Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Review: Fight Songs (2021)

By Ed Southern

"Fight Songs" is a complicated book ... and not just because that big word is included in the subtitle.

Ed Southern is one of those serious writers, at least at times. He has a variety of credits to his name, including some books, and he is the executive director of the North Carolina Writers' Network. It's pretty obvious a few pages into this book that he's a smart guy; I had to go running to the Kindle dictionary to figure out a few of the words. 

Southern does, however, have something in common with the masses. He's a college sports fan, even though he might have the thought in the back of his head that he's a wee bit guilty about it. Southern went to Wake Forest, a fine university by almost any standards. Rooting for the Demon Deacons connects him to some good times and good people from his past, and there's no harm in that. In fact, he may be considered something of a diehard.

But it's a relatively small school, especially in the world of big-time sports. That means in most years, Southern is destined to be disappointed much of the time. It's very hard for a university with a four-figure enrollment to keep up with some of the other powerhouses of college sports. That's particularly true in the South when it comes to football, when Alabama, LSU, Georgia and the big three Florida schools hover above them in most seasons. 

Let's emphasize the Alabama part. His wife turned out to be a huge Alabama fan, and not just because a relative of hers wrote a book on Bear Bryant. Her whole family lives and breathes Crimson Tide football. You may have noticed that Alabama has done really, really well in the sport in recent years since Nick Saban took over. It's a happy family most autumns.

Southern takes a bit of a look on how college football got so big in the South in terms of history. Personally, I think part of the reason is that there was virtually no competition for many years. Pro football didn't arrive until the mid-1960s with the Falcons and Saints, and baseball didn't turn up until the Milwaukee Braves arrived in Atlanta around the same time. Therefore, college football was about the only way to get national attention in a sports sense. You can throw in the fact that the Southeast Conference didn't fully integrate until 1970 or so, and the story becomes even more nuanced. Meanwhile, the traditional Atlantic Coast Conference usually didn't have many national powerhouses in football, and basketball seemed to take over as the No. 1 sport - especially around North Carolina. 

While history lessons are fine, Southern seemed more intent on writing about college football in the South - and what it's like to sort of have a foot in both the ACC and SEC doors at the same time. It's pretty light-hearted reading, and not particularly interesting if you don't have a dog in that hunt. 

But then the pandemic came, and the tone changes with the last part of the book. Suddenly Southern had to cope with the idea that his favored universities were determined to play football if only for the money it generates. It's not a particularly good look for a school when the academic portions of its mission statement are hanging by a Zoom thread when it is expending a ton of effort to keep the games going. Then there's the rise of the "Black Lives Matter" movement. That's forced many universities to take a look at their roots, which in many cases date back to the Civil War. It's also forced some fans - at least the thinking ones - to consider how the players are raising millions of dollars in revenues for their efforts, and not seeing a very high percentage of it. Based on the recent Supreme Court decision, we're going to be hearing more about this issue in the near future. Is it OK to be emotionally invested in such a venture? That's an increasingly difficult decision that each fan must ponder.

Any conversation about this book should mention Southern's writing style. Admittedly, I am someone who prefers a story to go from A to B to C on a direct line. This one goes through a great many more letters of the alphabet, and may not end up at the expected destination. There also are plenty of tangents particularly in regard to Wake Forest. The closest I've been to the school was when I drove past the exit on the Interstate, so the references left me cold. 

I'm not sold on the idea that "Fight Songs" works particularly well, even if graduates will enjoy it and those in the "mixed marriages" of different loyalties will recognize some of the characters. At the least, though, its readers will be given some ideas to consider as they get ready for the next rivalry game.

Three stars

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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Review: Gathering Crowds (2021)

By Paul Hensler

A great deal happened to baseball in the years between 1975 and 1993, more or less.

That doesn't include what happened on the field, either.

That was an era that was essential to the game's growth, and set the stage for Major League Baseball to become a business giant again. Believe it or not, the baseball business had suffered from a distinct lack of attention before that, and that allowed pro football to fill a void and take over as the number one sport in America. 

