Thursday, February 25, 2021

Review: America's Game in the Wild-Card Era (2021)

By Bryan Soderholm-Difatte

A discussion of most books starts with thoughts about the execution of the publication rather than the creation of the idea behind it. 

"America's Game in the Wild-Card Era" is the exception.

It's a book that covers the last 25 years of history in major league baseball. That starts with the resumption of play with the famous labor action that cost the sport the 1994 World Series. It ends with what certainly will be remembered as another historic stoppage - the year the season was cut short because of the pandemic. 

This book takes a look back mostly at the on-field matters that came up during the course of the quarter-century. There are certain matters that naturally need to be brought up in such a discussion such as steroid use. Even so, this emphasizes plays and games rather than luxury taxes and doping. 

Bryan Soderholm-Difatte tackles this big subject but zooming in on a particular team at the start of each chapter. Therefore, we hear about the dynasties of the Braves and Yankees, the ups and downs of the Red Sox and Cubs, the tainted rise of the Astros, etc. It's important to note that all of the teams in MLB are covered here, at least briefly. The best games and players also are mentioned.

By the way, Soderholm-Difatte has a companion book out called "The Reshaping of America's Game" about the same era but written about the off-field matters. Give the man credit for ambition and work ethic.

The author has done some writing for the Society of American Baseball Research, and he has fulfilled his mission professionally. The facts are all there, and it's difficult to disagree with his conclusions. This version of events is a little dry in spots, but that sort of comes with the territory of writing such history.

While reading this, though, one question popped up. Who will be the audience for the book?

This is really familiar territory to big baseball fans, who are familiar with the game's big moments. Since the book is something of a research project and doesn't really seek out any fresh information, it's not as if there is much to learn by reading this particular recap. On the flip side, those have only a passing interest in the game probably won't care enough to read about 240 pages on baseball's recent history. 

There's something called middle ground between those two extremes, I guess. But it's tough to say how big it is - especially with a $45 list price for the book. 

Those who need some perspective on this era of baseball, with some teams rising and falling like penny stocks while others generally remain powerful, should find that "America's Game in the Wild-Card Era" will work pretty well toward that goal. Maybe a glance at the contents during a visit to the bookstore will provide you with some clues as to whether you fit the niche.

Three stars

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Monday, February 22, 2021

Review: Bases to Bleachers (2019)

By Eric C. Gray

There's only one way to start a discussion about Eric C. Gray's book, "Bases to Bleachers" - with a story.

When I was seven years old, my favorite baseball team was the Boston Red Sox. In the spring of 1963, the team decided to change managers. I may not have realized at that age that managerial changes happened with depressing regularity for the Red Sox in that era, but I contained some youthful optimism that a new manager would help the team win games. So I sent Johnny Pesky a letter that spring, wishing him well in his new job. Mom no doubt put a stamp on the envelope, and off the letter went. 

About five months later, late July I think, I looked at the mail - and there was a letter in a Boston Red Sox envelope. Yes, it was a reply from Pesky. He explained that he was just getting to his fan mail, but wanted to thank me for my good wishes and sent me the best of luck in return. I was thrilled, and put the letter and envelope in a special place for safe keeping.

Fast forward 22 years or so. I was working in radio in Buffalo at that point, and the city was hosting a special Old Timers' Game at War Memorial Stadium. One of the visiting players was, by chance, Johnny Pesky. After the game, I went into the locker room, and introduced myself. We shook hands, and then I said, "You know, John, when I was seven I sent you a letter when you were hired as the manager of the Red Sox." 

He interrupted me, and said, "I hope to hell I wrote you back!"

I giggled, and said, "You did, and I always appreciated that. Now I get to tell you that in person." He smiled, and we did the interview. It was a nice moment. 

Those are the stories that people remember on a personal level, of course. Gray went on a seven-year mission to collect anecdotes from as many people as possible. The total number of submissions extended well past 1,000 by the time he was done. Gray picked out a bunch of them for "Bases to Bleachers."

I have to admit that this book didn't make a great first impression on me. I'm not sure if this book was self-published or not (the company does both), but the layout seemed a small notch below top standard at times. The connections to baseball were a little weak and distant in spots. The author - maybe "editor" is a better word - has a lot of personal comments to add along the way, in part because his family and friends contributed some essays. Still, as I moved through the 330 pages or so, I found that my fondness for the publication grew. The stories seemed to get better, and there was something of a rhythm to the book while reading it. 

