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 Amazon.com 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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Friday, May 7, 2021

Review: Steve Kerr (2021)

By Scott Howard-Cooper

It is the age-old question in the world of books. What's more valuable: biography or autobiography? 

That is to say, what's the best way of learning about a person? Does the reader gain an advantage by hearing from the subject directly, or is it better to have the perspective of many offer viewpoints on that same subject?

The usual answer is "it depends." Both can be valuable, particularly if the person in question is interesting enough. 

There's no doubt that Steve Kerr is more than interesting enough. The coach of the NBA's Golden State Warriors is one of the most fascinating, thoughtful people anywhere - let alone in sports. His life has gone down avenues that are part dream, part nightmare. What's more, he has shown on occasion an ability to be a good writer. Therefore, a Kerr autobiography ought to be a major event if and when it comes. 

He's not there yet, though. Kerr also turned down the chance to be interviewed at length for "Steve Kerr" by Scott Howard-Cooper, and didn't exactly go out of his way to help the author gain access to friends and associates. So this is definitely a book that features an outside-in look at Kerr, rather than an inside-out approach from the man itself. 

And, after reading it, the biography works quite well - thanks to some good work by the author and a subject that inspires curiosity and interest.

Kerr already had lived quite a life even before he finished college. His father was from the academic community specializing in the Middle East, and the family spent a great deal of time in Beirut, Lebanon - before it had turned into the violent stew of people that we associated with it. Steve attended schools in Cairo, Beirut and Southern California while growing up. Malcolm Kerr eventually was named president of the American University of Beirut.

However, Malcolm was assassinated by a militia group in Beirut in 1984, throwing the entire family into a very difficult situation. To their credit, they have handled matters probably as well as they can be handles, even if there's no playbook for such actions. Steve was at the University of Arizona at the time, an unlikely pick to even receive a basketball scholarship - let alone see any significant playing time. Kerr also suffered a very significant knee injury that cost him all of the 1986-87 season. But he bounced back to help lead the Wildcats to the Final Four in 1987. 

Kerr bounced around a bit at the start of his NBA career, but he clearly got every ounce of his athletic ability mostly due to smarts and work ethic. The guard eventually landed with the Chicago Bulls in 1993, just as Michael Jordan left to play baseball. Kerr hung on to a roster spot long enough to play with Jordan, and became a key role player on one of the greatest teams in NBA history. Kerr will always be associated with a long-range shot to win the clinching Game Six against Utah in 1998. Steve eventually earned three championship rings there. Then when the Bulls broke up, Kerr went to San Antonio for two more titles. 

Add it up, and Kerr played 16 years in the NBA - about 15 more than even he might have expected. His understanding of the game, made him a natural for management, and eventually Kerr landed a head coaching job with Golden State. Yes, three more titles came out of that relationship ... and he isn't done yet.

It's difficult to guess how thoroughly an e-book is written beforehand, but it didn't take long to figure out that Howard-Cooper wasn't interesting in gathering enough material for a quick, superficial book. There are tons of footnotes and book references in the back, and he clearly talked to as many people as he could. Kerr, his family, friends, teammates and associates also have offered plenty of opinions and statements on Kerr, and that helps too. There's plenty to chew on here. 

The author obviously has a great deal of respect for Kerr, which might be why he wrote it in the first place. Come to think of it, it's apparently difficult to find anyone who doesn't feel that way.  

For those who are curious to find out why this basketball coach is such an interesting character "Steve Kerr" will answer those questions nicely. Come to think of it, it will make you await Kerr's own version of the story with even a greater sense of anticipation.

Four stars

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Sunday, May 2, 2021

Review: Burke's Law (2020)

By Brian Burke with Stephen Brunt

I still remember the first time I met Brian Burke, and where it happened. I'm just not sure when it was. 

I was working for the Buffalo Sabres at that point (somewhere around 1988), and we were on a road trip in Boston. Upon arrival the night before a game, Sabres general manager Gerry Meehan had some front office people into his hotel suite for something of a cocktail hour. While most of the faces were familiar to me, Burke's was not. 

I seem to recall hearing that Burke was a player agent, but in checking the timeline it seems more likely that he was a former player agent by that time and was working for the Vancouver Canucks (probably in the spring of 1988). Burke came off pretty well - not too boisterous but someone who knew some stories and was good company. 

A little investigating on my part might have told me that Burke wasn't a typical hockey executive. How many such administrators told Harvard Law School to wait for him for a year while he chased the dream of playing pro hockey? 

That was Burke, and that was only a small part of what had come before that meeting, and what would come after it. The full story - or at least as much as he was able to tell as of the summer of 2020 - is included in his autobiography, "Burke's Law." 

