Thursday, December 24, 2015

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2015 (2015)

Edited by Wright Thompson

The Best American Sports Writing series began in 1991, and it made an immediate impression with me - and not just because my name was mentioned in one of the included stories for a couple of paragraphs. It was instantly judged to be a worthy successor to similar anthologies in the field. You might be able to find some of them in the dusty parts of the library.

Here we are, 25 years later, and the series is still moving along nicely. Glenn Stout has proved to be a more than capable guardian for the idea, passing along the guest editor's job to some of the top names in the business. In 2015, he handed the reins over to Wright Thompson, the fine writer for ESPN.

Thompson has picked out the final choices of articles that appear in "The Best American Sports Writing 2015." I've read every single entry in the series. Not only have I noticed how the sports journalism business has changed over the years, but I've realized the guest editor's job must be a pretty subjective one. That's because the reader's opinion of a particular year's offerings can vary with how in tune he or she might be with the editor.

I'm not going to argue here that any of the choices here feature less than top-notch work. But some of the stories in the second half of the 2015 edition have a rather liberal definition of sports, and that made them a little less compelling than the others for me. There's a family history of Kansas City, which is more geneology than sports. As I'm fond of saying, one of the few things less interesting than your fantasy sports team is your family tree. It is tough to describe what the story of people going few thousand feet into a cave is, but it's not mainstream sports. The author of an article on elephant-hunting in Africa certainly did an admirable job, but it's a tough sell for me.

So that's the good news, but there's plenty of stuff here. A story on football great Y.A. Tittle leads the book off. It was memorable the first time I read it, and sure enough those are the type of stories you want to read again. I missed the Haverford Hoops story in Sports Illustrated, and I'm glad I caught it here. Profiles of Dean Smith, Jerry Jones and Chad Curtis are all fascinating in their own ways.

I'm also proud to say that the only newspaper contribution of the bunch - talk about changing times! - came from my newspaper. Tim Graham's look at ex-Bills linebacker Darryl Talley and his concussion-related issues of retirement ranks with the best stories anywhere in 2015. Stories about head injuries have been a part of the books in this series for the past few years. In Buffalo, this one really brought the problem home for Bills fans.

I've been reviewing books in this series for several years, and they have been very popular - they rank near the top in number of hits on this blog. The review again comes down to the fact that there's always something good here - how good depending on the individual reader's point of view. In this case's, Thompson's batting average wasn't perfect for me ... but there's a good chance that the book will be even a better fit for you. So pick it up, and see how it goes.

Four stars

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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Review: What's New, Harry? (2015)

Edited by Paul Ranallo

Welcome to a time machine.

"What's New, Harry?" really does take the reader back to a different era, and that's partly what makes this book interesting. But the concept will need some explaining first.

Let's start with the star of the show. Phil Ranallo is fondly remembered by those who lived in Buffalo after World War II. He started as a copy boy at the Courier-Express in 1942, and after a brief interruption caused by time in the armed forces, stayed there until the newspaper folded in 1982.

Ranallo did a variety of work for the sports section of the newspaper in that time. He is best remembered as the main columnist from the late 1960s through 1980 or so. He spent the last part of his career as a copy editor, a move that few columnists would even think about attempting before leaving in disgust. When the Courier-Express went under, Ranallo never wrote another word for publication.

During his time as a columnist, the Courier was more of the "blue collar" newspaper in town, more for city folks, while the Buffalo Evening News catered to a suburban mindset. The News had Steve Weller as its sports columnist, a graceful and hilarious writing talent, while Ranallo appealed more to the working class. Our family mostly read the News during the 1970s, so we only saw Ranallo's work when the Sunday newspaper arrived - the News didn't come out on Sundays, if you can believe it.

It's a roundabout way of saying that I didn't get the chance to see many of Ranallo's column. So this book instantly became an interesting way to look back at his work. After zipping through the 250 or so pages lovingly compiled by his son, a couple of points jump out.

Ranallo used a very odd device for some of his columns. He created a character for himself called Harry, and he quoted Harry making comments on the sporting scene. Some columns are virtually nothing but quotes from Harry. His wife became Ruby in the column, and some friends became characters every so often as well. This technique wasn't done in every column, and I have my doubts if anyone is trying it more than once in a while these days. But it does jump out at the reader now as being "old school."

There are more or less two types of columns here: local and national. The local ones are sure to bring back some memories for Western New York readers of athletes, games and places. The national columns, though, don't work as well in hindsight. Articles about say, Lou Brock and Rocky Marciano, feel like they are written from a distance, without much perspective. There are a few quotes in such stories, probably taken from wire service reports. But they don't seem to go farther than the idea that "Pete Rose sure is a great player." Since a book like this certainly is designed for Buffalo-area audiences, I think I would have increased the number of local columns in the collection greatly.

There are a few columns that deal with other subjects here. There are tributes to departing friends, and "game stories" of events like the Kentucky Derby. There are a few columns here that deal with politics in a sense that are a little surprising. I wonder if Phil had to do much arguing to convince the sports editors to run columns on three straight days about the death of Robert Kennedy. I'm sure a piece on the futility of the Vietnam War got him some angry responses from readers too, but it's still interesting now. Ranallo could be funny, and he could be poignant - sometimes in the same column, which is hard to do. His language skills come out here.

For the record, the book has some typographical errors along the way. I would guess that stories had to be retyped by hand, which can lead to mistakes - especially with small publishing outfits. And it's tough to imagine how many legal hoops Paul Ranallo must have gone through to get the rights to the columns; I'm sure the thought went through his head 3,000 times that "I wish I could have done this sooner." 

Still, I certainly appreciate the chance to read "What's New, Harry," even 33 years after the Courier's departure. I got to know Phil a little bit in the final years of his time at the Courier. I can vouch for the fact that this was a gentleman, who was a credit to the business of journalism, and who was very nice to me in our few encounters. It's certainly nice to have some of his work on my bookshelf now.

Three stars

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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Review: Super Bowl Gold (2015)

Foreword by Peter King

Assuming it's legal to use a baseball analogy for a football book, the idea of "Super Bowl Gold" must have been the equivalent to a hanging slider to someone in charge of Sports Illustrated.

After all, the 50th Super Bowl is coming up soon, and the NFL no doubt was planning a big celebration. Sports Illustrated had a ton of photos in some files, digital or otherwise, and stories on each game as they were played. Don't just stand there, staff members, get to work.

And so they did. And the resulting product is a beauty.

Each game gets six pages. There something of an introduction, a bunch of fine photos (it is Sports Illustrated), an edited version of the original game story, some fast facts about the game, and memories from a player from each team in the game. Zip, zip, zip, like a Joe Montana or Tom Brady drive in the final minutes. Yeah, those two guys come up frequently here.

There are a few more original stories here. Peter King checks in with some Super Bowl memories, and that's good fun. Austin Murphy obviously had a lot of fun with the halftime show. There are also stories on media coverage and TV commercials. The book ends with some sort of rating system that ranks the 49 games that have been played so far. Those systems usually are a little silly and it might have been better to have someone who has seen all the games rank them, but that may be just me.

One of the unexpected fun parts of the book is the game story. You really get to see the business change as you go from year to year. Tex Maule opens with basic stories, the way things were written before television fully wrapped its arms around the sport. Dan Jenkins follows and shows why there's hardly been anyone better at the actual writing. Paul Zimmerman lived and breathed football in his career, and it shows in his stories here. Since then, SI has gotten some backstage information that no one has, and it shows.

But the player comments are good too. It might be more interesting to read the accounts for the losers, some of whom were sure they'd be back in a year to win it all. And, most of them didn't. But someone did a good job collecting stories from those from both sides.

This book is heavy reading. No, really. It's big and heavy at 336 pages and some weighty covers. At least you know where the $40 went.

"Super Bowl Gold" certainly isn't for everyone, and that includes some football fans. The kids might not be too anxious to read about games and players who have faded into memory for the most part, and nostalgia isn't for everyone. But if you're going to put together a golden anniversary book for the Super Bowl along these lines, I can't imagine anyone doing it any better.

Five stars

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Friday, December 11, 2015

Review: Legends of the Buffalo Bills (2015)

By Randy Schultz

What does Randy Schultz have in common with the movie "Star Wars?" They both have sequels.

