the ACC (2013)

By Mike Waters and Mark Bialczak

All of the realignment taking place in college sports these days probably has caused a jump in sales in road maps. Who can remember what teams are where these days?

Mike Waters and Mark Bialczak took on that difficult assignment in recent months. The figured out who would be in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013-14 (who can say where we'll be in the future?), and wrote a guide to all of the schools individually. Presto! They have a book.

It's called "The Syracuse Fan's Survival Guide to the ACC," and it's simple and straight to the point.

Each of the schools - including Louisville, which is following Syracuse into the ACC in a year - gets a chapter. The headings are the same: school history, program highlights, athletic legends, stadium/arena, Syracuse connections, gameday tips, hotel & restaurant information.

Every school gets the same treatment, and that includes Syracuse. It's not a bad idea, since some people who follow the Orange live outside of Syracuse and are just as likely to travel to an SU home game as any other. It's all done in a factual, relatively good-natured manner.

It's not said anywhere, but one point comes through loud and clear here. The Atlantic Coast Conference is not a bus league. Syracuse is several hours away from its closest conference members, Pittsburgh and Boston College. Most of the schools are a much larger distance. Care to zip from Syracuse to Florida State for a game? It's a 1,200-mile jaunt. The college landscape sure has changed these days.

College sports fans are known for "traveling well," that is to say they are willing to go see their favorite team on the road. It will be interesting to see how the move to the ACC affects Syracuse in that sense. Fans who could drive to Connecticut or Rutgers now need to hop on a plane, which adds to the cost considerably. Will it be worth it to many? We'll have to see.

For those that are going, "The Syracuse Fan's Guide to the ACC" seems like a good item to pack. The information is a good starting point for planning a trip to a new rival. The audience is limited, though, and there is a lot of white space here. Therefore, it's tough to give it more than three stars unless you fit into the right demographic. But, the concept is a good one, and it probably wouldn't take much extra work to write a similar book for the other ACC schools.

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Review: Doc (2013)

By Dwight Gooden and Ellis Henican

Two of the last three sports books reviewed here have more to do with addictions than sports. That's just a coincidence, I think. But the subject is always attractive to readers.

After all, people like Dwight Gooden and Bob Probert were both in the top of their respective fields - playing baseball and hockey in the best league in the world - but couldn't handle the accompanying pressures. This obviously is the dark side of fame and glory.

Without a doubt, Dwight Gooden had both of those two qualities (fame and glory, that is) in large quantities. He let it all slip away, or more appropriately, shoved it up his nose. "Doc," like any of these stories, is not pretty to read.

If you weren't around at the time, it's tough to describe  Gooden's prime fully. He took off with the impact of a rocket, and a large one at that. Gooden arrived essentially out of Class A ball and was the rookie of the year for the New York Mets in the National League in 1984. In 1985, he won the Cy Young Award and might have been the best young pitcher in history. That's quite a statement, but he was that dominating.

Gooden was good enough to help pitch the Mets to a World Series championship in 1986. But the night after New York won the title, Gooden headed to some projects to celebrate with an all-night cocaine blowout. He didn't even make the parade in Manhattan the next day, which makes for a compelling first chapter.

Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, both so young and so talented, were supposed to be the cornerstones of Mets' teams for the next decade plus. They couldn't keep it up and lapsed into similar problems. In Gooden's case, he showed flashes of brilliance in the years after 1986. But he never could kick his habits completely, and wandered in and out of rehab as well as the judicial system for the next quarter-century or so. It's not a pretty picture, and Gooden gets points for telling it honestly.

If you need any reminders of how addictions work, consider what Gooden essentially gave up. His career wasn't what it should have been, although a heavy workload at a young age didn't help his long-term prospects on the diamond either. He went through a few wives and girlfriends, and didn't have a strong relationship with his children. Finally, after a number of false starts, it took an appearance on "Celebrity Rehab" to force him to face his demons. At this point, he's been clean for a couple of years. No doubt, the book is part of his effort to face up to his past actions.

