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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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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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, 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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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 person.

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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Friday, July 5, 2019

Review: Full Count (2019)

By David Cone and Jack Curry

By the end of his baseball career, you knew David Cone had a book in him.

He had reached the point where he had played with some good teams, won a few championships. took home some individual honors, and earned a reputation as a perceptive interview in baseball circles. Adding to that is that he played in New York for several years (both the Yankees and Mets), and that's never hurt someone's chances in the world of publishing.

It took a while to get this done - a few years short of two decades - but "Full Count" is that book. Come to think of it, this volume is something close to two books in one. No wonder it checks in at close to 400 pages.

Cone was something of a wanderer when it comes to baseball, bouncing from through Kansas City, Toronto and Boston in addition to his stops in New York. He picked up quite a bit of knowledge about pitching along the way, and a good percentage of the material in this book is devoted to that subject. Call it Book One.

Ever wondered what goes through a pitcher's mind when things are going his way? Here's Cone talking at length about the ultimate in that area - his perfect game. It fits in nicely with his descriptions of other key moments in his career, good and bad. The good ones outnumbered the bad ones, which is why he was part of a title in Toronto and a few more with the Yankees.

There are plenty of other subjects covered here. A brief list would include relationships with umpires and catchers, strategies with particular pitches, throwing in crucial situations, etc. I'm not sure there have been better explanations of the art of pitching to this extent before, at least in my reading history.

But will it interest everybody? To be honest, the answer is - probably not. It's almost a little too detailed for some audiences. I have two good friends who are huge baseball fans. The one who was a pitcher in college probably would enjoy these stories greatly. The other enjoys the game more as a fan, and might not be as interested.

Luckily, Cone also has some stories from his years in the game to pass on along the way, roughly in chronological order. That's Book Two. He played with plenty of interesting personalities, and it's good to read about the journey taken in his athletic career. Cone thinks the world of Joe Torre to this day, and even has some good words about working for George Steinbrenner.

There's one other striking point about the narrative here. It's rather obvious here that Cone has been the proverbial immature knucklehead at some points in his life. His guess is that the Royals traded him to the Mets for Ed Hearn - one of the worst deals by Kansas City in team history - was sparked by Cone's lack of maturity at the time.

Cone doesn't go into much detail about some of those incidents, except to say that a couple of things in his Mets days got blown out of proportion and points out that he was cleared of some serious allegations. If you are looking for the full story of those moments, you'll have to look elsewhere. But Cone and David Wells were good friends during their Yankee days together, and it's fair to say Wells didn't hang out with wimps when it came to extra-curricular activities.

Cone has become a nice fit on Yankee television broadcasts since retirement, as he has been a candid and insightful analyst in his time there. You could call "Full Count" a continuation of those duties. Those looking for more than the usual look at the business of throwing a baseball for a living will find much to enjoy here.

Four stars

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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Review: Son of Havana (2019)

By Luis Tiant with Saul Wisnia

I'm a little biased when it comes to the subject of Luis Tiant.

In the spring of 1976, I needed a number for a shirt for a sports team. I picked No. 23 - for Luis Tiant. This was way, way before Michael Jordan made it popular.

Not only was Tiant really good, but he had style. His twirling windups while pitching for the Boston Red Sox hadn't been seen before and haven't been seen since. As someone wrote, Tiant seemed to be able to look at everyone in the ballpark before actually delivering the ball to the plate. It sort of looked like a pitching pretzel.

Add that to the fact that Tiant had character and was a character. Boston wasn't a particularly happy place in the 1970s when it came to racial issues, but there was one man who crossed all of the boundaries - Tiant. When he walked in from the bullpen for the start of a Red Sox game, a sellout crowd greeted him with "Loo-ee" chants.

That's the starting point of a good autobiography, and Tiant delivers one in "Son of Havana."

The major league baseball pitcher had the biggest turning point of his life at a young age. Tiant was from Cuba, the son of an outstanding pitcher himself. Luis had the chance to pitch in Mexico City and did so, but along the way he discovered that Fidel Castro had essentially closed the borders for Cubans. If Luis returned to Cuba, he probably wouldn't be able to resume his baseball career. But if he stayed in Mexico to pursue that dream, he might never see his family again.

