Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Review: The Cost of These Dreams (2019)

By Wright Thompson

Sometimes the author's name is enough to lure you in when you are looking for something to read. When it comes to sports, Frank Deford and Gary Smith were two of the all-time greats.

Wright Thompson has a very good chance of joining those two, if he's not there already.

Thompson is one of those writers that takes his time coming up with a story. His work is on the long side in this Twitter age, but always rewarding. Therefore, it's good to see that his first collection, "The Cost of These Dreams," is now available.

Thompson started his career working for newspapers in New Orleans and Kansas City. He caught a break in 2006, when he was hired by ESPN. Thompson found a home there, as even the Internet was big enough to hold some of his longer works. ESPN the Magazine also gave him the space to stretch out his stories when needed.

If you read the stories before, they are certainly worth another look now. And if you haven't, you are in for a treat. Here is Michael Jordan at 50, still the same personality as we saw in his playing days but without that main competitive outlet. Pat Riley is shown to be torn between the present and a possible more relaxing future. Dan Gable, arguably the best American wrestler of all time, is still fighting some demons. Urban Meyer tries to put some balance in his life; there's more to tell about that football coach down the road.

Two stories jumped out at me that I hadn't read before. "Beyond the Breach" is a look at New Orleans 10 years after Katrina. Yes, there is some football there, but not a ton. It's about a city that keeps crawling back from adversity as it has always done, and it reads a little like a Spike Lee screenplay. There's also the "Ghosts of Mississippi," a look at the 1962 football team at Ole Miss that was one of the best of the country - at exactly the wrong time for all concerned (note the year and location) and thus was more or less forgotten. That one was turned into an ESPN documentary.

My only complaint about the collection is that it could have used a voice from the present. Where did the story appear? What has happened to subject and author since then? Even so, it doesn't get in the way of one's enjoyment. 

I'm not sure what's ahead for Thompson. ESPN recently announced that its magazine would be dying soon, and you'd have to think he might want a similar platform for his work. Then again, times are tough for magazines in general. We'll have to see what happens there.

But, no matter what the state of sportswriting and publication is, Thompson will do just fine. "The Cost of These Dreams" is proof of that. His audience will find him and follow him no matter where he lands.

Five stars

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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Review: Basketball: A Love Story (2018)

By Jackie MacMullan, Rafe Bartholomew and Dan Klores

It's not the usual procedure, but sometimes the movie gets a head start on the book.

That's the case with "Basketball: A Love Story," which fans whose memories go back beyond Stephan Curry will thoroughly enjoy.

ESPN put together something of an oral history of basketball for this project. It grabbed all sorts of interviews from people involved in the game over the years.

At some point, it was decided that there was enough material there for a book, and then some. So Jackie MacMullan and Rafe Bartholomew, two first-rate writers, came on board to help put together a printed version.

You may have seen parts of the documentary over the past few months. It has popped up on television at odd times, with a ton of fresh interviews on a variety of subjects. The filmmaker, Dan Klores, obviously was given the time and space to do everything right.

The first point to know is that the book doesn't go all the way back to the beginning of the NBA, which dates back to just after the completion of World War II. The book is arranged by topics, and the first areas of discussion are the Celtics dynasty (1957-69) and the UCLA run (1964-75), the civil rights era of the Sixties, and the gambling scandal of the early 1960s.

And away we go from there. There are topics that obviously were converted into parts of the documentary and are therefore more complete - Olympic play, North Carolina, New York City ball, the ABA, Michael Jordan, UConn vs. Tennessee, and international play.

It's the voices along the way that you'll remember, though. Time has allowed many of the participants in the game to ability to give a very honest account. Here's Elvin Hayes on the time that his Houston team beat UCLA in the Astrodome - a game that really put college basketball on the map:

"(Lew Alcindor, later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was all-everything, and I wanted to take his star down and put mine up there. ... Before that, we were friends, but after that Houston game, we never talked again. We could play on teh same All-Star team and never talk to each other."

Or UConn women's coach Gino Auriemma on Pat Summitt of Tennessee: "What the outside world wanted us to do was compete like that and then go to dinner and have a great time. I'm saying, 'Where does that happen? What part of the world, in any sporting endeavor, when you've got two fierce rivals like this, do they really enjoy each other's company?'"

How about Kenny Smith on Shaq and Kobe? "These guys are like Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, but they live in the same house, so they just gotta learn to get along. ... They could have done a better job at it, honestly."

The group also interviewed some media types to provide some perspective along the way. Most of the time, this works well. Who wouldn't want to hear what Bob Ryan has to say about a particular area?

But it's the players and coaches who really shine here. Their first-person accounts are frequently fascinating, and they make "Basketball: A Love Story" a fascinating read for anyone who loves basketball and its rich history.

Five stars

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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Review: Glove Affair (2019)

By Randy Gordon

Sometimes a young boy is asked what he plans to do for a living when he grows up, and he gets it right.

Randy Gordon was one of the lucky ones.

Gordon was taken with boxing almost right from the start. He actually skipped school the day that Rocky Marciano died in an airplane crash to talk about the tragedy with Nat Fleischer, the editor of Ring magazine - at the time, boxing's bible. It took a while, but Gordon got into Fleischer's office, had a nice chat with him, and was told by the publisher to call him when he was done with college. Fleischer would have a job waiting for him.

That's how Gordon got started in the boxing business. He's still at it all these years later. Finally, he has typed out some of the stories he's collected over the years into the book, "Glove Affair."

Gordon's career has done a little winding over the years. He did graduate from college, and got that job writing about boxing. Gordon also became the editor of Ring, and did some television commentating on some good-sized fights on networks.

Then there was the most unusual career move of all - he became Commissioner of the New York State Athletic Commission. That's a big job in the boxing world, mostly because New York City traditionally has hosted some of the biggest fights in the world - at least the ones that don't land in Las Vegas. Gordon now does some radio work with former heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney.

This is not a traditional autobiography - more of a collection of stories in no particular order. Perhaps the most interest will come when Mike Tyson's comes up. The heavyweight champion of the world still has the ability to fascinate us, even years later. Gordon devotes plenty of time to his role when Tyson tried to dump his old manager, Bill Cayton, in favor of the legendary and notorious Don King.

Alexis Arguello, another boxing great, gets plenty of ink here too. Gordon met him by chance when Arguello was walking into an event, and the two became fairly close. Gordon had the chance to chat with Muhammad Ali a few times, and The Greatest still fascinates. The author also recounts the tale of Billy Collins Jr., who was essentially murdered when some shenanigans took place with his opponents' gloves. Gordon is still furious about it, these many years later, as well he should be.

I suppose the rule here is that the fighters are interesting and the hangers-on are sometimes scoundrels. There's a funny story about how Gordon kept "running into" envelopes filled with money when he visited a boxing convention in Mexico City. And there's an odd episode involving an employee of the Athletic Commission who had figured out a way to stay on the job even though no one seemed too sure what he did - besides leak information to the media. Gordon figured out a way to get rid of him through a rather elaborate scheme.

