Sunday, August 20, 2017
Sportswriters always liked to tell stories about Paul Zimmerman, the legendary football reporter for Sports Illustrated who was known for his fanatic and complete dedication to his job. Here's one of them, told during Super Bowl week one year, which gets the point across. If it's not true, it should be.
Zimmerman was working for the New York Post one fall Saturday, and was assigned to cover some small college game. He wanted to see a big college game that started at 4 p.m. or so on television. Zimmerman liked to chart games as they went along, and he almost physically needed to be watching the game from the start - missing a play or two was unacceptable.
Zimmerman covered the first game, and shortly before its conclusion dashed down to the field to interview the coach and a star player or two briefly. Then he got in the car, drove to a nearby hotel, and got a room on the sixth floor of a hotel - arriving at 3:55 p.m.
Zimmerman grabbed his notebook, sat down, flipped on the TV ... and saw nothing. The television wasn't working. He called the front desk. "This is Paul Zimmerman in 612. My television set is not working. If I don't get a new room in the next five minutes, I will throw the television in this room from the balcony into the swimming pool below."
He got the room, and saw the kickoff.
Zimmerman's distinct literary voice has been quieted for the past nine years. He suffered a series of strokes in 2008, and cannot read, write or speak. Yes, some things just aren't fair.
Before the stroke, Zimmerman had taken a sabbatical and was hard at work on his memoirs. There wasn't much rhyme or reason to what he got down on paper, but he figured he would get to that. Fate had other plans.
But now friend and coworker Peter King of Sports Illustrated has taken those words, and organized them a bit. He also has added some columns written by Zimmerman for Sports Illustrated, and the result is an unexpected (because of the physical problems) surprise of the season: "Dr. Z - The Lost Memoirs of an Irreverent Football Writer."
The book is broken into 14 chapters, the various parts of Zimmerman's life. By far the longest is his personal all-time team in pro football, which is great fun to read. Zimmerman liked nothing better to look at film of old games and great players, and came up with ratings. The ratings are about a decade old at this point, and it would be interesting to see what he might do with the subject now. For example, has Tom Brady replaced Joe Montana as the greatest quarterback of the modern era? (John Unitas still wins the old school division.) Montana, by the way, is the subject of a fascinating feature story by Zimmerman, reprinted here from Sports Illustrated.
Football drives the book naturally, and there are stories from the Super Bowls and quarterbacks. But the Olympics get plenty of space, as do stories about journalism. There are stories about boxing with Ernest Hemingway, and about going to Columbia with a future KGB agent. The last four chapters turn personal - they are called "Wine," "Collecting," "Authority," and "National Anthem." That last one needs an explanation - Zimmerman used to time them at sporting events and keep records. That's not surprising from a person who could tell you how many steps there were from the lobby of the Newark airport to Gate 26.
A book like that almost has to be a little disorganized, since it was a work in progress when it came to a nearly 10-year halt. But, King did a good job of putting it all together so that you'd get the idea of what Zimmerman's life and talent were like.
Fans of Zimmerman probably will think that they are doing him and his family a little favor by supporting this project with a book project, and they no doubt are. Still, "Dr. Z" stands up pretty well for long-time football fans. And if you don't remember Zimmerman's work, this will open your eyes to a unique individual.
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Thursday, August 17, 2017
Baseball fans in the 1960s and 1970s knew that a handful of baseball records were about untouchable. That word could be used to describe Cy Young's win total of 511, and Rogers Hornsby's one-season batting average of .424. The game had changed a great deal since over the year by then, and no one had come close to such marks for quite a while.
Another, very different record also was in that category. Lou Gehrig played in 2,130 straight games for the New York Yankees. Few had close to half of that total for years, and it seemed improbable that anyone else could touch it. The same theory applied to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, another outlier that defies comprehension in some ways.
Here we are in 2017, then, and DiMaggio's record still stands tall. But it turns out we were really wrong about Gehrig's record. Who knew that Cal Ripken would come along?
Ripken went sailing past Gehrig in 1995, and finished with 2,632 straight games to his credit. It would be easy to say that never, ever will be touched, but maybe we know better than to deal in absolutes in such case.
Ripken and Gehrig have been linked ever since, so a book on the two of them and their streaks seems like a natural - even 22 years after they were connected. But John Eisenberg has a bigger goal in mind in his book, "The Streak." While focusing on those two famous streakers, he examines the entire concept of playing in a large number of games in a row.
It's an odd record as these things go. You have to be exceptional to set a career record for stolen bases or hits, but you just have to show up day after day in order to rate highly in this category. That's not unimportant - perfect attendance has been desirable for most since grammar school. Still, you have to be good enough to earn a regular spot in the lineup, and then stay there for several years.