Luckily, a series of events took place that caused baseball to take steps to improve the situation. Those interesting years are the subject of "Gathering Crowds." It's another in the series of books on different parts of baseball history. 

Author Paul Hensler wisely starts with labor matters. The players and owners had been building toward a pivotal moment, and it came when the reserve clause fell in what is called the (Peter) Seitz decision. That allowed players to test the marketplace for the best contract after playing a certain amount of years (usually six). If you listen to the background noises that can be heard while reading this historical review, you can still hear the owners claiming free agency will ruin baseball. As we know, the opposite happened. It increased interest in the game, turned it into a year-round business, and raised revenues for everyone. Other sports have followed the same formula with similar results. 

It wasn't easy to reach that point. The collective bargaining agreements represented stops and starts in the evolutionary process. The occasional roadblock turned up for a while, such as the time when baseball owners stopped signed expensive free agents in the 1980s - only to be hit with collusion charges and suffered damages that were more expensive than the actual contracts. Now, of course, there's a lot of money out there, and it takes time to figure out how to divide it. But the ground rules are fairly clear. We know what works, more or less.

Hensler covers other off-field issues that sometimes overlap, nicely divided into nine chapters. Commissioners came and went during this era, as ownership clung to hopes of returning to previous standards. Drug use by players came with all sorts of trap doors for everyone. The multi-purpose ballpark mercifully died (I know, it's not my money), to be replaced by baseball-only stadiums that could be downright intimate considering their size. Expansion came back on the table, and new teams were added. Marketing became much more sophisticated. Plus, as society changed, baseball had to change - giving a new set of issues to encounter, such as women in baseball, gay rights, locker room access, etc. Even the baseball card wars and fantasy games get mentioned along the way, and some of the sport's top general managers get a hat tip in a chapter.

Hensler is a good guide to all of this. He has done a lot of writing for the Society for American Baseball Research, and covers what needs to be covered. Hensler comes to conclusions along the way, and there's nothing here that will raise anyone's ire. 

But there is a problem here, and it's a fairly substantial one. All of that fairness is probably necessary in this format, but the product comes out rather dry. Part of the reason for that is it's a baseball book that has very little to say about the actual games between the white lines. It was an issue in the other book in the series that I read earlier this year. The material also is going to be very familiar to anyone who lived through that era, or has read a lot about it. This in part may be because of my relatively advanced age at this point, but I found myself skimming the material at time. 

I have no doubt that "Gathering Crowds" is a worthwhile addition to the reference libraries of America. Those seeking information on the business of baseball in that era will find what they need to know. It's simply difficult to picture it attracting much of an audience.

Three stars

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Thursday, June 10, 2021

Review: Hurricane Season (2018)

By Joe Holley

Here's a book that did not age well, even though it might have seemed like a reasonable idea at the time 

It's called "Hurricane Season," and it's about the two big stories that took place in Houston in 2017. As you might recall, that was the year when the city and its surrounding area got clobbered by Hurricane Harvey. The storm left a few dozen trillions of gallons on the water, which in tern did hundreds of billions of dollars in damages. 

If ever a city needed a small breath of hope under nearly impossible circumstances, Houston qualified. Therefore, the rise of the Astros baseball team certainly put a smile on the faces of the natives there. The Astros, who had been a bad team earlier in the decade, used a careful rebuilding plan that actually worked in a step-by-step manner. This was the year it paid off. Houston knocked off the Dodgers in seven games to win its first World Series and sparking the biggest sports celebration in the city's history. 

Naturally, there were books to be written about all of this. Joe Holley got right to work. He was a general columnist for the Houston Chronicle in 2017. He didn't have much time to get everything done, but according to the book's last line he finished writing about 10 weeks after the end of Game Seven. After all, "Hurricane Season" had to be out to the public on May 1. 

Holley mixes the hurricane story with the baseball events during the course of the 16 chapters. There is some jumping around here, but the tales of the storm probably works the best. Hurricanes tend to bring tragedy and heroism into the open, and Holley seems quite at home telling those stories from the days just before, during, and just after the actual deluge. If anything, more reporting on the cleanup later in the year would have been nice. 