It's hard to imagine what's involved in that sort of decision. Tiant's father knew what it was like for a black Cubans to try to play baseball in the United States, encountering racism along the way. He urged Luis not to go through what he went through. Other family members knew Tiant's dream was to pitch in the big leagues and urged him not to come home. In the end, Tiant stayed away from Cuba - for more than 40 years, as it turned out. As it turned out, Tiant and Tony Perez were two of the last starts to leave Cuba before the door slammed shut. The information about that decision and that era is the best part of the book, as it relives an era that hasn't gotten much publicity.

Minorities in baseball probably didn't get the benefit of the doubt in the early Sixties, and Tiant waited until 1964 to reach the majors. He was good for several years for the Cleveland Indians, and became great in 1968 - 21-9 with a 1.60 earned-run average. But a bad year and a trade to the Minnesota Twins followed, and in the spring of 1972 Tiant was unemployed.

The Red Sox took a small chance on him in 1972 by signing him, and promoted him to the major-league roster. There he went 15-6 with a 1.91 ERA, leading Boston to a near-miss in the playoff race. Tiant followed that with six more fine seasons, including three with 20 wins for the Red Sox, in the Seventies. Boston was a contender during that era, and Tiant was the heart of those teams. Along the way, he almost personally eliminated the cliques that had been part of Red Sox teams for years. By the way, Tiant had a well-publicized reunion with his parents in 1975 - when he helped the Red Sox reach the World Series.

Tiant has bounced around a bit since leaving Boston after 1978 - pitching a few years and retiring, doing a little coaching and participating in business, but mostly being Luis Tiant for a living. It's a great gig if you can pull it off, and he can.

Saul Wisnia does a good job of adding background information here, providing an introduction to each chapter. A couple of stories get repeated, and the comments from others can be a little fawning, but it it Tiant's book.

"Son of Havana" mostly will be of interest to Red Sox fans of those 1970s teams that couldn't quite win a World Series. But the rest of the story is interesting enough to carry its weight with any fan. It's a solid book, one that probably should have been written earlier but is still enjoyable today - even to those who don't wear No. 23 on their backs.

Four stars

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Monday, June 10, 2019

Review: All the Way (2019)

By Joe Namath with Sean Mortimer and Don Yeager

If there was ever a review-proof book, "All the Way" is it.

Those who grew up watching - and perhaps idolizing - Joe Namath fling footballs around football stadiums in the Sixties and Seventies no doubt already have run, and not walked, to the nearest bookstore or on-line ordering outlet to pick up a copy of his second autobiography. The first book, "I Can't Wait Until Tomrrow ... 'cause I Get Better Looking Every Day" came out soon after the Super Bowl III in on January 12, 1969.

Namath and his New York Jets won that game more than 50 years ago, and the win might have been the most important game in modern pro football history. The huge upset drew a great deal of attention, and helped the NFL become the biggest sports league in North America.

Namath already was world-class "cool" before that game. He came out of Alabama and signed a legendary $400,000-plus contract with the Jets of the American Football League. Namath had style on and off the field, a rebel with his white football shoes and love of the nightlife. Muhammad Ali was out of the same mold, but Namath was a bit more acceptable to large portions of America. Now the ex-quarterback looks back on portions of his life - and his now aging fans no doubt will revel his the stories.

The book comes with a warning at this point, though: If you like your books structured, then you may have come to the wrong place.

The guiding premise is quite simple, and appropriate. Namath sat down at the computer screen and watched a video of that winning Super Bowl - something he had never needed to do before. It's sort of like having Joe at your side while the two of you are in the living room, watching it on YouTube. He's tough on himself, still feeling angry when he doesn't connect on an easy pass. Namath also learned some lessons about the game, along the lines of "I didn't know Unitas came into play that early."

You may come to one conclusion reading about the details of the game: Namath might not have been the most valuable player of the game. On one hand, that may be a reflection of the fact that Joe is pretty tough on himself here at times. On the other, he threw no touchdown passes in a game where the Jets only scored one TD (to go with three field goals), and he never threw a pass in the fourth quarter. Nevertheless, he did engineer the Jets to score enough points to beat the Colts, who were considered one of the great teams in NFL history until the day after the game.

But from there, Namath goes off on tangents. And more tangents. There's no order or warning about what's coming next; it is simply a matter of what enters Joe's mind. The basics are covered - something about his school days, recruitment and playing in Alabama, signing with the Jets, finishing his career with the Rams, the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and what his life is like now.

