Sunday, September 16, 2018

Review: The Last Pass (2018)

By Gary M. Pomerantz

A case could be made that Bob Cousy might be the most underrated great player in basketball history at this point in time.

There are a few reasons for that. After an outstanding college career at Holy Cross, Cousy landed with the Boston Celtics in 1950. There he became one of the best players in the league, earning such nicknames as "Mr. Basketball" and "Houdini of the Hardwood." Cousy usually averaged a little less than 20 points per game and usually led the league in assists once he got the hang of the pro game. I would guess that he replaced George Mikan as the face of the NBA when Mikan retired.

But early in his career, he didn't win many games. Cousy played on some Celtics teams that weren't quite good enough. That changed in 1956, when a center named Bill Russell arrived. Russell was really, really good, and meshed well with Boston's fast-break offense. The Celtics won six titles in Cousy's final seven years. His retirement ceremony at the Boston Garden was one of the all-time great tear-fests as these go.

After one last title in 1963, Cousy went off to coach at Boston College. And the Celtics kept winning, and winning. Russell and his talented teammates won five more titles in six years, and everyone realized that the center was the biggest winner in team sports. It could be argued that he still has that title; there's a reason the MVP award of The NBA Finals is named for him. As for Cousy, basketball changed quickly over the years, and his stats such as shooting percentage don't hold up too well when put up to today's light.

But that's no reason to diminish Cousy in the process. He remains an interesting character today, and he's the centerpiece of Gary M. Pomerantz's book, "The Last Pass." In fact, he's the reason it works so well. Cousy obviously opened up his life to the author, doing more than 50 interviews and allowing Pomerantz to have access to all sorts of material - like letters to and from his late wife - for the book.

Cousy brought a little baggage with him when he arrived in the NBA. The New York City guard of French ancestry was an only child whose parents didn't get along too well. That can cause all sorts of problems, but he pointed his competitive drive toward the basketball court. He's was happy and comfortable with the ball, at his best if you will.

Cousy also arrived in pro basketball just as African Americans were arriving in the NBA. He quickly befriended the blacks on the Celtics, as the abuse and prejudice that they faced upset the New Yorker greatly. Cousy also was a flashy player when it wasn't popular. He tried to make the correct play at all times, but sometimes that play was an unorthodox one. If an African American had done some of those moves in the early 1950s, he would have been called a showboat and told to tone it down or be gone. Cousy could make it acceptable, and led the way for everyone else to add style to substance. Go watch some videos.

Then Russell came along, and there was never anyone like him. He eventually became the first black player in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and he was picked not because he was great statistically (although he was a great rebounder) but because he was a winner. Russell did it at a time when African Americans were demanding respect and rights in all areas of society, and was unwilling to back down on those aspects of life. That made him a legend on the court, but somewhat unpopular for those off the court who weren't ready to handle change.

Relationships with Russell were always complicated, and Cousy still plays the "what if?" game about his time with Russell - at the age of 90. Could he have done more to help Russell gain acceptance? Should he have done more? Those questions are really at the heart of the book, and Cousy explores them at length - perhaps surprisingly so.

Pomerantz has done a couple of fine books on days gone by, reviewing the Steelers of the 1970s and Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in 1962. This stacks up with them nicely, and may even be my favorite of the three.

Complaints about this book are minor. You obviously need to be receiving social security checks to remember Cousy well; I'm 62 and can barely picture him playing at Boston Garden when I was about seven. It's about my earliest basketball memory. The book also given a slightly vague sense of needing one more edit; some of the material is repeated at times.

No matter. "The Last Pass" works well because Cousy remains an interesting, even fascinating character - even past the age of 90. I'm underrated the book a little at four stars, and it certainly will be on my ten favorite reads of the year.

Four stars

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Monday, September 10, 2018

Review: The Dancing Bear (2018)

By Ron McDole with Rob Morris

You don't have to be a football fan from Buffalo or Washington to have heard of Ron McDole, but it really helps.

