Monday, September 13, 2021

Review: Year of the Rocket (2021)

By Paul Woods

Books about the Canadian Football League don't pop up on this blog very often, and for a very good reason - I live in the United States.

"Year of the Rocket," written by Paul Woods, is the exception.

Raghib "Rocket" Ismael's career is quite a story, at least at the beginning.  He was raised in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and went to Notre Dame to play football. The Rocket may not have been the best pure player in the country, but he certainly made things happen. His blinding speed made him a threat to score a touchdown whenever he had the ball in his hand. Ismael finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting that year, and certainly figured to go high in the first round of the 1991 draft. 

However, Bruce McNall had other ideas. He thought he saw a back-door method into the National Football League by buyig the Toronto Argonauts of CFL. If the NFL wanted to expand to Toronto someday - and really, why wouldn't they? - the owner of the Argos might have the edge in winning that franchise. But the CFL team would have to become much more relevant than it was at the time.

So McNall, the owner of the Los Angeles Kings, decided to take a shot at making this all work. To do that, he enlisted Wayne Gretzky, who was playing for the Kings at the time, and John Candy, an actor/comedian from Ontario. They put up a little money, and bought the Argonauts. Then the group essentially bribed Ismael to skip the NFL and play in Toronto. The rookie received $4.5 million per year for four years, making his annual salary larger than the rest of the team's income. 

But it didn't work for a couple of reasons. The Rocket was supposed to serve as a spokesman for the team in its attempt to gain attention, and he really wasn't the least bit ready for such responsibilities. Candy tried to fill in for Ismael in a sense, and worked hard to make the Argos go. But the other problem was that McNall was a crook - a go-to-jail-for-financial fraud crook. His sports empire was made out of paper. The Argos hemorrhaged money, and even a championship didn't help. The team, and McNall, ran out of cash rather quickly, and the experiment ended when the franchise was sold. By the way, McNall says in the book that he never could figure out how to get the NFL to add a team in Toronto as long as Buffalo's Bills were just down the highway.

Woods worked for about four years putting all of this together. Some of the principals wouldn't talk about it, even today, and others like Candy had died. But most of the other key personalities were more than happy to speak about this era of Canadian football. In hindsight, most treat it as something of a dream where they look back and say, "Did all of this really happen?"

Clearly Candy is the star of the show here. He was a huge football fan, and it was his childhood dream come true to own the Argos. Candy was full of ideas, and was willing to do almost anything - well, except for investing more than $1 million - to make it work. What's more, John had a ton of fun doing it - as the stories show. There are plenty of other people who were a smaller part of the story who turn up in the book to provide facts and perspective.

If there's a downside to the book, at least for Americans, it's that the Argos' football story needs to be told along the way. Almost all of the names besides the Rocket on the roster and coaching staff will be unfamiliar to U.S. readers. Therefore, it's tough to draw people in to read about a quarterback battle during Toronto's 1991 season. 

Even so, 'Year of the Rocket" goes by as quickly as a punt return for a touchdown, as it checks in at less than 200 pages. No, the cast will attract a very specialized audience. If you qualify, you will be entertained.

Four stars

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Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Review: Papi (2017)

By David Ortiz with Michael Holley

It's time for another discussion about that literary phenomenon - the double autobiography. And the person in question is baseball standout David Ortiz.

Fans of the Boston Red Sox might remember the book, "Big Papi." The slugger came out with the story of his life in 2007. He was in the middle of his career then, a hero already because of his work in leading the Red Sox to the World Series title in 2004. You might have heard that it ended an 86-year "curse."

After that book was written, Ortiz went on to continue his exploits in Boston. He was a big part of two more World Champions, and eventually went past the 500-homer milestone. Ortiz retired after the 2016 season. 

What happened next? He wrote another book.

"Papi" is that book. So what's it like?

For starters, it takes Ortiz and coauthor Michael Holley 114 pages to cover the years of his life through 2006. That's about half of the book. That particular fact might give you a little pause about reading this version. It's fair to say, though, that retirement freed Ortiz up to be a bit more candid about his entire baseball career. So from the perspective of more than 10 years later, this probably is the story that you want to read to get something of the inside scoop on his life. I say probably, because I'm not sure I read the first one.  

Ortiz's story is relatively well-known among baseball fans. He signed with Seattle out of the Dominican Republic, and was traded to Minnesota. Ortiz did relatively well with the Twins when given a chance, but Minnesota opted not to sign him when he was finding his way through the majors. By the way, the reviews of the first book indicate that David didn't like Twins manager Tom Kelly in 2007, and he didn't change his mind a decade later. Ortiz signed with the Red Sox, eventually won a job, and was on his way to being arguably the best designated hitter in history.

The Red Sox went through a variety of ups and downs after 2004. What stands out here is that Ortiz is very loyal to his teammates, which is understandable. He was close to Manny Ramirez during their time together, even if Manny wasn't much easier to figure out if he was your friend. So when the Red Sox didn't try hard enough to keep established talent on the team - see Jon Lester - Ortiz was angry about it. He still is, years later. Such personalities as Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington take a hit along the way here, and not without some justification. Big Papi is still upset that Terry Francona pinch-hit for him with Mike Lowell way back around 2009. Ortiz has a long memory.

Number one on the hit list, though, is Bobby Valentine. He was the manager of the Red Sox for only a year, 2012. But Ortiz was convinced that the team was on the wrong track as soon as spring training ended. In fact, some veterans almost went to the team's ownership on the first road trip to ask for a switch in managers. The mutiny was delayed, but Valentine didn't last the year. 

This is all told in a breezy way. Sometimes those who speak English as a second language can produce a book that's a little choppy, but Holley deserves credit for making it flow rather nicely.  By the way, the coauthor of the first book, Tony Massarotti, takes a hit along the way too. It comes with a description of what happened when Ortiz's name popped up on the Mitchell Report. By the way, there's not too much behind-the-scenes description of that episode, at least until the end when Ortiz finds out Major League Baseball isn't assuming he was on steroids in that era.

"Papi," then, should satisfy your curiosity about Ortiz and the Red Sox teams of his era. Just don't expect too much more than that.

Three stars

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Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Review: Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised (2021)

By Carmelo Anthony with D. Watkins     

At its heart, "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised" isn't about basketball.

It's more about sociology and urban studies than any other category. The book will be in the sports section of the bookstore, because the author has been one of the best basketball players on the planet. Just don't expect a recap of his achievements here. There's more at stake.

Carmelo Anthony has been a sensation ever since he burst on the national scene in 2002. Rapid fans of high school basketball, especially in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, had heard about him. Carmelo is the type of unique name that is simply fun to say and hard to forget. When he helped Syracuse University win the national championship in 2003, just about everyone in the sport had heard about him, and had seen what a special player he was.

This is the first part of the story, from birth to the NBA draft, and it's an interesting one. Anthony began life in New York City in one of the toughest sections of that town. He didn't even know his father, who died when he was an infant. Carmelo moved to Baltimore at the age of eight or so, with his mom and, at least toward him, generally angry stepfather. The family settles into a neighborhood there that's more of a place to survive than to thrive.

The people there do their best to move from day to day, but it's not easy. Families are far from traditional. The neighborhood economy has little to offer, particularly when it comes to jobs. That forces people to dive underground into drugs and other social ills. Guns are plentiful, and deaths are almost expected at some point.   

Anthony was lucky. His mother did whatever she needed to do to keep Carmelo in line and happy. If a relative or a friend needed a place to eat or sleep, the Anthonys would make room for him or her. Somehow. They might sleep in a closet, but they'd be warm and dry. As a child, Carmelo really didn't know how it all worked, but he certainly appreciated the effort.

The transition toward maturity wasn't without its bumps, of course. Anthony was on the edge of trouble at times. It's sometimes a balancing act between following the rules of the streets as well as the laws of the community. But among the many people that come out of such places, Carmelo had an advantage - he was good at basketball. That got him a ticket into a private school, allowing Anthony to see how the other half lived. But there were cultural clashes on the way.

Anthony spent the summer between his junior and senior years of high school in summer school, working off a string of detentions and raising his grades a bit. That actually hurt his visibility in the basketball world a bit, since he missed most of the summer camps and competitions where reputations are made. Anthony was urged by the Syracuse coaches to get out of Baltimore at that point, and he spent his final year of high school at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. There he played on a team filled the stars, and was ready for the big time when he walked in the proverbial front door of Syracuse University.

