Monday, September 13, 2021

Review: Year of the Rocket (2021)

By Paul Woods

Books about the Canadian Football League don't pop up on this blog very often, and for a very good reason - I live in the United States.

"Year of the Rocket," written by Paul Woods, is the exception.

Raghib "Rocket" Ismael's career is quite a story, at least at the beginning.  He was raised in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and went to Notre Dame to play football. The Rocket may not have been the best pure player in the country, but he certainly made things happen. His blinding speed made him a threat to score a touchdown whenever he had the ball in his hand. Ismael finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting that year, and certainly figured to go high in the first round of the 1991 draft. 

However, Bruce McNall had other ideas. He thought he saw a back-door method into the National Football League by buyig the Toronto Argonauts of CFL. If the NFL wanted to expand to Toronto someday - and really, why wouldn't they? - the owner of the Argos might have the edge in winning that franchise. But the CFL team would have to become much more relevant than it was at the time.

So McNall, the owner of the Los Angeles Kings, decided to take a shot at making this all work. To do that, he enlisted Wayne Gretzky, who was playing for the Kings at the time, and John Candy, an actor/comedian from Ontario. They put up a little money, and bought the Argonauts. Then the group essentially bribed Ismael to skip the NFL and play in Toronto. The rookie received $4.5 million per year for four years, making his annual salary larger than the rest of the team's income. 

But it didn't work for a couple of reasons. The Rocket was supposed to serve as a spokesman for the team in its attempt to gain attention, and he really wasn't the least bit ready for such responsibilities. Candy tried to fill in for Ismael in a sense, and worked hard to make the Argos go. But the other problem was that McNall was a crook - a go-to-jail-for-financial fraud crook. His sports empire was made out of paper. The Argos hemorrhaged money, and even a championship didn't help. The team, and McNall, ran out of cash rather quickly, and the experiment ended when the franchise was sold. By the way, McNall says in the book that he never could figure out how to get the NFL to add a team in Toronto as long as Buffalo's Bills were just down the highway.

Woods worked for about four years putting all of this together. Some of the principals wouldn't talk about it, even today, and others like Candy had died. But most of the other key personalities were more than happy to speak about this era of Canadian football. In hindsight, most treat it as something of a dream where they look back and say, "Did all of this really happen?"

Clearly Candy is the star of the show here. He was a huge football fan, and it was his childhood dream come true to own the Argos. Candy was full of ideas, and was willing to do almost anything - well, except for investing more than $1 million - to make it work. What's more, John had a ton of fun doing it - as the stories show. There are plenty of other people who were a smaller part of the story who turn up in the book to provide facts and perspective.

If there's a downside to the book, at least for Americans, it's that the Argos' football story needs to be told along the way. Almost all of the names besides the Rocket on the roster and coaching staff will be unfamiliar to U.S. readers. Therefore, it's tough to draw people in to read about a quarterback battle during Toronto's 1991 season. 

Even so, 'Year of the Rocket" goes by as quickly as a punt return for a touchdown, as it checks in at less than 200 pages. No, the cast will attract a very specialized audience. If you qualify, you will be entertained.

Four stars

Learn more about this book from Amazon.com.

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Review: Papi (2017)

By David Ortiz with Michael Holley

It's time for another discussion about that literary phenomenon - the double autobiography. And the person in question is baseball standout David Ortiz.

Fans of the Boston Red Sox might remember the book, "Big Papi." The slugger came out with the story of his life in 2007. He was in the middle of his career then, a hero already because of his work in leading the Red Sox to the World Series title in 2004. You might have heard that it ended an 86-year "curse."

After that book was written, Ortiz went on to continue his exploits in Boston. He was a big part of two more World Champions, and eventually went past the 500-homer milestone. Ortiz retired after the 2016 season. 

What happened next? He wrote another book.

"Papi" is that book. So what's it like?

For starters, it takes Ortiz and coauthor Michael Holley 114 pages to cover the years of his life through 2006. That's about half of the book. That particular fact might give you a little pause about reading this version. It's fair to say, though, that retirement freed Ortiz up to be a bit more candid about his entire baseball career. So from the perspective of more than 10 years later, this probably is the story that you want to read to get something of the inside scoop on his life. I say probably, because I'm not sure I read the first one.  