It's the obvious question at this point: How does Gooden's book compare to Probert's? They struck me as quite similar, as the stories and behavior go down the same path. Gooden probably is more likable, and thus it's easy to root for him to get better. However, it's tough to know if those observations are tinted by the fact that Probert didn't get that happy ending to the story, while Gooden has the chance for one.

Don't kid yourself - this is not a baseball book. He's already written a couple of those. I don't think there are a lot of bombshells here, although Gooden makes it clear that he doesn't appreciate some of Strawberry's remarks and actions regarding Gooden's behavior over the years.

But "Doc" does feel like the whole story of his issues, told in a straight-forward way. Gooden comes across well enough. He was simply unable to handle everything that was thrown at him at such a young age. The book probably works better if you closely followed Gooden's career. But my guess is that anyone will come away after reading the book with hopes that Gooden has conquered his demons and will be able to move on to a happier life from here on out.

Three stars

Learn more about this book from

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Review: The Outsider (2013)

By Jimmy Connors

No matter what you think of Jimmy Connors, there's little doubt that he was a game-changer when it came to tennis.

The sport was known for its association with country clubs until the late 1960's. In other words, it was for rich, polite people for the most part. That meant the game was mostly for amateurs, with the pros not even allowed to play for national championships.

When the game opened up, pros like Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall became the sport's best at first. But then a new generation came along, changing tennis forever. Connors was the poster boy for that changeover.

He had grown up on the outskirts of St. Louis, not really poor but hardly rich. He was given tennis instructions by his mother. He was loud. He was rude. He was profane. And he wanted to win at all costs.

It was quite a ride for about 20 years, and he's put it on paper in his book, "The Outsider." It's fair to say that whatever your opinion of Connors is, this will confirm it - good and bad.

Give Connors credit for honesty, if nothing else. It doesn't sound like he has changed his mind about anyone or anything. He's still no friend of some of the top names in tennis - John McEnroe and Arthur Ashe, among others - and holds a grudge like nobody's business.

Connors is particularly tough on himself. He writes at length about the time he almost blew up his marriage by having an affair. The longtime star also had quite a gambling problem, perhaps peaking with a million dollar wager. There are stories about parties with Ilie Nastase and tales of one-night stands during his single days. If you are thinking this reads like a rock star's autobiography, you get the idea - although he says he never got involved in drugs in that time, and after everything else that's in the book, it's easy to believe him.

The portion of the book that has generated the most attention takes up only a few pages. In it, Connors strongly hints that one of the reasons that he broke up with Chris Evert was that Evert had to have an abortion. It's one thing to be honest, but it's probably another to write something like that without giving a little warning that it's coming. He gets some serious demerits there.

Connors certainly gets credit for devotion to his family here - the portions about some incidents involving his mother's battering at the hands of a stranger are stunning - and he's obviously quite loyal to his friends. The lefty never gave up when he was on the court, and never tanked a match. He's proud of all that, and rightly so.

The contradictions do add up here. The book doesn't contain much introspection. Connors is willing to admit now that his on-court behavior was far from perfect, but he can't understand why he wasn't a crowd favorite in some situations. Gee, Jimmy, did you ever think you made it tough for us to root for you at times. There are also some unspecified shots at lawyers and reporters without a great deal of documentation. Connors reveals early in the book that he has a reading disability, and can't read much more than a page at a time. Think it might have been a good idea to find someone he trusted earlier in his career to handle some of the business responsibilities? His mother eventually took a great deal of that role; her, he trusted.

In that sense, this is an easy comparison to an autobiography by Mike Piazza, the baseball star. He had a great career but still remembers every perceived slight. Connors, though, has had plenty of time to ponder such problems - more than 20 years, essentially - and hasn't backed down an inch.

