Sunday, March 27, 2016

Review: First Ladies of Running (2016)

By Amby Burfoot

Change usually comes with resistance in any aspects of life. We tend to think at the time that progress is barely taking place in a given area. Then we look back a while later and think that it happened in a blink.

Such was the case when it came to distance running for women. The first American woman to run more than a lap around a track in a competition did so in 1959. By 1984, the first marathon in the Olympics for women took place. Twenty-five years is a generation, more or less, but a lot of attitudes had to change to get there.

There are a variety of ways to look back on such a revolution. A chronological story is the most popular approach, but personal histories work too. Amby Burfoot, a top writer in the world of running as well as a former Boston Marathon winner himself, has taken the latter approach with "First Ladies of Running." It's a worthwhile effort and read.

Back in the 1950s, women were considered too" delicate" to take part in races longer than a sprint. Besides, it wasn't lady-like to get sweaty. It was better, the thinking went, for women to stay home and raise a family than to get in good physical condition. A few pioneers, though, thought otherwise, and they ran for the sheer joy of it. Eventually, they saw men's races and asked, "Why not me?", and went on to revolutionize the sport.

Burfoot, who won the Boston Marathon in 1968, knew some of those pioneers personally. He interviewed several others for a total of 22 short chapters on women who made a difference. The stories at times feel like they are from a century ago instead of from the 1950s through 1970s.

There are some common threads that go through the stories. One is that it would seem that few male runners objected to females joining them on the roads. Many of the women profiled had stories about how men went out of their way to be helpful. One woman talked about how some men formed a human wall around a car, all with their backs to the inside of the car, so she could change clothes at a track. There was no women's locker room.

The biggest problem faced by the women were the attitudes of the male officials, who were older and more set in their ways. The best example of that happened to Kathrine Switzer, who while running in Boston in 1967 encountered unofficial race director Jock Semple on the course. "Get the hell out of my race," he barked in trying to take her race number away. Switzer's then-boyfriend gave Semple a body block and told Switzer to start running fast. By the way, I believe Semple and Switzer later became friends.

The women Burfoot interviewed all seemed quite smart and articulate about their experiences as well. Many runners are like that. Maybe it's all that solitary training which gives them time to think. But based on this book, every runner profiled seems like an interesting person. That helps the story quite a bit.

The chapters are rather bite-sized, which means the book moves along quite quickly. There is a little repetition, or at least similarities, in some of the experiences these women had along the way. That's probably unavoidable under the circumstances. Burfoot has a chapter at the end with updates on all their lives, as well as another section on those that just missed the cut for a full chapter. Both are good ideas.

Many of our sports have been around for a long time, so it's unusual to read about those who were around at the creation without going deep into the back shelves of a library. "First Ladies of Running" is a good reminder that running wasn't always so democratic when it came to women. They really have come a long way, baby.

Four stars

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Review: Big Data Baseball (2015)

By Travis Sawchik

To quote a song from the 1960's, the revolution's here.

The analytic revolution in baseball, that is. Teams have hired a group of "smart guys" to pour over data to see how to improve a particular team. It's influencing everything from free agent signings to defensive positioning, and it's not going away any time soon.

Baseball reporter Travis Sawchik takes that premise and gives us something of a case study in his book, "Big Data Baseball." The team to be studied is the Pittsburgh Pirates of 2013, which finally had a winning season after 20 years in the wilderness.

But before we look at the Pirates situation, let's go back to a great point made by Sawchik about the "dark ages" in baseball analysis.

Bill James was a baseball fan who earned money as a night watchman. That meant that after doing his hourly rounds, he had plenty of time to look over box scores and come up with questions about the sport. The drawback was that he did not have the information to answer those questions. He did some counting as best he could (which resulted in the publication of a series of revolutionary books) but eventually hit several walls. The bits of information, he discovered, just weren't out there. But James saw a day when the data would be there, and curious people could investigate all sorts of baseball-related questions.

