Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Review: Tales of a First-Round Nothing (2014)

By Terry Ryan

The National Hockey League Entry Draft is a mysterious world. It's tough enough to forecast the future under any circumstances, but it gets tougher when NHL executives and scouts try to look at 18-year-olds and figure out if they will be good at 23.

The 1995 draft list is an example of that. Look at the first round now, and the name that jumps out is Jarome Iginla. He's played in Olympics, been in All-Star Games, etc. Other good players pop up, such as Wade Redden, Shane Doan, Jay McKee and Petr Sykora.

But there are others that didn't go on to many bigger and better things. One of those was Terry Ryan, who played a total of eight games in the National Hockey League after going eighth overall to the Montreal Canadiens. What happened? Ryan reviews his career in his book, "Tales of a First-Round Nothing." The title shows that he's willing to have fun with his career, while the book shows that he's willing to have fun with almost anything.

This isn't a case study of what happened, since it's a hockey memoir. So we have to put a few pieces together to get a look at the puzzle. Ryan was always a good player growing up with a tough streak - not huge at 6-foot-1, but not small and not shy about trying to throw his weight around. Suddenly, in 1994-95, he scored 50 goals and 60 assists in junior hockey. A rugged forward with a scoring touch? Sold. The Canadiens liked that idea, and grabbed him.

Ryan battled some injuries in his two remaining junior years, and then spent two seasons in the Canadiens' farm system. The scoring touch partially took off, based on the numbers he put up. By the fall of 1999, Ryan was frustrated and sat home from training camp while demanding a trade. The Canadiens effectively exiled him. Ryan bounced around several teams, with injuries becoming an increasingly big problem. He was out of pro hockey by 2003, although he still plays some senior hockey.

Ryan kept a journal of his hockey adventures, and he turned it into a book here. The stories certainly have the ring of authenticity, especially when Ryan is playing junior hockey. That's a pretty odd world, with kids sent out into the world at a very young age essentially on their own. As you could guess, adventures with beer, women, etc. followed, and Ryan was a willing participant.

Let's stop right here with one observation. If you like these sorts of stories, then there's no doubt that you'll like this book. Ryan isn't shy about talking about how he wound up in bars wearing only boots and underpants, or how his first intimate experience with a woman didn't exactly turn out the way he planned. And anyone will find stories about such figures as then-executive Mike Milbury and hockey writer Red Fisher rather stunning. This is a big part of the book.

Ryan fills in the rest with tales of teammates and opponents, some of whom are familiar to hockey fans. He obviously liked the hockey life, hanging out with the boys in the locker room, sticking up for them on the ice, and so on. Warning: everyone in this book seems to have a nickname, and it's tough to juggle them all while reading.

Ryan gets caught up quite often in describing fights by himself and others. It's easy to wonder what happened to that guy who scored 50 goals in junior. Did injuries rob him of his scoring touch? Did he feel the pressure of being a scorer, and thus felt more comfortable in a role as a grinder who frequently fought opponents? It's tough to know, and there's not much introspection here.

Finally, Ryan opts to move on with his life and get out of pro hockey. He actually switched to ball hockey, and soon was part of a world championship team at that particular sport. Ryan also has played senior hockey in his native Newfoundland, still enjoying locker room atmosphere years later.

"Tales of a First-Round Nothing" goes by relatively easily even if the stories are a little disorganized, and Ryan is good company for the trip. We all know characters like this, who don't mind being the center of attention and the life of the party. He certainly has his heart in the right place most of the time here.

It's not easy to have a key point in your life come at the age of 18, and it sounds like Terry Ryan wasn't quite ready for it. That's probably more common than we think in pro hockey. Reading his book will make most wish him well in his adventures from here on out.

Three stars

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Review: Down to the Last Pitch (2014)

By Tim Wendel

Sometimes luck isn't on the fan's side when it comes to watching a great sporting event. The problem, for the most part, is that rarely you don't know one is coming except in certain situations. Plenty of people watch the Super Bowl, but sometimes an earlier playoff game is the classic.

In my case, I missed the Duke-Kentucky NCAA basketball classic from 1992 because I was at the movies. And for whatever reason, I didn't see much of the 1991 World Series between the Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves. I caught the last half of Game Seven, but that was about it.

In the former case, I've read a book on the basketball game called "The Last Great Game." In the latter case, Tim Wendel comes to the rescue with his book on that series called "Down to the Last Pitch."

As time has gone on, the luster of the series has grown. The Braves and Twins had been doormats in the immediate past, and didn't expect to do anything in 1991. That made their rise that much sweeter to the cities involved. Most of the games were close, there was controversy along the way, and some great players came through with terrific performances.

