Saturday, December 31, 2016

Review: Best American Sports Writing 2016

Edited by Rick Telander

It's year 26 for the annual edition of "The Best American Sports Writing" series. Not only have I read all of them, but I've reviewed several of them on this blog.

Sometimes it's difficult to come up with a fresh approach to the review, which can happen in a series of anthologies. But in this case, the angle to take here became apparent pretty quickly.

Translation - the editor really does matter in these books.

Rick Telander gets his turn at putting the book's contents together. He's well-qualified for the job, serving as a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. Telander established a good reputation nationally for his work at Sports Illustrated, and his book "Heaven is a Playground" is considered one of the best books of its kind.

Telander sets out the ground rules for his selections in his introduction. He points out that he is interested in entertaining writing, first and foremost. Then he adds, "It's hard for any account of a big sports event or a much-watched game to make it into these pages. Those uber-stories ... have been told and retold in too many places to be original anymore." Telander then writes that he'd rather read about a Chinese student's bike-ride across America than about Tom Brady or Lance Armstrong.

So with that warning, we're off. The 27 selections in the book are all well done, so Telander has followed his own instructions well. I can't say I completely finished every entry - it's a hard sell to get me to read anything on UFC/MMA - but that's more my problem than the writer's in question.

Still, I found myself asking a question as I went through the book. Would this story normally appear in the sports section of a newspaper, or in a sports magazine? It's fair to say the answer on some of the articles would be "probably not" - at least more often as compared to other books in the series.

Which ones? Let's see, there's a tale of two people who a variety of personal problems who open up a bicycle shop. There's a victim of the Boston Marathon bombing, saying farewell to her leg. A teen who uses skateboarding to grow up a little. A hiker on the Appalachian Trail who actually is running, not walking, away from big trouble. That Chinese student who goes for a long bike ride. And perhaps a few others, depending on your definition of sports. Reaction gets personal - in the sense that it's tough for me to get too enthusiastic over any story about snooker, fishing or rugby - even though I've got enough faith in the book's premise to try then all.

There are plenty of more traditional sports stories that would fit in with the classic definition of best sports writing. A piece on Ted Williams' daughter wouldn't draw some in without the baseball connection, but it's really a fascinating look at father-daughter relationships. A story about a woman rower is told in a unique and honest way. There's an article on Africans who come to America in search of basketball scholarships, only to be lost in the shuffle. I particularly liked a story on the Cal Tech basketball team's struggles, and how author Jim Dent (I've read a couple of his sports books) succumbed to some demons.

The 2016 book isn't typical of the series, I guess, so I'll be interested to see how the reaction is. I remember Jane Leavy took a similar approach to her picks in 2011, and it didn't go over as well as some others. But those who open the first page with in an open mind will find some rewarding material that is to their liking.

Four stars

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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Review: A Spark (2016)

By John M. Davidson

This isn't a full-fledged review of a book. It's more of a heads-up that a book is out there. As I understand it, people sometimes buy gifts at this time of the year.

In 2015, the South Park High School football team had the best season in its history. No team from the City of Buffalo had ever won a Section VI title (meaning the region around Buffalo) in history, let alone gone on from there. South Park did that and much more. The Sparks won a state championship.

The coach of that team was Tim Delaney, who took a few bows for breaking through that barrier - although, frankly, he probably would have rather been watching film of old games. Delaney said that he was reminded of the championship just about every single day of the offseason.

So here's another reminder. John M. Davidson has written a biography of Delaney called "A Spark." That's a fair title, since Delaney went to South Park High School and now teaches and coaches there. But he also took a match to the football program and ignited it so that it could reach new heights.

After a handful of chapters concerning Delaney's youth, the book starts following the many twists and turns of his career. He's bounced around a bit over the years, jumping from youth programs to high schools. Football coaches at all levels tend to lead nomadic lives, but it's surprising just how much that applies to high schools too. But when a head coach switches jobs for whatever reason, he often reaches back into his past for friends made along the way.

Eventually, Delaney worked his way up to being head coach at South Park. That's not a plum job as these things go. There's usually not enough money to support the program fully, and the number of kids with family or personal issues is large. Coaches like Delaney often find themselves buying their players a fast meal, because otherwise those players would go hungry. As you might guess, no one goes into high school coaching to make money. This isn't an aspect of the job that receives any of the publicity, so it's probably the best part of the story.

Slowly, Delaney built up the program so that good athletes passed through and thrived in the system. It all paid off in 2015, when the Sparks (so named because the school is located on South Park Ave., or as the street sign outside it reads, 'S. Park') ran through the opposition in a series of dramatic wins. The highlight might have been a semifinal win over Maine-Endwell, which had won the previous 62 games. ESPN's documentary on Maine-Endwell was a little spoiled by the surprise win by the Sparks, but that wasn't South Park's problem.

A book like this has different standards than one that is produced for a mass audience. It's designed to be a nice keepsake of a memorable time. Author Davidson makes a couple of decisions that are at least open for question. There are no details of the games or mentions of players' names along the way, keeping the focus completely on Delaney. The games were so exciting, though, that it really would have been nice for many to relive them here. Davidson also uses very few quotes in the story, even though he talked to many people about the season. That puts a little distance between reader and story that didn't need to be there.

No matter. "A Spark" does its job well enough. I would think anyone with connections to the coach or team will enjoy it, and in that sense the book is a nice little tribute. We should always celebrate such efforts.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Review: The Perfect Pass (2016)

By S.C. Gwynne

Football fans probably have noticed a trend in their favorite game during the past several years: some teams are throwing the ball constantly.

Quarterbacks have smashed records for completions and yardage on all levels of the game. The days when a coach worships the concepts of time of possession and establishing the run are dying. Offenses love to cram as many plays as possible into four quarters. It's no wonder college games can last over four hours.

Every once in a while, it's important to ask "How did we get here?" about such transformational developments in any part of life. That's essentially what S.C. Gwynne has done in his book "The Perfect Pass." He has discovered the key to this underreported story, and it's more charming than you'd think.

We like our geniuses to be a little eccentric at times, and that certainly describes Hal Mumme. He loved football, loved to play it in high school and college, and loved to think about it the rest of the time. Mumme worked his way up the coaching ladder when he finished his playing career, becoming an offensive coordinator in Texas El Paso.

That's where he got fired in 1986. So Mumme started over, at Copperas Cove High School in Texas, and tried to do it all over again. But this time, he was going to do it his way - by throwing the football around. And throwing it some more.

Mumme had seen other teams emphasize passing, such as Brigham Young University and Bill Walsh's San Francisco 49ers. The high school coach took some ideas from both places, and added a few wrinkles of his own. Suddenly, Copperas Cove - a traditional doormat - was competitive for the first time in years despite playing bigger schools with better athletes.

That eventually led to a stop at Iowa Wesleyan College of Mount Pleasant, Iowa. If it wasn't the worst football program in America at that point, it was close to it. Mumme took the head coaching job and found a kindred spirit in Mike Leach, who had a number of interests headed by coaching football. Mumme recruited a bunch of players who generally weren't wanted elsewhere, stopped ordering stretching and sprints during practices, and installed his offensive system. Again, Mumme's team won more games than they had any right to win.

Eventually, Iowa Wesleyan got tired of Mumme and his ambition for a bigger and better program, and the coach was told to be on his way. The road led to Valdosta State, where his offense put up astounding passing numbers and his teams could stay with almost any opponent. He stayed five years, and then moved up to Kentucky - a traditional bottom-feeder in the Southeastern Conference. But after some reasonable success, Mumme had a bad season partly due to graduation losses in 2000, and the athletic director who hired him retired. Some recruiting violations by staff members led to Mumme's firing in 2001. He's had other stops at small colleges since then, and now coaches at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi.

Author S.C. Gwynne obviously has plenty of writing talent, having been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He sticks to people and their personalities here for the most part, which is an excellent idea. There are some X's and O's along the way, which may intimidate a few but are probably necessary to tell the story adequately. Besides, most people who pick up a book like this in the first place will handle the technical matters smoothly. The pages go by very quickly, a good sign.