McDole remained relatively anonymous in those two cities over the course of an 18-year career in pro football, which was mostly spent in those two cities. He was, of course, good. You have to be good to stay in the game for that long.

In fact, the most memorable fact about McDole might be his nickname, "The Dancing Bear." It was given to him off the field by Sonny Jurgensen for his dance moves, but considering his size and quickness, it fit on the field too.

Therefore, when McDole finally decided to come out with a book on his football days, "The Dancing Bear" was the natural title.

McDole's type of story is of particular interest to fans of the American Football League in the 1960s. He came out of Nebraska as a defensive lineman, but bounced from the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL to the Houston Oilers of the AFL. McDole suffered from migraine headaches, and it looked like that might drive him out of the league and into a career as a shop teacher.

Luckily for McDole, Bills' coach Lou Saban took a chance on his head and his heart and signed him. McDole became a regular on the Buffalo teams that won the AFC championship in 1964 and 1965. He might be the best player on those teams never to be inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. The Bills fell apart after that stretch, and new coach John Rauch - best remembered in Buffalo as the guy who tried to use O.J. Simpson as something of a decoy - had McDole traded to the Redskins. The defensive lineman was 32. How long could he last? Owner Ralph Wilson was so upset that Rauch trashed McDole in a TV interview that he fired the coach and apologized personally to McDole for the deal.

McDole merely spent eight years as a Redskin. Most of them were with George Allen, where he was part of the "Over the Hill Gang." That team never won it all but came close, losing to the undefeated Dolphins team in Jan. 1973. McDole played through 1978, and retired instead of taking a contract with the Giants that would have meant playing past the age of 40. He still has the all-time record for most interceptions by a pro defensive lineman with 12. Dancing bear, indeed.

McDole comes across here as a nice enough fellow, rarely trashing anyone. It was a slightly less serious era in football, naturally, and his stories about the game in the Sixties and Seventies are quite funny and often interesting. But there are a few problems with the book, and it definitely will hurt your enjoyment of it.

First, it feels thin. There are several paragraphs of quotes from some of McDole's teammates about common experiences, and they feel like padding in some cases. Pat Fischer and McDole chat at length in an appendix, which is an unusual technique as these things go. They generally cover subjects that have been discussed earlier in the book. It feels like an attempt to get it to 200 pages; maybe some of that could have been filled with more about what McDole has been doing since 1978. Other than a few lines about charity work and thoughts on how the game has changed, this book could have been written about 38 years ago.

Second, it would have been nice to have someone give it one more read for editing purposes. Pat Fischer comes out Pat Fisher a few times; both are used in the same paragraph at one point. There are phrases like this: "Rayfield Wright of Dallas, who's in the Hall of Fame, was outstanding, but I had a lot of good games against him. He was an outstanding tackle." There are a handful of other sentences that don't make sense. And Sam Etcheverry comes out as Sam Estebury, among a few other typos.

Add it up, and it's tough to be too enthusiastic about "The Dancing Bear" (the book, not the person). Fans of the era will no doubt enjoy it, as they say. But others - especially outside of Buffalo and Washington - probably will come away with the feeling that it could have been better and lower this rating a bit.

Three stars

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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Review: Collision of Wills (2018)

By Jack Gilden

If you are making up a list of the most important people in pro football history, Johnny Unitas and Don Shula have to be on it.

Unitas held the mythical title of "greatest quarterback ever for quite some time, as he took the position and in some ways the entire sport to new levels of brilliance during his great career. Shula merely has won more games than any NFL coach.

The pair were on the same side when they teamed up with the Baltimore Colts for a good chunk of the 1960s. But here's what was apparently whispered for years but not really discussed since those days, which saw the Colts win a ton of games but no championships: the pair never really got along.

That's the portion of Jack Gilden's book, "Collision of Wills," that will attract the most attention upon its release.