Capping it all was the play of Kirby Puckett in Game Six - great catch, walk-off homer, etc. - and the pitchers' duel between Jack Morris and John Smoltz in Game Seven. It took extra innings for someone to come up with a run to win the game. The Series is part, but only part of the reason why there is a statue of Puckett outside of Target Field in Minneapolis.

As you'd expect, Wendel talks to plenty of the participants from that series, and does good research on some of the others. Puckett, for example, died a few years ago, and is still beloved by his teammates from that era. You'd expect Puckett to be a star in such a setting; Mark Lemke of the Braves was a much more unlikely hero.

Wendel offers a few surprises along the way here. He doesn't write much about the regular season, even though the seasons had plenty of drama under the circumstances. He spends more time writing about the game as a whole at that point, nicely putting the World Series into a larger context. For you younger fans out there, plenty has changed in less than a quarter-century.

The story also comes off as a personal one for Wendel, who started writing for USA Today's Baseball Weekly - just out that year. He learned to have a national perspective on the game, and it shows up here. I love the story he has about trying to interview Rickey Henderson for a cover story. Henderson was definitely one of a kind.

This goes by rather quickly at only 202 pages plus a pair of appendixes. Therefore, I found myself wishing there was more to read. How often does that happen? But what's there is worthwhile.

The usual full disclosure here: Tim has been a friend of mine since college. He's been a good resource when I've written books of my own. He's in all of the credits of my books, and I'm in the credits of some of his (that's me, right before Johnny Bench here). Therefore, this book doesn't get a rating. But - I've read all of his nonfiction books and enjoyed all of them. "Down to the Last Pitch" carries out its mission of reviewing this great matchup quite nicely.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Review: I'm Almost Out of Cha (2014)

By Woody Paige

Not many books contain a surprise inside, but this one did.

When "I'm Almost Out of Cha" came in the mail, I didn't open it for a while. I knew Woody Paige from his work in newspapers and broadcasting, and figured without thinking that it contains stories about his career.

Imagine my reaction, then, when I actually opened it and discovered it contained short little expressions of thought.

Stressed spelled backwards is DESSERTS.
Some folks are wise, and some otherwise.
Oscar Madison nominee.
Accountants can count on me.
Someone claimed I sound like an owl. Who?

I quickly realized - I'm not as dumb as I look, you know - that this was a collection of the writing on chalkboards that Page has done over the years for a television show. That explains the title, naturally, but otherwise deserves a bit of an explanation for the non-viewing public.

Paige, a columnist of the Denver Post, is one of the regulars on ESPN's "Around the Horn." Four sports reporters are invited to spend a half-hour together electronically to discuss the latest developments in sports. Host Tony Reali moderates the show, in part with the help of a mute button, and awards points for good arguments. Somehow, a "winner" is declared.

What's the most famous part of the show? Paige's chalkboard, which he posts over his shoulder during his screen time. Paige comes up with the phrases, and an assistant with better penmanship puts them on the chalkboard three times per show. It is fun to read them.

2B or not 2B? That is the pencil.
Violinists don't work; they just fiddle around. 
Dear Santa, I can explain.
Gravity: It's not just a good idea. It's the law.
My reality check bounced.

A relatively small percentage of the expressions are about the show, or mild insults about some of the other panelists on a given day. Otherwise, some are funny, some are pun-ny, many are clever. Paige says some have turned up on bumper stickers, which oddly is a good format for them.

Paige says the reaction has been terrific to the one-liners. People are constantly telling him how much they enjoy them. Even Bill Murray commented how much he liked the chalkboard when he and Paige passed in an elevator. Many people told Paige that the phrases should be collected into a book. Now after a more than a decade of broadcasts and a lot of chalk, here it is.

But is it a book worth reading? My goodness, I have no idea what to say in the case of you, dear reader of this space.

I'm more of a fan of the chalkboard than the show, and I found this to be pleasant enough and quick reading ... but probably not something I'd buy at full price. My guess is that one of those one-day-at-a-time calendars is a better fit for the format, but then again calendars aren't exactly the path toward financial security for publishers and authors. Books don't get burned or buried if they aren't sold by Dec. 26.

Your mileage may vary on this title, which is another way of saying that this may leave you unable to control your bodily functions because of intense laughter, as one review on amazon.com delicately put it more or less.

Put it this way - big fans of the show, and of the chalkboard, definitely should at least take a look at "I'm Almost Out of Cha." You just might like it a lot, and the paperback price probably won't break your bank account. It gets three stars here, a rather neutral position to convey the feeling that basically, you're on your own on this one.

Here I am! What are your other two wishes?
At my age middle of the night is 11 p.m.
Without geography you're nowhere.
Tan, rested and Helen Reddy.
Do pediatricians play miniature golf on Wednesday?