The pages, at least, do go by quite quickly. By the end of the story, Connors seems a little lost without a tennis opponent. He's never found an adequate substitute for the competition of the glory days. As has been said before, athletes are often doomed to have the second halves of their lives serve as a long anti-climax. It's a somewhat sad finish.

While it's tough to admire Connors as he goes through almost 400 pages of writing in "The Outsider," everyone can come to the same conclusion: Once he gets your attention, it's tough to look away.

Three stars

Learn more about this book

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: The Summer of Beer and Whiskey (2013)

By Edward Achorn

A book like this is a good-sized test about how much you may like baseball.

Do you like it enough to want to read about the 1883 season of the American Association? That's the question that Edward Achorn throws out in "The Summer of Beer and Whiskey." He makes a good case that the season is worth reading about ... even now.

Professional baseball was still in its early stages in 1883. The first team acknowledged to be a professional squad came in 1869, and the National League was formed in 1876. The owners were still figuring out how to get the rules correct, and how to get people to pay to see the games on a regular basis.

In addition, monopolies are never popular, as others like to jump in on the fun and potential money-making. The American Association came along to compete with the National League, and in short order they came to the conclusion that it was better to cooperate than wage war. Thus, there was essentially a truce between the two sides in 1883.

The AA did have a different approach than the NL. The sport was hurt by a rash of gambling in the early days, and it was necessary to win the public's approval back on a mass scale. The National League had relatively high ticket prices in those days as an appeal to upper classes (50 cents!). The American Association cut those ticket prices in half and tried to appeal to a mass audience. It worked, as baseball drew record crowds and was clearly on its way to "national pastime" status.

The star of the book is Chris Von Der Ahe, who founded a team in St. Louis in order to - some things never changes - sell more beer. He was a classic owner in the Steinbrennerian mode, always willing to do something outrageous even though he knew little about baseball. If nothing else, Achorn will make sure that Von Der Ahe's contributions to the growth of the sport will no longer be forgotten.

The game was different then. Not many players even wore gloves, one baseball per game was the norm, playing conditions were difficult, etc. But it's fair to say we'd recognize it today. Achorn has a good pennant race to write about as well, as the pennant goes undecided until the final days. The author also checks in on life in the National League. He offers a particularly good chapter along the way about African Americans who played in the 1880's just before the color line was completely drawn.

This is familiar territory for Achorn, who wrote a book called "Fifty-Nine in '84" about the 1884 National League season. Books like this sometimes suffer from too many quotes from the original source material. The language can be quaint but also can be tough to interpret more than a century after the fact. Achorn doesn't fall into that trap.

Is it fair to call this a season that changed everything for baseball? That's tough to say. Certainly tough times were ahead, and the American Association didn't make it to the 20th century. But the rise in interest at this critical point in baseball history certainly is noteworthy.

To be fair, there aren't many names mentioned along the way who will be familiar to even students of baseball history. That fact alone will limit the audience drastically. But Achorn moves the story along quite well and keeps things entertaining. "The Summer of Beer and Whiskey" certainly will answer your questions about one of the key formative years in baseball history, assuming you had some in the first place.

Four stars.

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Review: Full Count (2013)

By Jeff Blair

What ever happened to the Toronto Blue Jays?

This is a reference in the competitive sense. The Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993, and were drawing about four million fans a season. With a retractable domed stadium that was state of the art, it seemed like the Blue Jays had the financial resources and the baseball smarts to be a very good team indefinitely.

As we know now, it didn't work out that way. Toronto has had some good teams and bad teams over the years, but few teams that even had a strong chance at being a serious playoff contender.

That's essentially the focus of "Full Count." Jeff Blair takes a look back at Blue Jays history and comes up with some interesting perspectives on what happened.