As for the baseball portions, Holley has a lot on his plate to cover. He reviews the history of the team, mostly on the ownership side. The author has to go through the 2017 regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs, which featured wins over the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. Then there's the World Series itself. Holley goes through each of the seven games almost batter by batter, supplementing it with quotes from reporters and players. Oddly, the latter is probably the weakest part, because there's not a whole lot of new information there. It's almost like painting by numbers, baseball book version. There are some editing mistakes along the way connected to the baseball portions, which can happen under the circumstances.

Holley tells these stories in a less than objective way. There's an awful lot of sunshine spread here, particularly around the baseball team. It's easy to become tired of the references to how much Houston celebrates its diversity. Yes, it's a feel-good book for the readers, but often it's better to have others beside the author express those opinions along the way.  

Even so, "Hurricane Season" apparently brought back plenty of good memories for the Astros' fans in Houston. The reviews on Amazon.com were amazingly enthusiastic. So give Holley credit for throwing a strike in that sense ... at the time. 

But, reading the book in 2021 feels much different. Word eventually leaked out that the Astros had been cheating during the 2017 season, using trash can sounds to tip batters off about what was coming at home games. The general manager and manager were fired, and the bench coach - who had moved on to Boston to manage - was suspended. The Astros have had a target on their backs ever since the story went public; don't expect people in New York and Los Angeles to forgive those involved any time soon.

It's difficult to read this book now without having a little sadness about what happened. Maybe that's why I found up a copy in the Dollar Store. Its upbeat tone feels a little out of place now. "Hurricane Season" may bring back some good memories for Astros' fans, but certainly others might not think of it so kindly. 

Two stars

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Sunday, June 6, 2021

Review: Glory Days (2021)

By L. Jon Wertheim

Year-in-review books usually represent something of "hanging fruit" when it comes to books. Pick a year, review what happened, perhaps overstate its importance, and ... you have a book. 

"Glory Days" is different. L. Jon Wertheim sets out to make a case that the summer of 1984, give or take a few weeks, represented a transformational moment in the world of sports. What's more, he does such a good job at it that the reader is forced to shake his head after a while and say, "Yup, he could be right."

That's because even if such transformations don't work like an on-off switch, they certainly were centered in that particular summer. In hindsight, it was a significant and crowded time for sports.

Want a list? Happy to help.

* The biggest event of the summer was the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. That particular sporting festival was in big trouble at that point, with few cities/countries wanting to take on such a major event as host because of the costs involved. Even though the Eastern Bloc countries didn't show up via a boycott, Los Angeles proved you could host the Games successfully ... and make a profit along the way.

* Larry Bird and Magic Johnson played their first NBA Finals against each other. Not only was it great theater, but it started a rivalry that lasted through the 1980s and attracted attention from a growing number of sports fans. 

* Speaking of basketball, a kid named Michael Jordan came out of North Carolina to join the NBA. Not only was he about to become one of the greatest players ever, but he revolutionized sports marketing with a deal with Nike that gave him his own signature line of shoes. 

* While Wayne Gretzky already had achieved almost mythical status in the National Hockey League with unbelievable scoring totals, he still hadn't won a Stanley Cup entering the 1983-84 season. The New York Islanders were always in the way. But in 1984, Gretzky and his Edmonton Oilers beat the Islanders in the finals, giving them the Stanley Cup. The Great One had taken the last step, and it helped the NHL start down a road that helped it claim a firm status as a fourth major league sport along side of MLB, NFL and NBA.

* ESPN had been around for a few years by that point, but it figured out a way to make money. It charged cable companies a monthly fee for each subscriber who watched it. That made it financial solvent that summer, and its future was assured. ESPN soon became the most valuable media property in the business, and began a run of success that lasted into the 2010s. 

* The NCAA lost an anti-trust lawsuit involving television rights of its member schools filed by the University of Oklahoma. Suddenly, universities weren't restricted to rare appearances on networks on Saturdays (and, as it turned out, every other day of the week).  Games could be shown anywhere and everywhere ... and piles of money soon followed. 

* It was also the summer of John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova, who dominated the tennis courts in spectacular ways. The Chicago Cubs turned their fortunes around and reached the playoffs, creating a new set of fans through broadcasts on cable television. Mike Tyson was just coming on to the scene, losing in the Olympic trials but showing that he would be the proverbial force to be reckoned with in the future. 

That's a lot. Wertheim also has chapters on a few unlikely events. This was the summer when rock and roll merged with wrestling, thanks in part to a chance airplane flight in which Cyndi Lauper sat next to Lou Albano. That relationship had its entertaining moments and did give pro wrestling some national status, but feels like an odd fit here. The Jacksons' Victory Tour gets a chapter, in part because the family that owned the New England Patriots at the time ran the tour and lost millions along the way. The author also covers a sleeper movie called "The Karate Kid." I'm not sure I buy the idea that the film helped us down the road toward Mixed Martial Arts and Ultimate Fighting, but it is a good story. 

This all could have been done rather routinely, but luckily Wertheim did his homework. He talked to a variety of people who were there at the creation of these events, and did plenty of other research as well. This is really the key to this book - there is information here that at the least is little known and at most new to virtually everyone. What's more, it's almost always interesting. Wertheim is a fine reporter and writer, with several good books and articles to his credit, and he obviously threw himself into this project with full enthusiasm.

I am duty-bound to report on one little slip-up along the way. In a brief item on the movie "The Natural," the text says the climatic scene was set in a place that was supposed to be Wrigley Field in Chicago. While such a scene took place, it occurred earlier in the movie. The big scenes, including the last one, were shot in the departed War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo. That movie came out in 1984 too, and anyone from Western New York will tell how that film doubled as a love letter to "The Old Rockpile" that started something of a baseball renaissance in the area that continues to this day.

"Glory Days" is irresistible. Those who lived through 1984 will enjoy the memories of all that went on, and those who didn't will learn much about the proverbial question asked by the popular 1980s band Talking Heads, "How did we get here?"  Many will race through it with a smile every step of the way.

Five stars

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Friday, June 4, 2021

Review: Teemu Selanne (2019)

By Teemu Selanne with Ari Mennander

It's tough to know where to begin when discussing Teemu Selanne's semi-autobiography, "My Life." But that word, "semi-autobiography," seems like a good place to start.

Selanne, the veteran star of the National Hockey League, decided to come out with a book recapping his career. He was a great player for a long time, won a Stanley Cup, and performed all over the world. That works. There's plenty to admire here when it comes to hockey. 

In the introduction, Selanne explains that the book is written in the third person. "Part of the reason why is that I wanted to include quotes from my friends, family members, and former teammates, who know me better than anyone," he writes. Hmm. That's been done a few times, but it's a difficult task to make work. Let's face it - would you offer anything but praise if asked to answer questions for someone's autobiography? Me neither. 

Then there's the language barrier. Selanne is from Finland, and this book was first published over there. He spent enough time in North America to become fluent in English. Still, it's never easy to reveal someone's thoughts in a second language, as translations are difficult. The words will never be as expressive as they might be in the native tongue. 

Co-author Ari Mennander gives it a try here, but he is up against it. The finished product is something of a basic roundup of his life, told a piece at a time. Some information is presented, followed by a quote by Selanne and someone else. It's difficult to carry that off for more than 300 pages, so that this gets dry pretty quickly. Some material is repeating, so a little more editing would have been nice. It just doesn't work well.

