Friday, April 22, 2016

Review: Mavericks, Money and Men (2016)

By Charles K. Ross

It was difficult not to think of a story a friend of mine once told me while reading "Mavericks, Money and Men." I'll tell the story in a moment, but a description of the book needs to be told to set up the story.

The history of the American Football League has been told many times over the years. A group of men self-nicknamed "The Foolish Club" started a rival league designed to challenge, or at least co-exist, with the established National Football League. Such actions had taken place in the past, but they were rarely too successful. The All-American Football Conference did all right in the post-war 1940s, and a few of its teams merged into the NFL. But in general, the convention wisdom was that the participants in the new league at an ownership level were throwing their money away.

It turned out the AFL did quite well, thank you. There were growing pains, of course, but the league slowly improved and merged with the NFL in 1966. That led to four interleague championship games (Super Bowls I through IV) that took place before the leagues' lineup was reshuffled. The AFL teams famously won two of them, the Jets in 1969 and the Chiefs in 1970.

Author Charles K. Ross spends a great deal of time reviewing the contributions of African American players to the success of the AFL. That's particularly true in the case of historically black colleges, which had been more or less ignored by the NFL through the 1950s. And this is where the story comes up.

I was friends with Larry Felser, the late sportswriter of The Buffalo News. The subject came up about the number of players who came out of Grambling University, coached by the legendary Eddie Robinson, who found success in the AFL. Felser said the reason behind those signings was simple: AFL teams made payments to Robinson in order to make sure that he steered top talent toward the NFL.

I can't say I've ever seen that story reported anywhere. However, Felser covered the AFL throughout its 10 years of existence. He knew everyone in the league, and was on a first-name basis with owners. I have little doubt that if such payments were being made, Felser would have known about it.

Certainly I wouldn't blame Robinson for taking the money if it were offered. The athletic programs of schools like Grambling weren't exactly overfunded, and I'd bet someone like Robinson would do what he could to improve the football program.

I'm not trying to say that the NFL wasn't as good or as quick as it should have been when it came to the area of integration. The Washington Redskins didn't have a black player until the early 1960s. But Ross carries a certain approach into the story that can make the reader stop and wonder whether he's forcing the events of the time to fit into his version of the story.

For example, Buck Buchanan came out of Grambling for the 1963 football drafts. He was the number one pick overall in the AFL selection process, taken by the Kansas City Chiefs. The Green Bay Packers took him in the 19th round. Ross apparently believes that this was due to the NFL having its head in the sand. It's far more likely that Buchanan, for whatever reason, had agreed to an AFL contract already. By the way, since Buchanan - the first black to be taken No. 1 overall - wound up in the Hall of Fame, the NFL should have tried much harder to sign him. Such arrangement were more common than people realize, depending on the year.

Ross also has an unusual opinion on the career of Marlin Briscoe, who is in the history books as the first black quarterback to start a game in the AFL or NFL. He got that job when injuries and a lack of talent wiped out the Denver Broncos at a position. Briscoe moved into the lineup and played 11 games for the rest for the 1968 season. Ross wonders how good the Broncos might have been had they stayed with Briscoe in the years to come, and some believe racism prevented that chance. I'm not discounting that possibility. However, Briscoe's 41.5 percent completion rate as a passer in 1968 and 5-foot-11 height might not have helped his case either. Briscoe certainly deserved a chance to compete for a job in 1969, but the rest of the story shouldn't get much beyond a "what if?"

Otherwise, this is a rather basic story of the history of the AFL. It covers the teams and their seasons, climaxed with stories of championships. There are a few tales that may be relatively new to football readers, showing that Ross did plenty of homework. On the other hand, an early edition of the book designed for reviewers had a few errors, such as the spelling of the name of Broncos' executive Bob Howsam.

Ross' main point about how the contribution of African Americans helped the AFL become successful is a good one. I wish "Mavericks, Money and Men" had concentrated on that part of the story. Extensive interviews with those pioneers would have been interesting. The book that was written isn't quite as compelling, but it will serve as a quick review of a key time in football history.

Three stars

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review: The Best Team Money Can Buy (2015)

By Molly Knight

When a hockey team was in the midst of all sorts of turmoil several years ago, a member of that squad said that it all reminded him of a soap opera that he watched to kill time during the afternoons before games.

That player would have loved the Los Angeles Dodgers of the first part of the decade.

The Dodgers' story involved front office and ownership drama, big money contracts, stars and lesser lights. Plus, few happy endings. Shakespeare would be proud.

It's a natural story for a book, and Molly Knight writes it all down in "The Best Team Money Can Buy," the head-shaking story of the Dodgers' unfulfilled attempt at glory.

Knight wisely starts off the story with former owner Frank McCourt. He had taken one of the flagship teams in baseball and run it into the ground. There were enough odd details in his personal story to keep everyone from the Los Angeles Times to TMZ entertained. Eventually, the team was put up for sale and snapped up early in 2012 for a mere $2.15 billion.

If that price didn't show that the Dodgers meant business, a trade later in that first year was an even bigger signal. Los Angeles completed a huge trade with Boston - picking up Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford for a few relatively minor players. The key point was that the Dodgers were willing to pay the contracts of these high priced players. Suddenly, money was no object.

