Saturday, May 30, 2020
We've been lucky enough to receive the SNY feed of New York Mets broadcasts for the past several years. Some of the baseball hasn't been too good in that time, so announcers Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez often have spent air time singing the praises of Jay Horwitz, a member of the team's public relations department for almost 40 years and now in charge of alumni relations.
Horwitz has seen a great deal of Mets history, and he's managed to get along with everyone in his job and put a smiles on faces almost every step of the way. To do that with the New York media moves him into Presidential Medal of Freedom territory.
Since that honor probably isn't forthcoming (I think), an autobiography might be the next best thing. Thus, we have "Mr. Met" - a breezy and upbeat look back at the life of one of baseball's good guys.
Horwitz didn't start out life as someone who spend so much time in athletics. He was born blind with one eye but still loved the games. So, he did what he had to do. After college, Horwitz found work with some New York City area colleges as a sports information director. There he had a talent for finding stories that attracted the attention of the media, which is no small task when you are at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Horwitz passed along stories on everyone from a college hockey player in his 40s who doubled as a priest, and a world-class high jumper who was quite short.
From there, it was on to the Mets' job - as he got hired after knocking a large container of orange juice into the lap of general manager Frank Cashen. From there, we're off on a tour of Mets history over four decades. The big seasons (World Series trips) and special events (9/11) get plenty of coverage, as do some of his favorite personalities - like John Franco and David Wright. The author probably spends the most time reviewing the time spent by the various managers used by the Mets over the years. Heck, Horwitz even has plenty of nice things to say about Art Howe, whose tenure in New York wasn't exactly memorable or successful.
That sort of tone more or less runs through the book. There are no scores settled here. Horwitz only makes fun of himself during the 250 or so pages. Several Mets figures apparently supplied quotes for the book, and all of them are quick to praise Horwitz' work over the years. That feels sort of funny to read in an autobiography, and I'm not sure it's all necessary.
The book also quotes several newspaper stories about a particular time and place, occasionally but not always including references to Horwitz. Again, this feels a little like padding. Why not hear about it from the point of view of the author?
"Mr. Met" is obviously written by a devoted Mets fan with a target audience of devoted Mets fans. If you fit into that demographic, the book will be a pleasant read for you - and you'll understand why Horwitz is a beloved figure in Mets lore. Just don't expect any inside stories about what happened during difficult situations in team history from someone who still bleeds orange and blue.
Learn more about this book from Amazon.com
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Sunday, May 24, 2020
The publication of a book like "Three Seconds in Munich" brings up something of a quandary for a book reader - and, more specifically, a book reviewer - that can be a bit rare.
There's a "haven't I been here before feeling" to reading this.
Back in 2012, Mike Brewster and Taps Gallagher wrote a book about the 1972 Olympic basketball final between the United States and Soviet Union. It was called "Stolen Glory."
I went back to my review of it, now posted on Amazon.com, and looked it over. Some of the remarks for that book probably could apply nicely to "Three Seconds in Munich." I don't really want to do a compare and contrast approach of the two books, partly because 2012 was a long time ago so I'm not sure about how the details might match up.
The subject is still an interesting one. You probably could call this the Soviet equivalent of the "Miracle on Ice," the 1980 hockey win by the United States over the Soviet Union at the Olympics. The twist with the 1972 story is that it came with a great deal of controversy, to the point where no one - even the winners - probably feel too good about what actually happened in the game.
America had taken a 51-50 lead on Doug Collins' two free throws with three seconds left when the USSR inbounded the ball and the game apparently ended. But wait, it hadn't. They tried again to end it, not much happened, and the game apparently ended. But wait, it hadn't. So they tried again. This time, the Soviets completed a long pass for a lay-up, and the game ended for real with a different winner. The USA team was understandably upset, and it has noted never to accept the silver medals in protest. In fact, the members are still upset, more than 45 years later.
I remember watching the game, and the ending really was a mess. Buzzers were going off at odd times, and rules were forgotten or not enforced properly along the way. The referees allowed matters to get out of hand, and chaos followed. Certainly, the language barriers involved didn't help. basketball official R. William Jones should have kept his nose of the whole situation, especially when he seemed to be rooting for the Soviets in order to made the event more competitive because of more than 30 years of American domination. The best solution probably would have been to declare it "no contest," like they do in boxing, and give out gold medals to both sides. But that wasn't done too often in the Cold War era.