Mumme always has carried a conviction that football should be simple and fun, resembling a touch football game in the backyard. According to Gwynne, it sounds like Mumme's professional problems usually have popped up when he's dealt with others who think more conventionally - on and off the field. Mumme is much more at home with a blackboard or paper, charting the next play.

Football offenses always have tried to get one step of defenses, only to be reeled in eventually. We'll have to see if Mumme's work continues to catch on in the years to come. In the meantime, "The Perfect Pass" is an excellent way to find out where this latest wave of strategy came from, and where the sport might be going.

Four stars

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review: Olympic Team Members from Western New York (2016)

By Denny Lynch and Ron Carr

It's easy to admire people like Denny Lynch and Ron Carr. They just won't take no for an answer when it comes to sports information.

Lynch, a former football executive, and Carr, a teacher in Western New York, have a connection to the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. That organization is saluting the great athletes of the area's past.

Lynch frequently asked people about local athletes who had made it to the Olympic Games. This did not come up just when Olympic competition was taking place, but at any point in the calendar. He quickly discovered that no such list of area athletes who had taken part in the Games existed.

And so, he and Carr started to make one. The first 50 were pretty easy, but then it got tough. But the two kept at it, and the resulting list of more than 200 names with Olympic connections has been turned into a short book called "Olympic Team Members from Western New York."

This covers every sport, winter or summer, that has been part of the Olympics over the years. It also required a great deal of work. You don't do something like this without a large degree of curiosity, as well as a love of the subject. Those qualities show up nicely in the book.

Every athlete from Western New York who made it to the Olympics receive a paragraph here, as well as a photograph when possible. Without counting, hockey is the leader in local connections because of the contributions of the Buffalo Sabres. Even so, there are a surprising amount of rowers who have taken part in the international competition over the years. And who knew there was a woman with local ties who had such a distinguished career in judo? I hope Grace Jividen comes up in future discussions about the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.

Lynch and Carr don't overlook those on the edge of the Games either. Administrators get their due here, as do those who just missed qualifying. That makes it even more complete.

"Olympic Team Members from Western New York" is, at its heart, a reference book. You can read the biographies in a short period of time, and you should, but it's nice to have something like this available. I plan on placing it in my bookshelf, and it will stay there for a long time - only to come out when I need a fact or two about a specific area. It's nice to have such a valuable resource available.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review: Playing Through the Whistle (2016)

By S.L. Price

The subtitle of “Playing Through the Whistle” is “Steel, Football, and an American Town,” and there’s a picture of a high school football stadium. Yes, there’s plenty of football in the book, which is probably why you’ll find it in the sports department of the bookstore.

But don’t be fooled by that. This is a story that could feel right at home in the American history, business or urban studies sections of the store.

It’s the tale of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, and it’s fascinating. I don't expect to read a better book this year.

Sports Illustrated writer S.L. Price, one of the magazine’s best writers, takes a long, thorough look at this very American city. Aliquippa is located about 20 miles north of Pittsburgh, right along the Ohio River. Once upon a time, when the Pittsburgh area was famous for making steel, Aliquippa did well. J&L Steel took land on the river for its facilities that eventually stretched for more than seven miles.

The company employed several thousand workers at its peak. The jobs were often difficult and taxing, producing burns and health problems for some employees and pollution for the region. Few seemed to like the work. But for those who had a high school education or less, and for those who had just come over from foreign countries in search of the American Dream, it was steady employment and a chance to support a family.

By the end of World War II, the rest of the world’s industrial production was in ruins - leaving American factories triumphant. Times were good in places like Aliquippa in the post-war period.

Along the way, football became embedded in the DNA of the region. We associate quarterbacks with Western Pennsylvania, as players such as Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Jim Kelly reached superstardom in the NFL. But the definitive player from that part of the world just might be Mike Ditka. He was a subtle as a forearm to the face on and off the field, and he reinvented the tight end position in reaching the Hall of Fame. Yes, he was from Aliquippa. Football games became a gathering place for the town, a source of local pride.

Little did we know by the late 1950s that the seeds for the demise of Aliquippa has already been sown. Companies invested in new factories overseas, and they used the latest technology while J&L was still relying on its 1903 equipment for the most part. By 1959, America imported more steel than it exported for the first time. Still, profits were strong. Labor kept asking management for more money and benefits, and management kept labor peace by accepting many demands. In other words, neither side had much foresight.

It all created a bubble that was waiting to burst, and burst it did in the early 1980s when portions of the steel mill started to close in rapid succession. Some people couldn’t find jobs and moved out. The ones who stayed were in a town with a declining tax base with crime and drug use rising quickly.

The football team became one of the few rallying points, still beating bigger schools and winning some titles, but even that aspect of town life wasn’t immune to the pressures of the situation. The Quips won some championships with such future pros as Ty Law and Darrelle Revis, but were sometimes hit with racial divides and funding problems. Ditka and Revis in particular have been generous with time and money in giving something back to their hometown, but it’s a difficult battle.

Price, who first came to town to write a long magazine feature on team and town about five years ago, obviously spent a lot of time getting to know Aliquippa. He went through the history books and newspaper archives to find how it grew and declined over the years. Price also talked to several former and current residents about why they left or why they stayed. And he talked to coaches about what it’s like to try to keep a high school team together when society’s problems leak into the schools, as they always do. Price has said that he was astonished by how open everyone was in Aliquippa to him in telling the stories.

About the only drawback to the book is that Price goes into great detail outlining some of the incidents that have taken place in the past 35 years or so, including murders, drug-related violence and other illegal activity. The names can be a little tough to follow after a while, but the message about the problems there certainly come through loud and clear.

There are plenty of towns like Aliquippa out there, areas that have never recovered from the time when America stopped making a lot of things. What’s more, no one has many good ideas on what to do about it. A handful of people make it out of such places through football, but several athletes with just as much ability got sidetracked into an abyss. “Playing Through the Whistle” reviews the life of a town that we’ve tried to forget; Price shows us that we need to remember it, and do something about it.

Five stars

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Review: Chasing the Dream (2016)

By Ted Starkey

The idea of minor league sports has a oddly romantic side to it. Young players, out on their own for the first time, try to climb the ladder of their chosen sport in attempt for professional fame and fortune.

It should be mentioned that of the four big sports in America, only two - baseball and hockey - have well-established and durable minor leagues. Basketball has a developmental league, but that doesn't have much charm to it.

Several authors have tried their luck at portraying life in baseball's minor leagues. It's a long ladder there, as players have to go up four or five rungs to reach the majors. Meanwhile, hockey - with its one or two rungs - has more or less gone unexplored in book form. Ted Starkey tries to change that in his book, "Chasing the Dream."

If there's one point to be made here by the author, it's that minor league hockey sure isn't what it used to be.

The definitive image might come from the movie "Slap Shot," featuring long bus rides, financial problems and fight-filled games. The bus rides are still around in the American Hockey League (the equivalent of AAA baseball), although the planes are used sometimes in a league that now goes coast to coast. But there's some stability in money matters now. That's because several NHL teams own their own minor-league affiliates.

Some old-school owners are still around in places like Hershey and Syracuse. You can pick them out because they feel a little more pressure to win. The NHL-owned teams basically are there to produce players for the big club and don't care that much about winning. So they are less likely to have a few quality veterans around who might help get points in the standings as opposed to a marginal prospect.

As for the fights, those have been on the decline for about 10-12 years. The AHL has slightly more per game than the National Hockey League, but most of the goons are out of work these days. It seems hockey players on all professional levels have to play hockey. Note: This may be a good thing, depending on personal preferences.

The story of the current American Hockey League is professionally told by Starkey. He talked to plenty of people in many different cities, and there's little doubt that the picture he paints is an accurate, more-than-full-enough one. Even so, there's something missing here - and it's fun.

