Monday, December 28, 2020

Review: Dalko (2020)

By Bill Dembski, Alex Thomas and Brian Vikander

The number of recent sports legends who remain something of a mystery probably can be counted on less than two hands. 

Such performers needed to play games in an era when television was not around to record them, which somewhat translates to the pre-1970s. That's old enough for some people to still remember what happened, but not so old that first-hand accounts no longer an be obtained.

It's a good description for those who obviously had enormous talent but never quite were able to use it for one reason or another. In basketball, for example, New York City featured Herman "The Helicopter" Hastings and Earl "The Goat" Manigault. Pete Axthelm wrote a book on NYC basketball called "The City Game" that spread stories about their exploits far and wide (go read it if you can). 

Someone in that class for baseball was Steve Dalkowski. The legendary lefty from New Britain, Connecticut, is considered to be one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in baseball history - faster than Nolan Ryan, faster than Bob Feller, faster than Aroldis Chapman. The short version of the story is that Dalkowski never was too sure where the ball was going, and thus never reached the major leagues.

The longer version of the story is told in "Dalko." Bill Dembski, Alex Thomas and Brian Vikander joined forces to come up with the first full-fledged biography of the pitcher, as they tried to piece together as many parts of the puzzle as possible. The picture isn't complete now, but some of the blanks have been filled in.

Dalkowski was a good high school quarterback, but he received more attention for his work on the baseball diamond. No one at that level could touch his fastball, at least when it was in the strike zone. Steve ran up some unbelievable numbers in terms of strikeouts and no-hitters, although walks and wild pitches usually came with the package. Still, you can't teach velocity, and Dalkowski had more than enough of that. He signed with the Baltimore Orioles in 1957, and the professional odyssey began.

The pitcher spent the next nine years in the minors. The common denominator of those seasons, statistically speaking, is that Dalkowski had a ton of strikeouts but usually just as many walks. Inevitably, the free passes would pile up at the wrong time and he'd have to exit. Dalkowski probably received many more chances than the average pitcher to stick around because of his arm strength. It didn't help the situation that Dalkowski picked up a fondness for alcoholic beverages at a very young age - perhaps because of the pressure of being a phenom, perhaps because his father was known to drink as well. Then there's the fact that Dalkowski by most accounts wasn't particularly smart, which may have contributed to the fact that he didn't know how to control his emotions and instincts while pitching in games. It also meant he was anxious to be "one of the guys" and could be led into some difficult situations by others. 

It's easy to guess that the people involved in major league baseball at the time didn't know what to do with a player with this particular package. As Sam McDowell (another hard thrower in his day) writes in the introduction, sports teams had no clue when it came to the mental part of the game back in the 1960s. At one point the Orioles tried to have Dalkowski throw several dozen pitches before a game in an effort to tire him out and force him to aim the ball a little more. It didn't work most of the time. In the meantime, Steve was working in an era without pitch-count limits and probably threw thousands more pitches in a year than equivalent prospects throw today.

Finally in 1962, Dalkowski had a little success working with Earl Weaver with Elmira in 1962. Steve's ERA was under 5.00 for the first time in his career. (in fact, it was 3.04) The wildness hadn't completely departed, but it was a bit more under control. That led to an invitation to the major league camp with the Orioles in 1963, where Dalkowski seemed to take another step forward. When he struck out Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard of the Yankees in an exhibition game, the Baltimore roster no longer seemed completely out of reach. But Dalkowski hurt his arm in that game, sidetracking his career essentially for good. The alcohol rarely left his side throughout the next 50-plus years, with accompanying destructive effects on his health and relationships. Dalkowski died in 2020.

The authors certainly did their homework here, as a variety of articles and interviews are cited as sources in the text. But there are a couple of problems that come up in the actual book that - based on the reviews I've read - bothered me a little more than other readers.

The book certainly roots quite hard for Dalkowski to succeed in his quest to join the majors, even though we know he ultimately fails. That comes up in evaluating his chances at reaching the majors at a given moment. Someone who can't throw strikes regularly isn't of much use to a big league team. Did striking out the side against the Yankees in a meaningless exhibition game mean much to his chances of reaching the Orioles? It's a tough call to say that now, especially when the pitcher's lifelong record of wildness is considered. There is a quote that says Dalkowski might have been on the opening day roster in 1963, although it was a big jump from the middle of the minors and his chances may have exaggerated just to be nice. 

There are a few such moments here. The good games along the minor league trail are considered signs of great promise, when his history tells us that they are more likely to be outliers. Dalkowski was promoted to Triple-A Rochester after the end of the season which is said to reflect that the Orioles' confidence in growing in him. It's much more likely that it was a paper transaction to fill out a roster once Baltimore set its 40-man major-league roster. The authors also take seriously am exaggerated comment from a teammate that Dalkowski had an IQ of about 60.

The three-headed approach to writing may have caused a problem in the finished product. Some information is repeated along the way here, so it probably could have used one more edit. 

It's easy to appreciate the effort that went into "Dalko," and it's nice to have the information as part of the public record. Still, the legend of Steve Dalkowski remains elusive after reading this, and it probably always will be.

Three stars

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Saturday, December 19, 2020

Review: Macho Time (2020)

By Christian Giudice

I had a relatively close, in-person look at Hector Camacho in the spring of 1985. He came to Buffalo to fight Roque Montoya for the NABF lightweight champion. The Macho Man was already a rising star at that point, and headed for bigger things and bouts. 

What I remember most about that week was the chance to see Camacho in action leading up to the fight. Camacho was everywhere, obviously having fun with appearing before the public. I believe my observation at the time was that he was like an elf, sprinkling fun wherever he went.

At a prefight luncheon, most of the fighters on the card spent their speaking time trashing James Broad, a heavyweight contender at the time who wasn't too popular with his peers for whatever reason. Hector jumped right in and though Broad had more than 70 pounds on him. Camacho said something like, "Give me a baseball bat, and I'll jump into the ring with him too."

For all the glitter and hi-jinks, Hector put on a good, workmanlike performance in beating a game Montoya. He obviously was someone to follow for the rest of his career. 