In the last several years, that data has arrived like a flood. Those curious people now work for baseball teams. In fact, some of them were employed by the Pittsburgh Pirates - which brings us to this particular book.

The Pirates had been losers for a couple of decades and were near the bottom of the league in revenues so that there were no quick fixes out there. They wanted to get better, and they wanted to do it relatively cheaply and efficiently. Luckily for the Pirates and their fans, analysts Dan Fox and Mike Fitzgerald had some ideas on how to do that. What's more, the pair had a receptive audience in general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle.

The Pirates wanted to be more efficient on defense, so they shifted their player alignment much more than other teams based on statistical patterns. Suddenly, ground balls were gobbled up by fielders instead of leaking through for singles. The Pirates wanted more strikes from their pitching staff, so they signed catcher Russell Martin to "frame" pitches - a technique designed to get more borderline calls from umpires. Suddenly, ERAs of Pittsburgh pitchers went down. The organization wanted more ground balls, so pitchers were told to start throwing more two-seam fastballs. That worked too.

Presto - the Pirates were winners again. They made the playoffs in 2013, starting a renaissance in Pittsburgh baseball that continues to this day.

Sawchik goes into good-sized detail here about how important it was for everyone to buy into the program, so to speak. The Pirates made sure that Fox and Fitzgerald were around the team a lot to answer questions, and their ideas were accompanied by easy-to-understand charts and illustrations. See how this batter always, always, always pulls the ball over the course of a year? Doesn't it make sense to move the infield and outfield that way? Eventually, everyone got it.

It's at first surprising to see the level of detail that the Pirates were willing to disclose about their methods. But then again, the sport remains dynamic, and this year's trends won't be next year's realities. All teams are shifting more these days; it's just a matter of degree. When hitters learn to go to the opposite field more - and be good at it - it will cause a reaction on the defense. And so it goes.

"Big Data Baseball" isn't as technical as the title might indicate, and Sawchik wisely puts a human face on the principals involved. The Pirates' adaptations to analytical trends aren't the whole story behind their rise in the standings - a little talent helps too - but it's a good-sized part of that tale. The book accomplishes its goal nicely of offering a close-up view of one team's moves in the information age, and therefore will be well received by those seeking an understanding of the game today. In simpler terms, nicely done.

Four stars

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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Review: The Selling of the Babe (2016)

By Glenn Stout

When Glenn Stout isn't busy organizing his annual collection of top sports writing, he veers off to do some research and writing of his own. Stout does mighty good work there too.

Many of his books have been keepers, including massive histories of major league teams such as "Red Sox Century" and "Yankees Century." Those two volumes make him well qualified to take a good long look at the biggest transaction in baseball history - and shoot down some myths about it along the way.

Has there ever been a bigger trade than the one that sent Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees for cash? Probably not, considering the huge effect it had on both teams and the sport itself. While a little of the situation surrounding the move was covered in the two books mentioned above, Stout gives the situation an excellent book-length treatment in "The Selling of the Babe."

The standard version of the mythology surrounding Ruth is that a cheap Red Sox owner, Harry Frazee, sold Ruth to the Yankees in an effort to drag the Red Sox down while building up the theatrical end of the business. (There's often a reference to "No, No, Nanette," which brought the musical to Broadway.) Ruth arrived in New York and became a sensational hitter, popularizing the home run and curing the hangover caused by the 1919 Chicago "Black Sox" scandal. The Red Sox spiraled downward and started a championship drought that lasted 86 years.

Much of the story isn't true, and some is at least exaggerated. Stout points out that in 1918, when the Red Sox were on their way to a World Series title, Ruth was already a handful. He was wrapped up in his own interests rather than the team's, which meant contract renegotiations, leaving the team without warning, and binges related to alcohol or women. It's fair to call him a man of big appetites. But ... Ruth could pitch, setting a World Series record for consecutive scoreless innings, and he could hit when given the chance.

