Friday, December 27, 2019

Review: The Russian Five (2018)

By Keith Gave

"The Russian Five" starts in a very unusual way for a sports book. Author Keith Gave goes back in time almost 30 years to 1990 when two Soviet hockey players found out in Helsinki that they had been drafted by the Detroit Red Wings.

The catch is that Gave, a hockey reporter in Detroit at the time, was the person who told them.

And then it gets better. Gave handed Sergei Fedorov and Vladimir Konstantinov some materials that included a Red Wings media guide ... and a handwritten note by Gave in Russian that said the Red Wings were ready to offer both of them large contracts (by the standards of the day - $250,000 per year) to come to the United States and play hockey in Detroit.

That started the wheels in motion of something of a hockey revolution. Those changes also included political ones, as the relationship between the United States and Soviet Union/Russia changed drastically as the Cold War between the countries came to a close in the early 1990s. The hockey revolution, in a sense, when the Red Wings - with five Russian players playing key roles - won a Stanley Cup in 1997 for the first time in decades.

That's quite a story, and Gave gets to tell all of it at length in his fascinating book, "The Russian Five."

Gave's route to becoming a hockey writer was an unusual one. He had joined the National Security Agency earlier, where he learned the Russian language and was part of a monitoring service in West Germany. Therefore, he was in the right place at the right time to serve as the go-between in the story that reads something out of a spy novel. Fedorov defected in 1990, following his linemate Alexander Mogilny who left the Soviet Union in 1989 to join the Buffalo Sabres. Konstantinov needed some serious help to get out of the USSR, which included doctors signing statements that the talented defenseman was dying of cancer. (Yes, good old American cash help lubricate the process.)

Eventually, those two players had company in the form of comrades. Slava Kozlov was another Red Wings draft choice. He came close to defecting before 1991, and it took some behind-the-scenes maneuvering to get him to Detroit.

The final two pieces arrived in the form of Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov. Those two were veterans who were considered all-time greats but perhaps a little old. They were acquired in trades with New Jersey and San Jose respectively. Coach Scotty Bowman opted to put the five players from Russia together on the ice at times, and the result was almost magical. Not only did the Red Wings win a Stanley Cup thanks to the "Russian Five" in 1997, but the "foreigners'" style of play changed North American hockey forever after a while. Today we see a sport that resembles the style of the great Soviet teams that dominated international play from the 1960s through much of the 1980s - with only a few exceptions, like in Lake Placid in 1980.

The early chapters of the book are absolutely fascinating, as cloke-and-dagger stories usually are. it would be difficult to match that the rest of the way, and the story falls off slightly once everything is in place. The book turns into a tale of the rise of the Red Wings to become champions, only to receive a terrible shock once they reach that pinnacle.

Gave apparently was part of a documentary done a while back that reviewed the story. He has first-hand material from the time it all happened, of course, but has the advantage of using interview material from 20 years after the fact that provides additional stories and valuable perspective.

Here's an example of the effect this story of hockey and cultural history can have. Once the 1997 Stanley Cup was won, captain Steve Yzerman took a spin around the rink with it - and then handed it to Fetisov. The defenseman then called Larionov over, and the two skated around Joe Louis Arena together with the last remaining prize to be won their brilliant hockey careers. After reading about the emotions of the two players, I headed to the computer for a bit to watch the scene on YouTube. Great stuff.

The only complaint here is a small one in the form of editing - some stories get told more than once, and the jumps in the book's time line may confuse some a times. Still, the best sports books are the ones in which more than sports are involved. "The Russian Five" will touch all sorts of buttons to all who read it.

Five stars

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Thursday, December 19, 2019

Review: Cujo (2018)

By Curtis Joseph with Kirstie McLellan Day

Hockey fans might know about Curtis Joseph's exploits on the ice, but they may have no idea on what he sort of odds he overcame to reach the National Hockey League.

"Cujo" - by Joseph with Kirstie McLellan Day - fills in that huge gap fully. It's an amazing story.

Joseph was born to a pair of unmarried teenage parents, and he was put up for adoption shortly after that. A friend of the mother took him in and raised him with her husband for most of his childhood. It wasn't easy for all concerned. There was no money for anything in a less-than-nuclear family (other children with various combinations of parents were around as well).

Curtis spent part of his youth in a group home that his mother was working in, sleeping on the floor and keeping an eye out for other residents. Sports sometimes is called "a way out" for such kids, even if counting on such an event is a long shot. But Joseph took up hockey after displaying an interest and ability in athletics, and he separated from his family as a teen. You don't read too many stories like this, so give him all sorts of credit for rising as far as he did.

Once Joseph's story settles in on his days as a goalie, it becomes a rather typical sports biography. He worked his way up the ladder, a few steps behind the rest because of his late start, and spent a year at the University of Wisconsin. That put him on the NHL's radar, and he signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Blues.

What he did from there is very impressive from a hockey standpoint. Joseph worked his way through six teams (including two stops in Toronto) and played 19 years. He did not win a Stanley Cup, which might be a reason why he's not in the Hall of Fame yet. But that should happen at some point, since he is among the NHL's all-time leaders in several statistical categories.

There are a couple of oddities about the presentation of this book. There aren't many life stories with 74 chapters in it. That makes it a little choppy to read, and some jumps between subjects probably don't help much either. Meanwhile, there are good-sized descriptions of virtually all of his teammates over the years. There are no scores settled here; Joseph has good words to say about everyone. That sort of positive approach certainly can be admired, but it's a bit difficult to believe they all of those players were such good people. Maybe since he's tough on himself, Joseph has trouble commenting on teammates. A more nuanced approach might have worked better.

Those aren't huge drawbacks, especially for those who enjoyed Joseph's work on the ice. If the idea of an autobiography is to tell what the author is like and why he turned out this well, "Cujo" succeeds quite well. It's easy to be happy that he achieved success in a game he loves.

Four stars

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Monday, December 16, 2019

Review: Insight Pitch (2018)

By Skip Lockwood

Skip Lockwood didn't have a typical professional baseball career. And he certainly didn't have a typical life after baseball.

So why would you expect him to write anything close to a typical memoir about his career? You wouldn't. And he didn't.

Lockwood has taken a look back at his baseball days in "Insight Pitch" - even though he retired almost 40 years ago. His career requires some initial explanation here.

Lockwood was one of the last of the bonus babies. He came out of a Massachusetts high school in 1964 at just the right time, in the sense that Major League Baseball was headed toward an Amateur Draft the following year. Therefore, he was part of the last class that could be the subject of a bidding war for prospects. Lockwood signed a $135,000 contract with the Kansas City Athletics, a team that was buying as many good players as possible as part of a rebuilding program.

The catch was that Lockwood started his career as a third baseman, no matter what the subtitle of the book says. The Athletics were a little dysfunctional in those days, and Lockwood bounced around that organization a bit with no particular plan. By 1966 he was given a chance to be a pitcher, since he had taken the mound at times in high school. Lockwood made the majors that way, although he bounced around a bit.

Finally he landed with the Mets in 1975, and found his niche: closer. Oddly, there's not much material here about those best years. Lockwood held that job through 1979, and jumped to the Red Sox - his hometown team in a sense - in 1980. There he suffered a shoulder injury that ended his career.

That brings us to the book. It mostly contains stories about key moments in his career, and after a couple of early tales he eventually goes through his career in something close to chronological order. There are a few stories about others - including Tom Seaver, Yogi Berra, Charley Finley, Jim Hunter, etc.. - but mostly they center on Lockwood and what he was feeling at the time.

The writing style is not exactly in your face. It's closer to flowery in that it is very descriptive. Your reaction to that may vary, but a thought does go through the mind that this is quite detailed for events that happened over 40 years ago - and in some cases, more than 55 years ago. That probably explains little slip-ups along the way, such as hearing a sports talk show and the Beatles on New York City radio in 1962 - when both of those items were still a couple of years away.

Still, Lockwood gets the point across about what his feelings were at certain moment in his career. What's it like to walk into a major league clubhouse for the first time? To throw at an opposing batter? To work with a team employee who hates you just for being you - a young kid with talent from the North?