The lack of continuity is a bit of a problem here. There are some references to other parts of Gordon's life that come up as asides that could have used more explaining. A little more editing might not have been the worst idea in the world, either.

Overall, though, "Glove Affair" is a quick and entertaining read. Gordon comes off credibly and as someone who loves the business and wants to see it work in a proper way. Boxing isn't what it used to be, of course, but those with an interest in the sport will like it.

Three stars

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Monday, April 1, 2019

Review: The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL (2018)

By Sean McIndoe

Anyone who has been around the National Hockey League certainly appreciates its rich history. The game dates back to the 19th century, and it has grown well past its roots from something to do in the winter in Canada to an international attraction with millions of fans.

The world's biggest league, of course, is the National Hockey League. It attracts most of the world's best players, and goes back more than 100 years.The NHL's grown has been spectacular in the second half or so of that span, jumping from six teams in the Northeast and Midwest to a 31-team circuit that includes teams from Florida to California.

But the youngsters out there should know that the NHL hardly has been the well-oiled machine that it now resembles over the course of history. It was a men's club of sorts for quite a while, and not a particularly well-run one. The joke back in the 1980s was that "the NHL is a great game, in spite of the people who run it."

Those little quirks always have made the NHL an interesting league to follow. Sean McIndoe is all over that, and he covers NHL's past in a breezy and fun way in his book, "The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL."

McIndoe has done a lot of hockey writing over the years. He has a website called, you guessed it, "Down Goes Brown." That appears to have something new just about every day in season, although some of the material is blocked as it links to full stories behind a paywall at The Athletic. Who am I to deny someone the right to earn some money via writing?

Sometimes bloggers try a little too hard to be edgy, and I had that worry when I first dove into the book. Luckily for all concerned, McIndoe's primary concern in his book is to compile a readable account of the NHL's story - as opposed to looking for laughs first and facts later. He is under control, and thus scores big points.

From that point, we take off into the world of NHL history. We should have known that it was going to a bumpy ride from the start. The original owners were part of another league, but they got fed up at an owner of a Toronto team and essentially started another league without him. The league grew out of a small all-Canadian loop but had some major growing pains that are rather typical. Teams frequently moved or folded, as it took time to find a business model that worked. Remember that these guys were pioneers in winter sports leagues, since a pro basketball league wouldn't really become a major entity until after World War II.

In 1942, the NHL settled into a six-team league - the Original Six, if you will, and stayed that way for a quarter-century. The Canadiens, Red Wings and Maple Leafs won most of the titles in that era, while the little sisters called the Rangers, Black Hawks (later Blackhawks), and Bruins usually were on the outside. The owners were never really interested in strong leadership, and found someone who wasn't interested in it. The teams sold a lot of tickets, but didn't have many ways to increase revenues. And if you weren't one of the best 120 players in the world, you were playing for peanuts in the minors - a high bar to hurdle.

Expansion finally arrived in 1967, and we were off on the second 50 years of the league. McIndoe starts to crank it up here, telling stories that you might find hard to believe now. Did you hear the one about the city that received an expansion team without applying for one? Or the time the league president was nowhere to be found when a playoff game had a confrontation between coach and official? How about when one team tried to buy another team's best player for a million dollars?

The format here is pretty simple. There are 25 chapters, and 24 of them either cover some chronological history or deal with a certain subject. No. 25 is about the future. Samples include the international invasion, the Gretzky trade, fighting and labor dispute. The first 24 also have a "strange but true" sidebar. Buffalo fans know all about one of them, the drafting of Taro Tsujimoto. No, make that two of them - the odd story about using a roulette-like wheel to determine the first draft pick in 1970. The Sabres won that spin, eventually, and Gil Perreault was the prize. But there are stories you don't know about too, like the time the Stanley Cup was missing at the Finals - or at least was late in arriving.

That's not surprising, because there are plenty of facts that I didn't even know, and I've read a lot of stories about hockey history.The footnotes are particularly good for such matters. It's all organized quite well, too.

This is hardly a definitive book on the NHL's past at 249 pages, but that's fine. There are big reference books for that sort of knowledge. This is designed to be a quick, fun read, and it succeeds in its goal quite nicely. Big fans of hockey certainly will love "The Down Goes Brown History of the NHL," and they might learn a few things along the way. The reviews on Amazon.com are overwhelmingly good. As for me, it's going to stay on my bookcase for quite a while.

Four stars

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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Review: After the Miracle (2019)

By Art Shamsky and Erik Sherman

The blitz of books about the 1969 World Series Champion New York Mets continues, with a contribution in this case by someone who is well qualified to write the story.

Art Shamsky already had one book on his resume when the Mets outfielder decided to put some memories down on paper. The result is "After the Miracle," which ought to satisfy any fan's curiosity about what it was like to live through that season as a participant.

Shamsky spent that season splitting duties in right field with Ron Swoboda (who by the way has his own book on the '69 Mets coming out this year). He obviously had been thinking about such a project for a long time, because the bookends of the text are devoted to a mini-reunion of players staged in 2017.

In between is a review of the season. For those who are too young to remember or haven't studied their baseball history, the Mets were the laughing stock of baseball from their birth in 1962 through 1967. They showed improvement in 1968 but still finished ninth in a 10-team league. It all made their nearly worst to first rise in 1969 that much more unexpected and spectacular. Sometimes sports fans from other parts of the country don't like New York sports teams because they received an outsized amount of attention for their efforts. But, trust me, everyone fell in love a bit with those Mets if you weren't a Chicago Cubs fan. (Every story needs a villain, and the Cubs filled that role nicely.)

Shamsky spends most of the time reviewing that season, of course, and he throws in plenty of stories about the players, coaches, etc. on the roster. The big games, including everything in the postseason, are covered in detail, and it's nice to here about what players were thinking at the time. By the way, a Baltimore Orioles fan will be a little angry when they read what really happened during a controversial play during the World Series. (No spoiler from me on it.)

It was one of those great years in sport when everything seems to fall into place. Obscure players did heroic things on a regular basis. It was all nicely put together by Gil Hodges, the former Brooklyn Dodger hero who managed the team with skill while commanding complete respect in the locker room.

The author does spent plenty of time talking about how close the team was and how it eventually expected to win. Such an overwhelming experience surely drew the team together for life; they'd be thrown together for the rest of their lives, giving everyone a chance to relive the experience over and over.

It would have been very interesting to hear Shamsky's perspective on what happened after that championship season. The Mets slowly sank from the heights of '69, as some of the inevitable roster changes didn't pan out. Hodges died in 1972, which obviously had an effect on the organization. New York was lucky to reach the postseason in 1973 with a record a touch above .500, and that was it until 1986.

While the season is covered in a satisfactory way, the book picks up steam at the end. Shamsky arranged to have Jerry Koosman, Swoboda, Bud Harrelson and co-author Erik Sherman join him on a trip to see star pitcher Tom Seaver at Seaver's house in California. Seaver was suffering from the effects of Lyme disease, but the group caught him on a good day and obviously enjoyed the get-together. You might recall David Halberstam's book, "The Teammates," on some 1940s members of the Boston Red Sox getting together to see Ted Williams. This has some of that same nostalgic sweetness in it, although it comes in a smaller dose. It's sad that Seaver is unable to participate in what will be a season-long celebration of that team because of his health problems.