Ruth's hitting suffered in the second half of 1918, when Stout speculates that the materials used in baseball were subpar - World War I and all that - and weren't traveling as far when struck by a bat. Intuitively, that makes sense. When the quality of baseballs returned to normal in 1919, they may have remained a little tightly wound because fans had discovered that offense and general and the home run in particular were exciting to watch. That means people in the stands, which meant dollars in the pockets of the owners. The "Black Sox" scandal hadn't arrived yet, but baseball could see the future at that point, and better times were clearly ahead no matter what happened in Chicago. Ruth broke the one-season home run record while playing for the Red Sox in 1919.

So why trade him? Stout has a few factors entering into the equation. An obvious one that Ruth was still marching to his own beat, and it was tough to know if he'd self-destruct at some point. Less obvious was the fact that the Red Sox at that point were a relatively small-market team, sharing Boston with the Braves. Frazee knew that Ruth would eat up much of Boston's payroll if he stayed after becoming a drawing card that season.

More importantly, Frazee wasn't poor by any means but was in a difficult situation. He was renting out Fenway Park, and the building was not in good shape. Some of his financial assets were tied up in the theater, meaning at times they weren't liquid. Frazee also wasn't getting along with league official Ban Johnson, and there were other shareholders in the team complicating everything. The trade/sale of Ruth came with a hidden benefit - the Yankees gave Frazee a mortgage on Fenway Park, thus further solidifying his financial situation.

As for the trade, Ruth got to New York and became a sensation. The Yankees played in the Polo Grounds, with short distances down the lines that were perfect for a power hitter. New York didn't win the pennant in 1920, but became a regular participant in the World Series after that. The Yankees' ownership made enough money to build their own ballpark, something called Yankee Stadium, a few years later. It had a "short porch" in right that was perfect for Ruth. Frazee sold the Red Sox in 1923 at a hefty profit; Boston's dark ages began soon after that. "No, No, Nanette" started to become a license for Frazee to print money in 1924. The biggest losers in the deal were the Red Sox fans, who saw Ruth leave without the team receiving any help on the field.

Stout made the decision to rely mostly on the newspapers accounts of the time, since the myths surrounding the principals - particularly Ruth - have become part of the story over the years, even to some biographers. Ruth himself probably never even bothered to read some of the ghostwritten stories that were written under his name over the years.

It's all quite a story, and nicely told in a relatively short period of time (255 pages plus notes). "The Selling of the Babe" will appeal to just about anyone who likes baseball history served up with facts and intelligence. I'll bet the house that this book is nominated for a Casey Award as one of the top baseball books of 2016.

Five stars

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Monday, March 14, 2016

Review: Game 7, 1986 (2016)

By Ron Darling

Many books about sports carry themes about heroic success stories, as men and women overcome great odds to become "winners."

"Game 7, 1986" isn't like that. At all.

And that's what makes it interesting.

The subtitle, "Failure and Triumph in the Biggest Game of My Life," tells the story enclosed in a few words. Those who were baseball fans at the time know exactly what that subtitle is about. But here's a quick refresher course.

The New York Mets trailed the Boston Red Sox, three games to two, in the 1986 World Series. Their hopes for a title appeared doomed when they rallied from a two-run deficit in the bottom of the 10th inning to pull out Game Six. That set up a Game Seven, the biggest moment of any baseball season.

Ron Darling was the man picked by the Mets' manager, Davey Johnson, to start Game Seven. Immediately, he started to feel the pressure, which was certainly multiplied by the circumstances of the Mets' Game Six rally - making a Game Seven win seem almost inevitable to some. This would be a Big Moment - for the pitcher, for the team, for the fans, for the city. Darling had pitched well in his first two starts of the World Series, but he well knew that there were no guarantees.