Schultz, naturally, is the less-famous of the two. The re-release of his book, "Legends of the Buffalo Bills," doesn't come with the advertising blitz that has accompanied the latest version of the famous science-fiction series.

Schultz's original book came out in 2003. He follows a rather foolproof formula. Schultz talked to a variety of Buffalo Bills figures from the course of their history, which began in 1960. Oldtimers, naturally, love to bring up the good old days, and this gives them the opportunity to do it.

So, as Vin Scully would say, Bills fans can "pull up a chair" and enjoy their favorite moments. Schultz's battling average in terms of interviews is very, very good. About the only drawback in that sense is that other people had to do the talking about Jim Kelly, since the great quarterback apparently wasn't available. But it works out well enough.

It is sort of interesting to compare the two editions of the book. It is important to note that not a great deal happened to the Bills from 2003 to 2015 in terms of adding to the list of great teams and moments. Buffalo did not participate in a single playoff game in that time. As far as players are concerned, few of them from that era are going to pop up on the Bills' Wall of Fame. The only players from those years that could have turned up in the revised book might by Ruben Brown and Brian Moorman. Schultz did get to write new chapters on a couple of Sixties players, Ernie Warlick and Tom Day, and new owner Terry Pegula's story is offered this time around too.

The sequel's biggest drawback is that Schultz wasn't allowed to do much updating. The text and pictures are in many cases exactly the same, with the new edition staying with black and white versions of some color photos. The author had the chance to rewrite the end of a few chapters, including the deaths of such figures as Ralph Wilson and Van Miller. But there are still some obvious references from 2003 that remain in the new book. The publisher really should have allowed Schultz to do a little more rewriting in order to get the stories up to date to cut down on some confusion.

I've been a friend of Randy's since 1978 or so, and I know how much good work he does. That's why this book isn't rated. But I can say with confidence that most long-time Bills fans will enjoy the time traveling aspects of the book and hearing from the Bills' stars of yesteryear.

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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Review: Pop Warner (2015)

By Jeffrey J. Miller

Let's start with the name.

Pop Warner. It sounds like a throwback to a forgotten time, doesn't it? Wasn't there a Pop or Pops in every Western you ever saw that was filmed in black and white?

Football coach Pop Warner wasn't the star of any Westerns, although he did live in California for quite a while and for several coached what were known at the time as Indians. He also was one of the great innovators of his sport, and one of its most successful coaches from the game's early days.

It's always interesting to read about someone like that. For his part, Warner did do something of an autobiography at one point in his life. However, it wasn't a particularly complete story and thus paints a less-than-full picture. That left an obvious void.

Jeffrey J. Miller rode in to the rescue. Miller has done some very good work on football over the years; his "Rockin' the Rockpile" is a great source of information on Buffalo Bills history. As it happens, Miller lives in Springville, New York. That was Warner's home for much of his childhood, and he often returned to the small town south of Buffalo frequently during his life. Therefore, a Miller book on Warner is a natural. And "Pop Warner" is a good effort, filling in some gaps in the life of a coach hasn't worked since 1940.

Warner was born in Concord, NY, but moved to nearby Springville when he was 11. Warner remembers that going to Springville was almost like being in New York City compared to sleepy Concord. He played a variety of sports growing up, and eventually headed for Cornell. Warner considered a career in law, but turned out for the Cornell football team in 1892 at the age of 21. He was older than anyone else on the team, thus earning the nickname "Pop." It stuck.

Warner finished his playing career at Cornell and slid over to coaching duties for a while. He figured out a way to coach at Iowa State before the season (training camp started quite early there), and then head to Georgia for a full season there - and get paid by both schools. Both teams prospered under the arrangement, and Warner developed a good reputation as a promising coach. That attracted the attention of his alma mater, and Warner came back to Cornell.

That lasted two years, as Pop jumped to Carlyle - a school in Eastern Pennsylvania designed to provide lessons in life and academics to the Native American population. Warner stayed six seasons, putting together some excellent teams that played the best in the business at the time. Then it was back to Cornell for three seasons, and then back to Carlyle for eight seasons. It was then that one of the greatest athletes in history, Jim Thorpe, turned up for practice. The pair worked well together.

Warner quickly established a reputation as someone who was always trying to figure out ways to win. One time he outfitted a player with an elastic uniform, so that the player could tuck a football under his shirt and then take off for the goal line with it. Then there was the designed play in which a receiver would go out of bounds, run down the field behind a bench, and reappear on the field in time to catch a long pass. These plays weren't illegal at the time.

It's not easy to keep up with Warner's wanderings, but Miller does that as he follows the coach go from Carlyle to Pittsburgh to Stanford to Temple as a head coach. Warner finally was finished in 1939 with 311 wins. Along the way, he came up with all sorts of new offensive strategies, while personally designing improvements in shoulder pads and tackling sleds.

There's not a great deal of information about Warner as a person here. That's not a huge surprise, since he probably made most of his public statements about the sport and apparently spent a great deal of his free time thinking about football. Therefore, the appeal of this book is limited to football fans - but there's nothing wrong with that.

Miller doesn't get too bogged down in details of games involving Warner over the years. The length of the text is about 200 pages, including a handful of pictures. That's about right for a project like this - a quick course in one of the game's greats. The price is a bit high for a paperback at $30 retail, but that's to be expected for a book that fits into a narrow niche. It's a thorough, professional job of reporting and writing.

The name of Pop Warner now is mostly associated with youth football, as leagues by that name have spread across the country. Now those kids will be able to read about Warner himself. The book is a worthwhile addition to the football library.

Four stars

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review: Hockey's Greatest (2015)

Edited by Bill Syken

You have to give Sports Illustrated credit. They sure know how to put out a good-looking, coffee-table book.

They also sure know how to put their photography file to good use.

Those are two easy conclusions at looking through "Hockey's Greatest," the latest in a series of books covering the major North American sports. Baseball, football and basketball are done, and now it's hockey's turn.

My guess is that the formats are pretty similar. Come up with a bunch of categories, have some experts come up with a ranking, and print them with illustrations - big, glorious illustrations. The pictures are displayed in a book that measures at 10 3/4 inches by 13 inches - big enough to show them off to their best advantage. There are explanations of the picks, with comments from the selectors and/or quotes from stories and personalities involved.

The categories go as expected. Best players by position. Best coaches. Best enforcers. Best rivalries. Best teams. There are a few reaches (best shootout specialists, best franchises). Most of the choices are rather conventional; the biggest surprise might have been Ted Lindsay as the third-best left-winger ever. He beat out Alex Ovechkin, Frank Mahovlich, Valeri Kharlamov and Brendan Shanahan, among others. 

Sometimes - one per major section - the items come up a longer print treatment. For example - spoiler alert - the best game in history from an American perspective is the U.S.-U.S.S.R. game in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid. I'm not sure if some or all the story from a 1980 article about the game is reprinted, but it's still fun to read about that particular game. It always will be too.

One extra bonus is that Michael Farber contributes a witty, interesting forward to the book, as well as some good comments and a few of typically interesting stories. Sometimes I read Farber's work and think I should have gone into plumbing instead of journalism. He sets a high bar.

One drawback comes from the format. It's mostly a picture book, which means you can plow through it pretty quickly - a couple of hours. I'd prefer a few more words for my $32.95. Speaking of that, the concept reminds me of the type of magazine that The Hockey News puts out as a special edition every so often. It doesn't look as good, but it's also one-third the price.

Still, the pictures from "Hockey's Greatest" will lure many in. It's not called Sports Illustrated for nothing, and their photographers are some of the best in the business. For those looking for a fine-looking gift for the holidays, you've come to the right place.

Four stars

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Monday, November 16, 2015

Review: Hockey Night Fever (2015)

By Stephen Cole

Can you write a history of hockey in the 1970s without writing very much about Bobby Hull, the World Hockey Association, and NHL expansion?

Obviously. At least Stephen Cole can.

That's what he did in the book, "Hockey Night Fever," a look back at some of those times in the Seventies. What's more, it's an enjoyable read - to put it lightly.

Cole spends most of the book on the three great teams of the 1970s, the ones that dominated the headlines through the decade. The first was the Boston Bruins, led by superstars Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. They won Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972, and probably should have won a few more. Several players defected to the WHA, and Orr's knee problems sent him on a slow, painful path toward retirement. Plus, maybe the Bruins had a little too much fun in those years.

