Sunday, February 24, 2019

Review: They Said It Couldn't Be Done (2019)

By Wayne Coffey

There were many, many feel-good stories in sports in the 20th century, but two topped the list. They were stories that were totally unexpected and featured supposed underdogs who beat the long odds.

One was the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team. I still can't believe they beat the Soviets.

The other was the 1969 New York Mets. After being a generally dreadful team from birth in 1962 through 1968, the Mets became relevant all at once - putting on a spurt down the stretch to win the National League East. Then it was on to wins in the NL Championship Series and the World Series. Take it from someone who watched much of it on television from upstate New York, it was thrilling.

It's probably not a coincidence that miracles are associated with both teams: "Do You Believe in Miracles?" and "The Miracle Mets."

Let's worry about the latter here. It's been 50 years since the Mets won their Amazin' World Series. Since it is a New York team - albeit one that the whole country (except Baltimore) seemed to back that year - some forests were sure to be sacrificed to mark the occasion.

And if you are under the age of 60 or so, you might want to know what all the fuss was about. Wayne Coffey supplies some of the details in "They Said It Couldn't Be Done." (By the way, he also wrote "The Boys of Winter" on the hockey team.)

The format here is rather simple. The first half of the book is dedicated to the regular season, with some of the important games along the way receiving good amounts of coverage. Then it is on to the playoffs, where the Mets swept through the Braves with almost ease and beat the Orioles in five games. That's more of a batter-by-batter review of those eight games.

Coffey adds some needed color along the way with interviews of some of the players - remember that everyone on the roster is at least 70 now, some are in their 80s and others have died. He also talks to a few people on the outskirts of the event, such as some fans (including current Mets announcer Gary Cohen) and a batboy.

The author gives the story its due, hitting the proper high points in the long season. Coffey obviously put in some time during some research here, especially when it comes to watching video tapes of playoff games. In fact, he almost goes a little overboard in that sense in spots.

It will be easy for fans to enjoy the chance to relive that season if they were caught up in it, so the book succeeds in that goal. Still, I would have liked a little more perspective on the season from a distance at this point, instead of what happened at the moment. It's not as if the subject has gone uncovered during the past half-century.

That really would have been helpful in the epilogue. Everyone around the team praises what a collective effort it was, as all players contributed. That's true, as it was a year when just about everything went right. I'm sure it was a close-knit team for that year. But it comes off as a bit of a cliche when a clear-eyed, 50-years-later analysis with modern statistical tools might have been useful to explain what went on. In addition, things were never the same in the next few years after that, and it would be interesting to hear what some theories are about that - besides that Amos Otis for Joe Foy deal blowing up.

Then again, maybe Coffey - who also wrote a book on the Olympic hockey team - doesn't want anything to spoil the memory. If you are in that class, I'm good with it. And you'll be good with "They Said It Couldn't Be Done."

Three stars

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Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Review: The Big Chair (2017)

By Ned Colletti with Joseph A. Reaves

A while back, a general manager of a National Hockey League team was asked an unusual question: Is your job much fun?

He smiled, and then talked about one time he saw a group of general managers from other teams gathered together, looking glum.

"I said to them, 'You guys don't look like you're having a lot of fun right now,'" the GM said. "One of them answered, 'If you take this job to have fun, you're in the wrong business.'"

If there's a message behind "The Big Chair" by Nick Colletti, that last quote might be it.

The Big Chair refers to the one for the general manager, the principal architect of a sports team's present and future. That person is the one who comes out and announces the latest trade or free-agent signing, causing thousands these days to take to their computer to praise or rip the GM on social media.

The job wouldn't be so tough if such moves were the only responsibility of its occupant. Every sports fans, naturally, thinks he or she could go a better job in those areas. That's why fantasy leagues are so popular. But there's more to the general manager's job, a lot more. This is the best book I've read so far about what goes into the position. No wonder it takes more than 400 pages to explain it.,

Colletti had a nice nine-year run with the Dodgers, going from the end of 2005 to the end of the 2014 season. Los Angeles won a lot of games and made some playoff appearances, but fell short of the ultimate goal of reaching (and winning a World Series). Even so, Colletti had no reason to apologize for his time in the Big Chair.

His story actually begins in Chicago, where he grew up. Colletti was one of those kids who used to hang out in the Wrigley Field bleachers. Imagine his delight then, when he landed a job with the Cubs as a young adult - first in the public relations department (he had been a sportswriter in Philadelphia before that) and then in the baseball department. And imagine his dismay when he was fired by GM Larry Hines, one of the mediocrities as a GM that the Cubs had running the baseball department during their long, long drought between championships.