Yes, the people involved either like their jobs in pro hockey or love it. But this comes off as a business story for the most part. Some of the points of the book get repeated if phrased in a different way. The one exception to the rule might be the chapter on travel. With the Eastern teams often relying on a bus to get to the next game - in the dead of winter, no less - sometimes things don't go well. They are a lot more fun in hindsight than they were at the time, and the participants almost consider it a badge of honor to have gone through them. It was my favorite part of the book.

"Chasing the Dream," then, is on the dry side, but it's relatively quick to read and will satisfy those curious about the subject. That probably isn't a huge audience, but I'm not sure if there was a way to increase it given the subject matter.

Three stars

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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Review: Unbreakable (2016)

By Mike Brophy and Todd Denault

The subtitle of "Unbreakable" is "Wayne Gretzky and the Story of Hockey's Greatest Record."

Mike Brophy and Todd Denault can make a good case for that.

Scoring records are usually the glamour item of any sport's history book, and the changing length and conditions of seasons over the years makes it difficult to really compare apples and oranges in many cases.

But in hockey, one of the most memorable moments came when Maurice Richard scored 50 goals in 50 games. No one could duplicate it for almost 40 years, until Mike Bossy did it in 1981.

Then Gretzky came along, and did it in 39 in 1981-82. Preposterous. Even in an era where goals came easily for a variety of reasons, that was an amazing accomplishment.

Brophy and Denault have jumped into the idea that there's a book to be written about that chase by Gretzky for the record. They certainly did their best to make it work.The authors went through all sorts of sources to collect information, including finding facts in books, newspaper articles, magazines, etc. They interviewed some of the participants, including Gretzky himself. Therefore, the book certainly gets the story about how it happened across.

From there, the question becomes - is it interesting?

There's an inherent contradiction in telling the story, one by one, of those 50 games. Brophy and Denault wanted to show how it was done, but the games themselves - now more than 30 years old - don't really matter to the story that much. We're interested in Gretzky, but a lot of other information about the Oilers' season comes along for the ride. In other words, it's very difficult to make the games themselves worth reading about. That's a huge drawback.

The authors do try to provide some background of some of the Oilers players and front office members, as well as reviewing some of the opposing teams. It helps a bit, but a good percentage of the material may make the mind wander at some point.

It's tough to say if there was a better way to approach the idea of this book; I have my doubts. Gretzky's many fans certainly will find this a good source of information if they want to know how the legendary player set this particular record (one of many on his resume). Others, though, might not find "Unbreakable" worth their time.

Two stars

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Friday, November 11, 2016

Review: Belichick and Brady (2016)

By Michael Holley

It seems that as long as the New England Patriots keep winning, Michael Holley will keep writing books about them.

My guess, offered from a resident from another AFC East city which has seen the Patriots come to town and beat up on the locals, is that he'll have at least one more book to write until Bill Belichick and/or Tom Brady retire.

In the meantime, we have "Belichick and Brady" to read. It's Holley's third book with a strong connection to the Patriots over the last several years. He even calls it a trilogy in the acknowledgments.

For those who haven't been paying attention over the last decade and a half or so, Belichick and Brady have been the two irreplaceable parts of the Patriots' impressive run of success over the years. Belichick was a top assistant coach before moving to Cleveland, where he only lasted a few years. Some good assistants never made the transition to head coach, but New England gave him one more chance to succeed - even paying the Jets off in draft choices for the chance to hire him. You'd have to say it worked out pretty well for the franchise. Belichick comes across here as someone who makes sure that his players are always well prepared, and that that also are always a little uncomfortable with their job status.

And part of the reason why the team has done so well is that Belichick took a chance on a quarterback from Michigan in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft. Brady worked out pretty well. The receivers, running backs and linemen have come and gone over the years, but the offense has kept clicking and the wins have kept coming. Brady has been the constant, and he's certainly in the argument as the greatest quarterback in history. Come to think of it, he might be winning it, depending on how you count.

The easy guess is that this is a book that centers on the two men in the title, and they certainly are key figures. But it's more of a history of the team during the past 16 years or so. Holley certainly put an effort into it. He's mined a variety of sources for information. That includes some interviews with retired players, who can provide some insight into what the two title characters are like behind the scenes. Newspaper, magazine and broadcast interviews are also mentioned.

But does this work in book form? That's a tough question to answer. It's a relatively easy read considering it checks in at almost 400 pages. But there are an awful lot of games and events covered here, which are difficult to make interesting from a perspective of years later. A little closer editing might have been helpful. In addition, if you are confused by Brady's court case and suspension involving deflated footballs, well, this won't help much. Holley seems to lean toward Brady's side of the story a bit.

"Belichick and Brady" probably will work well for those in New England who cheered through all of the big wins during this memorable era. That's fine. The rest of the audience might not be so enthusiastic.

Three stars

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Thursday, November 3, 2016

Review: Captain (2016)

By Darryl Sittler and Mike Leonetti

The Toronto Maple Leafs had plenty of glory in their almost 100-year history, although most of it was in the first half of that time period. There are some championship banners hanging around the Air Canada Centre; they are just a little dusty.

Oddly, though, that tradition usually means that some iconic figures have put on the team's sweater. The Maple Leafs have fallen a little short in that area, at least when compared to their neighbor up the street in Montreal. Frank Mahovlich was dealt in the prime of his career. Fan favorite Wendel Clark's departure caused tears, although the person who came in return - Mats Sundin - turned into the rare great player who stayed almost until the end.

Toronto is such a hockey loving town, though, that their top players do get celebrated - and deservedly so. Darryl Sittler was one of those players. Here he gets the coffee table book version of his life, "Captain."

This is sort of like sitting down with Sittler as he looks over his personal scrapbook. He started the book out with memories of 1976, when he scored 10 points in a single game - an NHL record - and scored the game-winning goal in the Canada Cup finale. From there, it is more or less a review of his hockey life. Sittler played junior hockey in London, Ontario, was on some good teams in Toronto, and moved into retirement. In the last several years, he's enjoyed the honors he has received from his old team and supporters, who might not have realized in some cases that Hall of Famers don't come around for your team every day.

The format for much of the book is pretty simple. Sittler presents his thoughts about a particular subject or person on one page, and there is a photograph or photographs on the adjoining page. As you can imagine, the pages go by pretty quickly this way. The NHL star did donate some of his own photos for the project, which is a nice touch.

Sittler comes off generally well in this book, as he generally had good things to say about almost everyone he encountered in hockey and elsewhere.  There are a couple of exceptions in a couple of his general manager during his time in hockey, Punch Imlach and Bob Clarke. By the sounds of it, you'd have to say he's got a case to be a bit upset.

Sittler already has written a couple of books about his hockey career, so this is something of a supplement or a quick refresher course on his career. You'd probably have to be a big fan of Sittler's to want this book too. On the other hand, Sittler's many fans should enjoy this quick look back at a Hall of Fame career.

Three stars

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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Review: Friday, Saturday, Sunday in Texas (2016)


By Nick Eatman

It's easy to wonder if Nick Eatman has watched much football this season.

You'd think he might have his fill in 2015.

Eatman realized that football is King in football, no matter if it is high school, college or pro. You've probably heard the stories about high schools in the Lone Star State spending tens of millions of dollars on stadiums. Some of you might be wondering if the English department could have used a little of that money, but that's a different discussion and a different book.

So, Eatman decided to write a book on a year in the life of teams at all three of those levels. The result is "Friday, Saturday, Sunday in Texas," which shows there's more in common among the teams that you'd think.

The high school team is from Plano, Texas, a northern suburb of Dallas. If you look at a Google map page about Plano, the picture used to represent the town is a large highway cloverleaf. I'm not sure if that's fair, but it is interesting. Plano has had some great teams over the years, but 2015 wasn't one of them. Yes, mediocre seasons are tough on everyone at the high school level.

