Sunday, June 30, 2013

Review: Bushville Wins! (2012)

By John Klima

The story of the Milwaukee Braves is a fascinating one. The franchise was located in Boston until 1953, when it moved to Milwaukee right on the eve of the season. The town took the team to heart, and the ballclub - boosted by soaring attendance figures and some rising stars - quickly moved up the standings. By 1956, the Braves were good enough to come close to a pennant. In 1957, they were World Series champions.

It's quite a tale, and author John Klima - who spent plenty of days and nights watching the Braves from the bleachers of County Stadium in Milwaukee - can't wait to tell it. He does so in "Bushville Wins!"

Klima splits the story into three separate sections. The first has as a hero Lou Perini, the owner of the Braves. He gets deserved credit here as something of a visionary. Perini realized that he was never going to be able to compete with the Red Sox in Boston, and looked elsewhere.

There's a great story in the book about that. Warren Spahn was coming off a losing season, and Perini wanted to cut his pay. However, the owner gave the lefty an option - $25,000 or 10 cents per admission. Since the Braves had drawn close to 200,000 the previous year in Boston, Spahn went for the sure thing. Then the team was off to Milwaukee, where they drew around to two million fans - costing Spahn $175,000 or so.

Baseball hadn't seen a team move in about 50 years, but Perini was smart enough to realize that the population and demographics were shifting to make such changes inevitable. The Dodgers and Giants moved a few years later, and expansion arrived in 1961-62. Perini also saw the great popularity of the team in Milwaukee and looked into the idea of closed circuit television, something of a forerunner of today's regional TV networks.

The Braves had Spahn, and they had such players as Eddie Mathews and Henry Aaron come along in that era. Thus they were well positioned to make a run. Milwaukee almost won four straight pennants, but had to settle for two with one World Series title.

Part two centers on the regular season of 1957, and part three moves on to the World Series. Klima's research is very well done. He did some very nice interviews with members of the team; Aaron in particular is very insightful about the squad. The personalities of the squad come through nicely. It sounds like Matthews and his pals had some fun along the way that season.

That all sounds good from the standpoint of the book. But there is a catch, at least for some. It concerns Klima's writing style, which may wear on some people.

This is a story drawn from 50 years ago, and Klima writes as if he feels like he needs to enliven the details almost like a novelist might. The umpire doesn't call strike three; his call "sounded like a Supreme Court judge banging his gavel." Billy Muffett could throw so hard "that he might rip the zipper off the front of his flannels." Casey Stengel didn't just argue a call in Game Seven: "All his frustration came seething out, all the old rivalries of years past, the hostile feelings between the leagues, Milwaukee's rejection and treatment of him, his ballplayers acting like stupid players making stupid plays and making him look stupid ..." Klima does like to pile up lists into one sentence in this book, and it's easy to wonder if he's exaggerating or doing some serious assuming at certain points along the way.

There's also a certain "chip on the shoulder" feeling that comes out in the text, especially in the World Series, with Milwaukee as the middle-of-nowhere upstart and New York as filled with city slickers looking way down their noses. I'd bet some people in Milwaukee felt that way, but Yankee fans might not have given so much thought to it.

This bothered me a bit during my reading, but not quite enough to drop my rating by a star. Looking around, some people didn't even mention this issue while others found it quite distracting. Therefore, to use a cliche, your mileage may vary.

Sadly for Wisconsin, the story didn't end with Lew Burdette winning Game Seven in 1957. After the Braves run ended, they settled into mediocrity in the 1960s and were in Atlanta by the end of the decade. It would have been interesting to read more in the epilogue about what went wrong once Milwaukee lost its baseball innocence, and why it happened.

Still, it's an exciting time, one worth remembering. It's good that Klima brings it back in "Bushville Wins!' Baseball fans of Milwaukee, this is your kind of book.

Four stars

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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Review: The Big Miss (2012)

By Hank Haney

If there's one thing we know about Tiger Woods' personality, it's that you are either with him or against him ... completely. Stories abound about people who leaked out even the smallest bit of information, and suddenly became a non-person in Tiger's world.

Wonder what he thought, then, about Hank Haney's book, "The Big Miss."

It's one of the few looks we've ever had at Tiger's private world, before and after the announcement that he was a serial adulterer, to put his lifestyle status mildly. No matter how tame the book is, and it is relatively tame as these things go, it's easy to guess that he wasn't pleased. Even Haney made that guess at the end of the book.

Woods has had a couple of swing coaches work for him during most of his pro career. Butch Harmon was the first, and the two had plenty of success. Then Woods moved on to Haney for unspecified reasons, and they had just about as much success. Both have long track records as top coaches, and considering Tiger's talent and work ethic, it's no surprise that the combinations worked so well. Haney was absolutely thrilled to work with the man considered one of the greatest golfers in history - who was moving toward "greatest golfer ever" status when he fell on hard times.

If you wondering what the title means, Haney refers to the fact that he wanted to help Woods avoid those huge mistakes that sometimes pop up in golf, particularly in crucial times. In other words, Haney wanted Woods to have a dependable swing so that he wouldn't hit the ball out of bounds or into deep trouble. That's sort of error is a "big miss."

Haney writes in the book that he was paid $50,000 for his work per year, plus the odd bonus for such things as major championships. It sure sounds like he earned his money. Haney was essentially on call for several years, flying down to Orlando frequently to work with Woods for a few days at a time and showing up at several tournaments.

Two points jump out after reading the book. One, Haney certainly knows the golf swing. Good-sized sections of the book are devoted to such concepts as the swing plane. You can guess that you need to know a little bit about playing golf in order to get through this. This is Haney's business, though.

