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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