Friday, May 30, 2014

Review: Where Nobody Knows Your Name (2014)

By John Feinstein

When it comes to sports books, John Feinstein is practically a one-man factory. He cranks out a new publication every so often, and you know it's going to be well done.

Feinstein has covered a variety of areas over the years since his first such effort, the classic "Season on the Brink." (Talk about a tough act to follow.) I've read just about all of them - the exception for whatever reason is "Forever's Team" on Duke basketball way back when.

Now Feinstein is back with another book, "Where Nobody Knows Your Name." It's about life in Triple-A baseball, which according to the title is the opposite of "Cheers." There's a lot of truth in that.

As Feinstein mentions several times in the course of the book, no one wants to be in Triple A - at least for very long. The quality of play is quite good; the jump from Double A is surprising large. There are people in baseball's highest minor league that are good enough to be on a major league roster in some cases, but for one reason or another aren't. The financial rewards of making that last step is huge, but it's not easy to take it.

Feinstein talks to all sorts of people in Triple A's International League, from players to managers to umpires to announcers. He concentrates on nine. The list includes Scott Elarton, who once won 17 games in a season but fell on hard times; Jon Lindsey, a professional hitter who just hasn't been quite good enough, or young enough, to reach the majors; Scott Podsedik, who you might remember for his walk-off homer in the 2005 World Series; and Chris Schwinden, who bounced all over the baseball map during the 2012 season. If you get the idea that Feinstein likes to talk to veterans who can provide a little perspective on the situation, you're right. Others get short chapters along the way.

Some of the best stories come from managers like Ron Johnson and Charlie Montoyo. They are put in an unusual position, professionally speaking. Yes, they have a better time and outlook when their teams win, but that's not their biggest task. They are there to help players get ready to contribute to the major league team. Every player loves to talk about the time that they were called into the manager's office for the first time and told they were headed to the big leagues. Managers love to see the reaction too. It sure beats telling players they have been released, and that their baseball dreams may be over. Hearing about players who find out they've reached their dream is always heart-warming.

There are plenty of stories about how Triple-A baseball works - salaries, travel, recalls, life's logistics under the circumstances, etc. It's easy to root for the players, who come across well here. I'd guess Feinstein didn't have to do much searching for subjects. Since the book was written about 2012, the book ends with what happened to them all in 2013. Sometimes that extra year can hurt a reader's enjoyment, but in this case it ties up some stories with a nice bow. One of the minor characters in the narrative even wound up with a World Series ring for his efforts.

There is one problem with the book, and Feinstein certainly knew this going in. This is a story of a season, and the season really doesn't play much of a part in the story. In other words, few remember what teams win a Triple-A championship unless you happen to live in that city. As I'm fond of saying, media members are about the only ones who pay close attention to the standings during the course of the season. The players and manager want the team to do well, but mostly because it's a sign that good players are making progress toward the goal of helping the parent team.

That means there's no dramatic arc to the story as a whole, as there is in a book about a major league season or even a golf tournament. That makes the book a collection of individual stories - still interesting, but without the punch that an overriding climax can provide.

Still, Feinstein uncovers plenty of good information here, and it's easy to root for those mentioned in "Where Nobody Knows Your Name." The author opens the door on minor league baseball's life, and many will want to take a peak inside.

Four stars

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Monday, May 19, 2014

Review: Don't Let Us Win Tonight (2014)


By Allan Wood and Bill Nowlin

The list of books coming out this year on the 10th anniversary of the Boston Red Sox' win in the World Series isn't as long as the number of publications released in the spring of 2005. There are forests still trying to regrow from that attack.

Still, a few have arrived. And why not? There's a ready-make audience out there waiting for it.

Allan Wood and Bill Nowlin, who have written several books each, must have thought of this one as a hanging curveball. They scored a hit with "Don't Let Us Win Tonight," an oral history of that team's playoff run.

The authors did make a couple of significant editorial decisions here, and they are worth mentioning in any discussion of this book.

