Saturday, January 30, 2021

Review: A Tribe Reborn (2019)

By George Christian Pappas

These days, you have to have been around the block a few times to remember when the Cleveland Indians were bad.

The baseball team has been in the playoffs five times since 2013. This stretch has ended a bit of a dry spell that started around 2001 after the team had six playoff appearances from 1994.

But if you have been around the block several times, you remember when the Cleveland Indians were always bad. They went more than 40 years without reaching the playoffs. The team usually played in Memorial Stadium in front of thousands of empty seats, and often was the subject of rumors about a move to another city.

That turnaround in the late 1980s and early 1990s took some time, but baseball seems secure again in Cleveland. The story about the reversal is a good one, and George Christian Pappas tells it nicely in "A Tribe Reborn." 

Pappas did get off to a bad start with me. He opens the narrative with the Indians' World Series parade of 1995 - even though the team lost to the Atlanta Braves. He asks, "Where else would you find a parade to celebrate a losing team? Then he adds, "Buffalo, where the Bills dropped four consecutive Super Bowls?" Well, George, actually, Buffalo didn't throw a parade for the Bills team after losing Super Bowl XXV - but it did hold a giant rally in front of City Hall in celebration of a great season. We Rust Belt Cities have to stick together. 

But from there, the book settles in nicely. He soon goes into the sale of the Indians to Dick Jacobs, who had big plans to rebuild the franchise and downtown area. Jacobs hired good baseball men like Hank Peters and John Hart, who stocked the franchise with great young talent in piecemeal fashion. Then the team got to work in an effort to put a beautiful new stadium right on the southern edge of downtown. While it wasn't planned to go step-by-step, the Indians were ready to field a contender when that new stadium (Jacobs Field) opened in 1994. Cleveland had such stars as Albert Bell, Carlos Baerga, Manny Ramirez and Kenny Lofton ready to emerge.

Sure enough, the Indians made it to the World Series in 1995 and 1997, but didn't have quite enough to win it. The team's drought from 1948 continues to this day. But it was great fun while it lasted. Basically, the franchise had so much talent on offense that it simply couldn't afford to keep it all. The pieces slowly peeled away, and Cleveland needed several years to rebuild its fortunes.

This could have been pretty dry, or at least familiar. So Pappas gets lots of credit for making the story interesting. He talked to several people who were involved in the building process, and that helps bring a personal touch to the tale. Pappas also uncovered a few stories that probably aren't known to anyone but huge fans. 

For example, in 1994 the Indians actually made a trade in the middle of the strike. They acquired Dave Winfield from the Twins for a player to be named later, just in case the season resumed. It never did, so Winfield never put on a Cleveland jersey that year. When the two sides discussed compensation for the Twins in this unique situation, they came up with a solution. Everyone would go out to dinner, and the Indians would pick up the check.

The biggest complaint about the book might be about the ending. The playoff games in 1995 and 1997 are given quite short capsules, and thus don't capture the excitement of the moment too well. In addition there are some pages devoted to relatively advanced statistical analysis that feel out of place in a book like this. I guess there were a few factual errors along the way. I'm not in favor of them, but some baseball fans are almost oversensitive when it comes to such slip-ups.

Still, most of "A Tribe Reborn" is an enjoyable trip in the time machine when the excitement in Northeastern Ohio was rekindled. Fans of the team - and of baseball - ought to be thoroughly entertained.

Four stars

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Monday, January 25, 2021

Review: So Many Ways to Lose (2021)

By Devin Gordon

The New York Mets arguably have done less with more than any franchise in baseball, and perhaps in team sports in general. 

That's a big statement, but a case can be made for its validity. 

The Mets have been around since 1962, when they were something of a replacement for the Dodgers and Giants. Those teams moved to the West Coast in 1958, leaving New York without a National League team until the Mets filled the void. Since then, New York has won two World Series titles, and been in the playoffs every so often. Still, for a team with most of the economic advantages of the Yankees, they probably should have done better. 

