Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: Playing Hurt (2017)

By John Saunders with John U. Bacon

Most books by nationally-known sportscasters follow a pattern. There are entertaining tales of the early days, jumping from outlet to outlet, and then the story moves into a recounting of games and personalities encountered over the years.

"Playing Hurt" is definitely not that book.

The late John Saunders had a lot happen to him in his too-short life. He tells us about many of them in his memoir, which in spots is painful to read.

From a distance, Saunders was a rather typical success story. He first became nationally known when he landed at ESPN in the late 1980s, just when the outlet was ready to take off. Saunders did a lot of events over the years, and did them well. He wasn't a polarizing figure on the air, content to merely tell you what was going on.  There's a certain dignity in that approach that was welcome; you don't have to shout all the time to get attention.

What's more, Saunders was a black from Canada, which made him different in a professional world filled with white males. If you were a youngster of color looking for a role model, Saunders certainly could fill that role. 

That's all well and good, but there is little about that side of Saunders in the book. He starts off in dramatic fashion, telling about a trip he took in 2012 to the Tappen Zee Bridge north of New York City. Saunders pulled to the side of the road of the bridge, got out of the car, walked to the edge, and thought about jumping. Depression, it turns out, came along with Saunders throughout his life, and he had to battle the demons almost every day. It's not what you'd expect out of person with a dream job and a lovely wife and two daughters.

Saunders goes into his childhood in Canada from there, and it's not pretty. His father was abusive (physically and verbally) when he bothered to be home, which wasn't often because he was usually in Ohio. His mom usually had to raise the family of three children by herself, and she had plenty of her own problems. Saunders was sexually molested by the daughter of a friend of the family before he became a teenager, causing problems in relationships for the rest of his life. Moving around a bit probably didn't help either. Saunders developed problems with alcohol and drugs, and his relationships with women were frequently distant and brief. And depression started to turn up with frequency; it would be a lifelong passenger along with diabetes.

At that point, it's easy to wonder how Saunders turned out so well professionally. A bright spot was that he was pretty good at hockey, which got him an invitation to play for a couple of colleges. Saunders sort of stumbled into a broadcasting career, starting with a job in Espanola, Ontario - I've been there, and it's even smaller than you might think it is. From there it was on to other stops, including Toronto and Baltimore, before landing at ESPN. There were some mental health issues along the way, but apparently he made his life work.

If all of that weren't enough, and it certainly would be for most people, Saunders blacked out and hit his head at work in September 2011. That caused a serious brain injury that would need a great deal of therapy. It also led to what could be called an addiction to a strong prescription drug that was issued by a doctor for reasons only known to him; other doctors were shocked at the dosage.

The story essentially ends in 2013, when Saunders has been weaned off the prescription drug and he was feeling better. Some readers will remember that when Saunders died in 2016, not a great deal was said about the reason or reasons why. While reading the book, it's easy to wonder what might have happened and why. Thankfully, co-author John U. Bacon writes an afterword about the next three years. Saunders collapsed in a bathroom and could not be revived. Doctors said he died of a combination of an enlarged heart, complications from diabetes, and another disease that affected the regulation of breathing, blood pressure and heart rate.

"Playing Hurt" isn't a happy story, of course, and it's sad that this almost-universally liked man left us too soon. Reading the story was almost shocking, and such stories aren't going to be brought to the beach to serve as a summer diversion. Still, Saunders' hope was that a book would show others with mental health issues that they aren't alone and should reach out for help. This should do that, and more.

Five stars

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: Best Canadian Sports Writing (2017)

Edited by Stacey May Fowles and Pasha Malla

"Best Canadian Sports Writing" comes across as something of an interesting experiment.

Readers of this blog know that I'm attracted to the series of anthologies highlighting some of the best sports writing in America for the past 25-plus years. Therefore, it's easy to be interested in how the format and approach might work in Canada.

Apparently, a couple of people thought the same way. Stacey May Fowles and Pasha Malla have done a variety of articles and books over the years. The call went out for contributions, people responded with stories on all sorts of different subject, and - poof! - you've got yourself a book.

The first question, then, is: does the book work? I have rather mixed feelings about that, and not just because I'm an American reading a book about Canadian sports. Living in a border city will knock down a few of the barriers that might exist in such a situation.

The biggest difference might be that the American series relies quite a bit on some established sources for stories - Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine, for starters, plus some big-city newspapers. That's not to say those sources have been come more diversified in recent years, because clearly they have - the on-line world is touching the entire world of journalism.

There are some stories in Canada's version that were somewhat surprising to read. I should start with the good news; I liked some of the efforts.