Lockwood went on to get a couple of degrees, and still does some work at sports psychology. Maybe he wanted to get his memories down on paper while he could. In any event, "Insight Pitch" has its moments, but it's too bad that it wasn't written much sooner. But one more point is necessary: Those that find this book in the publishing universe who enjoy a liberal sprinkling of words in their baseball writing probably will enjoy it.

Three stars

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Monday, December 9, 2019

Review: If These Walls Could Talk: Boston Red Sox (2019)

By Jerry Remy and Nick Cafardo

Jerry Remy has had a busy life in many ways - probably enough to fill a couple of autobiographies. Let's count up some of the aspects of it.

First of all, he had a good-sized career in major league baseball. That alone makes him a rare individual, as he did something millions aspired to do. Remy spent most of his career playing with good teams that had some Hall of Famers.

Then after his first retirement, Remy coached for a year and slid relatively smoothly into the broadcast booth. He's been working of the games of the Boston Red Sox for more than 30 years. Remy has achieved something close to icon status, and he's been a familiar presence on Red Sox broadcasts for a long, long time.

If that weren't enough, Remy has had plenty of off-field incidents - more than anyone deserves. He suffered from depression, to the point where he could barely go to work. Remy has battled cancer a few different times; he blames a cigarette habit for that problem, which has recurred a few times over the years.

The biggest shocker, though, when his name was in the news when his son murdered his fiance. The son will spend the rest of his life in jail, and you can imagine what that did to the family. Considering that Remy is a public figure, the horrible situation certainly became magnified.

There have been lives that have much less full that have been recorded in books close to 400 pages. Therefore, a glance at the relatively thin volume called "If These Walls Could Talk" would make the reader guess that the autobiography is going to be on the superficial side. And he or she would be right.

It's a relatively standard story for a sports figure, except for the fact that Remy is a bit hard on himself at times. He grew up in Massachusetts as a Red Sox fan, and baseball was well above academics when it came to his priorities in school. It eventually paid off with a contract with the then California Angels. Remy was on the small side and had no power, but he could run. The second baseman overcame some obstacles and became a major-league regular.

From there, he was traded to the Red Sox before the 1978 season - which was something of a dream come true. His first season went from dream to nightmare when Boston lost a playoff game that fall to the Yankees to keep the Red Sox out of the postseason. But Remy was surrounded by such players as Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, Carlton Fisk and Dennis Eckersley - all in the Hall of Fame. Soon after that, Remy started having injury problems that led to his demise as a player. And after a year of coaching in the minors, it was on to the broadcast booth. The play-by-play men have revolved over the years, but Remy has been a constant.

There are some stories about people Remy encountered along the way. He's also come across as a good-natured individual, even if he apparently can be a little introverted in certain situations. There aren't many stories about people encountered along the way that he didn't like, and not many stories that are particularly revelatory. Some of the pages are filled with short recaps of Boston's four championship seasons in this century, although most of the details there will be familiar to fans of the team.

The pages do go by pretty quickly, and Remy comes across quite well on a personal level here. The broadcaster had some help with the book with a newspaper reporter, but there's a tragic part of that story there too. Nick Cafardo was a baseball writer with the Boston Globe who died in spring training of 2019.  That puts a slightly bittersweet tone to the project.

"If These Walls Could Talk" obviously is targeted toward Red Sox fans, and they won't find anything objectionable here. It's just not a book that you'll use as a reference book for a lifetime.

Three stars

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Friday, December 6, 2019

Review: Scotty (2019)

By Ken Dryden

Ken Dryden just might be my favorite author.

Dryden has written seven books over the years, in-between his other projects. Remember that he also was a Hall of Fame hockey goalie, and a member of parliament and a Cabinet minster in Canada. Dryden certainly could write an interesting autobiography if he gets around to it, but he seems content with other subjects of interest.

"The Game" was his first effort, and it is generally considered the best hockey book ever written. Just to show his range, his book "Becoming Canada" has a first chapter that contains the best analysis of Barack Obama's 2008 election that I've read anywhere. He wrote a book about schools, because he needed to know about them for his government job, and he wrote a book about one of his constituents, because he wanted to know what they were thinking.

Dryden is very thorough, and chooses his words and phrases carefully. Every so often, his books contain a piece of insight that make the reader stop and think for a moment, "How come I never thought of that?"

Book number seven is a tough assignment. "Scotty" in some ways is an authorized biography of Scotty Bowman, the Hall of Fame hockey coach. Bowman was never too interested in writing his own life story down on paper, so he did the next best thing. He let Dryden write it. The two teamed up on some great Montreal Canadiens teams in the 1970s.

Bowman's resume is the stuff of legends. He won a record nine Stanley Cup champions as a coach, and was involved in five more titles as an executive. Bowman had a career that still continues at the age of 86; he's an advisor to Chicago Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman. Yes, Stan is Scotty's son. Yes, Stanley Bowman was born right after Scotty claimed his first Stanley Cup in Montreal in 1973.

Dryden and Bowman had a year-long series of conversations about a variety of subjects in this book. It's a rather unlikely story in some ways. Bowman grew up in the Montreal area as a hockey player, only to see his playing career derailed by a high stick to the head at age 18 by Jean-Guy Talbot. (Footnote: Bowman later coached Talbot in the NHL, an amazing example of letting bygones by bygones.) Bowman took whatever work he could get in hockey on the side, but seemed destined to work for a big paint company in Montreal when the Canadiens called to offer him a full-time job. Bowman didn't have to be asked twice.

That started a career that lasts to this day. He still attends NHL games regularly from his two homes in the Buffalo and Tampa areas.

Of special interest to some of my readers, of course, is about the time spent in Buffalo as general manager and sometimes coach of the Sabres. It's really the only place that Bowman ever failed in hockey. He really wasn't cut out to be a GM, and the Sabres were the only team to use him in that role.

The section on Buffalo isn't a long one, but it does have some information of interest. Bowman described Gil Perreault this way: "As a teammate, you couldn't find anyone better. But he had no leadership at all. None. He didn't want that responsibility."

Bowman also was surprised that the Sabres didn't have many players under contract when he arrived in 1979. "When I went to Buffalo that summer after I had signed, and I started looking around, they had 25 professional players under contract. Twenty-five! And the reason was, and I found out later, the Knoxes were rich people, they had money, but they weren't going to spend it."

Bowman also admitted that he never got the administrative part right, shuffling people in an out of the head coaching job but realizing that coaching was what he did best. (Bowman doesn't mention here that he once tried to bring Herb Brooks in as the Sabres' head coach, but couldn't get it to work.) As Dryden writes, "For perhaps the first time in his career, he seemed out of answers." That led to his dismissal in 1986.

Bowman's life is covered nicely enough, but it's the subject of hockey history where the book turns thrilling to those who like that subject. Bowman has been watching the NHL closely for about 70 years, and he's an encyclopedia of what went on and why. Dryden took the unusual step of having Bowman pick the eight best teams in "modern" NHL history (only one team per dynasty was allowed), and squaring them off. Bowman provides analysis of each team and then reveals who he'd think he would win such games. No spoilers here, but it's great fun to read opinions of great players and teams. 

Taken on its own merits, "Scotty" offers some fascinating insights into Bowman's life and the game of hockey that you won't find anywhere else. But there's one aspect of the story that isn't explored.

Scotty has the reputation now as the kindly, wise grandfather type who remains relevant as the years wind down, and the book doesn't change that. But during his prime years, Bowman was considered a genius but not particularly loved by anyone outside of his family. The quote that received the most repetition was that the Canadiens hated Bowman 364 days a year, but loved him the day they all won the Stanley Cup together.  When Rick Martin of the Sabres sued the team and Bowman over the way his knee injury was handled, he said at the time, "People all over the league were coming up to be saying, 'Stick to Scotty.' " Media members in those pre-Internet days wondered why Bowman would lie to them in a private conversation about things like the starting goalie for that night's game. They also noticed that he was one of the few coaches in history that were more talkative and analytical after losses than wins. Scotty did mellow a bit later in life, and perhaps he realized after retiring from coaching that he could relax a bit. Still, it would have been interesting to see that part of his personality explored.

