Monday, February 19, 2024

Review: Draft Day (2023)

By Doug MacLean with Scott Morrison

It's an age-old question. How do you build a winning team in professional sports?

Ever since the free-for-all days of signing players on your own ended at various stages (it depends on the sport, but mostly it was in the 1950s or 1960s), the draft has been the key component. That's where the biggest talent influx arrives each year. If those selections work out, one way or another, a team can add to its base of good players and start moving up the ladder in wins. In hockey, for example, teams that win Stanley Cups often have about 10 of their own draft choices on their rosters. 

Some of the other picks contribute in different ways, as they are sometimes traded elsewhere to strengthen a particular spot in the lineup. If a team has some depth at defense but not much talent at center, a swap concept begins to form with a team with the opposite problem.

When watching the draft, there's always a scent that much more is going on than we know about it. Happily, veteran hockey executive Doug MacLean takes us through his career in the behind-the-scenes book, "Draft Day." 

MacLean has had a variety of hockey jobs over the years. He's best known for his work as coach of the Florida Panthers and as the president and general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets. MacLean always has come across as a smart, interesting person. Here he pulls back the curtain on what goes into the draft, which is the subject of a year's worth of work that comes down to only a couple of days of selections in the summer. No pressure, eh? There's a little wandering in the story that makes this read like an autobiography for a while, but it's not a big problem.

It's striking from the start just how close-knit the hockey family is. MacLean came out of Prince Edward Island in Canada. He played hockey there, but wasn't good enough to get a whiff of the NHL. However, he decided to work his way up the coaching ladder rather than taking what could be called "a real job." You get to meet a lot of people in the game that way, and the circles often intersect along the way. It's something of a fraternity, and friends are made for life. Those friends often turn out to be crucial in advancement. 

A book like this needs to have good stories to make it work, and MacLean comes through nicely in that department during the nearly 300 pages. One of the highlights is how MacLean as the general manager at Columbus managed to trade up to acquire the first overall pick. There he scooped up Rick Nash, who proved to be a top goal-scorer in the NHL. 

There's a skill to that, of course, but luck plays a hand in a team's fate as well. MacLean points out several cases where the lottery was particularly unkind to the Blue Jackets when he was there. A different ping-pong ball, or whatever is used in the lottery, would have made a big difference in the fortunes of the Columbus team. But when there are four particularly great prospects in a draft and you have the fifth pick, things aren't going to go well. 

MacLean devotes a chapter to what he calls "the curious case of Nikolai Zherdev." He was a top prospect in terms of talent from Russia, but there were a few character issues floating around that were tough to decipher. MacLean and Co. put plenty of effort into due diligence when it came to finding out what the full story was. Eventually the choice came down to Zherdev or Thomas Vanek. It turned out that personal issues never allowed Zherdev to realize his talent. By the way, the Buffalo Sabres "settled" for Vanek, who turned out to be a solid pro. GM Darcy Regier told MacLean at the time that the Sabres would have taken Zherdev had they had the chance.      

Speaking of the Sabres, there are a couple of little items in this book that are of interest. In 2015, MacLean tried to console Buffalo general manager Tim Murray for losing the lottery by saying that even if he couldn't get Connor McDavid, he'd at least get someone good. The reply was, "Doug, it's not even close." And back in 1991, the New York Islanders were shopping talented center Pat LaFontaine in a contract dispute. They talked to the Detroit Red Wings, and MacLean worked for the Wings at that point. He writes that the Red Wings were ready to deal Steve Yzerman to the Islanders in a package for LaFontaine. The deal eventually fell through, and LaFontaine ended up in Buffalo. If that original deal goes through with Detroit, hockey history goes in all sorts of different directions in the three cities involved.

This is all told in a down-to-earth style. Not only does MacLean comes across well, but he's in good hands in terms of assistance with Scott Morrison. The latter has been one of the most respected names in journalism for several years. 

The pages on "Draft Day" may not fly by for those who aren't good-sized hockey fans or for those looking for a more indepth look at the draft process, but those that qualify (in other words, the majority of potential readers) will find this more than satisfying. They should pick it up sooner rather than later. 