The college team selected by Eatman is Baylor. The Bears had been on a role under Art Briles entering the 2015 season, moving up into the ranks of the nation's best teams. Baylor played an exciting brand of pass-happy ball, earning the nickname "Wide Receiver U." The team battled some injuries and other problems last year, but had a decent record.

Then there are the Dallas Cowboys. It's tough to judge if they are still America's team, but the Cowboys certainly are Texas' team. Dallas was coming off a playoff year, and hopes were high for the season ... until quarterback Tony Romo kept breaking collarbones. You lose your quarterback at any level, and your team is in trouble. In fact, that thread runs through the book.

To his credit, Eatman enjoyed good access to all three teams. The author worked with Briles on a book a while back, and that certainly helped get him in the door here. That may be why the Baylor material might be the most interesting portions of the book. The high school sections have the usual human interest stories that come with any scholastic sports - college choices, injuries, relationships, etc. The Cowboys have been a soap opera for large portions of their history, and some of that pops up here.

There are a couple of problems here that should be noted, the first of which is a small spoiler alert to those who don't follow football (and I can't imagine anyone this interested in this book would qualify(. You really have to be lucky in a book like this to pick the right season, and Eatman didn't have that luck. Plano High and the Cowboys head toward mediocrity pretty quickly. Injuries robbed Baylor of any chance at a special season, and - in a bizarre way - the story pretty much ends before it gets interesting. The Bears went through some off-the-field turmoil that led to a variety of departures by administrators, but it happened after bowl season and only pops up in the epilogue.

In addition, this is something of an "inside" view of three football teams. I would have liked to read a little more from the outside. In other words, let's hear about what makes Texas football special, which might come down to a more rabid fan base, tradition, etc.

Still, "Friday, Saturday, Sunday in Texas" goes down pretty smoothly. The season goes by a week at a time, making the pages turns quite easily. It's tough to say how well this will go over in Fargo, North Dakota, or Montpelier, Vermont. But this is a book that should keep Texas football fans reasonably entertained ... and there are a lot of them.

Three stars

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Review: Don Cherry's Sports Heroes (2016)

By Don Cherry

It doesn't take much time to figure out who is the star of this book.

One look at the cover ought to do it.

Yes, Don Cherry, he of uncensored commentary and sartorial splendor, is back with "Don Cherry's Sports Heroes." Just for the record, Cherry's name on the side of the book is much bigger than "Sports Heroes."

This is called good marketing strategy.

Cherry, for those outside of the Canadian market (and border states), remains one of the most popular personalities north of the border. He last coached in the NHL in 1980, and has put together quite a second career since then.

Cherry might be best known for his television work, but he's also become a rather prolific author as these things go. He's put out several books over the years. And just when you think he might be almost out of material, Don is back with this effort ... which requires a little explanation.

About 25 years ago, Cherry hosted an interview show in Hamilton, Ontario. Cherry interviewed a variety of people on the program at some length. That's rather common now, but in those days some sports personalities were quite nervous at the idea of speaking before a live television camera and a studio audience. As you might expect, most of the guests had a connection to hockey, although Cherry did talk to a few other people in sports. The chapter headings include Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, Ken Dryden and Danny Gallivan. Oh, Joe Frazier and George Plimpton also made the list, although Plimpton sticks to the time he joined the Bruins in preseason while Cherry was coaching.

Now, Cherry has gone to the video tape to go over some of those shows, and had his impressions and memories placed on paper. My first thought was that this would be mostly transcripts of memorable shows. There is some of that, but not too much. The snippets of conversations often serve as launching points for Cherry to go into a monologue, and not necessarily about the show or the guest. That sort of conversation is what the people want out of him, and he certainly delivers that here.

Now there are a couple of points to be made here. One, this book goes by mighty quickly. It's about 250 pages, but can be read in a day or so. This may be a plus or minus, depending on personal preference and whether that's enough reading for $30 (Can.). Two, this is a book about personalities from at least quarter-century ago. Young readers may have heard of Bobby Baun, Red Storey and Paul Henderson at some point, but it's going to be tough to lure them in at this point in the conversation.

Still, Cherry has never lost his ability to entertain, a skill that dates back at least to his time as a coach in the NHL - when his postgame news conferences were anticipated by reporers like comedy shows. "Don Cherry's Sports Heroes" ought to find a good-sized audience of people who enjoy Cherry's winning formula.

Three stars

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Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: Olympic Collision (2016)

By Kyle Keiderling

It's another one of those "time flies" stories.

For those of us who were paying attention in 1984, a track event at the Olympics in Los Angeles was highly anticipated beforehand, and highly scrutinized afterwards. That doesn't happen very often.

Here we are, 32 years later, and much has changed. But the story of Mary Decker and Zola Budd still carries some fascination. Their tales, which have connected a few times over the years, drives the book, "Olympic Collision."

Author Kyle Keiderling, in this well-done summary of the two runners' careers, puts the '84 Olympics right in the middle - as well he should. Decker was one of the stars of the U.S. team that year. She was coming off an amazing year and was considered one of the favorites in Los Angeles at the 3,000 meters.

Adding some drama was Budd, a South African who had been barred from the Olympics until she took advantage of a loophole in the rules to run for Great Britain. (She was, more correctly, asked to take advantage of that loophole by those who sought to profit by it - family, coaches and business interests.) Budd came out of absolutely nowhere to join the list of world-class runner at the distance, barefoot and shy.

In the Los Angeles Coliseum that fateful, Budd had a small lead on Decker when the two bumped into each other, and Decker fell. She suffered an injury and couldn't get up. Budd continued on but was showered with boos by the pro-American crowd and essentially gave up. Decker blamed Budd for the collision, while the timid and devastated Budd simply headed home. Experts watched the video of the race very, very closely in hopes of assigning blame, but the consensus appears to be that no one really did anything wrong.

The personality differences couldn't have been much greater. Decker comes off here as extremely driven, and not particularly well-liked or likeable. She ran from the front and took command, but she was also hard to coach and her style took its toll in terms of injuries over the years. She spent more time in an operating room that some surgeons. Still, Decker probably is the greatest woman's middle-distance runner in American history. Perhaps the best comparison of her ability would be with Ron Clarke, the great Australian runner from the 1960s who is known for setting records but falling short of gold at the Olympics.

Budd comes off here as running from something rather than at something - from sadness over the death of her older sister, from anxiety caused by an uncomfortable dynamic within her family, from outsiders telling her what to do. She comes across as someone who would have been happy to run in South African races, and then head home to play with her pets.

The stories have different endings, too. Decker, who became Mary Decker Slaney after marriage, tried to compete for many more years, but injuries usually got in the way and a conviction on a failed drug test effectively ended her competitive running days. Budd serves as a college coach in, of all places, South Carolina.

Keiderling certainly did his homework here. He talked to many people who were involved in the 1984 race, as well as others who have played a part in the lives of the two people. Budd talked at length to the author, which probably helped her receive a more sympathetic treatment in the book. Decker declined to comment at all. Based on the comments presented here, some people weren't too upset that Decker had some humbling times - especially since they suspected her of drug use before the '84 Games. The story does bog down a little along the way as race times are recited, but it's tough to avoid that.

While track fans are the obvious target for "Olympic Collision," the book shows us that one false step can change the lives of people for good. Budd's story seems to have a happy ending. Decker's legacy is much more confusing. And who would have seen that coming?

Four stars

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Monday, October 17, 2016

Review: Now I'm Catching On (2016)

By Bob Cole with Stephen Brunt

Name-dropping time, at least for my Canadian friends.

I actually worked a couple of games with Bob Cole - as a statistician.

I helped out the NHL's public relations department at the Eastern Conference Finals between Montreal and Philadelphia in Philadelphia in 1989. In that role, I supplied information to Bob and Scotty Bowman, the commentator for those games.

Two of the things I remember about those games is that, one, Bob Cole was a very nice man who did his job well. It was fun to sit next to him as he worked, eliminating the television set as the middle man. Then there's, two, the fact that he's the last man I ever saw use a cigarette holder. It's funny what sticks to your memory.