It's tough to say how much an interest a 20-something might have in reading about a team from 50 years ago, no matter how universal some themes are. But "After the Miracle" ought to be a great fit for those who lived in the first time.

Four stars

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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Review: The Team That Couldn't Hit (2019)

Edited by Steve West and Bill Nowlin

I am back in the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) after more than 30 years, and during that time the organization has prospered. This is a group of dedicated baseball fans - and that's an understatement - who deeply care about such matters as Joe Jackson's eligibility for the Hall of Fame so many years after he was banned from baseball.

SABR always had some interesting publications, and now they are able to issue them in an up-to-date form. In other words, the group can put out its books in an e-format such as Kindle, and give it away. In this case that's a $30 savings over an actual paperback copy of it, so it's a nice bonus.

This offering is about the 1972 Texas Rangers, and it is very accurate to say that they were "The Team That Couldn't Hit." Toby Harrah had the best batting average among the regulars at .259. There was one other starter who cracked the .250 mark - catcher Dick Billings. Three regulars were under .225. If you were thinking there might be some talent on the bench, well, 10 players who suited up in Texas uniforms that season were under .200. So they got the title right.

And who was the manager of that team? The answer is a rather unlikely one. Ted Williams is considered one of the greatest hitters of all time, maybe the single best hitter. Yet he couldn't do much to help this team hit more than .217, one of the worst such numbers in history. Some of the players on that roster with name recognition to a certain degree were Frank Howard, Lenny Randle, Elliott Maddox, Don Mincher, Dick Bosman, and Don Stanhouse.

At first, it's easy to wonder how a book on this team and its poor season filled up 404 pages. But pick it up and start reading, and you'll figure out why. After a couple of introductory chapters on the team's past, the book starts to go through the roster, one by one, with good-sized biographies of every player and coach. Other people, such as front office staff, ownership and the media, are covered as well. My guess is that this is part of the SABR biography project, which tries to compile as many bios as possible of those in the game. It doesn't stop at 1972, but rather covers an entire career and in some cases life.

That means a bunch of different people wrote for this book, since the workload for a solo effort would be staggering, and the results are naturally uneven. The stories that feature long interviews with a given person in the biography are easily the best; I'd bet a long-forgotten reserve from the past was happy to be remembered at this point. But some of the stories are rather dry, coming off as more scholarly rather than written for a mass audience.

The book also contains other features devoted to the team, such as chapters on big games and a listing of every game of that season with a couple of sentences of recap. It's nice to have them here.

This sort of book is really difficult to rate, because much of the material in the biographies has little to do with the '72 Rangers. Therefore, most people will not have much interest in reading so much about that team. However, if you followed the Rangers closely back then, there is little doubt that you will thoroughly enjoy "The Team That Couldn't Hit" and have it on your bookcase forever. In either case, the amount of work and scholarship that went into this publication is admirable. We will see what else is coming down the road from SABR in the future, and look forward to its arrival.

Three stars

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Review: The Phenomenon (2017)

By Rick Ankiel and Tim Brown

Rick Ankiel had a gift, one that he came to use in a path toward a better life. And then that gift left, in a sense, never to return.

That's the Rick Ankiel story in two sentences. Naturally, there's a lot more to the story, but it's something of a starting point for his autobiography, "The Phenomenon."

The gift resided in his left arm. He could throw a baseball hard and accurately. The gift made sure that Ankiel attracted attention from professional baseball scouts, who eventually would come along with seven-figure contracts from him. It was also a ticket out of where his life was headed.

Ankiel was born out of wedlock, and his father sounds like he'd be a first-round draft pick of people you wouldn't want to have as a parent. The father dropped in occasionally to see his kids, delivering all kinds of abuse on to the kids and mother whenever he had the chance. Then he went back to his life with another family when he wasn't dodging the authorities for illegal activities. The surprise, I guess, isn't that Rick's brother wound up in jail. It's that Rick avoided that fate.

He signed a $2.5 million contract, sailed through the minors with the St. Louis Cardinals, apparently landed in St. Louis for good in 2000, and was the starting pitcher for the team in a playoff game.

Then the wheels fell off, and the story becomes much more uncommon and interesting.

What's it like to forget how to throw a strike in front of a sellout crowd and a national television audience? Ankiel is about the only person who knows. All of a sudden, he couldn't throw a pitch within range of the catcher's glove, let alone the strike zone. Ankiel made a quick exit from that particular postseason game, and discovered the gift had gone away because something inside had gone very wrong.

It's called "the yips," mostly in golf, when you just can't pull the putter back and make it follow orders to develop a smooth stroke to put the ball in the hole. Others call it "the Thing" or "the Monster." The most famous case of it happened to 1979 World Series hero Steve Blass, who shortly after that magical moment caught the bug. Naturally, the malfunction is called "Steve Blass Disease." No one knows what causes it, or how to cure it. It comes, and usually stays.

I saw something like that happen in the minor leagues one time. Darrell Miller was a Double-A catcher who simply couldn't throw the ball back to the pitcher after each pitch. Oddly, Miller had no trouble throwing to second on a stolen base attempt. It was incomprehensible at the time and painful to watch. By the way, Miller made it to the majors for a few years, and played about half of his games as a catcher. Maybe he found a way to cope with it.

It's easy to feel the emotion involved from Ankiel, who was on the verge of having it all - only to have it snatched away without any notice. He tried everything. Ankiel talked to coaches, teammates, fellow victims, and psychologists. He stopped throwing for a while, and threw constantly. Ankiel tried alcohol, drugs, etc. - even pitching in a game with shots of vodka in his system. Nothing helped.

Finally, Ankiel made it back to St. Louis at the end of the 2004 season, and retired the next spring - only to come back the next day as an outfielder. Yup, an outfielder. And by 2007, he was back in a Cardinals' uniform. In his first game as a starter, Ankiel hits a storybook home run late in the game - which is where the movie version of this book no doubt will end.

It took a while for Ankiel and co-author Tim Brown to find a rhythm in their writing. Sometimes the sentences go on too long, featuring 20 words when 10 would have gotten the point across. In addition, there are stretches of the story that hardly receive any words at all, such as the climb up the ladder to reach the majors the second time. It feels in those spots like someone put space limitations on the story, and something had to go.  

On the other hand, Ankiel fully explores one of those issues that is never discussed much in the macho world of pro sports. We're not supposed to talk about something connected to mental health there, and the permanence of the ailment's sentence would scare anyone.

It couldn't have been easy to go over this subject all over again, so Ankiel deserves credit for writing about it in "The Phenomenon." Maybe people will be a bit more understanding the next time someone can't find the strike zone, and that's a step forward.

Four stars

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Friday, March 15, 2019

Review: K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches (2019)

By Tyler Kepner

It would seem that Tyler Kepner has been doing some work on the side for the past several years, and I'm not talking about trying to perfect his curve ball.