And what a career it was. Camacho had plenty of highs and some terrible lows in a too-eventful life. Hector, in fact, was so busy that it was tough to keep up with him. Therefore, Christian Giudice's book, "Macho Time," is a welcome addition to the boxing library. 

Camacho was born in Puerto Rico but moved to New York when his parents separated when he was three. It wasn't long before he was roaming the streets of Spanish Harlem, getting into some trouble but displaying a likeable personality that usually escape major incidents - although he did spend a little time in jail along the way. Luckily for him, Camacho became involved in boxing - a perfect match of his physical skills and his personality. 

Guidice makes it clear that Camacho was a natural at the sport - a standout before he became famous. Opponents couldn't find him, let alone hit him. Hector rose through the ranks relatively quickly. It took him three years to become a super-featherweight champion - only to see him move up in weight after two defenses. It was a similar story at the lightweight division, and in the junior welterweight title. While he piled up the wins, Guidice makes a good case that Camacho was never as good as he was when he first burst on the championship scene.

Camacho couldn't avoid the usual problems that often beset those in his situation - particularly boxers. In other words, you can take the boy off the streets, but you can't take the streets out of the boy. Camacho became a father at a young age, spent most of his life using drugs, and had no idea how to handle money. He fought until the age of 48 or so, and then was killed in what looked like a drug deal gone bad a couple of years later. 

Camacho's life story didn't really have the proper timing in some ways. He seemed to just miss bouts against epic challengers that could have proved his greatness. Hector didn't fight people like Ray Mancini and Julio Cesar Chavez until he was past his prime. That hurts the narrative a bit, since only big boxing fans would know some of the names that pass through here. 

The author certainly did his homework here. The list of interview subjects listed at the end is long and impressive. He also watched a lot of videotape as well, based on his descriptions of the major bouts of Camacho's life. Giudice might have used a few too many words in those accounts, slowing the narrative down, but that's a relatively small complaint. 

The Macho Man had quite a ride in his too-short life, and "Macho Time" captures it quite well. For those who followed Camacho's career closely, this is the book they've been waiting to read for years. As for the rest of us, it's a worthy effort.

Four stars

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Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Review: The Best American Sports Writing 2020

Edited by Jackie MacMullan

To use a newspaper term, it's sadly time to put a "-30-" at the end of the Best American Sports Writing series. 

Series editor Glenn Stout announces in the foreward that the yearly edition has come to an end after 30 years. It's been quite a run. Such anthologies have been around for decades; you might be able to find a few dusty copies in a second-hand bookstore or a big city library. The Sporting News picked up the tradition for a while. Then in 1991, the tradition resumed under the caring, watchful eye of Stout. 

We've seen through the pages of these anthologies how the business has changed so dramatically in the past three decades. The sources for material no longer are almost exclusively devoted to major newspapers and magazines. Plenty of good work has been presented by websites in relatively recent years.

You can also look at the names of the editors of the annual editions since 1991 and see another worthwhile change. There are some great names on the list - David Halberstam, Frank Deford, Tom Boswell, Dan Jenkins, Rick Reilly, Peter Gammons, Wright Thompson. In 2011, a woman joined the formerly all-male club when Jane Leavy got the job. Now she is joined by Jackie MacMullan, a former Boston Globe reporter who now does work for ESPN. 

Reviewing books in this series always has been a bit of a challenge, because usually the stories are almost always worth reading. The difference from year to year usually comes from the editor's picks, which are a matter of personal preference. That's certainly true for the 2020 book. MacMullen writes in her introduction, "None of the stories highlight exploits of stars from the major professional sports teams. Increasingly, elite athletes have opted to create their own 'brand,' churning out self-made glossy presentations shellacked with a veneer that lacks the authenticity of a story well told."

That's certainly true here. It's also true that the definition of "sports writing" is a bit stretched here, and that it's a rather dark collection of articles. There are stories here that you'd never find in the sports section of a newspaper, or in a sports magazine (remember them?). 

We need examples. A soccer game provides just a bit of framework on a story by Roberto Jose Andrade Franco on the problems in Juarez, Mexico. Kurt Streeter has an essay on the monuments of Richmond, which includes Arthur Ashe. Bryan Burroughs writes about killer tigers in India. Steven Leckart chips in with a story of a unique bank robber who uses a bicycle for his getaways. John Griswold has a fine look at a Louisiana prison rodeo - who knew? Emily Giambalvo tracks down some of the dogs who were involved in Michael Vick's dogfighting ring - many of whom are living happily ever after as pets. 

The book has plenty of other stories of course, but many come at issues from a different angles. There's the physical toll of playing championship chess, a recreational hockey player's experiences with concussions, the top women's college basketball player who turned down the pros to become a cloistered nun, the death of an Olympic cyclist, a complete novice tries to cover a tennis tournament, and so on. There are even some good old-fashioned investigations - the Astros' sign-stealing scandal, the NBA executive who turned into a $13 million crook, and the sexual predator lurking around track programs.

No, there aren't a whole lot of feel-good stories here. At least the book opens with a Bill Plaschke piece on how baseball is used to help those suffering from Alzheimer's. But there's a key point to be made here: I started every article, and finished almost every article (I must admit I skimmed the end of one from the halfway point). Therefore, MacMullen was clearly doing something right. 

This final collection may not be for those who have a narrow definition of sports or like their fun and games to be mostly fun, but those who read it should find it rewarding. And a word of thanks goes to Stout and Co. for 30 years of good reading. Let's hope someone picks up the ball and runs with it, as they say in corporate America, in the future. 

Four stars

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Saturday, December 5, 2020

Review: Attacking the Rim (2020)

By Dave Bing with T.V. LoCicero

It's easy to wonder if Dave Bing considered borrowing the words "I Led Three Lives" for his new autobiography.

That was the name of a 1952 book that was written by Herbert Philbrick; it was later turned into a TV series. The three lives mentioned were citizen, community, and counterspy. 

Pfft. That's nothing compared to Bing. He can list basketball player, politician, and business leader on his resume - with some notable success in all of them. It's hard to think of someone who has had more different types of challenges face him in a lifespan, which makes him a good candidate to get his thoughts down on paper in an autobiography. 