Ortiz's story is relatively well-known among baseball fans. He signed with Seattle out of the Dominican Republic, and was traded to Minnesota. Ortiz did relatively well with the Twins when given a chance, but Minnesota opted not to sign him when he was finding his way through the majors. By the way, the reviews of the first book indicate that David didn't like Twins manager Tom Kelly in 2007, and he didn't change his mind a decade later. Ortiz signed with the Red Sox, eventually won a job, and was on his way to being arguably the best designated hitter in history.

The Red Sox went through a variety of ups and downs after 2004. What stands out here is that Ortiz is very loyal to his teammates, which is understandable. He was close to Manny Ramirez during their time together, even if Manny wasn't much easier to figure out if he was your friend. So when the Red Sox didn't try hard enough to keep established talent on the team - see Jon Lester - Ortiz was angry about it. He still is, years later. Such personalities as Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington take a hit along the way here, and not without some justification. Big Papi is still upset that Terry Francona pinch-hit for him with Mike Lowell way back around 2009. Ortiz has a long memory.

Number one on the hit list, though, is Bobby Valentine. He was the manager of the Red Sox for only a year, 2012. But Ortiz was convinced that the team was on the wrong track as soon as spring training ended. In fact, some veterans almost went to the team's ownership on the first road trip to ask for a switch in managers. The mutiny was delayed, but Valentine didn't last the year. 

This is all told in a breezy way. Sometimes those who speak English as a second language can produce a book that's a little choppy, but Holley deserves credit for making it flow rather nicely.  By the way, the coauthor of the first book, Tony Massarotti, takes a hit along the way too. It comes with a description of what happened when Ortiz's name popped up on the Mitchell Report. By the way, there's not too much behind-the-scenes description of that episode, at least until the end when Ortiz finds out Major League Baseball isn't assuming he was on steroids in that era.

"Papi," then, should satisfy your curiosity about Ortiz and the Red Sox teams of his era. Just don't expect too much more than that.

Three stars

Learn more about this book from Amazon.com.

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Review: Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised (2021)

By Carmelo Anthony with D. Watkins     

At its heart, "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised" isn't about basketball.

It's more about sociology and urban studies than any other category. The book will be in the sports section of the bookstore, because the author has been one of the best basketball players on the planet. Just don't expect a recap of his achievements here. There's more at stake.

Carmelo Anthony has been a sensation ever since he burst on the national scene in 2002. Rapid fans of high school basketball, especially in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, had heard about him. Carmelo is the type of unique name that is simply fun to say and hard to forget. When he helped Syracuse University win the national championship in 2003, just about everyone in the sport had heard about him, and had seen what a special player he was.

This is the first part of the story, from birth to the NBA draft, and it's an interesting one. Anthony began life in New York City in one of the toughest sections of that town. He didn't even know his father, who died when he was an infant. Carmelo moved to Baltimore at the age of eight or so, with his mom and, at least toward him, generally angry stepfather. The family settles into a neighborhood there that's more of a place to survive than to thrive.

The people there do their best to move from day to day, but it's not easy. Families are far from traditional. The neighborhood economy has little to offer, particularly when it comes to jobs. That forces people to dive underground into drugs and other social ills. Guns are plentiful, and deaths are almost expected at some point.   

Anthony was lucky. His mother did whatever she needed to do to keep Carmelo in line and happy. If a relative or a friend needed a place to eat or sleep, the Anthonys would make room for him or her. Somehow. They might sleep in a closet, but they'd be warm and dry. As a child, Carmelo really didn't know how it all worked, but he certainly appreciated the effort.

The transition toward maturity wasn't without its bumps, of course. Anthony was on the edge of trouble at times. It's sometimes a balancing act between following the rules of the streets as well as the laws of the community. But among the many people that come out of such places, Carmelo had an advantage - he was good at basketball. That got him a ticket into a private school, allowing Anthony to see how the other half lived. But there were cultural clashes on the way.

Anthony spent the summer between his junior and senior years of high school in summer school, working off a string of detentions and raising his grades a bit. That actually hurt his visibility in the basketball world a bit, since he missed most of the summer camps and competitions where reputations are made. Anthony was urged by the Syracuse coaches to get out of Baltimore at that point, and he spent his final year of high school at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. There he played on a team filled the stars, and was ready for the big time when he walked in the proverbial front door of Syracuse University.