Burke apparently was always willing to go on his own path to what he perceived as success. He came from a big family where education was a major priority, but went to Providence College where he could play some hockey as well. Brian apparently was a fringe prospect, but got a look from the Flyers in his senior year. Burke played that "gap year," but was convinced that Harvard Law should be merely delayed and never ignored when it comes calling. 

Burke walked into a good legal job out of Harvard - no surprise - and soon had started a business as a player agent. But when he had the chance to work with the Canucks, he jumped on it. That starts a series of stops throughout hockey, mostly but not exclusively as a general manager. Follow the bouncing ball - Hartford, the NHL, back to Vancouver, Anaheim (where he won a Stanley Cup), Toronto and Calgary. Whew. It's a tough business, and it takes a toll. Just ask Burke, who has had two wives and has spent a lot of weekends flying from somewhere to see his children every other weekend. 

This book was written after Burke left Calgary, and had a job in the Canadian media. He therefore was free to look back at his time with a great deal of honestly, which adds plenty of color to the story. Want to learn how coaches are hired and fired, how players are traded, and what owners are like? This will tell you, often in profane terms. (A select few members of the media don't escape that description either.) Just as an example, Burke goes into great detail about how he went about the business of figuring out a way to get both of the Sedin twins on his roster when he ran the Canucks.  It should be mentioned that while Burke expresses anger at a lot of people here, he also says he worked hard to patch up those differences down the road. Credit to him for that. 

Oddly, Burke probably received the best publicity of his life concerning his son Brendan. When the young Mr. Burke came out as gay, Brian was supportive of his action and became a very public supporter of LGBTQ community. The senior Burke appeared in a few Gay Pride parades. Tragically, Brendan was killed in an auto accident in Indiana in 2010. That section obviously was a difficult one to write. 

Burke probably is the smartest guy in most rooms that he enters, but he carries a level of emotion with him at all times. That makes him a much more interesting character, from a literary perspective, which leads to a much more interesting book. 

It's obvious through the 288 pages in "Burke's Law" that he loves hockey. In the last couple of pages, Burke writes that when it came to the next job in the sport, "I'm done." I'm sure he meant it at the time. But since the book's publication, he took a job as President of Hockey Operations with the Pittsburgh Penguins. No doubt he'll have more stories to tell when that's over. In the meantime, this memoir offers plenty of honest and interesting anecdotes about one of hockey's more interesting subjects. 

Four stars

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Sunday, April 25, 2021

Review: A Farewell to Arms, Legs & Jockstraps (2020)

By Diane K. Shah

Care to see the story of women and sports journalism evolve in less than three hours?

"A Farewell to Arms, Legs, & Jockstraps" is your book.

This is the memoir of the writing career of Diane K. Shah, whose career took her in all sorts of places over the years. (I'll assume it's still going in some form at this point in her life.) The most interesting parts, though - especially from a historical perspective - are the ones that deal with her time spent reporting and writing about sports. 

Shah came out of college in 1967 and found work for such publications as The National Observer (a weekly) and Newsweek. Diane grew up a big baseball fan, and found herself as something of a pioneer in the Seventies when the battles about allowing women into press boxes and locker rooms began. Shah wisely begins the book with some "war stories" from that era. She had to knock down proverbial walls and fight off a few advances from males, along the way, but certainly she played a part in the changes (for the better, I might add) in sports business. 

She did plenty of freelance writing on sports subjects in the first couple of decades of her career. That's probably how most people became familiar with her work. If you are old enough, you might remember when "Inside Sports" was in its glory days in the 1980s, owned by Newsweek and becoming a worthy rival to Sports Illustrated in its field of literate, smart sports journalism. She was a frequent contributor there. But Shah's biggest claim to fame is that she became the first woman sports columnist at a big-city daily - the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. 

Eventually, the rules changed regarding women sports writers, and the tone of the book changes. It moves from fights with management to anecdotes about the business. And Shah has some good ones. Overall, the reputations of people like Mickey Mantle, Jim Rice, Steve Carlton and Pat Riley take a bit of a hit along the way, while some others are shown to be good people. In addition, Shah has anecdotes about some not-sports people. She developed a bit of a friendship with Cary Grant, of all people, while at the Herald-Examiner. Shah did a couple of stories on Paul Newman, interviewed Sean Connery, chatted with David Letterman, was served a drink by Frank Sinatra, and flew with Dennis Quaid. Heck, she even helped Daryl Gates - the Los Angeles police chief at the time - write his autobiography. That's a pretty good range, all things considered.

All of this is served up into bite-sized literary chunks, ranging from a quick snack to a good-sized portion. There are 51 chapters in all, and just about all of them go by swiftly. About the only exception was a story about the Moscow police department after the fall of the Soviet Union, which didn't reel me in. Shah has written a few mystery novels since leaving L.A., although that area goes mostly unexplored here. Shah knows what stories from her life will sell, and pretty much sticks to them. 