Bing, first and foremost to many, was a great basketball player. He arrived in Syracuse and gave its hoops program its first run of sustained glory in the mid-1960s. You might have heard of his roommate from those days, Jim Boeheim. He's still coaching at their alma mater more than 50 years later. 

Bing was the second overall draft choice in the NBA in 1966, going to the usually mediocre Detroit Pistons. He certainly did his best to change the team's fortunes during his time there. Bing was an instant star upon arrival, but simply didn't have the necessary help to make any sort of run in the playoffs. As a result, he might be overlooked when the great players of that era are discussed - and Dave had a great 12-year career despite being essentially blind in one eye. The Basketball Hall of Fame eventually called him for induction.

Bing always had been smart enough to realize there was life after basketball, and he prepared for it by learning various lessons in the business world. Eventually, Bing went out on his own, and put together a company that employed hundreds in the Detroit area and was a role model for minority-owned businesses. "Bing Steel" even picked up some national awards. Alas, when the Great Recession of 2008 struck, the firm simply didn't have enough resources to survive.

After taking the business as far as it could go - perhaps a year longer than it should have, because Bing wanted to keep people working, it was time to run for Mayor. The city of Detroit was in big trouble due to a variety of factors, one of which was corruption in the Mayor's office. Bing was considered an honest broker by most people in the city and served almost five years in the job. Eventually, though, the problems were just too large for the Bing Administration, and the state came in to help run the city under certain controls. Bing certainly did some good work, but miracle workers are few and far between. That finally allowed Dave to cut back a bit on work, but he threw himself into developing a mentoring program that tries to set up relationships between African American boys and men, one on one. 

In the book, Bing certainly comes across well. He's usually a serious man with one eye on the next step who always has paid attention to what has been going on around him. But from a literary perspective, there's a lot to cover here - and it's hard to give everything its just due. 

The basketball part of his life gets about half the pages dedicated to it. Bing didn't play for many top-notch teams in his career, so there aren't any exciting stories about big playoff games and superstar teammates (Bob Lanier is the exception to that). Bing is rather reserved in many of his comments, although he does write a bit about the drug problems that had entered the NBA by the time his final season in the league arrived in 1977-78. It's rather easy to figure out who the problem children were on the Boston Celtics' roster of that era. 

From there, the business pages go by pretty quickly. Bing doesn't get too technical here, but the material is a little dry for the general audience. The chapters on running the city of Detroit perk the text up a couple of notches, but I had the feeling that anyone outside the Detroit metropolitan area might have trouble keeping up with the cast of characters.

What do we have at the end then? My guess is that two books would have worked better. The basketball story would have been a fine idea for Bing back when his name was a little more familiar to fans. A second book easily could have been done on trying to turn Detroit around - and then sold to the readers in Michigan. It's hard to be anything but superficial when reviewing such a complicated, interesting life in such a short span of pages.

But let's add something else that's just as important. "Attacking the Rim" makes it clear that Dave Bing could serve as an excellent role model to those who seek one. That's a bigger win than any playoff game in the long run.

Three stars

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Thursday, December 3, 2020

Review: Commander in Cheat (2019)

By Rick Reilly

The first question about Rick Reilly's book, "Commander in Cheat," is a basic one. Does it deserve to be put on a blog that reviews sports books?

The pedigree is a good one. For the younger readers out there, author Reilly might have been as good as it got in the sports writing business during his 23 years with Sports Illustrated - back when SI matters. He wrote a back-page column for 10 years from 1997 to 2007. Reading it was usually one of the best parts of a sports fan's week. Reilly could write funny, smart, poignant and funny when needed. Funny is mentioned twice because it's difficult to bring humor to sports writing on a regular basic, and Rick did it week after week. 

The strain of writing all of those columns seemed to burn Reilly out, and he made the decision to bolt to ESPN late in 2007. There he did some TV features as well as some writing for ESPN the Magazine. I always had the feeling he had gotten away from what he had done best, although I couldn't blame him for seeking a change of pace. The arrangement stood until 2014, when Reilly retired from sports writing. Considering how well his books sold (several best sellers), it's hard to blame him for taking a step back. 

However, it would seem that the sight of Donald Trump on a golf course was enough to drive him back to the typewriter ... er, computer. Thus we have "Commander in Cheat." Since golf is at the center of the text, it can be placed here relatively safely.

It's rather obvious that Reilly loves golf, especially when it comes to the traditions and rules of the game. It's also obvious that Reilly hates the way Trump approaches the game of golf for many different reasons. Those time-tested traditions and rules - which go into a number of different areas - don't seem to apply to the 45th President of the United States. Think of Rodney Dangerfield in "Caddyshack," without the one-liners, and you get the idea. It's difficult to stay angry over the course of 242 pages, but Reilly more or less does it here - using a scalpel rather than an axe to carve Trump up. 

I suppose this list of offenses could be split into two parts. The first centers on violations of the game itself. The list probably starts with cheating during play, which might include kicking the ball into the fairway, not counting balls hit into water hazards, giving yourself putts under 10 feet, etc. That makes it difficult to judge how good a golfer Trump really is. He says he has a 2 handicap, but most experts rank him at a 9 or so - still pretty good for someone of his age, but not extraordinary. But it also includes matters such as driving carts on to tees and greens, hitting first off the tee and then taking off before others have hit (making it easier to cheat without someone watching), and so forth. Caddies are expected to throw balls out of the woods and improve lies. I'm not sure where inflating the legitimate number of club championships won fits in to this, but Trump has done that too - kind of like the size of his inauguration crowd. 

Then there are the larger issues of golf-related activities, many of them involving his string of courses around the world.  Environmental laws and norms are ignored during construction and remodeling, contractors are stiffed or forced to take pennies on the dollar, statements about improvements and valuations of complexes turn out to be extremely inaccurate, and lawsuits are filed regularly to drain the pockets of opponents. And that doesn't include the little, petty items - such as putting up a marker to a Civil War battle spot on the 14th hole at Trump Washington, even though there's no evidence that such a battle existed. 

All of the sins are nicely researched and chronicled, with Reilly providing the funny captions to keep the story moving along. The author only lets loose in the final chapter. One paragraph sums it up well: "When a man like President Donald Trump pees all over the game I love, lies about it, cheats at it, and literally drives tire tracks over it, it digs a divot in my soul and makes me want to march into the Oval Office, grab him by that long red tie, and yell, 'Stop it!'"