Naturally, I've had another relationship with Bob over the years that's much more common - listener and fan. He's done a lot of hockey over the years, and I've gotten to see some of it from my perch on the border. So it was with some interest that I read his autobiography, "Now I'm Catching On."

It's a little difficult to draw a comparison between Cole and a United States sports announcer. Hockey has such a valued place in Canada's culture, and Cole has done a ton of big games over the years. Maybe Al Michaels would be a good dance partner, since he's been a national voice for our fun and games for many years on this side of the border.

Perhaps the most surprising part of this book is that it takes Cole quite a while to get into the tales of the hockey broadcasting business - almost 100 pages in a book that checks in at 244 pages of text. There are stories about growing up in Newfoundland (he never left), stories about flying, stories about entering the salmon business and curling and dogs, and so on. It's good to get to know more about the subject of the book, although it will be easy for some people to think, "OK, get to the full stuff already."

Luckily, the stories do come. Cole did the Summit Series of 1972 on radio, a couple of Olympics, and plenty of other big games. He tells about how Joe Sakic used to rub his cap for luck before each game of the 2002 Olympics, and Sakic ended up as the star of the Games as Canada finally won the gold medal. There are tales about Wayne Gretzky, thoughtful and polite behind the scenes even when no one is looking. Harold Ballard, the late Leafs' owner who could be a little, um, eccentric, comes off well. Admittedly, Cole's job description did not include making enemies, so he saw the best in people. But even so, there are no axes to grind here.

Sportscasting at that level isn't easy, particularly in terms of raising a family. That's particularly true for someone who lived full-time a few hours by plane of significant events. But he seems to have made it work, in part because he loved the business so much. Cole writes about how much of it a thrill it is to have an office at a hockey rink, and a game still gets him excited to this day - 50 years later.

Fans of Cole certainly will enjoy "Now I'm Catching On." It's not profound or heavy reading, but merely a pleasant read about a pleasant man.

Three stars

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Sunday, October 2, 2016

Review: Bad News (2016)

By Mike Carey

The original "Bad News" basketball player was a guy named Jim Barnes, a pretty good college forward out of Texas Western who didn't do much in the pros.

And when it came to bad news, the original couldn't come close to the actions of Marvin "Bad News" Barnes."

Marvin was bad news to his opponents, because he had so many skills - a 6-foot-9 filled-out body with speed, strength and agility. He was also bad news to his own team, because Marvin wasn't the most dependable teammate in the world. You never knew if was going to show up at practice, or do something odd at a game.

Most important, though, was the fact that Marvin Barnes was bad news to himself. He was, as the saying goes, his own worst enemy.

Mike Carey, a former NBA reporter out of Boston, is well qualified to writes Barnes' story. He knows the game and encountered Barnes when he was at his best and at his worst. That makes his book "Bad News" quite a dramatic read.

Barnes is a classic story of poor circumstances leading to missed potential - and there's nothing sadder than the latter. He grew up in a dysfunctional family, but had a gift to play basketball. Barnes was one of the best prospects in the country coming out of high school, and flooded with scholarship offers. He ended up staying close to home at Providence College, and this tall African American quickly bonded with a short white point guard by the name of Ernie DiGregorio - on the court and off. The story of Ernie D inviting Barnes over to the family house for dinner - and watching Barnes react to all of the food that was put on the table - is a memorable one.

The two helped the Friars become a basketball powerhouse. They missed a chance at a national title in 1973, when Barnes hurt his knee in the NCAA tournament. UCLA won that year, and in 1974 Barnes couldn't lead the team back to glory without Ernie D.  Trouble occasionally followed Barnes in college, but he got through it.

From there, it was on to the pros. Barnes signed with the Spirits of St. Louis is the American Basketball Association; his contract negotiation with Philadelphia of the NBA somehow got botched. Barnes had some good moments in the ABA in the early days, including a playoff upset of Julius Erving and the New York Nets, but it was also the time that Barnes first became caught up in the drug culture. He became friends with one of the biggest dealers in the country, who was stationed out of St. Louis. Barnes was paid to host late-night parties for high rollers, and the amount of drugs and money said to be involved is staggering.

By the time Barnes reached the NBA after the ABA merger in 1976, he was a addict. Sometimes he'd show flashes of ability, but at others he gave in temptation. That started him well down the road of erratic behavior, and Barnes bounced around the NBA. There was usually someone who would take a chance on his talent, but sooner or later that person would look patience and give up. Eventually, Barnes ran out of chances.

The last third of the book details Barnes' life after basketball. If you've read other stories about addicts, you know the drill well - the patient means well, but after a while something goes wrong and he gives in to temptation again ... and has to start over. Wash, rinse, repeat. Barnes was by all accounts a fun person when he was straight; sportscaster Bob Costas writes about his friend in the foreward - "my unlikely and unforgettable friend."

Carey somehow became acquainted with Barnes once again later in life, and actually gave him a room to live for quite a while. Here Barnes no doubt told the stories of his life, which are still pretty amazing. Carey went to the trouble of checking them out, and they seem to be true.

This is written in a comfortable style, as the pages go by pretty quickly - even if we know what's coming. Finally, Barnes ran out of chances and died. Costas said he epitaph should be "Squandered Talent," and he's right.

"Bad News" isn't a pretty story, but it's an instructive one. You'll come away wondering if Marvin ever really had a chance to make it, in spite of some gifts. And you'll ask who might be the next Marvin Barnes out there, someone who threw a lot away, and how we can stop another similar story from being written.

Four stars

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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review: Stat Shot (2016)

By Rob Vollman with Tom Awad and Iain Fyffe

The revolution continues.

Someone I know once wondered how easy it would be to create new numerical ways to look at the sport of hockey, because the game was played a lot like jazz - improvised as it went on.

But a lot of people, a lot of smart people to be more specific, are trying to prove that people wrong.

Rob Vollman has been at it for several years, and he's produced books in one form or another for the past three or so. Here's his latest offering for the fall, "Stat Shot."

Basically, Vollman and a couple of friends in Tom Awad and Iain Fyffe go through some big themes, step by step, in these pages. The subjects include building a team under the current cap restrictions, judging goalies by save percentage and other metrics, faceoff success, junior hockey statistics' validity, shooting, and figuring what trades are the most one-sided in relatively recent league history.

Vollman jumps in quite early and points out that the information covered in these pages is at least a year old. The problems of trying to say something significant between the time that the Stanley Cup playoffs end and the start of the season would cause any publisher to cringe. I believe it. So at least here, some of the studies aren't completely up-to-date - but then again, the points that are made still seem relevant. Luckily, the group of statisticians does have a e-book out with more relevant information. I would guess that the e-book would find a larger audience than this, which is a bit more theoretical in nature.

Vollman and Co. certainly take their time in presenting information, and they make a good case for some of their arguments. The question that comes up from non-analytical types is - will I be able to understand it? That varies to a degree on the reader's openness to accept the information, and to put up with some new concepts and anagrams. From my viewpoint, I did have my eyes glaze over a few times, particularly in the description of shooting.

Personally, I think I'd rather read the updated version. This comes across as something that would be good in a special blog for a narrow group of people that wants the information. But the authors at least are doing some good work here, and NHL teams are noticing. Most front offices have a department doing such research.

My reaction to "Stat Shot" was rather lukewarm, because I don't follow the sport closely any more. (Is there anyone thinking about indoor lacrosse for this stuff?) But if you see it in a bookstore, and pick it up,  you might find yourself entertained and informed.

Three stars

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review: One Night Only (2016)

By Ken Reid

The National Hockey League Guide and Record Book comes out every fall, and one part of the book that always fascinates is the player register in the back of the book. Everyone who has ever played in an NHL game gets a line of type - from Gordie Howe to Trent Kaese.

Howe played in 1,767 games, while Kaese played in one. They get the same amount of type. (I don't mean to pick on Kaese; I just remember him from his days with the Sabres.)

