Thursday, December 30, 2021

Review: Tom Seaver (2020)

By Bill Madden

I waited about 10 years for someone to get this right.

Back around 2011, I read a biography of Tom Seaver called "The Last Icon." It was that rare book that I panned here, as I try to avoid books that aren't worth my time. The problem with that literary effort was that it was simply too fawning. In short - don't tell me why he's great; show me why he's great.

Now I've gotten around to another biography of Tom Seaver, and I'm pleased to report that Bill Madden gets it right. "Tom Seaver" is a solid piece of reporting and writing. 

If you need much of an explanation about Seaver's contributions to baseball, you either are too young or don't care about history. "Tom Terrific" certainly is a candidate to be rank as the greatest pitcher in baseball history, depending on your standards for such matters. As it is, Madden - the veteran baseball writer for the New York Daily News - points out that he finished his career with 300+ wins, 3,000+ strikeouts, and an earned-run average of under 3.00. There's only one other player in baseball history to do that, Walter Johnson. In other words, Seaver isn't in a class by himself, but it sure doesn't take very long to call roll. 

Seaver grew up in Fresno, California, and wasn't much of a prospect in high school. But his body soon filled out, earning Tom a scholarship at Southern California. He soon became a member of the New York Mets, a franchise closely associated with losing and losers at that point. Seaver changed everything, demanding excellence from himself and his teammates. Tom was the focal point of one of the great sports stories of the century, the Mets' World Series victory in 1969. Everyone loved those underdog Mets, and everyone loved their leader.

Seaver continued his success throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. He bounced around a bit in circumstances that need a book, this book, to explain. But he traveled to Cincinnati, bounced back to New York, landed in Chicago, and finished in Boston in 1986. It took as little time as possible for him to reach Cooperstown, receiving one of the highest percentage of votes from the baseball writers in history. 

Madden has some advantages when it comes to the story. He covered baseball in New York for much of that era, to the point where he personally told Seaver that the pitcher was headed to the White Sox in a bizarre combination of events. Madden has plenty of sources on what happened behind the scenes with Seaver. He also obtained some quotes about the pitcher from some of his famous teammates.

It's interesting to note that not all the words about Seaver are praise. It sure sounds like he didn't suffer fools easily, and could be a big testy in certain circumstances. For example, Tom apparently didn't think Yogi Berra was a managerial genius. On the other hand, Seaver comes off as extremely thoughtful on and off the mound, and as very loyal to the friends he gained along the way. This all goes by relatively quickly, checking in at under 300 pages. 

The book ends with some poignancy on a couple of levels. He suffered from dementia in his later years, and died on September 3, 2020. My guess is that the last paragraph was included at virtually the last second before its publication later in 2020. It's also appropriate to read this book in late 2021, after the news that Gil Hodges had been elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Seaver and Hodges are forever linked as star and manager of the '69 Mets, and they also are two of the most beloved figures in New York's National League history. Now they'll be together in Cooperstown.

It's tough to call this sort of book groundbreaking or revealing. There are also a few typos along the way that probably should have been caught; baseball fans can be amazingly intolerant about such things. It's simply nice to have "Tom Seaver" on the shelf of the library, so that others down the road can learn about him. Just make sure you get this particular biography.

Four stars

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Friday, December 24, 2021

Review: How to Beat a Broken Game (2022)

By Pedro Moura

Something has gone wrong in baseball in the past few years.

The symptoms are quite obvious. Games take too long to play, and there's less ball-in-play action than there has ever been. Too often baseball becomes tied up in home runs, strikeouts and walks - the so-called "Three True Outcomes" that don't require fielders. 

Millions of people are still watching major league games in one form or another, and that means millions of dollars can ride on a single pitch in the proper circumstance. But the warning signs of trouble are there, and baseball is looking at some ideas to put the game itself back in balance.

In the meantime, teams are devoting a large percentage of resources into trying to play the current game "better" in order to win. Exhibit A might be the Los Angeles Dodgers, who really leave no proverbial stone unturned in their quest for success. 

Pedro Moura, a national writer for Fox Sports and former Dodgers' beat writer for The Athletic, decided to take a long look at what's going on with baseball through the eyes of the Dodgers. The result is "How to Beat a Broken Game."

After a brief introduction outlining the situation, Moura gets to work with a series of chapters that would work if they were self-contained. So we get to meet such players as Mookie Betts, Trea Turner, Walker Buehler, and Clayton Kershaw - success stories all in a variety of ways. Andrew Friedman comes up a lot too. He's the head of baseball operations of the Dodgers. Friedman managed to put together a winning team on a shoestring in Tampa Bay, and his reward was to go to work armed with the Dodgers' deep pockets. Dave Roberts gets a chapter, and you'd expect the manager to be picked. The reader learns about some obscure people too - at least by a fan's standards.

There's plenty of information in here that is relatively fresh and interesting. Kershaw, for example, had to figure out how to change his pitching mechanics in midstream, in part because his slider no longer looked like a fastball when thrown and batters had learned to capitalize. Max Muncy went from journeyman to feared power hitter almost overnight, completing a difficult transformation that probably left everyone surprised if pleased. Roberts talks about how his communication skills - something he places great importance on - failed at a key time during a pitching change in the World Series. Then there's the story about how the Dodgers value versatility in their roster. Not only does that mean they usually aren't short-handed if injuries come, but it also depresses statistical totals of the players a bit because they aren't in the lineup every day. That in turn saves them millions at contract time, and probably keeps the entire roster happier if a little on edge.

On the other hand, the world of baseball today is a complicated place, and sometimes it just isn't that interesting. There are some stories about players who use outside coaching when necessary, and who study the latest analytics to make improvements. You've probably seen the numbers on spin rates from pitchers and launch angles from hitters during television broadcasts. The figures are helpful, I guess, in helping players survive and thrive because of the way the game is played, but reading about some of it is rather tough sledding. 