In short, Reilly had taken a laundry list of general actions by Trump that range from petty to horrible, and applied to just one subject: golf. The resulting book won't change many minds of the Trump faithful, but it does reinforce the feelings of disgust that others had about how the President acts. If you're part of the latter group, you'll find this very well done.

One final note: Reilly uses a quote to begin each chapter, and he uses one from Trump in Chapter 10: "My whole life is about winning. I don't lose." Well, more than 80 million people made him a loser on Election Day - and Trump can't kick any balls out of the fairway to change that, even though he's tried. 

Four stars

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Friday, November 27, 2020

Review: Willie (2020)

By Willie O'Ree with Michael McKinley

It took the National Hockey League quite a while to learn what a special player and person Willie O'Ree was and is.

Luckily, we now have Willie's own story about his hockey journey for reference. "Willie" shows what a remarkable life he's led.

O'Ree has been the answer to a trivia question for decades, of course. He was the first person of African descent to play a game in the NHL. Hockey's color line was shattered in January 1958 when he set foot on the ice for the Boston Bruins. To give you some perspective on what a step forward that was, the Boston Red Sox still hadn't used a black player at that point. Green integrated the Red Sox in the summer of 1959. 

You might say O'Ree beat some long odds to play in the NHL. He played at a time when there were few blacks playing hockey in Canada, the usual spawning ground for hockey talent. O'Ree had an ancestor escape from the South in the United States in the 19th century, and he landed in New Brunswick. It was the most natural thing in the world for someone in that part of Canada to want to play hockey, especially considering he had plenty of athletic ability. 

Yes, Willie encountered plenty of predjudice and racial taunts growing up, but in spite of the odd incident he mostly kept quiet and played hockey. It was a slow rise through the ranks, but O'Ree acquitted himself well in the NHL when he got the chance. The problem was that he didn't get much of a chance. Willie was traded by the Bruins in the summer of 1958, and wound up spending most of the rest of his career in the minors. 

And here's the amazing part. O'Ree did it with one eye that worked. He was blind in his other eye. Considered that maybe 130 players could call themselves NHL players in the Original Six era. Willie was right on the fringe of making it with one eye. Is there any doubt he would have had a good career in the world's best league with two good eyes?

O'Ree has a few stories about how the color of his skin led to some skirmishes during his hockey years. A couple of players, Erik Nesterenko and Doug Messier, get singled out for some unnecessary physical abuse here. Others in the game, from officials to the fans, are mentioned here as well. Willie stuck up for himself when necessary. For the most part, though, O'Ree turned the other cheek and tried to respond by winning the game. 

After retirement, O'Ree had a variety of jobs but couldn't get hockey out of his blood. Therefore, when the NHL called and asked if he'd like to help the league become diverse, he was ready. O'Ree has thrown himself into those duties for more than a quarter-century, and has received a ton of honors from a variety of sources. The biggest came when Willie went into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the builders' category. It was a popular choice.

O'Ree and Michael McKinley have written a relatively short book, but certainly Willie's class comes across nicely here. I could see this serving as an inspiration to teens, especially those in hockey. But fans of all ages ought to enjoy this. 

O'Ree's unofficial nickname became "the Jackie Robinson of hockey" along the way. They certainly had similar landmarks but very different lives. Still, they both are members of an exclusive club. It's about time we heard O'Ree's story at length, and "Willie" works nicely in filling in a gap in hockey literature. 

Four stars

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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Review: Remembrances of Swings Past (2020)

By Scott Pitoniak

Apparently retirement didn't stop Scott Pitoniak from his writing/publishing career. It just moved him into a new phase of his career.

Pitoniak is the fine sports writer from the Rochester area who has put together more than 20 books. This is the new one - at least as of this writing.   "Remembrances of Swings Past" is something of Pitoniak's greatest hits - with the emphasis on hits.

That's because this anthology is all about his work in baseball. He's obviously a huge fan of the game, having convinced his father to make some car trips from Rome (NY) to New York (NY) for New York Yankees when he was a child. The baseball still had a grip on Pitoniak, based on the way he writes so affectionately about the game.

So upon opening the book, we're off on a good-sized journey through the National Pastime through Pitoniak's eyes and pen/typewriter/computer. Since Scott spent most of his career writing in Rochester, you might guess that the book would concentrate on that city's athletic heritage. That's represented here, of course, but there's more to the story. 

Pitoniak jumps on anything that could be a good story involving the game. You can tell that he enjoyed going to the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, talking to a variety of people who passed through that picturesque little town - including Pete Rose, who looks as if he'll be on the outside of the Hall looking in for the indefinite future. Some history lessons come up along the way, as do the human-interest story such as the one about a baseball reporter who just happens to be blind. 

Pitoniak's boyhood affection for the Yankees still can be implied by reading some of his stories here. While that wouldn't be my choice for a team to back (ahem), Scott no doubt realizes that the Yankees are the favorite team of a plurality of fans in Upstate New York and thus he was writing for an enthusiastic share of the audience when he did stories on pitcher Ralph Terry and public address announcer Bob Sheppard. 

This is a self-published book through, and it doesn't have a great deal of bells and whistles connected to it (photos, graphics, etc.). Still, I've read a few of such projects, and I feel safe in calling it as well-edited as any such book that I've read. It's nice to have a professional in charge of the job. 

Each of the stories printed in more than 300 pages comes with a date. The one question worth asking is where the story originally appeared in print. I'm not sure what the copyright issues might be in such a book, but it did strike me as an odd omission. What that covered, I'll add that the book doesn't really feel dated at all. Pitoniak gets credit for that too.

Scott isn't a writer that has much venom in him, and he isn't trying to impress the reader about how smart he is (even though he's clearly a bright, inquisitive guy). The stories in "Remembrances of Swings Past" come out smoothly with the spotlight on the subject. That's harder than you'd think. 

One of the attractions of baseball for many is the chance to lean back into the past and talk about other eras. Pitoniak's book will more than please those who are in that classification. 