First things first - the subtitle of "Four Decades of Blue Jays Baseball" is misleading. Blair, who writes for the Globe and Mail in Canada, briefly covers the team's beginnings and then jumps to the World Series titles, more or less. That means this is not a history lesson, usually produced for major anniversaries. Since the team played its first game in 1977, this is more of a celebration of the team's assumed return to relevance in 2013 after 20 years in the wilderness ... although so far this season, the Blue Jays haven't taken the expected step forward.

Blair sought out many of the people who were involved in the management of the Blue Jays, as well as some key players, for insights into what was really going on. There are a few factors involved in what went wrong with the team, and Blair outlines them nicely.

As a starting point, the Blue Jays did mortgage their future a bit in order to win those championships. No one can blame Toronto for doing that, as the team acquired a few veterans who helped them win at the time for some prospects that were in the pipeline. From there, it was tough to get off the treadmill of mediocrity. The team was certainly affected by currency exchange issues, as the Blue Jays took in Canadian dollars and paid its players in American dollars. There was a good-sized difference in those rates at times, at one point jumping above 30 percent. When the team tailed off on the field and the fans didn't come out in large numbers, Toronto didn't keep up on payroll.

By 2000 or so, the poster boys for big spending became the Red Sox and Yankees - two teams in the Blue Jays' own division, no less. They dominated the landscape for years, leaving Toronto looking up. The team tried all sorts of approaches, but the problems - which also included some ownership and leadership changes - remained.

Blair spoke with such people as Pat Gillick, Cito Gaston, Buck Martinez, Paul Beeston, J.P. Ricciardi, Carlos Delgado, and Alex Anthopoulos, who tell good stories and are quite frank about what went right and what went wrong. It's a fine lesson in sports management.

The one catch in the book comes at the end. The last chapter is dedicated to the subject of Canadians who play major league baseball. Brett Lawrie is the first such player in Blue Jays history to be a regular. The weather up there works against player development compared to, say, Florida or California, and the good athletes often move on to other sports. Sidney Crosby was a very good shortstop growing up, but hockey turned out to be a very good career decision. It's not an uninteresting area, but does feel like it's from a different book in some ways.

Still, going 13 for 14 is an exceptional batting average, and Blair's writing style is smooth as he keeps the story moving nicely. "Full Count" probably isn't for readers who prefer their baseball books to concentrate on runs, hits and errors, but those who want to see what goes on behind the curtain at key times will find this to have many rewards.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Review: Class A (2013)

By Lucas Mann

Here's an idea that's different: a baseball book about a particular team and its season that barely mentions the on-field action.

The book is "Class A," which tells the tale of the Clinton LumberKings in the 2010 Midwest League. The author is Lucas Mann. This all is going to take a little explaining.

Mann is the Provost's Visiting Writer in Nonfiction at the University of Iowa. As a former college baseball player, albeit one who certainly was no candidate to turn professional, spending time with a minor league team for a half-year must have been appealing.

His choice of team is a good one, especially for someone interested in looking outside the lines. Clinton, Iowa, is one of the smallest cities in the country to have a full-season franchise. It has seen better days, and it's not easy for Clinton to compete financially with the other cities in the league. A very messy labor situation around 1980 broke the labor union of the city's biggest factory, and the workforce has changed and shrunk since then. Clinton used to be a railroad hub in the good old days and liked to say it really was in the middle of everywhere, but that status has been reduced as progress has changed the economic landscape.

Mann isn't that far removed from his playing days that he can't relate to some of the players and their struggles. Still, professional status is something of a strong line between you and them. Mann almost always is something of an outsider here - but that's not necessarily bad. He can travel between the worlds of the team and its fans easily.

Ah, the fans. Mann spends plenty of time with them, the ones who come to every game and who even make road trips once in a while. They take a great deal of pride in their LumberKings, following them after they leave Clinton and move up the ladder. A few even make it to the majors.