The key to the story is that it is "authentic." It's a serious, straight-ahead story of the ups and downs of his experiences. The fact that it's coming from one person doesn't hurt the story at all. These are his experiences; it's up to the read to make generalizations from there. Certainly some people are going to feel like going on-line and looking up some phrases in the Urban Dictionary. It won't hurt, and you might learn something. The story moves along quite well as Anthony tells the story with the power of simplicity.

"Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised" is hardly a conventional memoir.  But, it works. The publication should hold your interest throughout. The book is another sunk basket in the second half of a life that's had a lot of them.

Four stars

Learn more about this book from Amazon.com

Be notified of new posts on this site on Twitter @WDX2BB.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Review: Ice Bowl (2021)

By Ed Gruver

Almost a year after the birth of the Super Bowl, the Ice Bowl was born.

That became the unofficial nickname of the NFL Championship game of the 1967 season. It was played in Green Bay between the Packers and Dallas Cowboys. The winner would go to the Super Bowl, which made its debut on the American sporting scene a year before. It matched the AFL and NFL champions.

Why Ice Bowl? Well, it was cold. Frightfully cold. The temperature at kickoff was minus-15 degrees. It didn't get any warmer as the day went on. Since it was the coldest NFL game ever, the images from that game became memorable. Green Bay picked up a reputation as an ice box on that day, and it lingers to this day. 

Naturally, the game led to the production of a few books over the years. One of them was "Ice Bowl," by Ed Gruver. It seems to have originally been published in 1998. Now it's back for something of an encore run. 

Gruver wrote the book in a brisk (pardon the accidental pun), easy-to-read way. After setting up the day of the game, the author dives into the history behind the game. That essentially begins with the arrival of the respective coaches in the Ice Bowl, Green Bay's Vince Lombardi and Dallas' Tom Landry. The two had been coordinators with the New York Giants in the 1950s, and it's hard to believe the Giants let both of them go. They both won a lot of games as head coaches. 

By 1967, the Packers had established themselves as the gold standard for football. They had won NFL titles in 1961, 1962, 1965 and 1966. So 1967 would make it three in a row, which is rare air. Green Bay was getting old, and Lombardi was about ready to leave coaching, so there was a sense of urgency. The Cowboys had only started playing in 1960. After a slow start, Landry had put together a powerful roster. Their ascension to the top almost seemed inevitable. Almost, because the Packers were in the way.

Eventually, we get to the 1967 season, and the teams begin a march toward another showdown. They both took some detours, but they reached the NFL championship game. No one wanted a game played below zero, if only because skill took a back seat under those conditions. But as football coach Chuck Knox used to say, you have to play the hand you're dealt. 

Gruver gets to the game in the final few chapters, and the story picks up in intensity. He nicely mixes descriptions of each play with comments from those involved. Toward the end, the story has the added benefit of the play-by-play of the game as delivered by the Packers' radio network. So you'll learn a lot about what did happen, what the participants were thinking at the time, and what might have happened.

There are a couple of issues with the book, one old and one new. The old concerns the weather. Should the NFL have played the game, no matter how memorable it turned out to be? I think you could make an argument that playing at that temperature was unfair to players and fans as well as downright dangerous. It would be interesting to find out if any lessons were learned from the experience. 

In addition, this is a reprint of a book from almost a couple of decades ago. There isn't any need to do much updating most of the time here. Still, the last chapter had some references to participants that obviously are out of date - some of them have died, for example. It wouldn't have taken much work to revise those few portions. Otherwise, readers might be tempted to go to the library or used book store and look for an original copy of the book.

Even so, "Ice Bowl" was written to offer a review and perspective of a famous football game. That hasn't changed now. It still works as a review of a game for the ages.

Four stars

Learn more about this book. 

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Review: The Big East (2021)

By Dana O'Neil

Talk to any basketball fan who was around in the 1980s, and they'll immediately become nostalgic when the Big East Conference is brought up. The league was formed in 1979, and had a magnificent run where almost every game between the best teams was a main event. The players were terrific, and the coaches were fascinating. 

While the conference still exists in a different form today, a look back at those crazy first 10 years is always appropriate. Dana O'Neil, now with The Athletic, covered some of those games. She's taken a fun look back in "The Big East" - a celebration of that era.

A little history lesson might be in order before we get going. The universities in the Northeast had some history when it came to college basketball. The problem was that there were so many schools playing. The state schools tended to dominate the sport in other parts of the country. That made groupings like the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference a natural. Most of the schools in the East were independents, and were only loosely associated in the 1970s. 