The arrival of women in press boxes and locker rooms had a civilizing effect on the business. Sports journalism is less like a frat house party and more like a profession. "A Farewell to Arms, Legs & Jockstraps" goes down very smoothly, and certainly will be enjoyed by anyone who wants to read plenty of good stories about some famous people.

And really, isn't that all of us? 

Four stars

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Friday, April 23, 2021

Review: Our Team (2021)

By Luke Epplin

It takes some imagination to picture the scene. Think about four men, who couldn't be more different, racing toward a mutual destiny. 

That's part of the charm of "Our Team," a look at a baseball team from the past.

We have Satchel Paige, who grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and went on to become one of the most legendary pitchers in baseball history. Speaking of pitchers, Bob Feller was from a farm in Van Meter, Iowa, where he became the most fabled young pitcher in history. Over in Paterson, New Jersey, was Larry Doby, a talented young athlete who was just figuring out how good he was. Finally we had Bill Veeck, the son of a baseball executive who never met a conventional approach he couldn't shatter. 

They were all on their way to, of all places, Cleveland. They came together when it mattered for an astonishingly brief time in hindsight - basically only in 1948. However, the foursome helped produce the only World Series championship by the Indians in the past 100 years. 

Their stories essentially make up Luke Epplin's story. As you might have guess, the key angle to most of this was the fact that baseball was on the verge of becoming integrated. Jackie Robinson first played in the Dodgers' organization in 1946 and arrived in Brooklyn in 1947. The Dodgers signed other black players, but most other teams didn't rush out to acquire talent from the Negro Leagues to keep up. A second team was needed to keep the momentum going.

Veeck was ready to be that team. He had operated a minor-league team in Milwaukee, where he developed his promotional skills. Veeck tried to purchase the Philadelphia Phillies, and stories circulated that he wanted to stock that usually dismal team with many black stars who could put an instant winner on the field. Naturally, the National League owners voted down Veeck's bid. But the colorful figure found another team to buy when the Indians came up for sale in 1946.  

When he arrived, Feller was already there. He might have been the best young pitcher in history, and he was a star almost from the day he made his debut at age 17. Feller's career was interrupted by World War II, preventing him from piling up statistics that would rank with the best ever in many categories. The interruption in the war also gave Feller extra incentive to make money when he could, and he often took postseason barnstorming trips to do so. Feller was one of the big attractions, but the other was Paige - the biggest drawing card in black baseball. Satchel was good and he knew he was good, and the word was out that he'd need to take a pay cut to play in the majors.

In 1947, Veeck decided to sign Doby, who was 23 years old and had shown potential even though baseball was only one of his best sports. Larry debuted in July of that year, a few months after Robinson's beginning in the majors, but struggled a bit as he got used to the strange surroundings of a formerly all-white world that wasn't quite sure how to deal with integration. Even Veeck thought he should have given Doby more adjustment time before putting him on the Big Stage. Still, Doby was ready to break out in 1948, hitting .301. 

The Indians became a contender in '48, but they were a little short in the pitching department. Veeck thought Paige could help on the mound - and if you could sell some tickets along the way, well, that wouldn't hurt either. Satchel did both. They were contributors to Cleveland's drive to the title that year, although they weren't the main reasons behind the surge. Feller wasn't up to his old standards either. But they all celebrated the title together, and integration took another step forward.

Epplin put in a ton of work researching this book, and it shows. The new information adds perspective in some areas, particularly about Feller's financial zest and circumstances surrounding the integration of the Indians (particularly from teammates). Books have been written by or about all four of the central characters in this story. It's really easy to fall in love with people like Veeck and Paige, who really are larger than life. Thus, some baseball fans already know plenty about the lives of those two. Feller comes off as a little bit less than warm here, while Doby certainly is the proverbial stranger in a strange land. 

Epplin doesn't go deeply into what happened to all of them once 1948 was over, but it is surprising how quickly the situation changed. Veeck had to sell the team because of a divorce. Paige's skills had started to diminish late in the 1948 season, and he was gone from that city in 1949 at the age of 42. Feller wasn't quite as overpowering as he used to be, but hung on into the mid-1950s. Doby became a terrific player in the first part of the 1950s and was later inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

This all goes by pretty quickly, which is a good comment about Epplin's approach and writing ability. I'm not sure anything could have been done any better. Those looking for a well-done first look at this memorable gathering of baseball personalities will find that "Our Team" will work nicely for them.

Five stars

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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Review: Tall Men, Short Shorts (2021)

By Leigh Montville

Leigh Montville was a member of the "Dream Team" even before the term was used in association with basketball. 