The key to the story is that it is "authentic." It's a serious, straight-ahead story of the ups and downs of his experiences. The fact that it's coming from one person doesn't hurt the story at all. These are his experiences; it's up to the read to make generalizations from there. Certainly some people are going to feel like going on-line and looking up some phrases in the Urban Dictionary. It won't hurt, and you might learn something. The story moves along quite well as Anthony tells the story with the power of simplicity.

"Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised" is hardly a conventional memoir.  But, it works. The publication should hold your interest throughout. The book is another sunk basket in the second half of a life that's had a lot of them.

Four stars

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Saturday, August 21, 2021

Review: Ice Bowl (2021)

By Ed Gruver

Almost a year after the birth of the Super Bowl, the Ice Bowl was born.

That became the unofficial nickname of the NFL Championship game of the 1967 season. It was played in Green Bay between the Packers and Dallas Cowboys. The winner would go to the Super Bowl, which made its debut on the American sporting scene a year before. It matched the AFL and NFL champions.

Why Ice Bowl? Well, it was cold. Frightfully cold. The temperature at kickoff was minus-15 degrees. It didn't get any warmer as the day went on. Since it was the coldest NFL game ever, the images from that game became memorable. Green Bay picked up a reputation as an ice box on that day, and it lingers to this day. 

Naturally, the game led to the production of a few books over the years. One of them was "Ice Bowl," by Ed Gruver. It seems to have originally been published in 1998. Now it's back for something of an encore run. 

Gruver wrote the book in a brisk (pardon the accidental pun), easy-to-read way. After setting up the day of the game, the author dives into the history behind the game. That essentially begins with the arrival of the respective coaches in the Ice Bowl, Green Bay's Vince Lombardi and Dallas' Tom Landry. The two had been coordinators with the New York Giants in the 1950s, and it's hard to believe the Giants let both of them go. They both won a lot of games as head coaches. 

By 1967, the Packers had established themselves as the gold standard for football. They had won NFL titles in 1961, 1962, 1965 and 1966. So 1967 would make it three in a row, which is rare air. Green Bay was getting old, and Lombardi was about ready to leave coaching, so there was a sense of urgency. The Cowboys had only started playing in 1960. After a slow start, Landry had put together a powerful roster. Their ascension to the top almost seemed inevitable. Almost, because the Packers were in the way.

Eventually, we get to the 1967 season, and the teams begin a march toward another showdown. They both took some detours, but they reached the NFL championship game. No one wanted a game played below zero, if only because skill took a back seat under those conditions. But as football coach Chuck Knox used to say, you have to play the hand you're dealt. 

Gruver gets to the game in the final few chapters, and the story picks up in intensity. He nicely mixes descriptions of each play with comments from those involved. Toward the end, the story has the added benefit of the play-by-play of the game as delivered by the Packers' radio network. So you'll learn a lot about what did happen, what the participants were thinking at the time, and what might have happened.

There are a couple of issues with the book, one old and one new. The old concerns the weather. Should the NFL have played the game, no matter how memorable it turned out to be? I think you could make an argument that playing at that temperature was unfair to players and fans as well as downright dangerous. It would be interesting to find out if any lessons were learned from the experience. 

In addition, this is a reprint of a book from almost a couple of decades ago. There isn't any need to do much updating most of the time here. Still, the last chapter had some references to participants that obviously are out of date - some of them have died, for example. It wouldn't have taken much work to revise those few portions. Otherwise, readers might be tempted to go to the library or used book store and look for an original copy of the book.

Even so, "Ice Bowl" was written to offer a review and perspective of a famous football game. That hasn't changed now. It still works as a review of a game for the ages.

Four stars

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Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Review: The Big East (2021)

By Dana O'Neil

Talk to any basketball fan who was around in the 1980s, and they'll immediately become nostalgic when the Big East Conference is brought up. The league was formed in 1979, and had a magnificent run where almost every game between the best teams was a main event. The players were terrific, and the coaches were fascinating. 

While the conference still exists in a different form today, a look back at those crazy first 10 years is always appropriate. Dana O'Neil, now with The Athletic, covered some of those games. She's taken a fun look back in "The Big East" - a celebration of that era.

A little history lesson might be in order before we get going. The universities in the Northeast had some history when it came to college basketball. The problem was that there were so many schools playing. The state schools tended to dominate the sport in other parts of the country. That made groupings like the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference a natural. Most of the schools in the East were independents, and were only loosely associated in the 1970s. 

Then the NCAA started to insist on teams playing in a conference in order to gain admission into its lucrative tournament. Dave Gavitt of Providence had the idea of picking off the biggest schools and forming a conference in the late 1970s. The idea was to select universities that played in major markets. There were a lot of eyeballs in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington. That in turn would draw television dollars. So on May 31, 1979, the Big East was born. Boston College, Connecticut, Georgetown, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Syracuse were the charter members, with Villanova joining the party a year later.

It took a little time, but soon the top players started to stay close to home to play college ball. The location was attractive, as was the fact that cable television was emerging as a power player in the sports business at that time. Then the Big East moved its conference tournament to Madison Square Garden to New York City. And everything sort of exploded. In tournament week, the Garden had almost as many stars as there were on Broadway. Names like Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin and Pearl Washington turned up. Just as importantly, there was a fascinating cast of coaches that were constants, year after year. John Thompson intimidated, Lou Carnesecca charmed, Rollie Massimino laughed, Jim Boeheim whined, and Jim Calhoun competed. They were all great in their own way.

O'Neil talked to about 60 people and it shows. It seems that all of them have a bundle of stories about the Big East, and are happy to tell them - even if they've made the rounds before. It was obviously a magical time in all of their lives, and they have no problem with reliving it. The pages go by quite quickly in an entertaining manner. The author gives almost all of the original teams a moment in the sunshine in the form of a chapter, more or less. The seven squads eventually made it to the Final Four in the decade covered. 

If there are nits to be picked, this isn't a particularly analytic look at those days. It must have been rather frustrating for teams like Boston College, Providence and Seton Hall to do the equivalent of banging their heads against a wall in going against the big powers. It might have been nice to read what that was like. There were also about three too many shots taken at Syracuse about its weather there, but as a graduate I'm a little sensitive about that. 

The Big East Conference essentially blew up once football came into the equation in the 1990s, and conference realignment has changed everything - and maybe not for the better. Still, the Big East has changed in order to survive, mostly with schools that don't play football. There's something nice about that. The tradition continues, and if someone wants to know why that matters, "The Big East" fills in many of the details nicely. A lot of people are going to love this book.

Four stars

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Thursday, August 12, 2021

Review: Inexact Science (2021)

By Evan Dowbiggin and Bruce Dowbiggin

"Inexact Science."

When it comes to the National Hockey League draft, you've got that right. 

It's never easy to predict the future when it comes to a player's performance in professional sports. Hockey might be the most difficult of all of the major sports in that regard. A scout for an NHL team has to look at a 17-year-old and figure out what sort of player he might be at the age of 23 or so. Everyone makes mistakes in this area, but make enough of them when you do it for a living, and you might have to find a new living. 

The NHL's drafts are the subject of a book from Evan Dowbiggin and Bruce Dowbiggin called, yes, "Inexact Science." To be more specific, the Dowbiggins take a look back at some of the most interesting drafts in the last 50 years. That's almost as long as the NHL has had an open entry draft. 

The authors decided to pick six of the drafts, and look back at what happened. They start with 1971, when the Canadiens had the chance to pick either Guy Lafleur or Marcel Dionne with the first overall choice. There were no bad options there, of course, but Lafleur, a Quebec native, was a natural choice. However, the Dowbiggins reveal that the Canadiens at least talked about trying to obtain the second choice in a trade so they could have both. Montreal might have won even more Stanley Cups in that decade than the six they did claim if that trade had gone through.