The Dodgers clearly are putting a lot of time, effort and money to explore every possible avenue toward success. They have won at least 90 games in every season but one since 2013. The exception was 2020, when Los Angeles was 43-17 in the Covid-shortened 60-game season. That was the year the Dodgers won the World Series. But LA also had won eight straight division titles before that streak was snapped in 2021. Still, the Dodgers are always in the hunt for a championship, and that's all you can ask of a franchise and its staff.

There's an audience for "How to Beat a Broken Game." Those who consume knowledge about baseball no doubt will soak a lot of it up. But I'm a big fan, and my eyes started to skip over some of the technical parts along the way. I'm sure I won't be alone in that, so consider that a warning while thinking about a purchase.

Three stars

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Friday, December 17, 2021

Review: Valentine's Way (2021)

By Bobby Valentine and Peter Golenbock

Ah, Bobby Valentine. No matter what you think of him, you have to admit it's difficult to ignore him.

That means the baseball lifer has a story to tell about his various exploits. You can read all about it in "Valentine's Way" - which is an actual street in Japan that was renamed in his honor after he managed a team to a championship.

Valentine has been in the public eye for most of his life through athletics. It started in high school, when he was one of the greatest all-around athletes to ever come out of Stamford, Connecticut. There wasn't much he couldn't do on an athletic field or court, and he ended up going to the Los Angeles Dodgers as a first-round draft choice. 

Stardom with the Dodgers seemed right around the corner, but injuries - bad ones - got in his way. First he blew out his knee, and then he broke his leg chasing a fly ball. So Bobby never did live up to his potential as a player, even though he spent 11 years in the major leagues. The subject of going from superstar in waiting to scrub isn't one covered in most sports books, so it's interesting to get his perspective on it.

Valentine adjusted nicely to life after playing baseball by coaching and managing in it. He guided the Texas Rangers for a while, jumped to Japan for a year, and then returned to the United States to work for the Mets. The highlight came in 2000, when New York reached the World Series against the Yankees. The Mets lost that matchup, but if you look at that team's roster for that season, you'd have to admit that getting that far was a simply remarkable achievement. 

Valentine eventually wore out his welcome in New York, went back to Japan for a few years (which is covered in a section that contains the names of a lot of players that you've never heard about), returned to America to work for ESPN, and eventually managed the Boston Red Sox for one difficult season. Bobby V went to work as a college athletic director from there, and even ran for mayor of Stamford in 2021. That campaign took place too late for inclusion in the book; he lost the election by a few thousand votes.

The text of the publication certainly comes off as genuine. It's easy to guess that a conversation with Valentine would need only a few minutes for Stamford to come up. He apparently knew everyone in that city, and still keeps in touch with them. It's fair to say that you have to give Valentine credit for loyalty. Once someone was his friend, he or she stayed that way by most accounts.

Valentine has never come off as a particularly humble man, and that's certainly the case here. I don't know if he was as much of an innovator in baseball operations as he claims here, but he certainly was a smart guy who was always open to new ideas. During his broadcasting days, Bobby knew the game cold - to the point where his analysis frequently brought up unique viewpoints. 

We want to know about some of the more controversial moments of his baseball life, and he doesn't shy away from them. In other words, some people encountered along the way don't come off too well - from Walt Alston to Josh Beckett. Admittedly, this is his side of the story - it had better be, naturally - but there are even a few moments that he admits he'd like to have back and/or didn't handle particularly well. 

By the way, co-author Peter Golenbock deserves a little credit for making this book read quite smoothly. Golenbock was on my radio talk show a couple of times about 40 years ago, and it's nice to see he's still working. 

"Valentine's Way" isn't going to change many minds about the life and times of Bobby V. If you think of him as an innovative, interesting person, this will back you up. If he's a little too full of himself for your tastes, there's supporting evidence there too. Just don't call him or his book boring, because there's plenty here to keep you entertained. 

Four stars

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Saturday, December 11, 2021

Review: Super Bowl Blueprints (2021)

By Bill Polian and Vic Carucci

Oh, to be Bill Polian and Vic Carucci as they were compiling this book.

They came up with the idea of doing an oral history of some of the best teams in the National Football League over the last few decades. Then they actually talked to the people that made it possible about what happened in those glory years and why - at considerable length.

It doesn't get much better than that. At its best moments, "Super Bowl Blueprints" is an absolutely fascinating look back into the past. 

Polian and Carucci picked eight teams, more or less, to study for this book. They went with the Raiders of the 1970s and early 1980s, the Steelers of the 1970s, the 49ers of the 1980s (Green Bay's good teams of the 1990s goes along for the ride there because of a shared offensive philosophy), the Redskins of the 1980s and early 1990s, the Giants of the 1980s and early 1990s, the Cowboys of the early 1990s, the Bills of the early 1990s, and the Colts of the 2000s. 

The coaches probably are the stars of the show, and they are well represented here. We hear from Bill Parcells, Tony Dungy, Marv Levy, Mike Holmgren, Tom Flores, Jimmy Johnson and several others. But the Hall of Fame's player section isn't left out either, what with Peyton Manning, Steve Young, Terry Bradshaw, Jim Kelly, Joe Greene and Troy Aikman coming up. That's a pretty good starting point for discussions. 

We've lost a few of the key people from those teams, of course. Al Davis and Bill Walsh have died, but they are well represented. The Raiders have plenty of good stories about what Al was like, and Walsh left behind an interview and a book. Walsh might be the most interesting character in the book, simply because he was so willing to explore every possible avenue - include some that were made up on the fly - in his pursuit of excellence. As most know, Walsh's rate of success was quite good. 

The subject matter is rather wide-ranging, which is great to read. Sure there are stories about big games and important moments. But there are plenty of insights into the behavior of individuals and teams as a group, as well as some good laughs to be had. One of them ends the Bills' chapter, with the story of a chance meeting between Marv Levy and Leon Lett. 

Are there any complaints to be had? A few minor ones. There are certain fans from the northeastern part of the country who looked over the list of great teams in the Super Bowl era and said, "Ahem. Aren't we missing someone like the Patriots?" Yes, they aren't on the list. I would guess that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are not interested in doing this type of interview at the moment, so that may have excused them from the project. Not much the authors could do about that.

