Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: Black Ice (2015)

By Val James with John Gallagher

Buffalo Sabres' fans were used to having a black man on their favorite team in the early 1980s. Tony McKegney had broken into the NHL during the 1978-79 season, and he was still around in the 1981-82 campaign when he received some company.

When Val James came up from the minor leagues to make his NHL debut in 1982, he was something of a curiosity. Coach and general manager Scotty Bowman thought the Sabres needed some toughness, and James certainly could supply that. James played in seven regular season games and three playoff contests - not seeing much ice time along the way - and that was it as a Sabre.

However, Game One was a milestone of sorts. James became the first African-American to reach the NHL. That makes him a pioneer of sorts, and is something of a starting point for a book on his life in hockey, "Black Ice."

And speaking of starting points ... the very first part of James' book is the most compelling. He had just completed playing for the Sabres in a game in the Boston Garden against the Bruins. Afterwards, the Sabres' team bus was surrounded by a mob that broke the front windshield and chanted a racial slur. I'd never heard that story before, and I was covering the team at the time for a radio station. By the way, it's interesting that teammate McKegney didn't come up there or in any other part of the book. 

From there, the book is a straight-forward recap of James' hockey career. It's an unusual story. His parents moved from the South to Long Island in search of a better life. James' father eventually became a rink manager in Commack, where a minor league team played. Thus James had a connection to such personalities as John Brophy and John Muckler. James picked up the game pretty quickly, and his great size and condition quickly gave him a reputation in hockey circles as a physical force to consider at all times. As a youngster he played in a league that was spread out around the New York City metro area.

It was on to Canada and a shot for James to improve his hockey skills at a teenager. He was good enough to be selected by Detroit in the 16th round of the NHL draft in 1977. That allowed him to meet current Sabre coach Ted Nolan (another Red Wings draft choice) at training camp, but he was quickly cut. James bounced from senior hockey to a pro team in Erie, where Nick Polano used him as a security blanket for Erie in the Eastern Hockey League. In a league full of tough guys, James was as tough as anyone, and he played a role in helping Erie win three straight championships.

When Polano jumped to the Sabres, James came along to the Sabres' organization. The rugged forward spent four years in Rochester in addition to his cup of coffee in Buffalo. Then it was on to the Toronto organization, and four more games in the NHL with the Leafs, before retiring in 1988. As you can see, this is not the places for pages and pages of memories about NHL experiences.

The key point of the book centers on his treatment as a black player in a virtually all-white world of hockey. It wasn't too pleasant at times. Teammates told James to simply ignore such ignorant talk, but that's easier said than done. Opposing players sometimes offered slurs, and James "rewarded" them with a good-sized beating the first chance he got. Payback was more difficult with opposing fans, though. Heading into the stands in search of justice can get a player into trouble with the law as well as the league office.

While those sorts of stories are sad but interesting, the rest of the book won't be of much interest to most readers. He recounts fights and games from minor league games from 30 years ago, and it's difficult to make those gripping. For what it's worth, some of the material in the book is definitely R-rated. The book contains a brief reference to James' wife and a short, vague description about his current job, but otherwise this could have been written in 1990.

Most hockey enforcers generally are honorable people, who make the conscious decision to get punched in the head for living. James certainly comes across that way here, and as a good guy. It seems like his life would have made a good magazine story, but there probably aren't enough interesting details to stretch it into a book. "Black Ice," then, probably will only be of interest to those with a connection to James' career ... which doesn't cover a great many people.

Two stars

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Saturday, December 6, 2014

Review: We Are Your Leafs (2014)

By Mike Ulmer

Give the Toronto Maple Leafs credit for one thing - they know how to plan ahead.

The Leafs will celebrate their 100th season later in this decade. The team's marketing department decided to celebrate with not one book of reviewing all that history, but eight - and by not waiting for the actual anniversary season to start.

"We Are Your Leafs" is one of the first shots over the bow, so to speak.

The Leafs have an odd place in North American sports. They were part of the "Original Six" teams from 1942 until 1967, and shared Canada's fan enthusiasm with the Montreal Canadiens. Since Montreal was the obvious choice for French-Canadian fans, the Leafs earned the rest of the country. Even though other NHL teams from Canada are around now, there are no doubt Leaf fans across the country in strange outposts to this day.

There's also the fact that the Maple Leafs haven't given their fans much to watch often since 1967, the year of their last Stanley Cup. They have been generally mediocre since then, with some close calls at greatness and some lapses into farce. Baseball fans know how the Cubs haven't won a World Series in more than 100 years but still have loyal backers throughout the country. That's probably the closest comparison to Leaf Nation.

This particular book shines the spotlight on the Maple Leafs players and management over the years. It starts with Conn Smythe and ends with current coach Randy Carlyle. What's striking about the list of players, and certainly everyone close to important has a small section dedicated to him, is that Toronto has never relied on hockey icons. The best runs came in the late 1940s and the mid 1960s. I suppose the best players in team history were Frank Mahovlich and Mats Sundin, with exceptions made for those who played in the 1920s and 1930s and are tougher to judge from the perspective of today.

They all are represented here, though. Everyone gets a page or two or three, with some good pictures for each one. Ulner, a fine veteran journalist from Toronto, comes through with appropriate text for each personality. Therefore, it's a good-looking package.

But is "We Are Your Leafs" worth buying? That's a fair question. The listed price is $40, which seems a little steep for a book that only takes a day or two to buzz through. It might have been nice to have made it a little bigger, with more text on each player. Some Toronto boosters probably are a least vaguely familiar with the top names in team history.

Then again, I'm not in the target audience since I'm not a Maple Leafs fan. Those who qualify probably will find this to be a good keepsake. It's still not going to be a "best buy" from a consumer magazine, but I could see it being a very suitable gift for that Toronto hockey fan on your holiday shopping list.

Three stars

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Review: Hockey Confidential (2014)

By Bob McKenzie

About the biggest complaint anyone could have with Bob McKenzie's new book is the title.

It sounds like it should be a Canadian pulp magazine from the 1930s, full of slightly scandalous stories and material a little south of the truth. In fact, a friend saw the book cover and asked, "Is it full of raw material about the players?"

Well, no. McKenzie tackles the issue of the title right at the start of "Hockey Confidential." He says he didn't have anything better than "A Bunch of Stories Bob Would Like to Tell." That wouldn't sell too many copies.

Come to think of it, maybe it might. McKenzie, who had a long newspaper career before becoming a reporter for Canada's TSN, is actually the most respectable of journalists. He's had to be talked into the social media responsibilities of the business with the odd kick and screams. McKenzie prefers a more leisurely approach at telling stories than revealing facts 140 characters at a time.

Therefore, he feels right at home with the book-sized format. Most of the accounts here have not been covered at great length before, especially in this way, so they feel new and fresh. But the tales take a leisurely, thoughtful approach.

A good example of this comes in the early going. Take it from someone who covers lacrosse for a living, McKenzie is right on target with a profile of John Tavares. If you thought I was talking about the New York Islanders' young star, you'd be right. And if you thought I was talking about the indoor lacrosse legend of the Buffalo Bandits, you'd be right. The lacrosse player is "Uncle John" to the hockey player, and the connection has been well publicized in the lacrosse community. After bios of both, McKenzie sits down with both of them and has them compare notes, if you will. It's a good enough conversation to have been video taped and shown on television somewhere.

Other chapters cover a variety of hockey-related talk. Former NHL player and executive Colin Campbell tells about how he almost drowned when he drove his tractor on to a frozen lake when the machine sank through the ice. Some of those in the information revolution in hockey get their chance at explaining what's going on - to someone who was lucky to get out of high school math. McKenzie watches a youth hockey game with Don Cherry and his son. Connor McDavid, the Next Big Thing in hockey, gets a long look, particularly concerning the pressures that come with that sort of title.

Some of the story subjects branch off the mainstream a bit. There are chapters on a massage therapist, a skating coach, and the lead singer of Canada's top band who is a huge fan of the Boston Bruins. Then there's the Subban family, a most unlikely group that has produced three NHL draft choices - including one of the league's best defensemen.