Three stars

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review: Up, Up and Away (2014)

By Jonah Keri

You might remember "The Extra 2%," in which Jonah Keri took a very indepth look at the Tampa Bay Rays. Not only did it show how the Rays figured out a way to compete with the Big Dogs of the American League East, but it was insiders' view of what the baseball business is actually like these days. If you haven't read it yet, go do so. It's still relevant.

The book was a big success commercially, and gave a major boost to Keri's career. He's done a variety of writing since then, and is one of the many members of the Baseball Prospectus Alumni Association (if they don't have one yet, they should) to become quite successful. Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com should be the honorary president of the group.

For his next major project, Keri turned to an affair of the heart. If you've ever lived in a city in which one of the major league teams moved to another location, such an action can be an emotional experience. Many never get over that emotional attachment. Ask any big fan of the Buffalo Braves (NBA), for example. (Guilty)

Keri had that sort of relationship with the Montreal Expos, stretched out over 30 years. It's been 10 years since the Expos moved to Washington. Now he's gotten the entire story on paper with "Up, Up, & Away." In case you don't hail from Montreal, that refers to announcer Dave Van Horne's home run call.

The Expos had a very odd history. They came into the league for the 1969 season, without a great deal of time to prepare on and off the field. Montreal didn't have anything close to a major-league stadium ready, and had to play in tiny Jarry Park - mostly known for the pool in right field. Willie Stargell deposited a baseball there one day. The Expos also lost a lot, which was sort of expected of expansion teams back then.

Montreal couldn't rely on those excuses after a while, but developed some new ones. They got a new stadium after the 1976 Olympics were held, but it was not exactly a quaint ballpark - and the roof never worked well either. When the Expos got good in the years to come, industry labor troubles got in the way. Montreal made the playoffs for the only time in its history in 1981, a strike-shortened season in which the team just fell short of the World Series. Then 13 years later, the Expos looked to have a team that could go all the way ... only to see the season cancelled by a players strike before it ended. Ouch. The team never really recovered, in part due to ownership woes, and played out the string for the most part for the next several seasons through 2003.

The Expos did have some stars along the way, like Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Vladimir Guerrero and Steve Rogers. They also had trouble keeping them and some others around for the most part, due to finances.

Certainly Keri threw himself into this project fully. He talked to dozens and dozens of people involved with the team over the years, many of whom were happy to give uncensored answers to all of Keri's questions. Therefore, the book contains a variety of stories about the drug use of some of the players, which explains a few things about the outcome of careers. The story about how one front office employee was fired because of an affair with another staffer's wife isn't exactly typical baseball writing, but it fits in nicely to the hijinks surrounding the franchise history.

Still, it's not the gossip that's the highlight here. Keri brings an analyst's eye to the proceedings. He looks back at player moves that worked out well and not to well, using such modern statistical tools as OPS along the way. It's a fun way to examine the past with a current toolbox.

There's basically only one catch in all of this. Keri can't resist the chance to put in some references to his own fandom here, mentioning games that he saw along the way and friends that he saw those games with. Usually, personal stories are just that - personal - and it's tough to make points about such experiences in a larger contest. The tales are a little cute, but I think they could have come out for the most part without much damage. After all, this book runs almost 400 pages.

Then again, without that passion "Up, Up, and Away" probably would never have been written. Most baseball fans certainly will thoroughly enjoy the full story of a franchise that always appeared to be playing with some sort of handicap. For those who lived through the Expos' experience up close in Montreal, they'll understand what Keri was doing. So those people should give this an extra star. It will stay on your bookshelf forever.

Four stars

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: They Called Me God (2014)

By Doug Harvey and Peter Golenbock

Sporting events have had all sorts of officials over the years, but there's only been one to my knowledge with the nickname of "God."

Longtime baseball umpire Doug Harvey had it; the title would occasionally come up in the broadcasts of games that he worked. Harvey was known for his knowledge of the rules and his command while on the playing field. There was no question who was in charge when Harvey was involved in a game.

Harvey was good enough, and lasted long enough, to become one of a handful of umpires to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It's always good to hear from such immortals in book form, and Harvey checks in here with "They Called Me God."

Books from officials and umpires are a little odd. Their goal on the job is to stay anonymous and make the game go smoothly. Still, their books usually concentrate on the players and managers that are part of their workday, and on the times when events got out of hand in unexpected ways.

Harvey goes through the details of his life in a straight-forward and brisk manner. He bounced around a bit with his family as a child, and eventually found a home in sports. Harvey was good enough to earn a college athletic scholarship, but opted to drop out and go to work when he married for financial reasons. But the love of the games never left, and Harvey decided to try umpiring in the late 1950s. His rise through the ranks was astonishingly quick, as he reached the majors in only a few years. By the way, Harvey also did work in officiating basketball games, reaching the American Basketball Association in short order.