A couple of other issues come up too. The players and coaches can't help but use football jargon to describe moments and plays. It's a little easy to get lost in that stuff, at least if you approach football literature with even the slightest bit of casual interest. It also could be argued that some of the chapters feel as if they could be trimmed a little - particularly the 74-page chapter on the West Coast offense teams (San Francisco and Green Bay). On the other hand, the Raiders' and Bills' sections check in at around 35 pages - and feel a little short. It's a tough balancing act.

Not to worry. "Super Bowl Blueprints" succeeds on the goal that it set out to do - listen on on how the great teams of the past few decades got that way. If football is your passion, then the book is worth your time ... and then some.

Four stars

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Friday, December 3, 2021

Review: Playmakers (2022)

By Mike Florio

Mike Florio has some opinions about the state of the National Football League, and he'd like to share them.

No, that's not right. That statement doesn't go far enough.

Mike Florio has a lot of opinions about the state of the National Football League, and he'd like to share them. 

That's the premise for his book, "Playmakers." It is sort of named after the ESPN's fictional series that was an attempt to show some of the underside of football. That plan went over rather badly with the National Football League, who just happened to be one of a broadcasting partner of ESPN. The show died a relatively sudden death. 

The difference is that this version of "Playmakers" is real. It's written by Florio, who is the point man of the website of Pro Football Talk (if you prefer, It is done in association with NBC Sports. If you've ever seen a Sunday night broadcast, you might notice that PFT ranks every starter in the league by position ... and puts the rankings under a photo of those starters as they are quickly introduce at the start of the game. 

Florio started his work life as a lawyer but moved into sports reporting. He held a job with ESPN before jumping to this venture. The question became - how could he turn the information he's collection and the opinions he's gathered into a coherent book?

It must have started with a list. Florio came up with 10 different sections of the book: the drank, free agency, quarterbacks, coaches, owners, health and safety, off-field player misconduct, major scandals, officiating, and the future. So far, so good. Then he listed at least 10 topics under each category. For example, the quarterbacks mentioned including everyone from Johnny Unitas to Tim Tebow. Each essay doesn't get a great deal of space, so think of them as quick snacks rather than large meals. It keeps the size down to a manageable 288 pages or so, based on prepublication information.

The good news is that Florio does a good job with this. It's not easy to come up with great information or opinions on this many items. For the most part, though, he comes up with some interesting, fresh thoughts that can carry the reader along. In some cases, it's a chance to revisit some old news items, while in others it's an opportunity to discuss news items of the present and possible ramifications of the future. 

Is it all interesting? All is a big word. Some of the stories about player misconduct and scandals don't work overly well, at least from my viewpoint. It's more of a case of recapping a story without a whole lot of analysis. Implied in the question at the beginning of the paragraph are the words "to me." Anyone who reads a book like this is going to be a big fan of the sport. This is not the place for impassive passengers. Therefore, everything should get a spark of recognition from the contents when a book like this comes out. 

And the size helps too. If something isn't too interesting to you, well, it doesn't last long. Another subject will come up along, just like the next bus. It might work better. The usual way of praising such work is along the lines of "it's good to bring into the bathroom." That's a little crude but true.

"Playmakers" comes off as a casual discussion with someone who spends his life around football and is happy to chat in an informal way. That makes it good fun without being life-changing. It should have little trouble luring in readers who will find the book worth their time.

Four stars

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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Review: Up and Down (2021)

By Bubba Watson with Don Yaeger

"Up & Down" gives us the chance to talk about the curious case (and accompanying autobiography) of golfer Bubba Watson. 

Here's someone who is almost tailor-made for a good book about his life. Watson came out of Bagdad, Florida (near Pensacola), and was something of a junior sensation. He won local tournaments even though he never had a lesson, and figured out a way to pick up a college scholarship although he admits he wasn't exactly a great student. Bubba eventually landed at the University of Georgia, where he was really good at times but still was demoted to sixth-man status - which is kind of like being the sixth man on a basketball team. 

Still, he turned professional and had a little success. Even so, that didn't prepare anyone for his win in the 2012 Masters. What's more, he proved the victory was no fluke by capturing the 2014 Masters. They were popular wins in some ways. That's partly because Watson wore his emotions on his sleeve, and partly because he was the classic bomber who clobbered the ball whenever it was necessary - and it usually was.

On the other hand, Watson seemed always to be carrying some baggage around. A 2015 ESPN survey of PGA pros voted Bubba as the person least likely to be rescued by their peers if they saw a fellow pro get in a fight. He's gotten into some public squabbles with those around him in golf. And his career is a bit of a puzzle, in that he seemed capable of doing more on the pro tour than he actually did. At this writing, Watson is 43 - and probably is past his prime.

In other words, Bubba seems like someone who was particularly ill-equipped to handle the spotlight that comes with being a star in American sports. Finding out what happened to him probably is the reason for giving "Up & Down" a read.

Indeed, autobiographies in which the central character is on the unpleasant side can be tough to read, and it's easy to see that Bubba's actions could make him unpopular. For example, he had a very public argument with his caddie on the course during a tournament that everyone seemed to notice. Watson writes about something of an intervention from Ben Crane, a fellow pro who essentially told him to change his behavior. But Bubba didn't quite turn things around at that point. 

Watson starts the book with a candid admission - one that has received most of the headlines from reviews and news stories - about how he hit bottom in 2017. His weight was down to about 162 (down 30 pounds from normal), and his head was such a mess that he thought about giving up golf. We're hearing more these days about athletes who have coping with the pressures of the job, and it's good that Bubba has come out as a member of that club. Watson opened up to people close to him, starting with his wife, and got his head back in order. That's worth more than a golf clap. He's also done a ton of charity work, becoming something of the PGA's face when it comes to adopted (he and his wife adopted two children). 

The biggest puzzle of the book, though, comes at the end. There isn't a great deal written about what happened to him. That starts on a personal level. It would have been nice to know if he did manage to change his ways a bit, and some examples of what he did. 

