Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Revew: Slow Getting Up (2013)

By Nate Jackson

Let's start the discussion about "Slow Getting Up" in an odd way, using the mathematical term subset.

There are many thousands of people who would like to play in the National Football League in a given year. Only a relatively handful make it. Think about all of the college players on all levels who would like to graduate to that last step, but don't. That gives you an idea about the odds involved.

Then out of that set of people, consider how many people are good writers. It's a handful of a handful. That's not a reflection of intelligence, since pro football players have to be smart in most cases to play a complicated game. It's more a matter of will, time and effort.

Say hello, then, to Nate Jackson, former pro football player. There's a blurb on the front cover that reads, "Man can write." And it's true. You know it after the first few pages. Thus begins a story of a football career that isn't told very often.

Jackson lasted six years in the National Football League, almost all of them with the Denver Broncos. He started his career as that rarest of breeds, the white wide receiver. But soon he was told to put on weight, move to tight end and play special teams. Yes sir, yes sir, yes sir. And he lived the dream.

It was never easy. The most interesting and eye-opening portions of the book deal with injuries. If you don't believe pro football is an incredibly rough and taxing game, you will after reading this. Jackson seems to be always hurt a little. Even the practices can be difficult, and Mike Shanahan, Jackson's coach in Denver, was relatively easy on the players in that area.

At other times, Jackson's body betrays him completely, with muscles being pulled away from bones and hamstrings getting severely pulled. That, in turn, leads to prematurely finished seasons, rehabs, and worries about getting cut. Pro sports is a good life as long as you can stay on the ride, but most people are constantly worried that the merry-go-round will stop for them at any moment - especially when they have little to do but heal. That insecurity infects every player in one form or another.

There are plenty of other insights into the life of pro football here, observations that are timeless even though the book ends when Jackson's career does in 2009. Are there, um, fringe benefits to being an NFL player off the field? Absolutely, and Jackson explores them. The title "NFL Player" can get you through some locked doors.  Assistant coaches still come in all shapes and sizes. Head coaches do too; two Bill Belichick disciples - Josh McDaniels and Eric Mangini - come off really badly here.

The most poignant part of the book comes when one of Jackson's teammates dies in an off-field incident. He writes about how football players are so focused on the task at hand, so insulated in the bubble, that they are completely unprepared for the emotions involved.

There are only a couple small aspects of the book that don't work particularly well. Terminology is difficult to the uninitiated, and a couple of sections get a little bogged down in it. Jackson does get credit for making most of it readable. There are also plenty of first names and nicknames after a brief introduction, and sometimes it's a little tough to remember who is who.

This is a relatively quick read that covers a career in only 240 pages. For those looking for a literate discussion of an interesting but somewhat mysterious business, "Slow Getting Up" works extremely well and sheds light nicely. Jackson ought to be able to have a fine and long "second life" in writing if he chooses to do so, and it won't be so hazardous to his body.

Four stars

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Review: 26.2 Miles to Boston (2014)

By Michael Connelly

The book "26.2 Miles to Boston" has a rather interesting history.

Author Michael Connelly first came out with a book called "26 Miles to Boston" about a decade ago. Based on the comments on, readers seemed to like it's recap of the history of the Boston Marathon - except for those who were enraged that Connelly ran the race as a bandit as part of his research.

Now comes an updated version. As you'd expect, some of the information including this time around centers on the 2013 race, with its terrorist bombing near the finish line. The author's tale about running as a bandit opens the book here, and thus will anger those same people over again.

That makes it a little difficult to judge the remake. But that's our job here, and "26.2 Miles to Boston" is something of a mixed bag.

Connelly has a simple idea for the book. He takes the fabled route, mile by mile, and breaks it down. Since the race has been taking place since the 19th century, there's plenty of running history on those roads.

Sometimes the author covers a description of the course itself, launching a discussion of a particular strategy along the way. Sometimes there's a review of the neighborhood - as in some background on the cities or establishments that the Marathon touches. At other times there's a launching point into a discussion of the great races over the years. Those may only briefly touch on the particular mile at the time, but there are plenty of good stories that come out here. Connelly talked to a variety of runners - champions and also-rans - and spent some time scanning microfilm.

The result is rather uneven. The historical parts work best and are often quite interesting. However, the tangents off into the history of towns don't work quite as well. It's a little dry.