There's little doubt that Sweet is on the side of the Americans here. In his recap of events during the game, he points out all of the times that the USA was apparently a victim. It can feel a little heavy-handed in spots, as if he is more of an advocate than an observer. Sweet also has a chapter called "Was the Fix In?" While the book brings up a few pieces of information, some of it interesting and some of it at least subject to interpretation, you'd think an arranged outcome would have been a bit neater in nature.
Sweet deserves credit for tracking down some of the American participants, and getting good stories. The opening tale from Tom Burleson on his experience during the terrorist attack in Munich is fascinating reading, and there are quotes from others about the Games and the basketball final. A few Soviet players also are heard here, which is nice.
Add it up, and "Three Seconds in Munich" offers a good overview of what went on that night in the summer of 1972 in Munich. For those who read "Stolen Glory," you probably don't need to read this version. But if you didn't, it should work pretty well.
Learn more about this book from Amazon.com
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Saturday, May 16, 2020
The stories from those who were baseball fans around a particular age in the fall of 1970 are remarkably similar. They were usually boys in high school or close to entering it. Their parents came around and asked what they wanted for Christmas or their birthday, and the answer came back, “I’d like a baseball book.”
But they didn’t want just any baseball book. They wanted a particular baseball book. The parents, who probably hadn’t been paying attention to the fuss caused by this particular baseball book, probably didn’t give it much thought as they headed to the book store to buy it. They probably were merely happy to see their boy showing interest in reading.
And that’s how a certain generation came to acquire “Ball Four” – Jim Bouton’s diary of the 1969 baseball season. Their parents didn’t know what was inside of those covers, but their kids did. The youngsters learned about drug use and Peeping Toms and office politics and the joys and frustrations of playing the game. Every assumption we used to have about the baseball life was essentially blown up, page by page.
What’s more, Bouton was the perfect man to perform the demolition – someone at the right place in the right time. Not only was he an outsider – someone who didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the group – but he was also smart and funny. “Ball Four” was frequently hilarious. It holds up today quite well on a number of levels.
Those kids, who are now on the verge of retirement, probably are a big part of the target audience of “Bouton,” a biography by Mitchell Nathanson. They will enjoy this thoroughly.
It’s always interesting to read stories about how baseball players were scouted and “recruited” in the days before the amateur draft began in 1965. Bouton was not a sensation in high school, but was persistent and worked his way toward prospect status. After spending a little time in college, he signed with the New York Yankees – who, in that era, more or less had their pick of players because everyone wanted to play with a perennial champion. Bouton surprised everyone by moving into the Yankees’ starting rotation.
Bouton was a 21-game winner in 1963 and pitched in the World Series, but he was already starting to feel pain when he threw. Oh oh. He scratched out one more good season in 1964, and then he and the Yankees, by coincidence, both disintegrated. Bouton hung around the Yankees organization for a few years without success, and his career was clearly going nowhere.
However, along the way, Bouton made friends with some of the sports writers covering the Yankees in that era – the ones that had noticed what was going on in the Sixties and had stopped writing the same old stories that had been part of sports journalism for a few decades. Bouton was the perfect subject for them – smart, funny, accessible, and aware.
You can see the roots of “Ball Four” taking shape here, and that section might be the most interesting part of the book. Bouton teamed up with Leonard Shecter, and decided to work on a diary of Bouton’s baseball year. Everything fell into place for the project. Bouton started the season with the first-year Seattle Pilots, a collection of has-beens and never-will-bes, and ended it with the Houston Astros, who were on the fringes of the pennant race. Bouton wrote down notes on what he saw, and read those thoughts into a tape recorder – and shipped everything to Shecter, who turned it into a book.
You may have heard what happened from there. The Baseball Establishment reacted with absolute horror, which did nothing but increase sales to those who wondered what all the fuss was about. A classic was born, and something of a folk hero was created.