Montville was part of the sports department at the Boston Globe in the 1960s. It was a group that influenced journalism greatly in that era, and its members went on to fill time and space for newspapers, magazines, books, radio and television. You've no doubt heard of Peter Gammons, Bob Ryan, and the late Will McDonough if you are reading this. 

The rest of the staff was quite good too. They all seemed to know everything that was going on in their respective sports, essentially reinventing the "notes column" that dated back to Grantland Rice. You can't turn on a television broadcast of a national sports event without hearing from one of those "insiders."

Montville was part of that group. While he became a columnist within a relatively short period of time, Leigh was a general assignment reporter before that within the sports department. That meant if there was a game to be covered somewhere, off he went. The Globe had a morning and evening edition then, filled with different stories, and it covered almost everything, so there was always something to do.

The 1969 NBA Finals, though, certainly was a breakthrough moment for Montville. He covered those games in one of the biggest continuing assignments of his career through that point. As has been said, you never forget your first time. Montville's memories of the series, the reporting business, and his role in all of it go into his memoir, "Tall Me, Short Shorts." And in a way, it's downright charming to go along with always interesting.

The point of interest for most will center on the games themselves. This was one of those epic confrontations, with enough fascinating angles to keep anyone fascinated. Start with the Boston Celtics, who had rallied from a mediocre (for them) regular season to advance to the Finals without the home-court advantage. It was a team that had won 10 of the previous 12 titles, and it still had Bill Russell - the greatest winner in pro sports history - on the roster. It certainly felt like the end of an era, but how and when would it end?

Even so, the Los Angeles Lakers might have been the better story at that moment in time. The Lakers had two superstars in Elgin Baylor and Jerry West, but always came up as the bridesmaids. It got to the point where West never set foot in Boston unless he was playing there - too many bad memories. What did Los Angeles do to change that? The Lakers traded for Wilt Chamberlain, the greatest offensive force in basketball history. Those three almost could make the Nets' current trio of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden look like benchwarmers.  

That's a great start, but there was more to it. The two cities were quite different - books vs. glitz in shorthand. The arenas were different - rat-filled and cramped vs. new and spacious. The teams' reputations were different - team-oriented vs. star-oriented. The hometown announcers (Johnny Most and Chick Hearn) sounded different - gravelly vs. smooth. Could you ask for anything more?

OK, you could ask for some drama along the way. The home-court advantage held up through the first six games, and Game Seven was in Los Angeles. That was different in previous years, when the ghosts of Boston Garden seem to spook the Lakers at key times. West was magnificent, but he hurt his leg in Game Five and wouldn't be at full strength the rest of the way.  

The storybook finish would have to wait for the Lakers, who lost Game Seven by two points. Call it a dream deferred until 1972, when West and Baylor would finally earn a championship ring. Russell and Sam Jones (another Hall of Famer) retired after that last title with bragging rights forever placed in their pockets. 

It's all quite a story, although it might not have received the historical treatment that it should. The New York Knicks fulfilled their potential by winning it all in 1970 - beating the Lakers, of course. That Knicks' team was a great one, and it captured the imagination of all of New York. It became a turning point in the NBA's history, as the media outlets crowded around the Knicks to tell that tale. Therefore, a retrospective of the Celtics-Lakers series the year before is a fine idea. 

Montville uses as many tools as he could fine to tell the story. He digs up the original stories that he wrote during the matchup as well as ones composed by others. Montville talked to some of the players involved, and found recordings of some of the games. 

Mostly, though, the reporter calls on his memory bank to supply information. He has plenty of stories about how he did the work during those two weeks in the spring of 1969. Montville also comes up with stories about what he was thinking at the time, and how those first impressions have changed over the years as he reflects on them now. 

That's a lot to digest, but there is one other point worth mentioning here. The rest of the "Dream Team" members at the Globe were information-oriented. They knew stuff that no one else did, and were thrilled to see it printed. But 1969 was a time when the so-called "New Journalism" was popular, and Montville practiced it. He was more interested in telling a story through anecdotes than through facts - preferably with a little style. This made him stand out a bit in the crowd when reading the newspaper. 

But Montville's writing style can be a little quirky. He often refers to himself through the book as The Bright Young Man, or TBYM - the reporter who in hindsight didn't know as much as he thought he did, but was still soaking up techniques as quickly as he can. I can almost guarantee that some people will find this way of writing the story delightful and others will find it annoying. That's been the reaction to his other books, including ones on Manute Bol, Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. I don't expect anything different here. 

"Tall Men, Short Shorts," then, might not work for everyone as well as it did for me. I'm certainly in the target audience for this book - a sports writer who rooted for the Celtics when he was 13 during this series. Even so, there's enough material about a key moment in basketball history to keep most people well entertained.

