Monday, March 30, 2020

Review: The Last Good Year (2018)

By Damien Cox

It was several years after 1993, and a hockey writer from Toronto and I were chatting. Not surprisingly, the 1993 conference final between the Los Angeles Kings and the Toronto Maple Leafs came up.

My friend pointed out that one of the sad parts of the outcome of that series was that a Toronto win would have matched the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Finals for the last time. Those teams had some legendary struggles in the Original Six days, but the Leafs soon would be headed back to the Eastern Conference and thus unable to play Montreal, another East team in the final at that point.

I replied, "I understand that. But if you are the Maple Leafs, playing Game 7 at home for the chance to go to the Stanley Cup finals, YOU'VE GOT TO WIN THAT GAME!!!" And he agreed with me.

It's a sign of the weight that particular series still holds. It's also a sign that a good book reviewing the seven-game confrontation was a good idea.

Damien Cox, one of Canada's best sportswriters a veteran hockey writer, was up to the task. "The Last Good Year" is a nice trip on the time machine back to 1993.

It's important to remember why this particular playoff year was so important to Leafs Nation. Toronto's last Stanley Cup was in 1967, an eternity for a city that is one of hockey's capitals. Interestingly, that was around the time when the Maple Leafs lost their monopoly on signing young players in much of Ontario as a draft of 20-year-olds was being phased in during that decade. The Leafs sunk into the abyss, and have rarely gotten their heads above water ever since.

That made 1993 rather special. Toronto's playoff appearances usually had been infrequent and brief in those 25 years. That made the Maple Leafs' run to the conference finals that much more special. Doug Gilmour was at the height of his powers, and players like Felix Potvin, Dave Andreychuk and Wendel Clark were along for the ride. They were coached by Pat Burns, who brought coaching ability and fire to the organization.

The opposition was provided by the Kings, who had never won anything in their history (which started, by coincidence, in 1967). But they had the greatest scorer of all-time in Wayne Gretzky, almost at the end of his run as the NHL's best player by far. He was bothered by back problems by ths time, but he still could recall his talents. Gretzky had players like Luc Robitaille, Jari Kurri and Rob Blake on his side, and a young coach in Barry Melrose who had brought some fresh air to the team.

Cox tracked down videos of all seven of the games between the teams, and he puts a spotlight on one individual per game and lets that person talk about his memories of the game and series. He interviewed Marty McSorley, Gilmour, Kings owner Bruce McNall, Bill Berg, Kelly Hrudey, referee Kerry Fraser, and Gretzky.

There's plenty of play by play from the author about how each game went, as the momentum swing back and forth. It's fun to read about what went right and what went wrong in key situations. Cox has been around long enough to notice the difference in hockey between then and now. The games back then were not for the meek, even if we associate that sort of play with someone like Gordie Howe in the 1950s. A four-round playoff series was almost a matter of "last team standing." Toronto, which had two seven-game series between meeting the Kings, probably ran out of gas - although they were hindered along the way by a non-call on Gretzky in a key situation by Game Six.

It took quite a while for both teams to rebound from the series. The Kings never built on their momentum and spent a long time wandering in the desert before winning Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014. The Maple Leafs are still waiting for that first Cup since 1967, and who knows when that might come.

If you are old enough to remember this series, "The Last Good Year" is a fine way to relive it and learn about it at the same time.

Four stars

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Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Review: The Back Roads to March (2020)

By John Feinstein

Time to go on a little road trip with John Feinstein.

One of America's most prolific - and best - sportswriters when it comes to books (not to diminish his other talents) is back in the new releases section of the bookstore with "Back Roads to March."

And like everyone of the others, it's worthwhile.

The words "little road trip" might not be the most descriptive of the book. It's more of a year in the college basketball life of Feinstein. While he certainly paid to attention to the big colleges that qualify as national powers in some of his work, he went out of his way in 2018-19 to keep up with the less powerful of the teams - the mid-majors and below.

You might have one of those schools in your town, particularly if you live in the Eastern part of the country. Interest in those teams and conferences is quite low among the population at large, and to be honest sometimes it's not so high at the school itself. In fact, you could argue that if it weren't for the ticket to the NCAA tournament that the conference offers, some schools wouldn't bother playing at all.