In an odd way, it's almost like being a member of a club. You are in or you are out. The numbers are simply different. And how many young boys grew up wanting to see their name in that list?

Ken Reid probably has looked over that list, and he became more curious than most about the guys who had "one" in the games played column. So he tracked them down, which must have been a difficult task in some cases.

Eventually, Reid found enough one-game wonders to fill a book. "One Night Only" is that book, a nice little tribute to those who briefly served.

The stories generally follow a pattern. During the course of a season, someone on the NHL team gets hurt and a replacement is needed - usually in a hurry. The call goes down to the minor leagues, and someone collects his sticks and heads to the NHL city for a moment of glory. Some of the players take it all in stride, perhaps because they took part in preseason games and figured they would have plenty of more opportunities. Then there are those who know they are catching a break in the middle of a season, and enjoy the ride.

The goalies might draw the most sympathy here. Frequently they are called up as a backup, and essentially needed to fill a uniform and not expected to play. NHL teams keep lists of goalies who had a uniform number but never got on the ice except to pay the starter on the back at the end of the game. But a few did make it into a game in a relief role. One goalie got to go into a game with four minutes left. That's not long, but it was good enough to put him in the club.

As you'd expect, most of the guys are relatively anonymous. The big exception is Don Cherry, who turned up in a Bruins playoff game in Montreal in 1955. Cherry, who became famous as a player and coach, hurt his shoulder the following summer playing baseball and never got another chance. Don Waddell, who worked as a general manager and coach in the NHL, might be No. 2 on the fame list of those in the book. But otherwise, the players returned to the minors and in many cases headed to Europe for a chance to play regularly.

Most of the players here are a bit proud of the fact that they reached the NHL at all, even if they take a little kidding about it. Others just considered it part of their hockey experience, and don't exactly brag about it.

If there's a drawback to the format, it's that the stories start to read the same way after a while - and this isn't a long book. After all, there are only so many ways that a one-game career can take shape. My guess is that a collection of such stories from all sports might have worked a little better for some readers.

On the other hand, limiting the subjects to hockey players might make it more interesting for those who follow hockey closely, and thus would be a good target for purchasing. "One Night Only" is pleasant and easy reading, and those who read it probably will come away satisfied.

Three stars

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Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: Any Given Number (2014)

By Bill Syken

When it comes to ideas for Sports Illustrated's books, this was something of a lay-up.

Have someone pick out the greatest "uniform" number (NASCAR numbers are included as well) for every number from 0 to 99. Then go through the files to find pictures, and add a few facts about unusual circumstances for a few of the sports figures and their numbers.

Presto. Instant book.

There are no right or wrong answers here, but all of the choices seem as if they can be justified pretty well. Author Bill Syken (you have to look really hard here to find out that he did the writing) supplies plenty of facts to go along with the top candidates, and each number has a flurry of "honorable mentions."

From there, let the arguments begin. For example, let's look at No. 7. Old-timers always will think of Mickey Mantle, while younger people will lean toward John Elway. That's a pretty tough call.

The standards seem to change a little bit when it's convenient to make an argument. At certain points players get credit for being the best ever in their sport or at a position, while at other times they don't. For example, Gordie Howe probably is at worst in the top three of all-time great hockey players, but falls short on No. 9 to a baseball player named Ted Williams. Both are legends, and baseball is more popular. Williams gets the nod in the book. On the other hand, Bobby Orr is picked over Brett Favre at No. 4. As I said, it's an inexact science.

The packaging is fine, as there are plenty of good photos from the SI files. They did a good job of players who popped up in unusual numbers for one reason or another - players who took numbers for the date they were born or date they arrived in a new country or for their old neighborhood.

Basically, there's one big drawback - the price. In hard cover, it checks in at $19.95 new. There's really not much to read here; you can zip through it all pretty quickly. For that sort of money, you need more to read - and it's not coming. Maybe a paperback edition would have been the route to use.

However, the book has been out for a couple of years now. I picked up a copy at a discount store for $1.99. I've paid more for a bottle of soda pop at a baseball game, and this is well worth that.

We're all a little fascinated by the numbers that athletes wear; it almost becomes part of their identity. "Any Given Number" capitalizes on that so that it's best possible treatment of a relatively silly and fun subject.

Three stars

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review: On Someone Else's Nickel (2016)

By Tim Ryan

During Tim Ryan's long career as a sportscaster, he always showed up well prepared, never grabbed the spotlight, and did a solid job. You knew what you were going to see when he appeared on television.

In other words, he was a professional.

You wouldn't expect a book by Ryan to be anything different. Sure enough, his autobiography is told in a readable, straight-forward manner. It's interesting to go through "On Someone Else's Nickel" just to see how the life of this sometimes ever-present announcer allowed him to turn up at so many types of events - from the first Ali-Frazier bout to the Olympics.

Ryan might not have had much choice about entering the sports business. He was born into it, as his father was a sports executive in Canada. The Ryans bounced around Canada as a youth, and Tim eventually went to Notre Dame and then was lucky enough to land a job in Toronto when a new television station signed on the air.

After about a half-dozen years there, Ryan noticed that the National Hockey League planned to expand in 1967 and applied for some jobs as a play-by-play announcer. The author says that his Canadian background probably impressed some executives, although he obviously had some talent. Ryan landed a spot as the voice of the Oakland Seals, and doubled as public relations director. From there it was on to New York City, where he attracted attention from the people at the networks, and it was up, up and away from there.

During the next 40 years ago, Ryan worked for all sorts of networks and covered a variety of sports. That said, he established a good reputation no matter where he popped up on the dial. For whatever reason, Ryan became associated mostly with individual sports such as tennis, boxing and skiing. (There was plenty of work with CBS on NFL games, too.) The veteran even was doing a lot of work with equestrian events around the end of his run, since networks knew he would study hard and be a pro at it. Ryan probably surprised himself with that path in its entirety, but it gave him a career.

That path also allowed him to do some traveling, and Ryan took to that quite easily - especially when someone else was paying the bills. So he literally got to see the world on the tab of sports networks. It's a pretty good gig if you can get away with it, and Ryan worked at several glamorous locations. He also worked several Olympics, summer and winter. What's more, Ryan got to the point financially where he could, for example, afford a second home in Switzerland.

The major dramatic portion of the story comes when wife Lee is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease when she is around 50 years old. Her mind slowly fades away in the years after that, and the story like all such tales in that area is heart-breaking to read. To his credit, Ryan did plenty of work to increase awareness of Alzheimer's. After Lee's death, Tim remarried and went on with his life.

A couple of points jump out about the telling of this story. It has 73 chapters, although quite a few of them only take a minute or two to read. I suppose it's a little choppy that way, but I can't call it annoying. Meanwhile, the story is littered with references to many "close friends" along the way, a few famous but most not so well known. Ryan seems to remember most of the restaurants he's visited over the years, and what type of wine he had along the way. A little editing could have been useful there. Some of the stories you'd expect in a book like this do entertain, thankfully. He covered some great moments and met interesting sports personalities, and they are always fun to read.

It's tough to call "On Someone Else's Nickel" particularly memorable. But Ryan provides his life story in a pleasant way. Those with an interest in the subjects will find some rewards here.

Three stars

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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Review: My Marathon (2016)

By Frank Shorter with John Brant

The full review of this book was written for "The Buffalo News." You can find it here.

Short version - Shorter is one of the best interviews in the sports business, and his life has taken all sorts of unexpected turns and dramatics over the years. No wonder his autobiography is worth your time. It will help if you are old enough to remember his exploits in the 1970s, but I think it works well for most runners who like to read after a good run.

Four stars

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review: Born into Baseball (2016)

By Jim Campanis, Jr. 

This book might be a first. It seems to have started on Facebook, more or less.