Shula usually took the high road in the relationship, merely pointing out that the combination won a lot of games. Unitas mostly kept quiet n public about Shula, but certainly he made it known to friends and associates that he had no use for the coach - a former teammate in Baltimore, no less.

Their dynamic drives the story along. In some ways, it's a relatively common tale. Unitas was an established star, the biggest name in football, when Shula arrived in 1963. Shula certainly wanted to do things his way, and was not shy about saying so. As the years went by, Unitas' career started to fall off - thanks in part to arm injuries that certainly weren't as diagnosed properly as they might have been now. The finish of the careers of such icons often ends badly, and Unitas turned out to be no exception. He lost his job as a regular and eventually was exiled to San Diego to end a magical run with a whimper.

Veteran football fans will find plenty to their liking here. The Colts were right in the middle of some of the best games in pro football history. That list includes the 1958 NFL championship game, which went to overtime as Unitas pulled a win out of his helmet, and Super Bowl III, the Jets' stunning upset of Colts when they were 17-point underdogs.

Gilden went out and talked to several key people in that era, and they add perspective on events. He also clearly did plenty of research into that era. Therefore, the games come back to life. It's great fun to read a detailed account of the time that halfback Tom Matte had to play quarterback in a playoff game for the Colts when Unitas and Gary Cuozzo were both hurt. Matte almost led the Colts to a huge win over the Green Bay Packers. Nothing like it has happened since.

There are a couple of small problems here that deserve a mention. It really helps to be old enough to remember most of the events from when they happened. In other words, the 20-somethings may not care too much about this and that's fine. It should be added, though, that Gilden carries the attitude throughout the book that the Sixties were the best time to be an NFL history, and he's not taking any arguments. I became a fan of the sport then too, but I'm not sure I'd go as far as the author does. You always remember your first loves.

There might have been room for another quick read on this. There's a little duplication in material along the way, and I'm still not sure why there's a chapter on David Halberstam. Gilden is a little unsure of himself when writing about the politics and culture of the decade.

But the football material is entertaining and can reel the football fan in nicely. Those who are looking for some new information on some legendary games and people - particularly those in Baltimore - will find "Collision of Wills" worthwhile.

Four stars

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Monday, August 27, 2018

Review: This Old Man (2015)

By Roger Angell

The number of people whose writing on baseball borders on the title of literature is a rather short one. Most of the work is basic and to the point, reflecting the task involved in the process.  In other words, it's tough to craft memorable work when the deadline is the final out.

Luckily for us, a select few people have had the time and inclination to ponder bigger pictures. Baseball can do that, with its relaxed rhythms and the lack of a deadline for a nightly conclusion. Its most serious practitioner over the years might be Roger Angell, who - it's good to report - is still out there as of this writing.

Angell probably will say he was an unlikely candidate for that distinction, and he was right. Angell served as a writer and editor for the New Yorker for many years, which is hardly a breeding grounds for literary works concerning horsehide. But he pulled it off, somewhat in his spare time since he was the fiction editor

Now Angell is in his 90s, looking back on a career that featured contributions to the famous magazine in 1944 and saw him go on the masthead in 1956. He's still writing a bit even now, but "This Old Man" is a collection of articles and other work from the later stages of his career that was released in 2015. To put it in appropriate terms, Angell still had a pretty good fastball when after his peers had stopped working. Think of Nolan Ryanb.

Those who come to this book from reviews like this will find satisfaction here, since baseball plays a key role in the collection. Angell's best work on baseball came when he was just starting to write about the sport and thus on the anonymous side. Go read "Five Seasons" and "The Summer Game" to see what I mean. He had some distance from the subjects. For a while there he was so celebrated it was difficult to have enough space to get some necessary perspective. But now that he's sitting back and reflecting again, there's a wisdom that ropes in the reader. Some of it was shown over the fuss made when Barry Bonds approached the all-time record for home runs. Angell argues that such records matter little because of changes in the sport over the years - a refreshing viewpoint considering the whole did-he-or-didn't-he saga about Bonds and steroids.

But there's other stuff here as well. Angell includes work on other writers in his life, his summer home in Maine, notes to friends, etc. I'm not about to tell you that I understood all of the references here, or even recognized the names. But that doesn't mean the beauty of how the words in those stories were collected and distributed can't be enjoyed by those who think Vladimir Nabokov is a defenseman for the San Jose Sharks.

And every so often Angell turns a phrase that is so precise, so perfect, that you feel like poking the person next to you so you'll have the pleasure of reading it aloud. Comedy writer Bill Scheft has a phrase for this - get out of the business good. As in, you'll never write like this so why try?

I won't bother trying to give a rating with stars to "This Old Man." Those who like his work probably have him installed as a national treasure as his 98th birthday approaches. Others will only read the baseball parts, wondering why they should care about New Yorker founder Harold Ross. And that's fine. A baseball team needs a few players to fill roles in order to be successful. But some superstars need to be part of the mix as well, and Angell has had that role covered for decades.

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Sunday, July 29, 2018

Review: Gridiron Genius (2018)

By Michael Lombardi

Even in the highly competitive world of pro football, there are some coaches who figure out a way to find that edge that helps them win games consistently.They might not be smarter than everyone else, although brainpower doesn't hurt, but they mix it with a strong work ethic and good organizational abilities.

Michael Lombardi has worked with two of those "geniuses" in Bill Walsh and Bill Belichick. You could argue that he also spent time employed by a third, Al Davis - who certainly is proof that the word unique describes someone who is one of a kind.

Lombardi, who had a number of jobs in pro football including a stint as general manager of the Cleveland Browns, was smart enough to take notes along the way. Now he's put together a book on why those football men were successful. He's called it "Gridiron Genius" - and no, it's not an autobiography.

Lombardi (no relation to that fellow who did pretty well with the Green Bay Packers) rips through the various parts of a football organization, chapter by chapter. The chapter headings are: The Organization, the Coach, Team Building, Special Teams, Offense, Defense, Game Planning, While I Have You (my biggest peeves), WWBD, and Fearless Forecast.

If there's one point that gets hammered home, it's that the best head coaches are prepared for just about anything to happen in a game. That's not by chance; it's because the staff covers just about every possible contingency before a game. You want to know why football coaches are legendary for sleeping in their office? It's because there's always something to do. Belichick would do things like assign a staff member to full break down each player on an opposing team, looking for tendencies and facts that might be helpful. There are some good stories told along the way, like the one about how Malcolm Butler happened to be in the right place in the right time to make the most famous interceptions in Super Bowl history.

A couple of interesting points come out right away in this book, which mixes general observations with personal experiences. Let's look at one that covers my part of the football world, the Buffalo Bills. Lombardi was assigned to come up with a tentative list of people who might be good picks to be a head coach if a team decided to make the change. He eventually discovered that the best coaches often had been somewhere else first. Someone like Bill Parcells had some success, while Belichick's record in Cleveland was mixed. But the odds improve with a good coach who has learned lessons along the way.

Interestingly, this was a list made up in the 1990s - and one of the names on the list was Chan Gailey. Bills' fans might remember that Gailey came on as head coach, and left after a rather undistinguished run in Buffalo. Perhaps he wasn't up to the job, or perhaps he wasn't able to push the organization as a whole in the right direction. Judging by the team's play in that era of the early 2000s, the latter may be more likely. By the way, Lombardi is quite critical of the Bills' hiring of Rex Ryan, saying that his research indicates that coaches who specialize on one side of the ball usually fail. Ryan might be the poster boy for that type of philosophy.

Speaking of coaches, Lombardi's chapter on the coach has a long, long list of interview questions for potential coaches. The one that made me laugh was "What do you do with fat guys?" But most are very serious, and all touch on a wide variety of aspects - from discipline to salary cap structure to time for the media. The pay to be an NFL head coach is good, but do you really want to try it? You have to be obsessed with it, apparently.

