Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: His Ownself (2014)

By Dan Jenkins

Way back when, anyone who wanted to be a sportswriter didn't really want to be a sportswriter. The wish list was more specific than that. They probably wanted to be Dan Jenkins.

The veteran writer is one of the legends of the business, but in a different way that names like Red Smith and Jim Murray. After spending time at Texas newspapers, Jenkins joined Sports Illustrated just at the time when the magazine was transforming into something special - New Yorker for the jock set, in a sense. And Jenkins was the superstar, who not only could write better and funny than almost anyone else but who seemed to have a helluva time doing it.

He took notes along the way. "His Ownself" is something of a cross between an autobiography and a memoir, meaning it covers most of his life but doesn't go into every possible detail along the way. Reading it, you'll get to see what the fuss was all about.

Jenkins grew up in Fort Worth and moonlighted his way through college there before turning pro full-time after graduation. He was part of some good staffs back then, and Jenkins is kind enough to share some stories (both printed and verbal) from those times. But he specialized in golf, in part because he played the game quite well, and in part because he got to know the legendary Ben Hogan. It seems like an odd pairing from a distance, the determined Hogan with the fun-loving Jenkins, but somehow it worked and they stayed friends for the rest of Hogan's life.

The relationship between Jenkins and golf lasted longer than most marriages. He is still on the beat today for Golf Digest, and has seen just about every major tournament for the past half-century or so. No wonder he's in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Jenkins' other love was college football, a byproduct no doubt of the days before Texas got pro football for good (pre-1960), and the collegians seemed larger than life. As Jenkins puts it (more eloquently than this), in college, a fan roots for the school, the classmates, the memories. In the pros, a fan roots for a business. Not much romance in the latter.

Along the way, Jenkins tried his luck with other forms of writing. He hit the jackpot with "Semi-Tough," which many consider the best and probably the funniest novel ever written about football. It probably sold more copies than any other in that class. Jenkins points out that it paid for a New York City penthouse, among other benefits. Best-sellers and movie rights can do that.

As you'd expect, there is plenty of Jenkins' style on display here. He not only quotes old leads from past stories that he composed, but comes up more than a quota's worth of laugh-out-loud lines that the rest of us could never match. There are also funny lines by others. Mix that in with some name-dropping and other stories accumulated over a lifetime, and you have an entertaining book.

There's one drawback to the book: it reads "old," which has two separate meanings here. It probably could have been written 25 years ago, and mostly it goes back to stories from a previous era in which smoking, drinking and expense account stretching are at the least bystanders. Today's athletes and personalities don't receive much mention, with the exception of a brief rant about Tiger Woods and circumstances about the end of his marriage. There's very little here about today's athletes. Let's face it, to anyone under 35, Arnold Palmer is only that guy who takes the first ceremonial swing at the start of the Masters.

In addition, once in a while Jenkins comes off as the cranky grandfather type - perhaps not surprising for a man in his 80s. He saves some nasty lines for unions and hippies, and says that Fox News is the only news outlet around that doesn't hate America. Jenkins often sounds like the stereotyped adult of the early 1960's; all that's needed is complaining that the Beatles' hair is too long and that band members look like girls. I guess he deserves a little credit for presenting an honest picture of himself, and it covers a very small percentage of the material. But still. 

Even with the unvarnished opinions, Jenkins still is a treat to read. If you are getting the idea that "His Ownself" is mostly for the over-50 crowd, that's probably close to fair. While practically everyone will enjoy the way Jenkins puts together a sentence, those who recognize the names in the story will get an extra burst of satisfaction from this book.

Four stars

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2014

Edited by Sam Miller and Jason Wojciechowski

I believe I'm just about out of comments, and more importantly complaints, about "Baseball Prospectus 2014."

This series has been coming out for 19 editions. I haven't bought all 19, but I've come close. They quickly became the successor to the Bill James Baseball Abstract of the 1980s, filled with good information mixed with a slightly smart-alack attitude.

