Thursday, July 25, 2019

Review: John Cangelosi (2019)

By John Cangelosi and K.P. Wee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two stars

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Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Review: The City Game (2019)

By Matthew Goodman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four stars

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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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