Four stars

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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Review: Buzz Saw (2020)

By Jesse Dougherty

When a sports team approaches a championship, you can bet that there's one thing that always on the back of the mind of the reporters who are covering it: book deal. 

Such publications are obviously food for those are hungry for more information about that championship season, whether it's mostly in word form or the quicker but less in-depth photo book. I speak with the authority of experience here, since I was contacted during the late spring of 1999 if I'd be interested in working on a book if the Buffalo Sabres won the Stanley Cup that June. (Note: I'm still waiting.)

Jesse Dougherty probably was the most surprised person in the District of Columbia when he was first contacted about writing such a book after the 2019 season. After all, the Washington Post reporter was with the team when it started 19-31 and seemed doomed to a disappointing year. But, as we know, things changed. 

Thus, a while after the celebration and the parade, "Buzz Saw" came to life. 

History really made this particular World Series win that much more sweet. The Nationals had been building throughout the 2010s, but they had been stopped short of the ultimate goal several times - in some cases well short of that objective. Washington lost one of its prodigal sons in Bryce Harper to free agency in the offseason leading up to 2019. While on paper it looked like a good team, losing a former Most Valuable Player usually isn't the best way to begin a season. But it did have Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg back in its rotation, and Patrick Corbin was added to the mix. So there was that. And Juan Soto was coming off a fine partial season for a 19-year-old in 2018, and he figured to carry some of the load left behind by Harper. 

Those who had grown accustomed to the idea that the Nationals would be disappointing again had those feelings reinforced by the slow start. But eventually, Washington got turned in the right direction and played like one of the best teams in the league for the rest of the regular seasons. It's hard to know if that sort of run translates into postseason success, but the Nats at the least figured to be a tough out. 

That takes up the first half of the book, which had some stories about individual players that read like feature stories. In fact, they probably were in their first version. But once the playoffs get going, the games get bigger and the moments become more memorable. Dougherty hits the high points, of course, and he also has plenty of other information that probably was sitting unused in the back of a notebook because there was no space at the time. 

The Nationals ran the table, capping it off with a very unusual win in the World Series. The odd part was that the road team won all seven games. That had never happened before. Heck, home teams have rarely gone seven-for-seven in the series. 

OK, OK, that's fine ... but how was the book?

It does feel a little rushed in spots, no doubt due to the time constraints. But that comes with the territory. Let's face it - if you are a big fan of the Nationals, you may have purchased this as soon as it arrived at the book store. It certainly will serve as a good reminder of those nice moments along the way, even if you can recite them by heart at this point. If you are merely a baseball fan, it's not going to work as well. There are a few interesting portions for that part of the audience, such as a description of the Nationals' recruiting efforts of Corbin when he was a free agent. 

It's difficult to make a book like "Chain Saw" a fascinating read because of the time crunch involved. It needed to be published by Opening Day the following year, and that's a difficult task. It's a professional job and moves along well enough. Still, it's a keeper only for those who have a Nationals bobblehead on the desk. 

Three stars

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Friday, April 2, 2021

Review: Forty Years a Giant (2021)

By Steven Treder

The photo on the cover of "Forty Years a Giant" is telling. Horace Stoneham is sitting in the front row of a baseball stadium,, with patriots bunting covering on the railing It's obviously a big day for the owner of baseball's Giants, if only based on the decoration. Maybe it's the World Series, or maybe it's Opening Day. But he's about to watch his team play, and that meant it was going to be a good day.

Stoneham indeed owned the Giants for 40 years, taking over from his father. Charles Stoneham was a slightly shady businessman in New York City, but none of the slight-of-hand passed on to Horace. The Giants became his life's work for 40 years, and he loved virtually minute until financial issues forced him to sell in 1976.

That's quite a run, and he certainly played a good-sized role in baseball history. Therefore, Stoneham certainly is a good choice for a full biography. Author Steven Treder delivers one with this good-sized (more than 400 pages) of text.

Horace always will be associated with something that happened about in the middle of his tenure. By the mid-1950s, it was obvious that the Polo Grounds, the Giants' home in New York City for decades, was no longer a good place for a baseball team. Fans were staying away in droves, in spite of the fact that emerging superstar Willie Mays was on the roster. What's more, the Brooklyn Dodgers were having similar issues just down the proverbial street. Stoneham and Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley came up with a plan.

The two men decided that moving both franchises was the best option under the circumstances, as hopes of a new stadium were quickly buried. In order to maintain something of a rivalry, the Dodgers packed for Los Angeles while the Giants ended up in San Francisco. As it worked out, the Dodgers got the better of the deal, building a better stadium and attracted millions from a larger fan base. The Giants didn't even get the benefit of nostalgia; the Dodgers' move seemed to anger their fans for decades while mourning for the Giants wasn't so public.