Four stars

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Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Review: Hockey's Hot Stove (2020)

By Al Strachan

Sometimes good information from Al Strachan can pop up when it is least expected. Here's an example.

Strachan writes in his book, "Hockey's Hot Stove," about the time when Alexander Mogilny announced in 1990 that he had a fear of flying and only would be playing games within driving distance of Buffalo, his home location at the time. This caused quite a bit of commotion at the time, since NHL players fly to games all over the continent. 

Here Strachan reports that shortly after the flying issue became public, Mogilny hopped on a plane, flew to New York, and headed for the office of Rangers' general manager Neil Smith. There Mogilny - who had defected from the USSR in May of 1989 - announced that he wanted to play for the Rangers. Smith treated Mogilny as if he were radioactive, telling him to get out of the office and go far, far away as fast as he could. I had never heard that story, even though I was working for the Buffalo Sabres at the time. It puts an entirely different tint on the situation.

That's what good reporters do, though - come up with good information. And Al, during a long newspaper career in Canada, was a good reporter. 

Most newspaper types usually are famous in their region. However, a national television job on the side can do wonders for visibility. That's what happened to Strachan, who was something of a regular on CBC's "Hockey Night in Canada" for several years. Now in retirement but still pounding out books, he's come up with some stories from that era in "Hockey's Hot Stove."

The backstory requires some explanation, especially for those American readers who aren't near the Canadian border. Hockey Night is a great tradition in Canada on Saturday nights, as millions have been sitting in front of radios and then televisions for many decades. While the games obviously are the attraction, producers have thought about another part of the broadcast - what do we do during the two intermissions? One of the long-term answers was supplied by Don Cherry, the former coach who had a run of more than 30 years on "Coach's Corner" in the first intermission. 

Then in the 1990s, CBC came up with "Satellite Hot Stove" for the second break, as opposed to player interviews or canned features. Baseball used the concept of a "hot stove league" informally to describe winter conversations about the game and its teams and players. People would gather around a stove on cold nights and talk about the summer game. It was that way in Canada too, except the subject was hockey and playing it wasn't far into the distance. CBC linked four analysts (usually newspaper people) by satellite during the second intermission, and let them slug it out. Strachan often filled one of those seats. It all worked, as the ratings stayed high right through the breaks in play.

In the book, Strachan reviews some of the segment's history from his perspective. He talked to some of the show's executives about how everything came together, as well as some of the other "insiders" who were part of the panel. Mike Milbury and John Davidson might be the most familiar names to American readers. 

As you might guess, that's not a particularly sturdy frame to hang a book on. Therefore, Strachan takes quite a few tangents along the way. He talks about his career, and how he went about acquiring information from various sources. Hint: It sure sounds like Al spent a lot of time in bars, to the point where it's easy to wonder in hindsight if that much drinking became something of a problem. 

Along the way, Strachan does make a key point about access in the hockey world these days. As the NHL has gotten bigger, it has become more conservative in its dealings with the outside world. That happens to large institutions when they grow. Interview opportunities for home teams on game days are essentially limited to mini-news conferences, with everyone getting the same quotes. As a result, the number of chances to talk to players and coaches on a one-on-one basis has been reduced drastically. Throw in the addition of the team's own media, which posts interviews on its website shortly after they take place, and it's difficult to get unique information. There are ways around that occasionally, but stories certainly are more homogenized than they used to be. 

This is all cheerfully disorganized, jumping from place to place at times. Strachan often has criticized people connected to hockey in his columns and books, and he doesn't back down here either. CBC executives probably take the worst hit this time around. Think of it as a Sunday notes column in some ways, and you'll be fine with it. 

It's tough to judge how well "Hockey's Hot Stove" will go over. For those who aren't within driving distance of Canada, obviously it's not a good fit. It obviously helps to have watched the show during Strachan's era. I was usually working on Saturday nights in those years, so I can't say I was a fan of the segment. But the resulting book is quick and easy to zip through with an entertaining, no-nonsense writing style. Besides, you might be surprised about what sort of information pops up along the way.

Three stars

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Thursday, October 29, 2020

Review: You're Hired (2020)

By Brian A. Rzeppa

Once in a great while, I receive a request on this site from a new author that asks me to take a look at his or her new sports book. If I have the slightly bit of interest in the subject, I try to take a look at it. After all, we all need a helping hand or six along the way, and maybe I can contribute some know-how with a review. (Note: If it’s not something of interest, I say so as well – because it probably wouldn’t help either of us.)

In other words … Brian Rzeppa, come on down!

New author Rzeppa has a master’s degree in Management and Organizational Leadership and a Bachelor’s Degree in Sports Management, and then moved on to work for a New Jersey newspaper. He’s branched into the book business with his effort, “You’re Hired – A Guide to Working in Sports.”

Let’s start with the good news, and it’s mostly good news. This reads like a professional effort. In other words, the words, sentences, and paragraphs flow together well enough. The language isn’t too simple or too fancy or too technical. It’s organized quite simply and logically. That’s an  important step; plenty of books don’t pass over that relatively low bar.

Rzeppa talked to 17 different people who came from a variety of different backgrounds. There are a few from the pro ranks, including a former baseball general manager. Some are administrators, including some athletic directors who have climbed up the ladder and stopped at various stages. After all, not everyone can become the AD at Florida. Then there are coaches, who obviously lead a nomadic life and often must uproot their family for the next opportunity – only to see a 19-year-old drop a pass in the end zone at the end of a big game, which leads to unemployment, which leads to another move.

The author gives a brief bio of the 17 subjects – which is a good idea, because by necessity the names are going to jump around a bit. From there, we’re off. The chapter headings are quite apt under the circumstances. They include interviews, searches, landing a job, challenges once employed, and learned lessons.

The keys, as Rzeppa puts it, are simplified into a few words: network, prepare, communicate, find balance, and be genuine. There’s a nice appendix that offers something of a sample philosophy statement for coaches. Tough to argue with any of that, and it’s nice to have it all on paper. Therefore, the book comes off as a worthwhile effort.

Two other points struck me along the way. The first is that this is a very narrow target audience as these things go. It’s not designed for beginners, who are just out of college and looking for that first or second job. I didn't rate it for that reason. The second is that “You’re Hired” is a relatively short book, checking in at about 150 pages.