Four stars

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Thursday, February 8, 2024

Review: The Early Days of ESPN (2024)

By Peter Fox

The lives of sports fans changed drastically on September 7, 1979. That's when a new television network called ESPN signed on the air, with sportscaster Lee Leonard doing the honors. 

It hasn't signed off since that moment - with the exception of a few technical problems, no doubt - and since then it has lived up to its promise that it would show nothing but sports programming for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 (or 366) days a year.

While plenty has been written about those early days of the network's programming, ESPN didn't simply appear out of the ether one day. Several months of planning went into the debut. In fact, the first broadcast by the network took place 10 months earlier in November of 1978. The opening game was an exhibition basketball matchup between the University of Connecticut and Athletes in Action, a tourimg squad. 

Peter Fox was there at the beginning, as ESPN's founding executive producer. He's finally gotten around to putting some of his (and others') memories on those start-up days on paper, and the result is "The Early Days of ESPN."

The idea for the network came almost accidentally. Bill Rasmussen was interested in transmitting Connecticut basketball games around the state by satellite, and discovered that he couldn't just rent the time for a few hours a week. No, he had to agree to use it 24/7. A family member half-jokingly suggested to fill the time with other sports, and they plunged into it. 

After setting the scene a bit, Fox mostly relies on the memories of those who worked there in those early days. Some came from Hartford television, while others were from the immediate area of the Northeast. As you'd expect, the start-up was rather chaotic, with rented offices and potential clients (cable companies and advertisers) wondering how ESPN would fill all that time. Come to think of it, the employees wondered that too.

But eventually, it all came together. The big steps in personnel came when Chet Simmons and Scotty Connal - two big names in television production - were hired. Then the Getty Oil Company, which was sitting on piles of cash at the time, decided a television network would be more fun to own than drilling a dry hole in the ground.  

As you'd expect, the new employees mostly were young people who really didn't have much to lose professionally and loved sports. So there are stories of long hours, equipment breaking down, visits to local watering holes, office romances, more visits to local watering holes (hey, work hard, play hard), etc.

That all sounds like it has the elements of a reasonable book. However, the finished product has a couple of good-sized flaws attached.

For starters, this is part oral history and part personal narrative. The problem is that the material is not presented particularly well. It's rather disorganized, and sometimes it's tough to figure out where on the timeline of ESPN's story we might be at a given page. That's a good-sized drawback in a book like this. There are a few sections along the way that are simply tough to read for that reason. It's also a short book, checking in at under 200 pages with some filler along the way. Readers may not feel they will get their $29.95's worth of information from this.   

Fox comes off as a good and interesting guy, and he probably would be good company for lunch and diet colas. But "The Early Days of ESPN" comes across as something that might appeal to a very small piece of the audience. There are other books out there that might be more satisfying to someone looking for a quick overview of the start of the popular broadcasting outlet.

Two stars

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Monday, February 5, 2024

Review: The Bill James Handbook: Walk-Off Edition (2023)

By Sports Info Solutions

All good things must come to an end ... particularly in publishing, where the landscape seems to change by the hour. 

Such is the case for "The Bill James Handbook," which has concluded a nice run that has lasted for more than three decades. The story of the book's history needs a little explanation first.

Back around 1990, baseball statistics had started to blossom as a subject for study. Bill James, the patron saint of baseball analysis, had started the idea (more or less) with his Abstracts in the late 1970s. That led to an advancement of the subject, through the work of a small but devoted group of individuals who have pushed the research along. 

By 1990, there was a demand for information that just wasn't out there for most of the public. So James and his friends started a book that contained all of those numbers - and not just the ones that were in the Baseball Register by The Sporting News every year. Even better, the book was available by Christmas, which was a good holiday gift for those who couldn't wait until the spring or so when the Register came out. The book not only had those numbers, but also some essays on the game. 