Upon nearing the end, I checked the reviews in the usual on-line places. I can't say that I have seen many baseball books that have received more rapturous reviews than this one. It seems that Gray's work struck a chord with a lot of people; good for him that he made that discovery through hard work over such a long gestation period. I don't know why, but baseball generates such gentle tales from the public. Everyone's got a story about an incident or an encounter that they'll remember for personal reasons. Even me.

Gray announces in this book that he's planning a sequel, which I can't say I've seen before in a book. Star Wars movies, yes; baseball books, no. On the other hand, I'd bet a second book might be easier and better. Some people will notice this effort and have their own version of a baseball memory that's worth sharing. That means more Grade A stories in the selection file. The overall supply has to be close to limitless.

There's an easy test for a book like "Bases to Bleachers." If you see it in a bookstore, leaf through it and read a few of the stories. If you find them charming, then odds are very good that you'll find reading this book is a pleasant way to spend some time. 

Four stars

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Monday, February 15, 2021

Review: Two Sides of Glory (2021)

By Erik Sherman

In the American League Championship Series in 1986, the Boston Red Sox were on the verge of elimination from the playoffs in the ninth inning of Game Five. The Angels had a 5-2 lead in the top of the ninth, and a 5-4 lead with two outs in the ninth. One more successful pitch, and the Red Sox were through. But that pitch never came, as Boston rallied. The Red Sox eventually won that game in extra innings, and the Angels went down meekly in Games Six and Seven to lose the ALCS title. 

Fast forward a handful of days later. The Red Sox were one pitch away from a World Series title in their matchup with the Mets. Three hits, a wild pitch and an error later, the Mets had rallied in the bottom of the 10th to even the series. New York went on to win the Series a couple of nights later.

They say what comes around, goes around. Usually it doesn't happen that quickly. 

The Red Sox are almost a case study of what happens to a team in such turnarounds. That's the draw to a book like "Two Sides of Glory," as author Erik Sherman goes exploring as he talks to several key members of that Boston roster.

Sherman has been down this road before. One of his books, "Kings of Queens" was a look at the Mets of that year from the perspective of 30 years later. So I guess Sherman has to plead guilty about working both sides of the street.

The author talked to such people as Bill Buckner, Roger Clemens, Jim Rice, Wade Boggs, Dwight Evans, Bruce Hurst, Marty Barrett, Rich Gedman, Bob Stanley, and Calvin Schiraldi. Steve Lyons also pops up, even though he was traded for Tom Seaver in the middle of the season and thus missed the best and worst parts of the season. Others talk about Dave Henderson and Don Baylor, who died before Sherman started the project. Buckner is on the record with an interview; he passed away in 2019. The one big omission might be manager John McNamara, who might have been able to put some perspective on events. He passed away in the summer of 2020.

That's a lot of talent - there are three Hall of Famers and Evans just might make it four some day. It's impressive that just about everyone in the book is quite open about experiences in the 1986 playoffs as well as the rest of their careers. They also add some new perspective about events. Just about everyone, it seems, can't figure out why McNamara took Clemens out after the seventh inning of Game Six when he seemed to be in command. Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd still thinks he could have won Game Seven (he was passed over in favor of Hurst thanks to a rainout.), and he's still not happy about missing that chance. It's quite apparent that the members of the team got along extremely well. Hurst, who hasn't revisited those days very often, says here that he'd rather lose the World Series with that group than win with any other team. 

There is one aspect of the book that gave me a little pause. For each chapter, Sherman usually describes the run-up to the interview, and provides something of a transcript of large portions of the conversation. Along the way, there are references to some of the subjects as friends. The tone of the questions is more than favorable - in some cases, too much so for at least my tastes. 

Yes, you can catch more flies with sugar than vinegar. Most reporters try to be diplomatic in their questions in relaxed situations anyway. No, you don't expect Clemens to be grilled about steroid use in a book like this. He's there to discuss 1986 and his time with the Red Sox. Still, some of the text made me a little uncomfortable. Perhaps editing the book a little differently to put a bit more distance between interviewer and subject might have worked better for me - with the added advantage of highlighting the most interesting parts of the conversation earlier in the individual chapter of the finished product.