Combining those two thoughts, I did find myself wondering if it would have been a good idea to widen the scope of the book to include entry level positions and higher. The lessons probably are similar in terms of what to do along the way. It would have been fun to read some origin stories along the way, and maybe find out from the success stories what they might have done differently in hindsight.

Take it from a guy who was inside it for almost six years and out of it for almost 40 others - the sports business is an odd one in one sense. It is considered a glamorous, fun profession, and that tends to depress salaries at the low end. You really do have to love it to stick with it in the hopes of getting rewarded. Baseball organizations are full of Ivy Leaguers who could be working on Wall Street but instead are calculating when the best time to pull out a pitcher from the World Series. (Note: those in Tampa Bay will tell you sometimes it doesn’t work out the way you want to be.)

But, most people need to try it, at least, to see if they are willing to put in the long hours necessary. As one minor-league baseball executive told me, “When someone leaves after a summer with us and discovers he’s not willing to do what’s necessary to have a career, that’s a valuable lesson too. It’s not a waste of time.”

For those already on that road, “You’re Hired” offers some good lessons in moving up the ladder. Good luck to them, and to first-time authors everywhere.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Captain (2020)

By David Wright and Anthony DiComo

For more than 40 years, the third baseman's job for the New York Mets read like something like an Abbott and Costello routine - as in "Who's on third?" The Mets started with Don Zimmer at the "hot corner" back in their first season and went through a parade of candidates after that. 

Then David Wright arrived in New York in 2004, and the parade stopped. 

Wright settled in for the next several players as one of the best players in baseball. He was a regular in All-Star Games, showed up every day, and was by all accounts as good a person as he was a player. 

Injuries caused Wright to start having difficulties staying in the lineup in his 30s, and when he did play he wasn't as good as he had been. It happens. Wright eventually retired after the 2018 season. 

No doubt there are still Mets' replica uniforms with Wright's name on the back scattered throughout the New York City area, and deservedly so. Therefore, it didn't take long for someone to come up with an idea that Wright should write a book about his baseball life. 

"The Captain" - which became a title and a nickname for him during his time with the Mets - is that book. No doubt it will be scooped up as holiday gifts in that part of the world, if not sooner. But will it be of interest to the rest of us? That's probably the key question upon picking it up.

Until he was 30 or so, Wright had something of an ideal baseball life. He came out of the Norfolk area with plenty of talent and even more drive to go with it. David apparently was at his happiest when he was in a batting cage, smacking line drives into the netting. It led him to status as a first-round draft choice by the Mets in 2001.  

After a quick journey through the minors, Wright arrived with the Mets for good in 2004 and quickly claimed a starting job. While David was a fine player for the rest of the decade, the Mets generally had their ups and downs. Then in 2011, Wright was injured on a play at third base - and everything seemed to go downhill. A guy who had never played fewer than 144 games in a season until then only would have one more season the rest of the way. He did help the Mets reach the World Series in 2015, but a healthy David Wright might have made a big difference in that matchup with the Royals. 

The most compelling part of the book comes at that point, oddly enough. Wright was something of a mystery guest to the team in his final few years. Since daily updates weren't given in that stretch, most fans didn't know what he was doing then. He writes with a lot of emotions as he discusses his unsuccessful efforts to heal enough to return to baseball. David sure spent a lot of time in different locations, working with doctors and rehab specialists in search of something of a short-term cure. But they didn't work, and Wright played one last game at the end of the 2018 season and then retired. 

Outside of those "lost" years, Wright's book simply doesn't have a great deal of drama in it. This may be a function of his personality, since he seems to be liked by almost everyone and goes out of his way to maintain good relations. In the meantime, though, there aren't a great many stories in the text about teammates, managers, etc. New York certainly had some characters pass through in his time there. A few anecdotes containing some laughs would have made much of the book less dry and more interesting. 

There's little doubt that major leaguers can be role models for some, and David Wright was a good person to choose if someone needed a bit of guidance. This book backs this up 100 percent. You can let your kids read it, because there's nothing offensive in it and they'll no doubt pick up some lessons on behavior. I think this explains some of the enthusiastic reviews that it has gotten from some readers. 

However, "The Captain" is a bit too insular to have much wide appeal. Maybe Wright needed a little more time to take the events that are now in the rear view mirror and put them into perspective. Instead, this comes off as a simple review of the basics. It will work for some, but will leave others wanting more. 

Three stars

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Saturday, October 17, 2020

Review: One to Remember (2020)

By Ken Reid

It's always interesting to be read about "the one and done" club. That is to say - stories about someone who did something worth noting once, but stopped at that point. Professional sports is the obvious group for that, since statistics and record books are kept for such purposes. But it probably could apply to some other professions. First time before the Supreme Court? First heart operation performed on a patient? First published story? You get the idea. 

Ken Reid did a book on people who had the chance to play in one National Hockey League game. It was a quick,enjoyable read. Now Reid comes back with a similar book about those who scored one goal in their NHL careers. "One to Remember" is much like its cousin, "One Night Only."

Reid talked to 39 different people - most of them from the recent past - who scored one goal but only one goal at hockey's highest level. If you have heard of more than - let's see - five of the people on the list, you watch a lot of hockey. Three of the solitary goal-scorers are goalies, and those names are more well-known. Billy Smith is a Hall of Famer, while Chris Mason and Damian Rhodes had enough time to make an impact in the league.

Otherwise, these are not household names. I do remember Mike Hurlbut turning up in a Sabre uniform in the late 1990s for a couple of games. Brad Moran was drafted by Buffalo but never played there. Scott Metcalfe was acquired by the Sabres during the 1987-88 season, and scored during his 17 games with the team. Every hockey fan knows Dave Hanson from his time in the movie "Slap Shot." So that's seven - not bad. A few others sound a little familiar, perhaps because they were high draft choices. But many others are complete unknown. 

Many of the stories are about what you'd expect. Player gets called up when a team needs a warm body for a short time - and he scores in that brief appearance. It may be on a skilled play, or it may be luck, but said player still gets a puck on a plaque and the right to say he scored an NHL goal for the rest of his life. Many played several years in the minors or in Europe, while others moved on to other things. Some played more NHL games because they were enforcers at the time, and their skills and ice time were limited.