The New York Times national baseball writer has done a variety of stories in that time on many different subjects. But it seems that when he had the opportunity to talk to a pitcher about the various types of pitches, he jumped on it .Multiply that by a few hundred interviews, and you have the makings of a book. Then throw in plenty of research on the subject, and some time to put it together, and you have that book.

It is called "K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches." It probably sounds by that earlier description as if Kepner knew what he was doing, and reading the actual book will back up that claim.

You probably didn't realize there were 10 different pitches out there. After all, most pitchers use three at most. Let's count them off, in order of their appearance in the book. There's the slider, fastball, curveball, knuckleball, splitter, screwball, sinker, changeup, spitball and cutter.

All of these pitches didn't appear on the scene at once, of course. Certainly the game started with the fastball, and then someone in the 1800s threw a pitch that curved to fool the batter. (It's tough to resist a book that includes references to Candy Cummings from that era, a man who may not have invented the curveball but who certainly helped perfect it by all accounts). Then came the variations. Pitchers threw a slightly slower fastball with a bit of break to create the slider. A really slow fastball became the change-of-pace, or changeup. The splitter is wedged between two fingers, and drops suddenly as it nears the plate. The cutter is a fastball with a different grip, so that the ball makes a sudden horizontal turn.

No one masters all of these pitches. What's more, if you aren't really good at throwing them on the major league level, some baseballs will be deposited in the bleachers rather quickly.

We hear stories and voices of the best pitchers of their generations here. Pedro Martinez, Madison Bumgarner, Mariano Rivera, Gaylord Perry, Greg Maddux, Roy Halladay, Tug McGraw, Charlie Hough, Trevor Hoffman and Bruce Sutter all come up in the text. It is interesting just how many pitchers learned a new pitch at some point in their careers, and suddenly they were much more effective. Rivera might be the best example of that; he was fooling around in a game of catch when an altered grip changed the flight pattern of the baseball drastically. Before long, he had a cutter that was essentially unhittable for almost 20 years. It made him the first unanimous choice for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Admittedly, this is a book for people who are good-sized fans of learning how the game of baseball is actually played. It's very specific and detailed in that area, and a few people no doubt are going to be overwhelmed by all of this information. Still, the subject is handled as well as it can be.

There's little doubt that "K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches" is going to pick up some awards at the end of the year, and it's a worthwhile read as another season gets started. And if you have a current or former pitcher on your gift list, by all means pick this up for him.

Four stars

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Thursday, March 7, 2019

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2019

Edited by Patrick Dubuque, Aaron Gleeman and Bret Sayre

The gang from Baseball Prospectus has been hard at work evaluating players and teams for almost a quarter of a century. At some point, the writers probably have looked at some typical player and said, "What am I going to write about this year?"

That's the quandary that a reviewer must face with trying to evaluate a new edition. Luckily, there are a couple of points to be made about "Baseball Prospectus 2019" that are worth discussing - particularly if you are familiar with the book.

Just to review this series for those who need an introduction, Baseball Prospectus is broken into chapters for each of the major league teams. Those chapters have an essay about some aspect about the team (not necessarily a preview by any means), followed by comments on the top players in the organization. I would guess it hits close to almost 70 players per team. The book supplies the traditional stats that are on the scoreboard at the local ballpark, but also some numbers that aren't exactly common. There are explanations of each of those statistics in the book if you care to find them. If not, it won't get in the way. There are a few essays in the back for the deep thinkers in the statistical crowd.

Now let's get to the changes. The first is something of a throwback. A few years ago, BP reduced the point-size of the type of the player comments slightly. This no doubt cut down on the number of pages and thus saved on printing costs. It also was noticed and was the subject of some complaints, which led to a bigger size of type the next year.

But this year, the type is again smaller. And it's tougher to read. After reading some of the player comments in the 2019 edition, I grabbed last year's book for comparison, and the difference is obvious. That may not sound like a big deal, but I found my attention span lessened with the small print. This is not the way to engage a reader, of course. Could some of the players been reduced to one-line comments in the back of each chapter, joining several other fringe prospects in order to create more room? You'd have to think so.

I should mention that both the 2018 and 2019 books are about 596 pages, yet this year's edition checks in at a quarter-inch thinner even though according to the covers it has fewer player profiles. The printing business sure can be complicated.

The second may have something to do with the announcement at the front of the book. In the foreword, Rob Mains reveals that a group from the BP's senior staff has bought the operation - which includes the book, a busy website, and any other projects that come along.

The owners may have put out an order to be a little more professional in the writing, and be a little less, well, snarky. Some of the comments over the years have had a little bite, and the "tone it down" order wouldn't be a shocker. The person who wrote about the Texas Rangers' players still has a "colorful" writing style this year. Otherwise, the comments frequently are written in a non-traditional way, but lack some of the bite that previous descriptions have contained. This may make a reader happy or disappointed, depending on the viewpoint, but the fact that it has happened is worth noting. Me, I miss the old way a bit.

Otherwise, though, this is a solid effort as usual. BP does an excellent job of identifying top prospects before you've heard of them, and offers an impressive dose of realism about where almost everyone on the organizational roster stands entering 2019. It's a great companion piece for watching a game on television (it's a little heavy to carry to the park), and naturally comes out of the bookcase whenever your favorite team makes a six-player trade with someone like Baltimore. (Sorry to pick on the Orioles there, but most of the guys I knew on that roster are gone.) I still wouldn't call it essential for preparing for a fantasy draft - there are better resources in those limited areas - but that's fine.

It's tough to give this a perfect rating under the circumstances, but every serious baseball fan should take a look at this for purchase. The BP staff continues to fill up the front offices of major-league teams, and it's always good to learn from the observations of such smart people.

Four stars

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Sunday, February 24, 2019

Review: They Said It Couldn't Be Done (2019)

By Wayne Coffey

There were many, many feel-good stories in sports in the 20th century, but two topped the list. They were stories that were totally unexpected and featured supposed underdogs who beat the long odds.

One was the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team. I still can't believe they beat the Soviets.

The other was the 1969 New York Mets. After being a generally dreadful team from birth in 1962 through 1968, the Mets became relevant all at once - putting on a spurt down the stretch to win the National League East. Then it was on to wins in the NL Championship Series and the World Series. Take it from someone who watched much of it on television from upstate New York, it was thrilling.

It's probably not a coincidence that miracles are associated with both teams: "Do You Believe in Miracles?" and "The Miracle Mets."

Let's worry about the latter here. It's been 50 years since the Mets won their Amazin' World Series. Since it is a New York team - albeit one that the whole country (except Baltimore) seemed to back that year - some forests were sure to be sacrificed to mark the occasion.

And if you are under the age of 60 or so, you might want to know what all the fuss was about. Wayne Coffey supplies some of the details in "They Said It Couldn't Be Done." (By the way, he also wrote "The Boys of Winter" on the hockey team.)