Stoneham was essentially the owner and general manager of the Giants throughout his tenure. That was something of a throwback to the old days of baseball, when such combinations were commonplace. The franchise was usually competitive in those four decades, even if the team only won the World Series in 1954 and took the National League pennant in 1962. The team had plenty of stars, but everything never quite came together most of the time. Maybe that was luck, maybe that was a case of Stoneham not having the skills to make everything work. Certainly Stoneham's affection for alcoholic beverages may have gotten in the way of good judgment at times.

Treder has done some good work writing about baseball history. He picked a tough subject for his debut. Stoneham was not the most outgoing of men around the media. What's more, he didn't save many records from his days with the Giants. Therefore, there's not much of a paper trail to follow. Meanwhile, Stoneham died in 1990, and at this point few people who works closely with him on executive matters are alive to tell the story. 

Treder did the best he could under the circumstances. The book in some ways is a history of the Giants under Stoneham's leadership, with some additional details added at the beginning and end. Every season and many of the transactions are reviewed and judged retroactively. The author certainly hits some key points along the way, but it all feels a little distant. The text probably could have lost some pages without losing much of interest under the circumstances.

It's too bad that "Forty Years a Giant" couldn't have been written about 25 to 35 years ago. Such a book might have had more insight into the longtime leader of the Giants. Still, those who are curious about this good-sized figure in baseball history will find plenty to consider.

Three stars

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Monday, March 29, 2021

Review: Overtime (2019)

By John U. Bacon

It may be time to call John U. Bacon the writer-in-residence for the University of Michigan's football program. 

He's earned that title. After all, Bacon has written three other books on the Michigan team, and other books on college football in general and the Wolverines' hockey program. He has taught at Michigan and Northwestern, so the odds are pretty good that he can put one word after another in a sentence, and one sentence after another in a paragraph. Oh, he and his family live in Ann Arbor. 

Therefore, it's easy to guess that no "outsider" has the sort of access into Michigan football than Bacon. It shows up on every page of "Overtime," a thorough and always interesting review of a particular team of Wolverines.

In this case, the team is the 2018 edition. The Wolverines were coming off a disappointing (for them) 8-5 season after a pair of 10-3 years after the arrival of head coach and former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh. That 2017 campaign was a bit below the usual standards for football success at the school, and Michigan had not been higher than third in its division of the Big Ten in Harbaugh's three years on the job. 

Everyone connected with Michigan was hoping for a rebound - heck, "demanding" might be a better word for it in the cases of a few zealots. I can't say I had a vivid recollection of how the 2018 season went, unlike those zealots, so it was all something of a surprise to me within certain parameters. However, your level of knowledge about that particular season isn't too important. Bacon is after bigger game, as he searches for stories that don't pop up in the daily reporting of the theme. The weekly games are important, of course, but Bacon makes a wise decision by not devoting too much space to a play-by-play description of each one.

Therefore, biographies of some of the people in the program fill up a great many pages. Harbaugh himself gets something of a mini-biography, helped by the fact that Bacon knew him during his childhood. Most of the family, including his father the coach and his brother the coach, chip in with anecdotes about the interesting ride that Harbaugh has taken over the years - and it's not over yet. 

I'd say it was lucky that Bacon came across several players who are well-spoken and have unconventional interests by the standards of the sport. How many college players want to be astronauts? Michigan had one. The Wolverines also had several players who were sons of Michigan players, which makes for a nice tradition. The story of what it's like to play major college football comes across well, and the word that sums it up is "demanding." Those kids clearly need more hours in a day.

What comes across rather well is that Michigan is trying extremely hard to do things the right way. The university has high academic standards, so it's not for those who don't have a great deal of interest in studying. There aren't many big-time schools trying to seek excellence in both areas; Stanford certainly comes to mind. On the other hand, it makes recruiting a little easier in the sense that some top prospects never could do the school work at Michigan, and thus can be taken off the list of prospects very early in the process. And to be honest, Bacon seems quite happy to praise Michigan for its approach. 

Bacon also jumps into a variety of areas that have become attached to college football, and has some strong opinions about some of them. That covers such areas as recruiting on a national scale (and abuses found there), and the relationship between teams. For example, Michigan has a few rivals - but the nastiest is Michigan State, as the play sometimes devolves into cheap shots and the Spartans' fans have little use for the other side. There's also a good look at how much time and money go into feeding a beast like this, with such matters as equipment, video, scouting, medical costs, etc. 

This is the first time I've read one of Bacon's books, as I have no connection to Ann Arbor. But I clearly picked a good one to read. "Overtime," with its fresh reporting and sharp analysis, presents a first-class look at a football program that has a unique set of obstacles as it tries to achieve excellence on and off the field. And if I thought it was excellent, the Michigan alumni will cherish it forever.