In the middle years of the decade, the Philadelphia Flyers ruled the roost in the NHL. They had some skill players like Bobby Clarke, Reggie Leach and Bernie Parent, but they were also tough. Tough. Players on visiting teams often came down with the "Philly flu" at the mere thought of facing the Broad St. Bullies in their home lair of the Spectrum. The Flyers would beat you on the scoreboard, and would beat you up in the process. It's a team that is to this day hated everywhere but Philadelphia.

Hockey purists will tell you that just the right team came along in 1976 to restore order and balance to the sport. If the Montreal Canadiens of the late 1970s weren't the best team in history, they were close. They were loaded with talent from Guy Lafleur's scoring to Ken Dryden's goaltending, and everywhere in between. They could only beat themselves, and coach Scotty Bowman made sure that never happened. Their skill and grace was a counterpoint to the Flyers' style.

There are chapters along the way about the key figures of the Seventies - Orr, Clarke, Shero, Lafleur, Bowman, etc, Perhaps because I've read more about the Bruins and Canadiens teams more, some of the stories about the Flyers and their coach were quite interesting. Philadelphia had some brains behind the brawn; otherwise the team wouldn't have been successful.

Cole also goes in-depth on some of the key games of the era - the night the Bruins won their second Stanley Cup of the decade, the Flyers' first Cup win, Canada-USSR's Game Eight, "Too Many Men on the Ice" (say that to any Canadiens or Bruins fan of the era, and he or she will know the story instantly), and a couple of others. It is difficult to make games come alive after more than 35 years, but Cole does that very nicely.

Indeed, the research here make this book work so well. The author seems to have read every imaginable book on the subject, done interviews, tracked down microfilm, and watched videos. There are some familiar parts, but a lot of it is fresh and interesting. For example, the rivalry, if that's the right word, between Lafleur and Marcel Dionne when they were juniors is almost frightening to read.

The problems here are minor. The NHL was essentially bankrupt by the mid-1970s, with expansion fees keeping the league afloat at times, thanks in part to the WHA war and the lack of a major television deal. That's a bigger part of the story than is mentioned here. I'm also not sure how interesting hockey stories from the era might be for those younger than, say, 45.

But make no mistake here. "Hockey Night Fever" is an extremely entertaining and well-done book. Not only will readers learn a lot, but they'll laugh a bit along the way. I would guess that many will consider it one of the best hockey books of the season.

Five stars

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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review: Mark Rosen's Book of Minnesota Sports Lists (2014)

By Mark Rosen and Jim Bruton

You may be wondering how a guy from Buffalo, without any connections to the land of 10,000 lakes except a couple of friends, decided to pick up "Mark Rosen's Book of Minnesota Sports Lists."

Easy. I wanted to see if the book was "portable."

Not in the carrying sense. It checks in at 6 inches by 9 inches. You can take it anywhere.

Rather, I wanted to see if the idea was portable. Could be applied to other cities? Based on what I read, I think the answer is yes.

First of all, you need someone with credentials to pull this off, and Rosen seems well qualified. He's been involved in Minnesota sportscasting forever. Rosen hasn't seen it all, but he's seen a lot of it.

The veteran sailed through his lists pretty quickly, starting with "My Favorite Things," followed by chapters devoted to football, baseball, hockey, basketball, wrestling (one list), and "More of My Favorite Things."

The categories for Rosen's lists are generally predictable - favorite sports moments, best finishes, best coaches, best athletes biggest trades, all-time teams, best things about stadiums, top five reasons to have lunch with Lou Nanne (that last one did sort of come out of nowhere, even though Nanne has been known an engaging character since his days with the North Stars).

This is all done with enthusiasm and good humor. Rosen obviously loves his job, and has enjoyed the people he's encountered and the games he's watched. No wonder he's lasted so long in the Twin Cities. It's a breeze to go through this, and one of those books that can be examined at an point without missing a beat. In other words, it's fine bathroom reading if you are looking for it. (I had a book described that way, and considered it high praise.)

There are a few drawbacks here that should be mentioned, though. Some of the lists are pretty similar, and that means the information is about the same in each list. The good points and the bad points tend to get repeated a lot, and it's easy to wonder if there was a way around that. Maybe some different lists, or lists by others, might have helped.

And, naturally, there are places for disagreements. That's part of the fun of such an effort. Still, it was surprising to see Steve Payne ranked second on the list of great North Stars, ahead of Dino Ciccarelli. And only one mention of a personal favorite, Mike Ramsey, who is No. 10 of the great Minnesota athletes?

Finally, Kirby Puckett gets a great deal of love here. The Twins outfielder was the most popular athlete in Minnesota until eye problems forced him to retire. His winning personality captivated the state. But after retirement, Puckett was involved in several incidents that caused him to resign his front-office job with the Twins, and spend some time with lawyers and in courts. Even one of the tour guides at Target Field when I was there mentioned that opinions about Puckett have turned complicated. Puckett's legacy has changed since his retirement, but it doesn't read like it here.

Even so, Rosen accomplished what he set out to do - bring back memories of some good athletes and good games from the past. In that sense, "Mark Rosen's Book of Minnesota Sports Lists" accomplishes its goal.

Three stars

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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review: The Battle of Alberta (2015)

By Mark Spector

"The Battle of Alberta" - the actual games, not the book - was something of an "inside story" in the world of professional hockey in the 1980s, especially in the United States. We knew all about the Edmonton Oilers, thanks to the fabulous Wayne Gretzky and his supporting cast that was much more than a supporting cast. Names like Messier, Kurri, Anderson, Coffey and Fuhr were Hall of Famers in their own right.

Meanwhile, the Calgary Flames were just down the road in Alberta. They were obviously a very good team in those days, but they were constantly bumping up against one of the great teams in the history of hockey. Sadly for the Flames, the playoffs were intramural affairs within the division in the first couple of rounds, which meant Calgary had to go through Edmonton to get to close to the promised land.

Those games, regular season and playoff, were close to off the charts in intensity. The Oilers usually won, especially when the Flames were just building their team.Eventually, though, Calgary broke through. The catch in terms of public attention is that Edmonton and Calgary aren't major media centers, and therefore few people knew about those games.

That left the subject open for Mark Spector, attacking the rivalry in his book, "The Battle of Alberta." He does a thorough job of getting the feelings of the participants out in the open. In fact, it doesn't sound like there was a great deal of prompting.

The Flames were never going to match the Oilers' level of skill, so they built up a slightly different type of team. The roster had a bunch of college players from America who were overlooked by NHL scouts, so they had a chip on their shoulder coming into the league. Playing second-fiddle to Edmonton fit in nicely with that formula. And if that meant using players with grit to do anything possible to slow down the speedy Oilers, well, whatever worked. Neil Sheehy, who went to Harvard, became well-known in the sport for his efforts to at least slow Gretzky.

Author Mark Spector was around for much of the fun, which ran through much of the 1980s and leaked into the start of the 1990s. The Oilers and Flames were good talkers, as they say in the media, and they haven't lost the touch. Spector only needs to turn on the tape recorder, ask a question, and sit back.

He uses a different technique of organizing the book that many such efforts. Since the matchups were irregularly played, Spector opts to use a different theme for each chapter. So we read about coaches Glen Sather and Bob Johnson, Edmonton's Steve Smith and his famous "own goal" in which he took too much of the blame, the goaltenders, and so on. About the only drawback is that sometimes facts and stories get repeated. It interrupts the flow a little bit.

Still, the passion comes out on practically every page. It's great fun to read the reactions of what happened when coach Terry Crisp of Calgary opted to dress Lanny McDonald for a potential Cup-clinching game in Montreal in 1989, from the players who had to sit out the game to McDonald's thought as he scored the go-ahead goal - the last goal of his career.

Ken Dryden once said that playoff meetings developed rivalries, and there's no doubt that it worked in the case of Edmonton and Calgary. There's nothing like seven games in 10 days between two teams to develop a good-size level of emotion, year after year.

The Oilers and Flames haven't been very good too often in the last 25 years, and when one has been good, the other has been mediocre or worse. Fans from the 1980s certainly have a head start when it comes to enjoying "The Battle of Alberta," but I think most hockey followers will get the idea about what an interesting time it was - and to hope we see a renewal of the rivalry sometime relatively soon.

