Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review: Olympic Team Members from Western New York (2016)

By Denny Lynch and Ron Carr

It's easy to admire people like Denny Lynch and Ron Carr. They just won't take no for an answer when it comes to sports information.

Lynch, a former football executive, and Carr, a teacher in Western New York, have a connection to the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. That organization is saluting the great athletes of the area's past.

Lynch frequently asked people about local athletes who had made it to the Olympic Games. This did not come up just when Olympic competition was taking place, but at any point in the calendar. He quickly discovered that no such list of area athletes who had taken part in the Games existed.

And so, he and Carr started to make one. The first 50 were pretty easy, but then it got tough. But the two kept at it, and the resulting list of more than 200 names with Olympic connections has been turned into a short book called "Olympic Team Members from Western New York."

This covers every sport, winter or summer, that has been part of the Olympics over the years. It also required a great deal of work. You don't do something like this without a large degree of curiosity, as well as a love of the subject. Those qualities show up nicely in the book.

Every athlete from Western New York who made it to the Olympics receive a paragraph here, as well as a photograph when possible. Without counting, hockey is the leader in local connections because of the contributions of the Buffalo Sabres. Even so, there are a surprising amount of rowers who have taken part in the international competition over the years. And who knew there was a woman with local ties who had such a distinguished career in judo? I hope Grace Jividen comes up in future discussions about the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.

Lynch and Carr don't overlook those on the edge of the Games either. Administrators get their due here, as do those who just missed qualifying. That makes it even more complete.

"Olympic Team Members from Western New York" is, at its heart, a reference book. You can read the biographies in a short period of time, and you should, but it's nice to have something like this available. I plan on placing it in my bookshelf, and it will stay there for a long time - only to come out when I need a fact or two about a specific area. It's nice to have such a valuable resource available.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review: Playing Through the Whistle (2016)

By S.L. Price

The subtitle of “Playing Through the Whistle” is “Steel, Football, and an American Town,” and there’s a picture of a high school football stadium. Yes, there’s plenty of football in the book, which is probably why you’ll find it in the sports department of the bookstore.

But don’t be fooled by that. This is a story that could feel right at home in the American history, business or urban studies sections of the store.

It’s the tale of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, and it’s fascinating. I don't expect to read a better book this year.

Sports Illustrated writer S.L. Price, one of the magazine’s best writers, takes a long, thorough look at this very American city. Aliquippa is located about 20 miles north of Pittsburgh, right along the Ohio River. Once upon a time, when the Pittsburgh area was famous for making steel, Aliquippa did well. J&L Steel took land on the river for its facilities that eventually stretched for more than seven miles.

The company employed several thousand workers at its peak. The jobs were often difficult and taxing, producing burns and health problems for some employees and pollution for the region. Few seemed to like the work. But for those who had a high school education or less, and for those who had just come over from foreign countries in search of the American Dream, it was steady employment and a chance to support a family.

By the end of World War II, the rest of the world’s industrial production was in ruins - leaving American factories triumphant. Times were good in places like Aliquippa in the post-war period.

Along the way, football became embedded in the DNA of the region. We associate quarterbacks with Western Pennsylvania, as players such as Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Jim Kelly reached superstardom in the NFL. But the definitive player from that part of the world just might be Mike Ditka. He was a subtle as a forearm to the face on and off the field, and he reinvented the tight end position in reaching the Hall of Fame. Yes, he was from Aliquippa. Football games became a gathering place for the town, a source of local pride.

Little did we know by the late 1950s that the seeds for the demise of Aliquippa has already been sown. Companies invested in new factories overseas, and they used the latest technology while J&L was still relying on its 1903 equipment for the most part. By 1959, America imported more steel than it exported for the first time. Still, profits were strong. Labor kept asking management for more money and benefits, and management kept labor peace by accepting many demands. In other words, neither side had much foresight.

It all created a bubble that was waiting to burst, and burst it did in the early 1980s when portions of the steel mill started to close in rapid succession. Some people couldn’t find jobs and moved out. The ones who stayed were in a town with a declining tax base with crime and drug use rising quickly.

The football team became one of the few rallying points, still beating bigger schools and winning some titles, but even that aspect of town life wasn’t immune to the pressures of the situation. The Quips won some championships with such future pros as Ty Law and Darrelle Revis, but were sometimes hit with racial divides and funding problems. Ditka and Revis in particular have been generous with time and money in giving something back to their hometown, but it’s a difficult battle.