Covering such subjects would make it a different book, of course, but the book we have is absolutely worth reading by hockey fans. Who wouldn't love to hear Dryden and Bowman talk at length about the game they shared and loved? This is the next best thing.

Five stars

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Sunday, December 1, 2019

Review: Play by Play (2018)

By Verne Lundquist with Gary Brozek

The best announcers are the ones that the listeners grow comfortable to their voices.

They are the ones that clearly know their business, handle everything professionally, and know when to talk and when to keep quiet.

That's Verne Lundquist in a nutshell. He carved out a mighty fine career in the broadcasting business for several decades. After retiring, it was clearly time to write down some of his memories.

It turns out he's pretty good at that too. For proof, see "Play by Play."

Lundquist started his career at a radio station in Austin, Texas, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson. You may recognize the name of the 36th President of the United States there. Virtually every announcer in the business has to pay his dues, and Lundquist did that. But soon he was working on the broadcasts of the Dallas Cowboys, and soon after that the networks came calling.

Eventually Lundquist landed a spot at ABC for a few years, which eventually turned into a spot with CBS. That's where Lundquist became part of the furniture. Remember when Jack Nicklaus birdied No. 17 on the final day of the 1986 Masters? That was Lundquist with the emphatic "Yes, sir!" description. How about the fabled Duke-Kentucky basketball game in 1992, which is merely the greatest game in that sport ever? Or Tiger Woods' chip-in on No. 16 in the 2005 Masters? Or the 2013 Auburn-Alabama football game that ended with a 109-yard return of a missed field goal for the winning score? Lundquist was working all of those moments. That's a pretty good run of once-in-a-lifetime events.

That doesn't even include the figure skating shootout involving Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding at the 1994 Olympics. It's surprising to read that Lundquist absolutely loving doing that sport on television, particularly when working with Scott Hamilton. Verne even did some work on "Bowling for Dollars," which ought to stir the hearts of those who remember it from the 1970s.

As you'd expect, there are some worthwhile stories about some of the personalities that Lundquist encountered along the way. That includes broadcast partners such as John Madden, Gary Danielson, Terry Bradshaw, Bill Raftery, and Al McGuire for starters. There are even some tales about athletes and coaches encountered along the way, but not too many.

About the only place that in the book that bogged down for me was the part about some of the memorable games he called involving Southeast Conference football teams. Those contests shouldn't be downgraded, of course, as they involved some great teams and players. And they helped establish Lundquist as one of the top voices in the sport, something of a successor to Keith Jackson. Still, the matchups do blur together at this point; even Lundquist had to go back and do some review work.

"Play by Play" doesn't require a great deal of thought. Just sit back and relax while reading it, and you'll probably swear that you can read Lundquist reading it to you. It's a fine way to spend some leisure time.

Four stars

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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review: NFL Century (2019)

By Joe Horrigan

The National Football League is in the midst of celebrating its 100th season right now, and it is really good at it. The century mark is an important milestone as these things go, and football fans haven't been able to miss the hoopla surrounding it. The NFL has used a variety of techniques in reviewing its history, including small features on their telecasts..

The subject is a natural for a book with a connection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and that's where Joe Horrigan comes in. He is the former executive director of the Hall, and probably knows more about the history of the game than anyone. That's why he's a good choice to write "NFL Century."

Horrigan makes one good decision right from the start in this publication. The basic question about such a book is - what to include? It's been a busy century, naturally, and someone could write 100 books on what went on - one for each year. That would be rather expensive and time-consuming, of course.

Therefore, it's a smart move to break the history of the NFL into 33 bite-sized chapters. You could argue about what events should be included in such a list, but it's hard to complain very much about Horrigan's choices. He includes, as a sampler, the formation of the league, television milestones, commissioners, battles with rival leagues, and great dynasties such as the Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, and New England Patriots. Put it this way - any larger history of the league certainly would include all of those items.

A book like this also has the problem of trying to draw in as many people as possible regardless of age. In other words, readers have lived through parts of the various eras, and bring some knowledge to their reading. But, the book has to hold the interest of people of all ages. A chapter on the great teams of the 1970s has to give the facts for those below 50, but still be fresh enough so that those above 50 will not only enjoy the memories but learn a few things along the way. Horrigan has added enough information through good research to do that.

Complaints? Well, a few names get mangled and a few facts go unchecked along the way. It happens. You may have a favorite player, team or moment that might be overlooked in the process. That comes with the territory here. The writer can't make everyone happy.

Still, if you want to know what the NFL has been all about for the these past 10 decades, this would seem to be a good starting point. And even if you already know some of those facts, you'll still think of "NFL Century" as a very good retrospective.

Four stars

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2019

Edited by Charles P. Pierce

It's never easy to come up with a new way to review a book in an annual series - particularly one that is as consistently good as "The Best American Sports Writing."

This year, though, was easier - thanks to a Tweet.

A sportswriter made a comment on Twitter about the "real world" the other day. He received a reply about how the reader hates it when sports columnists write about something other than sports. In other words, they should stay in their lane, or something like that.

I'd quote the Tweet completely, but after it was pointed out in loud terms (full disclosure: by me, and perhaps others) that sports reflects real life as a whole, he deleted his message. I'm always arguing that as a sports reporter, I can talk about issues involving medicine, marketing, law, immigration, crime, etc. The list is rather endless.

But maybe it would have been easier to tell the guy to read this book.

This has some of the best in sports journalism from the year, and there aren't too many home runs, touchdowns, baskets or goals described along the way.

There is a story about mental illness in the NBA. Sexual abuse in gymnastics. A terrible culture within a college football program. Race relations over the past 50 years. A profile of football player Aaron Hernandez, who had a series of conflict with real-world issues in his too-short life. The murder of a former NBA player.

These aren't the only stories included in this anthology, which runs for more than 300 pages. Profiles of Joel Embiid, Ichiro Suzuki and Becky Harmon are included. There are even a couple of fun entries, like a scavenger hunt in the Super Bowl and the annual Rubik's Cube championship. But Pierce obviously has an eye for bigger things, and most of the choices reflect that.

In fact, if anything Pierce heads a little too far for my tastes (but perhaps not yours) into non-traditional matters. That means there are stories about a round-the-world boat race, mountain climbing, unorganized boxing in Australia, and the lionfish. I had trouble getting through them, but that's probably more my fault than the story's. I did enjoy stories on a prisoner who fixed bicycles and a skier who loved to take risks when it came to locations. Add it up, though, and the number of articles on subjects that didn't draw me in was on the high side.

Therefore, I probably didn't enjoy this book quite as much as other editions of "The Best American Sports Writing" - which I have purchased faithfully since 1991, its inception. Still, those who enjoy mixing sports and "the real world" should not hesitate to pick up a copy of edition No. 19. It's always worth your time and money.

Four stars

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Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Review: The Incomplete Book of Running (2018)

By Peter Sagal

It's difficult not to be a fan of Peter Sagal.

He's best known as the host of "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me" on National Public Radio. It's something of a comedy quiz show that mixes the quick wit of Sagal - he really makes the show work - with some smart "contestants." Sagal also has written a column for Runners' World magazine, with his stories about his exploits and experiences on the road. He's funny there, too. 

If you check off the listener box and the reading box when it comes to Sagal's work, you no doubt will at least want to glance at his book, "The Incomplete Book of Running." And yes, the title is a take-off of the best selling book from a few decades back (1977, to be specific), "The Complete Book of Running" by Jim Fixx.

Sagal has been running long distances on and off for years, and this is essentially a collection of his running stories and wisdom. The good news is that he knows his way around a joke, and displays that ability here throughout the book.

The most space in the book that is devoted to one subject covers a couple of Sagal's runs in the Boston Marathon. The first one came when he volunteered to guide a runner with visual issues on the 26.2-mile jaunt in Eastern Massachusetts. That would be quite a moving experience on its own. The catch is that the year he first did it was 2013. That was the race when bombs went off near the finish line. Sagal had crossed that line about five minutes before the explosions. He and his partner weren't hurt, but he had quite a story to tell.

A year later, Sagal was back - guiding another runner along the course while showing that a terrorist attack wasn't going to stop him from running. Good for him.