Four stars

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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Review: Art Ross (2015)

By Eric Zweig

Mention the name of Art Ross to a very casual hockey fan, and you are likely to draw a blank stare. Say the name to a more involved observer, and the first response will no doubt be connected to a piece of hardware - the Art Ross Trophy is given to the National Hockey League's leading scorer.

But hardly anyone at this point in hockey history knows much about Art Ross himself. Eric Zweig marches fearlessly into the void to write a full-fledged biography of this important historical figure in hockey circles, simply called "Art Ross."

Ross, it turns out, was one heck of an athlete. He played practically everything while growing up in Canada, and did it well. That includes baseball, football and lacrosse, among other sports. But since he was in Canada, he turned to hockey for a profession.

Ross broke in to a higher level of competition in 1905. It was a different game then, but Ross established a reputation as what we now would call a defenseman who could bring the puck up the ice and lead the charge. Think Denis Potvin. These were times when organized professional hockey wasn't particularly organized, and Ross did some serious bouncing around Canada in search of good teams and paychecks. He went through Montreal, Winnipeg and Ottawa, among other stops. The story does have a "follow the bouncing ball" feeling to it, as it's a little difficult to keep up with the movement. Then again, teams of that era probably has the same problem.

Ross stayed around the game long enough to play in the National Hockey League. He spent three games there in the initial 1917-18 season. He did a little coaching in the next few years after that, but he really didn't settle down and find a home until 1924. That's when he took over as general manager and coach of the Boston Bruins, who were just getting going.

Ross essentially became Mr. Bruin in the next 30 years. Ross coached through 1945, winning one Stanley Cup in 1939, and then stayed in the Boston front office for another decade or so. The book makes it sound like that Ross had quite a strong personality, and made some enemies along the way. But no one could deny that Ross had a creative mind. As an example, he invented the goal nets with a design that has more or less lasted until this day. In fact, Ross is said to have made one big mistake financially with that invention - he forgot to take out a patent on the netting, and thus lost a good-sized pile of money. Ross even suggested that the center red line be striped, so that it would be seen better on black-and-white television.

By the way, Zweig points out that Ross took the easy way to hockey fame when it came to the trophy: he donated it himself. It was supposed to be awarded to the most valuable player as voted by the players, but that somehow got sidetracked by the war and other issues.

Will this interest fans of today? That's a tough one. The pre-NHL era is more than a little dusty at this point, and most of the names aren't familiar ones. Ross' executive days with the Bruins have some good stories about the era, but the Bruins weren't exactly the Montreal Canadiens when it came to great teams and players.

However, there's little doubt that the important pioneers in any field, including sports, deserve to have their lives examined in full. Ross is a member of that group. It takes someone dedicated to research and accuracy to do a subject like this justice, and Zweig's research comes across well on virtually every page.

"Art Ross" may not be the classic page-turner, then, but Zweig has brought a big name from the past back to the public eye with this book. Those who have an strong interest in the subject, and in hockey from a century ago, will find this more than merely worthwhile.

Three stars

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Monday, September 28, 2015

Review: Leafs '65 (2015)

Forward by Stephen Brunt

The significance of the title takes a bit of time to register, at least outside of the Toronto area.

It really has been about 50 years since the Maple Leafs were consistently good.

Toronto won four Stanley Cups from 1961 to 1963, and added another one in 1967. They have flirted with success a bit at times after that, but for the most part times have been dreary for Maple Leafs fans for a half-century.

Therefore, books about this group tend to sell pretty well in Toronto, Canada's center of publishing. There certainly have been a lot of them.

Here's another: "Leafs '65." And it comes with a story.

Photographer Lewis Parker was a well-known photographer in the Sixties, and got the unusual assignment from a magazine of taking photos of the Maple Leafs in training camp in Peterborough, Ont., in 1965. The story fell through, but he still had the pictures ... and kept them for decades. A friend saw a folder marked "Leafs '65" that was full of negatives, heard the story, and suggested that they shouldn't go in the trash. Good decision.

Stephen Brunt, a top Canadian sportswriter, wrote an introduction of sorts as he covered where the Leafs were in the fall of 1965. They weren't the defending champions this time, as they had been in the previous three training camps, but they were still good. The Leafs for the most part had a bunch of wise veterans - Frank Mahovlich, Allan Stanley Dave Keon, Bob Pulford, Tim Horton, Johnny Bower, Terry Sawchuk, Red Kelly, Marcel Provovost. A lot of those players are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, although the Montreal Canadiens had the Canadian market cornered on icons. Leading the team was Punch Imlach, an old-school coach and general manager who was crusty but knew his business.

Parker took a couple of hundred black-and-white pictures of whatever interested in him, and many are printed here. Thus, the era comes back to life for a little while, with pictures of Peterborough and its early '60s cars.The players look rather normal, hanging out together without entourages and showing no signs of wealth - because they weren't wealthy. On the ice, the workout sweats look primitive and  cheap. The locker room space was small, and some of it was only a step or two up from hooks on the way. Some of the players are shown smoking, a habit that hung around the sport until the 1980s.

This is mostly a picture book, of course. That means, according to my usual standards, it doesn't take long to go through, and it always a question about whether the price is worth it. In this case, $35 (Canadian) is a little steep. But it certainly gives an interesting look into an era that's long gone. Those who still love those Leaf teams of the Sixties, and their lot is always shrinking at this point, certainly will linger over this book and add a star (or maybe two) to the rating.

Three stars

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review: Got to Give the People What They Want (2015)

By Jalen Rose

Every school kid in America ought to send Jalen Rose a thank-you note. It's not for the fact that Rose played on one of the most famous college basketball teams in history, or that he was a solid NBA player for more than a decade, or that he's now an analyst on ESPN.

We're talkin' about shorts.

When Rose and the rest of the "Fab Five" got to Michigan, coach Steve Fisher ordered the sporting goods company that supplied the team's uniforms to add a few inches to the shorts. As soon as the Wolverines took the court, everyone instantly knew that the look was a huge improvement over the dorky short shorts that were the standard in schools across the country. We moved on, and haven't looked back.

Thanks for that, Jalen and Company.

Rose has gone through a lot at a young age - he's 42 as of this writing - and he's gotten some of his experiences down on paper. "Got to Give the People What They Want" is an honest look at his life and career.

First, let's explain the title. Rose writes (and there's no sign of a ghostwriter, at least in the advance proof I received) that the phrase means "Be honest, unfiltered, unbiased. Raw, refreshing, real. Give people the kind of insight and understanding they don't get anywhere else." Rose tries his best here to do that.

The first half of the book is the better portion of it. Rose grew up in Detroit in the 1980s, when the city was clearly headed downhill. He didn't even know who his father was for part of his childhood, and didn't really care. Jalen - the name was made up by his mother, and has caught on a bit - made do as best he could with the help of his family and friends. He gravitated toward basketball, and discovered he was good at it. Stardom in high school ball came rather easily.

And that led him on a path to Michigan. He and four other top recruits, such as Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, all arrived at Ann Arbor at the same time. This wasn't a basketball team, it was a rock and roll band - and a popular one. The games were like concerts, the players were celebrities. The all freshman starting five led Michigan to the NCAA Championship game, which lost to Duke in 1993. The next year was another trip to the final, and a heart-breaking loss to North Carolina. By the way, Rose credits a hip-hop group's lyric for the nickname of "Fab Five"; I always thought it was a take-off by some old sportswriter of the Beatles "Fab Four" nickname. Whatever. It's quite obvious how much Rose enjoyed those days.

Rose had a rather odd NBA career. As he correctly points out, fate/chance can have a greater role in how a player does at that level than many think. He did average more than 18 points per game in five different seasons, and played on some good Indiana teams that were good but not good enough to win a title. It did make one trip to the Finals. Rose started his career in Detroit, thrived in Indiana, and then went through Chicago, Toronto, New York and Phoenix.

One of theme of Rose's personal journey deals with his father, who happened to be Jimmy Walker - the first overall pick in the 1967 NBA draft. Walker apparently left a string of children behind as he traveled through life, not taking responsibility for any of his actions. Rose did talk to him on the phone once, but Walker died before any sort of relationship could develop.

Rose isn't really bitter about that, but he does blast a few targets here. The list starts with the NCAA, not surprisingly. If you saw how much money others were making off the "Fab Five," you'd be a little angry too. Rose also tees off on Larry Brown, who coached him twice in the pros and according to the player wasn't completely honest with him.