Then the NCAA started to insist on teams playing in a conference in order to gain admission into its lucrative tournament. Dave Gavitt of Providence had the idea of picking off the biggest schools and forming a conference in the late 1970s. The idea was to select universities that played in major markets. There were a lot of eyeballs in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. That in turn would draw television dollars. So on May 31, 1979, the Big East was born. Boston College, Connecticut, Georgetown, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Syracuse were the charter members, with Villanova joining the party a year later.

It took a little time, but soon the top players started to stay close to home to play college ball. The location was attractive, as was the fact that cable television was emerging as a power player in the sports business at that time. Then the Big East moved its conference tournament to Madison Square Garden to New York City. And everything sort of exploded. In tournament week, the Garden had almost as many stars as there were on Broadway. Names like Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and Pearl Washington turned up. Just as importantly, there was a fascinating cast of coaches that were constants, year after year. John Thompson intimidated, Lou Carnesecca charmed, Rollie Massimino laughed, Jim Boeheim whined, and Jim Calhoun competed. They were all great in their own way.

O'Neil talked to about 60 people and it shows. It seems that all of them have a bundle of stories about the Big East, and are happy to tell them - even if they've made the rounds before. It was obviously a magical time in all of their lives, and they have no problem with reliving it. The pages go by quite quickly in an entertaining manner. The author gives almost all of the original teams a moment in the sunshine in the form of a chapter, more or less. The seven squads eventually made it to the Final Four in the decade covered. 

If there are nits to be picked, this isn't a particularly analytic look at those days. It must have been rather frustrating for teams like Boston College, Providence and Seton Hall to do the equivalent of banging their heads against a wall in going against the big powers. It might have been nice to read what that was like. There were also about three too many shots taken at Syracuse about its weather there, but as a graduate I'm a little sensitive about that. 

The Big East Conference essentially blew up once football came into the equation in the 1990s, and conference realignment has changed everything - and maybe not for the better. Still, the Big East has changed in order to survive, mostly with schools that don't play football. There's something nice about that. The tradition continues, and if someone wants to know why that matters, "The Big East" fills in many of the details nicely. A lot of people are going to love this book.

Four stars

Learn more about this book from Amazon.com.

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Review: Inexact Science (2021)

By Evan Dowbiggin and Bruce Dowbiggin

"Inexact Science."

When it comes to the National Hockey League draft, you've got that right. 

It's never easy to predict the future when it comes to a player's performance in professional sports. Hockey might be the most difficult of all of the major sports in that regard. A scout for an NHL team has to look at a 17-year-old and figure out what sort of player he might be at the age of 23 or so. Everyone makes mistakes in this area, but make enough of them when you do it for a living, and you might have to find a new living. 

The NHL's drafts are the subject of a book from Evan Dowbiggin and Bruce Dowbiggin called, yes, "Inexact Science." To be more specific, the Dowbiggins take a look back at some of the most interesting drafts in the last 50 years. That's almost as long as the NHL has had an open entry draft. 

The authors decided to pick six of the drafts, and look back at what happened. They start with 1971, when the Canadiens had the chance to pick either Guy Lafleur or Marcel Dionne with the first overall choice. There were no bad options there, of course, but Lafleur, a Quebec native, was a natural choice. However, the Dowbiggins reveal that the Canadiens at least talked about trying to obtain the second choice in a trade so they could have both. Montreal might have won even more Stanley Cups in that decade than the six they did claim if that trade had gone through.

And away we go through the drafts. The best player who could have been available in 1979 was Wayne Gretzky, but he wasn't eligible for some complicated reasons. That's also the year that 18-year-olds became eligible, which changed the draft business quite a bit. Mario Lemieux arrived in 1984, and the actions by the team looking to draft him helped change the rules of the draft down the road. The world started to open up to the NHL scouts in 1989, and the Red Wings got there first with a draft that set up their dynasty. Two years later, we had a repeat of sorts when Eric Lindros became eligible. He was supposed to be the next star, and he used his leverage to force a trade to the Flyers. Finally, there's the story of Sidney Crosby, picked by the Penguins in 2005 after they won a unique lottery for the first choice.

The Dowbiggins covers the subject in a professional manner. They talk to some people to obtain fresh perspectives on some of the issues. For example, Lindros's actions about refusing to play for the Nordiques look a little different now, knowing what we know about Aubut (charges of sexual harassment led to his resignation from the Canadian Olympic Committee) may alter our perceptions of the player's actions. They also do a redraft of the players available in a particular year, knowing what we know now. That's always fun.

