Monday, July 2, 2018

Review: Football for a Buck (2018)

By Jeff Pearlman

It's tough to say if "Football for a Buck" ever would have been published had Donald Trump not been elected - or, depending on the timing, a candidate to be - President of the United States. After all, it's about a football league that lasted three years and then went out of business with something of a whimper.

If that's the case, there will be those who say Trump finally did something good in the world of sports.

For "Football for a Buck" is fabulous and fun for more than 300 pages.

Author Jeff Pearlman has written a variety of good books over the years, and never steered away from controversy in the process. This effort, though, is a little different. Pearlman admits that he had something of a crush on the United States Football League when it was formed in 1983 - when the author was in school - and he obviously had a ball doing the research (something like 400 interviews) and writing for it.

For those who are too young to remember, here's a refresher course on the USFL. The idea was to form a nice little football league in the spring - when there would be no pressure to compete with the NFL, and give the nation's football fans something to watch. Remember, the NCAA basketball tournament was just starting to grow in the early 1980s, and the same could be said for basketball and hockey playoffs. In other words, it was easy to picture a niche for the new league.

It's a rather typical story for the a new sports league. Some teams were well financed and professionally run, and did fine. Others had poor ownership and very limited talent. It set up something of the haves and have-nots when it came to on-field play. Sometimes the teams folded up their tents and moved quietly to the next city. While there was a plan to keep budgets in place in order to slowly build a winner, rich owners quickly decided to violate that rule when they had a chance to win. For example, the Michigan Panthers signed some expensive offensive lineman in the league's first season, and the move produced a champion.

It's the stories that make the book come alive, and Pearlman collected bunches of them. There are tales of fights and drug use. A tale about two busloads of prostitutes greeting a football team that had just moved to a town, handing out business cards to their new potential clients. Stories about missed payrolls and players who invent new reactions to being cut from a pro team - like punching the coach. Since the league was in business more than 30 years ago, everyone seems free to open up to everything that went on. It's all great reading, and frequently hilarious.

Trump certainly gets plenty of attention in this story, and it's fair to say that many blame him for the demise of the league. Trump spent wildly and foolishly on his New Jersey Generals, couldn't control his ego, frequently lied, and alienated himself from practically everyone - according to the accounts here. Anyone going to his  New York City office for an appointment - anyone - had to sit through an eight-minute video explaining how wonderful Trump was. I particularly liked the story about how Trump disguised his voice slightly and called reporters as "a public relations man" to leak stories out. Some of this sort of behavior may sound familiar if you've been reading newspapers in the past couple of years.

More than that, Trump urged the league to move to the fall and compete with the NFL head on, probably in the hopes of getting into the established league one way or another. He also assured his fellow owners that the USFL would win an anti-trust suit against the NFL that would change everything. The new league did win the suit, but only award $1 in damages - times three, because it was an anti-trust case. The USFL was instantly dead, and legal analysis indicated that Trump's own testimony was a major reason why the upstarts did not win the case.

The USFL may not have survived past three years, but its influence was felt for quite a while. Players like Jim Kelly and Reggie White became Hall of Famers, while executives such as Carl Peterson and Bill Polian became major players in NFL executive circles. It also helped push the NFL toward such rule changes as replay challenges and the two-point conversion.

Admittedly, I'm a sucker for books on new leagues - I've tried to read them all. "Football for a Buck" is right up there with "Loose Balls" (an oral history of the American Basketball Association) for entertainment value. Don't miss this one.

Five stars

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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Review: The Breakaway (2018)

By Bryan Smith

You don't have to be too old to remember when the Chicago Blackhawks of the National Hockey League were a bad team all the time. After all, it only dates back 11 years.

Back in 2007, the Blackhawks were quite dreary. They had missed the playoffs for the previous four years and in eight of the nine previous seasons. Attendance was awful, and apathy reigned supreme.

Contrast that to where the team is in 2018. OK, the Hawks missed the playoffs this year for the first time in a decade. But in between, they won three Stanley Cups - including a win in 2010 that ends a drought that stretched back to 1961. The building is full, and no one can complain about the state of the team for the time being ... at least too loudly.

What happened? It's a not-overly-long story. What's more, it's well told by Chicago writer Bryan Smith in his book, "The Breakaway."

This is a hockey story to some degree, and there are lessons here about the sports business and its management. But mostly, though, this is the story of a family called Wirtz. And it's quite a tale - a fellow named Shakespeare might feel right at home with it.

Arthur Wirtz had made a fortune in the depression and  bought the Blackhawks in 1946 when things weren't going so good for that franchise. He had some success with the team, and it had some stars such as Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita and won that Stanley Cup in 1981. When he died in 1983, son William - who had been involved with the team for many years - officially took over. Bill was a complicated figure, and he liked to do things his way for better or for worse. The team eventually slid into mediocrity as the game changed much more quickly than he did. For example, his was the last NHL team to televise home games. Bill valued loyalty over everything, but that didn't change the dynamics of the franchise.

It took his death to do that, and that came in 2007. Bill's will included instructions that son Rocky (shortly for Rockwell, a middle name) was to take over the team. That's in spite of the fact that father and son sometimes weren't on good terms either. And that move and other business decisions. that followed split the family part to the point where some of them only communicate through lawyers now.

One surprise followed another for Rocky when he took a look around the Blackhawks - although he wasn't shocked when fans booed during a moment of silence for his dad before a game. More disturbing was that the front office was in a shambles, and the team was losing something like $30 million per year. That sort of money was starting to take a toll on the whole financial empire.

Get the idea? Smith outlines the particulars nicely here, as Rocky was quite generous with his time in telling how the Blackhawks went from bums to champions in only three years. It's fun to read stories like the one about Rocky taking over his grandfather's office, which had been left more or less idle since Arthur died. Wirtz also allowed the author to interview several other people in the organization, which helps a lot. By the way, Rocky's brothers and sisters declined to comment for the book, perhaps not surprisingly under the circumstances.

Smith does point out that a couple of big pieces were in place for a recovery when Rocky Wirtz took control. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were already part of the organization, and they were the centerpieces for a return to glory. Another piece was when John McDonough left the top position with the Chicago Cubs to take over the business side of the Blackhawks. While it took common sense to see some of the moves needed to revive the franchise, McDonough still got all of it done in an extremely short period of time.

"The Breakaway" isn't a particularly long book, and it's easy to get a little lost following the names of family members and the various business that were part of the Wirtz empire. But the hockey material ought to be very interesting to anyone who follows sports and its management relatively closely.

I'm fond of saying that sports teams lose for a reason. That's a point that is fully illustrated here, and the story of the team's turnaround is a worthwhile one.

Four stars

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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Review: Golden Days (2017)

By Jack McCallum

In one very important sense, this book has not dated at all since it was released late in 2017. The Golden State Warriors are the champions of the NBA.

The Warriors rolled past the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals once again in 2018. That's three championships in four years for Golden State. Therefore, a book that has the Warriors and the key personalities celebrating a title looks much the same as it did a year ago when it was written.

"Golden Days" is that book. And no matter when you read it, it's great fun to go through.

The format is an interesting one. Author Jack McCallum, who you might remember if you have been reading Sports Illustrated for a while, does his impression of describing a ping-pong game in the story. He flips between the story of the present-day Warriors and the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.

You might remember those Lakers. Thanks to Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Company, that team demolished the league in a season that included a record 33-game winning streak. It won the NBA championship relatively easily. Interestingly, it's a Laker team that got better when a Hall of Famer, Elgin Baylor, retired very early in the season. He was a replaced by a young player, Jim McMillian, was an improvement at the position compared to Baylor at their respective times in their careers. (Personal note: McMillian was one of my all-time favorites, and it's nice to read McCallum's praise of the forward's play here.)