There are other stories here, of course - of other marathons and other races, training schedules, digestive problems, running as a "bandit," and working as a race volunteer. And that's just the running part. Sagal also writes about how his personal life affected his running. Earlier in the decade he went through what sounds like a rather messy divorce with three daughters caught in the crossfire. Sagal also has suffered from depression. This serves to remind us that if you want to trade lives with someone relatively famous, maybe you ought to do a little research about what you are getting yourself into. Happily, Sagal soon became involved in a new relationship, and medication apparently has helped with the depression (when he remembers to take it).

After reading this book - and it doesn't take long to go through its 185 small pages - the question becomes, "Is it worth reading?" That's tougher than you might think.

The biggest flaw is that this is rather disorganized. The writing is broken into chapters, but I can't say there is a unifying theme to most of them. We bounce around from topic to topic in no particular order. It's also a surprise that others are mentioned more often. Yes, it is his book, but relating more experiences from others might have made some points too and come off as a little less self-indulgent.

Based on the reviews, plenty of people felt inspired to put on some running shoes and open the door outside after reading this. If so, good for them. Sagal at least jokes his way through the book, as the material like that can get ponderous rather quickly.

"The Incomplete Book of Running" will put a smile on your face, perhaps when you need one when you are going up a hill after running several miles. It's easy to wish, though, that it was a little bit better.

Three stars

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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Review: "We Did Everything But Win" (2017)

By George Grimm

It's not easy to be a fan of a very good but not great team.

It's sort of like knocking on the door for a long time, and no one answers.

The New York Rangers of the late 1960s and early 1970s were like that. After years of serving as plankton to the National Hockey League's whales, the Rangers finally got their act together around 1964 when Emile Francis came in as general manager and coach.

It started a run of about a decade in which the Rangers were frequently Stanley Cup contenders, which sounded mighty good to the team's loyal fan base that had endured years of suffering with little hope. Those boosters are clearly the target of "We Did Everything but Win."

The formula for such oral histories is a rather simple one. Find the people involved, let them talk into a recorder, add some background information, and - presto! - you have the makings of a book. Author George Grimm, a veteran Rangers' fan and sometimes hockey writer, obviously had the chance to talk with Francis for long periods of time, and his comments are the centerpiece of the book. The former GM/coach has a great memory for what happened during his time in New York, and he has plenty of good stories.  Some of the key games, personalities and player moves come alive nicely here.

The list of players quoted here is a long one - everyone from Phil Goyette and Earl Ingarfield to Walt Tkachuk and Brad Park. There are some stars missing for one reason or another, but we still hear plenty about such players as Harry Howell, Jean Ratelle, Ed Giacomin and Rod Gilbert.

Grimm concludes - with the help of some other people's opinions - that the Rangers just didn't have the star power to compete some of the league's best teams in that era. I might go a step farther than that. The Cup winners of that era included the great Montreal squads of the late 1960s, the Boston Bruins with Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito in the early 1970s, and the back-to-back Cup winners in Philadelphia in 1974 and 1975 (led by Bernie Parent and Bobby Clarke). There usually was someone better in the Rangers' way. That happens at certain times in sports history. For example, the Buffalo Bills of the NFL lost four straight Super Bowls, but the only time they might have had the better team was the first one in 1991.

There are a couple of flaws here. A little more editing would have been nice. A few stories get repeated along the way, and some of the quotes could have been edited down a bit to improve the flow of the story. The game and season descriptions were rather dry; the latter could have been replaced by a table or two quite easily.

It's been 50-plus years since some of the people in "We Did Everything But Win" were skating around Madison Square Garden. Therefore, the demographic for the book is shrinking fast. But for those who remember those very good teams, this will bring back some good memories - which will cover a few shortcomings.

Three stars

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Friday, October 25, 2019

Review: Don't Be Afraid to Win (2019)

By Jim Quinn

There are plenty of things going on off of our sporting fields that affect what happens on the actual playing surface.

Jim Quinn knows all about that.

He's been around at many of the major legal battles concerning collective bargaining agreements concerning sports and their players for many years. Quinn has something of a grand slam in this area, having worked on cases in baseball, football, basketball and hockey. If you want someone who doesn't think a salary cap is something worn on your head, Quinn is your guy.

Quinn started with basketball almost 50 years ago, and has been around for plenty of game-changing moments. Through that time, he's managed to make himself relatively anonymous, since he's always worked on the outside rather than for the respective players associations directly. But make no mistake - his fingerprints have been all over some of the major American sports negotiations in history.

You'd think he'd have some stories to tell after all that, and he does. Quinn has written a book called "Don't Be Afraid to Win." The title comes from football's Gene Upshaw, who said those words to Quinn shortly before Quinn was to make the closing argument in a major legal action involving free agency in professional football. Upshaw was a Hall of Fame player with the Oakland Raiders who went on to a long "second career" with the NFL Players Association.

But Quinn actually got his start with basketball. He had joined a law firm in New York in the early 1970s, and there was a "basketball case" kicking around the office involving the NBA and its players over a possible merger. Quinn became part of the legal team for the players' side, and helped push through the agreement that allowed the 1976 merger between the NBA and the American Basketball Association to take place. That was a crash course in sports law, a very insignificant part of the legal landscape at that point that grew as the business of sports grew.

Quinn starts with some background about the NBA's legal battles, and moves on to something of a play-by-play of his big cases from there. After a while, he became something of a go-to figure for players in all sports, since he developed a large amount of expertise in the field. The sports business exploded economically in the past 60 years or so, which means a lot of money has been coming in. Quinn has been a loud, forceful advocate for the players to make sure the participants received something of a fair share.

It hasn't been easy at times. Two of the great truisms in sports are said to be that "a baseball team never has enough pitching," and that "no owner ever seems to make money." But no matter what you might have thought about player salaries at a given moment, the money is out there. It's not as if ticket prices will go down considerably if the average salary goes down by 50 percent.

It's quite obvious after reading this book that Quinn is smart and knowledgeable. It's easy to see why he has been hired so many times. Yes, there is a little arrogance there, and we could have done without some of the great restaurants' names that are dropped along the way. Quinn also is very loyal to his side in telling the stories about his sports-related cases (he's done plenty of other work in the business world as well). There are a few people on the players' side who don't come off particularly well (hockey's Alan Eagleson, an eventual felon who served jail time, tops the list), but not many.

Most of those on the other side of the table don't come as well, particularly the hard-line owners. NFL Commissioners Pete Rozelle and Roger Goodell aren't two of Quinn's favorites, and NBA Commissioner David Stern only earns a little grudging respect. It's a surprise how hard he comes down on the current head of the Green Bay Packers, Mark Murphy, whom he describes as a 'turncoat" (Murphy formerly worked for the NFLPA) and "obnoxious." Quinn might have made a better case if he hadn't called him "Mike Murphy" in the book. Others do a bit better. For example, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, according to Quinn, was a worthy adversary and a class act. Every story has two sides, and this has one for the most part. That's fine; it's his book. 

The author deserves plenty of credit in one important area, though. This is a relatively easy book to read; you need no legal training to get through it. Quinn makes his points quickly, and the process is relatively simplified.

I'm not going to tell you that collective bargaining is a subject that will keep even the biggest sports fan engrossed. But like it or not, such sessions are part of the sports landscape. "Don't Be Afraid to Win" offers a look behind the curtain behind some of the major moments in sports that didn't involve a game. Therefore, it should work nicely for its target audience.

Four stars

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Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Review: Rocky Colavito (2019)

By Mark Sommer

Baseball writer Bill James once started a long article on the Cleveland Indians in 1981 by explaining why the trade of Rocky Colavito mattered more than two decades later.

"Across the history of the Cleveland franchise a line is sharply drawn, and by that line the present condition of the Cleveland Indians, uniquely can be dated to that hour. On April 12, 1960, the Indians cesed to be what they had been for thirty-one years and became what they remain now."

The Indians had been good for about 30 years before that day. Then they traded Colavito to Detroit for batting champion Harvey Kuenn. And everything changed.

"For what they traded him is not the point. The point is that the Indians possessed tradition, that Colavito was carrying a torch which had been passed to him from Earl Averill by way of Jeff Heath and Larry Doby, and when he was traded the fire went out. ... The point is that the Indians of 1959 knew they could win because they always had won, and they knew how to go about it. And when the leaders of their offense were gone, the Indians did not know whether they could win or not."