Rose also outlines his relationship with Webber, which turned complicated. The NCAA went after the Wolverines of the Fab Five days because of an improper relationship with a booster, if that's the right word, and the wins of that era were erased from the record book. Webber has separated himself from any contact with his college teammates, and Rose seems genuine in writing that he'd like to patch that up. Webber will have to give his side of the story some time. Rose has stayed close with the other three members of the band, er, team. In an odd twist, he actually spent a couple of days in jail with one of them when Rose served a short sentence for a drunk driving conviction.

Rose has grown up quite a bit over the years, starting a school in the city of Detroit to help give kids a better chance to climb out of poverty. It's an ambitious project, and he deserves a lot of credit for it.

"Got to Give the People What They Want" is a quick read, even if you don't get some of the hip-hop references. The obvious climax of the story comes with the Fab Five moments, which is roughly halfway through. The story could have used a few more dramatics after that, but that's not Rose's fault. That's the way life played out.

Even so, Rose comes across as an interesting personality here. Readers probably will pay more attention to him the next time he pops up on television.

Three stars

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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Review: The Pine Tar Game (2015)

By Filip Bondy

When temper-tantrums from professional sports are discussed, George Brett's explosion on July 24, 1983, may set the standard forever.

Brett had just hit a home run off pitcher Rich Gossage to give his Kansas City Royals the lead over the Yankees in New York. However, Yankees manager Billy Martin argued that Brett had too much pine tar - a sticky substance used by batters for a better grip - on his bat. The umpires determined that the pine tar did indeed go higher than the 18-inch limit, and decided to call Brett out to end the game.

And here came George in an absolute rage, out of the dugout. He had to be restrained by practically everyone on the field who wasn't wearing a Yankee uniform.

That single scene is still remembered, and that's probably why Filip Bondy wrote, "The Pine Tar Game." What exactly did happen in that strange episode in baseball history?

Before Bondy gets to the game, though, he has some background to cover. The book goes through some history of both teams, eventually concentrating on the rivalry between the two teams during the late 1970s. The Yankees and Royals faced each other four times in five years in that era, and some of the finishes were memorable. There are plenty of tangents here, to the point where the book doesn't arrive on game day until after the halfway point of the book. Bondy's writing is knowledgeable and sharp, but there is a certain amount of "let's get to the good parts" feeling by that point.

The story headed into the incident described above, and chaos reigned. The Royals went to work researching the history of calls concerning illegal bats; Supreme Court arguments should receive such care. Kansas City management discovered that there were precedents to rule that the bat should have been removed from the game at some point, rather than affecting the contest's results. Pine tar, it seems, give the batter no advantage in terms of flight. Therefore, penalizing the Royals in that situation was a case of the punishment not fitting the crime. American League President Lee MacPhail agreed with the Royals, and ordered their protest upheld.

Baseball's rules are long and complex, supposedly ready to cover every imaginable situation. But every once in a while, something comes along that's not a neat fit and touches a few different areas of the rulebook in different ways. So the rulemakers go back to the drawing board and try to come up with an improvement ... until the next bizarre incident.

The Royals had to come back to New York a month later to finish the game, and Martin had one last trick up his sleeve. He saw that the game had different umpires than the one in July, so he ordered appeal plays at the bases - asking if Brett had touched the bases. That could have been more chaos, but American League publicity director Bob Fishel had thought of that. The umpires pulled out notarized statements from the original umpires, stating that Brett had indeed touched the bases. The Yankees went down quietly in the bottom of the ninth, and took the loss.

Bondy does a good job of tracking down those involved in the situation. The comments of Brett and Gossage are particularly interesting as they look back. The two men didn't talk to each other much in their playing days, but they've become friendly now. Perhaps their election to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown calmed them down. When they can go there, they can visit Brett's bat from the game - behind some glass with other exhibits of baseball history.

A book-length treatment of this subject, may be more than most will want for this episode. The story goes off on a few tangents, such as stories about Rush Limbaugh and Roy Cohn. A long magazine article might have covered the subject well enough for most.

But this is still a good, professional job of storytelling, and moves along quickly. "The Pine Tar Game" should satisfying most people's curiosity about the incident quite nicely.

Three stars

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: Hardball Retrospective (2015)

By Derek Bain

I wonder if Derek Bain has seen the sun in the past few years.

He obviously has put a lot of work into his book, "Hardball Retrospective." It's 435 large pages, and he apparently didn't get much help putting it all together. It's obviously quite a piece of work, and he deserves a great deal of credit for his persistence.

As for the book itself, it's unique ... and will take some explaining first.

Bain went back through baseball history and assigned players to the team that originally signed them. That could include the draft or signings as free agents. Today that would mean international players; in the old days it would be straight signings or purchases from minor league teams. Rob Neyer once wrote a book that had the all-time best signings by position for each team in the majors; it's an interesting list.

Then, Bain magically outlaws trading in baseball and creates major-league rosters for each year. In other words, Nolan Ryan was a Met at the start, so he's placed on the Mets' roster - with the same statistics as he had elsewhere - for the next couple of decades plus. The rosters, by the way, aren't included here.

Then it's time to get out the calculators and computers. Win shares and wins above replacement are totaled for each team, and Bill James' Pythagorean records are calculated. Eventually, Bain came up with season records for each team from 1901 to 2013. I told you it was a lot of work. For example, if only signed players were included, the best team in the American League in 2004 would have been ... the Cleveland Indians. The Boston Red Sox would have gone only 87-75, perhaps because Manny Ramirez was an Indian and David Ortiz would have been a Mariner, instead of the actual 98-64.

Bain also takes the time to look at how teams have drafted over the years, and what clubs do a better job in drafting early and late.

Add it up, and there's plenty of interesting data here. The issue comes with how it is all presented. If you don't pay attention to advanced baseball statistics, this may send you running in the other direction. The book has many tables, numbers and anagrams.

If you can jump past that hurdle, there are several questions that come up along the way. The biggest is how it is presented. Much of the book is a team-by-team breakdown of the numbers, with comments of the highlights of some seasons. (Just asking: Why weren't the teams put in alphabetical order?) For example, Roger Maris' MVP seasons of 1960 and 1961 are mentioned, but in the Cleveland section since that's where he started his career. A question follows - would Maris have duplicated those statistics in Cleveland, in a different ballpark and with different teammates? Tough to say. If he didn't hit 61 homers in 1961, as seems likely, he probably wouldn't have been the MVP either.

That made many of the team comments a little irrelevant, even if they are designed as a "what if?". I think there was a better way to structure the book, by concentrating on the "revised" year-by-year standings. It seems like you could have a lot more fun with that. Interestingly, Bain has started to write up some of those very yearly reviews for websites; a quick search will turn them up.

The other possible flaw with this is that we don't see a year-by-year roster, so we don't know what goes into the year-by-year statistics. Does every player who had more than a cup of coffee in the majors in a given year get assigned to a team? What happens if a roster had 30 such contributors in a given year? (There is a bottom in terms of plate appearances and batters faced, so that teams who don't have many players contributing to the numbers - think expansion teams - aren't counted.) And what happens if, say, five San Francisco Giants outfield "originals" all have big years in the same season? It wouldn't seem fair to credit them all to the Giants, since they couldn't all play at once and some statistics would have to suffer. This issue should have been explained.

"Hardball Retrospective," then, is a difficult book to rate. The concept and effort are fine; it could have been executed in a more interesting way. On the other hand, there's a simple test to determine whether you should buy it if you are a baseball fan. Take a look at the publication, or at least check out the online articles. If you have an interest in it, you'll know right away. My guess is that this will fit a small but appreciate niche in the baseball-loving audience.

Three stars

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review: The Phantom Punch (2015)

By Rob Sneddon

The most unlikely place for a heavyweight boxing championship match is no doubt Shelby, Montana. Jack Dempsey took on Tommy Gibbons in 1923 in a town that was essentially a collection of railroad crossings in Big Sky Country. A stadium was constructed for the bout, the fight was held (Dempsey won), the stadium came down, and a few people left with some money. The site is now partially occupied by a Burger King. I've been there; it (the location of the fight, not the Burger King) was odd then and it was odd now.

The second-most unlikely place for a heavyweight boxing championship match just might be Lewiston, Maine. Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston to retain the title in an unlikely finish.

"The Phantom Punch" is the story of that unique event, when an odd set of circumstances put one of the jewels of the sporting calendar in a small town in Maine.