But that doesn't mean there aren't good players at such universities A few pop up on NBA rosters. Plus there are good stories everywhere - players and coaches who overcame long odds just to get where they are, with hopes of doing even better.

Feinstein's joy about attending a college basketball game, particularly in a new place (for him), shines throughout the book. He's also a big enough name to be able to sit down with coaches, players and administrators to receive a nice overview of the season. So we get to spend a little time with people like Ryan Odom, who coached UMBC to its memorable upset of Virginia (1 vs. 16) in the NCAAs of 2018, and Tommy Amaker, who has helped Harvard - Harvard! - become a regular contender in the Ivy League. There are even a few side trips to old friends like Jim Calhoun, still coaching a Div. III school in his mid-70s, and Lefty Driesell, still a character in his 80s.

One nice surprise for me here in Western New York was the inclusion of the story of Nate Oats, who was coach at the University at Buffalo before leaving for Alabama in 2019. I covered a few games for the Bulls under Oats and followed the team relatively closely. I can't say I had heard that UCLA, one of the great names in college basketball in the sport, had called him to see if he wanted to come to Westwood. Then again, Oates comes across as extremely open and candid about his situation at that particular time.

I suppose there will be those who won't like the regional focus of most of the book. In addition, there are a lot of names and teams here, and sometimes it's easy to get a little confused for a moment.

There's a little sadness reading this book right now, when we aren't watching the NCAA Tournament. It's been cancelled because of the Coronavirus of course, robbing us of three weeks of hoop fun. No matter. "The Back Roads to March" works quite well for anyone who feels some anticipation when the horn blows in a gym to signal that the opening tip-off is a minute away - no matter who is playing.

Four stars

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Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2020

Edited by R.J. Anderson, Craig Goldstein and Bret Sayre

Milestones can sneak up on you ... sort of like an unexpected fastball.

The ever-changing group from Baseball Prospectus celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. That means it is a good time to look back a little bit.

We've come a long way since Bill James started producing Baseball Abstracts in the 1970s out of his house in Lawrence, Kansas. He more or less pointed the way to using data to test theories about sports, and it started a revolution. Since that time, when the information hasn't been available, we've figured out a way to get it.

The folks from Baseball Prospectus have been the leaders in that movement in baseball. They've got an avalanche of tools in their kits, which can be a little intimidating. Luckily, there's an effort to drive the numbers toward conclusions about player development. They aren't always accurate - we are dealing with humans, after all - but it's become a heck of an annual resource.

We're now at the point where analytics is an important part of almost every sports organization. Graduates from Baseball Prospectus are littered throughout organized baseball. One of the most famous now might be Chaim Bloom, the Chief Baseball Officer of the Boston Red Sox. Oddly, the head of the alumni association might be Nate Silver, who became famous through his political analysis. Data is still data, no matter what form it comes in.

There are bunches and bunches of contributors to this book now. You can have the best editors in the world under such circumstances, and the writing is going to come out uneven in such circumstances. The book has gotten away from its old snark since its origin, which is missed a little bit at times but probably helps the product be taken more seriously.  The team essays are the best example of that. A few seemed a little pointless, while others were off target. But the player essays, the meat of the book, are fine as usual. You'll refer to it during the season every so often.

Most of the complaints center on a couple of points:

* The Kindle version of this book is a mess. Without seeing it, I would guess that a publication with so many charts and graphics wouldn't translate well to a Kindle. Easy solution - buy the actual book.

* There are a few comments that could be considered left of center politically along the way - emphasis on "a few" - mostly connected to domestic abuse charges of players. The material comprises a tiny percentage of the words in a 588-page book ... but don't say you haven't been warned.

There's not much new in this year's edition. One addition was to highlight the player capsules of the top 100 prospects in baseball within the team sections. I usually don't spend much time reading the capsules of players who haven't appeared in the majors yet, but those now carry a "must read" signal to casual readers like me. It's a good move.

After finishing "Baseball Prospectus 2020" you'll feel ready for the upcoming season. Can't ask for more than that. It's another great job.

Five stars

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