I would argue that the Colavito trade still matters in that sense, even though the Indians have had some good stretches since then (World Series appearances in 1997 and 2016). But interest in the Indians may not have ever recovered from the trade, and that has meant the franchise rarely has been able to maintain winning teams for very long, sinking back into rebuilding mode. And that's why Mark Sommer's book, "Rocky Colavito," should have some relevance for baseball fans today, particularly those in northern Ohio.

Colavito came out of the Bronx to join the Indians in the mid-1950s, and he brought three primary characteristics with him. The outfield had a powerful bat, capable of smacking a home run anytime he was at the plate. He had a throwing arm that was almost legendary, to the point where he probably would have been a full-time pitcher had his bat been a little weaker. And Rocky had flat feet, to the point where he was excused from the military draft, and was relatively slow.

The power was the important part. Once he settled in as a regular, he hit 41 home runs in 1958 and 42 in 1959 to become one of the most feared sluggers in baseball. Colavito loved Cleveland, and Cleveland loved him back - to the point where, as Sommer writes, one movie theater interrupted a film to announce Colavito's trade. From there, the outfielder did some bouncing around - to Detroit, to Kansas City, and back to Cleveland. In 1966 he still hit 30 homers at the age of 33.

Almost in the blink of an eye, though, it ended. The Indians traded him again to the White Sox, and he moved on to the Dodgers and Yankees after that, but he was done after the 1968 season. It's tough to say what happened, but sometimes big sluggers who are slow age quickly. says the most similar player to Colavito was Frank Howard, who was still a feared batter at age 33 but was out of baseball at 36. Colavito also points to an arm injury suffered along the way that hurt his throwing for the rest of his playing days.

Big credit goes to Sommer for being thorough here. He spent dozens and dozens of hours talking Colavito himself, and then tracked down a variety of other sources for information. Sommer really tells the story about what the fuss was about. Colavito's teammates still love him, pointing out what a classy, helpful person he was (and is). Even the founders of fan clubs in Cleveland and Detroit turn up, saying that couldn't have picked a better subject.

Even so, Colavito seemed to have problems with a great many of his bosses - an avenue that really isn't fully explored here. But Rocky says he didn't have a lot of respect for quite a few managers, general managers and owners he encountered along the way. Perhaps he was born 15 years too early, as questioning authority wasn't considered a good idea in baseball at that time.

Sommer exits with a discussion of Colavito's Hall of Fame chances, using modern statistics. I can argue that the outfielder probably played like a guy headed for Cooperstown from 1958 to 1962. But that's only five years, and longevity is a big part of the equation for induction to me. Therefore, I don't think he belongs in baseball's Hall. But, Colavito certainly had an impact on the game during his playing days, especially in Cleveland.

That makes him worth remembering, so it's good to have a full biography on the shelves. "Rocky Colavito" won't take up much room on the bookcase (the type is small and smaller), but it's unusual story. Sommer (a former co-worker of mine) thought a full biography was a worthwhile idea, and he was right.

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Sunday, September 29, 2019

Review: Beyond the Xs and Os (2019)

By Mark C. Poloncarz

We're used to seeing politicians come out with a book when they run for higher office - particularly President. Such publications are usually life stories and/or policy statements. They also are often rather boring.

Mark Poloncarz twists that formula a bit with "Beyond the Xs and Os."

The current Erie County Executive, and candidate for another term, has written a book containing the play-by-play of the lease negotiations that kept the Buffalo Bills here. It was climaxed when an agreement between the county, state, and the Bills in 2013. Poloncarz no doubt discovered that it's not easy to squeeze in the writing of a book into your life, especially a life that must be pretty busy as it is.

But here that book is, six years later. What's more, it's a respectable job of telling the story about how the negotiations went - a look into a process that usually more or less stays behind closed doors.

What is striking about the talks from the perspective of 2019 is that there was a basic agreement on the situation - all sides wanted a deal done.  Poloncarz certainly didn't want to see the Bills leave town, particularly while he was County Executive. (Footnote: it's interesting to note that there are plenty of people out there who dislike sports in general and don't find the idea of subsidizing athletic teams a particularly good idea. But few politicians have the nerve to test that, since the pro-sports faction is a loud and enthusiastic one.) The state, which had seen two NFL teams move its home base to New Jersey over the years, certainly didn't want to lose the Bills. As for the team, owner Ralph Wilson had no interest in seeing the Bills move to another city as long as he was alive.

So it should be easy, right? These things are never easy. The first catch is that Wilson, who was in his 90's when the negotiations began, wasn't likely to be alive at the end of a 10- or 15-year lease. The government bodies wanted protection against the team moving in the event of Wilson's death. The problem, of course, was that an NFL franchise was worth more in another city than in Buffalo. That increased the likelihood than an outside group would want to buy the Bills with the intent of moving it to say, Los Angeles (open territory at the time) if there were no legal restrictions. Eventually, a $400 million "poison pill" was agreed upon for an early termination of the deal, which did indeed chill out of town interest.

That was the most difficult obstacle in the negotiations themselves. But the initial roadblock, according to Poloncarz, was surprising. The state had representatives sit in on the early negotiations, but contributed little. The silence of state officials finally ended when the Cuomo Administration apparently realized that time was starting to become a factor, as the TV announcers say during games. It came up with an idea for a new stadium, which went nowhere since no one else wanted a replacement structure (and its accompanying cost) at the time.

As you'd expect, drawing up a document that could fill up a five-page binder isn't easy. Poloncarz points out that sometimes you have to let lawyers go off by themselves and solve some issues with out the emotions that the lead negotiators bring to the bargaining table. But at other times, the lawyers can get too entrenched in position, and those negotiators have to step in and provide a compromising spirit on issues. Both situations took place in these talks, and it was the latter that resulted in the final completion of the deal.

Poloncarz comes off pretty well here. He appears to be smart, thorough and logical, although he doesn't provide much levity along the way. Assistant Rich Tobe might have been an even bigger hero of the negotiations. He had developed an excellent relationship with Bills' lead negotiator Jeff Littman, and that really made the process easier.

A brief aside here - one personal surprise was when it was revealed that there was some anger from the Bills about the fact that The Buffalo News didn't spend any advertising dollars with them. The Bills believed that the team was good for circulation, especially on fall Mondays. It's an interesting point, especially since the newspaper does do some work with the Bisons. It would be nice to hear the other side of the story in that one.

This is not a book that is likely to find a big audience. Football fans probably don't care about such matters as long as the games go on, and there are probably more dramatic negotiations to examine out there. Maybe that's why it hasn't turned up at some local bookstores. But "Beyond the Xs and Os" is still a look behind the curtain, and that always carries some interest. And it's a small enough book that the reader won't get bogged down. Therefore, those with an interest in sports business will find this worth their while.

Three stars

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Friday, September 20, 2019

Review: Taro Lives! (2019)

When I worked for the Sabres' public relations department about 30 years ago, I received a phone call from someone who had the same position as I did at another NHL team.

"I can't talk right now. We're having a meeting to discuss our April Fools' television broadcast," I told him.

My friend from the more straight-laced NHL team laughed and said, "Oh man, I am definitely working for the wrong team. We'd never get away with that."

Therefore, this is not going to be the place for a hard-hitting, critical review of "Taro Lives" - Paul Wieland's review of the hoaxes he pulled off over the years.

Besides, my name is on the dedication page; Wieland calls me "his favorite historian." In the pages of the book, Wieland also describes me as "a statistics hawk with a droll sense of humor and a lightning-quick wit." Who am I to argue with such a distinguished judge of talent?

I spent six years working for the Sabres with Paul, and the best part was the chance to work on the April Fools' Day gags. As mentioned in the book, I did come up with the items for the Sabres Shopping Service, such as the Benoit Hogue-ee Sandwich and Wowie Housley Cola (20 times the normal amounts of sugar and caffeine).