In case you are wondering, the famous 2003 Suzy Kolber incident - "I just want to kiss you" during an on-field interview with ESPN - comes up. Namath says it was something of a turning point in his life, as he realized he needed help with an alcohol problem - prompted by his 2000 divorce. It sounds like Joe is having a happy ending to his life, thanks in part to a clean lifestyle and knees that give him a lot less trouble now than they did in his football days.

Even so, there's not much flow here, and there are large portions of Namath's life that don't get any attention here. Characters come and go without much introduction. Namath is described at the back of the book as a "reluctant author," and the text certainly comes across that way. Having two co-authors is often a sign that it was a struggle to get the story correct on paper; I have no idea whether that was the case here.

Still, the voice in these pages is authentic, and that probably is enough for most people. The book has been well received so far, so apparently the lack of organization wasn't much of a problem for other readers.

That's fine. I liked Mark Kriegel's biography, "Namath," more than "All the Way." But it sounds like readers want to hang out with Joe for a while through this book. Who am I to disagree? They'll have a good time - I guarantee it.

Three stars

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Thursday, May 30, 2019

Review: Mind and Matter (2019)

By John Urschel and Louisa Thomas

At some point, most adults will say that a level of mathematics sent them screaming into the night. It might be algebra, it might be trigonometry, or (in my case) it might be calculus. Once you get past the point where math becomes less useful in what we might call everyday life, it's easy to move on to other subjects.

John Urschel still hasn't reached that point. As a result, he probably qualifies as one of the most interesting and unusual personalities to come down the road in sports in some time.

That's what makes his book, "Mind and Matter" so different. He can talk about differential equations and run blocking with a very advanced level of knowledge. That's a combination that is tough on stereotypes, particularly when the fact that Urschel is African-American is added to the mix. So the phrase "good for him" applies on so many levels. Rulebreakers are always worth knowing.

Urschel spent most of his formative years, including high school, in the Buffalo area. He was always large for his size among fellow students, although perhaps a little undersized by the standards of future professional football linemen. That made him a natural to at least give football a chance, so he took it up and eventually became a prospect for colleges.

Along the way, Urschel discovered that he loved the "puzzles" that high mathematics could offer him. In fact, while barely into high school, he audited a course at the University at Buffalo in math and more than held his own. The young man saw, and sees, no contradiction between working on math and practicing and playing football. In fact, one was something of a break from the other. The book ping-pongs between his experiences in those disciplines. That can turn into something of a cliche, but the authors - he and Louisa Thomas are married - make it work quite nicely here.

It sounds a little like the proverbial "shaggy dog" story, but Urschel received one of the last available scholarships at Penn State for football. He wasn't considered a top prospect, but eventually worked his way into the starting lineup. In the meantime, Urschel also became a star in the classroom, maintaining a 4.0 GPA while working his way up the mathematics ladder in rapid succession. This is not an easy combination. Most football players have to take a reduced workload because of the time demands on their sport, and need tutors to get through it. Not only did Urschel do that and then some, but he seemed to be rather well accepted by the rest of the team. Football usually is not the place for non-conformists, but Urschel apparently pulled it off.

One of the most interesting parts of the story is that the Nittany Lion players was around when the scandal involving assistant coach Jerry Sandusky went public. The NCAA eventually came down heavily on the Penn State program. Urschel didn't understand why he and his teammates were penalized for actions that took place before he arrived on campus, but had to put up with as the university saw a new coaching staff put in place and several teammates transfer to other schools.

Urschel was good enough to be drafted by the Baltimore Ravens, and spent three years there. He even started 13 games. This took place while he continued to pursue high education in mathematics along the way - again, no easy task. But Urschel knew that eventually he'd have to choose one or the other - advanced mathematics is a young man's game too - and a concussion might have pushed that timetable up a bit. He became a full-time mathematician in 2017. He's currently a doctoral candidate in MIT.

One warning is necessary when talking to potential readers of this book: There is some complicated mathematics involved at times. Urschel goes out of his way not to get bogged down in it as he explains it from a distance, and handles it as well as it can be done. But this is a man who wrote an article called "On the Characterization and Uniqueness of Centroidal Voronoi Tessellations." Speaking as a reader who immediately became nervous when seeing the word "polynomial" in the text, this may drive you away for small sections of the book.

