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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