Price, who first came to town to write a long magazine feature on team and town about five years ago, obviously spent a lot of time getting to know Aliquippa. He went through the history books and newspaper archives to find how it grew and declined over the years. Price also talked to several former and current residents about why they left or why they stayed. And he talked to coaches about what it’s like to try to keep a high school team together when society’s problems leak into the schools, as they always do. Price has said that he was astonished by how open everyone was in Aliquippa to him in telling the stories.

About the only drawback to the book is that Price goes into great detail outlining some of the incidents that have taken place in the past 35 years or so, including murders, drug-related violence and other illegal activity. The names can be a little tough to follow after a while, but the message about the problems there certainly come through loud and clear.

There are plenty of towns like Aliquippa out there, areas that have never recovered from the time when America stopped making a lot of things. What’s more, no one has many good ideas on what to do about it. A handful of people make it out of such places through football, but several athletes with just as much ability got sidetracked into an abyss. “Playing Through the Whistle” reviews the life of a town that we’ve tried to forget; Price shows us that we need to remember it, and do something about it.

Five stars

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Review: Chasing the Dream (2016)

By Ted Starkey

The idea of minor league sports has a oddly romantic side to it. Young players, out on their own for the first time, try to climb the ladder of their chosen sport in attempt for professional fame and fortune.

It should be mentioned that of the four big sports in America, only two - baseball and hockey - have well-established and durable minor leagues. Basketball has a developmental league, but that doesn't have much charm to it.

Several authors have tried their luck at portraying life in baseball's minor leagues. It's a long ladder there, as players have to go up four or five rungs to reach the majors. Meanwhile, hockey - with its one or two rungs - has more or less gone unexplored in book form. Ted Starkey tries to change that in his book, "Chasing the Dream."

If there's one point to be made here by the author, it's that minor league hockey sure isn't what it used to be.

The definitive image might come from the movie "Slap Shot," featuring long bus rides, financial problems and fight-filled games. The bus rides are still around in the American Hockey League (the equivalent of AAA baseball), although the planes are used sometimes in a league that now goes coast to coast. But there's some stability in money matters now. That's because several NHL teams own their own minor-league affiliates.

Some old-school owners are still around in places like Hershey and Syracuse. You can pick them out because they feel a little more pressure to win. The NHL-owned teams basically are there to produce players for the big club and don't care that much about winning. So they are less likely to have a few quality veterans around who might help get points in the standings as opposed to a marginal prospect.

As for the fights, those have been on the decline for about 10-12 years. The AHL has slightly more per game than the National Hockey League, but most of the goons are out of work these days. It seems hockey players on all professional levels have to play hockey. Note: This may be a good thing, depending on personal preferences.

The story of the current American Hockey League is professionally told by Starkey. He talked to plenty of people in many different cities, and there's little doubt that the picture he paints is an accurate, more-than-full-enough one. Even so, there's something missing here - and it's fun.

Yes, the people involved either like their jobs in pro hockey or love it. But this comes off as a business story for the most part. Some of the points of the book get repeated if phrased in a different way. The one exception to the rule might be the chapter on travel. With the Eastern teams often relying on a bus to get to the next game - in the dead of winter, no less - sometimes things don't go well. They are a lot more fun in hindsight than they were at the time, and the participants almost consider it a badge of honor to have gone through them. It was my favorite part of the book.

"Chasing the Dream," then, is on the dry side, but it's relatively quick to read and will satisfy those curious about the subject. That probably isn't a huge audience, but I'm not sure if there was a way to increase it given the subject matter.

Three stars

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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Review: Unbreakable (2016)

By Mike Brophy and Todd Denault

The subtitle of "Unbreakable" is "Wayne Gretzky and the Story of Hockey's Greatest Record."

Mike Brophy and Todd Denault can make a good case for that.

Scoring records are usually the glamour item of any sport's history book, and the changing length and conditions of seasons over the years makes it difficult to really compare apples and oranges in many cases.

But in hockey, one of the most memorable moments came when Maurice Richard scored 50 goals in 50 games. No one could duplicate it for almost 40 years, until Mike Bossy did it in 1981.

Then Gretzky came along, and did it in 39 in 1981-82. Preposterous. Even in an era where goals came easily for a variety of reasons, that was an amazing accomplishment.

