Saturday, July 31, 2021

Review: The Baseball 100 (2021)

By Joe Posnanski

Ever hear of "the sweet spot" in sports?

It usually comes up in baseball, although it probably applies to golf too. The sweet spot is that magic place where a ball meets the object perfectly in order to achieve maximum distance. 

With that in mind, let's discuss "The Baseball 100" by Joe Posnanski. 

The idea of discussing baseball's best all-time players is right on his sweet spot. 

When the pandemic arrived in early 2020, Posnanski started to write an article a day about the 100 best baseball players for the Athletic. It obviously required a lot of work, but each article was something of a mini-biography of baseball's greatest names. While it didn't linger on basic information, there were so many stories and rankings and quotes about each player that all 100 of them were a delight to read. Now it's all in one place in book form; there obviously been a little updating since the original version was published.

Posnanski always has come across as a bit of a romantic in his writing, particularly when it comes to the history of the game. He loves the idea that baseball has been played since the middle of the 19th century in one form or another, and therefore has a connecting thread from then until now. Posnanski is realistic enough to know that sometimes there are flaws in our heroes, but he emphasizes the positive for the most part here. It works really well in this format. When Posnanski wrote a book about Joe Paterno at Penn State, the Jerry Sandusky scandal was just breaking and I got the idea that he became uncomfortable with incorporating that aspect of the story within the large concept of Happy Valley.

I know a little something about these lists. In the last few years I've written four of them - Buffalo's sports numbers from 0 to 99, Buffalo's biggest trades, Buffalo's top free-agent signings, and Buffalo's draft choices (by overall pick number from 1 to 100). They aren't easy to do, and Posnanski spent more time on his list than I did in all four combined ... times five. My guess is that he made one very good decision when it came to ranking the players: he didn't take the exact placement all that seriously.

Therefore, Jackie Robinson comes in at No. 42, the only fully retired number in major league baseball. Joe DiMaggio gets No. 56, after his hitting streak. Frank Robinson and Mike Schmidt share No. 20, because they wore that number. No. 19 is skipped, because  the Black Sox scandal was in 1919 and this way the numbers even out at 100. You want to argue that DiMaggio should be higher? Go ahead. Posnanski is too busy coming up with fun information to care too much, and you're missing the overall point. That said, his opinions seem generally on target.

There are only a couple of warnings that come with this book. There are some advance statistics involved, such as ERA+ and WAR. Posnanski does explain what the figures mean at the beginning. I can't say they should get in the way of your enjoyment of the book.

In addition, this is 300,000 words. I read it on a Kindle, and just discovered that it translates to 880 pages. That's a lot of reading, especially if baseball is not one of the most important parts of your life. I think the only longer book I've ever read was "The Power Broker." Maybe you don't want to lug it to the beach. Read it while sitting on your favorite chair or couch instead.  

"The Baseball 100" will tell you about players you don't know, and about players you thought you knew. It does it in a style that will leave you more than interested every step of the way. Aaron Judge would be proud about how this one came off the sweet spot and exited the ballpark.

Five stars

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Friday, July 23, 2021

Review: Getting to Us (2018)

By Seth Davis

The bookstores have a very big selection of books on leadership, mostly in the business sense. Not all of them have connections to the sports world, but the percentage is surprisingly high. The best coaches sometimes sit down with a co-author, dash off some general statements that probably fit into the common sense department, mix in a few stories from his life's work, and sit back and wait for the royalty checks. 

The problem is that they usually aren't too interesting. That's why "Getting to Us" is a very pleasant exception.

Davis is a nationally known writer and has done some broadcasting work with CBS, particularly around the NCAA tournament. He's obviously good at what he does. Someone who had heard some of his interviews on top coaches told him he had the makings of a book on leadership. Davis decided that friend was right and got to work.

The result may not inspire you to lead your troops, business or otherwise, into battle. It's simply a heck of a good read.

Davis starts out with the premise that the best coaches are trying to build a small, successful community - one that has people thinking they are part of "us." Along those lines, he uses an acronym - because it's not a book on leadership without an acronym. In this case, it's PEAK - persistence, empathy, authenticity, and knowledge. 

Then it's on to the coaches. Davis may have started with a list of candidates for potential chapters, and then weeded them down on the basis of who would talk at length and who would be interesting. In any event, he chose nine great subjects: Urban Meyer, Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Harbaugh, Jim Boeheim, Geno Auriemma, Doc Rivers, Brad Stevens and Dabo Sweeney. 

There are occasional references to "getting to us" and PEAK along the way, but don't worry about it. These stand alone nicely as profiles of interesting people that would be welcome in any quality magazine. The stories of the way their rising to top of the profession reminded me of musicians. Yes, you need talent to move up the ladder. But sometimes there are sacrifices made along the way, and a couple of wrong turns would have turned most of them into anonymous assistant coaches somewhere, or a salesman of some sort. They all had plenty of drive, but often needed a break or two to reach the pinnacle.

I can almost guarantee that you'll learn something about all of these coaches. Come to think of it, for example, I don't think there's been a more insightful piece on Boeheim written anywhere. While some of the stories may be familiar to fans of a particular coach, the tales should be unfamiliar and thus striking to many. The best example of that was Sweeney, whose parents split up in high school and left him and his mother essentially homeless for some time. There are plenty of "behind the scenes" stories here, particularly about how tough it is to be a coach and also be part of a family. Even the good ones struggle to find a balance. 