From there, the book follows the usual patterns. There are comments about stars and unknowns, great managers and one-and-done types, and fellow umpires. If nothing else, Harvey pulls no punches. For example, he still seems angry at Bob Gibson for his constant complaining during games played more than 40 years ago. However, some others in the game - from umpire crew chiefs to administrators - take more of a pounding here. The language along the way can be, um, colorful.

The book has a couple of good-sized problems that prove difficult to overcome. This is a rather short effort, particularly for the suggested price of $27. My Kindle tells me it takes about two hours to read, and it feels like it. The chapters are broken up into short segments. Even if the stories are grouped together by content, it's still a bit choppy. There aren't many opinions about umpires' labor troubles over the years and on how the game has changed since he left it, either. That would have been helpful.

Then there's the obvious delay in writing this. Harvey retired more than 20 years ago after a career than spanned more than 30 years. For those who remember the 1960s and 1970s, stories about games from that era become something of an exercise in nostalgia. That's fine, but there's aren't many of us out there who remember the Reds' Fred Hutchinson as a manager. It would have been far better to get this done almost 20 years ago, when the names were fresher.

Harvey mentions at the start of the book that he's battled some serious illnesses lately. Maybe he wanted to get his memories down on paper while he could. But for whatever reason, the delay limits the audience drastically.

Based on Harvey's tone here, you can tell why he was such a good umpire. He still carries a great deal of self-confidence, perhaps dancing around the point of arrogance, with each statement. That certainly will turn some people off.

Add it all up - the brevity, the dated material, and the lack of humility - and "They Called Me God" becomes a difficult book to like. Harvey's on-field work remains his best legacy in his profession.

Two stars

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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Review: Showtime (2014)

By Jeff Pearlman

Former Sports Illustrated senior writer Jeff Pearlman has written five other books besides "Showtime" in the past several years. I've read most of them, and they've all been fine reads.

Yet "Showtime" is the best of the bunch. Let's talk about why.

Pearlman always takes interesting subjects. The first book was on the 1986 New York Mets was certainly a wild but talented bunch. Since then, Pearlman has uncovered stories about the Dallas Cowboys' glory years and their tendencies to party hardy, and about the dark side of football superstar Walter Payton. His books on Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens weren't too flattering either, but in fairness that's sort of like shooting fish in a barrel.

The Los Angeles Lakers from 1979 to 1991 certainly qualify as interesting. Not only did they win championships, but they had a memorable cast of characters. You've probably heard of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pat Riley if you at least know what a basketball is used for. Yet the "sensational" material isn't so front-and-center here, and that makes it an even better story than most from a sports standpoint.

Pearlman brings his usual tools to the job here. He's obviously a thorough researcher, having gone through stories from a variety of media sources. Pearlman also talked to as many people as possible. Indeed, some of the best stories are either about or from the guys on the end of the bench. You know about Magic and Kareem, but you don't know much about Mark Landsberger, Earl Jones and Wes Matthews.

The author also spoke with those around the team, such as the public relations department and the newspaper beat writers. It's impressive just how many people were willing to be interviewed from that group, and how many were willing to be quoted on the record about that era. Some of those quotes can really sting. Teammate Michael Cooper says about Landsberger, "Good lord, Mark was the dumbest person I've ever met. Friendly, but historically dumb."

Pearlman is perceptive enough to put all the pieces together nicely too, and he has a good way with a paragraph. Therefore, the finished product gives what certainly come across as an excellent representation of what that team went through in those years.

The portraits of the personalities are certainly vivid. Johnson is much more than the happy-go-lucky personality he presents in public, making every practice as tough as most teams' games. Abdul-Jabbar is shown to be so aloof that even some of his teammates didn't like him. Riley turns into an egomaniac right before our eyes, going from someone who just wanted to survive as a coach to someone who demanded something close to dictatorial powers ... and was essentially fired despite a run of championships.

If you want some dirt served up with the basketball, well, there's some of that too. While Magic and Kareem stayed away from drugs, much of the rest of the team and the league wasn't too afraid to partake. But the vice of choice for the Lakers seemed to be women. Johnson's house parties seemed like something out of "Caligula." Sometimes it's tough to believe the Lakers had the energy to practice on road trips.

The whole operation was run by such figures as Dr. Jerry Buss, the owner who never saw a 20-something attractive female he didn't at least think about dating, and Jerry West, the driven general manager who was so wound up that he couldn't even stand to watch the team play in person at times.

Add this all up, and the reader not only see what those Lakers teams were like from a variety of angles, but understands why they won most of the time and occasionally lost.

"Showtime" checks in at more than 400 pages, but there aren't many dull spots along the way. The Lakers had quite a ride, and this entertaining book gives the reader a seat right next to the driver on it. Basketball fans of this era will absolutely love it.

Five stars

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