And after reading the book, you might come to the same conclusion that I did. This is a movie, waiting to be written and filmed.

The story is irresistible. Cassius Clay had just knocked out Sonny Liston in 1964, and prompted changed his name to Muhammad Ali to reflect his religious viewpoints. America at that point knew it was scared of Liston, a man not unfamiliar with the nation's law enforcement system. He was something of "The Boogie Man" to many. But some Americans preferred that image to the one portrayed by Ali at the time, as he had joined the Black Muslims. As a result, no one was too anxious to try to host the rematch. When Ali had an operation for a hernia just before that second bout between the men, it gave forces in Boston time to come up with enough power to ban it from that Massachusetts city.

The date for the rematch was set, but where should be held? Maine promoter Sam Michael stepped up and offered an arena in Lewiston. Since the backers were more interested in pay-per-view sales than attendance at the bout itself, the offer was accepted.

It's tough to imagine what Lewiston must have been like in the days around the fight. It was a small, almost all white, working-class town that had seen tough times. Suddenly, two of the most famous black men in the world turn up for the fight. The dynamics are fascinating, and the book is at its best when describing what went on. For example, Liston - who had a weak spot for kids - spent a morning at an elementary school on a night's notice. He didn't just visit someone's son (who had asked for the visit), but made the rounds of every room in the school. According to all, Liston couldn't have been nicer, and is still well-regarded in Lewiston for his behavior.

Then there's the fight itself, which instantly became legendary. With rumors of fixes and murder attempts everywhere, Liston was knocked down by a punch that a lot of people at ringside didn't even see - hence the title of the book. The referee botched the count badly, and the fight resumed ... only to be stopped and declared over.

The movie could almost write itself - media members and celebrities arrive in Lewiston, Ali driving a bus down the main streets of the city, residents grabbing a case of soft drinks in order to pose as a delivery person and sneak into the arena.

"The Phantom Punch" probably lingers a bit much on the story of the promoter and the business deals involved in the fight. It's a little difficult to make that interesting. But author Rob Sneddon knows the boxing business, and makes a good case that Liston at that point in his life was no match for Ali under any circumstances. It's the background story, though, that supplies some charm.

It makes for a worthwhile, if a bit short, book. Let's hope Sneddon can sell the movie rights.

Four stars

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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Review: Two Hours (2015)

By Ed Caesar

Every once in a great while, a magic number comes along in track and field that seems to capture the public's imagination.

Back in the 1950s, the number was four, as in four minutes. Could someone run a mile in under four minutes? Some thought it impossible, but Roger Bannister showed everyone that it could be done. Then, with the psychological barrier gone, others followed in his footsteps, so to speak. High school athletes were breaking the number by the 1960s.

That brings us to what might be the next magic number, two, as in two hours. Could someone run a marathon - 26 miles, 385 yards - in less than two hours? We're getting closer.

That's the subject for Ed Caesar's very good book, appropriately named "Two Hours." More than that, the story covers the state of men's marathon running in the world at this point in time.

Caesar does it for the most part through the eyes and legs of Geoffrey Mutai, a Kenyan runner. He is best known for running the Boston Marathon of 2011 is 2 hours, 3 minutes and 2 seconds. It wasn't recognized as a world record because of the downhill nature of the Boston course, but it was still a very quick trip by foot over more than 26 miles. Caesar obviously spent a great deal of time talking with Mutai about what life for a world-class marathoner is like. Mutai did a good job of describing it, even if English is his third language.

Caesar deals with other issues as well. One of the great mysteries of distance running is that most of the world's best runners for long distances come from the same region in Kenya. Even though this sort of fact seems ripe for scientific study, no one has come up with a particularly good reason why it happens. Is there something in the gene pool? Diet? Altitude? Relative poverty? A combination of all of them? We're working on it.

Then there's the matter of drug use, which has been discussed for the most part in whispers. Certainly when there's a mix of athletes coming from poverty, life-changing sums of money to be won, and available performance-enhancing (if illegal) drugs, then there will be a temptation by some to cheat. Some users have been caught, but suspicions remain.

Still, it's the 1:59:59 marathon that draws us in. The current is less than three minutes away from that number, but the arithmetic is more daunting than you might think. After all, a current world-record holder would have to run more than six seconds per mile faster to break two hours. That's quite daunting, even for the world's best.

Caesar, a freelance writer with a number of impressive credits, obviously put in his homework here. He went to Africa to watch training sessions, and attended the biggest races in the world. Caesar also has a nice way with words. A runner doesn't just increase his lead, he stretches the margin "like a torn shirt."

This isn't the type of book that will reel in the casual reader who goes for a jog every once in a while. There are a few sections that are necessary but a little less than compelling. Even so, "Two Hours" offers a fine overview of the sport at its highest level. It's an impressive literary effort.

Four stars

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Review: The Game (2015)

By Jon Pessah

At the start of 2015, Rob Manfred took over as baseball commissioner from Bud Selig, thus ending an eventful run of more than 20 years.

It's a natural time, then, to look back on that era. That is the primary goal of Jon Pessah, who takes on the job in full with "The Game."

And when I say in full, I mean in full. Pessah checks in with about 600 pages of text, with a long list of interviews and other sources for material.

That's a little overwhelming, but almost all of it is interesting.

Selig took over the job under unusual circumstances. Fay Vincent was his predecessor, but the baseball owners - also known as his bosses - thought that Vincent kept forgetting who was paying his salary. That independence cost Vincent his job.

But who should replace him? Selig, who owned the Milwaukee Brewers at the time, seemed to be something of a consensus-builder in the owner's ranks. He was given the job on an interim basis, an appointment that eventually became permanent to the tune of a couple of decades.

It was, as baseball fans know, a lively time. The 1994 World Series was cancelled due to labor issues, but the sport rebounded to set records in attendance and revenues. Selig deserves some of the credit for that, even if he and other members of baseball management turned a blind eye to the increasing use of steroids by those in the sport. Selig even is shown to have tried to rewrite history on that last subject, changing his public statements on what he knew and when he knew it.

If that weren't enough to fill a book, and it probably was, Pessah made the decision to add a large subplot to the story. During that period of time, the New York Yankees were sometimes hated, sometimes loved, usually winners, and never boring. For the most part, George Steinbrenner took care of that last part while he was still in charge of the team. Steinbrenner may have been the world's worst boss at times, and whether the team's results justified his behavior probably depends on the reader's point of view. But our fascination with his actions remain strong, even a few years after his death.

The stories of Selig and the Yankees run concurrently here, and naturally overlap once in a while. Still, it's easy to wonder whether Pessah would have been better off writing two different books.

What's in this big book, though, is frequently fascinating. The story delights in putting the reader on the scene of events, whether it's in a meeting room among owners, in labor negotiations, or even with movers and shakers as they hear about the attacks on 9/11. There's plenty of "inside stuff," such as details on Joe Torre's relationship with other members of the Yankee organization (it was rocky), to put the events of that era in perspective.

In addition, it's great to have all of the events of this time period put into chronological order. Some developments in the steroid scandals came out immediately, but others dribbled out well after the fact. For example, the government's seizure of drug testing records - held to be illegal years later - didn't receive much publicity at the time.

Pessah doesn't shy away from jumping to some conclusions here. He thinks Selig was a little too consumed with his legacy to act correctly in some cases. And, inevitably at this point, Alex Rodriguez takes a bit of a pounding. Most of the time, he seems to be on the right track.

"The Game" can be a little overwhelming, and it's easy to wonder if the Yankees' story was a bit overtold. But it's hard to argue that all of this didn't deserve to be read somewhere. Baseball fans seeking a good look at the recent past would be well served to dive into this one.

Four stars

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Monday, June 15, 2015

Review: Split Season: 1981 (2015)

By Jeff Katz

The author of the book "Split Season: 1981," has another job. Jeff Katz, it seems, is the mayor of Cooperstown, N.Y. If that doesn't put a smile on your face for a moment, you're on the wrong blog.

Hizzoner already has one book to his credit, the story of the Kansas City Athletics in the days when they traded the stars to the New York Yankees for basically the Yankees' leftover scraps from the dinner table. The former day trader has raised the stakes here by taking on the story of an entire calendar year, and he covers it nicely.

