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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