The chapters were designed to be about the same size at first, but some expanded when necessary. Two - the McDavid saga as well as the story of Sheldon Keefe, a junior hockey coach - both get 45 pages or so each, and they are the longest of the bunch.

Does it help to be Canadian to read this? Maybe a little. For example, the Mike Danton/David Frost story, in which Keefe plays a small role, probably was a much bigger story in Canada than the U.S. But Americans who like hockey, or who merely like a good story, well-told, will find this worthwhile.

I'd like to think that there's still room fora collection of stories like this, and McKenzie is a good choice to come up with them. "Hockey Confidential" is a good way to spend time on a cold winter night waiting for the next hockey game to begin.

Four stars

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Friday, November 28, 2014

Review: Parcells (2014)

By Bill Parcells and Nunyo Demasio

Bill Parcells is nothing if not prolific. He's written more books than most writers while still finding the time to put together a Hall of Fame career as a football coach.

The latest example of this is "Parcells," a sprawling autobiography of sorts that covers more than 500 pages. It's a football life that still has the ability to fascinate, despite a variety of odd twists and turns.

Parcells' time in football started with the usual bouncing around the country. He was a good enough player to be drafted into the National Football League, but not good enough to play. So he turned to coaching. There he worked his way up the ladder, which means a lot of stops in a lot of different places.

Eventually, coaches are supposed to gain a little stability in their lives in terms of location, and Parcells appeared to have that with the New York Giants after becoming their head coach. He won two Super Bowl titles there, and it seemed as if he could buy, and not rent, after several seasons there. But factors ranging from health to financial insecurity pushed him out the door.

From there it was on to a variety of other stops, coaching the New England Patriots, New York Jets and Dallas Cowboys and running the operations of the Miami Dolphins over the years. There were plenty of other negotiations along the way as well, as he came close to joining a few other organizations as well. The effect was to make the coach something of a puzzle, as in "Why is he doing this now?" The stories of those switches are interesting, and Parcells admits now he could have handled some of those moves in a better way.

This publication follows a trend in sports books, the third-person autobiography. It's written in someone else's voice, although it clearly has plenty of input from Parcells himself. There is some other material from those who were part of Parcells' long ride over the years.

Does the format work? Reasonably well. However, it does create a little distance from the subject, Parcells, and the reader. Demasio certainly comes across as an admirer of Parcells here; Parcells might be tougher on himself than his collaborator. Plus there is a great deal of material here, as the number of pages suggests. Demasio probably could edited some sections of game descriptions over the years rather easily, losing a few dozen pages in the process. I also could have done without the constant references to "Big Blue" as a nickname for the Giants.

Still, there is plenty to enjoy here. Parcells-watchers say there isn't much bombshell material included, but that's fine. It's interesting when the anecdotes take the reader behind the scenes into the locker room or negotiation room. Parcells reached the status he did in football for a variety of reasons, and one of the biggest was that he was good at getting the most out of his players. They may not have liked him along the way, but they appreciated his efforts after the fact in most cases.

All of this came with a bit of a price, as Parcells says he was married to football. That led to divorce and a father who was never around for his children. He would have been much better off had he told his children that he loved them as often as he told Lawrence Taylor that he loved him. It's all part of the package.

Someone once said to a reporter who covered a Parcells-coached team that he was extremely lucky to spend a couple of hours a week with Parcells, just to see his intellect in action on a regular basis. Indeed, he's a fascinating individual. "Parcells" provides insight into why he was and is an interesting man, and why we're still drawn to him more than 25 years after his first championship.

(I received this book from "Blogging for Books" for free in return for this review.)

Four stars

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Review: A Matter of Inches (2014)

By Clint Malarchuk with Dan Robson

It's odd to see yourself referenced in a book of any type, even if it's anonymously. I pop up in that manner in Clint Malarchuk's book, "A Matter of Inches." That demands an explanation.

I was working in the Buffalo Sabres public relations department when Malarchuk had his throat slashed during a 1989 game in Memorial Auditorium. It was as terrible a moment as you'd expect. I even took a frantic call in the press box from Malarchuk's brother, who had been watching on TV a couple of thousand miles away.

Two days later, the Sabres were again home for a game, and Malarchuk - who had gone through surgery and was released from the hospital - stopped by the Aud to pick up a few things. I suggested that it would be nice during a break to have him wave to the crowd during a break in the action, since the fans were part of that traumatic experience. My boss convinced Malarchuk to do so, although it wasn't easy.

I was one of the public address announcers at games, so I turned on the microphone and (as is mentioned in the book) said, "It's been a tough couple of days in the Sabre organization, but we thought you'd like to see someone. So at the Zamboni entrance, please welcome back Clint Malarchuk." The standing ovation, which included everyone on the ice from both teams, lasted three or four minutes. The doors were eventually opened so that Malarchuk could walk out on the ice and allow everyone to get a better look. It was an emotional moment.

Malarchuk's name has come up in the sports media in various ways over the years, sometimes associated with the accident. Now we can read his entire story in his book, which is a very unusual one by sports publication standards - mental illness is rarely discussed in the world of alleged fun and games - and it's not the least bit pretty. Interesting, yes; pretty, no.

It turned out that the accident was only one of Malarchuk's issues, albeit one of the biggest. He had an alcoholic father who exited the family during Malarchuk's childhood, and you can guess how that will mess up everything it touches. Clint also suffered from anxiety attacks, refusing to go to school at times. Throw in an undiagnosed case of OCD, and it's the recipe for disaster.

Hockey was his refuge, though, and Malarchuk was very good at goaltending. He worked very hard at it too, and moved up to the ladder to the point where he was drafted by the pros. There after an apprenticeship in the minors, Malarchuk landed in the NHL. He played for the Quebec Nordiques and Washington Capitals - not at the top of the class at his position, but certainly a worthy NHL goalie.

Malarchuk hadn't figured out all of the demons yet during that time, and the accident added another large group of them. Within a year, Malarchuk was filled with anxiety, nightmares and ulcers, to the point where he drank a bottle of whiskey at a sitting in something close to a suicide attempt. His time as an NHL player ended shortly after that, and the transition to ex-player is a difficult one for even the most well-adjusted of people.

Malarchuk goes through the ups and downs of his life from there in almost painful detail. He'd seem to be headed on the right path, and then have a relapse almost have to start over. Malarchuk has been married four times in his life. After reading this, it's not amazing that the first three left him; it's amazing that the fourth one stayed.

The story's climax comes when a depressed Malarchuk actually shoots himself in the mouth in 2008. As could be guessed, he somehow survived it. But that doesn't mean the story of the medical recovery and the time in rehab isn't harrowing, because it certainly is. This is tough reading.

There is one aspect of the book that doesn't exactly ring true. Malarchuk's own descriptions of himself aren't particularly pleasant. It's part of his disease certainly, but he's not a likable or mature person as presented here.

Yet, those who knew him from his playing days will tell you that he was one of the good guys. I had a Washington writer tell me when Malarchuk was traded to Buffalo that "not only is Clint one of my favorite hockey players, he's one of my favorite people period." His sense of humor was a little quirky, but we passed off that and some of his actions to the fact that he was a goaltender. In the hockey business, goaltenders often are a different breed, perhaps because their job carries so much pressure with it.

By the end, "A Matter of Inches" hints that while Malarchuk has beaten back some of those demons for now, it always will be a battle to keep them at bay. But maybe getting it out of his system in this way will help him, and maybe he'll find comfort to know that many of the people he encountered on this journey are rooting him to register the biggest of victories. In the meantime, let's hope that this book offers a helping hand to others in a similar situation who will realize after reading this that they need some help, and don't have to face it alone.

Four stars

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review: Save by Roy (2014)

By Terry Frei and Adrian Dater

Luck plays a role in the business of books. Example One in this case comes from Denver newspaper columnist Terry Frei and reporter Adrian Dater.

The two men saw that a sleepy Colorado Avalanche franchise had taken a dramatic turn with the hiring of a new coach, legendary goaltender Patrick Roy. The Avalanche also had Joe Sakic, another hockey Hall of Famer, in the front office, and had some good if unproven young players on the roster.

It figured to be an interesting season. Therefore, they decided to make a book out of it. "Save by Roy" is that book.