The format, for those new to the book, consists of an essay on the entire team, followed by capsules and projections about every single player who is likely to make any sort of impact on the major league team, as well as a few others. There are a few essays and a list of the top 100 prospects at the end, but it's the player descriptions that are the meat and potatoes here. I believe I've describe this as phone-book size, and this again checks in at more than 500 pages.

The deadline pressures must be enormous on a book like this. They do have a large writing staff; this is the first time that the authors have gotten a byline. It is interesting to see the mix of people on the payroll. I'm sure there are some mistakes; there always are in a volume this massive. But I can't say I've seen any reported in reviews or noticed any personally. By the way, several people have gone from this book to employment for teams, as the race for analytic information becomes more intense each year.

If I had to make a comment that's a bit negative, well, the manager descriptions aren't particularly helpful - they basically recite a few statistics about tendencies such as bunting and stealing. That's pretty minor. I'll make the annual warning, too - while there are good projections for fantasy stats, there probably are better sources for that sort of information elsewhere.

If you are interested in knowing what might happen in the 2014 season, "Baseball Prospectus 2014" is the obvious starting point. It's been a long winter up north, so its appearance in the bookstore this month was particularly welcome. Those who want to be a smarter fan who aren't intimidated by some relatively new statistics should definitely pick this up if they haven't already.

Five stars

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Monday, February 10, 2014

Review: Twenty-four Years to Boston (2013)

By Jim Brennan

Books about running come in the usual categories for the most part. There are the usual histories and biographies about great men and women participating in the sport. There are instructional volumes, telling everyday people how to get faster if they follow a specific training program. There are a few philosophical books as well.

My guess, though, is that there are more inspirational books in the running section of the bookstore than in many other areas, especially in sports. After all, a kick in the pants, so to speak, is sometimes necessary to get people out the door and on to the streets.

Jim Brennan's book, "Twenty-four Years to Boston," falls in that latter category. The Philadelphia-area runner decided to take a second kick at the can at running during the course of middle age, and thus is something of an example to others in that sense.

This is a rather straightforward story. Brennan ran the 1981 Philadelphia Marathon - one for the proverbial bucket list - and didn't give the sport a great deal of thought for close to decades. But as 2001 approached and his life had gone through changes, Brennan became caught up in the idea that running the same race again - hopefully with a similar time to the first time around - could show that he had kept Father Time at arm's length. That's in spite of the fact that he vowed after the first one that he was done with marathons.

There were some bumps in the proverbial road, but Brennan worked himself into good condition, took part in several training runs and races, and made it to the finish line in the Philadelphia Marathon. That's a pretty good accomplishment (it takes up the first half of the book), but one that left him feeling "what's next?" It took a while to set a goal, but he found one: qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

Brennan obviously made it, as you could guess from the title of the book. The story continues through the next four years, as he qualifies for Boston through a race in Scranton and then turns up for the fabled race in Massachusetts.

Brennan deserves plenty of credit for this accomplishment. For our purposes, though, there's another question that has to be answered: How is the book? The answer comes back - all right.

Brennan is a pretty good writer for someone who doesn't do it regularly or for a living. He joined a local writing workshop, and has a friendly style that comes across pretty well. There's not a great deal of drama in the story, since we know he'll be in Boston ... and know he probably wouldn't be writing the book if he collapsed on Heartbreak Hill. This checks in at 164 pages or so, and goes by quickly.

There are a couple of drawbacks here. There are plenty of details about training runs, apparently taken from his journal along the way. It's difficult to make them too interesting to the outsider; better runners/writers than Brennan have tried and failed in that task in other books. I was at a disadvantage in one sense, because Brennan did most of his running in Philadelphia - and I'm not from Philadelphia. Therefore, the landmarks mentioned along the way will resonate mostly with those living in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

There's also the matter of timing. Brennan's running story mostly goes from 1981 to 2005 (there is an epilogue; nice to see he kept at it after Boston). Therefore, we are reading this almost nine years after the fact. While the story is somewhat timeless, it obviously throws up a bit of a red flag when there's a gap of so many years between the story's end and the book's publication. I'll bet a book or two will be coming out soon about a similar story that ends in Boston in 2013 - now remembered for the terrorist attack on the finish line. That book will obviously have more dramatics than this one, and there's nothing the author could do about that. You get the ending that you get in a effort like this.