Luckily, Colletti landed on his feet as the assistant general manager of the San Francisco Giants. He was part of the organization that reached the World Series in 2002, and one that eventually won three titles in five years in the next decade. But Colletti had to watch those from a distance, as he had jumped to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

While there are some good stories about a couple of famous Cubs - one that was coming (Andre Dawson) and one that was going (Greg Maddux) - the book kicks in nicely once Colletti gets to Los Angeles. That's because a general manager is on the go constantly, literally and figuratively. Colletti estimated that he spent about half of each year in a hotel somewhere, whether it be watching the Dodgers play or it is a case of looking at minor leaguers, meeting with agents, etc. The burnout rate must be high; Brian Cashman must be a special individual to have the GM job for so long with the New York Yankees (1998).

Even the easy days are complicated. Colletti writes about how an injury to someone on the major league roster caused him to work well into the night, and then early the next morning, on finding a replacement and getting him to Cincinnati for that night's game. You wouldn't believe how many moving parts there are.

And that's just part of it. "A Day in the Life" chapter also discusses a player who essentially had given up on his career in midseason, and an intern who put confidential scouting reports on his blog on the Internet. Plus, there are the usual day-to-day activities that rarely left him time to eat, let alone think. Plus, there are no off-days in the job. The offseason has become just as busy than the season these days.

A general manager has to juggle personalities too, and the Dodgers had some big ones. Manny Ramirez. Yasiel Puig. Tommy Lasorda. David Wells. That's just for starters, of course. There are stories about all of them as well as negotiations for trades, signing free agents and dealing lesser-known players who end up in, um, difficult circumstances.

But the biggest personality in the story might be Frank McCourt, the Dodgers' owner for part of Colletti's tenure on the job. McCourt is best remembered as the man who more or less robbed the Dodgers' piggy-bank during his tenure, leaving the team in financial difficulty by the time he left. Colletti admits that point, but says McCourt was a brilliant individual who made him a better thinker on the job with his constant questioning of all things Dodgers.

Still, Colletti was enough of a baseball fan to realize that he should take a little of his time along the way to enjoy the company. Meals and travel time with Vin Scully, the legendary Los Angeles broadcaster certainly qualifies, and Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax qualifies. He even has some good words to say about Barry Bonds, whom he got to know in San Francisco.

Colletti was fired when the Dodgers had the chance to hire Andrew Friedman from Tampa Bay. Colletti's two biggest regrets are that he didn't have the chance to establish stability in the Dodgers' organization during his time there, and that he didn't smell the roses enough along the way. It's difficult to do either.

This book came out a while ago, so some of the names might be not be familiar to non-Dodgers fans. Still, the story breezes along so nicely that you'll finish it in a jiffy. You might not want to sit in "The Big Chair" when you are done with it, but you'll understand baseball better.

Five stars

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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Review: 108 Stitches (2019)

By Ron Darling with Daniel Paisner

What's the next best thing to having dinner with Ron Darling?

Reading "108 Stitches" by Ron Darling.

This is one of those books that's thankfully easy to describe, and easy to read. In a sentence, the former New York Mets pitcher and current broadcaster tells stories about his life in baseball.

This is book number three for Darling, who seems to take some delight in coming up with new twists to describe his life in the game. Last time, for example, he wrote "Game 7, 1986," as he told what it is like to come up short on a personal level in the biggest game of his life - the last game of the World Series - but see his team win the championship in spite of his efforts, and not because of them.

This is even simpler. Most of the new book is devoted to anecdotes about Darling's baseball connections. He started with a list of his teammates over the years, and he played long enough to have a bunch of them, and started jotting down notes. He works his way from A to Z during the course of this book, with some side trips to other personalities.

In other words, it flows like a normal conversation between two people - except only one person is doing the talking. And, let's face it - if you were having dinner with Ron Darling, wouldn't you want to shut up and let him talk?

There are all sorts of stories here, as he goes from the minors to the majors, and from one team to another. Some of them are funny, of course. But others are surprising. Take for example the tale of how Don Zimmer called him over to talk one time when Darling was in the Rangers' organization (pre-Mets), and told him to get a new baseball glove. Why? Zimmer could tell from the dugout when Darling was pitching that the hurler was about to throw a breaking ball through an opening in the back in the glove. In other words, he was tipping his pitches.

Then there's Frank Howard, manager of the Mets early in Darling's stay in New York. Howard, not a favorite of Darling's, apparently drove through an exact change lane in the mid-1980s and threw money in the old coin basket. And waited. And waited. When he was asked what he was waiting for, Howard said he put in a five-dollar bill and was waiting for his change.

Or how about the time he and Keith Hernandez had a meal with Lauren Bacall? He wanted to talk about movies, she wanted to talk about the Mets' chances. Betty turned out to be a baseball fan.

While most baseball lifers have some good stories, it's a little surprising that Darling rarely holds much back here about people he doesn't like at other times. Former Buffalo Bisons' manager Jack Aker hardly spoke to Darling in the minors, leaving the young pitcher mystified. A teammate sprayed Darling one day with tobacco juice, even though it was Darling's first day in the majors and his uniform was nice and clean. Welcome to the Show, rookie. Darling's lack of personal respect for star slugger Frank Thomas leaked into their relationship during TBS broadcasts.

