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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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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