The luck comes with what happened, particularly at the start. The Avalanche got off to the best start in team history, which was rather unexpected considered it had missed the playoffs the season before. What's more, the team stayed good throughout the season. If you follow hockey, you probably know that the team had one of the great turnarounds in recent history.

Roy turned out to be an inspired choice to be coach. The number of former NHL goalies who have been NHL coaches over the years is a small one. There's Emile Francis, Gerry Cheevers, Eddie Johnston, Glen Hanlon, Ron Low ... there must be someone else around. It's almost like baseball pitchers, who mostly become pitching coaches and rarely move up to become managers. Yet goalies have a good view of the ice at all times, and have to think about offense and defense constantly.

Roy is considered one of the greatest goalies in history, and paid some dues by coaching in junior hockey. Still, he hadn't been an NHL head coach or assistant, so it was a risky choice. Yet it paid off nicely with a great first season.

The majority of the book covers the season, game by game. It doesn't get too bogged down in the play-by-play, sticking to larger trends for the most part and quotes from those involved. Every player on the roster, important or not, receives a short biography. Yet Roy is the star of the show, as he unquestionably has the spotlight much of the time. After an emotional start to the season (understatement), the new coach generally calmed downed and was quite calculating in his public "performances." The authors believe he turned in one of the great coaching performances in memory in this particular season.

The best part of the book comes when Frei and Dater go off on tangents by themselves. There are some good anecdotes about issues that came up during the season, as well as journalism matters in which there often is no easy answer. That's our business, all right. Oh - you'll shake your head when you read about how tough it is to get to your car after covering a Super Bowl. I did say tangents, right?

The obvious question here is whether the book works well enough to appeal to an audience outside of the state of Colorado and certain parts of Quebec (the Roy connection, as he spent part of his playing career in Montreal). That's tough to say. The games do tend to blend together a bit here without much analysis at times, which is only natural in an 82-game season. And the story ends with a playoff whimper, as fans no doubt remember - there's that luck issue again.

Therefore, it's a little difficult for me to give "Save by Roy" more than a three-star rating from this distance. However, at 1,500 miles away, I'm not in the target audience. Colorado hockey fans probably would enjoy reading about the surprising Avalanche, and they would bring some personal knowledge of memorable games to the table. In other words, they will like this book better than the typical after-the-fact, quickly published book on championship seasons that are often produced. Those people will give this another star and are sure to enjoy it.

Three stars

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Review: Straight Up and Personal (2014)

By Don Cherry

Don Cherry has become something of a one-man industry in Canada.

He is best known for his appearances on Hockey Night in Canada's "Coach's Corner." Those segments on television broadcasts have made him one of the most popular figures in Canadian history - a statement that must sound like an exaggeration to Americans, but it's true.

Cherry also has produced videos, written books, done a regular radio show, and made personal appearances. He's still going strong past the age of 80.

Book four has arrived at the stores this fall in the form of "Straight Up & Personal." It's a breezy volume of stories of his past and snapshots of his life.

Cherry always was a good story-teller. Back in his coaching days, the media used to line up to talk to him after games along the lines of children waiting in a department store to see Santa Claus. It was almost guaranteed to be the best 10 minutes of their journalistic year.

What's it like to be Don Cherry now? He takes the reader along a few times by keeping a diary of some of his activities, essentially. Cherry went over to Afghanistan to see Canadian troops. He came down with gout early in the trip, but he limped his way around a war zone to show that he cared.

Other segments aren't so life-and-death dramatic. Cherry went to Sochi for the Olympics in 2014, and watched Canada take gold medals in men's and women's ice hockey. The hours were long and difficult, partly because of the time zone change. Then there's the Stanley Cup playoffs, which kept Cherry on the move for the better part of two months. Ever try to carry five suits across the country a few times? The always dapper Cherry did, thanks to that New York-Los Angeles final. 

Otherwise, though, Cherry writes about whatever comes to mind. There are stories about lessons he's learned in life, comments about hockey figures, thoughts on the state of the game today, etc. It was particularly interesting to hear Cherry's take on one of the most famous penalties in hockey history - Boston's "too many men on the ice" violation in Game Seven of the 1979 playoff series with Montreal, which probably cost his Bruins a Stanley Cup. Yes, he's still angry at himself about it.

If you wondering about the lack of an assisting writer for the book, it's interesting to look at the inside covers of the book. There are photographs of some of the pages of material written out in long hand. While Cherry certainly had some help putting the book together, it looks like he did a lot of the work involved in the old-fashioned way.

Admittedly, it's difficult to come up with A-level material when you are on your fourth book. You'd have to think that the best stories already have been published. The less-than-200 pages go by pretty quickly for the price tag, even if the material isn't overly memorable. Still, it's always interesting to read Cherry's views in this format, just as he remains popular after 30-plus years on the air in Canada.

In other words, "Straight Up & Personal" is like spending a couple of hours talking with Cherry. What hockey fan wouldn't want to do that?

Three stars

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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Review: Scribe (2014)

By Bob Ryan

The Buffalo News put the full review on line; you can find it by clicking here.

Short version - Ryan always has come across as someone who loved his work and loved the games, and this approach comes across very well here. There are plenty of personal stories about encounters the sports celebrities to satisfy anyone, and the tone is conversational and friendly throughout. Followers of Boston teams will love this; others will merely enjoy it thoroughly.

Four stars

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Monday, November 3, 2014

Review: Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball (2014)

By Dolph Grundman

It's been argued that most Hall of Famers in sports deserve an autobiography, or at least a biography. We should remember more about these people than the mere statistics and honors they leave behind. They've provided too many thrills for so many to be forgotten.

Dolph Schayes almost missed that distinction. Schayes was one of the NBA's all-time greats, but he spent his entire pro career as a member of the Syracuse Nationals (1948 to 1964). Before that, Schayes was an outstanding player at NYU.

Schayes is 86 years old now, and he'll no doubt enjoy being the centerpiece of Dolph Grundman's book, "Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball." As for the rest of us, well, the publication might strike many as being a bit odd and thin.

Just for the record, Schayes' full first name is Adolph. However, someone who was born in 1928 into the Jewish community probably wasn't anxious to use it in its entirety by the time he was 10. His college career ended in 1948, just at the time that organized professional basketball was starting to take shape. The Knicks weren't interested, so Schayes ended up in Syracuse. He's still there.

Yes, such towns as Syracuse, Rochester and Fort Wayne were in the NBA back in the 1950s. The fans were rabid, but there weren't many of them and the buildings were small. Therefore, economics were always a concern. Still, Schayes loved the game, and he could do almost everything on the court except jump. Schayes was an excellent scorer, at one point serving as the NBA's all-time leader in points. He also had a knack for rebounding, had a good outside shot, and was an excellent free throw shooter. That was quite a package for someone listed at 6-foot-7. No wonder he's in the Hall of Fame and was picked as one of the league's 50 greatest players in 1999.

Syracuse's franchise eventually moved to Philadelphia after that city lost its team to San Francisco. Schayes went to Philly too, but the 76ers needed him as a coach. So that's what he did, at least for a couple of years. Schayes also coached the Buffalo Braves, and worked for the NBA for a while. He eventually went back to Syracuse, had a son who played for Syracuse University (and the NBA), and worked in rental property.

If you look at the beginning and ending of the book, this all sounds promising. Grundman, who is a college professor in Denver who has two basketball books to his credit, has a ton of resources listed in the notes section. He also interviewed plenty of people who were around back then, including Schayes. Stories of the creation are generally interesting, and the NBA's story was a colorful one by most accounts.

But Grundman opted not to use quotes from any of his interviews, for whatever reason. OK, some quotes are taken from the odd newspaper account of events. But the technique makes the tale read more like a term paper than a book designed to have some entertainment value.

Without anecdotes along the way, Grundman is left reciting what happened in Syracuse on a year-by-year basis. Transactions, player and coaching, come up, followed by a short review of each season. Then come playoff time, each game is reviewed. Schayes' role in the situation usually is highlighted, since he was usually the team's best player throughout his career. Some perspective is provided about the state of the league and of the times along the way. There's less than 200 pages of type in all, not including sources. My Kindle said reading time was a little over two hours.

One time I described a book by saying it had all of the notes and none of the music. I should have saved that line for this effort, since it describes it quite well.