And away we go through the drafts. The best player who could have been available in 1979 was Wayne Gretzky, but he wasn't eligible for some complicated reasons. That's also the year that 18-year-olds became eligible, which changed the draft business quite a bit. Mario Lemieux arrived in 1984, and the actions by the team looking to draft him helped change the rules of the draft down the road. The world started to open up to the NHL scouts in 1989, and the Red Wings got there first with a draft that set up their dynasty. Two years later, we had a repeat of sorts when Eric Lindros became eligible. He was supposed to be the next star, and he used his leverage to force a trade to the Flyers. Finally, there's the story of Sidney Crosby, picked by the Penguins in 2005 after they won a unique lottery for the first choice.

The Dowbiggins covers the subject in a professional manner. They talk to some people to obtain fresh perspectives on some of the issues. For example, Lindros's actions about refusing to play for the Nordiques look a little different now, knowing what we know about Aubut (charges of sexual harassment led to his resignation from the Canadian Olympic Committee) may alter our perceptions of the player's actions. They also do a redraft of the players available in a particular year, knowing what we know now. That's always fun.

One complaint about the choices might center on Gretzky, who receives most of the coverage in that chapter. That was a heck of a draft because of the extra talent that became eligible that year, although it was hard to sort it all out. Eleven players who were taken in the first round played at least 1,000 games in the NHL, and six more turned up in the later rounds. The best player taken in the first round might have been Ray Bourque, who went eighth. Michel Goulet was taken at No. 20. The latter might be more interesting than the former, although it's tough to go wrong when you are writing about the best player ever.

This is a relatively easy read, although I wouldn't call it compelling. I was guess a lot of big hockey fans know a great deal about the circumstances about each of these famous drafts. That means they might not learn a great deal here. 

Therefore, those looking for some basic information about the specific stories and years in the book will enjoy it. Others not in the sweet spot still will find "Inexact Science" at least entertaining. 

Three stars

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Monday, August 9, 2021

Review: Indy Split (2021)

By John Oreovicz

In hindsight, it all seems so silly.

Auto racing in this country used to be rather simple. On one side was the events that used one type of cars, mostly notably on Memorial Day weekend in Indianapolis. Let's call them Indy Cars for the moment. On the other side, NASCAR used vehicles that looked more like something you'd have in the garage - thus the name "stock cars." Each had its own niche in the world of auto racing, and everything was peaceful.

Then came the arguments and the battles. The Indianapolis side of the sport blew up, over and over again over the course of a couple of decades. It caused hard feelings and financial losses. 

If you weren't paying close attention to what was going on, it was difficult to follow. After all, it's tough to sort out CART and Champ Cars and IRL and USAC without a program - not to mention the types of cars and their parts involved. 

So it's John Oreovicz to the rescue here. The veteran motor sports reporter has come up with what should stand as the complete version of the Car Wars (come to think of it, that might have been a better title) in his book, "Indy Split." 

Here's an attempt to simplify the story. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway put on a race every year that was known throughout the world. You win the Indy 500, you are a celebrity - at least back in the 1960s. The problem was that it couldn't leverage that popularity easily into a series of races that could hold fans' interest over the course of several months. The Speedway and United States Auto Club split on such matters, but an answer wasn't in sight.

Thus CART - Championship Auto Racing Teams - was born in 1979. That series staged races all over the world, essentially piggybacking on the Speedway's success. They co-existed for several years, but everyone had to figure that fights over money and power would come up at some point. And they did, with the Speedway setting up its own series (IRL). One side had the famous track, and the other had the famous drivers. It got to the point where CART staged its own race on Memorial Day weekend in 1996. That really didn't please anyone. 

CART and its successor, Champ Car, limped along for another dozen years, dragging down auto racing in the process. Finally in 2008, the two sides came together under one banner. Even so, it's been difficult to find the right formula for success since then. 

With that out of the way, we have a basis to discuss Oreovicz's book. It's really a step-by-step review of what took place during the almost 30-year span when there was no peace or harmony in the Indy Car world. He has a ton of information about the battles, and adds plenty of quotes from the participants that were published at the time. Oreovicz also doesn't ignore the racing aspect of the story, and it gets a hand-in-hand treatment with the business side.

But does it work? It's a fair question. The answer probably is "it depends."

Racing fans who can recite the last 18 Indy winners should find this quite interesting. As for the more casual fans out there (guilty), the book may not work as well. Part of that is the technical side of describing racing cars. I've certainly heard about inches of boost in race cars, although I am not prepared to explain what it means. And the various acronyms of the sport can be a little confusing. 

In addition, it would have been nice for the author to provide a little perspective on what happened along the way.  A few quotes from participants along the lines of "Looking back, if we had done this ..." might have been very helpful to improve the story flow. In essence, there are 400 pages of play-by-play here, and it does drag a little. One footnote to that: Oreovicz gives seven people involved in the story a few pages each at the end to tell about his experiences along the way. All of them, by the way, that the recent purchase of the Indy Speedway by Roger Penske should get the sport back on the right track - once this pesky Covid-19 stuff disappears.

It's tough to know if a book like this should be completely written for the zealots, or if it can draw in the casual observers. "Indy Split" probably leans toward the former a bit too much. But for those who will swallow up all of the details, they'll enjoy this review.

Three stars

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Saturday, July 31, 2021

Review: The Baseball 100 (2021)

By Joe Posnanski

Ever hear of "the sweet spot" in sports?

It usually comes up in baseball, although it probably applies to golf too. The sweet spot is that magic place where a ball meets the object perfectly in order to achieve maximum distance. 

With that in mind, let's discuss "The Baseball 100" by Joe Posnanski. 

The idea of discussing baseball's best all-time players is right on his sweet spot. 

When the pandemic arrived in early 2020, Posnanski started to write an article a day about the 100 best baseball players for the Athletic. It obviously required a lot of work, but each article was something of a mini-biography of baseball's greatest names. While it didn't linger on basic information, there were so many stories and rankings and quotes about each player that all 100 of them were a delight to read. Now it's all in one place in book form; there obviously been a little updating since the original version was published.

Posnanski always has come across as a bit of a romantic in his writing, particularly when it comes to the history of the game. He loves the idea that baseball has been played since the middle of the 19th century in one form or another, and therefore has a connecting thread from then until now. Posnanski is realistic enough to know that sometimes there are flaws in our heroes, but he emphasizes the positive for the most part here. It works really well in this format. When Posnanski wrote a book about Joe Paterno at Penn State, the Jerry Sandusky scandal was just breaking and I got the idea that he became uncomfortable with incorporating that aspect of the story within the large concept of Happy Valley.

I know a little something about these lists. In the last few years I've written four of them - Buffalo's sports numbers from 0 to 99, Buffalo's biggest trades, Buffalo's top free-agent signings, and Buffalo's draft choices (by overall pick number from 1 to 100). They aren't easy to do, and Posnanski spent more time on his list than I did in all four combined ... times five. My guess is that he made one very good decision when it came to ranking the players: he didn't take the exact placement all that seriously.

Therefore, Jackie Robinson comes in at No. 42, the only fully retired number in major league baseball. Joe DiMaggio gets No. 56, after his hitting streak. Frank Robinson and Mike Schmidt share No. 20, because they wore that number. No. 19 is skipped, because  the Black Sox scandal was in 1919 and this way the numbers even out at 100. You want to argue that DiMaggio should be higher? Go ahead. Posnanski is too busy coming up with fun information to care too much, and you're missing the overall point. That said, his opinions seem generally on target.

There are only a couple of warnings that come with this book. There are some advance statistics involved, such as ERA+ and WAR. Posnanski does explain what the figures mean at the beginning. I can't say they should get in the way of your enjoyment of the book.

In addition, this is 300,000 words. I read it on a Kindle, and just discovered that it translates to 880 pages. That's a lot of reading, especially if baseball is not one of the most important parts of your life. I think the only longer book I've ever read was "The Power Broker." Maybe you don't want to lug it to the beach. Read it while sitting on your favorite chair or couch instead.  

"The Baseball 100" will tell you about players you don't know, and about players you thought you knew. It does it in a style that will leave you more than interested every step of the way. Aaron Judge would be proud about how this one came off the sweet spot and exited the ballpark.

Five stars

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Friday, July 23, 2021

Review: Getting to Us (2018)

By Seth Davis

The bookstores have a very big selection of books on leadership, mostly in the business sense. Not all of them have connections to the sports world, but the percentage is surprisingly high. The best coaches sometimes sit down with a co-author, dash off some general statements that probably fit into the common sense department, mix in a few stories from his life's work, and sit back and wait for the royalty checks. 