There is a common denominator in the two teams, a fact that McCallum exploits nicely. West not only was a star as a player for the Lakers, but he was a consultant in the Warriors' front office during their run while in his 70s. In between he had a variety of roles, including general manager of the Lakers. There he put together some of the great teams in basketball history, and established a reputation as one of the sharpest minds in the game. West also is something of a tortured soul; he wrote at length about his life in "West on West," one of the most revealing sports autobiographies ever written. Admittedly, the '72 Lakers and '17 Warriors were very different teams without much in common, but they were both fun to watch when everything was working well - which is usually did.

McCallum obviously admired what that 71-72 Laker team did, and he happily goes back to talk to several of the principals on that team about what went so right. The winning streak gets the most coverage, as it reached a number that hasn't been approached in any of the four major sports in history. Don't hold your breath on that either.

But the Warriors get plenty of love and appreciation too. What they have done in the last few years has been revolutionary in its own way. Golden State was good before it had the chance Kevin Durant to its lineup in the summer of 2017. His addition created a little backlash with cries that the Warriors bent the rules a little to create a superteam, but you have to give them all credit for what they have accomplished. Durant, perhaps basketball's most pure scorer, did what he needed to do to fit in. The group is now two for two in championships.

Both Durant and Steph Curry are well explored. It's fascinating to read about Curry's game and what makes him so special - a list of traits that includes incredible range on his jump shot and a shooting release that is the fastest in basketball history. Steve Kerr also gets some credit for his team's success. Sportswriters always love talking to Kerr, who not only is smart and knows the game but is worldly and opinionated on things that have nothing to do with basketball. About the only drawback to this story is that it's difficult to make the tale of new ownership and front office actions too interesting, but they are probably necessary in telling how the Warriors went from irrelevant to the most charismatic professional sports team in the country.

Even with names like Chamberlain, Durant and Curry around, the star of the book is obviously West. McCallum obviously spent a great deal of time with "The Logo" during the book's research, and he remains an endlessly interesting person. West has always stayed in the present and not lived in the past, an easy trap for someone who was one of the game's best ever. You can tell that McCallum loved being around him for extended periods; they even watched Game Four of the 2017 Finals together, with West supplying analysis.

McCallum obviously loves his hoops, and its easy to become caught up in his enthusiasm for the game and its players. Yes, there will be some young adults that aren't interested in a team that won a title 20 years before they were born. But otherwise, this is almost as much fun to read as McCallum had writing it - and his sheer joy in "Golden Days" comes across in almost every page.

Four stars

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Review: I'm Keith Hernandez (2018)

By Keith Hernandez

For a guy who has spent almost all of his life around a baseball field, Keith Hernandez is becoming a prolific writer.

He had written two books earlier in his life, "Pure Baseball" and "Shea Good-Bye." Now he's back with book number three, "I'm Keith Hernandez." And it sure looks like there is at least another one to come.

Hernandez's first book was a pitch-by-pitch breakdown of a typical game, and it was the best one of the three - especially for those who wanted to learn how the game was played. The second book was a day-by-day account of the New York Mets' last season in Shea Stadium. It came across as forgettable, particularly as that year moved further back in the rear-view mirror.

This new one, though, has a much more interesting approach than the last one. Hernandez, a former standout first baseman who now works as a commentator on the Mets' telecasts, starts off this one by saying he wanted to write a book that was different than other sports stories. Therefore, he concentrates on the period of his playing career between when he first signed with the Cardinals and when he "made it" by winning a share of the MVP award in 1979. (Hernandez and Willie Stargell tied in the voting.)

And that works quite well for the most part, mostly because of the fact that time has allowed Hernandez to be honest about his feelings in that era. We rarely notice, but very few people arrive in the major leagues of any sport fully formed - a Hall of Famer from Day One. Albert Pujols and Mike Trout might be the best examples of that in baseball in recent times. For mere mortals, those early years are filled with fits and starts. How the adjustments are made along the way determines how well a particular player's career might take shape.

Here's an example of someone who didn't adjust. A young hockey player came up to the NHL as a first-round draft choice. He didn't find instant success, and had a chat with a psychologist about how bad things were. The analyst pointed out that he was about 21 years old, making almost a million dollars a year. In the big picture, how bad could things be? The player admitted that the psychologist was right, even if it didn't feel like it. Too bad he never acted like he believed it, as he washed out of the sport after a brief, uneventful career.

In Hernandez's case, he tells about how the help of others often gave him a boost when he needed it most. It might come from a fellow player, telling him to adjust his swing in a particular way. It might be a coach or manager who expressed confidence that Hernandez was going to be a very good player in the very near future, and put him in the lineup every day. It's evident in the book just how appreciated the advice was.

Hernandez also scores some point by being painfully honest about his behavior in those years, especially the early ones in the majors. The temptations of sex, drugs and rock and roll were everywhere and obvious in that time period, and Hernandez dove into the pool at times. 

You could argue that Hernandez makes one good-sized mistake in the literary sense here. The story more or less ping-pongs by chapter between the story of Hernandez's development as a player, and other areas. In the first part of the book, those "odd" chapters (as opposed to "even," I guess) are spent with stories of his youth. But later on, Hernandez moves into some odd areas, such as analytics or broadcasting. They may be interesting, but they feel like they are from another book - such as "Shea Goodbye."

Reading the reviews on Amazon.com are rather interesting. They read as if some people saw the cover, thought they'd be reading a great deal in an autobiography about the Mets of the mid-1980s, and were disappointed that stories about that era were nowhere to be found. So let's make the point again - this is not that book. You'll have to wait, apparently, for a review of his life as a New York ball player.

What we have, though, is pretty interesting. "I'm Keith Hernandez" reminds us there are few short cuts to success - it's a long route that few of us must take to get to the desired destination.

Four stars

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Friday, June 8, 2018

Review: Upon Further Review (2018)

Edited by Mike Pesca

Historians love to ponder the "what ifs?" of their subject. What if Germany constructed an atomic bomb before the United States? What if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed? What if Ralph Nader had not run for president in 2000? (Those who are interested in such things definitely should pick up Jeff Greenfield's books on recent political history.)

That concept also applies to sports. You could come up with an interesting list of questions to ask about the potential doorways opened to sports in my city, Buffalo, by changing a few key facts or two. What would have happened if Scott Norwood's kick was good? And if Brett Hull's goal was disallowed? Or if major league baseball granted a franchise to Buffalo in the early 1990s?

It's all fun to think about all of this. Therefore, it's fun to pick up a copy of Mike Pesca's book, "Upon Further Review." It covers several areas that you might have thought about, and a few that you certainly haven't.

Pesca lined up a series of interesting contributors, who combined to write 31 essays on a variety of subjects. Most are rather short, although Claude Johnson comes up with a long essay on basketball in the late 1940s and how a bad pass in a tournament might have changed the integration of the sport in that era. A partial list would include Leigh Montville on Muhammad Ali, Jason Gay on football around 1900, Stefan Fatsis on the Yankees-Red Sox playoff game in 1978, Mary Pilon on Title IX, Jeremy Schaap on Tyson-Douglas, Michael MacCambridge on Super Bowl III, and Bob Ryan on a Portland Trail Blazers' dynasty featuring a healthy Bill Walton.

The authors go in a variety of different directions and approaches here, and some work better than others. For example, Louisa Thomas makes a convincing argument that sports history wouldn't have been all that different had the United States' Women's World Cup soccer team lost the 1999 title in a shootout instead of winning it. Will Leitch wonders what baseball would look like if it were played only once a week, like football. Paul Snyder wonders what would have happened if track and field exploded as a sport in the 1950s. Hint: Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell have a rivalry after all ... but as high jumpers.