As for the players, they are for the most part faceless. The stars are treated differently. Nick Franklin was a first-round draft choice of the Mariners and is obviously a top prospect. He's won the lottery already, with something like a seven-figure signing bonus and a body built for baseball. Still, while the Franklins of the world will get extra chances, there are no guarantees. I found myself looking up the team on a website to see who was on it; Franklin has had some tough times since 2010 but is playing well in Triple-A as of this writing and should be in Seattle soon.

What is quite obvious from the start here is that Mann can write. He brings to life all sorts of details, and he is obviously smart and perceptive. There are a variety of literary references to writers who probably haven't been quoted in baseball books too often. He also raises some interesting issues, such as the nature of being a fan and the issues surround Latin players who come to this country as teens and thrown into the pool of minor-league play without a life preserver.

Does it all come together? That's a tough one, and certainly may depend on the reader. Certainly the reviews on reflect that diverse opinion. It's a big, ever-changing roster, but Mann doesn't get to know any of them particularly well. Without that, the book becomes basically a series of episodes that aren't often tied to a particular time. Maybe we're all used to the concept of a baseball season adding structure to a book, and many apparently miss it here.

The book, then, often is left with Mann's own thoughts, which leaves the tale self-absorbed at times. The author also rarely misses a chance to say in two or three sentences what could be done just as well in one. That technique can be effective in certain situations, and it is here sometimes, but a little editing might have been useful.

The publicity blurbs on the back of the book are rather revealing. There's nothing from Peter Gammons or Bob Costas or Tom Verducci, people connected with baseball. The blurbs are from authors such as Jeff Sharlet and Honor Moore, who I'd bet don't read many baseball books. I'm not familiar with their work but a quick computer search shows they have good credentials to judge writing.

"Class A" certainly was a good idea for a book and has some good moments, but the way the elements are mixed just don't work together that well. I came away wishing that potential could have been turned into performance. And how many times have we heard that about someone in the minor leagues?

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Review: Facing Ted Williams (2013)

Edited by Dave Heller

Some years ago, a book was written about what it was like to fight Muhammad Ali. An author tracked down some of his opponents over the years, and they talked about going into the ring against "The Greatest." That was followed by a book on fighting Mike Tyson, and one on hitting Roger Clemens (which, as I recall, was released shortly before the PED stories) came out.

It's a good concept, and it seems logical to hear about other all-time greats in this fashion. Thus, "Facing Ted Williams" was born. The problem was that the idea came along about 10 to 15 years too late, which will be explained in a minute.

Credit Dave Heller for doing plenty of homework here. He pulled together a list of how Williams did against every pitcher during a long career with the Red Sox, and then went about the business of tracking them down. He also talked to a few others who played other positions.

Each interview subject gets a heading with the times he was in the majors and career statistics. The pitchers get a breakdown of how they fared against Williams, complete with an at-bat by at-bat listing when available. For example, Williams was 4 for 8 lifetime against Dick Hall, who you might remember from some great Orioles teams in the Sixties, with a double, homer and five RBIs.

The biggest problem here is one of mortality. Williams finished his career in 1960, which is 53 years ago. Even the rookies in that year are in the their 70's and the veterans would be past 85. Sadly, there aren't many left, and some of them must be tough to find. If you go back a few years into the early-1950's, there are even fewer available candidates.

Even more to the point, the late 1950's and 1960 seasons weren't particularly good ones for the Red Sox. Most of Williams' important moments, the ones you'd like to read about even today, came in the 1940's. Therefore, we read first-hand stories about the end of a legendary career instead of its peak. There are a couple of accounts of his last game, in which he hit a home run in his last at-bat. 

The interviews have their ups and downs depending on the source. Virgil Trucks pitched in the 1940's and 1950's, and has seven pages of stories to tell. It's good stuff. Then there's Phil Regan, who needs two paragraphs to talk about walking him in 1960 in their only meeting. Everyone falls in between, obviously, but the brief ones outnumber the longwinded versions. The other positions' tales begin on page 185 of a 300-page book. Heller did find some players who had relationships with Williams that extended into retirement, who add some insight.