Lombardi might do his best work in going over the Patriots' run-up to a playoff game. The Baltimore Ravens were coming to town, and the author takes us through the day-by-day preparation of the Pats as Belichick stresses certain aspects of the game. Of course, nothing ever goes completely to plan during a football game - as they say about warfare, plans get thrown out when the bullets start flying - but Belichick and company figure out a way to get it done.

Lombardi obviously had a vision for this book when he started writing it. It's fair to say he fulfilled it. Maybe the bigger question about it is, will you want to read it?

That's a tougher one. The book certainly has the ring of authenticity to it. But it's tough to say if this book will appeal to those who are rather casual about their support of their favorite football team. It's not a dull book for the most part, but it has its dry spots. For those who want an true "inside look" at the NFL and a couple of its best coaches, this will do nicely. Just be warned that it's not for a general audience.

Four stars

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Thursday, July 26, 2018

Review: Lucky Bastard (2016)

By Joe Buck

It turns out the Joe Buck is something of a smart aleck.

I realize that's an outdated phrase, dating back to the 19th century. It's short for smart Alexander. I realize that most people probably would use the phrase "smart ass," including Joe Buck himself. But, since I'm really sick of that slightly naughty word and so many try to use it in as many ways as possible, I'll stick to my old-fashioned ways.

How about wise guy? And who knew he was like that, anyway?

Joe Buck is one of the nation's best sports broadcasters. He seems to be on Fox constantly, whether it's baseball, football or golf. As a top play-by-play man, he concentrates on the action and only reveals his personality in bits.

What's more, he's a more interesting person - funny and smart - than he reveals on the air. That might be the major discovery from his book, "Lucky Bastard."

Speaking of slightly naughty words, the title deserves a little explanation right from the start. Most people who follow sports realize that Joe Buck is the son of Jack Buck, the legendary broadcaster from St. Louis. Buck was a very public figure in his home town as the veteran voice of the Cardinals, and he also did some national work on radio and television. "Beloved" doesn't do justice to the relationship between town and voice.

It seems Jack Buck had a relationship with a woman who wasn't his wife. That led to the conception of Joe, a divorce of the Bucks, and a second marriage for Jack. Therefore, Joe really can call himself a lucky bastard and be more literal than most.

Joe ended up following Jack into sportscasting, and that would prove to be a tough act to follow. I get the impression that Joe could have followed Jack into a spot as the Cardinals' long-time broadcaster, and no one would have complained too much ... eventually. (There are always those who will yell out, "You're not as good as your dad!") Instead, Joe went the national route when the opportunity came along, and it's tough to argue with a choice with a career filled with World Series and Super Bowl broadcasts.

Still, there's always a little angst involved when a child takes a similar path to a parent. Perhaps that's why Joe Buck became friends with Kate Hudson, the actress who is the daughter of Goldie Hawn. Kate dole him, "Americans love a good success story. They're just not sure what to do with the success story that comes out of a success story." That sounds like the start of a good book on its own.

As you'd expect, Buck has plenty of stories about his adventures, good and bad. He's not afraid to take a poke at himself or at a few others, but it's generally a good natured story. Joe jokes a few times about his battles against a receding hairline, which has included some hair plug operations. Ouch. But he can serious too, talking about his divorce. That's not an easy combination to pull off, but he does it well.

"Lucky Bastard" goes by pretty quickly; you'll finish it in a jiffy. It's a bit of a surprise that he wrote it at this stage of his career (he has lots of tread left on the tires), but it reached the best seller lists so Buck's timing remains sharp. Most people will come to the conclusion after reading this that Buck can handle the written word as well as the spoken version, and that he'd be a fun person to be around. Missions accomplished.