(Note: I guess the NBA's New York Knicks might be even worse in this department, although the Mets have had a flair for more spectacular flare-outs over the years.)

This brings us to Devin Gordon's book, "So Many Ways to Lose." 

Gordon has a good-sized list of writing credits to his name, including regular work at GQ and Newsweek. Here he tries something new. A Mets' fan forever, Gordon has come up with a book that is something like a history of the team - except that it's done with a different approach and attitude. In other words, this is not the Doris Kearns Goodwin approach to history.

This is a New York City writer, with accompanying opinions, at full bluster. Gordon has seen a lot over the years, and he's still angry about some of the lowlights - whether it's a team that was buried in the standings for one reason or another (everything from bad baseball judgment to the Bernie Madoff scandal) or came agonizingly close to doing something memorable. I guess the latter could be summed up by Carlos Beltran's take of a called third strike to end Game Seven of the 2006 playoff with the St. Louis Cardinals. 

This book started a little slowly for me. It had a bit too much attitude for me at the start - kind of like bumping into a guy who was a bit too sure of his own opinions on sports matters, and who tried to turn those opinions into facts. I tend to run from those people when I get the chance.

However, over the course of a few hundred pages, Gordon goes about the slow process of winning the reader over. He interviewed several people about Mets' history, including Mike Piazza, Ron Darling, Mackey Sasser, Frank Viola and Gary Cohen. They are surprisingly candid about their days with the Mets, and that helps the story. Gordon also did plenty of research into the Mets' background - who knew that the team had a pedophile on its 1962 roster? And the writer has enough funny lines to move the story along, even if sometimes it's tough to tell when he's trying to make a point through exaggeration and when he's presenting evidence.

This isn't a bad time for such a book. The Mets have been bought by billionaire Steve Cohen, and it seems likely that the team's fortunes will take on different directions in the future. If you want to call the sale an end of an era, be my guest.

It's tough to say how well this book like this will go over outside of the confines of Metropolitan New York. However, that's not the target audience for "So Many Ways to Lose." Long-suffering Mets fans no doubt will enjoy the discussion presented here, even if they don't agree with all of the points. In that sense, you'd have to say Gordon succeeded in his goal. 

Four stars

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Thursday, January 21, 2021

Review: The Day the Yankees Made Me Shave (2020)

By Greg Pryor

Greg Pryor may be on to something here. 

Virtually everyone who has ever put on a baseball uniform in the pros has accumulated some good stories about his experiences along the way. They have bumped into famous people, played in some memorable games, and had some accomplishments.The longer the career, the better the chances are for more "collisions" with history. 

Pryor is a good example of that. He no doubt was one of the last people you'd think would ever reach the pros if you saw him during a unspectacular career in high school. (As you probably know, just about everyone in the pros dominated the competition as a kid.) Greg went to college, worked hard and continued to improve, was drafted into the pros, and reached the majors - briefly - at the age of 26. 

Usually those players wash out of the sport by then, but not only did he reach the majors for good in 1978 at the age of 28, but he stayed for nine seasons. Pryor even won a championship ring with the Kansas City Royals in 1985. In hindsight, it was an unusual ride that bordered on the amazing, and is a tribute to his perseverance.

At some point, Pryor decided to get some of his baseball memories down on paper, if only for the entertainment of his friends and family. Greg wrote a book that came to be called "The Day the Yankees Made Me Shave."

Let's be realistic here. There probably isn't a great market across this wide country of ours for a book by a utility infielder from the 1970s and 1980s. But in the world of self-publishing, there really doesn't have to be a big market; a small, appreciative audience will work fine. 

Pryor has done this task really well in this memoir. He's taken 27 memorable events from his baseball career - one for each out by a team in a game - and used them as a launching point for discussions of his career. No matter how true the second paragraph of this review is, it's still a surprise that Pryor was on hand for some memorable events. Just for starters, he was the only player to take part in both "The Pine Tar Game" and "Disco Demolition Night." George Brett borrowed his bat to record the 2,000th hit of his career. (Greg still has the bat - autographed, of course.) When Minnie Minoso had his last appearance in the major leagues at the age of 54, he pinch-hit for Pryor in 1980. By the way, Tony La Russa provides the foreward.