There's no doubt that Grundman put in plenty of good work while compiling "Dolph Schayes and the Rise of Professional Basketball." The research is fine, and the author succeeds in making Schayes a worthwhile historical figure. It's enough to make the reader coming away wanting more.

Two stars

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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Review: Bleeding Orange (2014)

By Jim Boeheim with Jack McCallum

It's a little difficult to be personally objective for me when it comes to a book about Jim Boeheim. He's something of a last link for me to Syracuse University, since his first season as a head coach was my senior year there ... way back when.

Heck, I covered the news conference for the student newspaper when he was hired as head coach. And if Boeheim's book is any indication, I remember his first win as a head coach better than he does. The longtime coach writes that it came against the Chilean National Team in an exhibition game; it was actually against the team from Peru. (Want to read my game story? Still got it.)

Boeheim finally has gotten around to writing an autobiography, and "Bleeding Orange" works quite well as a stroll through 50 years of basketball at the Central New York school.

Boeheim has become part of the furniture at Syracuse. After growing up down the road in Lyons, he was the backcourt partner of the legendary Dave Bing in the mid-Sixties there, stayed on after graduation to work on the basketball staff, and eventually was promoted to head coach in 1976. The program has gone ever upward, more or less, since then. Boeheim is now second on the all-time list of coaching victories, and home games average almost 30,000 fans per game at the Carrier Dome.

The fun part of the book comes exactly when you'd expect - descriptions of memorable Big East battles in the Eighties. That's when almost every game seemed like an event, and great coaches with unforgettable personalities - John Thompson, Lou Carnesecca, Jim Calhoun, Rollie Massimino, Rick Pitino, etc. - roamed the sidelines. Boeheim won more games in the conference than all of them. There are stories about games from the past, and stories about relationships off the court. They all loved to win, especially against each other, whether it on the scoreboard or at the offseason league meetings.

You'd figure stories about the big moments would be here, and they are provided. Syracuse has gone to three Final Fours under Boeheim (one more with him as an assistant), winning the national title in 2003. They are well described, as are such other games as the six-overtime game in the Big East Tournament with Connecticut. Boeheim has done a lot of winning over the years considering he's only had four players with truly otherworldly talent - Dwayne Washington, Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens and Carmelo Anthony. The veteran coach also gets some thoughts down on serving as an Olympic assistant basketball coach twice.

Boeheim and co-author Jack McCallum, one of the best in the business, also make some good decisions along the way. Portions of the book are something of a diary of the 2013-14 season, which are used as something of a launching point at times to discuss the state of the game and other matters.That prevents the book from getting too bogged down in the past.

More importantly, Boeheim comes across as personable, thoughtful and frequently funny. Some times his barbs are directed at opposing coaches, sometimes at his own players, and sometimes at himself. There are insights into decisions made along the way of his career, comments on his personal life, and tangents about transfer rules and age restrictions on turning professional. He may have even crossed a line once. The paragraph of the book that has received the most chatter so far was how Boeheim revealed Anthony's grades in his first semester at Syracuse; not sure that was the best idea.

By the way, the situation surrounding former assistant coach Bernie Fine, who lost his job during the 2011-12 season in something of a scandal, receives some coverage but not a great deal - probably due to pending legal matters.

"Bleeding Orange" isn't great literature, but it's one of those books that's simply a breeze to run through. I found myself picking it up at times, turning to a page and getting caught up in some anecdotes. The book should work for just about anyone who is a fan of college basketball. However, if you have some orange in your wardrobe, you probably shouldn't miss this surprisingly candid look offered by a Hall of Fame coach.

Four stars

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Sunday, October 26, 2014

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2014

Edited by Christopher McDougall

The full review is on the Buffalo News website. You can access it here.

Cliff Notes version: This is another very good collection of sports stories as the series turns 24. It's interesting that no newspaper articles or Sports Illustrated stories didn't make the final cut, which might be a first. But the stories that are included are generally very well done.

Four stars

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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Review: 100 Things Syracuse Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die (2014)

By Scott Pitoniak

Triumph Books has come up with an idea in recent years that's pretty much fool-proof. Pick a team or university, select 100 aspects of the history and tradition involved, research, bake at 400 degrees for 40 minutes, and serve to a hungry fanbase.

The author, or cook if you prefer, of this particular version is Scott Pitoniak. He's well suited for the job, having written other books about Syracuse University athletics and covered many events there in his former job as a sports columnist for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. He has whipped up "100 Things Syracuse Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die."

Stretching the cooking analogy a little further to close to the breaking point, the recipe has become more or less standard. Most of the 100 topics jump out rather quickly. It's just a matter of researching the obvious ones, and then adding a few obscure items that even the biggest of Syracuse diehards might not know. That's more challenging than you'd think.

As you'd expect, football and basketball dominate the proceedings here. Jim Boeheim, who has been on the campus essentially since the fall of 1962, gets the leadoff position as the first item in the book. He's followed by Jim Brown, football uniform number 44, Ben Schwartzwalder, the 2003 basketball team, Ernie Davis, the 1959 football team, Dave Bing, Floyd Little and the Carrier Dome fill out the top 10. As you can see, this is a flexible list in mixing players, coaches, teams, a building, and some laundry.

Other sports don't get overlooked, though. There are some lacrosse items, and some tributes to champions in some of the other sports. From there, Pitoniak jumps into such items as the team colors, mascots over the years, restaurants, and even a movie. You might argue about something else that deserves to make the top 100, but there are no obvious omissions. Some items overlap a bit, but it's not much of a problem.

The surprises might not be many to students of all things orange, but there are a few. Who knew that the man who designed the New York Yankees logo went to Syracuse? Or that actor/producer Sheldon Leonard was a member of Syracuse's swim team? The trip to Lockerbie, Scotland, by the lacrosse team after the plane explosion over that city is also relatively unknown. Several Syracuse students died in that terrorist act.

With 100 chapters, there's hardly time to become bored with any of the subjects. Yes, whole books have been written about some of the players and championship teams, but the goal here is to give quick looks at each subject. Pitoniak obviously knows what he's talking about, and he keeps things moving right along. There are a few sidebar stories, charts and photographs with some of the chapters that are useful.

Obviously, books like this don't carry much interest to non-fans of the particular team. In other words, you might have trouble finding this at the bookstores of Georgetown or Duke. But for those in upstate New York looking for a quick course on Syracuse University's athletic history, "100 Things Syracuse Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" should work very nicely.

Four stars

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Monday, October 6, 2014

Review: The Game Plan (2014)

By Bill Polian with Vic Carucci

The number of football executives - and let's exclude coaches from that description - who have been become relatively well-known for their work to the sport's public at large is extremely small. The names of general managers may pop up frequently in hometown stories, but few make the jump to national figures.

There are only a few exceptions, and the biggest is Bill Polian. Football writers have awarded the NFL Executive of the Year title since 1993, and Polian has won it four times. Only a couple of others have won the award more than once.

Mix that fact with the fact that Polian currently works as an analyst with ESPN, and you have a nationally known figure on the sports stage. Even though he might not be done working for a team, this seems like a good time for him to write a book. Apparently even Polian agreed, as he has written a book on his football experiences called "The Game Plan."

The story essentially concentrates on the football portions of Polian's career. Don't look for many stories about his family, because they aren't there. While there are references to Polian's career before he arrived in Buffalo, the story essentially begins there. But there are, naturally, plenty of references to football philosophy - as promised by the subtitle - along the way.

As an example, Polian outlines what he wanted when he went searching for a head coach. The needed skills include organization, leadership, communication, emotional stability, vision, strategy, flexibility, ability to judge talent, public relations, earning player respect, and character. That's a long list, and Polian adds plenty of related questions under each area. But you've have to say the formula works for him. He did pick Marv Levy and Tony Dungy, among others. Levy is in the Hall of Fame and Dungy probably will be.