The outright fantasy stories don't work as well. Ethan Sherwood Strauss speculates on how today's Golden State Warriors would do if they traveled to the past to play a couple of great teams under the old rules. Jesse Eisenberg projects that his fan letter to Dan Majerle altered the course of basketball history. Nate DiMeo speculates on what might have happened if the tug-of-war had remained an Olympic event. Josh Levin ends the book by turning Game Seven of the 2016 World Series into every baseball movie ever made. After Malcolm Gladwell's foreword and Pesca's introduction that gave weight to the idea of studying revisionist history, the handful of just-for-fun scenarios come off a little forced. But they are all relatively clever, and certainly will work for some.

I'm a believer that chance plays a good-sized role in sports history, and that it wouldn't take much to change short-term and long-term outcomes dramatically. "Upon Further Review" will get you to thinking about such possibilities, and thus works pretty well.

Four stars

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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Review: Press Pass (2016)

By Bob Trimble

This might be that rare book in which the author's stories about his work experiences that are printed might take a back seat to a more personal look at his life.

Bob Trimble was one of those kids who wanted to go into sports broadcasting when he grew up, and succeeded in that goal. He was a boy in the Pittsburgh area, but most of his career was spent in Michigan with a good-sized stop in Buffalo. Bob was pretty good at is, as his longevity indicates.

But apparently soon after he lost his job in Buffalo when the Empire Sports Network folded, Bob suffered from a case of Bell's Palsy. He never completely recovered from the ailment. Then throw in a heart attack and some depression issues, and it's clear that life hasn't been too fair to one of the nice guys of the business. (Disclaimer: I knew him during his days in Buffalo a bit.)

A couple of years ago, Bob sat down and wrote a book about his sportscasting experiences. It's called "Press Pass." It's surprising that no one in Buffalo heard about it before now, but he recently came to town to sell it.

The format is quite simple. After introducing himself as a 1979 Ohio University graduate, Bob takes us through an alphabetical list of some of the sports personalities he encountered over the years. It's an interesting list, with some national figures involved. Muhammad Ali gets us off to a good start, followed by such people as Bjorn Born, Scotty Bowman, Terry Bradshaw, Howard Cosell, Dick Butkus, Wayne Gretzky, Steve Garvey, Gordie Howe, Earvin Johnson, Michael Jordan, Mario Lemieux, Joe Namath and Arnold Palmer.

Spoiler alert: They all tend to come off well here. Sometimes I wished that the ancedotes would center more on the interview subjects rather than how the conversations came to pass. But, they might be dated or deal with long-forgotten events that aren't too interesting in hindsight. ("Have you ever been to Grand Rapids before?) There are enough insights and interesting tales to move you along.

Trimble does one thing in this sort that is extremely rare - he devotes a chapter to "The Bad Guys." There are only four people listed - Dennis Conner, Scott Mitchell, Tom Seaver and Lou Whitaker. Well, that's not a bad batting average if those are the only bums out there. The chapter does make one appreciate the good guys more, even if they are in the vast majority. Trimble also pays tribute to some broadcasters and writers he's encountered along the way, and actors ranging from James Caan to Jamie Farr get a chapter too.

Self-published books usually have a few more errors in them than the ones done by the pros, and that's the case here. It happens. But Trimble's writing style is straight to the point and conversational, so it's easy reading.

It's good that Bob got "Press Pass" out of his system. He had the chance to tell stories about his career, and maybe it will give him a little closure. No rating here, because I'm a friend and made a trip down to a restaurant to get an autographed copy. But people who live in the same areas that Bob did ought to enjoy it well enough.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Review: Jim Brown (2018)

By Dave Zirin

Jim Brown was and is a complicated man.

He's always done what he's wanted to do, knocking over obstacles along the way. Sometimes that's worked out well, and sometimes it's been a less than perfect situation for him and others. But he's always been a loud, articulate voice for his beliefs that commands attention.

Is it a surprise, then, that Dave Zirin's biography of Brown, "Jim Brown - Last Man Standing," is complicated to read? Probably not.

Let's start the discussion with Zirin, an interesting writer with a long string of credits. The first one is that he's a sports editor of The Nation Magazine, concentrating on the politics of sports. The writer also has published columns in "The Progressive." Zirin has written several books, and you can almost guess his orientation by reading the titles: "Game Over: How Politics Turned the Sports World Upside Down." "The John Carlos Story." "A People's History of Sports in the United States."

Before even opening the book, then, the reader knows that this will not concentrate on football games, and that Brown's actions will be mostly praised and defended in the pages to come. Check and check.

Brown was born in South Carolina but moved to Long Island as a child - where he became as good an athlete as that area - or perhaps any area - has ever seen. Brown didn't stop excelling once he got to Syracuse University. He was an outstanding football player who should have won the Heisman Trophy, but probably didn't because of racial prejudice. But as good as Brown was in football, he might have been a better lacrosse player. Mix a 6-foot-2, 230-pound mountain of a man with strength and speed, and you come close to athletic perfection.

Brown didn't skip a beat when he arrived in the NFL, arriving with the Cleveland Browns as the rookie of the year, and exiting as the league's most valuable player. And then he retired, still in his prime, walking away while he still could. Nobody did that then, but Brown was his own man.

Zirin divides Brown's life into several compartments from there, although sometimes the dots aren't fully connected. Chapters deal with Brown's involvement into the civil rights - this was a man who took a step back from fully endorsing Dr. Martin Luther King's efforts while endorsing Richard Nixon in 1968. Brown appeared in some movies and tried to produce others, but his career in Hollywood didn't go that far. Was that racism or lack of ability? Zirin seems to lean to the former, although it's certainly possible that it just wasn't a good fit.

Some years later, Brown turned his efforts toward improving lives in inner cities with his Amer-I-Can program. He certainly put time and his own money into that venture starting in 1988, and had some successes. Amer-I-Can is still in business, although it might not have had the impact that some expected - perhaps because of a lack of seed money from backers (private and public). Even Zirin has trouble fully defending Brown when it comes to treatment of women. The public figure has been involved in a number of incidents over the years, none of which has led to convictions. Still, there's a lot of smoke out there.

But Zirin's last point is a good one. Brown is past the age of 80, walks with a cane, and can't turn his head around, but he's still out there fighting for his beliefs. Whenever an issue meshes politics and sports, such as Colin Kaepernick's protests, Brown's phone still rings for reactions. His contemporaries - Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, etc. - may not response for one reason or another, but Brown never ducks such issues.

This book could have used some end notes on who was interviewed and when. I assumed that anything that wasn't attributed to another source comes from Brown or another interview subject directly, although I shouldn't have to guess. It's also unusual to read a biography with such a particular point of view; history for me usually goes down easier when the story is presented from a step back for perspective's sake.

Brown continues to fascinate us, commanding attention as the clock counts down. "Jim Brown" presents a good-sized if somewhat one-sided portrait of a man who will be remembered for more than carrying a football as a young man - someone who became an imperfect but interesting adult for more than half a century. Those with an interest in him will find plenty to think about here.

Three stars

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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Review: Pudge (2015)

By Doug Wilson

They don't make 'em like Carlton Fisk any more.

The Hall of Famer was, as that description implies, the greatest of his generation at the baseball position of catcher. He holds several records in the sport for durability and longevity, as he played into his 40s at a position in which one's knees are supposedly done by 35 or so. Old-fashioned hard work throughout his life gets much of the credit, although the individual doing that work is just as special.