Then there's the golf side of that story. On the plus side, he made the Ryder Cup team in 2018. After devoting a chapter to service as a vice-captain when he was passed over for the 2016 American team, you'd think that might have been worth noting. On the minus side, Watson hasn't been particularly effective on the tour over the past few years. He hasn't won any events since 2018, and he's only been in one top 10 in a major championship - with 10 missed cuts - starting in 2015. I don't know if he's had physical problems in that time, but it would be interesting to know what if anything has gone wrong. Sometimes this book reads as if it was written around 2018.

There's also very little written about most of the other players on the tour. OK, it's his story, but Watson seemed quite self-absorbed in talking about his tournament years. There is a bit on how he became to be a frequent practice partner of Tiger Woods early in his career., and not much else. A little insight into others might have been nice. The book might have used one more edit, to take out a couple of redundant stories.

Watson has said his priorities in life are God, family, friends and golf - in that order, and I guess the book is something of a reflection of that. I'm not qualified to judge anything about his faith, but he does appear to be a devoted family man and a giving person toward others. Even so, the person revealed in "Up & Down" remains something of an enigma at the end of this very quick read.  

Three stars

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Friday, November 19, 2021

Review: Raise a Fist, Take a Knee (2021)

By John Feinstein

John Feinstein has a long list of books to his credit over the years, starting with "A Season on the Brink" - a look at Bobby Knight and Indiana basketball in the 1980s. He's written about basketball, football, baseball, tennis and golf, and it's fair to say that the books all have been of high quality.

"Raise a Fist, Take a Knee," as Feinstein is quick to point out, is different. Instead of taking one aspect of a particular sport, here Feinstein crosses the spectrum of sports to deal with one subject. And that subject is race, which probably could be called "the third rail" of journalism. 

You know where he's going with this just by reading the subtitle of the book: "Race and the Illusion of Progress in Modern Sports." Illusion? You mean, we haven't made progress in the intersection of race and sports over the years?

Yes, we have. But Feinstein's point is that we haven't gone far enough in this area to approach anyone's satisfaction. Consider stories told about a couple of African Americans, just as an example. Eric Bieniemy has been the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs since 2018, and an architect of the NFL's most explosive offense during that time. You'd think that he'd be the hottest individual candidate for a head coaching job by now; he's not, and it's easy to wonder what's going on. Bieniemy certainly has. 

Then there's Lovie Smith, who spent nine years with the Chicago Bears - with four 10-win seasons and three playoff appearances. He was fired after a 10-6 season in 2012 - the only coach ever fired after that good of a record. Smith did take over a horrible Tampa Bay team in 2014, but was fired two years into a five-year contract after improving from 2-14 to 6-10. 

This discussion could get tied up pretty quickly, but Feinstein has a secret weapon to make points. He talks to people, at length. The list is impressive: John Thompson, Doug Williams, Tony Dungy, John Carlos, Warren Moon and Dave Stewart among others. He gives them the time and space to talk about their experiences at the intersection of race and sports. A common denominator for all of them is that race always lurks in the background whenever they walk out the front door of their home, no matter what their status in life has been. They all have been taught that in order to succeed in American society, they can't afford to be simply as good as the competition for success - they have to be a little better. They also have been stopped for Driving While Black, in some cases multiple times. 

For the most part, Feinstein gets out of the way of the interview subjects. That's not to say the reader doesn't know where the author stands on the issue, because Feinstein makes his viewpoints quite clear along the way. Subtlety isn't his strong point here, but that's fine. Yes, as a white man he doesn't know what it's like to have his skin color arrive on others before any other part of his being, thus causing some to jump to conclusions. Perhaps it's better that way, in that he can ask the "what is it like? questions without knowing the answers completely already. 

One of the key points along the way is that while the playing field has become relatively equal in many cases (if nothing else, discrimination by definition prevents a team from having the best possible roster on the field or court of play), opportunities in management are still limited to African Americans. It's frustrating to someone like Willie Randolph, who had a pretty good record as the manager of the Mets but who was fired in the middle of his fourth season. He's never had another shot at a managing job - in fact, he's supposedly only had one interview. 

"Raise a Fist, Take a Knee" no doubt will be ignored by those who want to ignore it. But it serves as a good wake-up call and a down-to-earn discussion for those who we've come along way without realizing that we've still got a long way to go. If you are interested in a rational discussion of a subject that often turns people irrational, this is a good place to start.

Five stars

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Sunday, November 14, 2021

Review: The Master (2021)

By Christopher Clarey

The number of people that hate Roger Federer must be close to absolute zero.

Yes, there might be a couple of tennis fans in Spain or Serbia who don't like the way that Federer has gotten in the way of their favorite players in big tournaments. But even fans of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic probably have plenty of respect for Federer. 

What's not to like?

Roger has been on top of his game for around two decades, a ridiculous run. He set the record for grand-slam wins, and he's been gallant even in his defeats. 

And has anyone been nicer along the way? Is there an athlete who could make you feel more comfortable in a chance meeting? Is there anyone who has been more of a class act while in the blinding spotlight of fame?

The answers are no, no, and no. Federer appears to be close to the age where he should be thinking about retirement, but he's not shutting any doors yet.

Still, his amazing career certainly is much closer to the end than the beginning. It's a good time, then, for a full biography to be written about the most famous athlete from Switzerland in history. Christopher Clarey, who works for the New York Times, has answered that call with his deep dive into All Things Federer with "The Master."

Federer first started to attract attention with his game as a teen, as he played in his first junior tournament at the age of 14. Eventually, Roger climbed up the ladder and attracted attention with his talent. About the only blemish in a lifetime of behavior came up then, when he developed a reputation as someone who could not control his temper and be a sore loser. How un-Swiss like! But that's hardly uncommon for that age, and eventually faded.

Clarey then moves into Federer's pro career. Roger turned pro in 1998, cracked the top 100 in 1999, and won a tournament in 2001. That was the year that the 19-year-old Federer caught everyone's attention by surprising Pete Sampras, the world's best player, at Wimbledon. Roger won that tournament in England a couple of years later, the first of 20. 