There are other insights into building a football team here. There are some good examples at how important it is to find players who fit into specific systems, and how salary cap management is far more important than many would have thought. For example, quarterbacks can make staggering amounts of money in a given year, particularly a veteran like Peyton Manning. They are worth it, but sometimes a team gets lucky with a young and thus cheaper quarterback. Think of Russell Wilson of the Seahawks, who surprised everyone with his play. Wilson isn't making superstar money yet, and thus Seattle had extra dollars to spread around the rest of the roster. That was crucial in its Super Bowl season of 2013-14, and will be helpful until Wilson starts to get the paydays he no doubt deserves.

Still, football fans want to read behind-the-scenes stories about their favorite game, and Polian has plenty of them here. A good portion of the book (more than expected, really) is devoted to his time in Buffalo. If there had been an executive of the year award back then, Polian certainly would have added to his hardware collection for his work with the Bills. He tells about working his way into the general manager's job in 1985, when the franchise was in even worse shape than most thought, and putting together the pieces for the team that went on to appear in an unmatched four straight Super Bowls.

It's great fun to reach at length about negotiations with Jim Kelly, the Hall of Fame quarterback who had started his career in the United States Football League. Kelly wasn't anxious to come to Buffalo, and the talks were difficult. But eventually the quarterback landed with the Bills and went on to 10 great years there. There's also some good details about the trade for Cornelius Bennett, part of a three-way swap that sent Erik Dickerson to the Colts. Polian got one look at Bennett at a practice upon the linebacker's arrival in Buffalo, and told a friend that Bennett was "Mickey Mantle in football cleats."

The Bills never did reach their final goal of being Super Bowl champions, but Polian certainly writes as if he loved the building process immensely. He hands out plenty of credit to other staff members in the Bills' organization along the way - names that will be remembered in Buffalo but in few other places. Just as an example, Kay Stephenson is not exactly an icon because he took over as head coach just after Chuck Knox had left after the 1982 season and the team was headed into a serious decline. Polian joined the Buffalo front office, and he credits Stephenson for some lessons he learned along the way - including one that says it's always correct to do what's best for the franchise, even if it's not strictly in your best interests.

After an unexpected departure from Buffalo - Polian admits he could have handled the internal politics better there - it was on to a brief stop in the NFL office and then to start up the Carolina Panthers franchise. That team decided to try to be respectable in a hurry, and it succeeded in part because it could attract quality free agents.

Then it was on to Indianapolis. Considering Polian's time with the Colts was long and successful, the stories in the book are a little underplayed. However, the most fateful decision in recent football history is well covered. That's when the Colts had the top overall draft choice and needed a quarterback. The decision came down to Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf. Polian and his staff got that one right, as Manning became an all-time great and Leaf washed out in no time.  In the initial interviews, Manning arrived with a number of questions for the Colts' staff. Leaf didn't even show up.

The book can be a little technical in a few spots, and it's easy to wonder why the departures from Carolina and Indianapolis are reviewed so briefly. Still, Polian comes off as an interesting and gracious character thoroughout. You can see why he was so good at what he did.

I was looking forward to reading this even before my old friend Vic Carucci came back to Buffalo to be a co-worker with me at The Buffalo News. I won't give this a rating here now because of that connection. Still, I believe most football fans will find what's between the covers of "The Game Plan" to be quite a interesting peak behind the curtain of how a football team is really run. And if you followed the Bills during the glory years when Polian was running the team, you'll be riveted.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Review: Changing the Game (2014)

By Stephen Laroche

Sports figures will tell you that a good idea is more or less worthless unless it is well executed.

That even applies to books. Case in point is "Changing the Game." Stephen Laroche's reach was longer than his grasp in putting together this publication.

The subject, expansion teams in the National Hockey League, is an interesting one. The league was like an accordian in its first 25 years (1917 to 1942 or so), growing or shrinking due to a variety of factors. The league settled at six teams for another quarter-century, and then started growing and growing. The NHL eventually reached 30 teams.

Along the way, most expansion teams suffer severe growing pains. The league record book is littered with numbers of pure futility from these teams - the Capitals and Senators, for example. The stories behind the numbers - trades, coaching changes, ownership problems, etc. - are just as gruesome.

Laroche, who has a book on trading cards to his credit, has a simple format. Each expansion team, which covers almost every team that entered the league in the past 90 years, gets a chapter. There's a brief overview of the team's history, followed by capsule descriptions of players from that first year. Laroche talked to close to 100 people who played on such teams, starting with those in the six-team expansion of '67 and going through the WHA merger of 1979 (there are a few exceptions after that, but not many). The author also poured over plenty of newspapers, including The Hockey News, and web reference sites.

Alas, plenty goes wrong along the way. Let's start with the biggest one, an error that left me a little stunned. There are a variety of quotes included here from what seems like a variety of sources. Some obviously come from newspapers, others from current interviews. There is no attribution on any of them. What's more, there's not even a "he said" in the middle of most of the quotes; it's simply what was said in quote marks.

The legalities of such matters are tough to determine. Clearly, though, the least that should have been done with borrowed quotes is to write something like "Goyette told the New York Daily News after the game" in the middle of it. Otherwise, you can't tell the difference between the quotes you personally obtained and the quotes someone else contained. That's considered plagerism. I've seen people lose their jobs for this - in fact, that just happened to a Florida writer in the past week. Crediting some hockey writers in the acknowledgements isn't good enough. I'm surprised this aspect of the book made it through the publishing process.

Meanwhile, there is one easy way to tell the difference between new quotes and old ones - a few of the new ones contain profanities. While they were said on the record, they feel out of place here. Removing them wouldn't have hurt the book at all. Those are words best saved for oral histories, if that.

There are other, less important issues here:

* Some of the capsules are only a couple of paragraphs long, really too short to be of much use. Since not every player is profiled, why bother? The book is more than 400 pages as it is. And the writing style in them has sort of a "gee whiz" approach. This includes recap of the odd good game for a player, such as a two-point night for a defenseman, without much context. The author sure likes his game-winning goals, even though at times it's pretty useless in determining an important goal (as in an 8-0 game). That also applies to a description of someone like Dickie Moore, who becomes "ageless" for scoring a goal in a playoff series (he actually had a good series and five more goals in 1968, although you wouldn't know it by reading this), or that Gordie Howe "hadn't lost a step" while playing hockey in his late 40s - dubious at best.

* Statistical recaps of each team's season would have been very handy - even if it's just a roster with goals, assists, points, penalty minutes, etc.. That would have filled in several gaps in the player capsules.

* There are very few interviews with coaches for the expansion teams, and none with general managers, other team officials, or media representatives. Such material could have been useful, especially in the initial team history which is quite dry. A few laughs would have been nice along the way.

* Expansion drafts are ugly processes. The rules have different every time, which affects how those teams are put together. There are references to it in the player capsules, as they pertain to how a player arrived with the expansion team, but it's confusing. A brief description of each year's method of dispersing talent would have been helpful, and the list of expansion selections by team over the years would have been nice too. (Based on my Kindle copy, it was planned - but the finished product doesn't have it.) It is particularly needed for the WHA teams of 1979, because that merger featured a bizarre set of ways to send players bouncing around the NHL.

In fairness, this book certainly displays the effort that went into it. There are some facts in here that are relatively unknown, and some of the first-person comments are interesting.

That's what makes "Changing the Game" frustrating, and that's the reason why it's not ranked lower here. It's easy to wish it were better. Let's hope Laroche learns some major lessons - particularly on attribution - and tries again, because he obviously has a passion for the game.

Two stars

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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Review: Ivy League Athletes (2014)

By Sal Maiorana

After reading such books as "The System" (see below), it's easy to become a little discouraged about the state of athletics at our nation's universities. There certainly is a lot of cheating going on, and even the biggest supporters of college sports probably could be convinced that the competitors often should be called athlete-students instead of student athletes.

Well - Sal Maiorana to the rescue.

The Rochester sports writer is back with yet another book - he's practically a one-man industry as such things go - and this is one of his most interesting projects. It's called "Ivy League Athletes," which isn't exactly catchy but gets the point across about what the book is all about.

Maiorana spent much of the 2011-12 school year keeping up with nine different Ivy League athletes from seven different schools. (Princeton opted out, for no obvious reason.)  He wanted to see what a season was like for them.

Maiorana chose his subjects wisely. Yes, they are mostly overachievers, decidedly on the brilliant and articulate side. Not only do they go through a full course load during the year, but they also play sports at a high level in their spare time - even if they don't have much spare time. Melanie Baskind of Harvard gets extra credit in that sense, because she played soccer in the fall and lacrosse in the spring.