Fisk was always one of those strong, silent types out of rural New England, where bragging wasn't done or appreciated. It's tough to imagine him sitting down for long periods of time to write an autobiography.

So it's up to someone else to fill in the gaps of describing Fisk. Doug Wilson took on the job when he wrote "Pudge" The author of a few other baseball books comes through with a thorough job of reviewing an eventful life.

Fisk's baseball story is an unlikely one for a couple of big reasons. The first is that he grew up in Charlestown, New Hampshire. That's located right on the Connecticut River on the eastern edge of the state, south of Hanover (home of Dartmouth). The winters can be long there and the springs slow in arriving, so you can imagine just how many baseball prospects come out of that region. Somehow, Fisk beat the odds.

Adding to the joy that Charlestown felt about sending one of its native sons to the majors was that Fisk landed in Boston to play for the Red Sox, New England's team. Could there have been a better pairing for all concerned? It didn't take Fisk long to be considered the greatest catcher in Red Sox history, proving to be a good fit with other 1970s stars on that team like Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, and Fred Lynn. He developed a good rivalry with fellow catcher Thurman Munson of the Yankees along the way.

Catchers take a pounding in baseball sometimes, which is reason number two why this is an unlikely story. Fisk suffered a very serious knee injury relatively early in his long career, and there was some doubt about whether he'd ever play again at anything close to the previous level. The catcher did the work, and recovered to play at his previous levels for many more years.

What's more, Fisk took part in two of the iconic baseball moments of the 1970's. He was the central figure in one of them, a game-ending home run in Game Six of the 1975 World Series - finishing what is still considered one of the greatest games ever played. In another, he and the Red Sox fell to the Yankees in the 1978 playoff game that capped an era of intense rivalry between those teams. Both are well covered here, as you might expect.

Fisk was also part of a turbulent and somewhat forgotten about era in baseball in which the game's financial structure was blown up and rebuilt. Salaries exploded and Fisk was involved in an odd series of events - too complex to discuss here but nicely examined in the book - that led to him being declared a free agent and poisoning the relationship between the catcher and the Red Sox.

Fisk landed with the White Sox, and became the face of the franchise for most of the 1980s. Wilson doesn't have as much material here, as Chicago only won one division title during the catcher's time wearing #72 (he flipped his old number, 27, around after changing teams). The ending of Fisk's tenure as a White Sox player was awkward as well. That's not unusual, as it's always tough to know when a veteran athlete is done or merely in a slump - particularly an athlete as proud as Fisk.

Wilson talked to a long list of Fisk's teammates and associates here. Occasionally the material feels a little repetitive, but sometimes that research pulls out a little gem. I loved the story about someone climbing up the stairs to the top of a church in Charlestown right after Fisk's World Series home. A policeman arrived to find out what the fuss was about. When told about the homer, he answered: "Hell, if I'd known that, I'd have come and helped you."

The biggest drawback might be a slight hole in the middle of the story. There are plenty of quotes from Fisk accumulated from his years in the spotlight, but it's tough to know what he's really thinking along the way. No doubt he likes it that way.

Even so, "Pudge" works quite well. If you are of age to remember his body of work from the standings, then this should bring back some good memories and fill in some gaps in the narrative.

Four stars

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Sunday, April 8, 2018

Review: Lou (2017)

By Lou Piniella with Bill Madden

When I first got a look at Lou Piniella in person, he was a young prospect in the Baltimore Orioles' farm system. The outfielder was OK as a Double-A player in Elmira, New York, but not someone that could be projected into a long baseball career.

Boy, was that wrong.

Piniella made it to the major leagues for good in 1969, winning Rookie of the Year honors with the Kansas City Royals. He stayed in the game through the early 2010s, so he had a half-century of involvement with the game at its highest level. (For the record, Elmira followed him like a favorite son every step of the way.)

A guy like that should write a book, especially if he has a strong New York connection (sales and all that), and Piniella finally got around to it in 2017. The result is "Lou." Not surprisingly, the cover photo has Lou in a Yankee hat - he became relatively famous wearing pinstripes.

It's easy to think that Piniella beat some long odds to have the life he did. He wasn't a great prospect coming out of the Tampa area, but he did sign a pro contract. Piniella worked hard but did some bouncing around along the way. After some decent but not overwhelming years in Kansas City, Piniella was traded to the Yankees... and the fun began.

The Yankees of the late 1970s and early 1980s had some stars, but they also had some grinding players who seemed dangerous when it mattered most. Ask the Boston Red Sox, who might have had a happier ending to the 1978 had Piniella not displayed some unexpected defensive skills in the playoff game with New York.

Piniella had a front-row seat to the "Bronx Zoo" days of the Yankees in that era, and he naturally has some stories about Billy Martin, George Steinbrenner and Reggie Jackson. Those years have been covered elsewhere in other books. Come to think of it, co-author Bill Madden - the fine Daily News writer - has worked on several of those books. It still amazing that the "win first, argue later" approach of those Yankee teams worked so well.

Those stories of turmoil continued into the 1980s, as Piniella eventually turned into a Yankee executive. He got a chance at managing but couldn't quite get New York over the finish line, and eventually decided to go elsewhere. That came with some heartache, according to this book, but it probably was for the best for all concerned.

The rest of Piniella's story might be the most interesting to some fans, simply because it hasn't really been told. He landed in Cincinnati, where he led the Reds to one of the great upsets in World Series history by beating the mighty Oakland Athletics. From there it was on to Seattle, where he had the chance to manage Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson and Ichiro Suzuki. Then Piniella was on to Tampa Bay, where he was hamstrung by finances, and Chicago (Cubs), which went through an assortment of ownership groups while he was managing - a recipe for problems.

For a guy who is best remembered for throwing bases around while arguing with umpires, Piniella comes off as rather calm here. He says religion helped him reach that state, and he probably mellowed a bit with age. Piniella also seems quite affected by the fact that three of his closest friends in baseball - Thurman Munson, Jim Hunter and Bobby Murcer - all died at a young age.

No matter what the reason, he's a little embarrassed by a few of his actions in hindsight. Piniella also gets some help along the way here, as people like Griffey and Rodriguez contribute their stories a few times. I'm not a great fan of that technique, but it works pretty well here.

It's difficult to have a strong reaction to "Piniella." It was an interesting baseball life, and the seasons do go by quickly. But the book may not be called fascinating or filled with bombshells. Let's just say, then, that this autobiography is worth your time, and will get an extra star from Yankee fans.

Three stars

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Sunday, April 1, 2018

Review: Unbeaten (2018)

By Mike Stanton

This one is personal.

Brockton, Massachusetts, is a small city in the southeast part of the state. Once upon a time it was one of the shoe manufacturing centers of the United States, with millions of pairs produced per year. The work was tough and difficult in some cases, but it was also honest and put food on the table for thousands. That led to a better life for a lot of people, and a better future for their children.

There wasn't a lot of glamour attached to Brockton back in the day, before the shoe business dried up. But in the late 1940s and 1950s it had Rocky Marciano, and that was something.

Marciano fought his way to the heavyweight championship, when that title meant almost everything in sports. He finished his career unbeaten at 49-0, something no heavyweight has ever done. Marciano put Brockton on the map, no small task.

While I'd like to think that my parents and grandparents were the Favorite Sons and Daughters of Brockton, since they are natives of the place, reality puts Marciano as the champion in that category. I spent roughly the first six years of my life there (late 1950s), and went back frequently for visits. It was difficult not to hear stories about Marciano from relatives and friends. Even today, it's tough not to see evidence of his life - such as the monument just outside the stadium that's name after him.

