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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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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