The other centers around just how distant Woods' personality can be. Ever imagine what it's like to hang with Tiger at times? Haney did that, and it's pretty chilly. Sometimes Woods can't even bothered to make a little small talk. Caddie Steve Williams spent as much time with Woods as anyone, and even he was treated that way. This for people who are called Tiger's best friends. And Haney says he didn't know about Woods' behavior with women, and after this I'm inclined to believe him.

Haney did some serious walking on eggshells with Tiger. Even the odd critical remark had to be well-couched before it was adopted, and there are plenty of ego-stroking messages about Tiger's ability (most of which, let's face it, are deserved).

Woods obviously had built something of a cocoon for himself, and felt it was the best way to prepare to win. But it's tough to know if it was the best way to prepare for life. Obviously it was a strain for all concerned, and Woods has gone through some difficult times by any standards. It was all too much for Haney, who admits in the book that he felt mostly relief when he decided to quit as Woods' coach - and Tiger couldn't even admit in public that someone left him instead of the other way around.

Let's face it - most people will read "The Big Miss" for the hints on what Woods is really like. The portrait comes across as fair; even Woods probably couldn't complain too much about the information contained on the pages. The golfer still fascinates us through his blinding talent, and we're anxious to see a year after the book's publication whether the golfer can regain his former glory. Although the book merely offers clues about Tiger, it's not a particularly pretty picture.

Three stars

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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

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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

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Monday, June 10, 2013

Review: The Name of the Game (2012)

By Adam Heach

"The Name of the Game" is a strange book. At its completion, I wondered more about how the information for the text was collected than about the story itself. Can't say that's happened before.

Let's start with the basics. This is essentially the story of Thad Spencer, a heavyweight boxer who was in his prime during the Sixties. It's a good story too, well researched by Heach. Spencer grew up in Portland, Ore., turned professional at a very young age, and worked his way up the heavyweight ladder at a slow pace. Part of the problem was that Spencer was lured almost from the start of his career by the distractions of the street.

Eventually, though, Spencer piled up a few wins and wound up in the world boxing rankings. He was on the verge of making some good money, relatively speaking. Spencer was on the list of potential opponents for Muhammad Ali when the champion had his title stripped in 1967 for evading the draft.

Spencer entered the elimination tournament designed to find Ali's successor, although he wasn't  one of the favorites. Then he actually got in top shape and surprised Ernie Terrell in the opening round. That gave Spencer a shot at Jerry Quarry in the semifinals, although Spencer spent some of his new-found riches. He previously had developed a fondness for cocaine, and didn't have the discipline to get ready for Quarry. He got out of shape, and turned in a dreary effort during that turned out to be his one shot at stardom. If Spencer wins that fight, where does he go next? We'll never know; it was straight downhill from there, essentially. The Terrell fight was his last sanctioned victory.

One of the subplots of the story comes with Spencer's trainer/manager, Willie Ketchum. The ring second was a boxer lifer who always had wanted to train a heavyweight champ, and thought Spencer had a shot. But Ketchum eventually grew tired of Spencer's antics and attitude, and the two went their separate ways. The longtime trainer sounds like a classic boxing character.

Based on the notes at the back of the book, Heach - a pen name for Brendan Granahan - spent a lot of time finding information on Spencer. There are a variety of newspaper articles referenced. He needed to do so, in order to come up with enough material with more than 400 pages of material. Heach does a particularly good job at describing Spencer's fights, which apparently has satisfied the boxing fans who have read the book and commented on it on line.

All well and good. But the book leaves a lot of questions during a reading about how the book came together that never get explained.

The biggest concern centers on the sources of information. Spencer has dementia and Ketchum died more than 30 years ago, and the book reports on the thoughts and private conversations of both men at several moments of their careers. Where did they come from? Did someone start a book on this subject long ago and leave notes behind? We never find out.

In addition, there are long passages of conversations that read like a transcription of news conferences with reporters, with references to such moments as Ketchum puffing on a cigar. It seems like the author took quotes from a newspaper story and "created" a conversation - since it's tough to believe that a sound or video recording of such sessions would still be around. But the reader doesn't know for sure, because there's no list of interviews. Heach might be taking literary license here to "recreate" conversations based on the newspaper stories, a technique that has been used before in nonfiction books. But it would be nice to know what the story is; the reporters in the conversation are never identified.

The book is self-published, which often leads to problems. There are more typos here than in a professional book, and chapter headings on top of each page jumps from the left- to the right-hand page and back at times. The book also could have used an outside editor's touch in spots; at least 50 pages could have come out of the story quite easily.

Some run-on sentences pop up. Here's one example:

Since the death of Davey Moore at the hands of Sugar Ramos in 1964, Thad Spencer was the only fighter Willie had handled, but the arrangement had turned into a bad marriage and emotionally, not to mention professionally, Spencer's inconsistency as a fighter and wayward antics outside the ring were taking too great a toll on him, and while he hadn't fully given up on Thad Spencer as a heavyweight who could not only fight for the heavyweight championship of the world, but also win it, now he started to look elsewhere for suitable candidates to manage and train as he started to return to the fight business on a full time basis.

Meanwhile, Heach has the odd habit of not using hyphens on compound adjectives (top notch fighter, near empty dressing room, up and coming fighters), which often causes some confusion for the reader, and not using enough commas to separate dependent clauses. Facts and first references (such as first names) get repeated within a few sentences every once in a while too. As a result, this is a difficult book to read in spots because the reader has to stop and decipher what's on paper.

"The Name of the Game" was obviously a labor of love by Heach, and the story line is an almost classic boxing tale. Still, there are too many unanswered questions and unsolved problems here, leaving the impression that, at the least, more explanation about the writing and research needed to be done. Therefore, it's tough to give this an enthusiastic review without more information.Maybe there's a good explanation, but it should have been in the book.

Two stars

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