The one odd part comes at the end, when Darling goes off on a decent-sized rant about the state of baseball today. In particular, he's not happy with the how the game is played at times, particularly when it becomes a slave to analytics. That includes such topics as defensive shifts, five-inning starters, and the running game mostly taken out of the tool box. Darling makes some points, but it's a not what I was expecting.

I wouldn't pick this up for the young kiddies who might be fans of Darling's work on broadcasts. The language and a few of the exploits are R-rated. I also know that some people like the authenticity that profanity brings to a story, so they won't be offended.

"108 Stitches" (the number on a baseball, naturally) goes down very easily and quickly. It meets its goal for entertaining the reader ... even if you have to supply the dinner.

Four stars

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Sunday, February 10, 2019

Review: Jim Boeheim and Syracuse Basketball (2018)

By Donald Staffo

Is there anyone who thinks that Jim Boeheim needs to be defended for his record as a basketball coach over the years?

It seems there's at least one person who thinks that way.

Donald Staffo has written a book called "Jim Boeheim and Syracuse Basketball." Let's start with the fact that Boeheim, his family and friends might find this a generally enjoyable review of his basketball career. As for the rest of us, even those of us who are graduates of Syracuse University (guilty), this doesn't work so well.

Boeheim and Syracuse University have been connected for a long, long time. After all, he first came to the school as a freshman in 1962, and never really left. Boeheim played with the legendary Dave Bing as Syracuse had some rare great moments (it was mostly a football school before that) during their time there.

While Bing went on to a great pro career, Boeheim came back to Syracuse and worked his way up to status as an assistant coach. Then in 1976, Roy Danforth left Syracuse to go to Tulane (think about that one in today's context), and Boeheim took over as coach. He's been there ever since, constantly winning bunches of games with teams that sold thousands and thousands of tickets with its entertaining style.

Staffo spends a little time reviewing Boeheim's childhood and those early years at SU. Eventually, though, it's time to go through the seasons, year by year. That's not an easy chore, since there have been a lot of them. It's at least the starting point for the book, as it will be fun for Syracuse fans to see names they haven't contemplated in years. As you'd expect, the great seasons get covered better than the good ones, although it might have been nice to have more than a paragraph or two on at least every single season.

But more simply, this book takes an approach that is a little puzzling. Admittedly, Boeheim has some problems to overcome over the years. Syracuse has been on probation during his tenure a couple of times, and there was also the scandal involving his longtime assistant coach, Bernie Fine. Many college programs have gone under scrutiny for one reason or another, in part because the various rules of the NCAA are hard to follow. The program gets off a little easily here. Boeheim also has had a few odd public moments, which have gotten in the way of showing off the rest (and majority) of his personality. That has made him a little unpopular to some who are a distance away. Still, he knows basketball inside and out and can be quite funny in his own way, which makes him a great interview on general hoop subjects during basketball season.

In the meantime, Boeheim and the Orange usually have won, year after year. He's up with the all-time greats in a number of statistical categories. Boeheim has won a national championship, made some other Final Fours played in many NCAA Tournaments, and produced players that went on to the professional ranks. It's not quite Duke, but it's pretty close.

Still, the tone of the book is frequently defensive. Almost any criticism of Boeheim is mentioned here and then swatted away. Syracuse has been knocked for rarely leaving the Carrier Dome or at least New York State before January 1. Statto correctly points out that most of the "big name" schools do the same thing. But do we really need to go through the schedules of those schools, one by one, to back that up? The effect is rather numbing, since the point has been made.

In addition, much of the criticism concerning Boeheim in Syracuse basketball printed here comes from authorities like social media members. It gives the impression that talk show callers would have had their points reprinted here if the author had access to old tapes. Does anyone really care about someone who doesn't know that much but who believes Boeheim can't recruit? Or coach with the best? I'm in agreement with Staffo when he argues that Boeheim shouldn't have lost career coaching wins as a penalty for NCAA violations. Heck, someone coached those games. It does make writing about milestones in Boeheim's career a little awkward. But really, make the point and move on. More editing would have been really nice.

Speaking of editing, here's a minor point but worth noting. The way this is broken up by chapters is extremely odd. For example, the 1986-87 begins on page 92 at the end of Chapter 5. The National Championship game from that season starts at Chapter 6 on page 94, and the 1987-88 campaign's story begins on page 98. Wouldn't you want everything about that great season to be in the same chapter - and while we're at it, be a lot longer? The 1996 season is split up the same way. Near the end, Chapter 17 is entitled "The 2-3 Zone," but has a section on recruiting - and not about getting players who fit the system. It's a difficult book to read in some ways.

If you aren't sure where Staffo stands on all of this, at the end of the book he takes the lyrics to the song "My Way" and adapts them to fit Boeheim's career. Whew.

There's a better book out there on this subject: Boeheim's autobiography, "Bleeding Orange." He opened up quite a bit there, and it's a fun read. "Jim Boeheim and Syracuse Basketball," meanwhile, probably will leave all but extremely partisan fans on the disappointed side when they finish it.

Two stars

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