"Mind and Matter" feels like something of a swan song for Urschel. He's saying farewell to his "two-sided" days when football and math competed for attention. The only publishing he'll be doing down the road is when he does something interesting in mathematics - which no doubt will be often. Therefore, Urschel's look behind the door of what he was thinking along the way until he reached this point a couple of years ago is well explained and always interesting.

I'm not sure who might follow in Urschel's footsteps some day. But there's no doubt he's a heck of a role model for any who cares to look in an unconventional place for one.

Four stars

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Monday, May 27, 2019

Review: The Great American Sports Page (2019)

Edited by John Schulian

It seems that "The Great American Sports Page" has created more buzz in the media than most of the other new sports books this year. It's been written up in a quite a few outlets during the course of the spring/summer.

This should not be surprising.

I would bet that any self-respecting media member who started to read this book was positively entranced. Come to think of it, most sports fans with a sense of history ought to feel that way too.

Editor John Schulian apparently was in charge of this project, and he was well qualified for the task. Schulian was himself a columnist for a couple of big-city dailies, and has put together anthologies on boxing and football. He's smart, and good.

This anthology is not about a specific subject, but it still has a unifying theme - at least in theory. The idea was put a collection of stories together written by columnists who were on a deadline. In other words, the authors didn't have time to sit around and discuss the finished product over coffee and cake with editors and bosses. The story was due in less than an hour.

Take it from someone who has been there - this is not easy. Most writers are happy to get the score right and fill the allocated space in such situations. But to write a story that makes a point and does it gracefully, well, this is a rare skill.

Part of a joy of reading a book like this is taking in stories and authors that cover a wide range of time and subjects. Check, check. This book goes back to W.O. McGeehan, Damon Runyon and Grantland Rice almost a century ago. You've heard of many of the names if you're a student of such things, but there are some surprises along the way as some regional writers pop up. Emmett Watson, Sandy Grady, and Jim Kobuchar (yes, Amy's father) appear. There are some good writers outside of New York, you know. Schulian provides short biographies of each writer, and they put the contributions of those writers nicely into perspective.

Some of the joy of this book comes from reading about famous events as told by famous writers. Westbrook Pegler on Babe Ruth's called shot. Shirley Povich on Lou Gehrig's farewell. Red Smith on Bobby Thomson's homer. Robert Lipsyte on Clay shocking Liston. Thomas Boswell on Jack Nicklaus' Masters win in 1986. And so on.

To be fair, some of the stories aren't written right on deadline. Bill Plaschke and Jane Leavy check in with long stories that clearly needed time to write - as opposed to 40 minutes - but are certainly worth including here. The approaches are all over the map - rage, approval, fun, fly-on-the-wall, etc.

There probably will be a couple of stories here that you will skip over, but that's to be expected in a book like this. "The Great American Sports Page" works just about perfectly. You don't have to be a writer to appreciate this book. You just have to appreciate good writing.

Five stars

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Thursday, May 23, 2019

Review: The Legendary Harry Caray (2019)

By Don Zminda

It's been more than 20 years since Harry Caray died while still serving as the Chicago Cubs' main broadcaster after a long, long career in the business.

I suppose the best reaction to that is "Holy cow!"

Caray still seems a bit larger than life today, a figure that will put a smile on a face and prompt a bushel of stories from those who knew or listened to him.

Sometimes "larger than life" is another way of saying "exaggerated." Some of the stories surrounding Caray indeed have grown beyond the edge of the truth, while others have been confirmed to help fill out the legendary status.

Don Zminda took on the project of sorting it all out in his book, "The Legendary Harry Caray." He does a good job of setting the record straight.

Zminda is well qualified for the task. He's written a dozen books on baseball over the years, and he's been a well-known member of the Society of American Baseball Research for decades. Oh, and he's a Chicago native, so Zminda knows something about Carey and the teams he broadcast.

A look at the bare bones description of Carey's life would reveal that he spent 25 years as the announcer for the St. Louis Cardinals, achieving regional fame in the day through the team's vast network of radio stations. Then it was on to Chicago, where he spent 11 years with the White Sox and 16 with the Cubs.