What's more, the backgrounds of those followed are very different. Lucky Mkosana came all the way from Zimbabwe to play soccer at Dartmouth. Andy Iles came all the way from Ithaca, New York, to play hockey at Cornell. Greg Zebrack came from a typical Southern California family to play baseball at Penn; Sheila Dixon was adopted by a woman who already had 14 children after Dixon's drug-abusing mother put Sheila up for adoption. Some had hopes of playing professionally once they were done in college, but all of them wound up with a degree (or appeared to be headed toward one when the book was finished).

It's difficult to play high level sports and go to school at the same time, and many have to cut corners at other schools. There are no such corners at Harvard and Yale, but the players come across as interesting individuals because of the experience. It must have been odd for Maiorana to do interviews where so many of the answers were better than the questions.

The book comes with a couple of slight drawbacks, and I'm not sure they could have been easily fixed. First, there are plenty of descriptions of games and teams from a couple of years ago, and it's difficult to make some of those interesting even thought we certainly don't know how the story is going to come out. About the only exception to that is the experience of Harvard men's basketball; some might have a vague recollection of the outcome of that particular season.

Second, the book winds up in the summer of 2012. That's more than two years ago at the time of this reading. My guess is that it took some time for the book to find a publishing home (Northeastern University Press finally came through in that department). That extra year of narration could have changed the epilogue a bit, telling us whether certain athletes went on to success well after graduation.

It's difficult to complain too much about those issues, though. "Ivy League Athletes" shows that it doesn't take a national championship for athletes to become success stories, because there are plenty of good tales going on in other places. Those looking for some will find their fill here.

Four stars

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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Review: The System (2013)

By Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian

Think of Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian as photographers.

For a couple of years, they went around the country taking snapshots of college football. Sometimes they saw something interesting, stopped for a moment, snapped the picture and moved on. At other times they lingered, looking at different ways to take the picture.

That, in essence, is what "The System" is all about.

Benedict has done variety of investigative articles for Sports Illustrated over the years, while Keteyian works for CBS News. In other words, they bring plenty of credibility to the table.

The best stories might be the ones explored in depth. Benedict and Keteyian jump around the country following the adventures of Mike Leach. He's the head coach who was forced to leave Texas Tech due to some, shall we say, controversy over his methods, but landed at Washington State. Even Leach's detractors would admit that the coach is good at what he does.

Brigham Young University also receives plenty of coverage here, spread over a few chapters. In particular, the story of Ezekiel Ansah is compelling. Ansah, from Ghana in Africa, tried out for football because he was cut from other sports despite some obvious athletic gifts. Ansah essentially started with "this is a football" and worked his way over the couple of years into the starting lineup ... and then some.

Even the biggest college football fans will admit that the relationship between athletics and education at the university level is an odd one. Most schools are forced to look at football as something of a loss leader, a way to introduce the university to the public while losing tons of money along the way. And it comes with baggage, lots of baggage.

There are hostesses, attractive female upperclassmen, hired by the athletic department to lure high school recruits to the program. It's often the hostesses who are the ones with ethical standards there. Boosters range from the wealthy to the ridiculously wealthy, the latter shown by T. Boone Pickens who has donated about $248 million (at last count) to help Oklahoma State's athletic fortunes. There are tutors for athletes who become involved in sexual scandals, a frightening injury rate that has more long-term implications than we realize, and under-the-table offers to recruits involving huge amounts of money and other benefits. Overseeing all of it is the NCAA, somewhat overwhelmed by its job of keeping everything clean but coming on like a lion when it has the chance.

The authors also point out some of the good parts. Alabama gets credit for putting on a first-class program without many incidents while winning. But it's tough to do that, or everyone would be doing it. The mixture of professionalism and fun that is mixed on ESPN's "Gameday" on Saturday mornings is nicely profiled here.

Benedict and Keteyian don't propose any answers here; they are just showing us the landscape. Most of it is quite interesting over the nearly 400 pages. Let's face it; it's difficult to make an NCAA investigation riveting. And they've done their homework, talking to a few hundred people along the way over two years.

"The System" gets credit for where we are in the sport. You probably won't follow college football in the same way that you did before reading it. And it's a great starting point for a discussion about where the entire enterprise should be going in the future.

Four stars

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: Draw in the Dunes (2014)

By Neil Sagebiel

Let's start with the basics - the 1969 Ryder Cup basically is remembered for one moment - a putt that was never attempted.

In fact, it's probably the reason why "Draw in the Dunes," the story of that tournament, was written and published.

Funny how things sometimes work out.

That moment certainly will be mentioned this month, as the Ryder Cup competition resumes on the other side of the Atlantic. The best of the United States and the best of the Europe will square off in a team competition, You no doubt will see players affected by a different type of pressure, and suffer for it as a result.

It's been 45 years since that non-putt, and author Neil Sagebiel takes us back to 1969 and the Royal Birkdale Golf Club to review the competition. The Ryder Cup was in some trouble at that point, as the format matched the United States' pros versus Great Britain's best. That once was more than a fair fight, but by the late Sixties the Americans were dominating the event. The U.S. had lost once since a defeat in 1933.

Entering 1969's competition, the Americans seemed to have all of the big guns. Jack Nicklaus was on that team, followed by Lee Trevino, Ray Floyd, Billy Casper and other solid players. The British team had Tony Jacklin, on the roll of his life, and several guys who might have popped up on a British Open leaderboard once in a while. However, as a team, Great Britain didn't figure to be much of a threat.

In stunning fashion, the Brits jumped out to an early lead and stayed close throughout the competition. Jacklin was a tiger, and players such as Neil Coles and Peter Townsend were on top of their games. It all came down to the last singles competition, Jacklin and Nicklaus, and the last hole, the 18th. Both men had short birdie putts, relatively easy under normal circumstances but certainly much more difficult when a team championship was on the line. Nicklaus rolled in a testy 5-footer, which guaranteed that America would keep possession of the Cup since the U.S. could do no worse than tie.

Nicklaus then walked over and picked up Jacklin's ball marker, conceding the putt. He wasn't going to let his friend suffer the possible consequences of a missed putt in front of his home country. In the cutthroat world of sports, then and now, it was a memorable gesture of sportsmanship.

The story  as presented here doesn't have much momentum in the early going. Safebiel goes over some recent (from the 1969 perspective) golf history of the Ryder Cup and the participants. Part of the problem is that from an American perspective, few British players from that group are familiar to golf fans on this side of the Atlantic today. Peter Alliss is one of them, but that's more of a tribute to his work as a broadcaster. If only for that reason, it's easy to think this book might be more successful in reaching a British audience. When the golf balls start to fly in the story, it's also difficult to make the play-by-play of a golf event like this come alive years later, although some of the participants do give some good comments about what they were thinking at the time.

But eventually, the competition slowly winds down to Nicklaus vs. Jacklin, and that remembered and dramatic gesture. Not only do the two principals give their thoughts, but some of the other team members jump in with reactions. It's interesting to discover that opinions have changed about the incident over the course of 45 years.

It's tough to argue successfully that the 1969 Ryder Cup started us on the road to the huge international event that goes on today. The Americans went back to their winning ways through the final four U.S.-G.B match-ups, and only the full participation of European players changed the dynamics of the competition.

"Draw in the Dunes" certainly fulfills its key role - explaining exactly what happened on that famous non-putt, and how it's perceived today. It's difficult to say that most golf fans will want more information on the entire event than that; a long magazine article might have satisfied the curiosity of many. But it's nice to have the information published, professionally written, and available.

Three stars

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Monday, September 8, 2014

Review: Baseball's Greatest Comeback (2014)

By J. Brian Ross

One hundred years later, we still remember the "Miracle Braves." For the ten decades since then, teams that have gotten off to poor stars - meaning sitting in last place at the start of July - have been looking to that Braves team as an example that just about anything is possible.

The 100th anniversary of that team's fabled rise is as good a time as any to refresh the memory of that story. J. Brian Ross takes up the cause by retelling the tale of the Braves' season with "Baseball's Greatest Comeback."

