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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Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Review: Tales from the Syracuse Orange Locker Room (2017)

By Bud Poliquin

This is the type of book that, when spotted in the bargain section, makes a person wonder.

"The book looks familiar, but the cover looks new. Did I read this before?"

In this case, those who qualify as a major fan of the Syracuse basketball team indeed have read most of this book before. In fact, that person had two other chances to do so.

Syracuse sports journalist Bud Poliquin put together a tribute to the SU basketball program after the team won the national championship in 2004. Then when the team reached the Final Four in 2013, it was time for an update - this time with a different title.

OK, the Orange did it again in 2016, and Poliquin struck again with "Tales from the Syracuse Orange Locker Room." The title is the same this time around.

The new version book does come with a warning after the three introductions: "While new text has been added and some of the existing chapters have been updated since the previous book was released in 2003, not all chapters have been updated and some statements may be reflective of events that took place in 2003."

It's a rather typical book of its type. There are bite-sized chapters (two to five pages, more or less) on some of the key figures and events in Syracuse basketball history. Standing above it all is Jim Boeheim, who first arrived on campus in the fall of 1962 and who has been part of the coaching staff for close to 50 years. The national championship of 2003 receives the most attention, as well it should.

It's also fair to say that the book accentuates the positive. For example, the stories involving Fab Melo and Bernie Fine that did damage to the program receive very little coverage here. For the most part, the tales are generally upbeat and will put a smile on the face of Syracuse boosters.

On the other hand, someone really should have gone through the book and given it a full update in terms of the timeline. It's really odd to read about a three-overtime game in 1981 that is called the longest playoff game in Big East history - which was topped about a quarter-century later by the fabled Syracuse-Connecticut six-overtime thrilled. (By the way, it's odd that this classic contest goes untouched here.) Meanwhile, one has to guess how old the subject of a story might be, since there's no way of knowing if the age has been updated or not. 

For those who haven't read the previous editions of "Tales from the Syracuse Orange Locker Room," this will present some good anecdotes from the team's long history. It will take you only a couple of hours to zip through this. But for those who have read the earlier versions, well, it might be best to leave it in the pile.

Three 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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