The problem is that they usually aren't too interesting. That's why "Getting to Us" is a very pleasant exception.

Davis is a nationally known writer and has done some broadcasting work with CBS, particularly around the NCAA tournament. He's obviously good at what he does. Someone who had heard some of his interviews on top coaches told him he had the makings of a book on leadership. Davis decided that friend was right and got to work.

The result may not inspire you to lead your troops, business or otherwise, into battle. It's simply a heck of a good read.

Davis starts out with the premise that the best coaches are trying to build a small, successful community - one that has people thinking they are part of "us." Along those lines, he uses an acronym - because it's not a book on leadership without an acronym. In this case, it's PEAK - persistence, empathy, authenticity, and knowledge. 

Then it's on to the coaches. Davis may have started with a list of candidates for potential chapters, and then weeded them down on the basis of who would talk at length and who would be interesting. In any event, he chose nine great subjects: Urban Meyer, Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Harbaugh, Jim Boeheim, Geno Auriemma, Doc Rivers, Brad Stevens and Dabo Sweeney. 

There are occasional references to "getting to us" and PEAK along the way, but don't worry about it. These stand alone nicely as profiles of interesting people that would be welcome in any quality magazine. The stories of the way their rising to top of the profession reminded me of musicians. Yes, you need talent to move up the ladder. But sometimes there are sacrifices made along the way, and a couple of wrong turns would have turned most of them into anonymous assistant coaches somewhere, or a salesman of some sort. They all had plenty of drive, but often needed a break or two to reach the pinnacle.

I can almost guarantee that you'll learn something about all of these coaches. Come to think of it, for example, I don't think there's been a more insightful piece on Boeheim written anywhere. While some of the stories may be familiar to fans of a particular coach, the tales should be unfamiliar and thus striking to many. The best example of that was Sweeney, whose parents split up in high school and left him and his mother essentially homeless for some time. There are plenty of "behind the scenes" stories here, particularly about how tough it is to be a coach and also be part of a family. Even the good ones struggle to find a balance. 

Davis wrote a couple of excellent books on the 1979 NCAA basketball final and on John Wooden in the past; the Wooden book probably will be the definitive word on that subject. "Getting to Us" is good in a different way. You'll enjoy every word.

Five stars

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Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Review: Billy Martin (2016)

By Bill Pennington

Weren't there enough books out there about Billy Martin to leave almost anyone satisfied?

Apparently not. 

It's a little difficult to explain Martin to those who didn't live through his baseball career. He had five separate stays as the manager of the New York Yankees, and just about all of them were anything but boring. Since New York is the capital of the publishing world, anyone who spent time around the Yankees in that period seems to have written a book. Martin even got into the act at one point with an autobiography. 

But 25 years after Martin's death, Bill Pennington came out with a book putting all of the details in one place. The result is "Billy Martin," but the most important phrase might be the subtitle. There's little doubt that Martin really was baseball's flawed genius.

Martin came out of the streets of Oakland with a chip on his shoulder, determined to make it in the world of baseball. He worked his way up the ladder and reached the top with the Yankees, who were reigning over the sport in the 1950s. It almost wasn't a World Series if they weren't there, as they failed to make it only twice from 1949 to 1964. Martin wasn't the best player out there with a New York uniform, but he was firey and seemed to come through in the clutch more often than not. The man loved the spotlight.

The problem was that he was considered a bad influence off the field on such stars as Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, although as Pennington outlines the reverse probably was even more true. Martin was shipped out of town and had a generally uneventful second half of his career elsewhere. His personality and knowledge of the game were such that a manager's position seemed inevitable. Billy had stops in three other cities before landing the job of his dreams, manager of the Yankees. 

Let the chaos begin. Martin had built up a reputation as something of a wizard as a manager, and he guided New York to a World Series win in 1977. But that was his only championship. In those early years, he joined with owner George Steinbrenner and superstar Reggie Jackson in a three-sided relationship that never could become stable. Every so often, there'd be a big argument, or Martin would say something he'd regret, or Billy would be in a fight with a marshmallow salesman (that one is too good not to include). Whenever Martin was threatened, he would fight back - and he'd throw the first punch. 

Mix all of this with Martin's drinking, which was sometimes over the top, and explosive situations often followed. Women are part of the story as well, as Martin had four wives over the years - and it's fair to say he wasn't the most faithful of spouses. 

Pennington covered a lot of it for a newspaper in the late 1980s, and thus has some first-hand information on what happened during those times. But it's the research that makes this book stand out among others on the subject. He wrote it well after Martin had died in an auto accident in upstate New York, when emotions had cooled quite a bit. That allowed friends and family members to be more forthcoming about the details of Martin's life. You can understand why people were attracted to Martin, but also understand why many wondered if there was any way to get through to him in order to change some of his behavior. Yes, it was all one big package. 

Interviews are mixed nicely with the information from other sources, such as those endless books mentioned before and accounts written at the time (newspapers and magazines). So this becomes a balanced look at someone who drew all sorts of reactions from people over the years. The one question centers on the fact that it might be difficult to read so much about a personality who sometimes isn't too likeable. But for many, we just can't help taking a peek at the scene of the accident.

Readers can seek out all of the other information on this controversial character if they want, or they can simple pick up "Billy Martin." Pennington's biography is likely to stand up as the one version worth saving for posterity. 

Five stars

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Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Review: Bubbleball (2021)

By Ben Golliver

"What was it like?"

That's one of the basic questions that can be answered by journalism. Reporters can often take readers and viewers to places that usually they would never get to experience, and describe the feelings they had along the way.

Realistically, that's the attraction to Ben Golliver's book, "Bubbleball."

The Washington Post reporter was assigned to cover the NBA's resumption of play, straight through to the playoffs, in 2020. You might remember - no, you do remember - how the pandemic forced the league to come up with a way of finishing the regular season, holding the playoffs, and declaring a champion. 

To do that, the principals had to go to Orlando to spend as many as three months in a bubble. The league went to amazing lengths to make sure that everyone inside of that bubble was safe. Happily, there weren't many slip-ups.

Selected members of the media also were invited to come in to the bubble to cover the games and the news. Golliver, the Post's top NBA reporter, was one of them. Since the price tag was very high and few media outlets were willing to pay hundreds of dollars per day for the right to have access. Golliver didn't have a great deal of company. He lived a rather solitary existence for about three months, from the finish of the regular season through the last game of the playoffs. There's no sign that he ever took a day off along the way, since there wasn't much else to do besides take a walk around the grounds and check his email. Let's hope he ran up a lot of "comp time" for use down the road.

The best part of the book centers on the "what was it like? question, and the hoops he had to jump through (sorry) to do his job. It was all so odd and unique, that it was definitely a good idea to chronicle it in book form. 

The games did go on, as we know now, and they were remarkably smooth. The biggest interruptions, if that's the correct word, came from outside issues as players reacted to stories concerning social justice from outside of the bubble. Otherwise, it seemed easy to focus on the games. Golliver didn't miss a contest after the first round of the playoffs (before that, he couldn't be everywhere). The story lines slowly developed, as they always do in the postseason. The difference was that reporters could see it all from one place, without traveling or television. It was, of course, a unique time.

As for the games, you know how things turned out if you were paying attention. Golliver's focus shifts a bit as the playoffs build toward a climax in the Finals. It's a little difficult for a writer to build suspense in games that were played a year ago. Still, Golliver obviously knows his stuff, and he has some insights for those of us who weren't paying close attention to the league as a whole. 

With luck, we'll never have to go through anything like this again. Put this in the time capsule, then. "Bubbleball" will stand up well as a first-person account of the experience.

Four stars

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Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Review: A Helluva Life in Hockey (2021)

By Brian McFarlane

Veteran hockey fans probably remember the name of Brian McFarlane. On this side of the border, Brian worked on some of the early hockey television broadcasts in the 1960s and 1970s, introducing the game to a wider audience. 

Over in Canada, McFarlane might be best known for his work on Hockey Night in Canada. He's written dozens of books and articles, produced broadcasting shows, and on and on and on. It's a rather remarkable story - even if he doesn't reveal how he squeezed everything in during this hockey-filled life. 

