Thursday, March 28, 2013

Review: My Toughest Faceoff (2013)

By Brent Peterson with Jim Diamond

Allow me to start with a story about the author of "My Toughest Faceoff," Brent Peterson.

Way back in 1981, the Red Wings and Sabres completed a massive, stunning trade. Veterans Danny Gare, Jim Schoenfeld, Derek Smith and Bob Sauve were sent to Detroit. As a radio reporter at the time, I was sad to see those guys go, because they were all friendly and chatty to the media. Who would replace them?

Dale McCourt was a big part of the package coming to Buffalo, and he was cooperative. Mike Foligno never saw a microphone he didn't like, so that was good. But the unknown quantity in the deal was the not-so-well-known Brent Peterson. No one had much of a chance to talk to him before.

Peterson worked out fine. He fit right in on the checking line, and teamed up with Craig Ramsay on penalty-killing. You could say he was a replacement for the departed Don Luce, with some of the offensive skills. I'm not sure the Sabres had a better faceoff man after that, possibly until Paul Gaustad arrived.

In the meantime, Peterson turned out to be a fine interview, always ready to speak to the media. He was a good analyst of the team and the game, to the point where we could have guessed he'd be a coach someday.

That turned out to be the case. He eventually became an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators. Anyone who dealt with Peterson professionally or personally was upset to hear a while ago that he had contracted Parkinson's disease. It forced him to switch jobs with the Predators.

But don't feel sorry for Peterson, because he doesn't feel sorry for himself. He's doing the best he can to kick away gloom and excuses, and his spirit and good nature come across nicely in this autobiography.

The book probably can be split into two parts. The first half, more or less, is about his playing and coaching days. There are the usual good stories told about teammates and personalities, lightly told and fun to read. In fact, a few more tales probably would have been a nice addition.

But then Peterson notices that he's just not feeling right, that his muscles are acting in an unpredictable way. Doctors confirmed that Parkinson's diagnosis. Peterson knew that the disease would only get worse over time, and did not have a cure.

We read a book like this to find out, "What's it like?" In Parkinson's case, it's difficult. Peterson fully explains what he was feeling as the months went by. There are highs and lows, of course, even to someone this upbeat. He's particularly good at describing a series of operations designed to improve his motor skills, even if it involves drilling holes in his head and running wires to a control device on his chest, That sounds gruesome, but it has improved his quality of life quite a bit since he was done. Some credit certainly goes to co-author Jim Diamond for helping out on this project.

Peterson was always good in community relations, and he decided to set up his own foundation to raise money to fight Parkinson's. That involves a golf tournament and other events. In fact, this book's proceeds go in their entirety to that fund.

"My Toughest Faceoff" obviously has an appeal to the good hockey fans of Nashville as well as other locations where Peterson is remembered. It should cross over to others, too. The book is short and to the point, plus professionally done. Looks like Peterson won this draw pretty easily.

Four stars

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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: Swinging '73 (2013)

By Matthew Silverman

Writing about a particular year of a sport is always a tempting idea. That's especially true in baseball, where the calendar offers an easy way to wrap the events up - the season starts in the spring and ends in the fall.

It's difficult, though, to make it work, particularly when trying to place that season in context with what's going on in the outside world. Something is bound to get short-changed along the way.

That's the short version of a description of Matthew Silverman's "Swinging '73." It's a look back at an interesting season from 40 years ago, which has some good moments but doesn't seem to entirely come together.

The 1973 season had its historical highlights. The Oakland A's were in the midst of their dynasty, filled with players who would battle opponents on the field and battle each other on it. They were really good, and the odd antics of owner Charlie Finley only seemed to bring them together for a while.

While the A's dominated the American League, the National League, especially the East, was something of a scramble. The year featured one of the truly odd pennant races in baseball history, with most of the teams in the NL East being equally mediocre. The Mets put on a burst in the season's final month, and passed all of the other contenders who were merely running in place and beating each other up. Good pitching (Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack, Jerry Koosman and Tug McGraw) can do that.

It was an interesting if not particularly historic or well-played World Series. It's remembered for Willie Mays' sad good-bye to the game, Mike Andrews' strange odyssey, and the Athletics winning the final two games to take the Series in seven.

Meanwhile, the event with the greatest long-term significance for the sport came in New York. Someone from Ohio named George Steinbrenner headed up a group that took control of the Yankees when it purchased it from CBS (which, in a typo I'd bet the author would like back, does not stand for Central Broadcasting System). Any baseball fan will tell you where that purchase led.

We also had the famous wife-swapping incident between a couple of Yankee pitchers, the upcoming renovation of Yankee Stadium, and the introduction of the designated hitter.  The rest of baseball is more or less overlooked.

Silverman does good work on the three teams that serve as the center of the book. He interviewed some of the principals from those seasons, and they provide some good stories. The story about the A's allocating playoff tickets with a skeleton staff by hand, for example, is a classic. Some of the players provide fresh insights.