After thinking about it overnight after Game Six, Darling prepared to pitch Game Seven ... except that it rained. That pushed back the game a day to Monday night, and gave Darling another 24 hours to think about what was coming - which he admits he didn't really need at that point. It also gave the Red Sox 24 hours to put the events of Game Six behind them. Boston also had the chance to start Bruce Hurst in Game Seven, and he had dominated the Mets so far in the Series.

The game finally started, and Darling admits he was shaky at the start. In the book he goes over the game batter by batter, revealing what he was thinking at a given moment. He gave up back-to-back home runs in the second inning, and later gave up a third run. With no tomorrows, as the cliche goes, Darling didn't go deep into the game and was pulled with his team trailing, 3-0. That left him in the odd position of hoping his teammates bailed him out in a sense.

That they did, going on to rally to win the game. The celebration was a New York-sized one, naturally, but Darling writes how everything was a little tempered for him personally because he hadn't contributed as much as he had hoped. Yes, he had pitched well throughout the season and playoffs, and was a valuable member of the team. But Darling was in the middle of an unusual situation, and that's what makes the book work quite well.

While reading this book, a couple of times I turned on the computer to watch a tape of the game on YouTube. It's instructive to do so. At one point, Darling throws a pitch that appears to catch the bottom of the strike zone but is called a ball. The announcers don't mention much about it, but Darling writes about how upset he was at the time. If that's a ball, he thought, it's going to be a difficult, and short, evening for him. Darling is shown off the mound, rubbing the baseball with vigor.

There are some tangents along the way. Darling grew up in Massachusetts and was a Red Sox fan. He even played with Boston's catcher at the time, Rich Gedman, while growing up. There are a few stories about his Mets teammates and their antics as well. But mostly, this is about Darling, who many people today know through his fine work as an analyst for Mets' broadcasts and for national channels such as TBS. Pitcher is one of the loneliest positions in sports this side of hockey goalie, and this is a vivid demonstration about how even professionals are a far less confident bunch than the general public believes.

A little familiarity with a game from 30 years ago will help a reader's enjoyment of "Game 7, 1986." Still, the book's unusual approach ought to give it some degree of universal appeal. It's a quick, interesting read, and might help you think about the sport in a little different way.

Four stars

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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Review: Kings of Queens (2016)

By Erik Sherman

It's 30th anniversary time for one of the most interesting teams in relatively recent baseball history.

The 1986 New York Mets were a dominating squad, clearly one of the best teams of that decade. They won 108 games in the regular season, and went to exciting victories in the National League Championship Series and the World Series. Those Mets had stars, a fine supporting cast, and characters everywhere.

That team is well remembered throughout the country for all of those reasons. I'm not sure if the team was particularly well liked outside the New York City. Brash New Yorkers sometimes aren't appreciated too far past New Jersey. But clearly Erik Sherman liked that team.

The freelance journalist, who wrote a book with Mookie Wilson of that squad a while ago, is back with "Kings of Queens." It's partly a book looking back, and partly a book catching up on some names from the past.

The formula is more or less established at this point. Sherman spent a couple of years tracking down the members of the 1986 Mets in their current locations. Then he picked the most interesting stories and people that he found, and gave them each a chapter. There are 14 such people profiled.

The prototype for this type of book, naturally, is "Boys of Summer." Roger Kahn checked up on the Brooklyn Dodgers years after the fact, and discovered a link to a simpler, more innocent time. The fact that the Dodgers had some interesting personalities didn't hurt either. But this seems more like a book that could be compared to the recent football story, "Monsters," in which Rich Cohen is rather gleeful about the chance to talk to the personalities of the 1985 Chicago Bears.

Here Sherman drops in on the old Mets and turns on the tape recorder. There obviously is editing for space, but certainly the subject can't complain about how they are treated. Are the stories worth reading? That's something of a hit or miss proposition. Keith Hernandez is always an interesting interview, and Bobby Ojeda comes through with some interesting stories too. Ed Hearn, a little known player on that roster, has had all sorts of medical bad luck with his family over the years. It's a pretty dramatic tale.