The Braves dug themselves a huge hole in the first two months of the season, getting off to a 10-24 start. That put them well out of the National League pennant race, and a month later they were 15 games behind the New York Giants and still sitting in last.

On July 7, the Braves stopped in Buffalo for an exhibition game with the minor league Bisons. The author doesn't note that manager George Stallings had worked in Buffalo from 1902 to 1906 and in the 1911-12 seasons, winning two championships there, and thus had some incentive to play well in a game that didn't count. Afterwards, Stallings and the rest of the Braves weren't happy about getting thrashed by "bush leaguers," and maybe that loss threw a switch. Or, maybe the Braves simply started living up to their potential.

Whatever the reason, the Braves went from 26-40 on July 4 to 69-53 at the end of the season - a record of 43-13. Boston went from eighth to first to win the division, and unexpectedly swept the mighty Philadelphia Athletics to win the World Series. More modern fans might remember how the New York Mets went on a huge run in the last six weeks of 1969's regular season to win the division, and then raced through the playoffs. This was even more unexpected, since it was a "worst-to-first" story.

Stallings became famous for his work in that season, but he obviously had help. The Braves had a Hall of Fame double play combination in Rabbit Maranville and Johnny Evers, a fine catcher in Hank Gowdy, and two 26-game winners in Dick Rudolph and Bill James. The team also made a couple of relatively important in-season moves that helped improve the roster.

Author J. Brian Ross obviously put in some time doing research, checking over newspaper accounts of games and looking over other sources of material. He even uses some new-age statistics (OPS and WAR) every so often along the way. The back of the book is jammed with notes.

Therefore, there's a lot of information here about the team that's useful. Even so, it comes across as a rather dry literary effort that includes a few redundancies along the way.

Part of it might be Ross' academic background. There's not much enthusiasm expressed to carry the reader along, so it's a little hard to get caught up in the story. Ross also wants to make a connection between the team and the Progressive Era in American history, represented by the reforms started by Teddy Roosevelt and carried forward into the next decade. But the ties aren't really explained fully and seem a little forced. I should add here that the author's use of raising events from the start of World War I in 1914 do supply some context to events on this side of the ocean, as baseball must have seemed quite frivolous to those on the Western Front.

In addition, it would have been nice to have seen a good breakdown between what went wrong at the start of the season and what went right at the end. There are a few statistics mentioned, but the story could have used more analysis.The writers of the time often credited Boston's "fighting spirit," but obviously the long winning streak (19-1) by pitcher James - which came out of absolutely nowhere - was a little more helpful. James, by the way, never came close to matching his 1914 performance.

The story checks in at less than 170 pages including the introduction, and that includes short biographies of some other large baseball personalities who didn't play for the Braves - Cy Young, John McGraw, Connie Mack, etc. That's not much for a book listed at $38. It might have been nice to read an epilogue on what happened after the World Series victory - individually and collectively. The Braves remained good for a couple of years after the Miracle, but didn't win anything.

"Baseball's Greatest Comeback" supplies well-documented information on the 1914 Boston Braves, and those looking for the basic story of the team will find it here. Even so, I found myself using an old analogy when thinking about the publication - all of the notes are there, but there's not much music.

Three stars

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Review: Second to None (2014)

By Joseph Valerio

The Buffalo News received the full-length review of this book. You can find it by clicking here.

The much shorter version - Bills fans who long to read about a time when their team was an NFL powerhouse ought to gobble up this book, which is short on game-by-game analysis but long on personalities and perspective.

Four stars

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Friday, September 5, 2014

Review: Baseball - It's More Than Just a Game (2014)

By Greg Lucas

Take it from a former co-worker of Greg Lucas - the man loves baseball.

We worked together at a radio station, and Greg was happiest when he was broadcasting Buffalo Bisons' games. The games were played in something of a funhouse, as War Memorial Stadium had some bizarre dimensions, but the games were never boring. You could tell then that Greg would like nothing more than to be around the game full-time.

A couple of stops later, he did that. Lucas worked on the broadcasts of the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros. That eventually got him into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame.

There are other ways to stay connected to baseball, of course, and Lucas has found one of them. His first book, "Baseball: It's More Than Just a Game," is now out. It's worth a look.

The subtitle of the book sort of sounds like something that could be a segment on a television broadcast. Sure enough, Lucas did do a long-running TV segment called "Tales of the Game." They included bits of odd history about baseball, based partly on questions from viewers. It's an easy jump from there to the book.

The publication is loosely broken into categories, such as equipment, hitters, pitchers, first, stadiums, the minor leagues, etc. Each chapter is organized into bite-sized portions, which go down quickly and easily. This actually isn't as easy as it sounds. Take it from a guy who wrote a book last year with a similar format - it takes a lot of research to come up with so many individual bits. I'm happy to report that I didn't spot any obvious historical errors here. Lucas obviously discovered that the 19th century was a fruitful place to look for bizarre stories and the sport's beginnings.

It checks in at just over 200 pages, so reading it is not a major project. There are some good, historic pictures passed along the way too. Lucas adds a few other photos from his personal collection. The writing is fine - clear and concise. Sometimes regional book publishers can make a book look a little amateurish at times, but Chart House Press did a good job in that department.

If there's a surprise here, it's that Lucas resists the temptation to make some of the stories a bit more personal. Yes, it opens with his early memories of the game and has some other anecdotes of a personal nature. Otherwise, this could have been written by any baseball author just about anywhere. That means, of course, that you don't have to be a fan of the Rangers or Astros to like this book. It ought to work about for just about anyone anywhere who enjoys reading about some off-beat elements of the game. Lucas is said to be working on a second book; maybe that one will be more personal.

I'm not going to give this a rating because of my personal connection to the author. I'm pretty confident that baseball fans of all types were learn a few things by reading this, and enjoy the material that they already committed to their memory banks.

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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review: Rock 'n' Roll Soccer (2014)

By Ian Plendelieith

The attention that the United States team received in the World Cup soccer tournament this summer caught many by surprise. Suddenly, thousands were living and dying with each play of the tournament in Brazil. Large-screen television broadcasts the games to thousands in public squares in cities throughout America. For a country that had yawned at the game for the most part for decades, it was a shock.

However, for those who remember the North American Soccer League, particularly in its glory days of the 1970s, the explosion of interest seemed a bit more credible.

The NASL at one point was selling out Giants Stadium in New Jersey to the tune of 76,000 fans, and some of the biggest names of the game - admittedly past their prime in most cases - were playing on our shores.

It's nice then to have a hard-headed, objective look at what went right and what went wrong with the NASL. Ian Plenderleith supplies exactly that in his book, "Rock 'n' Roll Soccer."

The author takes through the start of American pro soccer in the early Sixties, when we were just starting to figure out how the pro league should get going. After some starts and starts that included a league and teams folding, the NASL got going in earnest.

While you could argue that the Cosmos were the league's flagship team, complete with names like Pele, Chinaglia and Beckenbauer, Plenderleith takes a wider approach. He talks to a variety of people from throughout the league in history. That gives a balanced approach to the NASL as a whole. Some of the names and teams mentioned ought to bring back memories. It would be easy to stick to the Cosmos, since they were the glamour team that attracted most of the publicity and are the subject of many of the books covering that time period. Plenderleith is after a wider story, one sticking to soccer as opposed to delving into drugs and parties off the pitch.

The NASL did plenty of things wrong, as the author points out. It expanded too quickly and was too optimistic about future success. Few of the teams could make money in those days, and eventually the dollars dried out. When the fad faded, the league came crashing down rather quickly in the early 1980s.

But Plenderleith points out that the NASL has had an influence on the game that still is felt today. The rest of the world was content with 0-0 or 1-0 games that left soccer with a reputation for boredom here. The NASL encouraged scoring at all costs, and thus increased the entertainment value. It also worked to teach the game to newcomers, and brought show biz to the game presentation. Teams in other countries were taking notes, and international soccer evolved to encompass those qualities.

Plenderleith serves as a good guide for all of this. He obviously knows the game, and it's interesting to read his comments after watching games on DVDs years later. The NASL's level of play seems to surprise him. Plenderleith, an Englishman who has spent many years here, does a little bashing of Washington as a representative of American society as a whole in one section. There's a little anger there, and it doesn't really fit in with the rest of the book. Otherwise, though, he's supplies knowledge and perspective.