I remember writing the release for "Sabre Meadows" in 1987. The team had brought an old ice rink in Wheatfield for a practice facility and turned it into "Sabreland." The news release said the Sabres had decided to start construction on a 67,000-unit house development, complete with an Olympic-sized ice rink and other frills. When someone from the WBEN news department called to interview me about it, my better angels won the argument and I couldn't let him go on the air with it. So I told the guy, "Did you read the release in full? Did 67,000 seem like a lot of houses? And what day is today, anyway?" I could hear the snickering of his co-workers by the end of the call.

This book, then, was a trip down Memory Lane for me. Luckily, these were jokes that went public in many cases, and therefore everyone who was around in that era shared the fun. Therefore, the book has broader appeal than to those who once worked for Paul.

Even so, it's odd to read something of a memoir by a person who has been a friend for about 40 years. I knew some of the details of his life - growing up in Western New York, working at two newspapers and General Motors before landing with the Sabres in 1970, etc. Still, it's quite interesting to read a book like this that fills in so many gaps in his life's story - the formative years of a hoaxer.Wieland became one of the great characters in the lives of those who knew him, appreciating that he never lost his sense of outrage and whimsy while growing older. That was most obvious in the hoaxes he pulled over in various ways over the years.

The most obvious was the one mentioned in the title. The NHL Draft was dragging on and on in 1974, when the Sabres front office decided to draft a player that didn't exist. Wieland came up with Taro Tsujimoto of the Tokyo Katanas, a name that represented the spirit of a franchise that wasn't afraid to laugh at itself a bit. The joke went on for months, and even the team owners were fooled for a while. Taro's uniform still pops up at Sabre games.

The biggest splash came in 1981, when the Sabres announced that they had been declared "America's Hockey Team" by President Reagan. The elaborate release came with a Time magazine cover and a letter announcing the proclamation from Reagan. The story apparently broke two Federal laws, but were quickly forgotten once the powers that be calmed down a bit.

Eventually the hoaxes moved to television. One time Wieland capitalized on the popularity of call-in polls by having the fans decided the starting goaltender through their phone calls. We also had Mike Robitaille ask Christian Ruuttu questions in English, while Ruuttu answered in Finnish. I asked Ruuttu what he said to Robitaille, and he answered, "Things like, 'That's a good-looking sportcoat, but your hair looks ugly.' "

I remember a few of the details of these stories differently than Paul does, but that's fine. The big picture is what matters here. "Taro Lives!" captures a certain innocence in sports that started to disappear in the late 1980s. As the financial stakes increased in the world of fun and games, companies became less likely to take chances that might offend even a small percentage of their consumers. I could argue that we lost a little something along the way when that happened.

In the meantime, I guarantee you'll laugh a lot at this look back at a more innocent, and more fun age in sports.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Review: Ali (2018)

By Jonathan Eig

Go ahead. Just try to explain in a relatively few words the life and times of Muhammad Ali to someone who knows nothing about it (probably a youngster, who missed all the fuss).

It can't be done. Ali became an almost mythic figure over the years, with enough twists and turns for a dozen men. He went from national hero to national villain to beloved figure in that time - no small task.

It takes a top-notch writer and reporter to try to point out the highs and lows and inconsistencies in this complicated life. Luckily, Jonathan Eig is up to the job

Eig, whose biography of Lou Gehrig brought him a ton of acclaim, was frequently told by Ali associate Gene Kilroy, "You've got a big responsibility here. Don't screw it up." He didn't. We're unlikely to see a better account of this man's life than in "Ali: A Life."

Eig starts the review of the boxing champion's life in Louisville, a city right on the edge of the South and North if you consider the Ohio River the line. Louisville wasn't Alabama, but it still could be a tough place for a young African American to grow up in the 1950s. The then-named Cassius Clay appeared to be on a track to nowhere as a kid until he took up boxing - and was really, really good at it. Schoolwork didn't interested him, but even in high school it was obvious that young Mr. Clay was going places. The principal of that high school convinced the rest of the administration that he didn't want to be the person that didn't give Clay a diploma, since history wouldn't be kind to that person. It's the type of anecdote that really hooks the reader.

Clay went on to become Olympic champion in 1960, then rose up the pro heavyweight ranks as someone who was impossibly fast and fit for a man his size and impossibly handsome. Virtually no one thought Clay could beat Sonny Liston, the heavyweight champ at the time of 1964 and a thug with mob connections who was considered something like "the bogeyman of his time." Then came the week that everything changed. Clay beat Liston when the champ chose to sit on his stool rather than come out and fight. Hours later, Clay announced an association with the Nation of Islam  and said he wanted to go by the name of Muhammad Ali from that point on.

Eig smartly points out that for a young man from the South, Christianity hadn't offered a great deal to Ali. There were still places in his own country he couldn't visit. The catch was that Islam wasn't well understood in the United States, particular this part of it which talked about complete segregation of the races. Mr. Ali was an even better fighter than Mr. Clay, and he taught us a few lessons along the way. One was that "You should call me the name I choose to use." Another was "I don't have to be what you want me to be." Eig quotes several sportswriters who didn't agree with that last statement, as they thought their sports heroes had to act in a specific way. They look really silly today.

This all came to a head when Ali was drafted, and refused induction. "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong" eventually became his best-known quote, as it spoke to many who wanted to end America's involvement in Vietnam. The nation's boxing authorities, which may be a contradiction in terms, raced to strip Ali of his license and thus his livelihood. So much for innocent until proven guilty. For three-plus years, Ali was out of boxing. He finally found a back door to fight again. Then he won his case at the Supreme Court - not on principles, strictly speaking, but more on a technicality just to get the matter out of the way. Thus freed in a figurative sense, Ali took part in some classic bouts.

Eig had experts watch the films of Ali's matches, and them apply modern statistical methods to them. Therefore we know now that the early Ali hardly could be touched by another fighter, let alone hurt. But the later version had lost that skill, and dropped him a few ranks. He found out the hard way that he could take a punch, and he took a lot of them in bouts against Joe Frazier and George Foreman. And Ali went on far too long, when evidence of brain injuries were become more apparent by the week. But, as someone said, it's hard to turn down easy money, and few could go through money faster than Ali. If he wasn't spending lavishly or handing it out to ex-wives and child support, he was signing up for every get-rich-quick scheme in sight. Ali finally retired in 1981, and was essentially silenced by Parkinson's Syndrome some years later.

If you didn't live through all of this, the material will be new and interesting. But Eig apparently talked to as many people as possible along the way, and it is striking just how honest they all were. Let's just say Ali had an odd way of preparing for his first fight with Ken Norton, which resulted in a stunning loss. But there are good memories too - tales of Ali going well out of his way to help the poor and helpless, or brightening the lives of all who encountered him - and there must have been millions. He even went on diplomatic missions for the country that had tried to arrest a couple of decades before.

It might be worth noting that there are plenty of books on Ali in the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky, but this isn't one of them. Maybe it didn't fit the idealized picture that, to at least some extent, the Center tries to paint. (Note: It's still a wonderful museum, and doesn't completely shy away from controversy.) Still, this is as full a biography as we probably will ever see on Ali, and it's absolutely worth your time.

Five stars

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Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Review: Homegrown (2019)

By Alex Speier

Sometimes a sports championship season looks like almost too simple, as if the plan set a few years in the past comes together just like it was supposed to do on the whipboard.

Such was the case for the 2018 Boston Red Sox, who had gone through a variety of ups and downs in the years leading up to that season. Everything came together nicely as the Red Sox won 108 games in the regular season, and then went 11-3 in the playoffs in a dominating title season. It was, by almost any standard, the best year in Boston's baseball history and one of the most dominating team performances in recent years by any group.

Alex Speier knows that five-year plans aren't everything. The baseball reporter for the Boston Globe had followed the Red Sox' farm system closely for the years leading up to 2018. That makes him well-suited for the task of writing "Homegrown," the story on how the '18 Red Sox came together.

One look at the starting lineup for that team reveals that Boston did a fine job of identifying young talent and helping it reach the majors. Of the non-pitchers, such players as Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benitendi, Rafael Devers, Jackie Bradley, and Christian Vazquez all came up through the system. It's a very good young corps, and at some point it's going to be tough to pay all of them. Even so, there's nothing better than good young talent when it comes to getting a head start on the competition.