If you are a major baseball fan, the name is a little familiar. Jim Campanis Jr. comes from a veteran baseball family. His father made it to the major leagues for a while, and his grandfather was a veteran executive for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The youngest Campanis got the baseball gene, but things didn't work out so well. After he played in high school and college (Southern California), Campanis was drafted by the Seattle Mariners. But there are no happy endings in this story, as least for baseball. Campanis never made it to the majors. The closest he came was when he was told before a late-season game that he'd be going up to join the Mariners in September, only to break his wrist on a freak play in that day's game. He never had another chance.

Campanis gave the minors a full shot, but eventually was released for good and figured out he had to get on with the rest of his life. After a period of being admittedly bitter, Campanis started telling stories on his Facebook page about his experiences. He posted bunches and bunches of them, and they were popular with his friends. An editor came along and did some arranging of the stories by theme.

Presto! Campanis had a book, and it's called "Born into Baseball."

The most interesting section of the book might be the first one. Campanis had some unusual opportunities to mix with some of the game's best. He got to work out with some of the Dodgers as a kid, and he was a bat boy for the Angels. There are some unusual encounters with players like Reggie Jackson and Henry Aaron along the way. It's not a perspective that's a common one.

Campanis also reviews an incident involving his grandfather than essentially defined the executive, unfairly or not. Al Campanis went on ABC's "Nightline" one time and made some unfortunate remarks. He said blacks did not have the "necessities" to become a manager or general manager. When given a chance to climb out of the hole, Campanis dug himself a deeper hole. He soon was unemployed. As his grandson points out, this was someone who was Jackie Robinson's roommate in the minors and couldn't have been more supportive of blacks and Latins breaking into the majors. The program always will be associated with the Campanis family, and Jim Jr. heard plenty about it growing up.

From there, Campanis' stories move into the rest of his career. You can probably split them into two categories. It's often fun to read about guys on their way up who didn't look like prospects but beat the odds and made it to the majors, such as Jeff Kent and Trevor Hoffman. Some of the funny things that happened on and off the field also will entertain the reader. But Campanis also comes across as someone who misses the banter among the players and the life of those in the game, and frequently it's tough to be interested in those unknowns along the way.

In terms of writing, this is a tough assignment. Campanis has the habit of capitalizing words at certain times for emphasis. It's a little amateurish. Some of the language isn't for the kids, although the really bad stuff is bleeped out. And with any collection of stories like this, some of the information gets repeated along the way.

It seems like Campanis' stories work better in the original format, one at a time. Still, I think there's an audience for books like "Born into Baseball." Some fans who have posted reviews are very enthusiastic in their descriptions. Who am I to strongly disagree? Campanis seems like he'd be good company over a beer if baseball came up for discussion, and reading this book has those qualities.

Three stars

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Monday, July 25, 2016

Review: The Yucks (2016)

By Jason Vuic

It's 2016. Time to "celebrate" a big milestone in the history of Tampa Bay football.

It was 40 years ago that the Buccaneers entered the National Football League as an expansion team. That's always a good time for a look back at the good old days, which in the case of the Bucs weren't so good.

Tampa Bay needed little time - less than two years, actually - to become the standard for bad football teams. Author Jason Vuic takes a look back at the time in his brisk book, "The Yucks!"

The Tampa area wasn't well-known to many Americans in 1976. There had been a wave of movement by people to the sunbelt around that time, but the land around Tampa Bay - including Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, among other towns - didn't have much of an identity.

Some city leaders thought an NFL team might change that. When the league expanded in 1976 by two teams, Tampa and Seattle were the winners. If that's the right word. Seattle got lucky and picked up a quarterback, Jim Zorn, and a wide receiver, Steve Largent, who were capable of making plays in the NFL. The Bucs had no such luck, in part because the rules for stocking the new teams were very tight and not much talent escaped the grasp of the established teams.

Thus former Southern California coach John McKay didn't have many good players when he arrived in training camp in 1976, and most of those were on the defensive side of the ball. You don't score, and it's hard to win. Sure enough, Tampa Bay lost its first 26 games. I'm not sure that record will be broken any time soon.

Those first two seasons, featuring 0-14 and 2-12 records, represent the heart of this book, which goes by rather quickly. Bodies came and went quickly, as the team desperately search for anyone who could play football at the highest level. McKay provided the soundtrack to those two seasons, as he usually came up with quotes that were funny to some (mostly the news media) but which had an edge that didn't make him too popular with the players at times. It's fair to say, though, that all of that losing put everyone on edge.

The Bucs did add a quarterback in 1978 in Doug Williams, and better times soon were coming. Williams led Tampa Bay to the NFC Championship game in the Bucs' fourth year of play in 1979. No one could believe it then, either, considered what came before it. Tampa Bay did win a Super Bowl once, but otherwise the story has been pretty bleak for many of those 40 years.

Vuic knows something about bad products. He wrote a book on the Yugo, a car from the 1980s that didn't last long either individually or collectively. Vuic clearly did his homework here in looking up newspaper articles and books, and found many of the head-shaking moments that come with such bad teams.

There are a couple of drawbacks, though. There is less material on the two bad seasons than you might think. That may be because there are surprisingly few "I remember when" stories from interview subjects. Vuic obviously talked to some people associated with the franchise as part of the research, but more quotes from them would have been helpful. Material on the origins of the franchise and the history of the team come before and after those two seasons, and the former is more interesting than the latter.

Vuic also has a slightly quirky writing style. For example, he sometimes deals in absolutes in unexpected ways. Charles Nelson Reilly is described as the worst comedian in the history of planet Earth, a bit harsh since Reilly was mostly a comic actor who was in some top Broadway shows. The deal that sent Largent to the Seahawks for a low draft choice was the most one-sided in history. It's a candidate in a question that doesn't really have an answer.

Newly-born expansion teams usually hold a place of honor in the hearts of fans, in part because everyone is so innocent at the start. It's almost like a first crush. It's probably a strain to compare the 1976 Bucs to the 1962 New York Mets, but "The Yucks" certainly will bring back some funny memories to fans of that Florida team. In that sense, the book accomplishes its goal.

Three stars

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Sunday, July 10, 2016

Review: The Only Rule Is That It Has to Work (2016)

By Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller

The battle in baseball front offices has been going on between old-time scouts and executives and young analytic experts who think the truth is in the numbers. The analytic people are probably winning, based on numbers like OPS and WHIP crawling into the mainstream conversation.

But there's still some tension there. It could be summarized by one question: "Would you give the analytics side the keys to the car?" In other words, would they be good with complete control of the baseball operation.

Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller decided to try to find out.

The two Baseball Prospectus graduates talked the owner of Sonoma of a California independent league - just about at the bottom of such groups as these things go - into letting them take charge of the baseball decisions. They kept a diary of their experiences, and the result is "The Only Rule Is It Has to Work."

Lindbergh and Miller got some help along the way. They picked up some software that could help determine a variety of on-field factors, like velocity on contact. They also were sent a database that included players who had excelled in college but had not been picked in the draft for one reason or another, thus making them potential candidates for employment with the Stompers.

The authors also had a few tricks up their sleeves. Eventually they shifted defenses much more teams at that league usually do, and they tried such tactics as a five-man infield in certain situations. Actually, they worked pretty well as these things go. But along the way, there were "spirited" discussions with the manager, who knew what had worked for him over the years and who wasn't about to change because a couple of kids in jeans told him to do something different.

It's tough to say whether this approach was a drastic improvement over the status quo, mostly because real life got in the way. Independent league teams aren't the majors for a number of reasons. Players take off early to register for fall semesters of college, or they are scooped up by other teams in different parts of the country who can pay a little more. But for the most part, Sonoma did fine, and Lindbergh and Miller were generally accepted despite some gimmicks.

While the analytics stuff is what might draw many people in, the charm of these leagues are going to be a big selling point to a lot of people. These are players, for the most part, who are postponing the end of their childhood for a year in a sense, giving it one more chance to find out if they can play baseball for a living instead of buying a suitcase and trudging off to the office. They become, in most cases, easy to root for. It will be fun to see what happened to them all when the paperback edition comes out in 2017.