For those older than, say, 45, the 1981 season was unique. It was the first "mid-course correction" from the path of free agency that the sport entered after the 1976 season with the Peter Seitz decision and the ensuing collective agreement between players and owners. The players saw their salaries go up in the years after free agency, while the owners and their representatives complained about increased costs.

The players were ready to strike in 1980 over a proposal to introduce compensation into the system, something that would have restricted movement from team to team. The two sides agreed on everything but compensation in talks about a collective bargaining agreement in the summer of that year, and agreed to study the matter together for a while. Sadly, the two sides remained entrenched in those decisions, with little actual bargain taking place for months.

By 1981, a walkout seemed likely, and the players used a tactic that hadn't been unveiled before - the midseason strike. That way, the players already had some paychecks in the bank, and the owners were looking at missing games in the summer when crowds were bigger. The Summer Game took much of that summer off. There were the usual legal moves that comes with the territory, as well as a variety of combinations of negotiators as everyone searched for a solution. Finally, the two sides came up with a settlement - a compensation plan that was so bad and ineffective for reducing costs that the owners dropped it the first chance they had.

Katz does his best work here on the strike, having talked to many of the principals involved and doing good research. The settlement really did mean that free agency was here to stay, and thus the story has some historical impact. It's valuable to have the tale all in one place. One warning for what it's worth: Katz is decidedly on the side of the players, as owners' negotiator Ray Grebey and commissioner Bowie Kuhn get pounded here. They probably deserve it. It's difficult for anyone to be on the owners' side in this one, especially because they had been so arrogant in the past and didn't handle the new relationship with the players well. Still, the author's point of view does come across loud and clear, which is worth noting if you prefer your history to be a little more even-handed.

The rest of the coverage of the year features the unusual season, split into two parts. The story has a little trouble generating much momentum, in part because the season never did have much momentum. Fernando Valenzuela really got off to a remarkable start with the Dodgers; it's easy to wonder what might have happened to him had the season been played in its entirety.

However, Katz's tale gets back on track with the postseason, which features fewer moving parts and no distractions. The Yankees contributed with their usual hijinks of the era; the stories of disharmony mixed with victory remain as astonishing now as they were then. We even got a good World Series between two very high-profile teams.

Most of the value of "Split Season" will come from the strike coverage, but those looking for a quick lesson in the season itself will find this satisfying. Let's hope there's more to come from this author, assuming he can get away from village board meetings every so often.

And, by the way - if Katz has higher political aspirations, he'll be happy to know that the prime minister of Canada wrote a very good hockey history book last year. Maybe sports books have become a launching pad for political hopes.

Four stars

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Friday, June 5, 2015

Review: The Secret of Golf (2015)

By Joe Posnanski

There's a certain aura of heavyweight boxing champion that surrounds the world's best golfer, at least to the public. Usually there's one player who is the person to beat in a given major tournament.

This might have started with Arnold Palmer, who came along in the late 1950s just as the television age was arriving and the sport was exploding. They didn't call Arnold "the King" for nothing. But soon someone came along, younger and better. Jack Nicklaus proved to be tough to push off the mountain. Plenty of books have been written about the dynamics involving Palmer and Nicklaus.

Jack's reign was a long one, and he had some challengers over the years who eventually fell by the wayside. It took until Tom Watson came along in the late 1970s before there was a new No. 1.

The trees needed to chronicle that change of command have mostly stayed in the ground, but finally we have a book on the subject - and it's a good one. "The Secret of Golf" is about their relationship.

Joe Posnanski is the author here, and he's well suited for the job. He got to know Watson when he worked in Watson's home of the Kansas City area. Posnanski's first two books about the Reds of the 1970s and Buck O'Neil were nostalgic and sweet. Then he started working on a book on Joe Paterno, and, well, you probably know what happened to the ending of that story - an unexpected curve ball that was anything but sweet.

Here Posnanski is back writing about mythical figures from the past, who have the ability now to put their relationship into perspective. The book mostly focuses on Watson, who was a little unheralded when he arrived on the PGA Tour but quickly became one of its most promising young players. His problem was, he couldn't close the sale at first. The phrase "you have to learn how to win" may not have been invented for Watson but it was close. Eventually, though, he figured things out and won eight major titles. The moment that torch was passed probably was the 1977 British Open, when Watson and Nicklaus played magnificent golf for four days and left the world's best golfers in their dust. And Watson won by a stroke. Winner, and new champion.

Watson stayed number one for quite a while, and some of the most interesting parts of the book deal with what Watson lost that title. His swing changed a little at the age of 35 or so, and he stopped drilling nearly impossible putts into holes at opportune times. Watson was still good, but rarely good enough to win. A side-effect comes across as unexpected - this golfer who had such discipline to hit practice balls until his hands bled, apparently had a little too much alcohol a little too often. It didn't help matters. Watson found his swing eventually and lost the desire to quench his thirst, but the putting stroke never came completely back.

The main story is divided into 18 holes, and between chapters is a short section devoted to a "secret" of golf as told by either Nicklaus or Watson. You may think you're reading a golf book at the beginning of these sidebars, but you may be reading about life in some cases. For example, when Watson hit a bad shot - these guys do hit bad shots once in a while, because golf is difficult - he tried to remember not to overcome it by trying to hit a spectacular shot. Watson preferred to hit a safe shot, get back in the fairway, make a par, and move on. There's something to be said for that approach to life - don't let the mistakes snowball.

Posnanski is always enjoyable to read, and here he makes the pages flow by quickly. It's not a long book, and it certainly doesn't take long to get through it. But the publication still feels fulfilling, along the lines of an extended short story.

Admittedly, stories about 1970s golfers aren't for everyone. Maybe someone will write a book about Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth like this someday, which today's 20-somethings will enjoy. But the publisher certainly had a thinking cap on when it decided to release "The Secret of Golf" within a couple of weeks of Father's Day. It's a fine June present for the older golfer on the gift list.

Four stars

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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Review: Jamaal Wilkes (2014)

By Jamaal Wilkes with Edward Reynolds Davis Jr.

Everything about basketball seemed to come easily to Jamaal Wilkes. At the least, it looked that way.

Wilkes always made it look so easy and smooth that his nickname was silk. He was an ideal team member throughout this career - worked hard on both ends of the floor, came through in the clutch, and was an ideal complement to those around him. If you wanted to sound like you knew basketball in those days, you'd say that Jamaal Wilkes was your favorite player.

It took a while, but Wilkes recently came out with her version of his career in "Jamaal Wilkes." (As you can see by the cover, it's a little difficult to figure out what exactly the title is - but more on that later.) It turns out plenty of hard work went into those seemingly effortless performances.

Wilkes' father was a pastor, mostly in Southern California, and his mother worked for the state. They had high standards, and they demanded that son Keith (he later changed his first name) follow them. He had a fine high school career, mixing great academics with superb basketball. Wilkes had his pick of colleges, and thought about the Ivy League for a while. However, there was a school down the road that featured good academics too, and the basketball education was unmatched.

Wilkes walked into the finest basketball program in the country, UCLA, which was led by one of the great coaches in history in John Wooden. The talent on the roster was overwhelming, starting with Bill Walton in those years before his knees became a major day-to-day concern. Once the Class of 1974 became eligible to play varsity ball, the Bruins were off. They didn't lose a game in their first two years, adding to the legacy of Wooden and the program. About the only thing that could stop UCLA was the odd injury (Walton was hurting and ineffective when the great 88-game winning streak came to an end) and boredom, and those two factors played a role in the Bruins losing in 1974.
Wilkes was a perfect sidekick to Walton on those teams, with his outside shooting, quickness and defensive effort. As you could imagine, Wilkes writes about Wooden and Walton a lot in the book, but gives the impression that he was a bit of a loner during those years. Therefore, there aren't a lot of great stories about those teams - simply lessons learned along the way and praise for his teammates and coaches.

Then it was on to the pros, as Wilkes landed with the Golden State Warriors. He was rookie of the year in 1975, and that team surprised everyone by winning the championship. Funny how titles seemed to follow Wilkes around. He became involved in a contract dispute there and soon jumped to the Los Angeles Lakers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, someone in the argument for best player ever, was waiting. What's more, Earvin "Magic" Johnson would be along shortly. The Lakers of the 1980s may have not been the most dominant team in history, but they might have been the most exciting team to watch. They didn't call that style of ball "Showtime" for nothing, and Wilkes was a big part of it.

