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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