On the other hand, some players' stories don't work as well. Howard Johnson and Rafael Santana aren't exactly outspoken. Lenny Dykstra remains a little difficult to like at times, and the troubles of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry have been rather well chronicled elsewhere. It's perhaps worth noting that several of these Mets have turned religious; most of the Strawberry chapter sticks to that theme. That's a little surprising, as Sherman points out, since the Mets had a rather large reputation for blowing off steam.

Sherman's high opinion of that Mets team and its players comes off quite vividly in the questions and comments that come up along the way. Ever think of Gooden and Hernandez as Hall of Famers? Wonder why Gary Carter's uniform number hasn't been retired yet? Sherman has, and he expresses those opinions along the way. That's a little jarring, but certainly it might work with the sensibilities of the book's natural audience.

If there's a common thread in all of the stories, it's that these Mets were something of a puzzle in that they never won that second championship. Most of the players think it's because the squad was blown up within a couple of years of the end of the 1986 World Series. But it was a combustible mix, one that might have been very difficult to hold together for longer than a season.

At least the stars of "Kings of Queens" did have their moment in the sun in 1986. For fans who rooted for that team, it's fun to catch up with some old heroes. It's tough to say, though, if others will find it more than a quick look back.

Three stars

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Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: The Legends Game (2016)

By John Feinstein

John Feinstein has written a book on three of the legends in the basketball coaching business: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Valvano.

Your first reaction might be along the lines of "Hasn't he already done something like that?"

After all, Feinstein is one of our most prolific sportswriters in the area of books. He's done plenty of work on college basketball and the ACC over the years. If you are going to write a history of college basketball covering portions of the past 45 years or so, you have to talk about Smith, Krzyzewski and Valvano.

Still, this is a book by John Feinstein, whose work has been excellent for about 30 years. So "The Legends Club" may touch on some familiar ground, it has plenty of charms.

The book is something of a triple biography. Smith was the elder statesman of the group, arriving almost 20 years before the others and becoming one of the great coaches in the business in no time at all. That was in spite of the fact that Smith never won a national championship in his first couple of decades on the job. In fairness, for part of that time he kept running into UCLA teams, and they were hard to beat.

But Smith was the undisputed king of college basketball in the ultra-competitive Atlantic Coast Conference. Yes, some other contenders popped up every so often, but North Carolina was always a contender. Then came along two new faces, hoping to - if not knock Smith off his crown - at least join him on the top of the mountain, looking down on the hoop landscape. Krzyzewski arrived at Duke in 1980 after having some success in Army, not exactly a traditional powerhouse in the sport. Valvano was clearly a rising star in coaching circles in 1980 when he was hired by North Carolina State after making Iona a national power - no easy task.

Game on. Feinstein clearly relishes reliving the 1980s in ACC basketball. Smith was always the standard, and he finally got that elusive first national championship in 1982. But Valvano followed with a title a year later with a run of luck and skill. Then Krzyzewski built his program to a year-in, year-out contender within a few seasons. The three of them loved to compete against the best, and it was a perfect environment for that.

Feinstein shows his usual thoroughness here, adding stories and anecdotes from a variety of personalities. The games between the teams coached by the three men were often classics, and the names involved will bring back memories to avid basketball fans.

The author might do his best work telling the story of Valvano, who reached the pinnacle of his profession and then asked the question, "What's next?" Valvano not only was the funniest man in the coaching business, and maybe the funniest man in any business, but he had plenty of other interests. Valvano took a few too many chances when it came to recruiting, etc., and did a little too much outside work after the title. NCAA violations followed, and Valvano lost his job. He did some television work, and was thinking about returning to coaching when word came that he had cancer, and the prognosis was not at all good.