The editor also makes the slightly curious decision of including question-and-answer sessions with players who gave one-sentence (or so) answers to questions under sections called "Interviews." They really don't add much to the discussion.

Without stories to tell, most of the players go back to similar themes. Williams talked to practically everyone in a baseball uniform, friend or foe, about the game and had a fabulous memory. Activity used to stop when Williams went into the cage for some batting practice before games. And many people are convinced that if Williams didn't swing, few umpires would call a pitch a strike.

One interesting part of the book is that Heller has so much information at his fingertips. Therefore, when a pitcher talks about how nervous he was when he came into pitch as a rookie and the first batter was Williams, there's often a footnote - explaining that Williams was actually the third man up. Or someone says he pitched to Williams before a sold-out Comiskey Park, when the actual attendance was 19,121. Memories does play tricks after 60-plus years.

"Facing Ted Williams" does feature a good foreword by Wade Boggs and afterword by announcer Bob Wolff. The longer interviews do a good job of bringing Williams' vibrant personality back to life. There's just not enough of them to carry a book, which can be read in a day rather easily. Note to authors: don't wait 30 more years to do a book on Michael Jordan like this; get to work on it soon.

Two stars

Learn more about this book

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Review: The Baseball Trust (2013)

By Stuart Banner

I must have made medical history today. I brought my copy of "The Baseball Trust" to the doctor's office for reading in the waiting room. I must be the only one in history to do so, since a book subtitled "A History of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption" usually isn't a competitor with People magazine in such places.

No matter. I learned a lot from Stuart Banner's book and I would guess most readers would too.

Baseball's relationship with antitrust laws is curious at best. Major league baseball has been a curious business for well over a century. Teams who are competitors on the field work together off it in a variety of ways, and that makes for a unique relationship.

Teams figured out relatively early that a top professional league needed to control the number and location of its franchises as well as the pool of talent in order to become established. The National League opted to create the reserve clause in a meeting in Buffalo in 1879, which held that certain players weren't allowed to jump to other teams when their contracts had expired.

The problem was that antitrust legislation started entering the national business world a few years later. Clever minds figured out that something was wrong with the system, and challenged it in a variety of ways. New leagues formed, players tried to sue for the freedom to play elsewhere, etc. Hal Chase, for example, successfully sued for the right to jump from the White Sox of the American League to the Buf-Feds of the Federal League in the middle of the 1914 season.

Inevitably, one case wound up in the Supreme Court, and the justices ruled in 1922's Federal Baseball Club that the sport was exempt from antitrust laws because it wasn't interstate commerce for the most part but merely exhibitions of talent in a particular state. That overlooked all sorts of factors, and is still considered one of the truly odd decisions in the Court's history.

From there, we've gone on an odd journey that extends to this day. The Supreme Court had a chance to change the situation with the Toolson case in 1953, but opted to throw back in the hands of Congress. The Curt Flood case was a similar story in 1972. Baseball still has most of its exemption to this day, useful in restricting franchise relocations as an example. That's in spite of the fact that other sports tried to have the same rules applied to them, only to be turned down by the courts. The reserve clause did die in 1975 with the Messersmith-McNally case.

Banner is a professor of law at UCLA, and obviously knows the material well. He draws from a variety of sources for this book, even drawing in the story of other sports nicely when appropriate, and his conclusions seem to be right on target along the way. If there's a catch here, it's that some of the writing is unavoidably dry. I wouldn't say a law degree should be presented when purchasing this book (I don't have one), but the reader does have to turn up the concentration level at times here.

"The Baseball Trust" isn't targeted at a particularly large audience and certainly some fans would never be able to get through it. However, others are aware that the background story about baseball's rules and regulations off the field can be almost as interesting as the ones on the field. For that audience, the book certainly will prove rewarding.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB