Friday, December 3, 2021

Review: Playmakers (2022)

By Mike Florio

Mike Florio has some opinions about the state of the National Football League, and he'd like to share them.

No, that's not right. That statement doesn't go far enough.

Mike Florio has a lot of opinions about the state of the National Football League, and he'd like to share them. 

That's the premise for his book, "Playmakers." It is sort of named after the ESPN's fictional series that was an attempt to show some of the underside of football. That plan went over rather badly with the National Football League, who just happened to be one of a broadcasting partner of ESPN. The show died a relatively sudden death. 

The difference is that this version of "Playmakers" is real. It's written by Florio, who is the point man of the website of Pro Football Talk (if you prefer, ProFootballTalk.com). It is done in association with NBC Sports. If you've ever seen a Sunday night broadcast, you might notice that PFT ranks every starter in the league by position ... and puts the rankings under a photo of those starters as they are quickly introduce at the start of the game. 

Florio started his work life as a lawyer but moved into sports reporting. He held a job with ESPN before jumping to this venture. The question became - how could he turn the information he's collection and the opinions he's gathered into a coherent book?

It must have started with a list. Florio came up with 10 different sections of the book: the drank, free agency, quarterbacks, coaches, owners, health and safety, off-field player misconduct, major scandals, officiating, and the future. So far, so good. Then he listed at least 10 topics under each category. For example, the quarterbacks mentioned including everyone from Johnny Unitas to Tim Tebow. Each essay doesn't get a great deal of space, so think of them as quick snacks rather than large meals. It keeps the size down to a manageable 288 pages or so, based on prepublication information.

The good news is that Florio does a good job with this. It's not easy to come up with great information or opinions on this many items. For the most part, though, he comes up with some interesting, fresh thoughts that can carry the reader along. In some cases, it's a chance to revisit some old news items, while in others it's an opportunity to discuss news items of the present and possible ramifications of the future. 

Is it all interesting? All is a big word. Some of the stories about player misconduct and scandals don't work overly well, at least from my viewpoint. It's more of a case of recapping a story without a whole lot of analysis. Implied in the question at the beginning of the paragraph are the words "to me." Anyone who reads a book like this is going to be a big fan of the sport. This is not the place for impassive passengers. Therefore, everything should get a spark of recognition from the contents when a book like this comes out. 

And the size helps too. If something isn't too interesting to you, well, it doesn't last long. Another subject will come up along, just like the next bus. It might work better. The usual way of praising such work is along the lines of "it's good to bring into the bathroom." That's a little crude but true.

"Playmakers" comes off as a casual discussion with someone who spends his life around football and is happy to chat in an informal way. That makes it good fun without being life-changing. It should have little trouble luring in readers who will find the book worth their time.

Four stars

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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Review: Up and Down (2021)

By Bubba Watson with Don Yaeger

"Up & Down" gives us the chance to talk about the curious case (and accompanying autobiography) of golfer Bubba Watson. 

Here's someone who is almost tailor-made for a good book about his life. Watson came out of Bagdad, Florida (near Pensacola), and was something of a junior sensation. He won local tournaments even though he never had a lesson, and figured out a way to pick up a college scholarship although he admits he wasn't exactly a great student. Bubba eventually landed at the University of Georgia, where he was really good at times but still was demoted to sixth-man status - which is kind of like being the sixth man on a basketball team. 

Still, he turned professional and had a little success. Even so, that didn't prepare anyone for his win in the 2012 Masters. What's more, he proved the victory was no fluke by capturing the 2014 Masters. They were popular wins in some ways. That's partly because Watson wore his emotions on his sleeve, and partly because he was the classic bomber who clobbered the ball whenever it was necessary - and it usually was.

On the other hand, Watson seemed always to be carrying some baggage around. A 2015 ESPN survey of PGA pros voted Bubba as the person least likely to be rescued by their peers if they saw a fellow pro get in a fight. He's gotten into some public squabbles with those around him in golf. And his career is a bit of a puzzle, in that he seemed capable of doing more on the pro tour than he actually did. At this writing, Watson is 43 - and probably is past his prime.

In other words, Bubba seems like someone who was particularly ill-equipped to handle the spotlight that comes with being a star in American sports. Finding out what happened to him probably is the reason for giving "Up & Down" a read.

Indeed, autobiographies in which the central character is on the unpleasant side can be tough to read, and it's easy to see that Bubba's actions could make him unpopular. For example, he had a very public argument with his caddie on the course during a tournament that everyone seemed to notice. Watson writes about something of an intervention from Ben Crane, a fellow pro who essentially told him to change his behavior. But Bubba didn't quite turn things around at that point. 

Watson starts the book with a candid admission - one that has received most of the headlines from reviews and news stories - about how he hit bottom in 2017. His weight was down to about 162 (down 30 pounds from normal), and his head was such a mess that he thought about giving up golf. We're hearing more these days about athletes who have coping with the pressures of the job, and it's good that Bubba has come out as a member of that club. Watson opened up to people close to him, starting with his wife, and got his head back in order. That's worth more than a golf clap. He's also done a ton of charity work, becoming something of the PGA's face when it comes to adopted (he and his wife adopted two children). 

The biggest puzzle of the book, though, comes at the end. There isn't a great deal written about what happened to him. That starts on a personal level. It would have been nice to know if he did manage to change his ways a bit, and some examples of what he did. 

Then there's the golf side of that story. On the plus side, he made the Ryder Cup team in 2018. After devoting a chapter to service as a vice-captain when he was passed over for the 2016 American team, you'd think that might have been worth noting. On the minus side, Watson hasn't been particularly effective on the tour over the past few years. He hasn't won any events since 2018, and he's only been in one top 10 in a major championship - with 10 missed cuts - starting in 2015. I don't know if he's had physical problems in that time, but it would be interesting to know what if anything has gone wrong. Sometimes this book reads as if it was written around 2018.

There's also very little written about most of the other players on the tour. OK, it's his story, but Watson seemed quite self-absorbed in talking about his tournament years. There is a bit on how he became to be a frequent practice partner of Tiger Woods early in his career., and not much else. A little insight into others might have been nice. The book might have used one more edit, to take out a couple of redundant stories.

Watson has said his priorities in life are God, family, friends and golf - in that order, and I guess the book is something of a reflection of that. I'm not qualified to judge anything about his faith, but he does appear to be a devoted family man and a giving person toward others. Even so, the person revealed in "Up & Down" remains something of an enigma at the end of this very quick read.  

Three stars

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Friday, November 19, 2021

Review: Raise a Fist, Take a Knee (2021)

By John Feinstein

John Feinstein has a long list of books to his credit over the years, starting with "A Season on the Brink" - a look at Bobby Knight and Indiana basketball in the 1980s. He's written about basketball, football, baseball, tennis and golf, and it's fair to say that the books all have been of high quality.

"Raise a Fist, Take a Knee," as Feinstein is quick to point out, is different. Instead of taking one aspect of a particular sport, here Feinstein crosses the spectrum of sports to deal with one subject. And that subject is race, which probably could be called "the third rail" of journalism. 

You know where he's going with this just by reading the subtitle of the book: "Race and the Illusion of Progress in Modern Sports." Illusion? You mean, we haven't made progress in the intersection of race and sports over the years?

Yes, we have. But Feinstein's point is that we haven't gone far enough in this area to approach anyone's satisfaction. Consider stories told about a couple of African Americans, just as an example. Eric Bieniemy has been the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs since 2018, and an architect of the NFL's most explosive offense during that time. You'd think that he'd be the hottest individual candidate for a head coaching job by now; he's not, and it's easy to wonder what's going on. Bieniemy certainly has. 

Then there's Lovie Smith, who spent nine years with the Chicago Bears - with four 10-win seasons and three playoff appearances. He was fired after a 10-6 season in 2012 - the only coach ever fired after that good of a record. Smith did take over a horrible Tampa Bay team in 2014, but was fired two years into a five-year contract after improving from 2-14 to 6-10. 

This discussion could get tied up pretty quickly, but Feinstein has a secret weapon to make points. He talks to people, at length. The list is impressive: John Thompson, Doug Williams, Tony Dungy, John Carlos, Warren Moon and Dave Stewart among others. He gives them the time and space to talk about their experiences at the intersection of race and sports. A common denominator for all of them is that race always lurks in the background whenever they walk out the front door of their home, no matter what their status in life has been. They all have been taught that in order to succeed in American society, they can't afford to be simply as good as the competition for success - they have to be a little better. They also have been stopped for Driving While Black, in some cases multiple times. 

For the most part, Feinstein gets out of the way of the interview subjects. That's not to say the reader doesn't know where the author stands on the issue, because Feinstein makes his viewpoints quite clear along the way. Subtlety isn't his strong point here, but that's fine. Yes, as a white man he doesn't know what it's like to have his skin color arrive on others before any other part of his being, thus causing some to jump to conclusions. Perhaps it's better that way, in that he can ask the "what is it like? questions without knowing the answers completely already. 

One of the key points along the way is that while the playing field has become relatively equal in many cases (if nothing else, discrimination by definition prevents a team from having the best possible roster on the field or court of play), opportunities in management are still limited to African Americans. It's frustrating to someone like Willie Randolph, who had a pretty good record as the manager of the Mets but who was fired in the middle of his fourth season. He's never had another shot at a managing job - in fact, he's supposedly only had one interview. 

"Raise a Fist, Take a Knee" no doubt will be ignored by those who want to ignore it. But it serves as a good wake-up call and a down-to-earn discussion for those who we've come along way without realizing that we've still got a long way to go. If you are interested in a rational discussion of a subject that often turns people irrational, this is a good place to start.

Five stars

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Sunday, November 14, 2021

Review: The Master (2021)

By Christopher Clarey

The number of people that hate Roger Federer must be close to absolute zero.

Yes, there might be a couple of tennis fans in Spain or Serbia who don't like the way that Federer has gotten in the way of their favorite players in big tournaments. But even fans of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic probably have plenty of respect for Federer. 

What's not to like?

Roger has been on top of his game for around two decades, a ridiculous run. He set the record for grand-slam wins, and he's been gallant even in his defeats. 

And has anyone been nicer along the way? Is there an athlete who could make you feel more comfortable in a chance meeting? Is there anyone who has been more of a class act while in the blinding spotlight of fame?

The answers are no, no, and no. Federer appears to be close to the age where he should be thinking about retirement, but he's not shutting any doors yet.

Still, his amazing career certainly is much closer to the end than the beginning. It's a good time, then, for a full biography to be written about the most famous athlete from Switzerland in history. Christopher Clarey, who works for the New York Times, has answered that call with his deep dive into All Things Federer with "The Master."

Federer first started to attract attention with his game as a teen, as he played in his first junior tournament at the age of 14. Eventually, Roger climbed up the ladder and attracted attention with his talent. About the only blemish in a lifetime of behavior came up then, when he developed a reputation as someone who could not control his temper and be a sore loser. How un-Swiss like! But that's hardly uncommon for that age, and eventually faded.

Clarey then moves into Federer's pro career. Roger turned pro in 1998, cracked the top 100 in 1999, and won a tournament in 2001. That was the year that the 19-year-old Federer caught everyone's attention by surprising Pete Sampras, the world's best player, at Wimbledon. Roger won that tournament in England a couple of years later, the first of 20. 

Federer had a few years where he was unquestionably on top of the mountain; it just seemed like longer. Eventually, Nadal and Djokovic came along, and they developed one of the great three-sided rivalries in sports history. In 2008, Federer and Nadal played one of the great matches in tennis history at the Wimbledon final; it's odd that we remember Roger for a couple of his epic losses as well as his many wins. Djokovic won his first Grand Slam title in 2008 in Australia. And we were all off for a ride in which those three dominated the sport of men's tennis for more than a decade. If one of the three didn't win a major title, it was an upset. By the end of 2021, all three had 20 career titles. Part of me wishes that the numbers would stay that way, so they would be forever linked in history.

There's plenty of tennis in the book, of course. But Clarey certainly takes the time to explore other tangents on the subjects, with short biographies of the major influencers in Federer's life. That includes coaches, business associates, family, etc. What's striking is how well Federer has done to strike a balance in life, making sure he doesn't get overscheduled along the way. Yes, it helps to have a billion dollars stashed away, but his longevity doesn't seem to be an accident.

Clarey comes off here as a classic international reporter, vaulting around the world to cover the sport. I didn't know his name before reading this, but certainly he knows his stuff. Clarey has collected a ton of information here, even taking the time to fly to the town in South Africa where Federer's parents met. 

There's only one drawback to this story, and it's a fairly big one. Federer can't be criticized for not having any drama in his life. He's succeeded by any standard on almost every level of his life. However, that lack of conflict or troubles that were overcome may not help the readability of the book for some. I'm not sure if someone who is less than a casual fan in the sport will want to go through this. 

But those that do pick up "The Master" will find it rewarding. Federer wasn't much of a factor in 2021, mostly because knee problems and the pandemic. But, like Phil Mickelson on the golf tour, it's easy to think that Roger had one more great run left in him if his body will cooperate. If that happens, we'll all get to see the depth of the affection earned over these many years on display.

Four stars

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Sunday, November 7, 2021

Review: The Year's Best Sports Writing 2021

Edited by Glenn Stout

The idea of having an anthology of a given year's best sports stories has proved to be resilient to the point of being pesky. It just won't go away.

The first such book appeared in 1945 and ran for almost a half-century. If you have a good-sized library in your town, you probably can find them on some slightly dusty shelves. That lasted annually (one exception, due to illness for decades); I believe the Sporting News picked up the series at some point late in its run. Then it was reborn as The Best American Sports Writing, where it lasted 30 years. Readers of this blog know that the series was a staple of my annual reading.

That version died a year ago, and the chances of a rebirth at least from the outside seemed small. But Triumph Books came along and offered to revive, if that's the right word, the series under a slightly different management structure. Glenn Stout, who was something of a caretaker of the series before, moved up to be the editor on a one-time basis. He'll be giving up that role next year, and an editorial board has been picked to oversee the contributions. Let's hope for another 30-year run.

As we know, there's a lot of good writing out there every year, and it's tough to weed it down to the best of the best. We all carry our individual biases into such a book. In my case, the stories that deal with sports on a tangential basis have to work a little harder to draw me in. The book has articles on two bicyclists who happen to meet as they pedal in opposite directions while crossing the Eastern Hemisphere, and of two basketball-playing poets. They were a little outside my comfort zone.

But then came "The Inheritance of Archie Manning" by Wright Thompson of ESPN, and life was more than good again. This profile of a great athlete in his 70s who remains tied his glory days in college is one of those stories that you just don't want to end. And that was quickly followed by the amazing tale of pitcher Richard Dotson and his father, and "Hook Shot Charlie," and life in the NBA's bubble, and Kobe Bryant from two different perspectives, and ... well, you get the idea.

After almost 350 pages, the batting average for success stayed up to the series' usual standards. There were well-researched stories on the pandemic, Ivy Leaguers in baseball management and Andrew Giuliani. A piece from Runner's World on the death of an African American jogger hit home, in part because the trial of the case started when I was reading it. A story on the first inter-racial boxing match in Texas history was a favorite. And even some of those barely-sports stories lured me in - a burglar who stole Super Bowl rings, a hiker who disappeared, and a heart transplant recipient who bicycled across the country to see the grave of the donor. 

I thought I had lost an old friend a year ago, but "The Year's Best Sports Writing" perhaps shows that you can't keep a good concept down. Welcome back. 

Five stars

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Friday, October 29, 2021

Review: Loserville (2022)

By Clayton Trutor

Any discussion about a book called "Loserville" must start with its title. If you only knew that a sports volume was coming out by that name, where would you guess the story was centered?

The winner is indeed Atlanta, as indicated by the subtitle, "How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta - and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports." The actual titles comes from a series of articles in an Atlanta newspaper a few years ago about what went wrong with the city's teams. After reading the book by Claytor Trutor, it's easy to think that he's got a case for that particular title. It's a wide-ranging look at the circumstances surrounding Atlanta and its professional teams. 

When the 1960s began, the four major pro sports were a tight fraternity bunched mostly in the Northeast and Midwest. But changes already were underway that would alter the landscape considerably. The population was shifting - first to the West Coast, as evidenced by the moves of baseball's Dodgers and Giants to Los Angeles and San Francisco. But it was also moving to the so-called Sun Belt states of the South.

The Sixties saw increased numbers in the old Confederacy states, which were mostly left out of big league sports around then. The Miami Dolphins were one of the few exceptions. It was also the time of the civil rights revolution. African Americans still were leaving rural areas of the South by then, but they were just as likely to be landing in the big cities of the South as opposed to going into the big cities of the North and Midwest. 

That brings us to Atlanta, which featured a rapidly growing metropolitan area in that era. While it can be a nice problem for a government to have, it doesn't mean the problems are insignificant. You can start with housing, infrastructure, poverty, and go from there. Atlanta had all of that, and it also had something called "white flight" - whites leaving the city in droves and moving to the suburbs. Atlanta soon became a majority black city - and economicially, that almost made the area look like a doughnut on the map. 

Politicians and civic leaders got together and search for the old standby, the proverbial "silver bullet," to change the equation. Maybe pro sports could be the answer. It would provide benefits to the community, making it "big league" to a country that from the outside of the South had looked down on the region because of its civil rights policies. Sports could provide benefits in the quality of life for those who wanted to be fans.

The problem, as Trutor points out, was that Atlanta made quite a few mistakes. It was anxious to build a new stadium to lure teams to Georgia, so it build a new multi-purpose stadium. That had the intended goal, as the Braves landed in Atlanta from Milwaukee and the NFL granted an expansion team to the area (Falcons). The stadium was built in Atlanta proper, in an era where new housing for residents was supposed to be built. So the overcrowded and poverty in the city only became worse. What's more, the stadium was near a high-crime area. If suburban fans needed an excuse not to go to games, they had one - and used it, at least when the teams were poor. And they often were.

It was a similar story when the Hawks and Flames arrived soon after the Braves and Falcons did. A shiny new arena soon was built downtown that was part of a large real estate development complex. But other businesses really didn't follow the teams to the area, in part because the area's economic muscle was moving out of the central city. Throw in the fact that no one in Georgia had much of a tradition of following pro sports, except for transplants. It was tough to make a dent into the fans' interest in college sports as well as outside recreational opportunities. 

So what happened? The Braves had one long run of success during their time in Atlanta; we can call them the Glavine/Smoltz years. The team eventually moved to the suburbs. We will see if the team's World Series run in 2021 can spark several years of success. The Falcons are on their third stadium but remain one of the few teams that has never won a Super Bowl. The Hawks have rarely been relevant, having never reached the NBA Finals since arriving in Atlanta. The NHL has been in the city twice, and both times left relatively quickly. 

The author is quick to point out that Atlanta isn't the only city in the Sun Belt to go through this. Tampa has had an uneven transition into the world of pro sports. The Rays still don't draw anyone, and the Bucs were usually mediocre to bad ... at least until Tom Brady arrived. The Lightning had the same status for several years, but have won three Stanley Cups in this century to build up interest.

Trutor is remarkably thorough in going through all of these. It's easy to get a little lost in all of the anagrams presented here; there are government agencies, authorities and other groups here. This is also rather dry material in many cases, and it's a big book - about 400 pages. If you are looking for any sort of recap of Atlanta's on-field problems, well, this isn't the place.

It's tough to picture many people who might consider "Loserville" to be "leisure reading." I'm not sure many people outside of Georgia will be interested enough to pick it up. However, those that do will discover some rewards on what to do and what not to do when it comes to the relationship between municipalities and sports teams. 

Four stars

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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Review: Hang Time (2018)

By Elgin Baylor with Alan Eisenstock

The first time I noticed Elgin Baylor was in 1974, when I was 18 years old. I was in the Basketball Hall of Fame - the old, old building on the campus of Springfield College in Massachusetts. I was old enough to have seen him play, but not old enough to remember how he played when he was in his prime after he turned pro.

The Hall of Fame used to show old basketball highlight films in those days, and my friend and I couldn't get enough of them in those pre-YouTube days. One of them was a highlight film of a particular season. And Baylor was the clear star. He was years ahead of his time, pioneering a game that was played more in the air than on the ground. Julius Erving, David Thompson and Michael Jordan all owe something to this pioneer of hoops.

That was a good lesson, but there are others to be learned from this remarkable player. "Hang Time" provides a good education into his life.

Baylor grew up in Washington, D.C., which was still quite Southern in its outlook on race relations. Every day was something of a battle for African Americans, particularly when they bumped up against established policies. Elgin - yes, named after the watch company after his parents apparently ran out of ideas for names - found an escape route from all that through basketball. Still, there were possible detours along the way. You will be stunned at the reason why Baylor missed the first semester of his senior year of high school, and how the situation was resolved.

From there it was on to junior college in Idaho - Idaho? - and then to Seattle University, where Baylor made the team a national powerhouse. He turned pro and joined the Minneapolis Lakers, who were soon off to Los Angeles. There Baylor put up numbers straight out of video games. He averaged more than 30 points per game for three straight years, including a remarkable 38.3 figure in 1961-62. And he did it with a spectacular style that would have made him a social media favorite had he been born about 55 years later. 

Unfortunately, high flying athletes usually get grounded by injuries over the course in time, and Baylor started to have knee trouble midway through his career. His description of his kneecap essentially exploding during a game is still tough to read. But Elgin adjusted, and he was still an effective player through the age of 35.

Baylor comes through with plenty of good stories here about his playing days, told with honesty. The NBA was different in those days, almost a fraternity more than a sports league. Baylor played with and against the top players of his era. His biggest problem was that he was never on a team that could never get past the Boston Celtics and their dynasty of that era. Sadly, it wasn't until Baylor retired that the Lakers finally got that long-coveted title in 1972. 

This is frequently told in an unusual first-person style that requires a little time for the reader to adjust to it. The anecdotes are almost always fascinating, although sometimes the story gets a little bogged down in statistical recaps about playoff matchups. The other complaint about the book is that essentially ends after the 1969 playoffs. The 1970 final against the New York Knicks, which was a fascinating and dramatic matchup, only receives a small mention. Baylor also served as the general manager for the Clippers under the team's notorious owner, Donald Sterling. Elgin stayed for 22 years, and he regretted the long stay until the day he died by the sounds of it. Sterling was essentially kicked out of the NBA for being a racist, and Baylor regrets hanging around so long. His reason is that he wanted an African American to have that job, but he writes that he'd take a do-over for that part of his life if he could.

Baylor died in 2021, and after years of prompting it's good that he finally got "Hang Time" down on paper. The kids might not be initially interested in a player from the 1950s and 1960s, but I'd guess that most fans will thoroughly enjoy this trip into a basketball time machine.

Four stars

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