That's quite a broadcasting career, but it sort of misses the point with Harry. He always seemed to be walking on a tightrope during a broadcast. Carey wanted his teams to win, but when they failed to meet his expectations the announcer wasn't above criticizing all those involved. In other words, a fan was behind the microphone - and all that implied. That sometimes led to dust-ups with management and team members, but it also led to a close association with fans - who thought like he did. As the sports business has grown, it has become more conservative - and that means that loose cannons like Caray have become less appreciated to everyone but fans.

Oddly, Caray might be best remembered not for any particular moment of broadcasting, but rather a song: "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Bill Veeck, another legendary character who owned the White Sox during part of Caray's tenure, said that he always wanted an announcer to lead the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh-inning stretch. Finding a personality who could pull that off, though, was difficult. Veeck found his man in Caray, who carried the gimmick from the South Side of Chicago to the North Side when he switched teams. The sing-a-long still takes place at Wrigley Field today, either through guest singers or a video of Harry.

Carey also was a man who knew how to have a party. Come to think of it, his appearance using prompted one. Carey's consumption of alcohol over the years was enormous, to the point where no one could keep up with him after games. It's quite surprising that he made it into his 80s, even if some of the stories about such postgame frivolity could be slightly exaggerated.

Zminda takes an objective look at some of the incidents that marked Carey's career - the disagreements with the bosses, the ups and downs with the players, the feuds with other broadcasters. Sometimes announcers turn out to be the face of a sports franchise, and a few bumps in the road are to be expected. Even so, there's a reason Carey has a statue just outside Wrigley Field.

This book arrives with only a couple of complaints. A few points are repeated along the way, so one more edit might have been nice. The story also doesn't carry a great deal of fun along the way, leaning toward the dry side. There are other places for that; Steve Stone's book ("Where's Harry?") about working with Caray is a good example of that. But Harry was, at the base, a fun person to hear. I missed that part of the story in this biography.

"The Legendary Harry Carey" certainly accomplishes its goal well of separating fact from fiction. My guess is that longtime listeners ought to enjoy the way Zminda connects the dots.

Four stars

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Review: The Cost of These Dreams (2019)

By Wright Thompson

Sometimes the author's name is enough to lure you in when you are looking for something to read. When it comes to sports, Frank Deford and Gary Smith were two of the all-time greats.

Wright Thompson has a very good chance of joining those two, if he's not there already.

Thompson is one of those writers that takes his time coming up with a story. His work is on the long side in this Twitter age, but always rewarding. Therefore, it's good to see that his first collection, "The Cost of These Dreams," is now available.

Thompson started his career working for newspapers in New Orleans and Kansas City. He caught a break in 2006, when he was hired by ESPN. Thompson found a home there, as even the Internet was big enough to hold some of his longer works. ESPN the Magazine also gave him the space to stretch out his stories when needed.

If you read the stories before, they are certainly worth another look now. And if you haven't, you are in for a treat. Here is Michael Jordan at 50, still the same personality as we saw in his playing days but without that main competitive outlet. Pat Riley is shown to be torn between the present and a possible more relaxing future. Dan Gable, arguably the best American wrestler of all time, is still fighting some demons. Urban Meyer tries to put some balance in his life; there's more to tell about that football coach down the road.

Two stories jumped out at me that I hadn't read before. "Beyond the Breach" is a look at New Orleans 10 years after Katrina. Yes, there is some football there, but not a ton. It's about a city that keeps crawling back from adversity as it has always done, and it reads a little like a Spike Lee screenplay. There's also the "Ghosts of Mississippi," a look at the 1962 football team at Ole Miss that was one of the best of the country - at exactly the wrong time for all concerned (note the year and location) and thus was more or less forgotten. That one was turned into an ESPN documentary.

My only complaint about the collection is that it could have used a voice from the present. Where did the story appear? What has happened to subject and author since then? Even so, it doesn't get in the way of one's enjoyment. 

I'm not sure what's ahead for Thompson. ESPN recently announced that its magazine would be dying soon, and you'd have to think he might want a similar platform for his work. Then again, times are tough for magazines in general. We'll have to see what happens there.

But, no matter what the state of sportswriting and publication is, Thompson will do just fine. "The Cost of These Dreams" is proof of that. His audience will find him and follow him no matter where he lands.

Five stars

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