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

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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.

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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

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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

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