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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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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