Fast forward to today, and all of those numbers are available almost instantly through other sources on the Internet. So it was easy to guess that the days of the Handbook had to be numbered, and here we are. But the people behind the publication decided to go out with a bang of sorts. So they came out with one last book filled mostly with essays, and called it the "Walk-Off Edition." 

I hadn't bought the book before, as I didn't have a great deal of need for the extra numbers in my life. But as a reader of James' abstracts, I found the concept of an anthology with contributions by and about James to be tough to resist. Sold. 

Sure enough, there are a bunch of articles here, and James has five bylines and is the subject of a question-and-answer story. My favorite story of the bunch was one by James, in which he talks about how the changes in the way baseball is played these days (more relief pitchers, emphasis on home runs by hitters and strikeouts for pitchers, etc.). One of the unexpected aspects of those changes is that statistical standards have been more or less broken. That means the 300-game winner has become extinct, and that a certain type of player who doesn't hit for power has been left behind. There aren't many guys like Wade Boggs out there any more, and perhaps that hasn't helped the game's popularity with the public. Food for thought, at the very least. 

The people behind this book have done a lot of work on fielding statistics over the years, and have picked the year's best again. Fielding probably gets more coverage here than anything else. It's obviously well-researched material, written by smart people.

There's a catch here, though, and it's worth noting. This is a rather short book, and technical in spots. So it's not going to take long to read this, particular if you find yourself skimming over some stories because they are a little hard to follow. 

Is "The Bill James Handbook: Walk-Off Edition" worth $24.95 to you? Each reader will have to make that determination. If baseball is one of the biggest parts of your life, then you might enjoy this. Less rabid readers who prefer information on current teams and seasons might be willing to waiting for the Baseball Prospectus annual, which is always a favorite in this space.

Three stars

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Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Review: The Formula (2024)

By Joshua Robinson & Jonathan Clegg

For years, Formula 1 auto racing held a very small niche in the American sports scene. Yes, enthusiasts knew that the sport was popular around the world, particularly in Europe. Admittedly, watching the annual race on Monaco was something of a curiosity, thanks to the unique nature of the course. But the Grand Prix circuit took a back seat (sorry) to Indy cars and NASCAR events for the most part on this side of the Atlantic. Champion drivers weren't well known unless they made a stop in Indianapolis for the month of May. 

All of that has changed in the past few years. Formula 1 racing has boomed in the United States in the past few years. The races are on television (ESPN) constantly now, and a documentary series on Netflix has proven to be a great way to collect publicity and fans. 

The transformation probably left some people here interested in the history of this particular divisions of the sport of auto racing. Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg are here to fill in that gap with the book, "The Formula." And they have a great story to tell.

The authors offer something of a course on the business side of the Grand Prix circuit. If this sounds like it could be a little dry, well, don't worry. Robinson and Clegg really made the characters come alive. It's an international cast with great stories involved. 

Heck, Bernie Eccelstone could be a book all by himself. This former driver took over financial control of a team on the circuit, which led to him buying the television rights to the series, which led to him taking over control of the entire Formula 1 operation ... which made him very rich. Some of that money was lost in 2023, when a tax fraud conviction cost him more than 800 million dollars. 

The book offers one key insight into the sport that is a valuable tip for the uninitiated. Why does it seem that Formula 1 teams have stretches where they just dominate the competition, race after race? It turns out that it has a lot to do with the rules. While there are pages and pages of regulations about how the cars are designed and built, it seems that designers are constantly looking for ways to bend those regulations in a way that couldn't be called outright cheating. Perhaps the tires are made of a new material, or the car design leads to more downforce that keeps the vehicle on the road at higher speeds. 

That can lead to a bit of an advantage, and that's important in a sport when a second per lap can be a huge edge in the competition. A team runs off some wins, and the rest of the field than either copies that change or the rules are rewritten to level the playing field again. Then the process starts all over again. 

A couple of fabled moments in the history of the series receive plenty of attention too. One centered on the time a driver was ordered to crash his car into a wall so that his teammate could take advantage of the yellow flag and move up in the field. The other concerned the time when a ruling on where lapped cars would be placed on a restart would determine the outcome of a season-long championship. Those may be well-known to longtime fans, but they are amazing moments for the more casual reader. 