"Rock 'n' Roll Soccer," then really fits a nice little niche in reviewing an era with American soccer in a way that appeals to fans of the sport. It's a valuable addition to the library of those who qualify, even if that number won't be overwhelmingly large.

Four stars

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review: The Devil's Snake Curve (2014)

By Josh Ostergaard

The best way to review "The Devil's Snake Curve," a unique baseball entry of the literary season, is to describe it. And that takes some doing.

At its most basic level, the book is a collection of anecdotes about the game. They range from a paragraph or two to about five pages, although for the most part they are on the short side.

The stories are mostly about professional baseball - the majors in particular - but not completely. There are some personal tales thrown in along the way. And they are in chronological order - but not completely. The personal stories are added in no particular interval, as author Josh Ostergaard doesn't follow the chronology rigidly.

There are a few themes in here. There are plenty of entries on facial hair and baseball through the decades. The New York Yankees - sometimes as a symbol of hatred, sometimes as a symbol of American power - pop up quite a bit. Some left-wing politics also turn up here and there.

It's easy to give credit to Ostergaard for research. There are all sorts of stories about major league baseball in the 227 pages of text, and I'd have to say that I haven't heard of many of them. A few might be familiar to baseball fans who study the obscure, but even then Ostergaard has a way of putting a different spin on a particular situation.

Your first reaction might be a bit similar to mine - it's impressive that such a non-mainstream book even was published. It's put out by Coffee House Press, a nonprofit imprint that receives grants to public interesting writing. Ostergaard's approach certainly qualifies. He mixes facts and opinions in unique ways.

You also should know that the manuscript was finished in the spring of 2013, so don't look for timely stories about the last couple of years. This is all told in bite-sized amounts, so those who don't like a particular story can just move on and perhaps find something of interest a moment later.

So, dear reader, will you like this? That's a decided "maybe." Certainly conservatives and Yankee fans won't love it. But "The Devil's Snake Curve" certainly has some merit, as it's frequently entertaining. Fans who like obscure history mixed with their baseball certainly should take a look at this if they come across it at a bookstore. They might find after a few bite-sized morsels that they want to make a full meal out of it.

Three stars

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Review: The Bird (2013)

By Doug Wilson

Go ahead. Try to explain Mark Fidrych and his summer of 1976 to someone who wasn't there. It's a difficult task.

Fidrych came out of nowhere that magical year. He wasn't considered a top-notch project at the start of the season, but he was ready when he got the chance after several weeks. Fidrych rolled up 19 wins and became the American League Rookie of the Year, starting in the All-Star Game along the way.

But that's only part of the story. He patted down the dirt on the pitcher's mound to make sure it was up to his specifications. Fidrych seemed to be telling the baseball on each pitch what to do, although he was simply talking to himself about what to do in a given moment. The right-hander bounced around with unlimited energy, congratulating his teammates on good plays and running everywhere. He picked up the nickname "The Bird," and it caught on as he sort of resembled Sesame Street's Big Bird with his long, curly hair and his flapping limbs.

Popular? Fidrych was more than popular. Ballparks were filled whenever he pitched, and after wins the fans demanded he take curtain calls after games. People delivered cakes and cases of beer to his house. Interview requests were through the roof.

And then, it ended quickly - thanks to an arm injury that Fidrych suffered in the middle of the 1977 season. He spent three years looking for an answer to his medical problem, and never found it. He left the stage as quickly as he entered it.

This sounds like a great subject for an ESPN documentary, and it probably will be someday. In the meantime, Doug Wilson does a good job of explaining what all the fuss was about with this book, "The Bird."

This is a full-fledged biography, starting in Fidrych's childhood days in Massachusetts. Wilson provides a couple of early clues to Fidrych's behavior in later years. His guess is that the pitcher had ADD, which was partly responsible for his hyperactive behavior at times. Then there's some sort of reading disorder, perhaps dyslexia, which made school work a challenge for Fidrych. It also left him unable to learn about baseball, and other players, in the usual ways of the time. Remember there was no SportsCenter or Twitter feeds to review the latest baseball news then. When Fidrych arrived in the majors, he had no idea who the best players in the game are. This led to some comic moments, but eventually the pitcher caught up with what was going on in the game.

When the arm trouble came, Fidrych tried almost everything as a cure but never could get his velocity back up to 1976 levels. He simply thanked everyone for the ride and went back to Massachusetts, where he started a farm, got married, and lived a down-to-earth life almost as if the period of fame never happened. By the way, Fidrych had an exam done on his shoulder with new medical technologies years later, and doctors found two tears in his rotator cuff - which, in hindsight, explained everything but didn't do him any good at that point in his baseball life. Still, it must have been nice to get an answer.

Wilson just wrote a book on Brooks Robinson, and the two publications have something in common. The subjects were not only great players - at least for a while in Fidrych's case - but they were admirable people. The point is repeated several times in both books, and gets a little tiring after a while as the point is overdone. There's little doubt, though, that people like to have their sports stars to be role models in everyday life. Fidrych and Robinson both qualified in their relationships with the public. This probably works better with Fidrych, since stories about how he dealt with his baseball rise and fall are what attracts us to him in the first place. The arm injury to Fidrych supplies the drama that was missing in Robinson's story.

"The Bird" fills in the details on what probably ranks as one of the most unusual careers in sports history. Those who are curious certainly will get the idea about what happened and why, and those who lived through it all will enjoy taking it all in once again.

Four stars

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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Review: The Lost 10 Point Night (2014)

By David Ward

It's one thing to have a sports hero while growing up. It's another to actually meet him. I remember seeing how a media professional was reduced to something close to a puddle when he had the chance to interview superstar hockey player Ray Bourque.

David Ward has taken this one step farther. He's written a book about his boyhood idol. The hero in this case is Jim Harrison, and the book is "The Lost 10 Point Night."

This is a rather unusual approach to a book, simply because players like Harrison usually aren't the subject of such research and writing. He was a big, talented player in junior hockey in the 1960s. Had he come along 20 years later, he would have been called a power forward - along the lines of a Cam Neely - and been in great demand.

It was a different game, then, though, and Harrison's career didn't quite pan out the way he and others might have expected. He came through the Boston Bruins' system, and was traded to Toronto. The Maple Leafs front office was a bit dysfunctional in the early Seventies, and many players took the chance to jump to the World Hockey Association when it came - leaving the Leafs in mediocrity or worse. Harrison had a couple of outstanding years in the WHA.

His biggest problem, though was a cranky back. His physical play left him rather battered, and surgeries left some scars and in some cases only hurt him. The injuries shortened his career and left him with disabilities that affect him to this day. That's not an uncommon story for players of that era since the medical treatment wasn't what it should have been, as teams treated athletes as if they were disposable. Harrison had the added factor of a major fight with his own team at the end of his career (Chicago of the NHL), and a running battle with the Players Association. That made him one of the first to wonder about the antics of Alan Eagleson, the NHLPA boss who eventually was jailed.

Everyone has a story to tell, of course, and Harrison's is relatively interesting. But is it a book? That's a good question, even after reading it. This isn't a full biography. It's more of a story about how Ward  wrote a book about Harrison. He talks to his wife, family members and teammates along the way, and he includes some personal observations and memories along the way. As could be expected in a book about a hockey hero, there aren't many negative stories told about Harrison here.

By the way, the 10-point night mentioned in the title came in the WHA. Harrison had three goals and seven assists in one game against the New York Raiders in 1973. The NHL record is also 10 points, set by Darryl Sittler. Even though the WHA was a notch below the NHL at the time, scoring 10 points in any pro league is an impressive achievement.

That brings us to the central question - is the story and Ward's quest a worthwhile book? Even after reading it, that's difficult to say. This checks in at well under 200 pages, and the thought did strike me that it might have worked better as a long magazine article.

Still, "The Lost 10 Point Night" takes a look at the life of a player that took some odd twists over the years, and probably is more typical of athletes from that era than we might think. Those who have a personal connection to that time in hockey history will find this publication holds their interest nicely.

Three stars

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