The format here is rather simple. The first half of the book is dedicated to the regular season, with some of the important games along the way receiving good amounts of coverage. Then it is on to the playoffs, where the Mets swept through the Braves with almost ease and beat the Orioles in five games. That's more of a batter-by-batter review of those eight games.

Coffey adds some needed color along the way with interviews of some of the players - remember that everyone on the roster is at least 70 now, some are in their 80s and others have died. He also talks to a few people on the outskirts of the event, such as some fans (including current Mets announcer Gary Cohen) and a batboy.

The author gives the story its due, hitting the proper high points in the long season. Coffey obviously put in some time during some research here, especially when it comes to watching video tapes of playoff games. In fact, he almost goes a little overboard in that sense in spots.

It will be easy for fans to enjoy the chance to relive that season if they were caught up in it, so the book succeeds in that goal. Still, I would have liked a little more perspective on the season from a distance at this point, instead of what happened at the moment. It's not as if the subject has gone uncovered during the past half-century.

That really would have been helpful in the epilogue. Everyone around the team praises what a collective effort it was, as all players contributed. That's true, as it was a year when just about everything went right. I'm sure it was a close-knit team for that year. But it comes off as a bit of a cliche when a clear-eyed, 50-years-later analysis with modern statistical tools might have been useful to explain what went on. In addition, things were never the same in the next few years after that, and it would be interesting to hear what some theories are about that - besides that Amos Otis for Joe Foy deal blowing up.

Then again, maybe Coffey - who also wrote a book on the Olympic hockey team - doesn't want anything to spoil the memory. If you are in that class, I'm good with it. And you'll be good with "They Said It Couldn't Be Done."

Three stars

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Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Review: The Big Chair (2017)

By Ned Colletti with Joseph A. Reaves

A while back, a general manager of a National Hockey League team was asked an unusual question: Is your job much fun?

He smiled, and then talked about one time he saw a group of general managers from other teams gathered together, looking glum.

"I said to them, 'You guys don't look like you're having a lot of fun right now,'" the GM said. "One of them answered, 'If you take this job to have fun, you're in the wrong business.'"

If there's a message behind "The Big Chair" by Nick Colletti, that last quote might be it.

The Big Chair refers to the one for the general manager, the principal architect of a sports team's present and future. That person is the one who comes out and announces the latest trade or free-agent signing, causing thousands these days to take to their computer to praise or rip the GM on social media.

The job wouldn't be so tough if such moves were the only responsibility of its occupant. Every sports fans, naturally, thinks he or she could go a better job in those areas. That's why fantasy leagues are so popular. But there's more to the general manager's job, a lot more. This is the best book I've read so far about what goes into the position. No wonder it takes more than 400 pages to explain it.,

Colletti had a nice nine-year run with the Dodgers, going from the end of 2005 to the end of the 2014 season. Los Angeles won a lot of games and made some playoff appearances, but fell short of the ultimate goal of reaching (and winning a World Series). Even so, Colletti had no reason to apologize for his time in the Big Chair.

His story actually begins in Chicago, where he grew up. Colletti was one of those kids who used to hang out in the Wrigley Field bleachers. Imagine his delight then, when he landed a job with the Cubs as a young adult - first in the public relations department (he had been a sportswriter in Philadelphia before that) and then in the baseball department. And imagine his dismay when he was fired by GM Larry Hines, one of the mediocrities as a GM that the Cubs had running the baseball department during their long, long drought between championships.

Luckily, Colletti landed on his feet as the assistant general manager of the San Francisco Giants. He was part of the organization that reached the World Series in 2002, and one that eventually won three titles in five years in the next decade. But Colletti had to watch those from a distance, as he had jumped to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

While there are some good stories about a couple of famous Cubs - one that was coming (Andre Dawson) and one that was going (Greg Maddux) - the book kicks in nicely once Colletti gets to Los Angeles. That's because a general manager is on the go constantly, literally and figuratively. Colletti estimated that he spent about half of each year in a hotel somewhere, whether it be watching the Dodgers play or it is a case of looking at minor leaguers, meeting with agents, etc. The burnout rate must be high; Brian Cashman must be a special individual to have the GM job for so long with the New York Yankees (1998).

Even the easy days are complicated. Colletti writes about how an injury to someone on the major league roster caused him to work well into the night, and then early the next morning, on finding a replacement and getting him to Cincinnati for that night's game. You wouldn't believe how many moving parts there are.

And that's just part of it. "A Day in the Life" chapter also discusses a player who essentially had given up on his career in midseason, and an intern who put confidential scouting reports on his blog on the Internet. Plus, there are the usual day-to-day activities that rarely left him time to eat, let alone think. Plus, there are no off-days in the job. The offseason has become just as busy than the season these days.

A general manager has to juggle personalities too, and the Dodgers had some big ones. Manny Ramirez. Yasiel Puig. Tommy Lasorda. David Wells. That's just for starters, of course. There are stories about all of them as well as negotiations for trades, signing free agents and dealing lesser-known players who end up in, um, difficult circumstances.

But the biggest personality in the story might be Frank McCourt, the Dodgers' owner for part of Colletti's tenure on the job. McCourt is best remembered as the man who more or less robbed the Dodgers' piggy-bank during his tenure, leaving the team in financial difficulty by the time he left. Colletti admits that point, but says McCourt was a brilliant individual who made him a better thinker on the job with his constant questioning of all things Dodgers.

Still, Colletti was enough of a baseball fan to realize that he should take a little of his time along the way to enjoy the company. Meals and travel time with Vin Scully, the legendary Los Angeles broadcaster certainly qualifies, and Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax qualifies. He even has some good words to say about Barry Bonds, whom he got to know in San Francisco.

Colletti was fired when the Dodgers had the chance to hire Andrew Friedman from Tampa Bay. Colletti's two biggest regrets are that he didn't have the chance to establish stability in the Dodgers' organization during his time there, and that he didn't smell the roses enough along the way. It's difficult to do either.

This book came out a while ago, so some of the names might be not be familiar to non-Dodgers fans. Still, the story breezes along so nicely that you'll finish it in a jiffy. You might not want to sit in "The Big Chair" when you are done with it, but you'll understand baseball better.

Five stars

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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Review: 108 Stitches (2019)

By Ron Darling with Daniel Paisner

What's the next best thing to having dinner with Ron Darling?

Reading "108 Stitches" by Ron Darling.

This is one of those books that's thankfully easy to describe, and easy to read. In a sentence, the former New York Mets pitcher and current broadcaster tells stories about his life in baseball.

This is book number three for Darling, who seems to take some delight in coming up with new twists to describe his life in the game. Last time, for example, he wrote "Game 7, 1986," as he told what it is like to come up short on a personal level in the biggest game of his life - the last game of the World Series - but see his team win the championship in spite of his efforts, and not because of them.

This is even simpler. Most of the new book is devoted to anecdotes about Darling's baseball connections. He started with a list of his teammates over the years, and he played long enough to have a bunch of them, and started jotting down notes. He works his way from A to Z during the course of this book, with some side trips to other personalities.

In other words, it flows like a normal conversation between two people - except only one person is doing the talking. And, let's face it - if you were having dinner with Ron Darling, wouldn't you want to shut up and let him talk?