It's too bad, because there's a good story here. Selanne took his time coming to the National Hockey League, but he took the league by storm when he arrived in 1992-93. Teemu scored a record 76 goals to set an NHL record for rookies.  He didn't stay at that level - who could? - but was still a star. Even so, the Jets traded him to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks for prospects during the 1995-96 season. He had some success there, scoring more than 50 goals two more times, and had a nice run in Anaheim on some good teams. After a trade to San Jose and a free agent signing with Colorado, Selanne returned to Anaheim on a year-to-year basis. He ended up staying for eight seasons, finishing with 684 goals and 773 assists for 1,457. Yes, he skated smoothly into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

There's all sorts of praise handed out to Selanne for his play and his personality, which is fine. It's his book. Sometimes Mennander goes over the top in his descriptions about just how good he is. His career was terrific without exaggeration, thank you, and some sentences published here are a little tough to take seriously. There's a little complaining about some coaches Selanne had along the way, particularly about how they didn't play the forward enough in the later stages of his career. Does he have a legitimate gripe, or is it simply a case of a star player being the last to know he's at the end of the line? Tough to say.

A couple of issues about Selanne come up as well. He's always been fond of fast cars, even if he tells the story about how he almost killed some people in an accident on a test track. There's a matter-of-fact edge to some driving adventures, such as the time Teemu drove from Anaheim to San Jose - a distance of 400 miles - in about four hours. Jeez, isn't that rather - OK, very - dangerous?

Teemu also admits that he wants to have people with him who engage in his every whim, particularly now that he's retired. If he feels like playing golf in the afternoon, he calls people who are willing to do that. If they aren't, they fall out of his life. This sure comes off as someone who wants friends to give up their own lives at times to keep Selanne happy. It's not a good look for anyone.

 "Teemu Selanne," then, comes off as a boring book. I suppose his biggest fans will find this to have some behind-the-scenes stories about his life and be satisfied with it. That's fine. Others, though, will want to move along.

Two stars

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Thursday, May 27, 2021

Review: Stealing Home (2020)

By Eric Nusbaum

Some of the best sports books are the ones that barely touch the activity that takes place on the playing field. 

"Stealing Home" can be found under this category. The twist is that it's more or less about the actual playing field. 

The location of this book is the city of Los Angeles - more particularly, Dodger Stadium. The structure was built in 1962 as the new home of the Dodgers, who had moved from Brooklyn in 1958. The centerpiece of the story to some extent is - to paraphrase the Talking Heads' song - "How did it get here?"

The answer to that is a little complicated. Author Eric Nusbaum tells a story about the construction of the facility. Some might know a few of the facts involved, but it's certainly nice to have the full story. He tells it by breaking matters into three distinct parts, and then letting them slowly come together with a rather loud bang. 

The first is the essentially the tale of three communities within the city limits - Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop.  All sorts of people came to Southern California throughout the 20th century, and some of them had Mexican heritage. That particular group filled up the communities in question. It was a classic case of people coming to that part of the world in an attempt to finding a better life. It wasn't easy - it took an effort, day-by-day, inch-by-inch, to crawl a bit ahead. But many wound up with their own land and a roof over their heads. 

Then there's the story of Frank Wilkinson. A son of a doctor, Wilkinson did some traveling as a young man and developed something of a social conscience in the process. When he saw the poor conditions that some people lived in, he wondered if there might be a better way to raise their standards of living. That took him in a couple of different directions. One was that he became attached to the concept and potential benefits of public housing. That was a relatively new idea after World War II, when America was feeling powerful and confident that it could solve almost any problem. The other is that he was becoming an advocate with what we might call left-wing political thought, which included a brief stay as a member of the Communist Party. You could imagine how well that went over, particularly in the early 1950s. No wonder the number of pages in his FBI file ran into six figures. 

Finally, we had the Dodgers. Good books have been written about their departure from Brooklyn, as the team was something of a victim of the changing demographics of the era and political in-fighting. The move to Los Angeles didn't really change much of that; it just changed the names. Owner Walter O'Malley eventually got his nearly perfect ballpark. What it did to the city is another story. 