One complaint about the choices might center on Gretzky, who receives most of the coverage in that chapter. That was a heck of a draft because of the extra talent that became eligible that year, although it was hard to sort it all out. Eleven players who were taken in the first round played at least 1,000 games in the NHL, and six more turned up in the later rounds. The best player taken in the first round might have been Ray Bourque, who went eighth. Michel Goulet was taken at No. 20. The latter might be more interesting than the former, although it's tough to go wrong when you are writing about the best player ever.

This is a relatively easy read, although I wouldn't call it compelling. I was guess a lot of big hockey fans know a great deal about the circumstances about each of these famous drafts. That means they might not learn a great deal here. 

Therefore, those looking for some basic information about the specific stories and years in the book will enjoy it. Others not in the sweet spot still will find "Inexact Science" at least entertaining. 

Three stars

Learn more about this book from Amazon.com

Be notified of new posts from this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Review: Indy Split (2021)

By John Oreovicz

In hindsight, it all seems so silly.

Auto racing in this country used to be rather simple. On one side was the events that used one type of cars, mostly notably on Memorial Day weekend in Indianapolis. Let's call them Indy Cars for the moment. On the other side, NASCAR used vehicles that looked more like something you'd have in the garage - thus the name "stock cars." Each had its own niche in the world of auto racing, and everything was peaceful.

Then came the arguments and the battles. The Indianapolis side of the sport blew up, over and over again over the course of a couple of decades. It caused hard feelings and financial losses. 

If you weren't paying close attention to what was going on, it was difficult to follow. After all, it's tough to sort out CART and Champ Cars and IRL and USAC without a program - not to mention the types of cars and their parts involved. 

So it's John Oreovicz to the rescue here. The veteran motor sports reporter has come up with what should stand as the complete version of the Car Wars (come to think of it, that might have been a better title) in his book, "Indy Split." 

Here's an attempt to simplify the story. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway put on a race every year that was known throughout the world. You win the Indy 500, you are a celebrity - at least back in the 1960s. The problem was that it couldn't leverage that popularity easily into a series of races that could hold fans' interest over the course of several months. The Speedway and United States Auto Club split on such matters, but an answer wasn't in sight.

Thus CART - Championship Auto Racing Teams - was born in 1979. That series staged races all over the world, essentially piggybacking on the Speedway's success. They co-existed for several years, but everyone had to figure that fights over money and power would come up at some point. And they did, with the Speedway setting up its own series (IRL). One side had the famous track, and the other had the famous drivers. It got to the point where CART staged its own race on Memorial Day weekend in 1996. That really didn't please anyone. 

CART and its successor, Champ Car, limped along for another dozen years, dragging down auto racing in the process. Finally in 2008, the two sides came together under one banner. Even so, it's been difficult to find the right formula for success since then. 

With that out of the way, we have a basis to discuss Oreovicz's book. It's really a step-by-step review of what took place during the almost 30-year span when there was no peace or harmony in the Indy Car world. He has a ton of information about the battles, and adds plenty of quotes from the participants that were published at the time. Oreovicz also doesn't ignore the racing aspect of the story, and it gets a hand-in-hand treatment with the business side.

But does it work? It's a fair question. The answer probably is "it depends."

Racing fans who can recite the last 18 Indy winners should find this quite interesting. As for the more casual fans out there (guilty), the book may not work as well. Part of that is the technical side of describing racing cars. I've certainly heard about inches of boost in race cars, although I am not prepared to explain what it means. And the various acronyms of the sport can be a little confusing. 

In addition, it would have been nice for the author to provide a little perspective on what happened along the way.  A few quotes from participants along the lines of "Looking back, if we had done this ..." might have been very helpful to improve the story flow. In essence, there are 400 pages of play-by-play here, and it does drag a little. One footnote to that: Oreovicz gives seven people involved in the story a few pages each at the end to tell about his experiences along the way. All of them, by the way, that the recent purchase of the Indy Speedway by Roger Penske should get the sport back on the right track - once this pesky Covid-19 stuff disappears.

It's tough to know if a book like this should be completely written for the zealots, or if it can draw in the casual observers. "Indy Split" probably leans toward the former a bit too much. But for those who will swallow up all of the details, they'll enjoy this review.

Three stars

Learn more about the book from Amazon.com.

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.