One time I had the chance to tell a pro athlete turned author that if he was going to do a book like this, he should take the time to do it right. Pryor gives credit to a couple of editors who made the book read well. I suppose I could argue that the 27 stories feel self-contained and that some material gets repeated along the way, but I can't say it presents that much of a problem to the reader. The story goes by pretty quickly. Meanwhile, the layout is just fine for these purposes. 

I wouldn't have known about this book if I hadn't "bumped into" Pryor in a Facebook group. I'm from the right era to enjoy this literary effort. You may not qualify in that category, but those who do will find "The Day the Yankees Made Me Shave" to be an entertaining time machine of a book.

Four stars

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Thursday, January 14, 2021

Review: Judge Landis and 25 Years of Baseball (2020)

By J.G. Taylor Spink

What's a book that was first published in 1947 doing here? 

That's a bit of a story. 

The publisher of The Sporting News wrote a biography back then of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball who died in 1944. Over the years, that publication (which survived in a print format for more than a century before becoming web-only) sometimes did a reprint of the book to sell to the public. J.G. Taylor Spink had a ringside seat to Landis' long reign over the National Pastime, so he was qualified to write it. (Since finishing it, I have been told that Fred Lieb did the actually writing.)

Here we are then, more than 70 years later, and the book still has life. "Judge Landis and 25 Years of Baseball" recently popped up as a Kindle document at a bargain price. Since I've been aware of it for something like a half-century, I figured it was worth a look.

And that's certainly the case, at least for some baseball fans. 

Spink certainly backs up the claim that Landis was something of a legendary character. His father was wounded in Georgia during the Civil War. He recovered and had a son, but the parents couldn't agree on a name. They eventually went the "Kenesaw Mountain" route, although that part of the world eventually settled on "Kennesaw Mountain" as a formal name for the region. Both spellings had been acceptable at the time. It sounds like Landis stuck to Ken, or better yet, Judge, as a name.

Landis went into law and became a judge in 1905. Spink's description is something out of a movie, as Landis was very flamboyant. It sure must have been fun to watch him on a typical day on the bench. Landis gained a national reputation when he fined Standard Oil more than $29 million, which was a lot of money in those days. 

He caught the eye of baseball owners when he took his time deciding a suit by Federal League owners against their established counterparts, which essentially doomed the Feds' chances of surviving. Landis also was known to take time off from the court to catch the games of the Cubs and White Sox. So when the scandal of the "Black Sox" of Chicago took place in 1919, baseball needed someone to take charge of the sport and rebuild its reputation. 

The Judge was up to the challenge. One of his first actions was to give lifetime bans to the White Sox players who were implicated in the game-fixing scandal, even though they had been declared innocent in a criminal trial. Yes, he meant business. Baseball certainly had a gambling problem at that point in its history, and Spink makes it clear that Landis' first priority was to clean that part up of the game. 

Many of the decisions out of Landis' office in his first decade or so had something to do with wagering. From there, the Commissioner had other things on his mind. He managed to push baseball through the Depression without losing any teams - no small accomplishment - and ushered in some changes like the introduction of the All-Star Game in 1933. Landis spent some time trying to bring order to the relationship of the major and minor leagues, as the minors were slowly losing their status as independent operators.

Part of the fun of a book like this is that Spink was an eyewitness to the Landis Era. Here's a person who was the official scorer in many of the World Series games in the 1910s. Spink was close enough to American League founder and President Ban Johnson to have him stay at his house during visits to St. Louis. 

There's also a certain charm in the writing style of the book. It's just a little bit old-fashioned - not quite like the sports writing of a century ago, but a little more flowery than what we see today. For example, Babe Ruth is called "the former chubby urchin from the Baltimore waterfront." There's a great story about Alabama Pitts, who was send to "New York's Big House on the Hudson" for a crime - and then became the subject of a national debate about his playing status when he was released from Sing Sing. There are a lot of chapters, but most are quite short and go by quickly.