Robinson and Clegg do a fine job of telling this as a human story for the most part. In other words, you won't get lost in the text even if you don't know the difference between a carburetor and wheel axle. They also give plenty of details of how Liberty Media came in as the new owners of the circuit and essentially revolutionized how the sport was presented to the public, which is greatly responsible for the current boom in interest (and, naturally, revenues).

You don't have to be a gearhead to enjoy "The Formula," which is a first-class job. You'll want to give it the checkered flag when you're done.

Five stars

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Friday, January 26, 2024

Review: The Real Hoosiers (2024)

By Jack McCallum

The 1950s certainly were an interesting period for high school basketball in Indiana.

If you are a hoops fan, you've certainly heard of the team from Milan High School. It won the state title in 1954, despite coming from a very small town with the corresponding small population of students who could potentially play for the team. It was a story ready made for Hollywood - and Hollywood came up with a popular movie, "Hoosiers," in 1986 that was "inspired" on Milan's championship run. (If truth be told, Milan was considered a very good team entering the season, so it wasn't really that much of a Cinderella story.) 

Along the way, Milan defeated Crispus Attucks High School of Indianapolis. That turned out to be a mere speed bump for the Tigers, who blasted their way to winning the next two state championships. As Jack McCallum points out in his book, "The Real Hoosiers," Milan might have been the most dramatic story, but Attacks provided the more significant tale in the larger scheme of things.

That's because the Tigers were the first all-Black team in the entire United States to win a state high school title. In the process, the team opened up some possibilities for the sport. For much of the previous years, basketball had been an over-coached, don't-run, run-the-plays sport. Attacks did it differently. The Tigers were full of athletes who could run and jump, and they played that way. 

The result was one-sided. Attucks lost one game in two years, and ran its way to two state titles in 1955 and 1956. Of course, it helped to have a superstar on their side, and the Tigers certainly had one of those in Oscar Robertson. You might remember him as the man who once averaged a triple-double in the NBA before anyone noticed that it should have been a big deal, and was a perennial All-Star. Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan might have overshadowed "The Big O" in terms of publicity about basketball's best all-time guards these days, but Oscar could play. Check out the videos of him on You Tube if you don't believe it. It was his game and his basketball, and he seemed to be letting the others play once in a while. No wonder John Wooden - himself a superstar guard from Indiana back in the day - once said that Robertson could have made the jump from high school all the way to the pros. That's quite a statement for someone playing in 1956.

As you'd expect from the description of those two championship seasons, there wasn't a great deal of drama along the way. Attucks had a few close games, but not very many. They took care of business, and moved on to the next contest. In fact, the team members realized that the officiating in that era was not going to do African Americans any favors, so it was to their advantage to put the game away early and not allow a single call determine their fate.

Even so, McCallum finds plenty to write about here. Indiana in the 1950s was an interesting place in terms of race relations. The state had those Midwestern roots that left the people there somewhat reserved. But Indiana also was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and it was called America's most northern Southern state at one point. 

Crispus Attucks High School was itself something of a monument to those racial pains. It was built in the Black part of town, as integrating the schools was a little too much too soon for Indianapolis. There were all sorts of snubs along the way, even dealing with fears about how "that part" of the city might celebrate a simple high school championship. Remember, the 1955 championship was won only months after the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The research is first-rate, with plenty of voices supplied either directly or through quotes from other sources. Interestingly, Robertson turned down the chance to talk about those days. He did his business and moved on, which sort of describes his approach to life. But Oscar did write an autobiography and has given a few interviews, so he's certainly represented here. 

McCallum always was the proverbial good read when working as the main basketball writer at Sports Illustrated. He was always good at turning a phrase and making the reader smile. McCallum still has those skills, but this shows he can handle the more serious stuff as well.

"The Real Hoosiers" does justice to the team and the time. You can't ask for more than that in a book like this. Well done. 

Five stars

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