Nusbaum does some considerable juggling here. He jumps from subject to subject as time marches on - three forces destined to collide without anyone realizing it. It doesn't take a spoiler alert to realize that Mexican population and Wilkinson are going to wind up as the losers of the story. The author starts the story with a news item that is relatively familiar in cases of this nature. A family becomes involved in a dispute with the city, and then is forced to leave its house when the bulldozers arrive. Sometimes, you really can't fight City Hall - at least indefinitely. What's more, the family and the city were only a few thousand dollars apart on the value of the property. It would have been so much easier just to pay that money as a fair transfer cost for the land and move on. 

The author's most interesting writing quirk here is the number of chapters: 76. He makes a point quickly and moves along to the next. It works better than you might think. The research is impressive and comprehensive. Nusbaum tells the story quite fully. He certainly has a point of view on the entire affair, and he makes a good argument. The only complaint that could be made is that a little more background and information on the Dodgers' move could have been supplied.  

"Stealing Home" might not appeal to those who prefer a little baseball with their baseball books. However, this book works nicely for people who simply want to learn about an under-publicized story about construction of one of baseball's cathedrals. 

Four stars

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Sunday, May 23, 2021

Review: Built to Lose (2021)

By Jake Fischer

If you'd like to read about the National Basketball Association in the past few years, "Built to Lose" ought to scratch that itch. 

Just don't expect to read much about basketball.

That seems like a contradiction, but author Jake Fischer has different goals for his book than following the bouncing ball into the basket. 

This is about the business side of putting together teams in the NBA in the last few years. In fact, it concentrates on the franchises that not only weren't particularly good at that skill, but indeed to go the extra mile to try to lose games in the short term in an effort to be much better in the future. 

That process grew to be called "tanking," and it became rather popular in the mid-2010s. Indeed, the stars of the book probably are the Philadelphia 76ers and their general manager at the time, Sam Hinkie. He held that job from 2013 to the spring of 2016.

Hinkie was a major proponent of the concept that a particular team shouldn't aim to be mediocre all the time, stuck on a treadmill of .500 indefinitely. It's better to tear things down, the thinking went, and obtain top-level talent in the draft than try to maximize efforts to win a few extra games in a particular season. That's the way the rules were written at the time, and it made some sense to take advantage of that fact.

While it may be easy to lose games, it's difficult to rebuild. Hinkie was around for three seasons, and the Sixers went 19-63, 18-64 and 10-72. But Philadelphia won 52 games in 2017-18, and has been above .500 ever since. Two big pieces of the 76ers' puzzle turned up during the bad years in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.   

Fischer goes through three seasons and offseasons in depth from the perspective of the Sixers and some of the other teams who were struggling. The list includes a couple of traditional powers in the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, as well as stuck-at-the-bottom teams like the Sacramento Kings. With the perspective of time, people could not reveal what was going on in their minds in a particular moment from the 2013-2016 era - which, in terms of NBA rosters, is the distant past. The author reportedly talked to more than 300 people for the book, and it reads like it. This sounds very authentic. 

The NBA tinkered with its lottery system a few years ago to make losing a little less attractive. Still, it's going to happen in basketball. It's one of the few team sports where one player can make a huge difference in a team's fortunes. As an example, check out the record of the Cleveland Cavaliers with and without LeBron James over the past several years. The problem is determining who that player might be.  There are no guarantees when it comes to looking at players who might be 19 years old and forecasting just how good they might be in a few years. And if they are good, they might flee the original teams at their first opportunity for any number of reasons.

This book comes with something of a major warning. Only good-sized NBA fans need to dive into this. It's tough to follow the sport from a distance, since I live in a city without a team. So for example, the pick-by-pick recaps of drafts can be fascinating to learn of the thinking that went into each choice. However, sometimes the recognition of the players involved isn't too great. That's partly my fault, since I don't keep up with some of the names enough. It's also a reflection of the sport, as there are no guarantees that come with a draft choice in the first half of the first round. 

Even so, there are all sorts of good anecdotes that are uncovered here that ought to leave anyone with an interest in basketball entertained. So, feel free to pick up a copy of "Built to Lose" if you are curious about an odd time in basketball history. And maybe you can do what I did - keep a list of draft choices from that era handy for reference.

Four stars

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