Federer had a few years where he was unquestionably on top of the mountain; it just seemed like longer. Eventually, Nadal and Djokovic came along, and they developed one of the great three-sided rivalries in sports history. In 2008, Federer and Nadal played one of the great matches in tennis history at the Wimbledon final; it's odd that we remember Roger for a couple of his epic losses as well as his many wins. Djokovic won his first Grand Slam title in 2008 in Australia. And we were all off for a ride in which those three dominated the sport of men's tennis for more than a decade. If one of the three didn't win a major title, it was an upset. By the end of 2021, all three had 20 career titles. Part of me wishes that the numbers would stay that way, so they would be forever linked in history.

There's plenty of tennis in the book, of course. But Clarey certainly takes the time to explore other tangents on the subjects, with short biographies of the major influencers in Federer's life. That includes coaches, business associates, family, etc. What's striking is how well Federer has done to strike a balance in life, making sure he doesn't get overscheduled along the way. Yes, it helps to have a billion dollars stashed away, but his longevity doesn't seem to be an accident.

Clarey comes off here as a classic international reporter, vaulting around the world to cover the sport. I didn't know his name before reading this, but certainly he knows his stuff. Clarey has collected a ton of information here, even taking the time to fly to the town in South Africa where Federer's parents met. 

There's only one drawback to this story, and it's a fairly big one. Federer can't be criticized for not having any drama in his life. He's succeeded by any standard on almost every level of his life. However, that lack of conflict or troubles that were overcome may not help the readability of the book for some. I'm not sure if someone who is less than a casual fan in the sport will want to go through this. 

But those that do pick up "The Master" will find it rewarding. Federer wasn't much of a factor in 2021, mostly because knee problems and the pandemic. But, like Phil Mickelson on the golf tour, it's easy to think that Roger had one more great run left in him if his body will cooperate. If that happens, we'll all get to see the depth of the affection earned over these many years on display.

Four stars

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Sunday, November 7, 2021

Review: The Year's Best Sports Writing 2021

Edited by Glenn Stout

The idea of having an anthology of a given year's best sports stories has proved to be resilient to the point of being pesky. It just won't go away.

The first such book appeared in 1945 and ran for almost a half-century. If you have a good-sized library in your town, you probably can find them on some slightly dusty shelves. That lasted annually (one exception, due to illness for decades); I believe the Sporting News picked up the series at some point late in its run. Then it was reborn as The Best American Sports Writing, where it lasted 30 years. Readers of this blog know that the series was a staple of my annual reading.

That version died a year ago, and the chances of a rebirth at least from the outside seemed small. But Triumph Books came along and offered to revive, if that's the right word, the series under a slightly different management structure. Glenn Stout, who was something of a caretaker of the series before, moved up to be the editor on a one-time basis. He'll be giving up that role next year, and an editorial board has been picked to oversee the contributions. Let's hope for another 30-year run.

As we know, there's a lot of good writing out there every year, and it's tough to weed it down to the best of the best. We all carry our individual biases into such a book. In my case, the stories that deal with sports on a tangential basis have to work a little harder to draw me in. The book has articles on two bicyclists who happen to meet as they pedal in opposite directions while crossing the Eastern Hemisphere, and of two basketball-playing poets. They were a little outside my comfort zone.

But then came "The Inheritance of Archie Manning" by Wright Thompson of ESPN, and life was more than good again. This profile of a great athlete in his 70s who remains tied his glory days in college is one of those stories that you just don't want to end. And that was quickly followed by the amazing tale of pitcher Richard Dotson and his father, and "Hook Shot Charlie," and life in the NBA's bubble, and Kobe Bryant from two different perspectives, and ... well, you get the idea.

After almost 350 pages, the batting average for success stayed up to the series' usual standards. There were well-researched stories on the pandemic, Ivy Leaguers in baseball management and Andrew Giuliani. A piece from Runner's World on the death of an African American jogger hit home, in part because the trial of the case started when I was reading it. A story on the first inter-racial boxing match in Texas history was a favorite. And even some of those barely-sports stories lured me in - a burglar who stole Super Bowl rings, a hiker who disappeared, and a heart transplant recipient who bicycled across the country to see the grave of the donor. 

I thought I had lost an old friend a year ago, but "The Year's Best Sports Writing" perhaps shows that you can't keep a good concept down. Welcome back. 

Five stars

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Friday, October 29, 2021

Review: Loserville (2022)

By Clayton Trutor

Any discussion about a book called "Loserville" must start with its title. If you only knew that a sports volume was coming out by that name, where would you guess the story was centered?

The winner is indeed Atlanta, as indicated by the subtitle, "How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta - and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports." The actual titles comes from a series of articles in an Atlanta newspaper a few years ago about what went wrong with the city's teams. After reading the book by Claytor Trutor, it's easy to think that he's got a case for that particular title. It's a wide-ranging look at the circumstances surrounding Atlanta and its professional teams. 

When the 1960s began, the four major pro sports were a tight fraternity bunched mostly in the Northeast and Midwest. But changes already were underway that would alter the landscape considerably. The population was shifting - first to the West Coast, as evidenced by the moves of baseball's Dodgers and Giants to Los Angeles and San Francisco. But it was also moving to the so-called Sun Belt states of the South.

The Sixties saw increased numbers in the old Confederacy states, which were mostly left out of big league sports around then. The Miami Dolphins were one of the few exceptions. It was also the time of the civil rights revolution. African Americans still were leaving rural areas of the South by then, but they were just as likely to be landing in the big cities of the South as opposed to going into the big cities of the North and Midwest. 

That brings us to Atlanta, which featured a rapidly growing metropolitan area in that era. While it can be a nice problem for a government to have, it doesn't mean the problems are insignificant. You can start with housing, infrastructure, poverty, and go from there. Atlanta had all of that, and it also had something called "white flight" - whites leaving the city in droves and moving to the suburbs. Atlanta soon became a majority black city - and economicially, that almost made the area look like a doughnut on the map. 

Politicians and civic leaders got together and search for the old standby, the proverbial "silver bullet," to change the equation. Maybe pro sports could be the answer. It would provide benefits to the community, making it "big league" to a country that from the outside of the South had looked down on the region because of its civil rights policies. Sports could provide benefits in the quality of life for those who wanted to be fans.