First, they opted to limit most of the text to the playoffs. Yes, there is a discussion of what happened in 2003 and during the 2004 regular season. But it is covered relatively quickly and painlessly. More detail would have been nice for history's sake, but a focus on the games that people remember isn't a bad idea either.

The second decision deals with source material. This is not all fresh interviews. Wood and Newlin certainly went out of their way to talk to as many people as possible who were involved with the Red Sox games. Yes, that includes the bat boy. But newspapers, books, etc. are used to supply quotes as well, most of which were written back in 2004.

Therefore, we have a mix of material from 10 years ago with quotes from the past year or so. It is a little jarring to go back and forth between eras. But more importantly, the quotes that have several years of perspective behind them provide the most interesting stories in the book.

Theo Epstein is particularly good at this. He provides stories about how sure he was that the Red Sox were going to win the World Series in 2004, and how Keith Foulke probably sacrificed part of his career in making multiple appearances in the playoffs this season. Curt Schilling and Kevin Millar also have many interesting things to say. Even the owners chip in, as they didn't go to Game Six in New York because they were afraid to see the Yankees wrap up the series. But they made it to Game Seven.

The "scrubs" contribute to the story nicely too. For example, Curtis Leskanic talks about how his arm was hanging by a thread at that point in his career, and he's happy to point out that somehow he struck out the last batter he faced as a major-league pitcher (Game Four against the Yankees).

The most poignant moments come during the World Series parade. Based on the comments, the players seemed to be in something of a bubble when it came to public reaction. Then in the parade, they noticed the sheer joy experienced by the fans - complete with signs along the lines of "my parents and grandparents would be thrilled." Those players were surprised and moved.

The title refers to a comment made by Millar before Game Four. He said a victory there could be followed by wins in Games Five and Six, thus turning a 3-0 series into a 3-3 dramafest. And that's exactly what happened, as the Red Sox became the only team in baseball history to erase that 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven matchup.

Red Sox fans will certainly be happy to relive October, 2004, all over again, and "Don't Let Us Win Tonight" doesn't disappoint in that sense. Just keep it away from Yankee fans.

Four stars

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Friday, May 16, 2014

Review: Fools Rush Inn (2014)

By Bill James

Bill James has been called something of the godfather of baseball analytics. Starting with his self-published Baseball Abstracts in 1977, James has coming up with new ways to look at the game and use those results as tools for evaluation.

What was always overlooked by those who wrote James off as nothing more than a "stat guy" is that he's an absolutely fascinating writer on anything he touches. Exhibit A is the material in "Fools Rush Inn" that have very little to nothing to do with baseball. It's that writing talent that makes this an interesting read.

A little background is needed to explain this book. A few years ago, James - who works as the Senior Advisor for Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox - started a web site called BillJamesOnline.com. It's a collection of articles and other information; James writes about 40 to 50 articles for it per year and answers questions from readers. You can visit the site and see a fraction of what's available at no cost, by the way.

Then, some of those articles are collected into one book and sold as a package. "Fools Rush Inn" is the second such collection.

James attacks a variety of issues here, armed with evidence that few would think of bringing to the table. For example, Jack Morris has a reputation as a Big Game Pitcher, Capitalized, mostly because of his great work in the 1991 postseason. The includes maybe the best Game Seven of the World Series performance ever. James went back more than a half-century, came up with a formula for determining "big games," and then rated pitchers on their performance. The usual suspects are on top of the list - Randy Johnson, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford - although there are some surprises (Roy Osvalt? Bruce Kison?). Interestingly, Morris is nowhere to be found.

James goes off in other directions, naturally. There's a study of rating a manager for the Hall of Fame. Now that Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox are going in this year, the biggest oversight according to the rankings is Davey Johnson. Dusty Baker, Jim Leyland and Mike Scioscia aren't far from the qualifying line, with Scioscia still on the job and thus able to add to his resume. James found that size of the pool of 300-game winners really hasn't changed much lately, and there's no reason to think that someone won't be joining the exclusive club in the relatively near future. We just don't know who it will be yet. And James looked at pitchers who gave up lots of ground balls vs. those who gave up fly balls, and found less of a difference in effectiveness than he though.