Let me assure you, then, that Mike Stanton gets just about everything right in his thorough book on Marciano's life, "Unbeaten."

Stanton really captures what Brockton was like, particularly for those immigrant families who came there looking for that better life. Rocky Marciano (real name - Rocco Francis Marchegiano) was born in 1923, and thus became aware of life right about the time the Depression started. For the record, my father was born about six months later and didn't really have any memories of Rocky in high school even though they were in the same building for a while. Rocky dropped out along the way.

After Marciano was kicked out of the military, you might have picked him as the longest of long shots to be famous. He wasn't well educated, and manual labor of some sort seemed like his best option in life. But he was a good athlete, and he was dedicated and determined. Although Marciano wasn't a bad catcher, boxing was a much better fit. By Stanton's description, Rocky was incredibly raw - but he was very strong and wanted to learn.

The wins started to pile up, and eventually he climbed the ladder into the heavyweight rankings. There was a vacuum created by the retirement of Joe Louis from the boxing scene, and there wasn't much talent to replace him - until Marciano walked in. He knocked out Joe Walcott in an epic bout to win the championship, and kept it through the time he retired 1955. Rocky didn't fight very often as champion, partly because of the tax laws of the time, and he didn't have that many great opponents. But he showed up every night, punched in, did his job, got the win, and went home. Residents of Brockton used to bet as much money as they could on the Native Son, collect the winnings, and have a party. My parents used to drive from Philadelphia to Brockton on fight nights, just so they could join in the inevitable celebration. The book tells how people bought cars and houses with those winnings.

The fights are carefully reviewed, one after another. Stanton must have sore eyes from reading microfilm and watching YouTube. But he really does justice to a couple of other areas in Marciano's life that deserved investigation.

The first centers on the sport of boxing in the 1950s, which was - by any standard - a mess. Fixed fights were relatively common, and organized crime played a role in the sport. There are no signs that Marciano had pre-planned outcomes in his fights. However, his de facto manager, Al Weill, was also the matchmaker for the International Boxing Club, which essentially ran the sport during the 1950s. Marciano discovered Weill was skimming some money off the top of purses for his own benefit, and that may have helped drive him into retirement. On the other hand, the boxer probably benefited from having a, um, well-connected business partner in terms of his career.

Then after retirement, Stanton refers to Marciano as "America's Guest," someone who never paid for anything if he could help it. (By the way, my grandmother told me stories about how Rocky's mother didn't like opening her purse either, throwing off lines like "Don't you know who I am? I'm the Champ's Mother.") The Depression and the dishonest manager left a few scars in that area. I guess. Marciano may have been America's worst money manager during the remaining years of his life, hoarding cash when possible and hiding it in all sorts of places. When he died in an airplane crash, the locations of those bankrolls went with him.

It's tough to know how good Marciano was. He was small for a heavyweight by today's standards, checking in at under 190 pounds. Marciano came along at a bad time for talent. But he could throw and take a punch, and rarely took a step back. Maybe he's Joe Frazier with a better chin. And he beat everyone was put in front of him, and nobody else has ever done that.

Marciano, then, certainly deserves a first-class biography, and this is that. Take it from another grandson of Brockton - "Unbeaten" brings an interesting if complicated era back to life.

Five stars

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review: Smart Baseball (2017)

By Keith Law

"Smart Baseball" is sort of like a college textbook, except for the fact that there aren't many classes in most universities on baseball analysis.

Translation: For the most part, it gets a bit more difficult to read as you go along.

Even so, you'll probably come out a bit smarter once you are done reading it.

Keith Law is the professor of sorts for the book, and he's well qualified to lead the discussion. Law is a former writer for Baseball Prospectus. He worked in the front office of the Blue Jays for a while - heck, he was the entire analytics department - before moving on to ESPN. Law's columns there have been smart and interesting.

In his first book, Law takes us through the revolution in baseball statistics. If you've been paying attention for the last several years, you know that all sorts of different numbers are now "out there." Suddenly such terms of "spin rate" and "launch velocity" are popping up on television broadcasts.

This book is divided into three sections. Part One is going to be the most interesting for most readers. Here Law goes through some common statistics that pop up in baseball, and shows why they aren't too useful. Batting average doesn't account for walks, pitching wins has too many external factors influencing them, saves hardly tell the story of relief pitching, fielding percentage scratches at the surface of telling how good a particular player is, and RBIs are skewed toward good teams because they generate more opportunities (in other words, a good player on a bad team won't drive home many runners, because there are fewer runners to drive in). It's all very logical and well done.

From there, we move into the new wave of baseball numbers, relatively speaking. On-base percentage has been around for quite a while, but no one seemed to pay attention to it until, oh, maybe 15-20 years ago. From there, we get into such numbers as slugging percentage and OPS, Fielding Independent Pitching and Win Probability Added, and UZR/dRS fielding ratings. I'm not going to tell you I understood some of them too well, because I didn't.

Luckily, things get a little easier in Part Three. Law looks at Hall of Fame debates through the new numbers, tells what a scout does in this new age, and opens a door to a vast data-collection project in Major League Baseball that will be a huge tool for further analysis. You'll come away thinking, why is Jack Morris on the inside of the Hall of Fame and Lou Whitaker on the outside?

Law is a good teacher, and he explains this stuff well. Still, it's easy to wonder if we've gotten to the point where we're leaving some people behind. Some of these statistical tools are great for evaluation over the long haul, and teams can use them to try improve their rosters. But fielding zone ratings aren't going to pop up on scoreboards during your next visit to the baseball park. Yes, the game can be enjoyed at all sorts of levels, but sometimes the discussions here can be more centered on the long term than short term. If I'm watching a game featuring a starting pitcher with an ERA of 3.00, I have a rough idea that he's pretty good. The team may want more information than that, but I'm quite satisfied with that much data while I'm having a hot dog and drink.

The Revolution really is here, and "Smart Baseball" will help you understand what's happening. But if you prefer to stay "blissfully ignorant" of the new statistical tools used at the game's highest level, that's fine too - there's room enough for everyone. And it's not like batting average and RBIs will disappear anytime soon.

Four stars

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Review: The Immaculate Inning (2018)

By Joe Cox

"The Immaculate Inning" as a concept is something that seems relatively new in baseball, at least by that name. It happens when a pitcher throws nine strikes and no balls in an inning, meaning that no fielder even touched the ball during the course of sending the batting team down in order. I'm not sure I heard the term used in this way until a few years ago.

Now it's fairly common when it happens, which isn't too often. Maybe the book, "The Immaculate Inning" will help give it a bit of a boost in popularity.

Author Joe Cox essentially has written a book of lists without the actual lists. He has compiled some achievements that take place in a given game, season or career that are not quite unique but very unusual. It's something of  a crash course on the personal side of the game, since the feats are done by players and not teams.

Having perhaps confused you with those last couple of sentences, let's explain the format of the book. Cox has picked out 30 different items for examination. They include such items as 20 strikeouts in a game, hitting for the cycle, "super slams" (walk-off grand slam homers when down three runs), Triple Crowns as a batter or pitcher, 30-game winners, 50-save seasons, etc. Most of the choices are solid enough, although I could have done without "Position Players Pitching" (uncountable at this point) and "Surviving Shenanigans to Win a League Batting Title" (a little arbitrary concerning the definition of shenanigans).

Let's take 50-homer seasons as an example. The text has how many times it has beendone in baseball history (45 through 2017), the most recent time (Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge last year), standout and surprise names on the list, and the chances of additions in the future (in this case, quite good considering the homer-happy environment). Then Cox tells the personal stories of those on the list, usually in about four or so sections. In this case, we have Babe Ruth, Hack Wilson, Cecil and Prince Fielder, and Stanton and Judge.