The problem, as Trutor points out, was that Atlanta made quite a few mistakes. It was anxious to build a new stadium to lure teams to Georgia, so it build a new multi-purpose stadium. That had the intended goal, as the Braves landed in Atlanta from Milwaukee and the NFL granted an expansion team to the area (Falcons). The stadium was built in Atlanta proper, in an era where new housing for residents was supposed to be built. So the overcrowded and poverty in the city only became worse. What's more, the stadium was near a high-crime area. If suburban fans needed an excuse not to go to games, they had one - and used it, at least when the teams were poor. And they often were.

It was a similar story when the Hawks and Flames arrived soon after the Braves and Falcons did. A shiny new arena soon was built downtown that was part of a large real estate development complex. But other businesses really didn't follow the teams to the area, in part because the area's economic muscle was moving out of the central city. Throw in the fact that no one in Georgia had much of a tradition of following pro sports, except for transplants. It was tough to make a dent into the fans' interest in college sports as well as outside recreational opportunities. 

So what happened? The Braves had one long run of success during their time in Atlanta; we can call them the Glavine/Smoltz years. The team eventually moved to the suburbs. We will see if the team's World Series run in 2021 can spark several years of success. The Falcons are on their third stadium but remain one of the few teams that has never won a Super Bowl. The Hawks have rarely been relevant, having never reached the NBA Finals since arriving in Atlanta. The NHL has been in the city twice, and both times left relatively quickly. 

The author is quick to point out that Atlanta isn't the only city in the Sun Belt to go through this. Tampa has had an uneven transition into the world of pro sports. The Rays still don't draw anyone, and the Bucs were usually mediocre to bad ... at least until Tom Brady arrived. The Lightning had the same status for several years, but have won three Stanley Cups in this century to build up interest.

Trutor is remarkably thorough in going through all of these. It's easy to get a little lost in all of the anagrams presented here; there are government agencies, authorities and other groups here. This is also rather dry material in many cases, and it's a big book - about 400 pages. If you are looking for any sort of recap of Atlanta's on-field problems, well, this isn't the place.

It's tough to picture many people who might consider "Loserville" to be "leisure reading." I'm not sure many people outside of Georgia will be interested enough to pick it up. However, those that do will discover some rewards on what to do and what not to do when it comes to the relationship between municipalities and sports teams. 

Four stars

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Friday, October 15, 2021

Review: From Hang Time to Prime Time (2020)

By Pete Croatto

For those of you who think the National Basketball Association has been the proverbial big-league organization forever, well, think again. 

It wasn't that long ago - in the mid-1970s, more or less - that the NBA was barely hanging on for survival. Attendance levels were low, television presence was rare, and the players - while talented - had image problems. The level of play was relatively good, but as a business this was hardly the hoop equivalent of the National Basketball Association.

It took less than 20 years, more or less, but the NBA eventually cleaned up its act and became a worthy partner to football and baseball at the top of the American sports pyramid. How that happened is an interesting story on its own, and it is well told in Pete Croatto's book, "From Hang Time to Prime Time." 

Croatto gets things off to a great start. In the first 100 pages of the book, he outlined just where the NBA was about 45 years ago in a fascinating way, full of new details and information. The situation wasn't pretty. The number of people working for the league probably couldn't staff a small supermarket. The presence of the American Basketball Association had driven salaries up to unsustainable levels (at least, by the standards of the time). Some playoff games were either not seen nationally at all or on tape delay. 

Larry O'Brien was hired as the NBA Commissioner in 1975. His first major actions were to settle an on-going legal dispute with the players to a satisfactory conclusion for all, and to help forge a merger between the NBA and ABA. I've always thought O'Brien's contributions have been a bit underrated as these things go, and Croatto gives him full marks for those accomplishments. But from there, O'Brien sounds like he didn't know what to do next. Instead, he'd sit in his office and talk about his good ol' days when he worked at high levels of government. 

Luckily, help was on the way. O'Brien was smart enough in 1978 to hire David Stern, who had been working with the NBA as an outside attorney. And Stern changed everything, slowly but surely. The league started to figure out how to solve its problems. It realized it was not really in the sports business, but in the entertainment business. The role model forward went through Disney. Helping matters was the fact that two huge stars arrived in the same year - Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson. They double-handedly destroyed the stereotype that basketball players were a selfish bunch, as their passing skills were off the charts. 

The other steps came soon after that. The NBA All-Star Game was turned into a showcase event on the season's calendar. The owners and players agreed on a salary cap and rules concerning drug use. Most importantly, Stern took over as commissioner in 1984 - a few months before Michael Jordan arrived in the NBA. Soon the success stories started mounting. 

The league was wise enough to embrace the fact that the players were the league's best sales tool. They were young, athletic, and essentially - as one person put it - running around in their underwear. Stars could drive the product, and they did. Jordan and Company not only were well suited for that job, but all of the players bought into the concept. That led to television programs, videos, international sales, etc. The league also embraced its African American side, as rappers and hip-hop artists picked up on such items as jerseys and sneakers, making them a way for young people of all types to have a route to connect with the game. In other words, people who didn't know Michael Jordan from Rick Robey still wanted basketball-connected merchandise. 

Croatto certainly put his time into this project. He talked to a variety of people - the list of interview subjects goes on for five pages. Croatto had a few people turn him down, including Stern (the last request came shortly before Stern's death), but this sure feels like the complete story.

"From Hang Time to Prime Time" doesn't have much actual basketball in it, so be forewarned. It's a little difficult to make all of it fascinating. Still, for those looking for an explanation of how the NBA blossomed as a business entity, this book will rank as the definitive explanation.

Four stars

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Sunday, October 3, 2021

Review: You Are Looking Live (2021)

By Rich Podolsky

It doesn't take much for a football fan to return to the 1970s. The phrase "you are looking live" ought to do it.