That's because they are receiving less money than their current worth; the young players get less than they should in the current system, while the older players are overpaid in some cases. In this case, it freed up the Red Sox's ample financial resources to acquire pitchers such as David Price, Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel.

But it is still a jigsaw puzzle with a lot of parts and no guarantees everything will fit together. Boston's prospects hit some speed bumps along the way, and the front office tried to learn about how to solve those problems on the fly. While Betts and Bogaerts turned out fine, Henry Owens and Blake Swihart failed to live up to their perceived potential for whatever reason.

Speier does an extremely nice job of telling the complete story about how the team was put together. It includes conversations with front office and minor-league staff members, interviews with players, etc. Some didn't survive the process, such as general manager Ben Cherington and manager John Farrell - who had some fingerprints on parts of that title. But contributions came from many sources, particularly when the team traded other young players for major leaguers that could fill gaps.

The story flows along nicely, and there are plenty of nuggets of information that turn up along the way that can still fascinate. For example, the background details about the departure of Farrell at the end of the 2017 - in spite of winning the division that season - have plenty of surprises for most. Speier is thorough and knowledgeable, and it shows.

Reading this book in the summer of 2019 essentially proves Speier's point - that it doesn't always go to plan. The Red Sox of 2019 haven't been able to put the magic back in the bottle for a second straight year, as injuries, free agent losses, etc. have caused problems. Yes, it's not as easy as it looked a year ago.

Admittedly, this is going to be of the greatest interest to those who follow the Red Sox very closely. Those readers will know the names of the players and executives involved, no matter how obscure they are to the outside world. They'll be the ones complaining that this book deserves five stars, and they could be right. Even so, "Homegrown" offers a peek behind the curtain for almost any fan who wants a look at how teams are assembled. That group will like it a lot too.

Four stars

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Monday, August 19, 2019

Review: No Place I Would Rather Be (2019)

By Joe Bonomo

Roger Angell holds a unique place when it comes to baseball and its literature.

It's a sport that celebrates those who follow it with grace - day in, day out. That's part of baseball's charm, of course - a game that is played at least 162 times a year by the best in the business. That makes baseball games more of a companion than an event, and it means that simply showing up, day after day, is the best quality of the chronicler of the game and its seasons.

Angell, though, was different. He was employed by The New Yorker, a magazine that has been setting a variety of literary standards for almost a century. If the publication's story was ever written as a history, Angell would be featured as a veteran fiction editor.

On the other hand, Angell chipped in with some stories on baseball a few times a year, if only to get some sports coverage in the magazine. It was a natural choice, since Angell has been following the game for most of his life. He could make a first-hand comparison between Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds, having seen both play.

Those stories - usually a season-ending wrap-up along with an exploration of some other part of the game - became highlights of the calendar year for some baseball fans. We have Angell's anthologies for reference - must reading, if you haven't explored them yet. Now we have something of a critical analysis of Angell's baseball work. "No Place I Would Rather Be" comes from Joe Bonomo, an English teacher at Northern Illinois University with several credits to his name.

Bonomo quickly says that this is not a book that's anything close to a full biography of Angell, because for the most part he's sticking to the baseball stuff. The author does that, although Angell's early life and final days (he's almost 99 as of this writing) are covering in a more general nature. Mostly, though, we get an analysis of the themes and approach that Angell used in his baseball writing career.

In an era when "inside" coverage is the norm in a sport, Angell was the exception. What he did, particularly in the early days, was to provide an outside perspective of baseball. That means sometimes he sat in the stands like the rest of us, and commented on what we all were watching. Angell did it with art and beauty, and he did it well enough to be named to the Hall of Fame.

It's interesting to see Angell's work evolve over the years. The skills of manipulating the language are still present, but as his fame increased it was apparently more difficult to pull off the disguise as invisible observer. Even so, Angell adjusted his work accordingly to the new circumstances. Home runs are always worth watching whether they are pop flies that hit the foul pole or majestic clouts that are so obviously departing the premises that the batter is only person on the field who needs to move for the succeeding several seconds. 

There is something of a risk to writing a book like this. There are lot of excerpts from Angell's writing on display here, running from a few words to a couple of paragraphs. It's something like eating a salad one ingredient at a time instead of having a variety of tastes arrive in your mouth in different combinations with each bite.

Therefore, "No Place I Would Rather Be" works better for those who have read at least some of Angell's works. If you haven't done so yet, go find "The Summer Game" or "Five Seasons." And if you know Angell's work, this exploration of it should keep you interested through its 174 pages.

Four stars

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Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Review: Tales from the Syracuse Orange Locker Room (2017)

By Bud Poliquin

This is the type of book that, when spotted in the bargain section, makes a person wonder.

"The book looks familiar, but the cover looks new. Did I read this before?"

In this case, those who qualify as a major fan of the Syracuse basketball team indeed have read most of this book before. In fact, that person had two other chances to do so.

Syracuse sports journalist Bud Poliquin put together a tribute to the SU basketball program after the team won the national championship in 2004. Then when the team reached the Final Four in 2013, it was time for an update - this time with a different title.

OK, the Orange did it again in 2016, and Poliquin struck again with "Tales from the Syracuse Orange Locker Room." The title is the same this time around.

The new version book does come with a warning after the three introductions: "While new text has been added and some of the existing chapters have been updated since the previous book was released in 2003, not all chapters have been updated and some statements may be reflective of events that took place in 2003."

It's a rather typical book of its type. There are bite-sized chapters (two to five pages, more or less) on some of the key figures and events in Syracuse basketball history. Standing above it all is Jim Boeheim, who first arrived on campus in the fall of 1962 and who has been part of the coaching staff for close to 50 years. The national championship of 2003 receives the most attention, as well it should.

It's also fair to say that the book accentuates the positive. For example, the stories involving Fab Melo and Bernie Fine that did damage to the program receive very little coverage here. For the most part, the tales are generally upbeat and will put a smile on the face of Syracuse boosters.

On the other hand, someone really should have gone through the book and given it a full update in terms of the timeline. It's really odd to read about a three-overtime game in 1981 that is called the longest playoff game in Big East history - which was topped about a quarter-century later by the fabled Syracuse-Connecticut six-overtime thrilled. (By the way, it's odd that this classic contest goes untouched here.) Meanwhile, one has to guess how old the subject of a story might be, since there's no way of knowing if the age has been updated or not. 

For those who haven't read the previous editions of "Tales from the Syracuse Orange Locker Room," this will present some good anecdotes from the team's long history. It will take you only a couple of hours to zip through this. But for those who have read the earlier versions, well, it might be best to leave it in the pile.

Three stars

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Monday, August 5, 2019

Review: For the Good of the Game (2019)

By Bud Selig with Phil Rogers

It seemed like an odd move at the time. Bud Selig as baseball commissioner?

Selig was the majority owner of the Milwaukee Brewers for more than 20 years. Even though major league's baseball ownership is a small "club," the Brewers shouldn't have had much of a voice in the sport's operations considering their status as the representative of one of the smallest markets in baseball.

Yet, Selig carved out a place for himself at the table. He seemed to get along with just about all sides during internal disputes. When baseball needed a new commissioner when Fay Vincent was pushed out the door, Selig took over. (The Brewers were eventually sold.)

Thus began the second half of an association with baseball that lasted 40 years. It's covered in Selig's book, "For the Good of the Game."

The subtitle tells you what almost half of the book is about: "The Inside Story of the Surprising and Dramatic Transformation of Major League Baseball."

Selig has come a long way in the baseball world. He was a car dealer in Milwaukee who grew up loving the game. When the Braves came to Milwaukee, he was well-placed to get to know the players a bit - one of which was the great Henry Aaron. The two remain close today. Selig was sad when the Braves moved, and put together the group that purchased the Seattle Pilots in 1970 and brought them to Milwaukee.

The Brewers had some good teams and some great players, like Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. But salaries continued to rise throughout Selig's first two decades as an owner, as the MLB Players Association handed the owners a series of losses in collective bargaining talks. The result was an industry that was bleeding money, at least in some locations.