There are all sorts of stories here, as he goes from the minors to the majors, and from one team to another. Some of them are funny, of course. But others are surprising. Take for example the tale of how Don Zimmer called him over to talk one time when Darling was in the Rangers' organization (pre-Mets), and told him to get a new baseball glove. Why? Zimmer could tell from the dugout when Darling was pitching that the hurler was about to throw a breaking ball through an opening in the back in the glove. In other words, he was tipping his pitches.

Then there's Frank Howard, manager of the Mets early in Darling's stay in New York. Howard, not a favorite of Darling's, apparently drove through an exact change lane in the mid-1980s and threw money in the old coin basket. And waited. And waited. When he was asked what he was waiting for, Howard said he put in a five-dollar bill and was waiting for his change.

Or how about the time he and Keith Hernandez had a meal with Lauren Bacall? He wanted to talk about movies, she wanted to talk about the Mets' chances. Betty turned out to be a baseball fan.

While most baseball lifers have some good stories, it's a little surprising that Darling rarely holds much back here about people he doesn't like at other times. Former Buffalo Bisons' manager Jack Aker hardly spoke to Darling in the minors, leaving the young pitcher mystified. A teammate sprayed Darling one day with tobacco juice, even though it was Darling's first day in the majors and his uniform was nice and clean. Welcome to the Show, rookie. Darling's lack of personal respect for star slugger Frank Thomas leaked into their relationship during TBS broadcasts.

The one odd part comes at the end, when Darling goes off on a decent-sized rant about the state of baseball today. In particular, he's not happy with the how the game is played at times, particularly when it becomes a slave to analytics. That includes such topics as defensive shifts, five-inning starters, and the running game mostly taken out of the tool box. Darling makes some points, but it's a not what I was expecting.

I wouldn't pick this up for the young kiddies who might be fans of Darling's work on broadcasts. The language and a few of the exploits are R-rated. I also know that some people like the authenticity that profanity brings to a story, so they won't be offended.

"108 Stitches" (the number on a baseball, naturally) goes down very easily and quickly. It meets its goal for entertaining the reader ... even if you have to supply the dinner.

Four stars

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Sunday, February 10, 2019

Review: Jim Boeheim and Syracuse Basketball (2018)

By Donald Staffo

Is there anyone who thinks that Jim Boeheim needs to be defended for his record as a basketball coach over the years?

It seems there's at least one person who thinks that way.

Donald Staffo has written a book called "Jim Boeheim and Syracuse Basketball." Let's start with the fact that Boeheim, his family and friends might find this a generally enjoyable review of his basketball career. As for the rest of us, even those of us who are graduates of Syracuse University (guilty), this doesn't work so well.

Boeheim and Syracuse University have been connected for a long, long time. After all, he first came to the school as a freshman in 1962, and never really left. Boeheim played with the legendary Dave Bing as Syracuse had some rare great moments (it was mostly a football school before that) during their time there.

While Bing went on to a great pro career, Boeheim came back to Syracuse and worked his way up to status as an assistant coach. Then in 1976, Roy Danforth left Syracuse to go to Tulane (think about that one in today's context), and Boeheim took over as coach. He's been there ever since, constantly winning bunches of games with teams that sold thousands and thousands of tickets with its entertaining style.

Staffo spends a little time reviewing Boeheim's childhood and those early years at SU. Eventually, though, it's time to go through the seasons, year by year. That's not an easy chore, since there have been a lot of them. It's at least the starting point for the book, as it will be fun for Syracuse fans to see names they haven't contemplated in years. As you'd expect, the great seasons get covered better than the good ones, although it might have been nice to have more than a paragraph or two on at least every single season.

But more simply, this book takes an approach that is a little puzzling. Admittedly, Boeheim has some problems to overcome over the years. Syracuse has been on probation during his tenure a couple of times, and there was also the scandal involving his longtime assistant coach, Bernie Fine. Many college programs have gone under scrutiny for one reason or another, in part because the various rules of the NCAA are hard to follow. The program gets off a little easily here. Boeheim also has had a few odd public moments, which have gotten in the way of showing off the rest (and majority) of his personality. That has made him a little unpopular to some who are a distance away. Still, he knows basketball inside and out and can be quite funny in his own way, which makes him a great interview on general hoop subjects during basketball season.

In the meantime, Boeheim and the Orange usually have won, year after year. He's up with the all-time greats in a number of statistical categories. Boeheim has won a national championship, made some other Final Fours played in many NCAA Tournaments, and produced players that went on to the professional ranks. It's not quite Duke, but it's pretty close.

Still, the tone of the book is frequently defensive. Almost any criticism of Boeheim is mentioned here and then swatted away. Syracuse has been knocked for rarely leaving the Carrier Dome or at least New York State before January 1. Statto correctly points out that most of the "big name" schools do the same thing. But do we really need to go through the schedules of those schools, one by one, to back that up? The effect is rather numbing, since the point has been made.

In addition, much of the criticism concerning Boeheim in Syracuse basketball printed here comes from authorities like social media members. It gives the impression that talk show callers would have had their points reprinted here if the author had access to old tapes. Does anyone really care about someone who doesn't know that much but who believes Boeheim can't recruit? Or coach with the best? I'm in agreement with Staffo when he argues that Boeheim shouldn't have lost career coaching wins as a penalty for NCAA violations. Heck, someone coached those games. It does make writing about milestones in Boeheim's career a little awkward. But really, make the point and move on. More editing would have been really nice.

Speaking of editing, here's a minor point but worth noting. The way this is broken up by chapters is extremely odd. For example, the 1986-87 begins on page 92 at the end of Chapter 5. The National Championship game from that season starts at Chapter 6 on page 94, and the 1987-88 campaign's story begins on page 98. Wouldn't you want everything about that great season to be in the same chapter - and while we're at it, be a lot longer? The 1996 season is split up the same way. Near the end, Chapter 17 is entitled "The 2-3 Zone," but has a section on recruiting - and not about getting players who fit the system. It's a difficult book to read in some ways.

If you aren't sure where Staffo stands on all of this, at the end of the book he takes the lyrics to the song "My Way" and adapts them to fit Boeheim's career. Whew.

There's a better book out there on this subject: Boeheim's autobiography, "Bleeding Orange." He opened up quite a bit there, and it's a fun read. "Jim Boeheim and Syracuse Basketball," meanwhile, probably will leave all but extremely partisan fans on the disappointed side when they finish it.

Two stars

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Monday, January 28, 2019

Review: Hello, Friends! (2019)

By Jerry Howarth

Jerry Howarth wasn't around for the start of the Toronto Blue Jays franchise in 1977, and he's not there now - retiring early in 2018. But he saw almost everything in between.

Howarth came aboard the organization as one of the team's broadcasters in 1982. That means he was around for almost every big moment in the team's history.

That history certainly is well covered in his book, "Hello, Friends!"  It looks back on those 36 years on the job in almost painstaking detail, at least in terms of the team and its players.