The best stories are the unusual ones, of course. Reid wisely starts with the story of John English, who scored a goal but got stabbed a week later and needed to fight for his life before recovering. His hockey career never did recover, though. Steve Coates scored one goal for the Flyers, and wound up spending decades as part of the team's broadcast crew. Brent Tremblay faked out Gordie Howe for his only goal, but his back wouldn't let him play much longer and he wound up in the ministry. 

Reid tells the stories simply. He also comes across as sympathetic to all of his subjects. He knows that every kid that has ever laced on skates for a game of hockey wants to score in the NHL some day, and reaching that goal is worth celebrating. That makes "One to Remember" pleasant reading for anyone who picks it up.

Three stars

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Thursday, October 1, 2020

Review: The Spencer Haywood Rule (2020)

By Marc J. Spears and Gary Washburn

This sounded so promising at the beginning. 

The so-called "Spencer Haywood Rule" is a great starting point for a book. Haywood came out of the University of Detroit early to sign a contract with the the Denver Rockets (later the Nuggets) of the American Basketball Association. After a spectacular rookie season in 1969-70, that included winning the MVP and Rookie of the Year trophies, Haywood became upset with his contract terms and wanted to jump to the more established NBA. 

A major reason that he couldn't do that immediately was that his college class hadn't graduated yet, and the NBA didn't take players unless they qualified under that rule. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, and Haywood finally won. 

The ripple effects of that decision are still being felt today. If a player who is a year out of high school is good enough, he can go straight to the NBA. A ton of great players have done that over the years, including LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Garnett for starters. And really, why shouldn't they be able to sell their services if there are employers willing to pay them? That's the way it works for virtually every other industry. If a 19-year-old computer programmer wants to drop out of college to work for Microsoft for $500,000 a year, he or she can.

There's probably a good story about all of the background that led up to this landmark court decision. Unluckily, this isn't it. What we do have is a relatively simple, and somewhat frustrating, semi-autobiography of Haywood called "The Spencer Haywood Rule."

"Semi-autobiography" may not be the right word for this, but it will do. Authors Marc J. Spears and Gary Washburn obviously spent quite a bit of time interviewing Haywood about his life's story. The resulting quotes serve as something of a foundation for the book. (Be forewarned - you're not likely to ever see many books with the word "shit" used in so many different ways as it appears in Haywood's quotes.) Spears and Washburn then supply supporting material to the story, no matter how rational Haywood's points might be - and sometimes they aren't. 

The story starts off well enough. Haywood grew up in rural Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s. Slavery may have been outlawed a century before that, but make no mistake - Spencer and his family members were essentially slaves. Haywood's stories of those days are chilling and gripping: education was secondary to working the cotton fields at certain times of the year, and African American caddies served as targets for white golfers on the driving range. I must say, I'd still have a little bitterness inside of me if I grew up in those surroundings. It's good to see he could overcome that sort of start to make something of himself. 

Haywood eventually was sent to live with relatives in Detroit, where he grew into his body and became a basketball star. Spencer spent a year at Trindad State Junior College in Colorado, where he dominated play. Somehow he caught the attention of people looking for players for the 1968 U.S. Olympic team, which was having trouble recruiting player in that turbulent era. Haywood made the team, and the Americans probably wouldn't have won the gold medal without him.

From there it was on to the University of Detroit for a season, and on to the start of his pro career mentioned earlier. It didn't take long for Haywood to show he belonged in the NBA, putting together four excellent seasons on some so-so Sonics' teams. Along the way, Haywood apparently wasn't winning any popularity contests on the team - no reason was really given - and Spencer was sent to the Knicks. His play slipped a notch or two in New York, and he also married fashion model Iman. That led a trade to New Orleans for part of a season, and a move to Los Angeles - where he developed a cocaine addition that led to him sitting out the end of the NBA Finals in 1980, won by the Lakers. 

The Lakers couldn't get rid of him fast enough at that point, and Haywood was off to Italy for a year before returning to the NBA. The Washington Bullets added him for two seasons, but he apparently headed to New York when Iman got into a severe accident ... without working out the details with the Bullets, who let him go. And that was it for his basketball career. 

Haywood cleaned up his personal life after his Lakers' days - good for him - and has done some work with addiction victims. It's not overly clear what else Spencer has been doing with his time in retirement. In some cases, it certainly sounds like he's bumped into some racism. In others, the actions are a little harder to defend. For example, there is some anger expressed at the Detroit Pistons because they didn't hire him for a job after his retirement. After all, the book argues, Haywood brought a lot of fame to Detroit through the gold medal and his basketball exploits - not to mention the "Spencer Haywood Rule." The case about what any of that has to do with the Pistons isn't quite clear. There's also a little anger here about the time it took for the Sonics to retire his uniform number (ironically, it came shortly before the team moved to Oklahoma City) and reach the Basketball Hall of Fame - although he did receive both honors. 

"The Spencer Haywood Rule" has its moments, and it's good to see that Haywood seems to be in a better place personally these days. Still, by the end of the book I was happy that I was moving toward the conclusion. Think of it as a missed opportunity, and you'll get the idea. 

Two stars

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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Review: Off Mike (2020)

By Mike "Doc" Emrich with Kevin Allen

Mike Emrick deserves all sorts of credit in the field of sports broadcasting. He's outlasted just about everyone when it comes to hockey announcing in the United States. Emrick started calling hockey in the early 1970s, and here he is - almost 50 years - later still working hard at his craft. In fact, he turned up on some of the broadcasts of the NHL's long playoff system in the summer and fall of 2020. 

At least the pandemic came up at a time that Emrick was free to finish his autobiography. The finished product, "Off Mike," is scheduled to be released in October. It's about what you'd expect - pleasant, with a few good vocabulary words thrown in along the way. After all, who else can describe a goalie's equipment as his "paraphenalia"?

It seems unlikely that a veteran American broadcaster would grow up in a small town in ... Indiana. That seems like "Hoosiers" country to most, a place where basketball is kind. But on December 10, 1960, he caught his first hockey game in person in Fort Wayne as the Komets hosted the Muskegon Zephyrs. Mike caught the bug right there. 

