Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: Amazing Tales from the Boston Red Sox Dugout (2012)

By Jim Prime and Bill Nowlin

There must be an interesting story surrounding this book, but it's tough to say what it is.

"Amazing Tales from the Boston Red Sox Dugout" was part of a series first put out by Sports Publishing, which specialized in regional sports titles in 2002. In this case, authors Jim Prime and Bill Nowlin - who have done much writing about Boston's baseball team - wrote down a wide range of short stories about players and incidents about the team in its history.

These books weren't designed to be rocket science. A long list of players get chapter headings, although the length of each chapter varies from a couple of paragraphs to, in the case of Ted Williams, many pages.

Prime and Nowlin obviously did some homework here, particularly on the lesser lights. There are anecdotes that were fresh, and I've read a lot of books on the Red Sox over the years. There were even some jokes that featured the same punchline to set-ups that didn't match the popular version, such as the time a pitcher was hit in the head with a line drive and the headlines read "X-rays reveal nothing." I think that story was first associated with Dizzy Dean.

These books are more or less review-proof, as they'll put a smile on your face if you are fan of the particular of the time.

But wait, there's more to the story here.

There are two copyrights on the front of the book, 2002 and 2012. The 2002 book was published by Sports Publishing Inc., which went out of business a few years ago. The rights to the SPI catalog were purchased by Skyhorse Publishing. (Full disclosure - I had a book that went this route.) Apparently, this book was re-released 10 years after it first hit the bookstores.

The catch is that someone did a bad job of editing the new version of the book. After a new introduction, most of the book is written as if it were still 2002. That includes references to "long-suffering" Red Sox fans, who stopped suffering in 2004 and 2007, and glowing accounts of the careers of such players as Nomar Garciaparra, who saw his baseball ranking take a fall in the years after 2002 or so. There are some references to the later years, making it all that much more confusing.

The book also could have used one more read by a copy editor. Some phrases are repeated within chapters, sometimes a few paragraphs apart.

I did read the e-book version of "Amazing Tales from the Boston Red Sox Dugout," which only cost 99 cents. Perhaps there were problems in the "translation," although I doubt it. It seems more likely that an updated version got rushed through without much care.  Red Sox fans still will get a little enjoyment out of this book, but they also figure to be a little confused and/or annoyed along the way.

Two stars

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Monday, February 25, 2013

Review: Sid Gillman (2012)

By Josh Katzowitz

You have to be a good-sized football fan, especially when it comes to history, to know the name Sid Gillman.

Sometimes in the entertainment business, an artist is considered to be more influential than popular. The extreme version of that might be Bob Dylan, who is a musical legend by most standards, but saw his records badly outsold by the Carpenters, who were not musical legends by most standards. Dylan equals Gillman for our purposes.

Gillman had a long and distinguished career in football. He only won one championship, that coming in 1963 with the San Diego Chargers, but he was clearly ahead of his time in terms of the love of the passing game. If you like the current era where the passing game helps teams march up and down the field, you first should nod toward Gillman.

Gillman eventually was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and it's always good to hear about the lives of such people. Therefore, Josh Katzowitz has performed something of a public service, at least in football circles, by writing a biography called "Sid Gillman."

Gillman simply loved the strategic aspects of football. The man was happiest with a projector, watching pass patters develop. He played the game at Ohio State way back in the 1930's, and quickly decided to bypass thoughts of law school and go into coaching. He was successful at Miami (Ohio) and Cincinnati, although he did get bypassed at his alma mater for a job - perhaps because he was Jewish. Different times. Eventually, Gillman landed a job in the NFL as the coach of the Rams, and then bounced to the Chargers of the American Football League.

That championship team was a memorable one. Katzowitz spends a chapter on the title game, pointing out how the Chargers completely confused the Boston Patriots simply by sending a man in motion frequently. It neutralized Boston's famous blitz, and helped lead to a 51-10 romp. That's the AFL equivalent of the 73-0 score in which the Bears beat the Redskins in the title game in 1940. In his days with the Chargers, Gillman had such offensive talents as Lance Alworth, Keith Lincoln, Paul Lowe, Jack Kemp, Tobin Rote and John Hadl. Defense wasn't much of a priority in San Diego, but that didn't seem to bother Sid.

From there, Gillman went on to the coach the Oilers for a while, and then served as an assistant or consultant for several other teams. This was a man who could spend an hour discussing the parts of the center snap at a clinic ... and sometimes did. He also had a long coaching tree that included some of the greats of the business, including Bill Walsh, Al Davis and Chuck Noll.

This is all handled quite professionally by Katzowitz, who covers the NFL for CBSSports.com. He talked to as many people as possible who worked with Gillman. It sounds like the family also was thrilled to have a professional biography done on Gillman, so they cooperated fully. Based on a review posted on Amazon.com, it seems as if those family members are happy with the finished product. That can be a little troubling, since it can be a sign of one-sided praise, but this comes off in a balanced appoach.

There are a couple of minor issues here. The 1960 and 1961 teams are skimmed over very quickly. That's surprising since the teams did reach the AFL title games, only to lose to Houston. A little more background might have made the arc to the 1963 championship that much more interesting. In addition, there are reference to some players on Gillman's teams who politely turned down the chance to talk about him. There obviously is some bad blood there, but no one is saying what it is. That does leave a rather mysterious taste to the story.

It's not easy writing about a tactical genius in football. There are some who will want to know exactly what Gillman did with his offenses, complete with diagrams. However, that's a rather small percentage of the readership; the rest would find such a treatment sleep-enducing. Katzowitz does talk about such matters in general terms without the diagrams, and that comes across after the fact as a good decision that won't quite please everyone.