Dan Robson's story on a youth hockey team coming south from the area around Hudson Bay was very well done. I'm not sure I've read many fishing articles in my day, as I have no familiarity with the subject, but Cathal Kelly raised the subject in a way that was appealing and informative to this novice. John Lott's profile of the Toronto Blue Jays' batting practice pitcher was well done. Kristina Rutherford's profile of hockey player Harrison Browne was nicely written. Stephen Brunt's profile of the Blue Jays' Roberto Osuna was long but worthwhile.

But there were some stories about odd subjects that just didn't draw me in. Two articles on professional wrestling might have been one too many. There are tales of sumo wrestling, street drag racing, ice climbing, and ski ballet. I try to avoid stories on the UFC when possible. The transcript of a discussion of sports journalists in color struck me as relevant, but the writing didn't require more than a stenographer. And some stories, such as the essay on why a video of the Sun's surface was sort of like the New York Knicks, could have been avoided.

There were a few opinion pieces scattered along the way, and again some worked better than others. The article on how women's soccer has a chance to break through had me nodding in agreement at times, while a story on Kobe Bryant's appeal to Muslim got points for originality - although it might be a tough sell in most publications.

In the meantime, few of the stories were particularly topical. I'm not sure if that was a deliberate decision, but it sure would have been nice to read something about someone in the mainstream.

"Best Canadian Sports Writing" might have some appeal to the adventurous reader out there. I'd like to think I can qualify for that category, but it's a little over the line for me some of the time. Let's hope this became an annual effort, though, and perhaps the batting average will get better.

Three stars

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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Review: Ahead of the Curve (2016)

By Brian Kenny

If you are a baseball fan, you may have noticed that a statistical revolution has been taking place over the last couple of decades. We've come up with all sorts of new ways of more accurately measuring performance on the diamond, but it all can be a little confusing - maybe a lot confusing in some cases - to those who haven't been paying attention.

Television host Brian Kenny takes a look at the revolution in his book, "Ahead of the Curve," taking some of those advances principles and applying them to the present and the past. That's not a bad idea at all, although what he writes about may strike you as more pleasing as how he writes about it.

Some of the numbers that are kept in baseball have been with us for well over a century - batting average, pitching wins, fielding percentage, and so on. We have come to believe that a .300 hitter in baseball is a good hitter, and that a 20-game winner on the mound is a great pitcher. But there are obviously problems with those numbers. Batting average doesn't account for walks and power, which makes it less effective than on-base percentage and slugging percentage (now combined into one number by many called OPS) in making those judgments. Pitching wins have an obvious bias toward good teams (the more games you win ...) and offensive support. Sometimes a pitcher gets eight runs scored for him every time he takes the mound, and suddenly he has a 14-2 record. Earned-run average is a better tool to judge pitchers, although that has its drawbacks too.

It's rather remarkable how much information is now available to baseball teams, and they are busy coming up with more of it. Every major league franchise has an office full of bright people who are looking for an edge. Sometimes they find one. If you saw or read "Moneyball," you realize how on-base percentage was overlooked for sometime, giving the Oakland Athletics an edge. The Pirates jumped on board the concepts of defensive shifts and pitch framing early, which helped their rise from sub-mediocrity.

Kenny goes through a variety of topics here along those lines. He thinks the save isn't really a good barometer of relief pitching, and that teams are on their way to changing their use of pitchers so that more hurlers appear regularly in a game for a shorter length of time. If you watched the Indians last year work their way to the World Series, you realize that he may be right. Kenny throws in a look at MVP selections over time and who should have been taken in a given year. That might not be fair in spots, since sports writers didn't have today's tools, but it's a fun exercise. That includes the 1941 American League debate, which pitted Joe DiMaggio and his 56-game winning streak against Ted Williams and his .406 average. Kenny eventually goes with DiMaggio, who did win it at the time, but wavers along the way.

This is all fine, and if you are looking for a course in such matters, you'll be well-served in that sense. But I found myself coming back to the question, did I like reading this? That's a tougher one.

I remember Kenny from his days at ESPN. I don't see him on the air now because he's on the MLB Network, which isn't on my cable package. Kenny comes across in the book as really sure of himself, as if anyone who disagrees with him isn't worth his time. Some of the reviews on amazon.com indicate that he's like that on the air too.

I always like to say that if I'm going to read a book about something, I want to enjoy the author's company along the way. I found myself getting tired of baseball people and reporters being insulted here. I would have preferred to have been given the facts, which are on Kenny's side, and gone on from there. I know, though, that television these days prefers loud to reasonable.

"Ahead of the Curve" accomplishes its goal, and I can understand why many readers have liked it. Maybe they'll now understand I'm a little less enthusiastic about it.

Three stars

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