The attempts to bring the rest of the world into the story don't work so well. For example, the book goes from the A's pre-playoff preparations straight into the Yom Kippur war in the Middle East, and the ensuing old embargo, and then back into Game Three of American League Championship Series. Stories about Watergate, television, football, music, and Wounded Knee are dropped into the text as well. It's difficult to say that adds much to the overall story. One of the rare books in which the technique works well is "Summer of '68," in which Detroit's urban problems serve as a backdrop for the Tigers' rise to the world championship.

Several baseball books have been written on particular pennant races, and this year comes across as a possible good candidate for such a treatment. The Mets' dramatic rise from last to first to win with an 82-79 record while everyone else in the division was under .500 was unique. The pennant race of 1967 was similar, and there have been other good ones, but this was a particular amazing scramble. Silverman, having written some good books on the Mets, seems well-qualified to tackle such a project.

Still, we have to judge the books we have in front of us. "Swinging '73"checks in at about 220 pages, so it's easy to zip through. If you have an interest in the A's and Mets of that era, you'll enjoy the book and the memories it provides.

Three stars

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Friday, March 15, 2013

Review: Keepers of the Game (2013)

By Dennis D'Agostino

To be personal for a moment, back when I was in high school, I enjoyed attending sporting events. Yet, while I enjoyed sitting in the stands with family and friends, if given I choice I probably often would have gone to sit somewhere else. I would have asked to listen in on the really smart, witty people - the press box.

Here I am, 40 years later, and I still often feel that way.

Apparently Dennis D'Agostino has the same feeling I did. He's carried on conversations with some of the top baseball writers in the country over the years, and collected them here. "Keepers of the Game" is, ahem, a keeper.

The idea, as the author freely admits, is not original. Jerome Holtzman, himself a legendary baseball writer from Chicago, did a book of such interviews with the people from his business that he considered legends some time ago. Most old-school baseball writers have a copy or at least read it, although it has to be ancient history to the new kids on the beat.

D'Agostino started with a list of Spink Award winners, which is the writing equivalent of going into the Hall of Fame. In fact, winners are honored at Cooperstown with the other inductees. He talked to as many of the living recipients as possible. Then he added some other top writers who probably are just as worthy as the winners in most cases, and he had 23 chapters for a book.

The passage of time is very striking when reviewing the observations of these fine reporters. Some of the bylines will be familiar to readers of the late, great print edition of the Sporting News, which used to take weekly reports from reporters in the major-league cities. It was always exciting to read those "out-of-town" stories; it was like being in that city and reading the best in the business during the visit. Alas, the Sporting News essentially couldn't figure out a way to keep going in the Internet age, and has evolved into just a website. So in a sense, we're missing that sort of information source ... unless you want to contribute to all sorts of newspapers' paywalls in an effort to get the stories. A pity.

Then there's the matter of how the business changed in such a short time. Some of the true veterans here would write up stories on typewriters and then give to a Western Union representative to send back to the home city via dots and dashes. From there it would be carried to the newspaper's home office. Took hours in some cases. That slowly evolved into the telecopier, which turned into the Tandy portable computer, and into the laptop.

And all of the men listed say how the business has become much more demanding today, a 24-hour operation thanks to blogs, Twitter, etc. Add that to grueling travel, as it's rare for reporters to fly on team planes any more, and it's exhausting to cover a baseball team these days. Some would do it all over again, others wouldn't put so anxious to do it for decades no matter how much they loved the job and the game.

It's amazing how many of the "breaking into the business" stories are similar. They seemed to all be writers in high school, did practically everything to get into the business, stumbled into the baseball beat for one reason or another, and stayed there.

But from there, the stories do take different paths. It's Peter Gammons telling how he called 253 hotels in Virginia searching for the Red Sox general manager, who when found gave him the scoop that Boston wasn't going to sign free agent Jim Hunter. It's Stan Hochman of Philadelphia, taking a break from baseball to interview the cast of "The Night of the Iguana." He taught Richard Burton about baseball. There's the time Bob Hertzel heard Sparky Anderson describe the Reds as "they" in a phone call, and deduced that the longtime skipper in Cincinnati had just lost his job.

The young people out there might not be able to relate to this type of material, and think some of the biographies reads the same way after a while. So, mostly for being targeted at a rather limited niche, this gets "only" four stars. Meanwhile, for those who are interested to pick this up and even glance at it, they're are in for the easiest of enjoyable reads.

As my new editor said to a 40-year-veteran of our newspaper recently, "I could listen to you 'old-timers' all day." Here, you can do just that.

Four stars

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review: Long Shot (2013)

By Mike Piazza with Lonnie Wheeler

Sports fans might remember the induction speech that Michael Jordan gave in 2009 when he went into the Basketball Hall of Fame. It was noteworthy mostly because of the fact that Jordan went out of his way to point out the real and imagined slights that he had "endured" in his great career.

Mr. Jordan, say hello to Mike Piazza. You two ought to have plenty to talk about.

Jordan and Piazza both are obviously competitive, and both used slights as motivation. Piazza's feelings come across in "Long Shot," his autobiography. It's not a pleasant sight in the case of the baseball catcher.

Piazza's baseball career is a great story. He was a very good hitter in high school, but wasn't the radar of scouts. Piazza spent some time in college, and was essentially drafted by the Dodgers in the 62nd round as a favor to Tom Lasorda. The Los Angeles manager/executive had a family connection to the Piazzas.