As this story indicates, Selig and MLB finally got their collective act together. They knocked down some walls of mistrust between the players and owners, and became full partners. Work stoppages disappeared, revenues grew, and the game moved to healthy financial footing. Selig certainly deserves some credit for that, and his efforts are outlined here. He does get a little defensive at times about the criticism that came his way during his tenure as Commissioner. That more or less comes with the job, of course, and it is his book.

Admittedly, this is a side of the game that is not that interesting to those who like balls and strikes separated from dollars and cents. They probably won't pick it up anyway. But there's some insight into the personalities involved, even if there is not a great deal of talk about the players of that era.

The biggest side issue of Selig's era involves steroid use by players. The ex-Commissioner is quick to point the finger at union officials for being slow to allow random drug testing for such substances on the players. Personally, I think management deserves a little more blame in the delay of dealing with this issue, but certainly the players' association lost the public opinion battle when it came to the need for such tests. The strict testing of the past several years seems to have had the desired effect of cleaning up the game, even if we still struggle with the legacy of such players as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

Much credit goes to Selig and co-author Phil Rogers for making this a very readable book. The pages go by quite quickly, and there's only a little score-settling involved. Again, a book like this about the sports business could have been very dry. It's a credit to them that they handled the task of making the story at least easy to take by common fans look relatively easy.

By the end of the book, baseball's revenues have never been better - and Selig certainly deserves some credit for that. He's a little too quick to say the game itself doesn't need any tinkering; the increase in home runs and strikeouts in recent years has taken a little of the action out of the sport. But the spotlight is back on the players and their accomplishments for the most part, which might be Selig's biggest legacy.

Selig established a reputation as that rare sports executive who actually liked to talk to sportswriters and fans. "For the Good of the Game" shows that quality quite well. He did the best that he could, and that turned out to be a big part of the reason for the game's turnaround. And that's why he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

Four stars

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Thursday, July 25, 2019

Review: John Cangelosi (2019)

By John Cangelosi and K.P. Wee

Most baseball fans of a certain age remember John Cangelosi. That's probably because he was relatively small.

A few players have done well despite not having an extra-large frame - Phil Rizzuto, Jose Altuve, Dustin Pedroia, etc. But it's difficult. You check in at 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds, the odds are against you.

Cangelosi carved out parts of 13 years in the major leagues, which definitely beat the odds. Now, 20 years after his last game in the majors, he's cooperated fully with author K.P. Wee on something of a self-titled autobiography - even though the book is more of a biography since it's written in the third period.

For those who don't remember, Cangelosi was a long shot since coming out of South Florida, one of the most fertile areas for young baseball talent in the country. He wasn't drafted, but played well in junior college. That led to his entry into the pro ranks as a draft pick of the Chicago White Sox.

Cangelosi first popped up as a pro rookie in 1982 with Niagara Falls, and three years later turned up in Buffalo for the Bisons. In other words, Western New York got to look at him first. No matter where he played, though, he was fast. That translated into stolen bases and infield hits, and he had a lot of both.

Cangelosi was a regular for the Chicago White Sox as a rookie in 1986. Oddly, it was the best season of his career. The outfielder set an American League record for steals by a rookie with 50. He also drove in a career-best 32 runs. From there, Cangelosi got type-cast as a fourth or fifth outfielder. He could help out on defense, draw a walk and steal a base. Accordingly to all who knew him, and many are quoted here, Cangelosi accepted his role without complaint. Some managers appreciated that more than others, so he often had a job with another team after getting cut by the old team. Cangelosi played for seven different squads.

But the next-to-last team was the one that provided the biggest thrill. Cangelosi was part of a World Series champion when he played for the Marlins in 1997. The now-veteran even got to pinch-hit in Game Seven of the Series that year, although he struck out. Cangelosi considers that something of a highlight as well as a reward for his dedication to the game, and deservedly so.

It's a decent start for a book, but the treatment of the story wasn't done particularly well. There are a couple of big problems here.

The first is that it really needed another look by an editor. Material is duplicated quite frequently, and it's easy to become tired of the same old themes. The story is told in chronological order, but some of the anecdotes jump around a bit. For example, Cangelosi offers his all-time team in the middle of the discussion of the '97 playoffs. And some of the quotes from the players really could have been trimmed down to avoid repetition.

The second problem is that Cangelosi is the subject of a great deal of cheerleading from co-author Wee, who I assume put together the manuscript. Just because you are one of the leaders in stolen bases doesn't punch an automatic ticket to the All-Star Game. Just because you hit well in some spring training games doesn't mean you will make the big club in April.

And do we really need a few pages near the end of how Cangelosi hit a few good pitchers well in his career? He ends up with a .250 career batting average in the end. 

"John Cangelosi" probably should have been written more than 10 years ago, when his name was familiar to more fans. This current effort could serve as something of an inspiration to someone who literally looks up to other big leaguers, as Cangelosi did. But otherwise, this probably isn't worth your time.

Two stars

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Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Review: The City Game (2019)

By Matthew Goodman

If you check the record book of basketball history, something will strike you about the 1949-50 season. City College of New York is listed as the winner of the National Invitation Tournament, at the time the most prestigious such event in the country. CCNY also is listed as the winner of the NCAA Tournament, which was headed toward the No. 1 event in the game but hadn't gotten there yet.

This is not an error. The Beavers are the only team that won both championships. The two events weren't held at the same time back then, so it could be done.

Yet CCNY is also remembered for something far more sinister. The Beavers were discovered to have been part of a huge scandal that rocked the sport, particularly as it was played in New York City at the time.

There have been other scandals in sports over the years. But in this case, college basketball probably lost its innocence. That's why it's good that Matthew Goodman has gone back and taken a long look at the story in "The City Game."

(Footnote: The title is the same as a classic Pete Axthelm book on basketball in New York, that really put street basketball on the sports map. I'm not sure that was a good idea, but the connection to City College does give the title a slightly different spin here.)

College basketball had a very different look back in the late 1940s, as New York was the center of the hoop universe. Top teams would come in to play New York City's best in Madison Square Garden. (By the way, those out-of-town squads often would stop in Buffalo on the way to pick up another game and paycheck, setting up a golden era for the sport there too.)

But something else was a big part of the basketball scene in New York in that era: gambling. The stands held plenty of gamblers who were willing to be on a variety of aspects of the game, but they concentrated on point spreads. That means that if a certain team was favored by a particular number of points, gamblers would bet on which side of the line that the final score would fall. Goodman provides enough detail that you can almost smell the popcorn in the Garden while reading it.

Mix large amounts of money with a sports event, and the temptation for cheating grows. In this case, the college kids were seeing many dollars change hands while they received nothing, so an offer to keep the size of a victory down under the designated point spread was quite tempting. Several players on New York City teams were offered money, and some accepted it. That, in short, is Goodman's story - the fast rise and fall of the CCNY team.

The Beavers were a good team, one of the best in the country, but not an overwhelming favorite to win titles. The author reviews the principal players for CCNY, to give the story a more personal touch. While other players and colleges that were involved in the scandal are briefly covered, the focus of the book is on the so-called "Harvard on the Hudson." City College was a free school open to anyone who could meet the academic qualifications, which were very high. 

Goodman also takes the time to go on a parallel track of a legal investigation into corruption in the New York City police department and other municipal areas. The payoffs were extensive, reaching quite high into the executive branch of government. It's not as interesting as the human side of the scandal, but it's necessary to the story.

Nothing was ever the same once the point-shaving scandal broke. The players involved wore an imaginary scarlet letter on their chests for years to come. CCNY deemphasized basketball, and its coach, Nat Holman, lost his honorary title of "Mr. Basketball" to Bob Cousy later in the 1950s. Assistant coach Bobby Sand, one of the few good guys in the story, couldn't teach for quite a while.

Some of this might be familiar to readers, even though it is 70 years after the face. The subject has been covered in a couple of other books, plenty of newspaper and magazine articles, and an HBO documentary.

Still, "The City Game" remains something of a cautionary tale even in this day and age. Now that the Supreme Court has taken away some of the apparent limits on sports gambling, the temptations for athletes - particularly in college - will be greater than ever in the near future. In other words, there's no reason to think this won't happen again. That gives a book on something that happened around 1950 quite a bit of relevance to today.

Four stars

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