Based on the back of the book, there's little doubt that Cox did his homework here. He went through a lot of books, websites, newspapers, etc. to collect information for this book. Cox definitely gets major points for that. He even interviewed a half-dozen players about their achievement; too bad some of the 19th century performers weren't around to comment.

OK, does this all work? That I'm not so sure about.

It's a difficult assignment to make some of this material interesting. There's some play-by-play of games from long ago, and it's easy to get the idea of what happened pretty quickly. The life stories of well-known players are rather well-known so it's tough to be drawn in, although some new tidbits for some may emerge along the way there. For example, I had no idea that Ken Griffey Jr. tried to commit suicide as a teen by swallowing a couple of hundred aspirin tablets.

It's also a surprise that each category doesn't have a full list of those who are in "the club" at the end of each chapter. Some lists would be a little lengthy, but it would have helped to see all the names in most cases.

"The Immaculate Inning," then is a tough needle to thread. Readers need a strong interest in baseball to even pick it up, but those same readers might not learn that much along the way. Those who are in the sweet spot will learn some historical background on the game, but their numbers won't be great.

Two stars

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Sunday, March 4, 2018

Review: The Arena (2017)

By Rafi Kohan

Arenas and stadiums fill an interesting role in our society. They bring people with a common interest together. What else does that?

What's more, when people walk through the gates, they anticipate having a good time. It might be a sporting event, or a concert, or some other function, but there's always a chance they'll have a memory that will last for a lifetime.

Rafi Kohan decided to take a good-sized look at the subject - and perhaps he discovered along the way just how good-sized a book like this needed to be. He explores a variety of issues dealing with our arenas and stadiums in "The Arena," and does it with a good combination of smarts and good humor.

Obviously, some of the subjects could have been turned into books on their own. The most obvious in that category is what's involved in building the arena or stadium in the first place. Hundreds of millions of dollars go into construction of our sports palaces, and quite a bit of comes from public sources.

Is it a good investment? Economists and certain activists will tell you no, that it doesn't generate that much money for those who could use it - instead benefiting owners and players, who are usually doing pretty well as it is. Maybe that money should be going to where it is needed more, or where it might have a larger direct impact. You can do a lot with a billion dollars. On the other hand, such facilities do improve the quality of life in a particular area, and serve as free advertising for a community. That can help lure new people and industries to town. We do need and enjoy our gathering places.

After getting through the areas of building new structures and maintaining old ones (Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wrigley Field in Chicago), Kohan moves on to a variety of related subjects. Some work better than others. The ticket-scalping business has changed over the years, as their resale has become legal and in some cases encouraged if done through approved sources. The story is a little on the confusing side. The Superdome's role in Hurricane Katrina is quite a tale, as you probably know, but it's tough to say if it fits into this book smoothly.

But about a third of the way through, Kohan moves into areas that are more suited for this format. What's involved with maintaining fields in baseball and football? What do teams do about bad fan behavior? What did the Jerry Sandusky scandal do to the bonds that tied Penn State fans together? What's involved in trying to make sure that fans have fun at a game, win or lose? What's involved in keeping the place tidy, or changing it around from event (hockey game) to concert hall?

The last two chapters are particularly thought-provoking. Our professional sports teams have embraced the military in recent years, with reunions and introductions and discounts, and so forth. The armed forces are popular, and teams no doubt think it is good to link themselves with patriotism. But there are many forms of patriotism and service to the country, and those other versions are usually ignored at our games. Kohan doesn't spent long on this area, but you'll certain think about it the next time there is a brief ceremony at your next game.

The author concludes with a visit to the Silverdome, which hosted many events including the Super Bowl during its relatively short lifespan. Eventually it was allowed to sit and crumble, becoming a symbol for the issues of decay that struck parts of the Midwest in recent years. But every city faces such decisions concerning our public facilities, and the sports versions' span of usefulness seems to be shrinking by the day. I might have been tempted to open the book with the story of the Cowboys' stadium and end it with the Silverdome, if only because the contrast would be so dramatic. But, that's just me.

As a book, "The Arena" is not going to be for every taste. The first part takes some concentration to read, and the chapters are long. But it gains momentum from there, and became a good look at some areas that don't get much examination on a regular basis. If you spend more than a couple of times a year in such facilities, you'll enjoy this.

Four stars

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Friday, February 23, 2018

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2018

Edited by Aaron Gleeman and Bret Sayer

The list of items that I buy faithfully every year probably is pretty small. I guess ant traps qualify. Holiday cards. Auto insurance. Magazine renewals.

Then there are books. Every fall, I order the latest Best American Sports Writing book. And every late spring, I get Baseball Prospectus. This year's copy of the latter just arrived in time for the start of spring training, and after finishing it I'm ready for exhibition games to begin.

I'm sure the staff of Baseball Prospectus, which also has a website, exhales a bit when the book comes out. There's a ton of work that must go into this, even in the age of computers, and it's remarkable that it comes out so quickly. No, J.D. Martinez isn't listed with the Red Sox, but the staff worked hard to get it as up to date as possible.

What's old? The format, for those who have never picked it up, remains the same. Every team gets a chapter of about 16-18 pages. The first three pages have an essay of some sort, surrounded by some charts and graphs about a few standard areas (farm system rankings, park dimensions, etc.) Then we're off on a review of every significant player in the organization. They are roughly laid out four to a page, so each player gets a good-sized paragraph and a long stat line. I should mention that, as usual, the type goes all the way across the 8.5-inch page, which can be a little daunting after a while. The layout does allow more information to be printed, though. After more than 500 pages of such team breakdowns, the back end is highlighted by a list of the top prospects in the game and an index.

The usual precaution - don't feel as if you have to read every player description. I usually skip over the minor league players from teams other than my personal favorites. But you're free to go back to it during the course of the season if something of interest comes up. 

What's new? The most obvious addition is that players from leagues in Japan and South Korea have gotten the Baseball Prospectus "treatment" this year. It's impressive that the information has been collected, although I'm not sure how many readers will plow through it. Many American readers probably will wait until a player is poised to jump over the ocean for baseball employments. But it's there if you need it.

Baseball Prospectus first caught my attention because of its writing style. The various authors, and there are bunches of them, always have been given wide latitude to come up with fun and different ways of coming up with descriptions of players. That's not easy to do, and my unscientific viewpoint is that fewer people approached it this year in such a way as opposed to past years' books.

Overall, it felt as if this year's ratings were more serious. That cut down my enjoyment level of the 2018 edition by a shade. It seemed like every middle reliever in organized baseball - and there are a bunch of them - gets the same sort of review. However, there are exceptions. The writers of the Texas Rangers were the best example of that. Others may disagree that the attempts at humor work, but there's a lot of material to go through - let's have some giggles along the way.

Most of the complaints on Amazon.com this year center on the fact that the price on the Kindle edition of the book went up by quite a bit. I don't buy many books that way, but the list price is the print edition did go up a couple of dollars. That happens, but it's still worth the purchase price.

After finishing the 2018 edition, you'll feel ready for the upcoming season to start - even if all of the free agents haven't signed yet. Then keep Baseball Prospectus 2018 handy for when you watch a game on television during the upcoming season.

Five stars

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review: Alou (2018)

By Felipe Alou with Peter Kerasotis

The name "Alou" isn't quite specific when it comes to a baseball book.

Which one is it about? Felipe Alou, who was a very solid player throughout the 1960s and then became a successful manager? How about his brother Matty, merely a former batting champion? Or another brother Jesus, who had a good-sized career too? Finally, there's Moises, Felipe's son who had several fine seasons in the majors.