The Lakers won championships in 1980 and 1982 with Wilkes playing a key role in both of them. Los Angeles also won in 1985, but Wilkes knew he was on the battered side by then. He won one more title in L.A., squeezed out a last season with the Clippers, and retired.

For those who simply want the story of a basketball player who didn't take any short cuts to success, this clearly fits that description. Still, it's fair to note a couple of good-sized flaws in the story.

First, there's not much drama here. Yes, yes, that's how his life went for the most part, and that can't be changed. But practically all sides of Wilkes' personal life go unmentioned here. A couple of personal tragedies are touched so lightly that it's easy to guess whether they should have been brought up in the first place. At the end, there's nothing in the book that indicates what Wilkes has been doing since he retired almost 30 years ago. Anyone reading this book is a fan of Wilkes, and the question "What's he doing now?" never gets answered.

Then  there's the problem of editing, and it's a good-sized one. Some names are misspelled along the way, such as those of Ernie DiGregorio and Jim McMillian. The book has some really striking typographical errors, such as Wilkes' university as "ULCA" and a reference to "John wooden." There are about three instances in which lightning came out as lightening, which is a big difference in meaning. The layout has some silly mistakes such as the odd indentation and line of space, and a cover page that makes it difficult to figure out the title. The book certainly could have used one more read by an outside editor to catch some of these items.

"Jamaal Wilkes" the book may have its flaws, but Jamaal Wilkes the basketball player was admirable - an opinion reinforced here. This publication goes by quickly and easily, and his many fans ought to enjoy it.

Three stars

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Review: Pedro (2015)

By Pedro Martinez and Michael Silverman

A complicated package, this man named Pedro Martinez.

He's part great athlete, part artist, part personality, part angry young man. There's no male equivalent for the word diva, but that would be Pedro - a brilliant talent who always had a little extra baggage surrounding him. He just pitched for a living and instead of singing at the Metropolitan Opera.

The various aspects of Martinez's personality are very much on display in his autobiography, "Pedro." That's what makes the book so interesting. It's hard to look away, even in retirement.

Pedro came out of the Dominican Republic to play baseball, following in the footsteps of brother Ramon. He was the little brother in age as well as size, and always was a little underestimated by scouts along the way. You can understand where that first chip on the shoulder came from. However, as one scout put it, he had a heart as big as a lion, and that gave him the chance to shine at the sport's highest level.

That's not to say that Pedro ever forgot a slight. This book is evidence of that. He felt he didn't get a fair shot with the Dodgers, who traded him to the Expos for a player (Delino DeShields) whose career fell apart in no time at all. The deal is considered one of the worst in Dodger history. Martinez got a chance to be a starter in Montreal, and thrived. By 1997, Martinez was the National League Cy Young winner (18-6 record, 1.74 ERA), and it was obvious to everyone that the financially struggling Expos couldn't afford to keep him.

Pedro went off to Boston in a trade at that point, but he wasn't happy about it. Martinez wanted to cash in on his status as an elite pitcher. Then the Red Sox offered to make him the highest paid pitcher in baseball, and Pedro didn't need to go anywhere. Instead, he put together a couple of the greatest seasons in pitching history. Martinez was beyond brilliant in 1999 and 2000; he didn't play baseball, he put on performances. All of that was done while he was spending some time ignoring and/or hating his pitching coach, Joe Kerrigan, which is at best unusual.

Martinez always found a way to fuel his emotions. Get booed in Boston because of a rare poor outing? He wasn't going to do the fans any favors after that. Opposing players do something wrong in Pedro's eyes? Here comes a fastball at your back, pal. Indeed, he was involved in a lot of incidents over the years, and Pedro seems to remember every detail. Martinez's best-known incident might have been in the time in the 2003 playoffs when Yankees coach Don Zimmer came charging after him in a brawl between the teams, and Martinez gave him a little push - leading to the sight of a 72-year-old man tumbling to the ground. No one looked too good at that moment.

Martinez also had stretches where he became sick of the media for one reason or another and stopped talking to reporters. Those Yankee-Red Sox rivalries were overheated times all the way around, and Pedro's reaction here is at least understandable. Martinez, naturally, reviews the loss to the Yankees in Game Seven in 2003 - taking the blame instead of passing it to manager Grady Little for leaving him in too long - and revels in the World Series championship Boston won a year later.

By then, Martinez's skills had started to diminish, thanks in part to injuries. He wasn't the biggest of men, and he put a lot of abuse on that body over the years. Pedro went to the Mets as a free agent, where he eventually broke down physically. Martinez at least got to leave baseball from a big stage, as he pitched his final game in the 2009 World Series in Yankee Stadium. He's going into the Hall of Fame this summer.

This book works quite well because Martinez is quite honest in his recap of his life to date. It's sort of like him throwing a fastball in his prime - here it is, see if you are good enough to handle it. English may have been a second language for Pedro, but he comes across very well and articulate here. Co-author Michael Silverman also interviewed several people from Pedro's life, and their quotes provide some good perspective about what was going on at a specific time. By the way, there are a few typos of names along the way; let's hope they are fixed for the paperback edition.

Your opinion of Pedro Martinez after reading "Pedro" probably won't change much. The talent was overwhelming, the personality was never boring. All he asks that you accept him on his terms, and that seems like a fair bargain.

Four stars

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Friday, May 22, 2015

Review: Every Town is a Sports Town (2015)

By George Bodenheimer with Donald T. Phillips

"Every Town is a Sports Town" is billed as appealing to sports fans, business readers, and corporate executives alike. That's a rather diverse group, even for allowing for the fact that the business types have been known to read the sports page first at times. So let's take a look at what we've got here, and see where it fits.

George Bodenheimer wasn't an original at ESPN, but he could more or less see or at least learn about the creation first-hand. He joined the company in 1981, less than two years after it had started. Bodenheimer was employee no. 150, for the record.

ESPN had grown a bit from the first days when no one was too sure what they were doing and where they were going. They were the first to start a 24-hour cable channel dedicated to sports, offering a modest challenge to the status quo in broadcasting. The big three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, were still in charge, but this at least was an interesting gamble.

Bodenheimer arrived on the scene, doing whatever his boss at the moment thought necessary. One of his first responsibilities was to drive from Bristol, Conn., the corporate headquarters, to the Hartford/Springfield airport to pick up Dick Vitale. You might think that driving Vitale somewhere would be an exercise in silence in the car for everyone but Vitale, but they actually struck up a good relationship in those drives.

Eventually, Bodenheimer moved up from driver to a variety of positions of the business world. The company was small enough at the beginning so that young talent was rewarded pretty quickly, and new ideas were accepted readily. After all, on some level they were making it up as they went along. After some time out in the field, working with affiliates, etc., Bodenheimer eventually came back to Bristol.

It turns out he had a pretty good seat for the development of the company there. The author goes through the highlights, including such events as the addition of Sunday (and later Monday) Night Football, ESPN2, College GameDay, the X Games, the merger with Disney, SportsCentury, 30 for 30, and so on. Viewers - come to think of it, maybe customers would be a better word with all the platforms ESPN uses these days - will remember those developments.

Eventually, Bodenheimer became the president of ESPN. He certainly comes across here as a good boss, taking pride in a personal relationship with all employees and accepting ideas no matter what the source. It's probably not a coincidence that ESPN had a long run of success under his tenure. And when things went a little bad, he rolled up his sleeves and figured out a way to fix them.

Now to the difficult part - what sort of book is it? I'm not so sure sports fans will love this effort. Many of the developments in ESPN mentioned above have been covered in other places, so there's not much new in that sense. Besides, Bodenheimer doesn't have that many stories about the on-air personalities that can draw a sports fan in.

Business types might be able to take a bit more out of this. This is a success story, after all, and it's instructive to see how ESPN reacted to situations over the years. Business books sometimes can get bogged down in anagrams and four-point plans for success. Luckily, Bodenheimer avoids that for the most part. Yes, there are sections devoted to how ESPN came up with a mission statement - my eyes gloss over when I see such things - but mostly it's how he dealt with real-world situations. It's fair to say this is a mostly positive look at the ride at the network. Even the failures seem to be handled properly. The people Bodenheimer encountered along the way come off well here.

"Every Town is a Sports Town," then will work for those seeking the details of an impressive business achievement - how ESPN conquered the sports world. If you are in that narrow classification, you'll enjoy it and maybe get a few good tips along the way.

Three stars

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