That was the phrase that Brent Musburger often used to begin a CBS sports broadcast in that era. The words also served as an introduction to something of a new era in TV production, since it was relatively early to show several live scenes, one after another, in a broadcast. Musburger and Company did it on "The NFL Today," which established the template for the form in that time period. You really had to watch the show if you are a pro football follower in those days. 

Rich Podolsky takes a look back at those days with something of a history of the show, entitled, of course, "You Are Looking Live!"

Watching football had become something of a national obsession by the 1970s, and CBS was interested in expanding the amount of programming devoted to the game. To do that, it had to put together some sort of compelling show that would force people to turn on their televisions at 12:30 p.m. instead of 1 p.m.

The cast of characters was crucial. Musburger was at the center of the action. From a technical standpoint, what CBS tried to do was close to insane in terms of complexity by Seventies standards. Not only did he handle it smoothly, but he added a touch of urgency to the proceedings. Irv Cross was a former NFL player who knew the game and was a polished broadcaster. He's not remembered as a trailblazer among African Americans broadcasters, but he should be. 

Phyllis George, a former Miss America, blazed a trail in her own right. She showed that women could be a good-sized part of a successful broadcast. George did interviews that didn't have an X and O in sight. That was a time when some men refused to believe that a woman had a place on any sort of sports broadcast, and would complain about it loudly to anyone who would listen. I can't imagine what George's Twitter feed might have looked like back in those days - but it would have been ugly. Finally, there was Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, a gambling expert given legitimacy by his mere presence. He also added an air of unpredictability, since you never knew what he might say. They all filled 30 minutes of programming nicely, and accomplished the goal of attracting an audience.

A couple of things are rather obvious about this book right from the start. It's rather thin at 200 pages or so. Therefore, it's going to be a quick read - which is fine for a subject like this. Podolsky in the introduction talks about how working on "The NFL Today" was the best five years of his professional life. That's something of a double-edged sword. He knows most of the principals involved in the show, on and off the air, and that allows him good access to those involved who are still around to talk about it. (Cross, George and Snyder have died in recent years.) But it also means that it's tough for him to be objective about the show, the people involved in it, and its impact. The author does talk to some people who competed against the show, and their comments are instructive.

At least Podolsky covers the major issues that come up during the course of the show's run. Snyder was the biggest problem for all concerned, occasionally doing something that embarrassed the network. The cast changed a bit as the years went by, and it wasn't as interesting. The pregame shows on CBS and Fox now last for an hour, and they aren't exactly Must See TV in my house. The lesson of "less is more" comes up, at least as compared to the original version.

"You Are Looking Live" isn't going to stay on the bookshelf forever. But if Podolsky set out to write a quick, relatively interesting read, he has succeeded nicely. Just make sure you're old enough to remember the original show before getting out your credit card.

Three stars

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Friday, October 1, 2021

Review: Olympic Pride, American Prejudice (2020)

By Deborah Riley Draper & Travis Thrasher

A good case could be made that the 1936 Summer Olympics were the most dramatic event of its kind in history. Few of the reasons why concern athletics.

The 1930s are associated with a worldwide depression. While it's difficult to try to rate levels of poverty, it's fair to say that Germany was in as much chaos as any nation at the beginning of the decade. That nation had been devastated by World War I, and the collapse of the economy proved too much for the existing government to overcome. That in turn led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the rise of the Nazi party in Germany.

While the overall costs (in all areas, it should be said) were horrific, Germany did settle down economically for a time. Hitler was anxious to show the world the new German state, and thought hosting an Olympics was the way to do it. By 1935, the Nazis' anti-Jewish policies had collected the attention of the world, and many wondered if the United States should boycott the Olympics. American Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage went to Germany, was assured that Jews would not face discrimination, and helped get the formal invitation to the Games accepted. In hindsight, Brundage set an Olympic record for naiveté. 

America had another problem entering the games. "Separate but equal" was the law of the land in regard to African Americans, but some had overcome major obstacles to become potential Olympians. While racism was in full bloom in this site of the border, it seemed hypocritical to ignore that while working to obtain an open Olympics. 

The Games went on with full military precision, and they took place with the participation of 18 athletes who were part of the American team. Their story is told in the book (and accompanying documentary), "Olympic Pride, American Prejudice."

Authors Deborah Riley Draper and Travis Thrasher take a look at all of the African Americans on that team, although some receive more attention that others. All of them certainly overcame a lot to get that far, as economics certainly worked against them. Keep in mind that many of the athletes had to raise money to simply pay their expenses involved in such trip. That was on top of the racist obstacles that were often thrown in their way during their years-long journey to Berlin.

The book neatly highlights a couple of stories that probably deserve to be told. The first centers on Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in track and field to neatly destroy any thoughts that Hitler might have had about using the Olympics as a demonstration of "Aryan supremacy." The catch comes in the tale that Hitler snubbed Owens by not greeting him when Owens had won a gold medal. Draper and Thrasher point out that on the day in question when Hitler was in the stadium, Owens had only won a heat and wasn't a candidate to meet the Fuhrer. Cornelius Johnson did win the high jump that day, and if was snubbed that day, he was. But Hitler had left the building that point, and we'll never know if it was a deliberate act to avoid shaking hands with African-American winners.

The other story centers on the relay races. Two Jewish runners on the American team had been replaced at the last minute on the 4x100 team, probably in an attempt to avoid embarrassment of the Olympic hosts. A similar plan was hatched to change the lineup for the 4x400 team - except that the three "replacements" refuse to run. The United States team still finished second. 

The biggest complaint about the book might be the way it is approached. Much of it is written in the present tense, with notes about what the principals were thinking at a given moment. It's a dramatic way of telling the story, but it's easy to wonder how much of it is accurate concerning a given moment. 

We shouldn't forget the stars of "Olympic Pride, American Prejudice." President Obama salute them with a ceremony for their descendants during a White House ceremony in 2016. If you prefer movies on such matters, the documentary of the same name is available on YouTube. The books, though, works quite well.

Four stars

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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Review: Wish It Lasted Forever (2021)

By Dan Shaughnessy

Dan Shaughnessy can be a tough sportswriter some times.

