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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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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Sunday, March 7, 2021

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2021

Edited by R.J. Anderson, Patrick Dubuque, and Craig Goldstein

They really did it. 

The smart guys from Baseball Prospectus managed to put out their 2021 annual this spring, and make it the same size as usual - close to 600 pages. 

This is no small matter. The book, considered a sign of arriving spring in my household, has been cranked out for years and years (this is the 26th such edition) - filled with information about the previous season and the upcoming one.

But baseball fans may have noticed that the 2020 season was a bit, well, unusual. The major league teams played a 60-game schedule, and the minors took the year off. Yes, the rosters were expanded and some top prospects took part in workouts and intra-squad games at alternate sites. Still, it was by no means a typical year, thanks to Covid-19. 

Even though the book did indeed come out, it is a little different than normal. Since it was wiped out, the list of potential prospects that usually fall at the end of every day's chapter had to be lost. Most of them probably won't matter to most fans, but sometimes a guy comes out of nowhere during the season and the BP notes are the only way to even learn a little about him from a distance - especially in a critical sense. 

The shortened big league campaign and the missing minor league seasons probably have taken a little out of the fun about this annual book. It's a little difficult to extrapolate performance on a 162-game season from a mere 60. Meanwhile, the minor league guys had to take a year off in many cases, and no one can be sure what's ahead for them. I suppose some of player descriptions read like the ones from a year ago, since they may not contain much new information. 

Even so, it's a primary source of good information about players and their teams. The book has become quite dependable in format, with a couple of paragraphs on every important player in the game accompanied by statistics on the last three years and projections for 2021. The numbers are as complicated as you want to make them. You can stick to batting average, home runs, RBIs, ERA, saves, etc. if you are more of a traditional fan. Those who want to dive into DRC+ and DRA- are welcome to do so. There is an essay on each of the teams, which because of the many different authors encompass a variety of styles. There are also a few pieces of writing that are simply about baseball.

I tend to mostly stick to the major league teams' players in scanning this book as well as the game's top prospects. The exceptions are the two teams I follow more closely than the others, and thus am familiar with the talent under the surface. Otherwise, I'd be reading for many more days. One thing I can say after reading and skimming all of this book is that there sure are a lot of pitchers getting Tommy John surgeries. Parents, if your son can't throw 98, have to go to medical school and repair the ones who can throw 98 - because they'll need a doctor down the road in all probability. 

The snark level of the writing of the player capsules tends to vary from year to year, in part because major league teams keep hiring graduates of the publication. This year's batch is down a little for whatever reason. Points of view still pop up on some social issues affecting the game. Actually, it's rather interesting to read about the guys who are willing to take stands on such matters or who work quite hard in the community. 

For those of you familiar with the book, "Baseball Prospectus 2021" ought to work quite well as usual. You'll pick it up frequently during the course of the season for reference. It might not be as informative as usual, but add that to the list of reasons to hate the pandemic. If you're not familiar with it, I'll give the usual advice to take a look at it at a bookstore to see if you can handle it.

Four stars

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