Valvano fought the disease, but its lead was just too big. As he went downhill, he became close with Krzyzewski - who often would talk to him for long periods of time at the hospital, coach to coach. While that relationship has been mentioned in public, it's interesting to see how it developed. Valvano is still remembered for his speech on ESPN ("Don't give up, don't ever give up), that he gave shortly before his death in 1993.

That left Krzyzewski and Smith as the remaining coaching rivals of the trio, and there are still stories to be told of those years. Then Smith retires and the storyline is essentially over - although Feinstein does cover Duke's progress in the last few chapters.

I believe I've read every one of Feinstein's major nonfiction books since "Season on the Brink," which came out almost 30 years ago. (He can thank me later for helping to put his kids through college.)  "The Legends Club" may have its portions that have been covered elsewhere which will be noticed by compulsive Feinstein readers, but any fan of college basketball will find this quite entertaining and worthwhile.

Four stars

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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Review: The Cardinals Way (2016)

By Howard Megdal

Just when you think there's been a book written about every single aspect of baseball, another volume comes along that breaks new ground.

That's "The Cardinals Way." (What, no apostrophe?) Most of the story is devoted to telling how the St. Louis Cardinals select and acquire young talent these days, with more details than you'll find on the subject in general than anywhere else.

Again, that's a majority of the story, but not the entire tale. That might influence your reaction to the book, as we'll see in a minute or two.

The Cardinals have been one of the most successful franchises in major league baseball over the years. They have won championships frequently enough to keep their fans happy, and then some. They've done in a market that may love their Cardinals but which isn't particularly huge. So the team has overcome some big odds to be as good as it has been over the years.

What's gone right? Author Howard Megdal starts a very close-up at the franchise with Branch Rickey, who was put in charge of the team several decades ago and installed several guiding principles that are still in place today. One was to play the game a certain way, and the franchise frequently has relied on such men as George Kissell, one of those baseball lifers who liked nothing better than to work with young players and help them improve. The testimonials to Kissell's work go back decades.

The scene shifts a little more than 10 years ago, with the analytics revolution was just starting to arrive in baseball. The Cardinals had been quite successful through that time; as of 2003 they were a year way from another World Series appearance. They hired the proverbial smart guy without a previous connection to baseball - Jeff Luhnow. In fact, he's was better known as the person who helped Lands' End sell jeans on line. Luhnow was essentially told to go in the corner and see what he could do to bring the operation up to date.

Luhnow hired a group of smart guys who quickly got up to speed on analytics, and then the discussions - I'd use arguments, although that might be a little severe - began. The scouts valued different qualities than the numbers boys, and eventually the analytics department's voice got louder and more influential. General manager Walt Jocketty, who had been quite successful with the old system, eventually left for the same job with the Reds.

John Mozeliak moved up from the job of assistant general manager, and he installed the hybrid system used today. The Cardinals listen to their scouts at draft time, and they also look at the numbers. Sometimes there's a little horse trading involved, but eventually a pick is made. You'd have to say it's working pretty well, since the Cardinals keep reaching the postseason. As for Luhnow, he jumped to the GM job of the Houston Astros, a team that had been at the very bottom of the sport but now ranks as a very promising team.

Author Howard Megdal got tremendous access into the Cardinals' organization to write all of this. Current and former employees, including owner Bill DeWitt, go over their thoughts at certain points in team history. Megdal even got to be in the "war room" on draft day, and hung out with team officials at spring training and at minor league games.

All right, does the book work? That I'm not too sure about. As the above description might indicate, the story does go in a few different directions without a particularly unifying theme. Meanwhile, there are few names of people that anyone but big Cardinals fans would know, which means players on the current roster come up only in passing. This can make some portions of it on the dry side. And the Cardinals' hacking scandal of the Astros' statistical database comes up late in the story, without much time to give perspective to what that all means.

There are some interesting elements swimming around in "The Cardinals Way." That may be enough to carry the story along for some readers. But it's easy to wonder just how big an audience the book will find.

Three stars

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