That's a little more rare than you might think. Criticism of sports figures has become increasingly rare, particularly in an age where athletes can go on their own outlets of social media - or, better yet, pop up on a team's ever-cheerleading site - in order to get a point across to the public. 

Shaughnessy, a columnist for the Boston Globe, often isn't like that. He'll say what he thinks, and worries about the damage later on. It's not a way to be popular, but it's probably necessary. An objective viewpoint can be an important counterpoint these days.

Yet, in the book "Wish It Lasted Forever," Shaughnessy comes across as downright happy and occasionally apologetic. This may surprise his regular readers in New England, who are used to crusty. 

The biggest reason that Dan is happy in this book is that he was more or less in the right place in the right time. He covered the Boston Celtics during the early 1980s. If there was a better assignment for a sportswriter to have in those days, it doesn't really come to mind.

First of all, the Celtics were good. Really good. They had Larry Bird on their side, at his peak. Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson were around for much of that time as well, and K.C. Jones and Red Auerbach are in the picture as well. Bill Walton even shows up for a too-brief appearance, and provides the title in talking about what is is like to play on a team like the 1985-86 Celtics. No matter what happened, this bunch was not going to lose too many games. Losses lead to unhappy people on a team; ask those who cover the Buffalo Sabres these days. The game stories start to read alike. Shaughnessy's biggest question in a given year was, will the Celtics win the NBA championship again?

What's more, this is a very interesting group of guys.  Bird comes off as having a very sharp mind, McHale and Walton are funny, Parish is silent (as opposed to his wife), Ainge is intelligent, Cedric Maxwell is charismatic. The group got along well. Shaughnessy was not a member of the band - there's always a wall up between the two sides - but he went to practices and games with the Celtics almost every day for months. Dan also traveled with the team, taking the same planes and riding the buses. It's a great seat, and Shaughnessy certainly enjoyed the vantage point. There's a really fun story about how Bird and Shaughnessy wound up in a free-throw shooting contest.

It's not all easy of course. One time Bird apparently got into a bar room fight and hurt his hand. Shaughnessy found confirmation of the story and found a eyewitness. The reporter told his boss that someone else should write the story because Bird would cut off access indefinitely, but was told to do it anyway. The story was written, and even teammates confirmed it later, but Shaughnessy did indeed pay a price. 

The author also made the wise decision to reach back to the list of people from that era and ask them today about what happened back then. It does supply some good perspective into events. 

The publisher has played up the fact that the book is something of a printed version of "The Last Dance," about Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. Based on "Wish It Lasted Forever," it seems like being around Larry Bird's Boston Celtics was a heck of a lot more fun. Celtics' fans will love this, and most sports fans should enjoy it.

Four stars

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Monday, September 20, 2021

Review: Finding Murphy (2020)

By Rick Westhead

"Finding Murph" is one sad story. 

It's the latest in something of an informal series of articles and books on the problems in the form of concussions and head-related injuries that take place during contact sports. Considering how long this issue was ignored by all concerned, I have no doubt that we'll be hearing and reading such stories for years to come. 

Joe Murphy had it all by hockey standards, once upon a time. He was the first college player ever to go first in the NHL Entry Draft, as Detroit took him in 1986. He had trouble breaking into to the big leagues - it's tough to judge how 18-year-olds will do immediately when they are asked to compete against men. However, a change of scenery seemed to help. Joe was a part of the Edmonton Oilers team that won the Stanley Cup in 1990. 

Less than a year later, Murphy took a huge hit to the head from Detroit's Shawn Burr during the game. He didn't miss much playing time, and actually rebounded to play rather well in the months after that. But Murphy's behavior, which could always be a little unusual at times, seemed to change for the worse after the hit. Murphy was still a decent player, but found himself bouncing around the league - Chicago, St. Louis, San Jose, Boston, and Washington. Can you be a disappointment after playing 779 games in the NHL, scoring 233 goals and earning a few million dollars along the way? Perhaps, because Murphy seemed as if he was capable of more.

Murphy fell off the grid for a while, floating from place to place. He came back into the news around 2018 when author Rick Westhead and former NHL goalie Trevor Kidd caught up with Joe. He was homeless, sleeping where he could in such places as the floor of the forest, in Kenora, Ontario - located near the Manitoba border not too far from Minnesota. The book idea started with those interviews with Murphy.

Westhead did an impressive job of collecting information about Murphy's life for this book. He talked to all sorts of people who have encountered him over the years, from people in his childhood all the way through the good times in the NHL and to the family, friends and strangers who deal with him now. You probably could argue that Murphy was on the immature side throughout his entire time in hockey; sometimes it's tough to deal with the entitlement that comes with people telling you how special you are in a particular skill. 

Westhead also reviews the issues with the game of hockey and its accompanying concussions as seen through the prism of hockey administration. In other words, the NHL was quite slow in recognizing the risks associated with head injuries, and you probably could say the same about other levels of the game as well. The fear of lawsuits seemed to be paramount on their collective minds. Things are better now in this area, with baseline testing and mandatory layoffs after head trauma. Westhead does a good job of compiling a list of incidents that have affected hockey players in previous years, showing that this is hardly a new problem. 

The only complaint with the book is that the portions about the NHL's reaction to the concussion issue, while quite damning in some ways, is a little disorganized and hard to follow easily. But you'll get the idea.

The last couple of chapters are tough to read. It's a review of what life was like for Murphy as of 2018. Governments always have had trouble effectively treating the effects of mental illness, and Joe is something of a poster boy for that. After much of the research was done, Murphy turned up in Quebec. Then in 2020, he was spotted wandering the streets of Regina, Saskatchewan. 

Here in Buffalo, we're very conscious of concussions and their effects. Pat LaFontaine's career essentially ended the night he took a hit against Pittsburgh in 1996, although he hung on for a while. Kyle Okposo has had a couple of concussions and other medical issues. They helped to rob him of much of what seemed to be a promising career. 

This is not light reading by any means. Still, "Finding Murph" puts a flashlight on the potential downside of athletic glory. It's certainly necessary to do that once in a while.   

Four stars

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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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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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