The answer of the question, if you didn't look at the byline or the photo, is Felipe. He's come out with his second autobiography, "Alou." The first one was written back in the 1960s, so it's fair to say this baseball lifer has an update coming to him.

Let's get one point straight here. Felipe's mother had a maiden name of Alou, while his father was a Rojas. The mother's name came last in the Dominican Republic, where the family resided, so Felipe was an Alou as a baseball player. A relative, Mel Rojas, avoided that little problem, and eventually was a pitcher on one of Felipe's managed teams in Montreal.

You might not think of Felipe Alou as a pioneer, but he truly fits that description. Alou was one of the the first major league players to come from Latin America, which is quite an achievement. Adding to the luster of that statement was that he grew up quite poor in a small town in the D.R. The living space was about the size of a typical bedroom by American standards, and some of it had a dirt floor. There wasn't much money for fun and games, so Felipe had to improvise. He was good at the baseball part of it, but thought he would become a doctor. However, when the Giants waved a little bonus money at him, the family could not afford to turn it down.

The best part of the book concerns Alou's struggles in the early years of his career. He was first sent to Louisiana, where in the late 1950s it was more important to segregate the team than it was to win. Alou was sent to Florida from there, and took out his frustrations on opposing batters. Baseball readers know the drill - separate houses, less-than-equal opportunity to play, etc. But it still hurts to read such material, even from a distance of 60 years.

Alou had more such problems once he got to San Francisco. Manager Bill Rigney never gave him a chance either. When Alou looked around the Giants' roster, he saw it overflowing with talent in the early 1960s. Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey were just coming into their own, and Alou's brothers were following him to the majors as well. Oh, some guy named Willie Mays was patrolling center field, and it's fair to say no one was going to get playing time at his expense.

Somebody had to go, and Felipe went to Milwaukee - which eventually headed to Atlanta. Alou was good there too, as he received some MVP votes and was a part of some good but not Braves teams. Injuries eventually slowed him down to the point where he bounced around a few teams and retired in the mid-1970s. Some of the statistical comparisons are made to rank him with Amos Otis, Chet Lemon and Dusty Baker, and those work pretty well.

Even so, he never would have had a second book had his baseball career not had a second act. Alou worked his way up the ladder as a minor league manager and major league coach. Just when you thought he'd be out of chances, he landed the Montreal Expos' job in 1992. There he guided the most unlucky team in history by some standards. The Expos of 1994 were a great squad, apparently headed for a championship when labor troubles stopped the season in early August. There was no World Series that year, no chance to prove how good the team was. Montreal broke up the squad over the winter, leaving us wondering. Alou is wondering himself - that team might still be in Montreal had it not been for that labor dispute.

Alou managed the Expos through 2001, took a year off, and went back to the Giants as skipper at the age of 68 in 2003. The Giants had two good years and two bad ones, and finally he was done. Here he has some stories about some of his players, such as Pedro Martinez and Barry Bonds. You can tell that he earned the respect of his players, treating them like men but was no pushover. In a different set of circumstances, Alou probably is in the Hall of Fame - but he had to play the hand he was dealt.

Those circumstances will prevent some casual baseball fans in America from reading this. There aren't many stories of great triumphs. Still, "Alou" ought to be a big hit in baseball-crazed sections of Latin America. He has an inspirational story to present, and he has tales of such Latin baseball heroes as Roberto Clemente and Juan Marichal - not to mention the rest of the family - as well. Those who specialize in Latin baseball or in Expos history should give this an extra star. But it's a comfortable read for the rest of us.

Three stars

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Friday, February 2, 2018

Review: 99 (2016)

By Wayne Gretzky with Kirstie McLellan Day

Hockey fans could have guessed who wrote this book just by the title.

After all, no one else in the game ever will be associated with the No. 99 in the future - unless you are one of the handful of people who remember a couple of other 99s who played in the NHL - such as Rick Dudley and Wilf Paiement.

Wayne Gretzky is the 99 in question here. He's written a book that's a combination of facts and memories called "99." It came out in the fall of 2016, which was the start of the - you guessed it - 99th season in NHL history.

I'm not sure I need to say much about Gretzky here. He's the greatest scorer in hockey history, of course. He might be the greatest player in hockey history, although arguments could be made for Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr. Come to think of it, Gretzky might argue for Howe himself.

But Gretzky might have had the biggest impact on the sport. When he arrived, the NHL was stumbling along. It was nearly bankrupt after a costly war with the World Hockey Association, and it still had an image problem left over from the days where fighting was a regular event at games - and thus was not taken seriously by large segments of the sports-minded public.

Gretzky arrived in the NHL in 1979 after a short stay in the WHA, and had a spectacular career. Not only could the league not ask for a better player, but it couldn't ask for a better spokesman and role model. Wayne was right out of central casting.

Gretzky wrote his autobiography about a quarter-century before this book, which fills something of a curious niche. It's something of a short, anecdotal history of the NHL mixed with his personal viewpoints. The book goes through a variety of topics early on, with Gretzky's views and stories mixed in a bit with historical background.

That's truly the odd part of the book. It's difficult to think of Gretzky going to the library to work on finding stories for the volume. The acknowledgments credit co-author Kirstie McLellan Day as well as a researcher, writer and fact-checker among others.  It works reasonably well although obviously a bit superficial, as there are better places to get a detailed hockey history lesson. But Gretzky's name still can attract attention, so if he can lure some readers in - great.

Once we get past Howie Morenz and Sprague Cleghorn (a name I can't type often enough) as well as the 1940s through 1960s, we land in what you could call the modern era of hockey. The second half of the book belongs to Gretzky and his tales about the great moments of hockey that he experienced. Some of that centers on the international competitions, including the 1972 series with the Soviets and some Canada Cups and Olympics. (The 1980 American win in Lake Placid is included.) Gretzky also has some stories about the Oilers' great dynasty in the 1980s.

Gretzky doesn't reveal too much about his life story after the point where he was traded to Los Angeles, which is a little disappointing. That includes the time when he coached in Phoenix. Gretzky also doesn't settle any scores here, taking the diplomatic approach. That includes, for example, his treatment of Bruce McNall, who went to jail for conspiracy and fraud and who drove the Kings to bankruptcy. Even so, Gretzky's anecdotes generally work well in this format, as the nearly 400 pages go by relatively quickly.

"99" isn't a ground-breaking book by any means, but it is a pleasant one and accomplishes its goal. It would be a good read for young people who want to learn a little of hockey's history, or for Gretzky's many fans who want some inside stuff on his fabulous career.

Four stars

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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Review: Court Justice (2018)

By Ed O'Bannon with Michael McCann

Ed O'Bannon may be remembered as a basketball player who did more for the sport off the court than on it - and he was very good on it.

O'Bannon is still fondly remembered in the Los Angeles area for leading UCLA to a national championship in 1995. It's the Bruins' only such win since John Wooden grabbed 10 of them in the sport's greatest dynasty.

After an NBA and European ball career, O'Bannon settled in as a staff member at a car dealership outside of Las Vegas. One of his friends pointed out that the friend's child was playing a video game - and O'Bannon's image was part of the game since the '95 UCLA team could be used as one of the teams. O'Bannon was excited at first, but then he wondered how the game could use his image with his permission or without compensation.

That led to a lawsuit, which turned into a class action filing on behalf of past and present NCAA athletes. His name will always be attached to the action, which eventually led to a clear legal victory in the case and some changes in the way the NCAA does business. Now O'Bannon gets to tell the story of the case, as well as what happened in the rest of his life, in "Court Justice."

