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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