Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review: The Devil's Snake Curve (2014)

By Josh Ostergaard

The best way to review "The Devil's Snake Curve," a unique baseball entry of the literary season, is to describe it. And that takes some doing.

At its most basic level, the book is a collection of anecdotes about the game. They range from a paragraph or two to about five pages, although for the most part they are on the short side.

The stories are mostly about professional baseball - the majors in particular - but not completely. There are some personal tales thrown in along the way. And they are in chronological order - but not completely. The personal stories are added in no particular interval, as author Josh Ostergaard doesn't follow the chronology rigidly.

There are a few themes in here. There are plenty of entries on facial hair and baseball through the decades. The New York Yankees - sometimes as a symbol of hatred, sometimes as a symbol of American power - pop up quite a bit. Some left-wing politics also turn up here and there.

It's easy to give credit to Ostergaard for research. There are all sorts of stories about major league baseball in the 227 pages of text, and I'd have to say that I haven't heard of many of them. A few might be familiar to baseball fans who study the obscure, but even then Ostergaard has a way of putting a different spin on a particular situation.

Your first reaction might be a bit similar to mine - it's impressive that such a non-mainstream book even was published. It's put out by Coffee House Press, a nonprofit imprint that receives grants to public interesting writing. Ostergaard's approach certainly qualifies. He mixes facts and opinions in unique ways.

You also should know that the manuscript was finished in the spring of 2013, so don't look for timely stories about the last couple of years. This is all told in bite-sized amounts, so those who don't like a particular story can just move on and perhaps find something of interest a moment later.

So, dear reader, will you like this? That's a decided "maybe." Certainly conservatives and Yankee fans won't love it. But "The Devil's Snake Curve" certainly has some merit, as it's frequently entertaining. Fans who like obscure history mixed with their baseball certainly should take a look at this if they come across it at a bookstore. They might find after a few bite-sized morsels that they want to make a full meal out of it.

Three stars

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Review: The Bird (2013)

By Doug Wilson

Go ahead. Try to explain Mark Fidrych and his summer of 1976 to someone who wasn't there. It's a difficult task.

Fidrych came out of nowhere that magical year. He wasn't considered a top-notch project at the start of the season, but he was ready when he got the chance after several weeks. Fidrych rolled up 19 wins and became the American League Rookie of the Year, starting in the All-Star Game along the way.

But that's only part of the story. He patted down the dirt on the pitcher's mound to make sure it was up to his specifications. Fidrych seemed to be telling the baseball on each pitch what to do, although he was simply talking to himself about what to do in a given moment. The right-hander bounced around with unlimited energy, congratulating his teammates on good plays and running everywhere. He picked up the nickname "The Bird," and it caught on as he sort of resembled Sesame Street's Big Bird with his long, curly hair and his flapping limbs.

Popular? Fidrych was more than popular. Ballparks were filled whenever he pitched, and after wins the fans demanded he take curtain calls after games. People delivered cakes and cases of beer to his house. Interview requests were through the roof.

And then, it ended quickly - thanks to an arm injury that Fidrych suffered in the middle of the 1977 season. He spent three years looking for an answer to his medical problem, and never found it. He left the stage as quickly as he entered it.

This sounds like a great subject for an ESPN documentary, and it probably will be someday. In the meantime, Doug Wilson does a good job of explaining what all the fuss was about with this book, "The Bird."

This is a full-fledged biography, starting in Fidrych's childhood days in Massachusetts. Wilson provides a couple of early clues to Fidrych's behavior in later years. His guess is that the pitcher had ADD, which was partly responsible for his hyperactive behavior at times. Then there's some sort of reading disorder, perhaps dyslexia, which made school work a challenge for Fidrych. It also left him unable to learn about baseball, and other players, in the usual ways of the time. Remember there was no SportsCenter or Twitter feeds to review the latest baseball news then. When Fidrych arrived in the majors, he had no idea who the best players in the game are. This led to some comic moments, but eventually the pitcher caught up with what was going on in the game.