"Sid Gillman" is a solid, professional job by just about any standard. There isn't a great deal of drama here, and that probably will push away some of the possible readers who only casual football fans. Still, it's nice to have this in the library.

Three stars

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Review: 100 Things Sabres Fans ... (2012)

By Sal Maiorana

When Triumph Books went looking for an author to cover the Buffalo Sabres' history for their series of quick team recaps, they found the right man.

Sal Maiorana of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle certainly is prolific. He is credited as the author of 17 books, with some on Buffalo sports and others on Rochester. That's what happens when you grow up in Buffalo and work now in Rochester. His family must be used to him hiding in the office, working on such projects.

"100 Things Sabres Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" is another solid professional effort from Maiorana, and ought to spark plenty of memories.

As you might expect, all of the books in the series are made up of relatively short reviews of various points in team history, with a few suggestions on what a fan can do (visit the Hall of Fame, go on a road trip, visit the team store, etc.)

The tough part is coming up with 100 ideas, no doubt, and then ranking them. You probably could argue, a little, that number 39 might be higher than number 38 (taking numbers at random), but it doesn't really matter. In general, the author's judgment is on target. That means the first 50 are longer than the last 50, and deservedly so.

Longtime fans certainly can guess the names and events at the front of the line - Gil Perreault, Dominik Hasek, Lindy Ruff, Punch Imlach, the "no goal" game," the lone Game Seven win, and so on. Maiorana obviously went through plenty of sources to come up with background material. What's nice is that there is plenty of information that was obtained well after the fact. The quotes, therefore, have the perspective of time added, which is a good selling point in a book like this.

Personal note: I wrote a book on the first 20 years in Sabre history, and am listed in the credits. Good to know I contributed to history books. More to the point, though, the facts here are right on target, which is crucial. There might be one non-Sabre item that is questionable (I think Charley Finley named the Oakland franchise the Golden Seals at one point), but the batting average is terrific.

As I said about the Bills' book in the same series, this is designed for the casual fan. The walking encyclopedias out there on Sabre history will zip through this pretty quickly. That's not a majority of the fanbase, though, so most people who bleed blue and gold will get plenty of enjoyment out of "100 Things Sabres Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die."

Four stars

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Review: Francona (2013)

By Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy

You'd think that the man who managed the Boston Red Sox to not one but two World Series titles, who ended an 86-year "curse," would have lived happily ever after in that job. You'd think that he would have been named manager for life after the 2004 season, let alone the 2007 season.

But Boston isn't America's toughest baseball town for nothing. It's rare to see someone exit there with smiles all the way around. Carl Yastrzemski did it. Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Mo Vaughn, and a host of others didn't. After 2011, you could add Terry Francona's name to the end of the latter list.

Now more than a year after departing, Francona has come thoroughly clean about his time in the Boston baseball pressure-cooker. "Francona" is a sometimes startling and always fascinating look at what it's like to be a manager under such intense circumstances.

For those who aren't charter members of Red Sox Nation, here's a brief recap: Francona came in to Boston as manager in 2004 after a relatively unsuccessful stint with a rebuilding Philllies' team. The Red Sox were still a little shaky after coming very close to winning a pennant the year before, but Francona came in and provided stability and sanity. He tells a story here about his first spring training, when he greeted Manny Ramirez for the first time and Ramirez wouldn't even talk to him.

But Francona's managerial style won most of the team over. He was a proud baseball lifer, who never trashed his own players in public and tried to make sure everyone respected the game. It worked, as the Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918. It certainly will be great fun for any Red Sox fan to read about that season through Francona's eyes.

There were plenty of ups and a few downs in the years to come. The biggest high came in 2007 when Boston won another World Series title, but there were other playoff appearances and good seasons. The biggest low was in 2011, when the team collapsed in the season's final month and missed the playoffs. Afterwards, in a set of circumstances that seemed to leave everyone involved and spouting different versions of the truth, Francona was not asked to return as manager.

What's interesting about the book is its construction, which is a word carefully chosen. It's not written in Francona's voice. In that sense it is like Joe Torre's book with Tom Verducci on Torre's years with the Yankees. Verducci more or less cleaned out his notebook while giving Torre considerable space to present his view points.

Shaughnessy more or less stays in the background with a few exceptions. Francona has even more time than Torre to discuss his life as a Boston manager. The important part, though, is that Shaughnessy also spends some time in the book quoting other people in the story. The versions of events from former general manager Theo Epstein are particularly illuminating and honest, particularly in battles with ownership. Perhaps with Epstein now with the Cubs, he felt free to be candid about his time in Boston, because he certainly is. Other players chime in as well to add some credibility.

The major villains here are John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino, the top executives. They come off as distant and more interested in feeding the revenue-producing and money-munching machine they created, particularly in the final years of the saga. The section about ownership worrying about the television ratings of the team instead of how to put together a winner has received wide discussion in reviews and articles. To be fair, it is Francona's book. Also to be fair, they didn't use this opportunity to talk about their actions in most cases.  There seem to be enough clouds over parts of the story to make anyone wonder where the actual version of events, like Francona's dismissal, fell.

One bit of warning - the language isn't for the kiddies. Oddly, this does make the quotes seem very authentic and reflects the intensity of the feelings of the people involved. It was a good decision to publish the book that way.

The Red Sox have been a fascinating baseball franchise almost continuously since 1967. "Francona" throws back the curtain on what went on during its greatest era, and it's impossible to look away while racing through its pages.

Five stars

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