The Dodgers were determined to do better the next year, and were willing to spend their way to do so. Zack Greinke was added to the roster as a free agent, giving the Dodgers a powerful combination with Clayton Kershaw at the top of the rotation. One of their biggest additions was Yasiel Puig, a Cuban defector who had immense talent but who was rough around the edges. Very rough. After a slow start, the Dodges found an extra gear and had an amazing run to take charge of the National League West. They came within two games of making it to the World Series.

It was more of the same in 2014. The Dodgers kept spending money, and enjoyed another division-winning year. But playoff losses aren't particularly accepted well when the payroll is above $200 million.

Knight found out plenty of interesting stories along the way here. Puig is a centerpiece, a young man whose behavior often was excused because of his talent. His numbers have gone down since a sensational rookie year, and we'll see how he reacts to that in the near future. Hanley Ramirez comes off as something of enigma. His immense talent at hitting a baseball is still present, but a series of injuries have hampered his ability to field one. Kershaw comes off as one of the good guys, dedicated to his craft and to the idea that his career won't be complete without a World Series championship.

What's striking about reading this book is that the Dodgers never seemed to fit together as a team particularly well. For example, for most of the years described, Los Angeles had one too many starting outfielders (four players with big contracts) and not enough help in the bullpen. It's no wonder that the Dodgers in 2015 went out and signed Andrew Friedman from Tampa Bay to run their baseball operations. After years of pinching pennies with the Rays and creating nickels and dimes, we'll see how he does with dollars to throw around.

It's tough to say whether interest in this Dodgers' era is large enough to captivate fans without a rooting interest in the team. "The Best Team Money Can Buy" isn't overly sensational, but it's certainly well done and a good review of the era.

Four stars

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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Review: The Arm (2016)

By Jeff Passan

Some of the writers of the Baseball Prospectus series have a pet saying: There's no such thing as a pitching prospect.

Naturally, you could call that shorthand for "There's no such thing as a pitching prospect over the long term, because they keep getting hurt."

It's not your imagination. Every so often, a pitcher comes off the mound complaining of a sore elbow, and in a couple of days the diagnosis comes down with painful finality: Tommy John surgery is necessary. That's an operation that tries to fix a broken ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow.

It takes about a year to recover from the surgery, which is named after the first pitcher to have it. While it might be the most successful development in recent sports medicine techniques, there are still no guarantees. If a pitcher does come all the way back, the ligament can break again. And as we ask pitchers to throw harder and harder, particularly at a young age, more and more of them need the operation. Throwing a ball 100 times every fifth day at 97 miles per hour is going to cause stress to the body. I'm not sure "epidemic" is the right word to describe the situation, but the numbers are on the increase.

People who follow baseball from a distance know this is going on. Still, they have only a vague sense of what's going on and what's involved. That's what makes Jeff Passen's book, "The Arm," valuable. He writes at length (about 350 pages) on the issues involved.

Passen went searching for a pitcher who was willing to be open and honest about the recovery process, and he was lucky enough to find two. Both went through their second Tommy John surgery and rehab during the time frame of the book. One was Todd Coffey, a major league veteran hoping for one last shot. The other was Daniel Hudson, a promising Arizona Diamondback pitcher (see first paragraph) who blew out his elbow, worked hard on rehab for a year, and then blew it out again. The two are both painfully honest about the recovery process and how difficult it is, physically and mentally. Their wives' thoughts along the way add nicely to that part of the story.

There are plenty of other aspects to the story as well. Passen reviews in an early chapter what actually takes place in a Tommy John operation. You can almost hear the drill making a hole in the bone at one point. The author heads to Japan to see how they are handling the rising tide of injuries, in spite of a culture that essentially glorifies the idea of "shut up and pitch" no matter how much pain there is. There are elite programs in the United States that try to identify top players at a young age. A few extra miles per hour can turn into hundreds of thousands of dollars if a pitcher moved up in the amateur draft.

Passan also talks to some people who think they have some answers to curing the epidemic. There is not much proof that they help the situation much, perhaps because of the randomness factor. One pitcher can do everything wrong and still have a long career, while another may do everything right and crumble at age 17. Some medical professors are doing some good work, including one that has created a new type of elbow operation that sounds promising for certain cases. But many admit that we are a long way with coming up with any sort of predictive formulas.

There's also an interesting chapter about Jon Lester, who gave Passen access when he was negotiating with teams as a free agent a little more than a year ago. Lester was an outstanding pitcher who had been healthy throughout his career but had crossed the magic line of 30 years old - and thus statistically was at risk for some sort of decline in the relatively near future. The Cubs bet $155 million before the 2015 season that Lester would continue to pitch well.

There are a few moments along the way here that are a little dense. The human body is a complicated structure, particularly when it throws a baseball hard. I'm not saying a degree in kinesiology (human movement) is necessary to read the book, but those portions aren't a breezy read. Then again, those who pick up a book like this aren't expecting a breezy read.

What "The Arm" does, then, is define the issue and set the table for conversations going forward. That's quite an accomplishment, and it should make it very worthwhile for those who want an extended peak at a situation that figures to get worse before it gets better.

Five stars

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