At first glance, it's tough to make the reader care about a pennant race that few care about. Even the players are using the team as a potential way-station toward something better. But Lindbergh and Miller care, and care a lot, about wins and losses, and that will rub off on many.

The book found its audience in no time; it seems those who like their numbers mixed with their baseball have loved it so far. Other baseball fans probably won't be attracted to it. That's fine; there are all sorts of entrances into the love of the game. "The Only Rule Is That It Has to Work" fulfills its main mission, though: as a book, it works.

Four stars

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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Review: Fun and Games (2016)

By Dave Perkins

When any self-respecting reporter retires, his initial thought is to write about his experiences. After all, he or she has all sorts of experiences along the way, and they usually are interesting.

The lucky ones get to actually do it. And Dave Perkins is one of the lucky ones.

Perkins is stepping away from his duties as a reporter and columnist with the Toronto Star, after about 40 years on the business. His look back is appropriately called "Fun and Games," since it's a lot of fun and frequently dealing with games.

Perkins' initial start is pretty typical in this business, demonstrating how much luck can be involved. He already had been told by a faculty advisor that he didn't have the looks or the voice to consider broadcasting - thanks, pal - and that print journalism would be a good outlet for his talents. Perkins had been working on some background information on Watergate when he went down to work part-time at Toronto's Globe and Mail one night. It was part of a two-week tryout the college had arranged for some journalism students. By chance, he knew more about Watergate than anyone in the building, and helped the coverage of that time period in a particular night. Someone was impressed, and he started working his way up the ladder.

From there, it's a case of letting the stories begin. About smoking a Cuban cigar in front of President Bill Clinton. Listening to Jack Nicklaus show total recall about rounds shot decade in the past. Chasing down David Cone in an unusual place in order to get a quote on baseball labor. There are stories about those sports along with everything from harness racing to cricket.

The biggest chapter is saved for the Olympics. Perkins saw a bunch of them over the years, and they have all sorts of thrilling moments as well as logistical nightmares. I particularly liked the story where his newspaper's team of reporters was sitting around watching television - when they realized that no one was covering a Canadian's attempt at a medal. Somehow it had slipped through the cracks. This stuff really does happen, much to the editor's dismay.

This all has a Canadian tint to it, of course, since it's a Toronto writer, but there's not much hockey in here. Yes, there are a few shots taken at Maple Leaf management over the years, which goes into the "shooting fish in a barrel" department of the newsroom. But most of the stories are pretty universal, which means they are enjoyable for anyone who pays attention to sports in general. And there's just enough venom and score-settling along the way to keep it interesting. Some come in the form of quotes from past stories and columns, while other thoughts are quite fresh.

Perkins got to the finish line just about at the right time. The business has changed greatly in the past several years, and it's taking a different - not necessarily better or worse, but certainly different - set of skills to be a journalist these days. "Fun and Games" is something of a look back at a business life that's close to being gone forever, but there's enough fun along the way to keep sports fans who read it entertained.

Four stars

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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Review: Great Men Die Twice (2015)

Edited by Mark Kram Jr.

To get personal for a moment, my timing was quite good when it came to this collection of stories from a well-known magazine writer from late in the 20th century, Mark Kram.

He more or less made his reputation with his coverage of boxing in the 1960s and 1970s with Muhammad Ali. Kram spent enough time around Ali to known him and his entourage well, and it was reflected in his stories about the era in Sports Illustrated magazine.

So I was reading some of those stories in the book, "Great Men Die Twice." It was an anthology of his work put together by his son, Mark Jr. Then came the news that Ali had died, making it quite appropriate to review some of those landmark moments.

The title is a reference a magazine article Kram wrote about Ali in 1989. The first time great men die is when they stop being great; the second is when they stop living. Ali, as we know, had a final act of his life that was particularly difficult for many to watch. The man we remembered as so full of life was mostly silent for the final couple of decades due to illness. Ali seemed at peace with fate's decision, but there's a certain joy in these pages of reviewing those times when the boxing champion was at his peak.

After those first 100 pages, all sorts of subjects pop up. There's a profile of a city (Baltimore), and of a family and its obsession with a waterfall (Niagara Falls). A story about former baseball slugger Hack Wilson, written from the first-person perspective well after his death, was quite memorable at the time because of its unique approach when it was written in 1977. That's about the time that personal problems started to catch up with Kram, who lost his job and battled some demons. Some other magazine stories are represented here, in the form of articles on Edwin Moses and Marlon Brando. A 1991 article on the price football players pay for playing such a violent game was well ahead of its time.

The book comes with a good-sized catch. Kram was obviously a smart man, well-versed in all sorts of subjects, and he wasn't afraid to display that intelligence. That can have its drawbacks. There are all sorts of references that can go flying over the head of the reader, and some stories that just never drew me in for one reason or another. That may be the problem of dated material; George Best and Jerry Glanville are names from 30 to 45 years ago.

When the stories in "Great Men Die Twice" work, they work very well. That will make the collection worthwhile to some, and it's nice to have it available. But all the stories aren't for everyone, so you may find yourself picking and choosing a bit as you go along.

Three stars

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Review: 14 Minutes (2012)

By Alberto Salazar and John Brant

There aren't a great many magical names when it comes to marathon running among Americans. Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers come to mind, and so does Alberto Salazar. The latter had a rather odd career, leaving a variety of questions behind.

Here, then, are some answers. Salazar's autobiography, "14 Minutes," covers the high and low points in his life, and it's all relatively dynamic.

For our purposes, let's start with the title. Ask a runner about 14 minutes, and the response probably will be along the lines that it's a really, really good time for the 5,000 meters on a track. As of this writing, the world record is 12:37 for men and 14:11 for women. So 14 minutes is a quite good time for the men, and a goal for women.

But that's not what Salazar means by the title, even though he ran the distance well in his career. It refers to how long his heart was stopped during a heart attack in 2007. If you are thinking that 14 minutes is a long time for a heart to stop, you are exactly right - most never revive from such a stoppage. Yet Salazar had few after-effects of the incident, and has continued his coaching career.

As you'd expect, the heart attack makes for dramatic reading. But there's other drama along the way. Salazar was born in Cuba and moved to the United States at a very early age. His father knew Fidel Castro during the Revolution, and suffered a falling out with the Cuban leader over Castro's rejection of religion - specifically, cancelling the construction of a new church - shortly after the change in government leadership. Salazar's father, a fiery personality and then some according to his son, remained angry at Castro and was part of anti-Castro groups for years to come.

Alberto, though, pushed his passion into other areas - mostly running. He ran in high school and college. It's tough to know how much pure talent was involved - certainly some - but Salazar's blessing and curse at the same time was his fanatic drive for success. No one outworked him, and no one outtrained him. Eventually, that translated to a world record although the course was shown to be short. Salazar won three straight New York City marathons, and one Boston marathon; the latter was the famous "Duel in the Sun," beating Dick Beardsley in one of the great marathons in history.

Then, the winning essentially stopped. No more wins in New York, no Olympic medals. As Salazar recounts his time here, it seems pretty obvious that he wasn't too good at listening to his body and was a little too willing to ignore pain when it popped up. Salazar was never the same, although he did climax his career with an ultra-marathon win in South Africa. He also had a religious awakening along the way, which he discusses here in a sincere manner.

After leaving competitive running, Salazar moved on to coaching. He took on a job with Nike and has tried to help runners. Salazar has had some successes, although Americans still aren't catching up to the East Africans very often in the distance events.

Salazar moves the story along pretty quickly. Credit probably should go to John Brant for some of that. It's only 260 pages of text, and there's enough drama to hold your interest.

It's tough to look at Salazar and wonder about what might have been. Still, it's interesting to know that the same qualities that made him such a good runner probably contributed to his somewhat sudden downfall. It's an interesting story, particularly to runners, and that makes "14 Minutes" a worthwhile effort.

Four stars

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