The 1986 Red Sox team's narrow miss prolonged the wait of that franchise to win a World Series for another 18 years. Virtually everyone in the book who is asked says it was a thrill to watch the 2004 team finish what the '86 team started. It's easy to wonder if that '86 group thought that players on the team relaxed after that World Series win, and thus could play to their potential in winning titles in 2007, 2013 and 2018. After all, the "Curse of the Bambino" was gone.

"Two Sides of Glory" works well enough for Red Sox fans today. After all, the heartache they felt in 1986 turned out to be relatively temporary rather than never-ending. Those readers can not be a little less emotional as the matters of what went right and what went wrong in that fateful October are explored.

Four stars

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Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Review: Boxed Out of the NBA (2021)

By Syl Sobel and Jay Rosenstein

What's better than reliving a fun part of your childhood, and perhaps making a little money along the way?

Nothing, of course. That's what author Syl Sobel and Jay Rosenstein did with their book, "Boxed Out of the NBA." It's the story of the Eastern Professional Basketball League, mostly shortened to Eastern League by its participants.

The lesser pro sports leagues often carry a bit of romance with them, mostly because the players overcame difficult conditions just for the chance to play the game at a high level. It's certainly true about the Negro Leagues in baseball, for example.

Basketball had something of an equivalent to that in the Eastern League. Back in the days from the late 1940s until the 1960s, the National Basketball Association had as few as eight teams. As you could imagine, there were plenty of good players who couldn't quite crack the list of the top 100 players in the country. Still, they wanted to play. If they lived in the Northeast, the Eastern League was a solution.

The league centered around the state of Pennsylvania, mostly in relatively small towns such as Allentown, Scranton, Hazelton and Williamsport. Teams sometimes popped up in adjoining states as well, landing in places like Trenton, Baltimore and Binghamton. It was a weekend league, so players from the big cities of the Northeast would drive through winter conditions in order to play against good competition. There was even a little money to be made, although no one cared too much about that. It speaks to the state of pro basketball at the time that some Eastern League players were making more money in the "real world" than they could in the NBA. This was a way to stay in the game but not give up their day jobs. The list of players included some familiar names: Jim Boeheim, John Chaney, Hubie Brown, Bob Love. Charlie Criss, Ray Scott, George Blaney and Bob Weiss.

A couple of other factors helped raise the level of play in the Eastern League. Early on, the NBA didn't start integrating fully until 1950, and even then teams only had one or two African Americans on their rosters. That meant they had to head to the Pennsylvania area to continue to play. In addition, some college basketball players had been involved in gambling scandals in college (in some cases unfairly or at least without due process), and were banned from the NBA. If they wanted to continue to play at a high level, this was their only option. Some of those teams probably couldn't beat most NBA opponents, but it might have been pretty competitive. 

The arrival of the American Basketball Association in the late 1960s essentially spoiled the fun for the Eastern League. Some of the best players jumped to the ABA - Lavern Tart, Willie Somerset, Walt Simon, and Larry Jones did well in the new league. The Eastern League held on, but eventually it had to adapt to survive. It turned into the Continental Basketball Association, and gave up its Pennsylvania roots to become more of a feeder league for the NBA. It survives in a large sense as the NBA's G League. 

Sobel and Rosenstein were both big fans of the Scranton franchise as kids, so to go back and research the history of the league - and actually talk to some of the players - obviously gave them endless pleasure. They must have put in some serious hours, since the details of operations of such leagues can easily fade away. They group the chapters logically - players, coaches, referees, etc. 

The book comes with a few drawbacks. Some of the information gets repeated in the text a few times along the way, which is distracting. Basketball writer and Trenton native Bob Ryan sees a few chunks of his foreward become copied later in the book. There are a lot of quotes from principals that simply say "It was a good league" or "He was a great player." Sometimes the story gets a little dry with information about statistics and playoffs that might test the attention span of many. And, to be honest, only basketball fans who watched this era in person and/or remember the names of the players are likely to find a good-sized piece of this work interesting. That's going to limit potential sales, and explains why the price tag is rather high for a short book.

Still, Sobel and Rosenstein deserve some points for getting this down on paper. "Boxed Out of the NBA" covers a piece of basketball history that has been more or less ignored. It's good to get some of the stories in public before they disappear for good as the players die off. In the meantime, if you were a fan of the Eastern League at the time, you're sure to get a big kick out of this trip back in time.

Three stars

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