Five stars

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Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Review: CenterStage (2021)

By Michael Kay

If you live in the Metro New York City area and upstate New York (or perhaps have an unusual cable or satellite package in other areas), you've no doubt come across the YES Network - particularly if you are reading this website. It's mostly associated with the broadcasts, and rebroadcasts, of New York Yankees games. The channel also shows the Brooklyn Nets in baseball's offseason.

That's nice enough, but YES is on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The executives needed something to fill the rest of those hours ... because test patterns don't attract audiences or sponsors.

One of the ideas to fill that time came from an executive, who jotted down the idea "Inside the Actor's Studio - sports." You might remember the program that James Lipton did for Bravo for many years, as he talked to many top actors about their work. Why not sports figures?

Why not indeed? Michael Kay, the Yankees' play-by-play announcer, was tapped to host the show. Thus, "CenterStage" was born. 

That was 20 years ago, and Kay has done a few hundred shows since then. Now he's taken the next logical step - written up transcripts of some of the best interviews, and combined them into a book. That publication, logically, is called "CenterStage."

While the show has a little slant toward New York figures in its selection of guests, it also has been able to collect interviews with figures who are nationally known. That allows this book to work on a national scale, even if YES is only known within that relatively small geographic area. 

Kay does an excellent job on the show of interviewing the guests, and his staff has rounded up people who force you to listen. Who wouldn't want to talk to Charles Barkley for an hour. Or Joe Namath. Or Chris Evert, Bill Parcells, George Foreman, Red Auerbach, Andre Agassi, Bob Costas and John McEnroe. There are also people with faint to no connections to sports, like Billy Crystal, Lorne Michaels, Adam Sandler, Sly Stallone and Larry David. Derek Jeter never displayed the range Kay had in going from Snoop Dog to the late David Halberstam. 

The program is generally quite good, and occasionally exceptional. My favorite might have been the hour with Paul Simon, who talked candidly about his career and had a guitar at his side if he wished to make a musical point. 

The book by nature has to be a slightly weak substitute for watching the entire show. Obviously, most of the text is recycled from the television shows, and that hurts the rating a bit. The conversations have been edited down a bit, and they occasionally run into problems with dated material. For example, Parcells is a fascinating character, and he says here that he's done with coaching - shortly before he took the job as coach of the Dallas Cowboys. 

The book goes by easily and quickly, thanks in part to the format that has plenty of white space between the questions and answers. Add it up, and "CenterStage" makes for pleasant reading even for those who aren't familiar with the program - even if the show is better than the book.

Three stars

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Monday, March 22, 2021

Review: How 'Bout Them Cowboys? (2018)

By Gary Myers

It's been about 25 years since the Dallas Cowboys truly mattered, at least to most football fans.

The Cowboys used to be known informally as "America's Team" for a reason. Dallas had a great run of success that more or less ran from 1966 to 1995, a stretch of 30 seasons. It won five Super Bowls during that time, and usually was a contender in the other seasons. 

The only dead spot came in the late 1980s, when the Cowboys missed the playoffs five consecutive times. In the middle of that span came some hope in the form of new ownership (Jerry Jones) and new coaching (Jimmy Johnson). They brought the team up to date, and the Cowboys won three more Super Bowls in the 1990s. They might have won more, but Jones and Johnson had a very public divorce in the middle of the run, and the team never has completely recovered.

Do the Cowboys still fascinate? That's a very interesting question. A generation of football fans has never seen a Dallas team get past the divisional round of the playoffs. Yes, Skip Bayless talks about the Cowboys when he gets the chance on a talk show, but it's certainly not like the old days. 

Still, some of the loyalties must be still around, because this book might not have been written without those fans. Author Gary Myers caught up with the franchise in 2018 in his book "How 'Bout Them Cowboys?", a phrase Johnson was used right after another big win. 

Myers formerly covered the team during his days of working in Dallas in the 1980s and early 1990s. He then jumped to New York, where he became known for his work on a weekly recap program on HBO. So he's got plenty of credentials. 

The reader's first question probably centers on the format and structure of the book. It's good to know going in that this is not a formal history of the team, although a little knowledge about the franchise's relatively ancient past (it was created in 1960) is helpful. Instead it goes through eight chapters that read something like good-sized articles about a particular aspect of the Cowboys. 

Let's see - there's Jones' personal story about his rise to become a Hall of Famer, and how he ran in the business that made the Cowboys and every other NFL franchise increase in value drastically. There are chapters dedicates to tight end Jason Witten and head coach Bill Parcells. There's even a nice piece of work on some teammates from the 1980s who stayed close through the years. But make no mistake about - Jones is the centerpiece of the book. 