Meanwhile, Connelly covers the text with flowery language about the various aspects of the race.You'd call it hero worship if it were written about a person, but since it's about an athletic event it's simply fawning.

Let's put it this way. One of the great pieces of advice in writing is "show me, don't tell me." The Boston Marathon has had plenty said about its charms and place in athletic history, and this book has a lot of it down on paper. A book about it doesn't need a reverent, flowery approach. A straight-forward telling of the story would have been fine.

This book certainly has some appeal to those who run and/or love the race, and fits that niche nicely. However, "26.2 Miles to Boston" doesn't quite fully execute a good idea to take in more casual observers.

Three stars

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Review: 1954 (2014)

(Note: This review appeared in abbreviated form in The Buffalo News on June 8. Since I have all sorts of space here, this is the DVD version.)

By Bill Madden

Life is good when you get to talk to your childhood heroes ... and earn money from those conversations.

Bill Madden knows all about that.

Madden is the veteran baseball columnist for the New York Daily News. He had considered for years writing a book about the mid-1950’s, when the game and the game’s business was going through its first major upheavals in about a half-century.

That book now has been published. “1954” is a clear-eyed look back at that time, written by someone who has been around long enough to put matters in perspective.

Books on specific years in a sport’s history are fairly common, and 1954 is a good one to use for its impact on baseball history. There are three basic themes that run through Madden’s story.

The first is the rise of the black player. Jackie Robinson had entered the major leagues in 1947, but African Americans followed in something closer to a trickle than a flood. Still, the pool of talent was getting deeper, and young stars were starting to arrive.

In other words, this was the year that Willie Mays became, well, Willie Mays. He wasn’t a rookie, having broken in with the New York Giants during the 1951 season, and then he spent 18 months in the Army. But Mays arrived for keeps at spring training in 1954, and it took about two swings and a catch in the outfield for everyone to realize that a potential Hall of Famer was about to bloom.

What’s more, Mays had company. Milwaukee had a good prospect of its own, who earned a chance when Bobby Thomson broke an ankle in spring training to open up an outfield spot. Henry Aaron - who was scouted by the Braves while playing in a Negro League game at Riverside Park in Buffalo in 1952 - took that spot for about 20 years.

In Chicago, the Cubs debuted the first African American double play combination in history. Shortstop Ernie Banks would go on to become one of the Cubs’ all-time greats. Second baseman Gene Baker later became the first black to manage a team in organized baseball in the 20th century when he took over in Batavia in the middle of the 1961 season.

Another change to the industry came in the form of franchise relocation. The Boston Braves had moved to Milwaukee in 1953, changing a lineup of cities and teams that hadn’t been altered since just past the turn of the century. A year later, the St. Louis Browns gave up trying to compete with the Cardinals and packed for Baltimore. By the end of 1954, the Philadelphia Athletics were ready to give on that city and try their luck in Kansas City under new ownership. And the Dodgers and Giants were only a few years away from moving to new homes on the West Coast.

Then there were the actual games of 1954, which offered some surprising results. In other words, the Yankees didn’t win. New York had won five straight World Series titles from 1949 to 1953, but they fell short in 1954 despite winning 103 of 154 games. They finished eight games behind the Cleveland Indians in the American League.

Over in the National League, Mays was a catalyst for a Giants team that rebounded from a 70-84 season in 1953 to win the pennant with a 97-57 record. New York wasn’t supposed to be a match for Cleveland, but the Giants - including Niagara Falls native Sal Maglie - took the Series in four straight.

Madden covers all of those events thoroughly, and takes the time to look at some events from that time that have been forgotten by most at this point. For example, Charlie Dressen was the manager of the Dodgers when they won back-to-back National League titles in 1952 and 1953. Dressen thought was good for a multi-year contract, the Dodgers disagreed - and hired Walt Alston, who stayed for more than 20 years.

Madden, who was born in 1946, interviewed several of the principals from that season, and found other sources of reference material elsewhere to fill out the portrait of the year. Oddly, perhaps the dullest part of the book deals with the actual pennant races, which weren’t cliffhangers. Madden couldn’t do much about that.

Admittedly, “1954” is going to read like ancient history to some. But for those curious about this transformational era in baseball history, or who simply remember the names involved, the book serves as a readable and informative recap.

Four stars

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