Brophy and Denault have jumped into the idea that there's a book to be written about that chase by Gretzky for the record. They certainly did their best to make it work.The authors went through all sorts of sources to collect information, including finding facts in books, newspaper articles, magazines, etc. They interviewed some of the participants, including Gretzky himself. Therefore, the book certainly gets the story about how it happened across.

From there, the question becomes - is it interesting?

There's an inherent contradiction in telling the story, one by one, of those 50 games. Brophy and Denault wanted to show how it was done, but the games themselves - now more than 30 years old - don't really matter to the story that much. We're interested in Gretzky, but a lot of other information about the Oilers' season comes along for the ride. In other words, it's very difficult to make the games themselves worth reading about. That's a huge drawback.

The authors do try to provide some background of some of the Oilers players and front office members, as well as reviewing some of the opposing teams. It helps a bit, but a good percentage of the material may make the mind wander at some point.

It's tough to say if there was a better way to approach the idea of this book; I have my doubts. Gretzky's many fans certainly will find this a good source of information if they want to know how the legendary player set this particular record (one of many on his resume). Others, though, might not find "Unbreakable" worth their time.

Two stars

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Friday, November 11, 2016

Review: Belichick and Brady (2016)

By Michael Holley

It seems that as long as the New England Patriots keep winning, Michael Holley will keep writing books about them.

My guess, offered from a resident from another AFC East city which has seen the Patriots come to town and beat up on the locals, is that he'll have at least one more book to write until Bill Belichick and/or Tom Brady retire.

In the meantime, we have "Belichick and Brady" to read. It's Holley's third book with a strong connection to the Patriots over the last several years. He even calls it a trilogy in the acknowledgments.

For those who haven't been paying attention over the last decade and a half or so, Belichick and Brady have been the two irreplaceable parts of the Patriots' impressive run of success over the years. Belichick was a top assistant coach before moving to Cleveland, where he only lasted a few years. Some good assistants never made the transition to head coach, but New England gave him one more chance to succeed - even paying the Jets off in draft choices for the chance to hire him. You'd have to say it worked out pretty well for the franchise. Belichick comes across here as someone who makes sure that his players are always well prepared, and that that also are always a little uncomfortable with their job status.

And part of the reason why the team has done so well is that Belichick took a chance on a quarterback from Michigan in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL draft. Brady worked out pretty well. The receivers, running backs and linemen have come and gone over the years, but the offense has kept clicking and the wins have kept coming. Brady has been the constant, and he's certainly in the argument as the greatest quarterback in history. Come to think of it, he might be winning it, depending on how you count.

The easy guess is that this is a book that centers on the two men in the title, and they certainly are key figures. But it's more of a history of the team during the past 16 years or so. Holley certainly put an effort into it. He's mined a variety of sources for information. That includes some interviews with retired players, who can provide some insight into what the two title characters are like behind the scenes. Newspaper, magazine and broadcast interviews are also mentioned.

But does this work in book form? That's a tough question to answer. It's a relatively easy read considering it checks in at almost 400 pages. But there are an awful lot of games and events covered here, which are difficult to make interesting from a perspective of years later. A little closer editing might have been helpful. In addition, if you are confused by Brady's court case and suspension involving deflated footballs, well, this won't help much. Holley seems to lean toward Brady's side of the story a bit.

"Belichick and Brady" probably will work well for those in New England who cheered through all of the big wins during this memorable era. That's fine. The rest of the audience might not be so enthusiastic.

Three stars

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Thursday, November 3, 2016

Review: Captain (2016)

By Darryl Sittler and Mike Leonetti

The Toronto Maple Leafs had plenty of glory in their almost 100-year history, although most of it was in the first half of that time period. There are some championship banners hanging around the Air Canada Centre; they are just a little dusty.

Oddly, though, that tradition usually means that some iconic figures have put on the team's sweater. The Maple Leafs have fallen a little short in that area, at least when compared to their neighbor up the street in Montreal. Frank Mahovlich was dealt in the prime of his career. Fan favorite Wendel Clark's departure caused tears, although the person who came in return - Mats Sundin - turned into the rare great player who stayed almost until the end.

Toronto is such a hockey loving town, though, that their top players do get celebrated - and deservedly so. Darryl Sittler was one of those players. Here he gets the coffee table book version of his life, "Captain."