McFarlane is now past the age of 90, but the writing bug still hasn't left him. He's come up a good-sized memoir called "A Helluva Life in Hockey," and there's no doubt he's enjoyed the ride. 

It doesn't take long to get the idea of what's enclosed in their pages. The table of contents reveals that there are 45 chapters of material, covering more than 340 pages. The math says that's a little less than eight pages per chapter on average, so it's easy to be prepared for bite-sized bits. 

Oddly enough, some of the most interesting parts of the book cover McFarlane's early life. You probably don't know about his father, but you might know about one of his jobs. He wrote several of the original "Hardy Boys" books. The problem was that he took a flat fee for the work, which sold millions of copies over the years. In other words, someone else got rich on it. But the senior McFarlane never was too bitter about it. Brian found his dad's diary from those years, and they add some interesting depth and perspective to the family's history. 

As for Brian, his love affair with hockey started at a young age just like any Canadian boy. He was good enough to play junior hockey and well as make it to college play. But that was as far as he could get up the hockey ladder. Eventually, he turned to broadcasting, making the usual stops along the way. We go through the first couple of hundred pages that way, getting through most of the 1960s - otherwise known as the last decade when the Maple Leafs were really good. 

Then the story turns more episodic. There are chapters about hockey stars he's known, executives he's worked for, business deals he's tried, and so on. Bet you didn't know that McFarlane essentially invented Peter Puck, the cartoon character that was used to explain hockey to American audiences on national broadcasts. Mention Peter to anyone over 60 that watched hockey from that era, and you'll get a smile in return. Still, a little of the material is repeated along the play, which is a bit annoying.

Two points are a worth a mention in this generally breezy book of memories. There is some settling of old scores here, as McFarlane fires back at some slights from people he's encountered over the years. For example, McFarlane quotes a chapter of a book by Ralph Mellanby, a former Hockey Night in Canada executive, and reacts to comments at length. Yes, Brian is over 90, and he's certainly entitled to state his opinion here. But the tone of it is a little nasty and petty for a book of this type. 

Then there's the issue of dates. There certainly aren't many references to hockey players to took part in a game in this century. McFarlane offers much more material about such players as Red Kelly, Johnny Bower, Jean Beliveau, Don Cherry and Bobby Orr than anyone who has played lately. In other words, the last quarter-century doesn't come up.

That's going to limit the audience for a book like this. "A Helluva Life in Hockey" might appeal to some hockey fans. It has some good stories and some laughs, and the pages go by quickly. But it would help if you have to pay for the book by using your Social Security check. 

Three stars

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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Review: Fight Songs (2021)

By Ed Southern

"Fight Songs" is a complicated book ... and not just because that big word is included in the subtitle.

Ed Southern is one of those serious writers, at least at times. He has a variety of credits to his name, including some books, and he is the executive director of the North Carolina Writers' Network. It's pretty obvious a few pages into this book that he's a smart guy; I had to go running to the Kindle dictionary to figure out a few of the words. 

Southern does, however, have something in common with the masses. He's a college sports fan, even though he might have the thought in the back of his head that he's a wee bit guilty about it. Southern went to Wake Forest, a fine university by almost any standards. Rooting for the Demon Deacons connects him to some good times and good people from his past, and there's no harm in that. In fact, he may be considered something of a diehard.

But it's a relatively small school, especially in the world of big-time sports. That means in most years, Southern is destined to be disappointed much of the time. It's very hard for a university with a four-figure enrollment to keep up with some of the other powerhouses of college sports. That's particularly true in the South when it comes to football, when Alabama, LSU, Georgia and the big three Florida schools hover above them in most seasons. 

Let's emphasize the Alabama part. His wife turned out to be a huge Alabama fan, and not just because a relative of hers wrote a book on Bear Bryant. Her whole family lives and breathes Crimson Tide football. You may have noticed that Alabama has done really, really well in the sport in recent years since Nick Saban took over. It's a happy family most autumns.

Southern takes a bit of a look on how college football got so big in the South in terms of history. Personally, I think part of the reason is that there was virtually no competition for many years. Pro football didn't arrive until the mid-1960s with the Falcons and Saints, and baseball didn't turn up until the Milwaukee Braves arrived in Atlanta around the same time. Therefore, college football was about the only way to get national attention in a sports sense. You can throw in the fact that the Southeast Conference didn't fully integrate until 1970 or so, and the story becomes even more nuanced. Meanwhile, the traditional Atlantic Coast Conference usually didn't have many national powerhouses in football, and basketball seemed to take over as the No. 1 sport - especially around North Carolina. 

While history lessons are fine, Southern seemed more intent on writing about college football in the South - and what it's like to sort of have a foot in both the ACC and SEC doors at the same time. It's pretty light-hearted reading, and not particularly interesting if you don't have a dog in that hunt. 

But then the pandemic came, and the tone changes with the last part of the book. Suddenly Southern had to cope with the idea that his favored universities were determined to play football if only for the money it generates. It's not a particularly good look for a school when the academic portions of its mission statement are hanging by a Zoom thread when it is expending a ton of effort to keep the games going. Then there's the rise of the "Black Lives Matter" movement. That's forced many universities to take a look at their roots, which in many cases date back to the Civil War. It's also forced some fans - at least the thinking ones - to consider how the players are raising millions of dollars in revenues for their efforts, and not seeing a very high percentage of it. Based on the recent Supreme Court decision, we're going to be hearing more about this issue in the near future. Is it OK to be emotionally invested in such a venture? That's an increasingly difficult decision that each fan must ponder.

Any conversation about this book should mention Southern's writing style. Admittedly, I am someone who prefers a story to go from A to B to C on a direct line. This one goes through a great many more letters of the alphabet, and may not end up at the expected destination. There also are plenty of tangents particularly in regard to Wake Forest. The closest I've been to the school was when I drove past the exit on the Interstate, so the references left me cold. 

I'm not sold on the idea that "Fight Songs" works particularly well, even if graduates will enjoy it and those in the "mixed marriages" of different loyalties will recognize some of the characters. At the least, though, its readers will be given some ideas to consider as they get ready for the next rivalry game.

Three stars

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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Review: Gathering Crowds (2021)

By Paul Hensler

A great deal happened to baseball in the years between 1975 and 1993, more or less.

That doesn't include what happened on the field, either.

That was an era that was essential to the game's growth, and set the stage for Major League Baseball to become a business giant again. Believe it or not, the baseball business had suffered from a distinct lack of attention before that, and that allowed pro football to fill a void and take over as the number one sport in America. 

Luckily, a series of events took place that caused baseball to take steps to improve the situation. Those interesting years are the subject of "Gathering Crowds." It's another in the series of books on different parts of baseball history. 

Author Paul Hensler wisely starts with labor matters. The players and owners had been building toward a pivotal moment, and it came when the reserve clause fell in what is called the (Peter) Seitz decision. That allowed players to test the marketplace for the best contract after playing a certain amount of years (usually six). If you listen to the background noises that can be heard while reading this historical review, you can still hear the owners claiming free agency will ruin baseball. As we know, the opposite happened. It increased interest in the game, turned it into a year-round business, and raised revenues for everyone. Other sports have followed the same formula with similar results. 

It wasn't easy to reach that point. The collective bargaining agreements represented stops and starts in the evolutionary process. The occasional roadblock turned up for a while, such as the time when baseball owners stopped signed expensive free agents in the 1980s - only to be hit with collusion charges and suffered damages that were more expensive than the actual contracts. Now, of course, there's a lot of money out there, and it takes time to figure out how to divide it. But the ground rules are fairly clear. We know what works, more or less.

Hensler covers other off-field issues that sometimes overlap, nicely divided into nine chapters. Commissioners came and went during this era, as ownership clung to hopes of returning to previous standards. Drug use by players came with all sorts of trap doors for everyone. The multi-purpose ballpark mercifully died (I know, it's not my money), to be replaced by baseball-only stadiums that could be downright intimate considering their size. Expansion came back on the table, and new teams were added. Marketing became much more sophisticated. Plus, as society changed, baseball had to change - giving a new set of issues to encounter, such as women in baseball, gay rights, locker room access, etc. Even the baseball card wars and fantasy games get mentioned along the way, and some of the sport's top general managers get a hat tip in a chapter.