Four stars

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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Review: Hard Labor (2017)

By Sam Smith

For those of you under 40, the National Basketball Association always has seemed like a place of unmatched riches. The stars are everywhere, the games on television constantly, the money involved is enormous. The league's biggest problem seems to be at times is figuring how all of this cash should be split up. That's not to say that distribution of funds isn't an issue, but we all should have such problems.

It wasn't always like this, as Sam Smith points out in his book, "Hard Labor."

Smith is best known as the newspaper reporter who became the most closely associated with Michael Jordan's era with the Chicago Bulls. His book, "The Jordan Rules," will be associated with that era forever.

Here, though, Smith takes a step back. The focal point of the discussion of when the NBA turned the corner toward permanent prosperity was not because of the arrival of a certain player or two, although that didn't hurt. A court case became the fulcrum.

In 1976, the NBA players and owners settled the legal action known as the Oscar Robertson case, since the all-time great had his name on top of the lawsuit as the head of the players' association at the time. It set up some new rules that led to free agency in the NBA and other benefits. It took some time to fall into place, but Smith's key point - and it's a good one - is that it's nice to look back and nod at your predecessors for their contributions.

Smith does that here by finding many of the people involved in that struggle. What's more, you can tell he had a ton of fun doing so. For the record, the 14 plaintiffs in the case were Robertson, Bill Bradley, Joe Caldwell, Archie Clark, Mel Counts, John Havlicek, Don Kojis, Jon McGlocklin, McCoy McLemore, Tom Meschery, Jeff Mullins, Wes Unseld, Chet Walker and Dick Van Arsdale. McLemore is the only one to have passed away. Smith spoke to several other people for the story, including legal representatives from both sides. 

All of them are filled with stories about those days that, in hindsight, are worthy of a good head shake or two. Even in the 1960s, players were often more money to work for company teams like Phillips 66 than to be in the NBA. (Some of the guys who did that, by the way, are multi-millionaires now.) Players often had to take part-time jobs in the offseason to make ends meet, and owners were barely getting by in some cases. Although Smith does touch on the 1950s and early 1960s, he spends plenty of time on the competition with the American Basketball Association. That really was the Wild, Wild West of pro hoops, a league that broke all the rules - including coming up with generally fair contracts - and was filled with characters. 

And remember, racial attitudes in basketball still hadn't come around by the 1960s. The Celtics were the first team to start five blacks, and that came in the mid-1960s. The Hawks might have won some titles in the 1960s had they chose to keep a talented roster of African American stars together. Instead, when they moved to Atlanta, they signed Pete Maravich to a huge deal that helped grease the skids for others to depart. 

Still, there's plenty of fun along the way. Mullins tells about how he received something of a full-court press from the entire state of Kentucky when he was thinking about a college choice. He went to Duke, which didn't exactly go over well. The shooting guard had a nice career and played a key role in the Robertson settlement as a moderating influence. And you'll love reading about the Van Arsdale identical twins, whose careers in basketball were almost - you guessed it - identical. 

The biggest flaw here is that the story does jump around a bit. This isn't a straight line to the settlement and its effects. That may not go over well with some readers. The manuscript also has trouble with the usage of "its" a few times. That's a personal pet peeve; someone once said that the use of that word is the single biggest way to determine if someone knows the language or not. 

But Smith accomplishes his goal of paying tribute to those who helped make the success of today's players and league possible. "Hard Labor" will leave you entertained and informed about that history lesson - no easy task.

Four stars

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Monday, July 2, 2018

Review: Football for a Buck (2018)

By Jeff Pearlman

"Football for a Buck" received plenty of attention shortly after its publication for a somewhat strange reason as these things go.

The President of the United States plays a relatively good-sized role in its story. Donald Trump doesn't exactly come out as the hero of it either.

The book is about a football league that lasted three years and went out of business with something of a whimper. It was a labor of love for author Jeff Pearlman, who had no idea when he was planning this book that Trump would become an occupant of the Oval Office.

So it's a happy coincidence that Trump finally did something good in the world of sports. Because "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. 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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