Piazza wasn't considered much of a prospect, but he worked hard at it. He took batting practice whenever he could, even at midnight on New Year's Eve, and almost willed himself to be an acceptable catcher. Once Piazza reached the majors, he became an offensive force. There's little doubt that he is the greatest offensive player ever to squat behind the plate. Once we get rid of the cloud over absolutely everyone who played in Piazza's era that is caused by steroid issues, Piazza will take his rightful spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He made millions along the way, and has a beautiful family. You'd think life has been, and is, good.

But Piazza certainly doesn't come across that way in the book. It's almost as if he has written down every slight, perceived or real, and wants to air them out here. Piazza still is angry about being at the end of the line when the Dodgers' prospects, angry about contract negotiations, angry about voting for the Most Valuable Player award. He even mentions a couple of times about being forced to play more than a few innings in the first game of a spring training contest. That's just not done to veterans, but still. Some of the slights are real, such as the time a magazine writer implied Piazza was gay in a story without any sort of evidence. Some, such as having pitchers throw at your head, are bound to happen in a long baseball career.

Remember, this is someone who retired after the 2007 season, and he's still angry. You'd think he would have calmed down a little bit.

Oddly, some of the publicity of the book surrounds Piazza's remarks about Dodgers' broadcaster Vin Scully.  There are only a few references to Scully here, and they are mostly in reference to Piazza's contract talks with Los Angeles. Scully apparently had the nerve to ask about Piazza's announcement that he had set a deadline for negotiations about a new contract, which seems like a reasonable question under most circumstances. Later there's a quote in the book that reads, "The fans of Los Angeles were beating me up on a daily basis. That wasn't characteristic of them. ... On top of that, Vin Scully was crushing me." It would be interesting to know where that perception came from, since Piazza probably didn't have time to listen to the broadcasts during games. Piazza has backed down a bit on his remarks since the book was released.

After 350 pages of this, Piazza's attitude certainly can wear down a reader. We tend to read autobiographies to read one side of a personal story, and to find out on some level, "What's he/she like?" Here, no matter how amazing and impressive the basic storyline is, Piazza comes across as so miserable much of the time that reading the book becomes unpleasant.

Piazza provides his own summary on the next-to-last page of "Long Ball." Here's the quote: "Looking back, I wish I'd been able to loosen up a bit. I wish I'd had more fun playing the game. Al Leiter used to ask me, 'When are you going to enjoy this (stuff)?' I never really did." This is a very honest look back at the life of an all-time baseball great, and thus his biggest fans will no doubt like it, but it's not likely to generate much sympathy from the rest of us.

Two stars

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2013

Edited by King Kaufman and Cecilia M. Tan

It's never easy to come up with something fresh for an annual publication, especially one that essentially has the same format year after year. Baseball Prospectus is in a sense the successor to the Bill James Baseball Abstracts of the 1980's. It is filled with all sorts of information about more than 2,000 players, and has been on the cutting edge of statistical analysis for some time.

This year, though, does offer a chance to say something original. The book features a few alterations this time around, and they make "Baseball Prospectus 2013" worth a look here.

The first switch is a good one. When you cover this many players, it's sometimes difficult to keep track of where a particular player has landed in the offseason. BP formerly placed players on their last team of the previous season.

Finally, the publication is listing players with their new teams as of the upcoming season. In other words, R.A. Dickey is in the Toronto section. It doesn't have everyone's new address, since signings take place through spring training, but the big changes are accounted for. Yes, there was an index before and still, but this is a nice step forward and couldn't have been too hard to accomplish.

Now the bad news. The book has an ever changing list of contributors, due to the nature of the business. Writers keep getting hired by major league teams. Astros' GM Jeff Luhnow, who wrote the foreward, took on a couple of them himself.

The player capsules don't have bylines, so it's impossible to know who writes what. But it seems apparent that something has changed in the approach of them. In other words, the writing used to be a lot more funny than it is in this year's book. The logical reason is that the best writers have moved on to other jobs; it's not easy delivering laughs and analysis. However, as the book's influence has grown and sales have multiplied, it's also easy to wonder if the writing crew has become a little more conservative.

Then there are the team essays at the front of each chapter. These formerly were a highlight of the book, offering a great long-term look at a particular team. This time around, though, the essays have been stripped down considerably. There is a quick look back at last year, an overview of 2013, and a few paragraphs on the state of the organization.

That's it for the complaint department. This is still worth your time if you are a baseball fan. Everyone who matters in baseball is covered, and the analysis is often right on target and unavailable anywhere else. I go through it when it arrives in the spring, scanning the major leaguers and studying everyone on my favorite teams. Then I'll sometimes grab it during a televised game, or check on players when they are traded or when they come to town with the local minor league team.

I'm not a fantasy sports player, and I'm still not convinced that this a perfect fit for that part of the sports-reading population. There are other books and magazines strictly designed for such purposes. "Baseball Prospectus 2013" will make readers smarter fans, though, even if previous editions were more entertaining.

Four stars

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