Hensler is a good guide to all of this. He has done a lot of writing for the Society for American Baseball Research, and covers what needs to be covered. Hensler comes to conclusions along the way, and there's nothing here that will raise anyone's ire. 

But there is a problem here, and it's a fairly substantial one. All of that fairness is probably necessary in this format, but the product comes out rather dry. Part of the reason for that is it's a baseball book that has very little to say about the actual games between the white lines. It was an issue in the other book in the series that I read earlier this year. The material also is going to be very familiar to anyone who lived through that era, or has read a lot about it. This in part may be because of my relatively advanced age at this point, but I found myself skimming the material at time. 

I have no doubt that "Gathering Crowds" is a worthwhile addition to the reference libraries of America. Those seeking information on the business of baseball in that era will find what they need to know. It's simply difficult to picture it attracting much of an audience.

Three stars

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Thursday, June 10, 2021

Review: Hurricane Season (2018)

By Joe Holley

Here's a book that did not age well, even though it might have seemed like a reasonable idea at the time 

It's called "Hurricane Season," and it's about the two big stories that took place in Houston in 2017. As you might recall, that was the year when the city and its surrounding area got clobbered by Hurricane Harvey. The storm left a few dozen trillions of gallons on the water, which in tern did hundreds of billions of dollars in damages. 

If ever a city needed a small breath of hope under nearly impossible circumstances, Houston qualified. Therefore, the rise of the Astros baseball team certainly put a smile on the faces of the natives there. The Astros, who had been a bad team earlier in the decade, used a careful rebuilding plan that actually worked in a step-by-step manner. This was the year it paid off. Houston knocked off the Dodgers in seven games to win its first World Series and sparking the biggest sports celebration in the city's history. 

Naturally, there were books to be written about all of this. Joe Holley got right to work. He was a general columnist for the Houston Chronicle in 2017. He didn't have much time to get everything done, but according to the book's last line he finished writing about 10 weeks after the end of Game Seven. After all, "Hurricane Season" had to be out to the public on May 1. 

Holley mixes the hurricane story with the baseball events during the course of the 16 chapters. There is some jumping around here, but the tales of the storm probably works the best. Hurricanes tend to bring tragedy and heroism into the open, and Holley seems quite at home telling those stories from the days just before, during, and just after the actual deluge. If anything, more reporting on the cleanup later in the year would have been nice. 

As for the baseball portions, Holley has a lot on his plate to cover. He reviews the history of the team, mostly on the ownership side. The author has to go through the 2017 regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs, which featured wins over the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. Then there's the World Series itself. Holley goes through each of the seven games almost batter by batter, supplementing it with quotes from reporters and players. Oddly, the latter is probably the weakest part, because there's not a whole lot of new information there. It's almost like painting by numbers, baseball book version. There are some editing mistakes along the way connected to the baseball portions, which can happen under the circumstances.

Holley tells these stories in a less than objective way. There's an awful lot of sunshine spread here, particularly around the baseball team. It's easy to become tired of the references to how much Houston celebrates its diversity. Yes, it's a feel-good book for the readers, but often it's better to have others beside the author express those opinions along the way.  

Even so, "Hurricane Season" apparently brought back plenty of good memories for the Astros' fans in Houston. The reviews on were amazingly enthusiastic. So give Holley credit for throwing a strike in that sense ... at the time. 

But, reading the book in 2021 feels much different. Word eventually leaked out that the Astros had been cheating during the 2017 season, using trash can sounds to tip batters off about what was coming at home games. The general manager and manager were fired, and the bench coach - who had moved on to Boston to manage - was suspended. The Astros have had a target on their backs ever since the story went public; don't expect people in New York and Los Angeles to forgive those involved any time soon.

It's difficult to read this book now without having a little sadness about what happened. Maybe that's why I found up a copy in the Dollar Store. Its upbeat tone feels a little out of place now. "Hurricane Season" may bring back some good memories for Astros' fans, but certainly others might not think of it so kindly. 

Two stars

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Sunday, June 6, 2021

Review: Glory Days (2021)

By L. Jon Wertheim

Year-in-review books usually represent something of "hanging fruit" when it comes to books. Pick a year, review what happened, perhaps overstate its importance, and ... you have a book. 

"Glory Days" is different. L. Jon Wertheim sets out to make a case that the summer of 1984, give or take a few weeks, represented a transformational moment in the world of sports. What's more, he does such a good job at it that the reader is forced to shake his head after a while and say, "Yup, he could be right."

That's because even if such transformations don't work like an on-off switch, they certainly were centered in that particular summer. In hindsight, it was a significant and crowded time for sports.

Want a list? Happy to help.

* The biggest event of the summer was the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. That particular sporting festival was in big trouble at that point, with few cities/countries wanting to take on such a major event as host because of the costs involved. Even though the Eastern Bloc countries didn't show up via a boycott, Los Angeles proved you could host the Games successfully ... and make a profit along the way.

* Larry Bird and Magic Johnson played their first NBA Finals against each other. Not only was it great theater, but it started a rivalry that lasted through the 1980s and attracted attention from a growing number of sports fans. 

* Speaking of basketball, a kid named Michael Jordan came out of North Carolina to join the NBA. Not only was he about to become one of the greatest players ever, but he revolutionized sports marketing with a deal with Nike that gave him his own signature line of shoes. 

* While Wayne Gretzky already had achieved almost mythical status in the National Hockey League with unbelievable scoring totals, he still hadn't won a Stanley Cup entering the 1983-84 season. The New York Islanders were always in the way. But in 1984, Gretzky and his Edmonton Oilers beat the Islanders in the finals, giving them the Stanley Cup. The Great One had taken the last step, and it helped the NHL start down a road that helped it claim a firm status as a fourth major league sport along side of MLB, NFL and NBA.

* ESPN had been around for a few years by that point, but it figured out a way to make money. It charged cable companies a monthly fee for each subscriber who watched it. That made it financial solvent that summer, and its future was assured. ESPN soon became the most valuable media property in the business, and began a run of success that lasted into the 2010s. 

* The NCAA lost an anti-trust lawsuit involving television rights of its member schools filed by the University of Oklahoma. Suddenly, universities weren't restricted to rare appearances on networks on Saturdays (and, as it turned out, every other day of the week).  Games could be shown anywhere and everywhere ... and piles of money soon followed. 

* It was also the summer of John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova, who dominated the tennis courts in spectacular ways. The Chicago Cubs turned their fortunes around and reached the playoffs, creating a new set of fans through broadcasts on cable television. Mike Tyson was just coming on to the scene, losing in the Olympic trials but showing that he would be the proverbial force to be reckoned with in the future. 

That's a lot. Wertheim also has chapters on a few unlikely events. This was the summer when rock and roll merged with wrestling, thanks in part to a chance airplane flight in which Cyndi Lauper sat next to Lou Albano. That relationship had its entertaining moments and did give pro wrestling some national status, but feels like an odd fit here. The Jacksons' Victory Tour gets a chapter, in part because the family that owned the New England Patriots at the time ran the tour and lost millions along the way. The author also covers a sleeper movie called "The Karate Kid." I'm not sure I buy the idea that the film helped us down the road toward Mixed Martial Arts and Ultimate Fighting, but it is a good story. 

This all could have been done rather routinely, but luckily Wertheim did his homework. He talked to a variety of people who were there at the creation of these events, and did plenty of other research as well. This is really the key to this book - there is information here that at the least is little known and at most new to virtually everyone. What's more, it's almost always interesting. Wertheim is a fine reporter and writer, with several good books and articles to his credit, and he obviously threw himself into this project with full enthusiasm.

I am duty-bound to report on one little slip-up along the way. In a brief item on the movie "The Natural," the text says the climatic scene was set in a place that was supposed to be Wrigley Field in Chicago. While such a scene took place, it occurred earlier in the movie. The big scenes, including the last one, were shot in the departed War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo. That movie came out in 1984 too, and anyone from Western New York will tell how that film doubled as a love letter to "The Old Rockpile" that started something of a baseball renaissance in the area that continues to this day.

"Glory Days" is irresistible. Those who lived through 1984 will enjoy the memories of all that went on, and those who didn't will learn much about the proverbial question asked by the popular 1980s band Talking Heads, "How did we get here?"  Many will race through it with a smile every step of the way.