Tom Cheek was the first voice of the Blue Jays, and he was a smooth pro from Day One of the team's games in 1977. Howarth added another professional voice a few years after that. The latter grew up in the San Francisco area, and eventually deciding that something in the sports communication business would work for him. Sports writing was an option, but eventually he turned to broadcasting and stuck with it. Yes, he had to pay some dues - bouncing around a few cities on the minor-league baseball circuit and working on other sports' broadcasts as well as taking odd jobs (sales, community relations, etc.) to get by. It's a pretty typical story of a business that requires some skill and a little luck.

Finally, though, he got the call to move a couple of thousand miles to Toronto and away he went. The focus of the book changes at that point. Howarth gets out of the way in a sense, concentrating on his stories about the players, managers, etc. Each year gets a quick once-over, and the new players arriving each year are reviewed.

The Blue Jays won championships in 1992 and 1993, and made it to the playoffs a few other times. Those seasons get a little more coverage. Mostly, though, the years go by as the personalities come and go. Howarth comes across as optimist by nature, and almost everyone in the book comes across pretty well. That might be simply a case of personality. Good baseball announcers usually are the ones who wear well and get along with almost everyone. It's easy to see Howarth as a welcoming personality on radio (and to a limited extent, television) during a nice career. There are also stories about the players and their families, which are also pleasant.

In fact, only one person really comes off badly in the entire book. Howarth tells a couple of episodes of encounters with new Hall of Famer Mike Mussina. The pitcher comes off as rather surly. It's kind of nice to know that the old saying is true - you can't please everyone.

This all must sound like an easy, pleasant read for Blue Jays' fans at this point, and that's probably going to be true for some north of the border. Even so, it's easy to think that the book could have used a little editing.

The e-book version I have checks in at more than 400 pages of reading (at least according to the table of contents). It might have been a better book if it had lost some of those pages, and perhaps discarded some of the information on the seasons. It wouldn't have been that difficult; some of the players aren't that well known and/or don't have interesting background stories. There is some overlap of content too, as some information gets repeated. And it could have used some more words on the life of a broadcaster on a personal level. After all, it is Howarth's book.

Speaking of that, Howarth's retirement isn't even discussed here, which is odd. The story more or less ends at the end of 2016, although there are a couple of updates of a few people's lives. It's easy to wonder if this book's publication was delayed for a year for some reason. 

Reading "Hello, Friends!" makes me believe that the fine announcer has another book in him down the road. This one is decent, though, and will fill the reader in on the people involved in the history of Canada's major league baseball team.

Three stars

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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Review: Power Ball (2018)

By Rob Neyer

How to describe "Power Ball" by Rob Neyer in a paragraph? Hmm. That's a tough one.

Let's try this approach. You are attending a September 2017 game in Oakland between the Athletics and Houston Astros. Although most of the seats are empty, good fortune has placed a genuine, noted baseball writer in the seat next to you. Even if you are a good-sized fan of the game of baseball, you are smart enough to know that the person beside you knows more about what's going on than you do. So you do the prudent thing, and listen. For nine innings.

Daniel Okrent did something like this in terms of analysis of one game about 25 years ago in a book called "Nine Innings." This is a similar concept, as Neyer is quick to point out as he bows to Okrent and other authors. Still, it's different.

"Power Ball" is more like listening to a jazz concert, in which you're never quite sure where the music is headed - but you'll probably enjoy the ride. The game itself is something of a launching point for discussions, but it's not as if we need to hang on every pitch. Neyer doesn't It's a good enough game to hold your interest, but the drama isn't overwhelming the situation. And we know the Astros are going to go on and win the World Series in a few weeks, and this wasn't a key moment in their climb to greatness.

What subjects, then, come up? All sorts of them. For example, baseball has plenty of homers and strikeouts these days, but whether that's making for a better product from a fan viewpoint is tougher to say. It's easy to put the subjects up here in the form of questions, even if the author sort of fades in and out of such tangents. What are shifts doing to the sport? Is tanking a good idea? Where has the complete game gone? What has the increased use of relief pitchers done to the way the game is approached on the field? Where have all the African Americans gone?

Neyer has the advantage of looking at the game in hindsight, so that he can add some statistical analysis as he goes along. This includes how fast the ball is thrown, how fast it leaves the bat, a team's chances of winning the game, at a given moment, etc. There are a few quotes from the participants taken after the game, but not too many.

The best paragraph in the book might be the last. Baseball has evolved in the past several years, and not necessarily for the better. The games are rather slowly paced for a variety of reasons - pitching changes, timeouts, etc. There are more strikeouts and home runs, which little of the athletic excitement that the sport can provide (think triples or acrobatic double plays). Neyer says everyone is not too concerned because money is still coming in. However, rules always have been changed in sports depending on the circumstances, and the game has some problems that could use experiments in order to find answers. Maybe it's time to limit mound conferences or pitching changes or the strike zone. There's nothing too sacred about the rules, as they've been changed countless time over the years in order to keep the sport in balance. Besides, the bases are likely to stay 90 feet apart. Maybe, the author argues, that someone in power needs to look at what's best for the game rather than for what's best for the owners and players.

There is plenty to like here, and there should be few complaints about the content. I did find myself wondering if there would be those who didn't take to it because it wasn't exactly linear in its organization. Based on the comments of those who reviewed it on Amazon.com, that doesn't seem to be a problem for most.

"Power Ball" probably isn't for everyone, particularly if baseball isn't your major passion as a fan. If the description finds your sweet spot, though, it will definitely be worth your time to give it a read.

Four stars

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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Review: 26 Marathons (2019)

By Meb Keflezighi with Scott Douglas


It's really not easy to be a professional marathon runner.

Not only is there a ton of physical work, featuring mile after mile on the roads. It also hurts.

That might be the biggest message to come out of "26 Marathons," a book from Meb Keflezighi. Marathon runners do more than their share of suffering, whether it is in training or in the actual races. They know that going in, since the human body isn't exactly designed to hold up for a run of 26.2 miles. But they don't know when exactly something will come up that will cause some suffering.

Keflezighi is certainly on the short list of the greatest American marathon runners in history. The native of Eritrea in Africa moved to this country at a young age, and became a superstar in his chosen support. Keflezighi set a variety of records in his career, but in the marathon he won a medal at the Olympics and won the New York City and Boston Marathons.

Naturally, none of that comes without preparation. You've got to do some work beforehand. Meb obviously pushed his body right to its limits along the way, racking up as many as 120 miles of running per week. Runners have to learn when to run through pain and when to stop because of injury. Make the wrong choice and they could be on the sidelines for a considerable amount of time.

As you might guess, Keflezighi ran 26 marathons in his career, which is convenient since it almost matches the distance in miles. Each of the races gets a chapter. The first was in New York City in 2002 and the last was in the same place in 2017. That's a good long run, pardon the pun, as Meb ran competitively into his 40s. He "only" won three of them, but he was always competitive and only posted a DNF (Did Not Finish) once in them.