Myers is a good enough reporter that he has some good stories about what actually happened along the way. Some of them no doubt have been hiding in his notebook until it was safe to tell people. Others were revealed when he did interviews for the book, and the subjects fell more free to spill some details. The writing is fine, although the slightly disjointed format apparently left some readers hoping for more structure. 

Still, there's a simple test for the book - one I've used elsewhere. Are you a fan of the Dallas Cowboys? If so, it's safe to say you'll find this worth your time. The rating below applies to those readers. If not, well, your enjoyment level will suffer a little. 

Four stars

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Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Review: How to Watch Basketball Like a Genius (2021)

By Nick Greene

A quick Google search for the phrase "thinking outside the box" reveals more than 5 million hits. Quite a few trees have been chopped in forests in making the paper for the business books that have been dedicated to the idea of approaching a problem from a unique perspective and coming up with a possible solution. They weren't all part of the "Freakonomics" series, either. 

The idea doesn't only apply to commerce. Writer Nick Greene loves basketball, and decided to look at the game in several different ways. The resulting book is "How to Watch Basketball Like a Genius," and it's fair to say that he has succeeded in his goal.

Basketball is uniquely suited for a rather off-kilter examination, mostly because of its origins. Baseball, football and basketball slowly evolved from other games, and there's no clear line about how and when the actual game that we know had come forward. Basketball was different. Dr. James Naismith needed something athletic for people to do indoors in a gymnasium in December 1891, since calisthenics and gymnastics weren't a great deal of fun. What was needed was a new game - something that could be played indoors safely on a hard court without a lot of body contact. 

Dr. Naismith was well equipped for the job. He took a soccer ball and decided to have people try to place it into a goal. The best part came when he decided to hang the goals - peach baskets - on the balcony of the YMCA. Who could get hurt jumping in the air? Dr. Naismith also thought that he needed to limit the amount of momentum by the participants, so players couldn't run with the ball - they had to pass it. A few other rules followed, and we had a game ... for a while. When basketball was actually played, it was quickly determined that some other form of ball advancement was needed to prevent the game from turning into keep-away ... and dribbling was created. That led to changes in the ball, in order to advance it more easily.

And the game was off, and so is Greene's book. He takes the novel approach of talking to experts in other fields to get their opinions on a variety of subjects about basketball. A professor in games at New York University checks in with his thoughts on basketball's development. New rules came along, which in term emphasized different skills and usually made the game more fun. For example, originally possession of an out-of-bounds basketball went to the first person to retrieve it, causing some spirited and physical sprints. It must have been like outdoor lacrosse, which awarded the ball to the team that has a player closest to the ball when it leaves the playing field. Setting up "cages" around the court solved that problem for a while, and gave us the word "cagers." Was it still basketball when it was done? A Penn State philosophy professor says yes, absolutely. 

And off we go on an adventure. Games like systems often grow more conservative over the time, and basketball hit something of a wall when teams simply refused to shoot the ball by the early 1950s. The elegant solution was the shot clock, which forces players to play the game. A famous 19-18 game involving the great center George Mikan illustrated the problem nicely; a traffic expert says it often takes the equivalent of a crash to take dramatic action. An advertising executive points out that the time limit forced players to be creative as the clock ran down, and thus opened up the game to those who could thrive in that environment.

Those involved in the game are still wrestling with the problem involving fouls by a trailing team at the end of a game. Nick Elam proposed setting a target score in the fourth quarter, as in "first team to 100 wins." The idea sounds like it almost came off a playground, but based on some experiments such as the NBA All-Star Game, it seems to have the desired effect.

One other traditional problem for the game has been the domination of the biggest players, who are closer to the rim than the rest of the participants and often can score and rebound at will. That led to goaltending rules, the creation of the "lane" by the basket, and the widening of that area. It didn't help. Then came the three-point line, which was almost ignored for several years. But some coaches figured out that because of that bonus point, a shot from beyond the arc was more productive than one inside of it. That meant the best ways to score were the dunk/lay-up, because of its high percentage, and the three-pointer, because of the bonus scoring. Centers have either adapted or died.

There are other chapters on such subjects as free-throw shooting, "we've never done it that way" coaching, dunking (a ballet expert checks in here), defense (which calls for a theoretical astrophysicist), passing, and chemistry. The game has a lot of fans among our best and brightest. 

This is all nicely told by Greene, who never takes himself too seriously; the same can be said for his experts. It all doesn't work perfectly, as the insights of magicians and noodle-makers aren't a perfect fit for the book. Even so, the story moves along nicely for the most part. 

It's clear that a book like this is not for everyone. But speaking as someone who once wrote an article about the idea of having four outs per half-inning in a seven-inning baseball game, I enjoyed stretching my imagination. If you qualify, there's little doubt that "How to Watch Basketball Like a Genius" is worth your time.

Four stars

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