When the arm trouble came, Fidrych tried almost everything as a cure but never could get his velocity back up to 1976 levels. He simply thanked everyone for the ride and went back to Massachusetts, where he started a farm, got married, and lived a down-to-earth life almost as if the period of fame never happened. By the way, Fidrych had an exam done on his shoulder with new medical technologies years later, and doctors found two tears in his rotator cuff - which, in hindsight, explained everything but didn't do him any good at that point in his baseball life. Still, it must have been nice to get an answer.

Wilson just wrote a book on Brooks Robinson, and the two publications have something in common. The subjects were not only great players - at least for a while in Fidrych's case - but they were admirable people. The point is repeated several times in both books, and gets a little tiring after a while as the point is overdone. There's little doubt, though, that people like to have their sports stars to be role models in everyday life. Fidrych and Robinson both qualified in their relationships with the public. This probably works better with Fidrych, since stories about how he dealt with his baseball rise and fall are what attracts us to him in the first place. The arm injury to Fidrych supplies the drama that was missing in Robinson's story.

"The Bird" fills in the details on what probably ranks as one of the most unusual careers in sports history. Those who are curious certainly will get the idea about what happened and why, and those who lived through it all will enjoy taking it all in once again.

Four stars

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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Review: The Lost 10 Point Night (2014)

By David Ward

It's one thing to have a sports hero while growing up. It's another to actually meet him. I remember seeing how a media professional was reduced to something close to a puddle when he had the chance to interview superstar hockey player Ray Bourque.

David Ward has taken this one step farther. He's written a book about his boyhood idol. The hero in this case is Jim Harrison, and the book is "The Lost 10 Point Night."

This is a rather unusual approach to a book, simply because players like Harrison usually aren't the subject of such research and writing. He was a big, talented player in junior hockey in the 1960s. Had he come along 20 years later, he would have been called a power forward - along the lines of a Cam Neely - and been in great demand.

It was a different game, then, though, and Harrison's career didn't quite pan out the way he and others might have expected. He came through the Boston Bruins' system, and was traded to Toronto. The Maple Leafs front office was a bit dysfunctional in the early Seventies, and many players took the chance to jump to the World Hockey Association when it came - leaving the Leafs in mediocrity or worse. Harrison had a couple of outstanding years in the WHA.

His biggest problem, though was a cranky back. His physical play left him rather battered, and surgeries left some scars and in some cases only hurt him. The injuries shortened his career and left him with disabilities that affect him to this day. That's not an uncommon story for players of that era since the medical treatment wasn't what it should have been, as teams treated athletes as if they were disposable. Harrison had the added factor of a major fight with his own team at the end of his career (Chicago of the NHL), and a running battle with the Players Association. That made him one of the first to wonder about the antics of Alan Eagleson, the NHLPA boss who eventually was jailed.

Everyone has a story to tell, of course, and Harrison's is relatively interesting. But is it a book? That's a good question, even after reading it. This isn't a full biography. It's more of a story about how Ward  wrote a book about Harrison. He talks to his wife, family members and teammates along the way, and he includes some personal observations and memories along the way. As could be expected in a book about a hockey hero, there aren't many negative stories told about Harrison here.

By the way, the 10-point night mentioned in the title came in the WHA. Harrison had three goals and seven assists in one game against the New York Raiders in 1973. The NHL record is also 10 points, set by Darryl Sittler. Even though the WHA was a notch below the NHL at the time, scoring 10 points in any pro league is an impressive achievement.

That brings us to the central question - is the story and Ward's quest a worthwhile book? Even after reading it, that's difficult to say. This checks in at well under 200 pages, and the thought did strike me that it might have worked better as a long magazine article.

Still, "The Lost 10 Point Night" takes a look at the life of a player that took some odd twists over the years, and probably is more typical of athletes from that era than we might think. Those who have a personal connection to that time in hockey history will find this publication holds their interest nicely.

Three stars

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