What is striking about the stories is that is how much can go wrong. Most runners have forgotten to do something on the way to the starting line. Meb tells the story about how he packed a breathing strip into his shoe as usual, but forgot to put it on. Then his foot started getting chewed up, and he opted to run with it for another 20+ miles. You can guess what his foot looked like at the finish. Meb also has stories about suddenly feeling terrible during a race, in which he had to vomit or felt like vomiting but couldn't. There are races where a leg muscle tightens up or his legs simply stop working, and he has to walk a bit and make the best of the situation he faced.

Each chapter is somewhat bite-sized. It takes about five or so minutes to get through each one, which contain a description of the race and a few tips about running that most people probably have heard elsewhere. In other words, it probably will take a bit more than two hours to read this - appropriate, since that was about how long it took for Meb to actually run one of those races.

Meb's life story is a dramatic one, and he covered it in an earlier book ("Run to Overcome"). Keflezighi certainly ranks as one of our most admirable star athletes, and he was an easy choice for someone looking to root for a top runner to do well.

"26 Marathons" supplies more reasons to root for him on a personal level, but otherwise isn't particularly memorable. Therefore, I'd advise runners to start with that initial autobiography to learn more about Meb. If you want to read more of his story, this latest book will be waiting for you.

Three stars

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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Review: Teammate (2017)

By David Ross with Don Yaeger

David Ross is the member of a very small club. After all, how many people are associated with World Series winners for both the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox?

I couldn't easily find someone who played for the Cubs in 1908 and then went on to postseason glory with the Red Sox in the 1910s. However, Ross joined Jon Lester, John Lackey and front office executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer as the obvious connections between those two long-suffering teams.

While Ross might not have been the best player of that group, he might have been the best story of the five at the time. (Epstein, of course, will be able to write a fascinating book about his baseball life whenever he's ready to do so.) Ross meanwhile had announced he was going to retire after the 2016 season.  That happened to coincide with the end of a 108-year drought for the Cubs when it came to championships, and Ross - at 39 - became something of a symbol of that win. No wonder he was and is so beloved by Cubs Nation. Ross was the one that landed a spot on "Dancing with the Stars" after retirement, and the one that authored the inevitable book deal that follows championships in big cities.

"Teammate" is that book. Whether it's worth your time or not is another story, and probably depends on your level of interest in the Cubs.

Until this burst of stardom at the end of his career, Ross had a rather typical career as a backup catcher in the big leagues. Ross broke into the majors with the Dodgers in 2002, and moved on to the Pirates and Padres before joining the Reds in 2006 and 2007. There he had his most productive seasons, playing in more than 100 games in a season for the only time in his career and smacking a career-high 21 homers in 2006. Then it was on to Boston, Atlanta and Boston again (including the title season of 2013) before coming to the Cubs in 2015.

Actually, Ross worked out the book deal before the 2016 season, so good fortune smiled on him in that sense as the season worked out perfectly. The idea was that Ross would discuss the subject of what goes into a good teammate, a reputation that he picked up in the last half of his career. Is there a good book in just that? That is a tough call, but we won't know just by reading this.

Ross points out that he tried to pass information along to teammates, come prepared and energized every day, and lay down the law in the clubhouse when it was necessary. At the end, Ross brings up words that go into being a good teammate: humility, honesty, reliability, communication, problem solving, sacrifice, dealing with change, engagement, positivity, accountability, trust, toughness and fun. It sort of feels like one of those leadership books that some business types swear by but leave the rest of us a little cold.

Ross uses his personal experiences on the day of the seventh game of the World Series as something of a framework for the book. It's a launching point for memories of his career. Those trips backwards into time are somewhat but not necessarily in chronological order. That gives the book a somewhat jumpy feel. Adding to that is that fact that Ross often jotted down a paragraph into his phone during the course of the 2016 season, and those "diary entries" are reprinted throughout the book. But they come off as completely isolated from anything else in the text, and often are at the level of "can't wait to see my family!" It's hard to understand the point of including them.

There are some good sections about the book, as you'd expect from an obviously thoughtful guy like this. What is a player thinking during a Game Seven? Here's Ross's viewpoint. He went from sub to player - making a couple of misplays that cost his team runs to hitting a home run - to bench-warmer, all in the same game. But he had a great seat to watch the Cubs win it all. Soon "Grandpa Rossy" would be the one that's carried off the field a champion by his teammates.

The reviews of "Teammate" on Amazon.com are very, very positive. All sports fans know the feeling when their favorite team wins it all - you can't wait to take in more about the experience. That enthusiasm shows up in the reviews. If you qualify, by all means pick this up. Those who have a few more degrees of separation, though, probably won't feel so warmly about the book. Those baseball fans would be better served reading "The Cubs Way," Tom Verducci's outstanding look about the Cubs' rise to a championship.

Three stars

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Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Review: Calling the Shots (2017)

By Kelly Hrudey with Kirstie McLellan Day

As autobiographies go, Kelly Hrudey's "Calling the Shots" is an odd one. It seems to have something missing - about 19 years of his life.

In other words, it stops when his playing career stopped - back in 1998. Very little is said about life after that, except in passing. Yet, Hrudey has been involved non-stop in hockey during those 19 years. He's served as a commentator on "Hockey Night in Canada."

On one hand, Hrudey seems like a rather unconventional choice to have a book published. He broke in with the New York Islanders right at the end of their dynasty in the early 1980s. Hrudey got to know some of the personalities from those teams that won four straight Stanley Cups, such as Al Arbour, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, and the Sutters. The netminder was on some decent Islander teams after that, but they never were contenders for a title then.

From there Hrudey was dealt to the Kings, where he had the chance to play with Wayne Gretzky. Los Angeles had one good chance at the Cup during the goalie's time there, falling just short in a memorable series with the Canadiens in 1993. Hrudey finished 15 years in the NHL in San Jose in 1998.

So we've got a good hockey player who spent his entire big-league career in the United States. After retirement, he immediately launches a career in broadcasting in Canada, and he's been good at it ever since. Hrudey is smart and articulate, and offers good opinions on the games and the game. At this point, though, he's north of the border, and it's easy to wonder if fans in the United States will still be interested in his story. Could it have been written sooner? Probably.

The story that has been put on paper isn't a bad one though. Hrudey is honest and interesting throughout the book. He has nice things to say about almost all of his teammates, and doesn't hesitate to criticize some of his coaches when he thinks it is justified. Hrudey sometimes made such criticisms in public at the time, so it's no big surprise that he's not pulling any punches here.

This also offers a look at the mind of a goalie. The position lends itself to unusual thinkers. After all, how would you like it if a red light came on and thousands cheered every time you made a mistake on the job? No wonder Hrudey had some confidence problems along the way that led to something close to depression at times; I would bet most goalies have similar stories.

The pages go by pretty quickly, and it's a pleasant but not overly dramatic read. "Calling the Shots," therefore, is a difficult book to review. The cliche that "hockey fans ought to like it" is true, especially if they followed Hrudey's career in the United States. A more timely book on his days in broadcasting might prove to be an even better story, whenever it comes out.

Three stars

Learn more about this book on Amazon.com.

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