Five stars

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Friday, June 4, 2021

Review: Teemu Selanne (2019)

By Teemu Selanne with Ari Mennander

It's tough to know where to begin when discussing Teemu Selanne's semi-autobiography, "My Life." But that word, "semi-autobiography," seems like a good place to start.

Selanne, the veteran star of the National Hockey League, decided to come out with a book recapping his career. He was a great player for a long time, won a Stanley Cup, and performed all over the world. That works. There's plenty to admire here when it comes to hockey. 

In the introduction, Selanne explains that the book is written in the third person. "Part of the reason why is that I wanted to include quotes from my friends, family members, and former teammates, who know me better than anyone," he writes. Hmm. That's been done a few times, but it's a difficult task to make work. Let's face it - would you offer anything but praise if asked to answer questions for someone's autobiography? Me neither. 

Then there's the language barrier. Selanne is from Finland, and this book was first published over there. He spent enough time in North America to become fluent in English. Still, it's never easy to reveal someone's thoughts in a second language, as translations are difficult. The words will never be as expressive as they might be in the native tongue. 

Co-author Ari Mennander gives it a try here, but he is up against it. The finished product is something of a basic roundup of his life, told a piece at a time. Some information is presented, followed by a quote by Selanne and someone else. It's difficult to carry that off for more than 300 pages, so that this gets dry pretty quickly. Some material is repeating, so a little more editing would have been nice. It just doesn't work well.

It's too bad, because there's a good story here. Selanne took his time coming to the National Hockey League, but he took the league by storm when he arrived in 1992-93. Teemu scored a record 76 goals to set an NHL record for rookies.  He didn't stay at that level - who could? - but was still a star. Even so, the Jets traded him to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks for prospects during the 1995-96 season. He had some success there, scoring more than 50 goals two more times, and had a nice run in Anaheim on some good teams. After a trade to San Jose and a free agent signing with Colorado, Selanne returned to Anaheim on a year-to-year basis. He ended up staying for eight seasons, finishing with 684 goals and 773 assists for 1,457. Yes, he skated smoothly into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

There's all sorts of praise handed out to Selanne for his play and his personality, which is fine. It's his book. Sometimes Mennander goes over the top in his descriptions about just how good he is. His career was terrific without exaggeration, thank you, and some sentences published here are a little tough to take seriously. There's a little complaining about some coaches Selanne had along the way, particularly about how they didn't play the forward enough in the later stages of his career. Does he have a legitimate gripe, or is it simply a case of a star player being the last to know he's at the end of the line? Tough to say.

A couple of issues about Selanne come up as well. He's always been fond of fast cars, even if he tells the story about how he almost killed some people in an accident on a test track. There's a matter-of-fact edge to some driving adventures, such as the time Teemu drove from Anaheim to San Jose - a distance of 400 miles - in about four hours. Jeez, isn't that rather - OK, very - dangerous?

Teemu also admits that he wants to have people with him who engage in his every whim, particularly now that he's retired. If he feels like playing golf in the afternoon, he calls people who are willing to do that. If they aren't, they fall out of his life. This sure comes off as someone who wants friends to give up their own lives at times to keep Selanne happy. It's not a good look for anyone.

 "Teemu Selanne," then, comes off as a boring book. I suppose his biggest fans will find this to have some behind-the-scenes stories about his life and be satisfied with it. That's fine. Others, though, will want to move along.

Two stars

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Thursday, May 27, 2021

Review: Stealing Home (2020)

By Eric Nusbaum

Some of the best sports books are the ones that barely touch the activity that takes place on the playing field. 

"Stealing Home" can be found under this category. The twist is that it's more or less about the actual playing field. 

The location of this book is the city of Los Angeles - more particularly, Dodger Stadium. The structure was built in 1962 as the new home of the Dodgers, who had moved from Brooklyn in 1958. The centerpiece of the story to some extent is - to paraphrase the Talking Heads' song - "How did it get here?"

The answer to that is a little complicated. Author Eric Nusbaum tells a story about the construction of the facility. Some might know a few of the facts involved, but it's certainly nice to have the full story. He tells it by breaking matters into three distinct parts, and then letting them slowly come together with a rather loud bang. 

The first is the essentially the tale of three communities within the city limits - Palo Verde, La Loma, and Bishop.  All sorts of people came to Southern California throughout the 20th century, and some of them had Mexican heritage. That particular group filled up the communities in question. It was a classic case of people coming to that part of the world in an attempt to finding a better life. It wasn't easy - it took an effort, day-by-day, inch-by-inch, to crawl a bit ahead. But many wound up with their own land and a roof over their heads. 

Then there's the story of Frank Wilkinson. A son of a doctor, Wilkinson did some traveling as a young man and developed something of a social conscience in the process. When he saw the poor conditions that some people lived in, he wondered if there might be a better way to raise their standards of living. That took him in a couple of different directions. One was that he became attached to the concept and potential benefits of public housing. That was a relatively new idea after World War II, when America was feeling powerful and confident that it could solve almost any problem. The other is that he was becoming an advocate with what we might call left-wing political thought, which included a brief stay as a member of the Communist Party. You could imagine how well that went over, particularly in the early 1950s. No wonder the number of pages in his FBI file ran into six figures. 

Finally, we had the Dodgers. Good books have been written about their departure from Brooklyn, as the team was something of a victim of the changing demographics of the era and political in-fighting. The move to Los Angeles didn't really change much of that; it just changed the names. Owner Walter O'Malley eventually got his nearly perfect ballpark. What it did to the city is another story. 

Nusbaum does some considerable juggling here. He jumps from subject to subject as time marches on - three forces destined to collide without anyone realizing it. It doesn't take a spoiler alert to realize that Mexican population and Wilkinson are going to wind up as the losers of the story. The author starts the story with a news item that is relatively familiar in cases of this nature. A family becomes involved in a dispute with the city, and then is forced to leave its house when the bulldozers arrive. Sometimes, you really can't fight City Hall - at least indefinitely. What's more, the family and the city were only a few thousand dollars apart on the value of the property. It would have been so much easier just to pay that money as a fair transfer cost for the land and move on. 

The author's most interesting writing quirk here is the number of chapters: 76. He makes a point quickly and moves along to the next. It works better than you might think. The research is impressive and comprehensive. Nusbaum tells the story quite fully. He certainly has a point of view on the entire affair, and he makes a good argument. The only complaint that could be made is that a little more background and information on the Dodgers' move could have been supplied.  

"Stealing Home" might not appeal to those who prefer a little baseball with their baseball books. However, this book works nicely for people who simply want to learn about an under-publicized story about construction of one of baseball's cathedrals. 

Four stars

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Sunday, May 23, 2021

Review: Built to Lose (2021)

By Jake Fischer

If you'd like to read about the National Basketball Association in the past few years, "Built to Lose" ought to scratch that itch. 

Just don't expect to read much about basketball.

That seems like a contradiction, but author Jake Fischer has different goals for his book than following the bouncing ball into the basket. 

This is about the business side of putting together teams in the NBA in the last few years. In fact, it concentrates on the franchises that not only weren't particularly good at that skill, but indeed to go the extra mile to try to lose games in the short term in an effort to be much better in the future. 

That process grew to be called "tanking," and it became rather popular in the mid-2010s. Indeed, the stars of the book probably are the Philadelphia 76ers and their general manager at the time, Sam Hinkie. He held that job from 2013 to the spring of 2016.

Hinkie was a major proponent of the concept that a particular team shouldn't aim to be mediocre all the time, stuck on a treadmill of .500 indefinitely. It's better to tear things down, the thinking went, and obtain top-level talent in the draft than try to maximize efforts to win a few extra games in a particular season. That's the way the rules were written at the time, and it made some sense to take advantage of that fact.

While it may be easy to lose games, it's difficult to rebuild. Hinkie was around for three seasons, and the Sixers went 19-63, 18-64 and 10-72. But Philadelphia won 52 games in 2017-18, and has been above .500 ever since. Two big pieces of the 76ers' puzzle turned up during the bad years in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.   

