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

Ouch.

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

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