The story wanders a bit from there, if only because Bouton’s life did the same. He’d get an idea in his head, and it would be hard to dislodge it until it was played out. The pitcher did return to the majors for a short time with Atlanta in 1978, when others would have given up on that dream long ago. Bouton went into sportscasting in New York City, where his free-spirited approach of ignoring the usual rules in the field helped pave the way for the revolution in that industry. Some business ventures didn’t work, some of them – like “Big League Chew’ bubble gum – were a fabulous success. Bouton always something new was just over the horizon.
Nathanson talked to many people who provide perspective on Bouton’s life … or, in a sense, lives. The families, including both of Bouton’s wives, are quite forthcoming about how everything happened. Professional associates also had plenty to say about him. Even when they didn’t particularly like what Bouton did, they agree that he certainly ranked as one of the most memorable characters in his life.
It’s hard to think that anyone who hasn’t read “Ball Four” will be too interested in this story from a distance. However, the book is still out there if you wish to find it, and it is still worth your time. For those who have memorized its contents, though, this book will be eagerly gobbled up by those anxious to read the rest of the story.
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Wednesday, May 6, 2020
The first test of an autobiography comes down to one question: Do you like the person while reading it?
That seems simple, but sometimes it can be overlooked. The reader will be spending a few hours with the author, and he or she doesn't want to find the company repulsive.
That brings us to Paul Stewart, the author of "Ya Wanna Go?" I liked him immediately, and thus he was off to a good start.
Paul is the grandson of Bill Stewart Sr., who ranks as one of the most interesting sports figures of the 20th century. He not only was a very good athlete in the day, but became a hockey coach (winning a Stanley Cup) and referee and served as a major league baseball umpire. Wonder if that guy wrote a book? He should have.
Paul's father, Bill Jr., also was dedicated to sports, but in a slightly different way. He was a teacher and coach at a Boston high school for more than three decades, but he also officiated in football and hockey at high levels. These are two very interesting figures in the family tree, and Paul has good stories about them.
Soon enough, though, we get to Paul. His story is an unusual one as well, as it's taken him through all sorts of adventures over the years. Stewart was a good high school hockey player known more for his work ethic than anything else. He loved the game enough to do anything to advance in it. It led to a spot on the University of Pennsylvania hockey team, and he worked at a variety of jobs to pay for his education while studying and playing hockey.
Stewart left Penn to join the professional hockey ranks. The problem was that there was only way to stick for any length of time, and that was to be tough. Well, Stewart was willing to do that. The point can't be stressed enough - hockey's enforcers usually don't have another way to the big leagues, because they don't have the skills. So they are willing to get punched in the face a few times a night if that's what it takes.
Most of the time, that meant Stewart spent his days in some of the lower classifications of pro hockey, where fights were almost expected a couple of times a night. You'd swear Stewart was taking notes about those bouts, because there are a lot of details included - perhaps too many. It's easy to get the idea. Those punching talents did lead to a brief stint with the Quebec Nordiques of the NHL, though. How many of us wish they could say they were a major league athlete, even for a few games.
After he finished his time in hockey, Stewart had some odd jobs but still missed hockey. He did have officiating in his family tree, and he decided to give it a try. As he put it, a referee must know the rules, and Stewart figured out a way to break all of them during his playing career. Who better to enforce the law? He was helped by NHL officials supervisor John McCauley, who I knew a bit back in the day and who was one of the true gentlemen of the hockey business in the day. There are plenty of good stories about the business of officiating, as you'd expect - he worked more than 1,000 NHL games.
The third and last major section of the book centers on Stewart's own battle. He foolishly ignored the signs of physical issues for too long. When he finally went to a doctor for an exam, colon cancer was the diagnosis. Stewart almost didn't make it. Then again, he points out that he's been battling obstacles all his life, so what's one more? He finished the job, and now he's doing what he needs to do to get by.
This appears to be a self-published book, since there's no sign of a publishing label. That means the book might lack some polish. Some stories and thank-yous get repeated, especially at the end, which probably is a sign that another look by an editor might have been appropriate.
I have heard around hockey circles that in an officiating business that generally is filled with good people, Stewart is one of the favorites. It's good to get his story out in "Ya Wanna Go?" and it will be easy to root for him to be healthy in the years to come.
Learn more about the book here.
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