Still, I'm not one to say that possible inspiration should be discredited under any circumstances. "Twenty-four Years to Boston" is for a very narrow niche - middle-aged runners in the Philadelphia area who need a little push to put on their running shoes. Most won't qualify. But for those that do, and if leads them to an active and more healthy lifestyle, then the book will have served its purpose. Brennan no doubt learned that writing a book requires the patience of a marathoner, and he can be very proud of both accomplishments.

Three stars

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Friday, February 7, 2014

Review: Whatever It Takes (2013)

By Daniel Kelly

This is a strange book. It even came to my attention in a strange way.

The author sent an e-copy to my boss, who passed it along to me. The subtitle, as you can see in the picture, is "The true story of a fan making it into the NFL."

That's true, in part. Daniel Kelly did indeed get hired by the New York Jets as a pro scout, and stayed with the team for four seasons. But "Whatever It Takes" has a much wider approach than that.

Kelly grew up in Minnesota Vikings country as a rapid Washington Redskins fan. His room was a shrine to the Redskins, he collected autographs of players and coaches, etc. He only played one year of high school football and dropped out of community college, but he always had the football bug. Kelly decided to dedicate himself to finding a job in pro football. Somewhat amazingly, he got one in 1998 - a $21,000 year scouting post with the Jets. It sounds like Kelly did a lot of grunt work, as he took people to the airport and updated files on injuries and player transactions. However, he was working in the same building as then-coach Bill Parcells and then-defensive coordinator Bill Belichick, so he was living his dream.

The dream essentially lasted only two years, when he was demoted to part-time status and told to work out of his apartment. From there Kelly had some family problems, and he devotes most of the second half of the book to them. In short, Kelly didn't have the opportunity to spend too much time observing a pro football organization, so he doesn't have many insights on the famous people in the organization at the time. That's what a book like this needs to be successful, at least to a sports audience.

Kelly also quite obviously made some key mistakes along the way with the Jets. Scott Pioli was his boss, and Kelly admits he didn't do everything he was told to do. That's not the way for someone on the bottom rung to climb out. I received a comment after this review was first published that said the book was inspiring because it shows anything is possible. To me, a lesson of the book is - if you get your chance to live your dream, do what you have to do not to blow it.

In addition, Kelly never gave up his love of the Redskins. Rule number one of employment: When you take a paycheck, you give back absolute loyalty.

The book also has one of the oddest endings I've encountered. After coming to the end of the long story about his family and his tenure with the Jets, he winds up the text with "The next four months turned out to be the most incredible four months of my life. I had gone out to New York to live my dream, but I was leaving with something far greater." What the heck happened?!? We're left without a clue about the dramatic four months and the rest of his life, except that in the author biography it mentions he's living in Arizona. A little closure would have been nice, especially about a story that essentially ended 12 years ago.

This, I assume, is something of a "vanity" project, published in an effort to get his story out on paper and out of his system. Kelly is someone who grew up with a father who probably was an alcoholic, and he took some actions (Kelly, not his father) that don't make him too likable at times. Still, Kelly had some tough luck and bad breaks along the way, so it's relatively easy to root for him.

"Whatever It Takes" isn't really of much value as a football book, even though it's marketed that way, for those who come here looking for such reading material. Still, Kelly's life certainly has had enough dramatics to hold your interest if you like a little football mixed with a real-life story.

Two stars

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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Review: Wooden (2014)

By Seth Davis

The full review of this book was written for The Buffalo News. You can find it by going here.

The short version - this wonderfully massive treatment of college basketball's best-ever coach is extremely well done. It points out his many good points, but isn't afraid to show that Wooden made some mistakes along the way - which in some cases he even admitted after retiring from coaching. The result is a very balanced but admiring look at an admirable public figure.

Five stars

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