The book does come with a couple of drawbacks. Some of the chapters have long statements about certain issues reprinted verbatim. Since the matters aren't particularly topical or interesting this far away in hindsight, it's easy to skip over them. If you are looking for baseball stories, well, the players take a secondary role here - although some good-sized names do come up (Ruth, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Branch Rickey).

And, of course, there's the matter of integration in baseball. Remember, this was published in 1947, when Jackie Robinson was just joining the Brooklyn Dodgers to break baseball's color line. This area goes unaddressed here, which seems like a reflection of the time. Even the baseball historians of today aren't sure what Landis' racial attitudes were. 

"Judge Landis and 25 Years of Baseball" certainly is a valuable reference source for those historians who want to look back at a time when the sport became more professionally run. In other words, I probably should have read it sooner, but I'm glad I finally got to it. 

Four stars

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Saturday, January 9, 2021

Review: Catch 22 (2020)

By Rick Vaive with Scott Morrison

A few years ago, I had a good-sized chat with Rick Vaive at a banquet. I knew him very slightly when he was a member of the Buffalo Sabres in the late 1980s when I worked there. I knew he had taken a pounding as a hockey player - we used to call him "Robocop" because of all the equipment he needed. Still, it was a surprise to know the toll he had taken physically. It took - and takes, I assume - him 45 minutes to do enough stretching each morning after getting out of bed to be able simply to function for the rest of the day.

However ... it turns out that those physical problems weren't his biggest issues during his life. 

And that's what makes "Catch 22," Vaive's autobiography, worth reading. He and co-author Scott Morrison have come up an honest look back at a life that could be described as "surprisingly difficult."

At first glance, Vaive seemed to catch a lot of good fortune in his career. He scored at least 50 goals for the Toronto Maple Leafs three straight times. Rick made plenty of money, drove fast cars, lived in nice houses, and so on. That's a very good head start toward a successful life.

Yet this was not a life out of a storybook, and the physical pounding was only part of the problem. Vaive came out of a household where alcohol was ever-present, and he carried some baggage from those years into life as an adult. By the sound of it, he did a great deal of it during his playing days, and that was more expected behavior among his peers rather than a cause for concern. It's tough to know how much of a problem that was in hindsight, but it certainly had some sort of effect. He eventually went over the edge, admitted his problem and gave up drinking, fell off the wagon briefly, but apparently has been sober for a while. Good for him.

There were other issues as well. Vaive hated to fly - probably still does. Hockey players spend a lot of time on airplanes, and I can't imagine what it's like to perspire throughout a cross-country flight. Then there's the matter of an internal problem that left him with bladder issues. The only athletes I've ever heard discussing the matter of bed-wetting are Mickey Mantle and Rick Vaive. 

Vaive then represents something of a case study in unfulfilled potential. At 25 he was one of the top goal-scorers in the league, but never reached those heights again. Rick was still effective until he was 32 - always scoring at least 20 goals per season  - but dropped off the map very quickly and was out of hockey at 33. How much did injuries contribute to that, and how much did other demons contribute to that? We'll never know.

"Catch 22" could have been a very standard story as these things go. After all, he played for some Toronto teams in the 1980s that were known more for their chaos than their successes. It was never easy to be on an organization run by Harold Ballard, as many people can attest. There are a few stories about some teammates that he had along the way - Borje Salming, Wendel Clark, Denis Savard. The people in Buffalo will be interested in reading about Clint Malarchuk, Rick Dudley and John Muckler during his time there as well as a note about Floyd Smith, the former Sabres player and coach who was Vaive's coach in Toronto.

However, Rick gets points for honesty here, and that lifts the book a notch. It's a good reminder that it's nice to know the full story about someone before coming to any ultimate judgments on their lives. 

Four stars

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