Obviously, it really helps to follow baseball quite closely to "get" this material. But the numbers aren't too technical; the reader doesn't have to know what OPS+ or Adjusted ERA is. But sprinkled throughout the book are short essays on a variety of other subjects.

For example ... James sees statistics saying America is no longer first in education. Many here take it as a sign of weakness; James wonders if it's just a case of the rest of the world catching up. Teachers say today's kids are working harder than they ever did in school. Indeed, are we forcing them to do more because of our own insecurities? It's a question worth asking, because at some point the students might reach the breaking point, causing a variety of different problems for the educational system.

There are other subjects here, areas that you no doubt haven't pondered lately. Should private citizens be allowed to keep certain animals under their care? What do classical music and baseball have in common? What does the Occupy Wall Street movement have to do with running a baseball team? This is original thinking, no matter what you think of the thoughts expressed along the way.

"Fools Rush Inn" has a couple of obvious drawbacks. Some of the essays feel a little dated since many don't include the 2013 season. There have been updates to a few of the essays, but it seems like more work could have been done there. And it is a quick read. The book checks in at 188 pages, but with charts, etc. it can be read in a day. More material would have been nice.

But what's included in "Fools Rush Inn" is almost always worthwhile and thus worth your time. You'll come away from it not only a little smarter, but anxious to look at issues in a different way in order to get surprising answers. That's a pretty good deal for $16.95 plus tax.

Four stars

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Monday, May 12, 2014

Review: The Magnificent Masters (2014)


By Gil Capps

Think of golf as something resembling boxing, where there is a champion and several contenders for the title. They slug it out at the major championships to see who will retain that description for the time being - with the difference being that more than one contender can be battling at the same time.

As golf historians will tell you, Arnold Palmer was the King until Jack Nicklaus came around. Nicklaus stayed on top for years and years until Tom Watson finally became the man to beat at crunch time.

That's not to say Nicklaus wasn't challenged, and the 1975 Masters was a particularly vivid example of that. That's why "The Magnificent Masters" more than qualifies for a look back at something of a milestone event, and why Gil Capps - who works on golf broadcasts for NBC and the Golf Channel - picked a good tournament to review in depth.

Nicklaus was still great in 1975, but there were a couple of other players who had shown they could play with anyone. Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf both had streaks of greatness in the preceding months, and even won a major each. But could they slay the Golden Bear with the golf world watching? That was the question.

As the cliche now reads, the Masters doesn't really begin until the back nine on Sunday, and in this case the three best players in the world were the only ones who were contenders. Nicklaus had let a big 36-hole lead slip away, Weiskopf had charged to the front after 54 holes, and Miller after a slow start went through the final two days sort of like Sherman went through Atlanta.

Who would win? Spoiler alert: Nicklaus isn't on the cover of the book for no reason.

Capps put in plenty of time doing his homework for this one. Golfers can be very articulate at this sort of project, and Nicklaus, Weiskopf and Miller all had plenty of interesting things to say about their careers and this particular tournament. Each gets a chapter here, and it's fascinating to learn from Weiskopf and Miller why they think their careers didn't turn out better. Miller was such a natural that he didn't even practice much at times, and found that he didn't have the desire to put in the hours on the range - particularly once he got a house and family. When he decided he wanted to live up to his potential, it was almost too late. Weiskopf had a ton of talent but was something of a perfectionist and had some problems with the bottle. His father was an alcoholic. Meanwhile, Nicklaus was Nicklaus, who knew he could play with anyone and loved to compete with the world's best on the biggest stages.

The author also is well aware of how history's eras can collide in a particular golf tournament. In this case, Nicklaus' initial playing partner was newcomer Curtis Strange, who was stunned to find out his opening day assignment. Strange learned some lessons, winning two U.S. Opens way down the road. Another partner of Nicklaus later in the tournament was Palmer, contending in a Masters essentially for the last time before fading. That doesn't even include Nick Faldo, finding inspiration while watching the tournament as a boy in England. His trips to Augusta later proved fruitful too.