O'Bannon won his initial case and then won an appeal that changed the terms of the damages somewhat, although the overall impact for the moment is somewhat limited for some complicated reasons. Still, athletes are receiving funds connected from video-game sales, and you can bet that more battles are coming now that the NCAA is subject to anti-trust laws in this area.

This is an interesting story that will be remembered down the road, but it's tough to say that O'Bannon is the best person to tell it. He was told going in that the case would go on for years (it did) and he wouldn't see much compensation (he didn't), but went ahead with it anyway because he wanted to right a wrong. More power to him for that. But while O'Bannon obviously learned a lot about the legalities involved, it's clear that he was something of an on-looker. O'Bannon brings along Sports Illustrated legal analyst Michael McCann for help here, and the implications of the case are discussed. But it's really difficult to turn anti-trust cases into "beach reading."

O'Bannon does make some contributions along the way, though. His personal story is instructive in some areas. For example, the NCAA has a rule that says student-athletes are supposed to spend only 20 hours per week on their sport. It's a nice idea, but unrealistic. In these days of teams in the same conference being spread out across the country, it's difficult to stick to anything close to that 20-hour guideline - which means that the job of student and the job of athlete are both full-time jobs. That's why students are essentially told to take less-than-demanding majors so that they have adequate time for sports. It happened to O'Bannon's sister.

O'Bannon's own story has some merits too. He came out of UCLA as a lottery pick by the New Jersey Nets, which did major improvements to his bank account. But he bounced around the NBA, never finding the right spot for a couple of years. O'Bannon ended up in Europe, where he played for several more years, but certainly his career didn't followed the forecast.

O'Bannon and McCann finish with a dozen ideas to improve the system. The subjects are covered at length and worth the consideration of someone in authority. The thoughts on the drafting of college players by professional leagues are particularly interesting. It would be interesting to know what might happen if NBA and NFL changed its rules to follow the NHL mode for eligibility. In hockey, when a player is drafted at 18, he can still go to college and play there while the team retains his rights. In basketball and hockey, once players declare their eligibility for the draft, they become the equivalent of radioactive to colleges and can't return even if they aren't drafted. That's quite a waste of talent, considering several players wash out quickly. 

Sometimes it's difficult to fans to consider the big-picture issues in sports, because they are complex with several interfering factors. "Court Justice" is naturally one-sided in its arguments, and it's frequently on the dry side. That makes it hardly for everyone, but it's relatively quick and gets to the point. Those seeking information on the landmark case will find it educational.

Three stars

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Friday, January 19, 2018

Review: The Cooperstown Casebook (2017)

By Jay Jaffe

It turns out this is a really good time of year to read "The Cooperstown Casebook," even if it was published in July.

We're only a few days away for the announcement about which players have been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and apparently it's going to be a big year for inductees. According to those who keep track of such things, either four or five players are likely to make it to Cooperstown.

Baseball's Hall might have the biggest following attached to it in terms of fan interest. There are so many different positions in football that it's tough to compare candidates, while the Basketball Hall of Fame mixes college and pro play to set up different qualifying standards.

If you're one of those people who can debate on the qualifications of a particular player, then this book probably should be in your bookcase. Jay Jaffe has put a lot of effort into studying the various inductees and candidates over the years. He has crammed a great deal of analysis into more than 400 pages of work.

The first 100 pages or so of the book is devoted to basic background information on what's to come. Jaffe goes over the various ways that players, managers and contributors have been named to the Hall. The process has changed over the years quite a few times in an attempt to create something closer to a perfect system. For example, the Veterans Committee - often stocked with ex-players - was somewhat famous for picking pals of its members. There are some really bad choices, relatively speaking, in Cooperstown as a result. That's blurred the line a little bit over what the standards for entry are, although we seem to be doing a better job lately.

If we have improved our methods of determining who is a Hall of Famer and who isn't, the new statistics that have grown importance in recent years has been a big reason why. Lots of smart people have worked on ways of determining who the best players in the game are, and the toolbox has gotten pretty full. In fact, Jaffe himself invited JAWS, a way of comparing a potential inductee with other players at the same position. There is no perfect way of making such comparisons, naturally, but every little bit helps.

From there, the book gets into the players on an individual basis. Each position gets a chapter that opens with a discussion of a player who certainly is or was (mostly is) in the mix for the Hall of Fame at some point - David Ortiz, Bobby Grich, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, etc. From there, all of the inductees get the once-over, as do some players who are good candidates now or will be when they are eligible.

This raises some interesting questions in the discussion. How much does a long, productive career matter? It didn't hurt Sandy Koufax's chances but others weren't so lucky. Does postseason glory help? Clearly it doesn't hurt, but the guessing is that while Ortiz will receive a major boost from his October body of work, Curt Schilling wasn't as fortunate despite a formidable autumn resume. It's fun to see Jaffe pick out players who are better candidates than they appear to be because of some relatively hidden statistics. Grich and Dwight Evans fall into that category.

Certainly this book is targeted at those fans who enjoy baseball history; they might even learn something about 19th century players like slugger Roger Conner. A familiarity with new-wave statistics would be helpful too. If you can pass those tests, "The Cooperstown Casebook" will be a rewarding read that will stay on your bookshelf for a while.

Four stars

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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Review: Sometimes You Have to Cross When It Says Don't Walk (2017)

By Lesley Visser 

My instant reaction to the professional work of Lesley Visser is a little different than that of others - perhaps because I'm a former newspaper reporter.

I remember her when she first started in the the business as a member of the sports staff of the Boston Globe in the 1970s. That was one of the greatest collections of talent in newspaper history, and Visser more than held her own. Yes, she was one of the pioneers of the business at the time, but she clearly knew her stuff and wrote well.

It might have been interesting to see what she might have done had she stayed in that role. Instead, she jumped to television, where she was a pioneer too. Broadcast journalism requires a different set of skills, of course, and she did well there. What would have her life looked like if she had stayed with it? Tough to say. Maybe she would have knocked down some different doors.

In reading "Sometimes You Have to Cross When It Says Don't Walk," it's obvious that the move was a career-changing experience, and that she enjoyed herself along the way.

Sports more or less have been a part of Visser's life almost from the beginning. She landed a job with the Globe out of Boston College in the 1970s, a time when women weren't exactly welcomed by players and teams. The title refers to her mother's reaction to her becoming a sports journalist when it figured to be a difficult battle to get through the door.

Visser's best stories in the book concern the battle to gain access. Picture someone waiting outside a locker room for long periods of time until athletes could come out and do one last interview with her. The tales do resemble the movie "Hidden Figures," about women in NASA at times. Visser deserves all sorts of credit for fighting that fight.

Otherwise, though,  this is relatively standard material. Books by journalists often are simple recounts of stories covered and personalities encountered. Visser seems to have become quite friendly with a variety of personalities over the years. There are stories about such people as Rick Pitino, Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Joe Torre, and co-worker John Madden. There's less distance between reporter and source in such situations, apparently. Visser apparently posed for photos with all of them and then some, based on the illustrations here.

There are plenty of other stories told along the way, often about travel. Visser certainly has worked at almost all of the major events on the sports calendar. It's a little surprising, then, that some of the material feels like filler. Anecdotes and suggestions about food and restaurants around the country, not to mention a short chapter about her hair, don't work so well.

By the way, I think every person Visser has ever met is on the list of acknowledgments. Hope she doesn't have to send them all a copy of the book; she'll go broke.

It's good to have a book like "Sometimes You Have to Cross When It Says Don't Walk" in the stores, even if it's not a book you'll save forever. Visser's account ought to inspire some young girls to follow in her footsteps, which is great. And she's apparently enjoyed the ride since those early days, so it's easy to be happy for her.

Three stars

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