It seems like every broadcaster had to go about the business of paying his dues in order to reach the big time, and Emrick was no exception. He worked as an announcer at small radio station, took any job he can get, and made the usual mistakes along the way. The good ones learn and get better. Broadcasting is sort of like the music business when it comes to hitting the big time. You never know when someone will be in the right place at the right time. Emrick worked in such places at Port Huron, Michigan, and Portland, Maine. 

If anything, Emrick gives the impression that he was very content working on minor league hockey games. Some of the best stories of the book comes from those days. One favorite was the time that a drawing was held in Portland to determine which of the ticket-holders would become the winner of a car. Sue Hamilton's name was announced; so far, so good. And then two women showed up by that name. Which one would win? The fans started chanting "two cars!" Somehow, the team figured out which Sue Hamilton was the rightful winner, and the other received enough free gifts to leave her content as the first runner-up. As you'd expect, some of the legendary minor league brawlers of that era comes of as well.

Emrick eventually got the call to the big time, and he has followed the bouncing rights contracts when it comes to employers. Mike has worked for Emrick has also done play-by-play for CBS, NBC, NBCSN, ABC, TNT, ESPN, Fox, CSTV, SportsChannel America, SportsChannel Philadelphia, PRISM, Fox, and a few others. He must have a lot of blazers stored somewhere. Emrick also has done a lot of traveling over the years, and he didn't help himself at times by living quite a distance from the home rink. For example, while working for the Flyers, he and his wife commuted from Hershey - no small task. 

"Doc" (his nickname because of a Ph.D in communications) mostly has been working for national broadcasts for almost a decade. This has allowed him to brush up against some hockey legends, like the time he sat down with Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr for a long interview. Emrick also is famous for collecting little bits of information to drop into broadcasts, such as the fact that Gretzky and David Letterman attended the same high school in Indianapolis (but not at the same time, of course). 

It's easy to guess that the drawback of that sort of schedule in terms of the book is that he's not around one place long enough to get to know many of the principals well. So most of the other tales that fill the rest of the book are about his life - with or without a microphone. It all goes dowm smoothly enough, but it's hard to say it is compelling reading throughout the book. 

Emrick in person is a lot like his on-air presence - a good guy who wears well over time with most. "Off Mike" isn't a book that will leave you with tons of anecdotes to pass along to others, but it goes by quickly in a pleasant way. There's nothing wrong with that. 

Three stars

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Monday, September 21, 2020

Review: 24 (2020)

By Willie Mays and John Shea

My favorite quote about baseball legend Willie Mays comes from, of all people, actress Tallulah Bankhead, Apparently around 1962, she said something like “There have only been two geniuses in the world – Willie Mays and Willie Shakespeare.”

Shakespeare still has his fans, a few hundred years after his prime, of course. But just about everyone loved Willie Mays during his baseball career and during his life in retirement.

Mays was more or less than the best all-around player in the history of baseball. He cranked out great seasons like he was a copying machine, year after year after year. If the phrase “five-tool player” (someone who could hit, hit for power, field, run and throw) wasn’t created for him, it certainly applied to his tool box of talents. What’s more, he played baseball with a mixture of joy and showmanship so that no one could look away.

More importantly, he made his debut in major league baseball with the New York Giants in 1951. Willie played in the Negro Leagues for a while, but then crossed that barrier to play with baseball’s best. Once Mays had gotten some experience at that level and served time in the military, he was ready to take centerstage. When he did that, he wouldn’t leave it for close to 20 years. Everybody loved him so much that it was hard to make any sort of argument that the majors were no place for a black man. If anything, it was the other way around – Willie deserved to play in an even better league.

Mays hasn’t played since 1973, so the number of people who remember him in his prime are growing fewer. At 64, I remember Willie as a veteran star by the time I began to pay close attention to baseball in the Sixties. So anyone too much younger than I am probably doesn’t remember much about Willie the player, at least in terms of first-hand information.

There have been some good biographies of Mays. James Hirsch’s book, “Willie Mays,” certainly qualifies. The book “24,” by Mays with John Shea, isn’t an autobiography in strict terms. Still it serves a couple of functions. For those who remember Mays on the field, it will bring some good memories of the way he patrolled center field for the Giants for about two decades. For those who don’t, the book serves as an educational tool as to why he is remembered so fondly today.

Shea did most of the heavy lifting on this book . The San Francisco baseball writer found out that Mays wanted to do something that kids could use for inspiration. I guess the chapter headings could serve that purpose. They are given such titles as “Honor Your Mentors,” “Have Fun on the Job,” and “Strive for Excellence.” But it would be an exaggeration to say that this belongs in the self-help section of the bookstore.

Shea gets good-sized points for not taking the easy way out here. He tracked down all sorts of people to get them to talk about Mays. That includes Presidents of the United States (Clinton and Bush), Negro League teammates, Giants and Mets teammates, opposing players, and current stars. It’s quite the All-Star lineup, and apparently almost all of the material is fresh. Even Barry Bonds is happy to say nice things at length about his “godfather.”

Each chapter focuses in on a certain aspect of Mays’ career. Shea provides some perspective, Willie adds some quotes, and Shea takes it from there with background information and other interviews. Perhaps the best sections are the ones where Mays does the most talking – he gets to do that a lot in the section on his status as a five-tool player, and that might be my favorite part of the book. As for the "genius" description, it seems that Willie tried to notice everything on the field - to the point where he'd move the other fielders around depending on the situation. In addition, he never seemed to forget anything that happened in a game. Perspiration really joins with inspiration to make a genius.

Now, to be fair, this book was written to make Willie look good. There’s nothing in here that reflects badly on Mays, not a word that tarnishes that good image. The problem is that some stories get repeated quite a bit, and the praise piles up. Sometimes that can be a little, well, tiring … as in, we get the point.

But a book by and about Willie Mays is review-proof. People interested enough in the subject at this point will love it from page one. I might as well criticize chocolate ice cream or Santa Claus. Willie deserves all the praise he gets here. Needless to say, those who still appreciate what he did on and off the field will love “24.”

Four stars

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