Capps has uncovered enough small details to make the story relatively fresh, and doesn't get too bogged down in golf play-by-play along the way. The narrative moves along quite nicely.

Books like these obviously have a target audience of those who remember the event and want to learn more about it. "The Magnificent Masters" hits the target nicely. Those in the proper demographic - golfers of a certain age - will enjoy this greatly. In other words, it's not for everyone, but those looking for a Father's Day present for Dad can put this high on their list of possible gifts.

Four stars

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Monday, May 5, 2014

Review: Black Noon (2014)

By Art Garner

Auto racing really wasn't on my radar while growing up. I was too busy playing and watching baseball, football and basketball at a young age to notice such competition.

Then I picked up one of the endless sports magazines that my parents bought for me while growing up, which was a review of recent events. There, in an issue that came out in the fall of 1964, was a recap of the Indianapolis 500. It was complete with pictures of the terrible crash that took the life of two drivers.

You have to remember that the Indy 500 wasn't even shown on home television back then, going the closed-circuit theater route (the equivalent of pay-per-view today) to protect track attendance and increase the fan base. So it was a little easier to avoid if you didn't know much about it.

The race and article must have made an impression, because I have remembered the names of Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs - those two drivers - ever since. Therefore, about 50 years later, I felt a need to pick up Art Garner's book on that race, "Black Noon," if only to find out what happened.Garner writes a lot about that fateful May day in Indiana, and the days before and after it. The book offers a good education, particular for the casual fan.

Garner splits the book into three parts. The first devotes some time to the lives of Sachs and MacDonald, but it also covers the era. Auto racing consisted mostly of small tracks with drivers bouncing around to pick up a few dollars here and there to feed their competitive urges and love of cars. The NASCAR circuit was just getting organized as we know it, for example.

The Indy 500 was the exception, the glamour event of the sport. The crowds were huge, and the payouts were, relatively speaking, enormous. It's fun to read about names like A.J. Foyt, Dan Gurney and Parnelli Jones, drivers who worked their way up the ladder to stardom.

What's more, auto racing - particularly at Indianapolis - was going through something of a revolution around the time of the 1964 race. The rear engine cars were coming into the picture, and they carried something of a feeling of inevitability that they were the wave of the future. But the technology hadn't been quite worked out yet, particularly to cope with the pressures of a 500-mile drive. Plus, the speeds were going up quickly. The 1964 cars ran more than 150 miles per hour.

Put experimental cars and high speeds together, and you get accidents - lots of them, sometimes big ones. That cost plenty of drivers their lives in that era, when the sport hadn't quite learned to try to improve all possible safety measures yet.

Part Two of the book centers on the month of May. That's when the race teams gather to tinker and practice, trying to find those extra couple of miles per hours in the cars. It was a particularly busy time in 1964, as experts were still trying to figure out what tires and fuel mixtures worked better in concert with the rapidly changing machines. While this section does cover the cast of characters in the race, it does bog down a bit in spots in technical talk that slows the narrative.

But then it's race day, Memorial Day 1964, and the story comes back to life. Garner does something close to a minute-by-minute recap of the events of that fateful day. That includes drivers who were behind MacDonald after the crash, who thus had to drive through something resembling the gates of hell to get away from the inferno. Several others check in as well, including family members of the two drivers. It's still heart-breaking, a half-century later.

Garner recaps the rest of the race - would they have gone on with it today? - and reviews the after-effects of the incident. Safety measures were increased, starting a process that continues to this day. Risk is always present in these races, but at least we're minimizing it whenever possible. The author even make his best guess at what actually happened, which is instructive.

"Black Noon" happened a long time ago, but Garner is correct is saying that this is a story worth telling. It was an important day in auto racing history, and deserves the good treatment that this book provides.

Four stars

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