Fischer goes through three seasons and offseasons in depth from the perspective of the Sixers and some of the other teams who were struggling. The list includes a couple of traditional powers in the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, as well as stuck-at-the-bottom teams like the Sacramento Kings. With the perspective of time, people could not reveal what was going on in their minds in a particular moment from the 2013-2016 era - which, in terms of NBA rosters, is the distant past. The author reportedly talked to more than 300 people for the book, and it reads like it. This sounds very authentic. 

The NBA tinkered with its lottery system a few years ago to make losing a little less attractive. Still, it's going to happen in basketball. It's one of the few team sports where one player can make a huge difference in a team's fortunes. As an example, check out the record of the Cleveland Cavaliers with and without LeBron James over the past several years. The problem is determining who that player might be.  There are no guarantees when it comes to looking at players who might be 19 years old and forecasting just how good they might be in a few years. And if they are good, they might flee the original teams at their first opportunity for any number of reasons.

This book comes with something of a major warning. Only good-sized NBA fans need to dive into this. It's tough to follow the sport from a distance, since I live in a city without a team. So for example, the pick-by-pick recaps of drafts can be fascinating to learn of the thinking that went into each choice. However, sometimes the recognition of the players involved isn't too great. That's partly my fault, since I don't keep up with some of the names enough. It's also a reflection of the sport, as there are no guarantees that come with a draft choice in the first half of the first round. 

Even so, there are all sorts of good anecdotes that are uncovered here that ought to leave anyone with an interest in basketball entertained. So, feel free to pick up a copy of "Built to Lose" if you are curious about an odd time in basketball history. And maybe you can do what I did - keep a list of draft choices from that era handy for reference.

Four stars

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Thursday, May 13, 2021

Review: Heart and Steel (2021)

By Bill Cowher with Michael Holley

At the end of the author's note that starts his autobiography, Bill Cowher writes, "All in all, I coached the Steelers for 261 games. Fifteen years in the public eye. I did a reasonable job of keeping my private life, well, private. Until now."

If that sounds like a bombshell warning, forget it. It's fair to say there aren't any skeletons in the closet of the former Pittsburgh Steelers football coach. "Heart and Steel" is a straight-forward story of a straight-forward person who kept his eye on the ball most of the time. Football and family were what mattered most to him, and that's the Cowher that comes across here. 

If you aren't from the Pittsburgh area, you might not know Cowher's back story. He grew up in Crafton outside of Pittsburgh, and played football like every one person in that region at least wanted to do. Bill was good enough to earn a trip to North Carolina State, where - like in high school - he tended to exceed expectations on how good he would become. It was the same in the pros. Cowher wasn't drafted, and didn't even make the team in his first crack at the NFL. But he didn't give up, and eventually played six years at the game's highest level  mostly on special teams. If you didn't know about him then, you weren't alone.

Cowher may not have been ready to retire after the 1984 season, but he was offered a coaching job with the Cleveland Browns and decided it was in his best long-term interests to take it. That started a relatively short apprenticeship, as these things go, and in 1992 he landed the job of his dreams - head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's almost hard to express what it must have meant for someone who grew up in Western Pennsylvania to actually drive to work at the Steelers' stadium each day.

Cowher still has all the notebooks he kept from his many years as the Steelers' head coach, and he refers to them frequently in the stories of the teams he coached. There is some insight into some of the players who passed through Pittsburgh, but few horror stories. Maybe that's not surprising considering the success the team had. Cowher concentrates more of his attention on the coaching business - preparation, motivation, key decisions, memorable moments, etc. If some of that sounds like a business book on leadership, well, you've got the idea. During that time in Pittsburgh, when he was the region's favorite son, he did his best to lead as normal a life as possible under the circumstances. Cowher used time with his wife Kaye (a former N.C. State basketball player) an his three daughters to get back to reality, as least as much as he could do so.

The results speak for themselves. Cowher made the playoffs in his first six seasons, one of two NFL coaches to do so. His career record was 149-90-1, and he won the Super Bowl in 2005. Cowher gives a sense here that after that championship he had a case of "now what?" His family had moved to Raleigh after the Super Bowl, and he retired after one more season. 

"What's next?' turned out to be work in the media with CBS, which left his life in better balance. Cowher's plans for the rest of his life, though, took an unexpected u-turn. The most poignant part of the book deals with the illness of Kaye, who became ill and died in a somewhat shockingly amount of time. But he's rebounded as well as possible, eventually finding another wife and staying with CBS on football broadcasts.

The book goes by easily enough. There are a few stories about some of the players and coaches that were encountered along the way that are entertaining. But mostly, this is a story about a man who watched most of his dreams come true, and is rather grateful about it. 

It's hard to say that "Heart and Steel" is going to be compelling to anyone who doesn't have an interest in football. But for those who want the background on a golden era of Steeler football as told by the smart, rational man who put that era together, this ought to work. Pittsburgh, you will enjoy it.

Three stars

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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Review: Fenway 1946 (2020)

By Michael Connelly

There's never been a baseball season quite like the one in 1946. 

After almost 40 years of stability and growth, major league baseball faced some difficult challenges that year. World War II had erupted at the end of 1941. While the games continued, many of the ballplayers left their teams to join the armed services for the duration. That meant they were out of uniform, baseball version, through the end of 1945.

When those players returned to work for their respective teams, there were question marks everywhere. Some players never made it home, of course. A portion of those who did brought physical injuries back with them, threatening their careers. Others had mental wounds. 

Then there's the factor of age and the layoff. The older players - say, in their mid-to-late 30s - didn't know if they could regain their skills after as many as four seasons away from the games. The younger players had missed development time that they might not receive again. 

Throw in the fact that such problems weren't equally distributed on each team's roster, and there was a situation where just about no one knew what might happen during the 1946 season. What did happen was that the Boston Red Sox fielded one of the best teams in their history. It's profiled in "Fenway 1946" by Michael Connelly.

It takes the author a little time to get to 1946, which is a good idea. After a brief review of Red Sox history before WWII, Connolly jumps right into the War Years. There are stories about how individual players were dealing with the situation. For example, superstar Ted Williams didn't join the service right away because he was the sole financial supporter of his money. Criticism fell on him like a shower just before a rain delay, and he eventually signed up. 

Then there was the matter of baseball and race. Late in 1945, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed African American Jackie Robinson to a contract, which changed everything in that area. The Red Sox had passed on the opportunity to sign Robinson and other top black players earlier, something which in hindsight certainly would have changed American history - not to mention the fate of the Red Sox. 

After covering all of that in the first third or so of the book, we move on to the 1946 season. The Red Sox came out of the gate like absolute monsters, dominating the American League virtually from the start. No one could stay close to them, and they had a relatively easy time cruising to the pennant. It was on to the team's first World Series since 1918, causing something of a civic celebration in Boston. The book's final 80 pages or so are devoted to the  the championship matchup with the St. Louis Cardinals; it only takes a glance at a record book to realize what happened there. It was a memorable series with a thrilling/heart-breaking finish.

No one can say that Connelly didn't put in the necessary work on this. He writes that he read the Boston Globe newspaper from cover to cover in its 1946 editions. Connelly's eyes must be bleary from microfilm study. Several other sources, including books, newspapers, and websites, are mentioned too. 

This is a good start, and Connelly chooses to take an anecdotal approach to the book. There is a great deal of information here that is of interest - in part because it's not often covered in baseball books. For example, housing shortages were a huge problem for American immediately after World War II. Teams had to advertise in the newspaper to find homes for their players in 1946. There's an absolutely amazing story here about how the World Series played a role in the death of Field Marshall Hermann Goring, who was awaiting execution in Germany when he took poison and committed suicide.

Connelly also makes Williams the star of the story, and wisely so. What a fascinating character he must have been at that point. The image of him kicking his glove in anger from the dugout to left field after a bad moment at the plate is a vivid one. 

On the other hand, more background information along the way would have been very helpful. In particular, the 1946 season is covered quite quickly. There's not much sense of the big picture here.  Some of the judgments - such as comments about team spirit, etc. - feel like they are straight out of the Forties and don't offer much of an historical perspective. 

One more edit might have been good too. Some names get a little botched along the way, just as Joe/John Dobson and Roger/Rogers Hornsby. A few items get repeated along the way as well.

"Fenway 1946" certainly will supply some information that even the biggest Red Sox fan probably doesn't know, especially 75 years after the fact. Still, it's easy to wish that it wouldn't have taken too much to make it even better.

Three stars

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