Eisenburg takes this concept way, way back to the beginnings of professional baseball. He helps to bring alive those early "streakers," and recounts a few controversies that came up along the way. Record-keeping then wasn't perfect in the late 1800s, so a couple of mistakes were make that changed the numbers and the record book. Interestingly, such streaks weren't a big deal then, which is why George Pinkney and Steve Brokie weren't household names even back when they played.
Eventually, Everett Scott of the Red Sox and Yankees went flying by everyone, and then Gehrig came along. His goal was to play every day, and he succeeded for more than a decade. As Eisenberg points out, there were a few close calls along the way. Once in a great while, Gehrig did things like hit in the top of the first inning and then exit, thus keeping his streak in tact. Major League Baseball has changed its rules about such actions and streaks over the years. You now can't simply be placed in the starting lineup and then be taken out for a pinch-hitter in the top of the first and still have it count as a game played. But Gehrig's tactics do make Ripken's ledger even more impressive, in that he went seasons without missing a single inning.
Eisenberg does a fine job of talking to several people about Ripken's big moments in the streak, making the feeling come along nicely. He also gets some opinions on how Ripken and Gehrig had slightly different obstacles to overcome in order to play so long, and on why the long consecutive streak may be a thing of the past.
Admittedly, a consecutive-game streak is almost a curiosity as these things go, and that might limit the audience a bit. Eisenberg admits that it took longer that he would have liked to finish this book. A natural landing point for the effort would have been 2015, 20 years after Ripken broke Gehrig's record.
But those who dive into "The Streak" will find some definite rewards. I'm not sure how the subject could be covered any better, and it will fully satisfy the appetite of avid baseball fans out there.
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Wednesday, August 9, 2017
I'm not sure the Houston Astros were the most faceless team in baseball for some time, but they were in the argument.
Think about it. The team entered the National League in 1962, and struggled like most expansion teams. In those early years, most people probably thought of a stadium - the legendary Astrodome - when asked about the team. They didn't have many iconic players, and you could argue that they traded their best one (Joe Morgan) before he became famous. Houston had some memorable moments but oddly they were associated with losses. The 1980 playoff loss to Philadelphia, and the 1986 playoff loss to the New York Mets were amazing moments but ultimately unsuccessful ones.
The Astros had some very good players pass through Houston, such as Morgan and Nolan Ryan, and some good players who stayed like Larry Dierker and Jimmy Wynn. But there were great players who arrived and stayed, like Cal Ripken or George Brett.
That all changed, or at least started to change, in 1988. It is when Craig Biggio first arrived on the Astros' roster. A few years later, Jeff Bagwell followed Biggio to the big club. That was a heck of a right side of the infield for a decade. That's why Greg Lucas was smart to highlight those two in his brisk history of the Astros, "Houston to Cooperstown."
Biggio might have had one of the most unusual skill sets in baseball. No one has ever gone from catcher to second base to center field during the course of a career, and played it well. He was essentially too good an athlete and player to stay as a catcher, where the wear and tear of the position shortens careers. Bagwell was a topnotch power hitter, someone who moved from third to first at the start of his career and found a home.
The Astros still didn't receive a great deal of publicity with them around, but they popped up in the playoffs a few times with these two leading the way. Both of them piled up some big numbers. It's fun to look back and here and be reminded of just what they did. Biggio might have had the more impressive career because he was a little better in the counting stats, like 3,000 hits. Bagwell's body (the shoulder in particular) broke down toward the end, perhaps because he lifted too many heavy weights in the gym in an effort to stay strong. Both are now enshrined in Cooperstown, as Bagwell went in this year - which couldn't have hurt book sales.
Lucas, a former broadcaster for the team, covers the early years quite quickly, and lingers on the days of the two stars. Once Biggio and Bagwell are done, the author moves on to the last decade or so, which started with the arrow on the team pointing way, way down, but changed 180 degrees. Now they are one of the best teams in baseball.
If I could be allowed a bit of nit-picking, there are a couple of issues with the book - one of which has nothing to do with the publication itself. Biggio and Bagwell come off as good guys and solid citizens throughout. There's not much drama there. I could see how they'd be easy to cheer for, but their stories will leave your draw undropped. There also are some editing issues along the way, mostly in the form of the odd typo. Red Sox fans certainly will notice that Yastrzemski is misspelled twice here. Baseball readers are notoriously sensitive to such things - maybe too sensitive - but one more read by an editor might have helped.
Otherwise, "Houston to Cooperstown" reaches its goals nicely. It will bring back memories of Astros gone by for the local fans, while filling in the gaps of knowledge for the out-of-towners. I've known Greg Lucas since the late 1970s, and in my slightly biased viewpoint he's hit another line drive.
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