This is sort of like sitting down with Sittler as he looks over his personal scrapbook. He started the book out with memories of 1976, when he scored 10 points in a single game - an NHL record - and scored the game-winning goal in the Canada Cup finale. From there, it is more or less a review of his hockey life. Sittler played junior hockey in London, Ontario, was on some good teams in Toronto, and moved into retirement. In the last several years, he's enjoyed the honors he has received from his old team and supporters, who might not have realized in some cases that Hall of Famers don't come around for your team every day.

The format for much of the book is pretty simple. Sittler presents his thoughts about a particular subject or person on one page, and there is a photograph or photographs on the adjoining page. As you can imagine, the pages go by pretty quickly this way. The NHL star did donate some of his own photos for the project, which is a nice touch.

Sittler comes off generally well in this book, as he generally had good things to say about almost everyone he encountered in hockey and elsewhere.  There are a couple of exceptions in a couple of his general manager during his time in hockey, Punch Imlach and Bob Clarke. By the sounds of it, you'd have to say he's got a case to be a bit upset.

Sittler already has written a couple of books about his hockey career, so this is something of a supplement or a quick refresher course on his career. You'd probably have to be a big fan of Sittler's to want this book too. On the other hand, Sittler's many fans should enjoy this quick look back at a Hall of Fame career.

Three stars

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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Review: Friday, Saturday, Sunday in Texas (2016)

By Nick Eatman

It's easy to wonder if Nick Eatman has watched much football this season.

You'd think he might have his fill in 2015.

Eatman realized that football is King in football, no matter if it is high school, college or pro. You've probably heard the stories about high schools in the Lone Star State spending tens of millions of dollars on stadiums. Some of you might be wondering if the English department could have used a little of that money, but that's a different discussion and a different book.

So, Eatman decided to write a book on a year in the life of teams at all three of those levels. The result is "Friday, Saturday, Sunday in Texas," which shows there's more in common among the teams that you'd think.

The high school team is from Plano, Texas, a northern suburb of Dallas. If you look at a Google map page about Plano, the picture used to represent the town is a large highway cloverleaf. I'm not sure if that's fair, but it is interesting. Plano has had some great teams over the years, but 2015 wasn't one of them. Yes, mediocre seasons are tough on everyone at the high school level.

The college team selected by Eatman is Baylor. The Bears had been on a role under Art Briles entering the 2015 season, moving up into the ranks of the nation's best teams. Baylor played an exciting brand of pass-happy ball, earning the nickname "Wide Receiver U." The team battled some injuries and other problems last year, but had a decent record.

Then there are the Dallas Cowboys. It's tough to judge if they are still America's team, but the Cowboys certainly are Texas' team. Dallas was coming off a playoff year, and hopes were high for the season ... until quarterback Tony Romo kept breaking collarbones. You lose your quarterback at any level, and your team is in trouble. In fact, that thread runs through the book.

To his credit, Eatman enjoyed good access to all three teams. The author worked with Briles on a book a while back, and that certainly helped get him in the door here. That may be why the Baylor material might be the most interesting portions of the book. The high school sections have the usual human interest stories that come with any scholastic sports - college choices, injuries, relationships, etc. The Cowboys have been a soap opera for large portions of their history, and some of that pops up here.

There are a couple of problems here that should be noted, the first of which is a small spoiler alert to those who don't follow football (and I can't imagine anyone this interested in this book would qualify(. You really have to be lucky in a book like this to pick the right season, and Eatman didn't have that luck. Plano High and the Cowboys head toward mediocrity pretty quickly. Injuries robbed Baylor of any chance at a special season, and - in a bizarre way - the story pretty much ends before it gets interesting. The Bears went through some off-the-field turmoil that led to a variety of departures by administrators, but it happened after bowl season and only pops up in the epilogue.

In addition, this is something of an "inside" view of three football teams. I would have liked to read a little more from the outside. In other words, let's hear about what makes Texas football special, which might come down to a more rabid fan base, tradition, etc.

Still, "Friday, Saturday, Sunday in Texas" goes down pretty smoothly. The season goes by a week at a time, making the pages turns quite easily. It's tough to say how well this will go over in Fargo, North Dakota, or Montpelier, Vermont. But this is a book that should keep Texas football fans reasonably entertained ... and there are a lot of them.

Three stars

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