Davis wrote a couple of excellent books on the 1979 NCAA basketball final and on John Wooden in the past; the Wooden book probably will be the definitive word on that subject. "Getting to Us" is good in a different way. You'll enjoy every word.

Five stars

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Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Review: Billy Martin (2016)

By Bill Pennington

Weren't there enough books out there about Billy Martin to leave almost anyone satisfied?

Apparently not. 

It's a little difficult to explain Martin to those who didn't live through his baseball career. He had five separate stays as the manager of the New York Yankees, and just about all of them were anything but boring. Since New York is the capital of the publishing world, anyone who spent time around the Yankees in that period seems to have written a book. Martin even got into the act at one point with an autobiography. 

But 25 years after Martin's death, Bill Pennington came out with a book putting all of the details in one place. The result is "Billy Martin," but the most important phrase might be the subtitle. There's little doubt that Martin really was baseball's flawed genius.

Martin came out of the streets of Oakland with a chip on his shoulder, determined to make it in the world of baseball. He worked his way up the ladder and reached the top with the Yankees, who were reigning over the sport in the 1950s. It almost wasn't a World Series if they weren't there, as they failed to make it only twice from 1949 to 1964. Martin wasn't the best player out there with a New York uniform, but he was firey and seemed to come through in the clutch more often than not. The man loved the spotlight.

The problem was that he was considered a bad influence off the field on such stars as Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford, although as Pennington outlines the reverse probably was even more true. Martin was shipped out of town and had a generally uneventful second half of his career elsewhere. His personality and knowledge of the game were such that a manager's position seemed inevitable. Billy had stops in three other cities before landing the job of his dreams, manager of the Yankees. 

Let the chaos begin. Martin had built up a reputation as something of a wizard as a manager, and he guided New York to a World Series win in 1977. But that was his only championship. In those early years, he joined with owner George Steinbrenner and superstar Reggie Jackson in a three-sided relationship that never could become stable. Every so often, there'd be a big argument, or Martin would say something he'd regret, or Billy would be in a fight with a marshmallow salesman (that one is too good not to include). Whenever Martin was threatened, he would fight back - and he'd throw the first punch. 

Mix all of this with Martin's drinking, which was sometimes over the top, and explosive situations often followed. Women are part of the story as well, as Martin had four wives over the years - and it's fair to say he wasn't the most faithful of spouses. 

Pennington covered a lot of it for a newspaper in the late 1980s, and thus has some first-hand information on what happened during those times. But it's the research that makes this book stand out among others on the subject. He wrote it well after Martin had died in an auto accident in upstate New York, when emotions had cooled quite a bit. That allowed friends and family members to be more forthcoming about the details of Martin's life. You can understand why people were attracted to Martin, but also understand why many wondered if there was any way to get through to him in order to change some of his behavior. Yes, it was all one big package. 

Interviews are mixed nicely with the information from other sources, such as those endless books mentioned before and accounts written at the time (newspapers and magazines). So this becomes a balanced look at someone who drew all sorts of reactions from people over the years. The one question centers on the fact that it might be difficult to read so much about a personality who sometimes isn't too likeable. But for many, we just can't help taking a peek at the scene of the accident.

Readers can seek out all of the other information on this controversial character if they want, or they can simple pick up "Billy Martin." Pennington's biography is likely to stand up as the one version worth saving for posterity. 

Five stars

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Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Review: Bubbleball (2021)

By Ben Golliver

"What was it like?"

That's one of the basic questions that can be answered by journalism. Reporters can often take readers and viewers to places that usually they would never get to experience, and describe the feelings they had along the way.

Realistically, that's the attraction to Ben Golliver's book, "Bubbleball."

The Washington Post reporter was assigned to cover the NBA's resumption of play, straight through to the playoffs, in 2020. You might remember - no, you do remember - how the pandemic forced the league to come up with a way of finishing the regular season, holding the playoffs, and declaring a champion. 

To do that, the principals had to go to Orlando to spend as many as three months in a bubble. The league went to amazing lengths to make sure that everyone inside of that bubble was safe. Happily, there weren't many slip-ups.

Selected members of the media also were invited to come in to the bubble to cover the games and the news. Golliver, the Post's top NBA reporter, was one of them. Since the price tag was very high and few media outlets were willing to pay hundreds of dollars per day for the right to have access. Golliver didn't have a great deal of company. He lived a rather solitary existence for about three months, from the finish of the regular season through the last game of the playoffs. There's no sign that he ever took a day off along the way, since there wasn't much else to do besides take a walk around the grounds and check his email. Let's hope he ran up a lot of "comp time" for use down the road.

The best part of the book centers on the "what was it like? question, and the hoops he had to jump through (sorry) to do his job. It was all so odd and unique, that it was definitely a good idea to chronicle it in book form. 

The games did go on, as we know now, and they were remarkably smooth. The biggest interruptions, if that's the correct word, came from outside issues as players reacted to stories concerning social justice from outside of the bubble. Otherwise, it seemed easy to focus on the games. Golliver didn't miss a contest after the first round of the playoffs (before that, he couldn't be everywhere). The story lines slowly developed, as they always do in the postseason. The difference was that reporters could see it all from one place, without traveling or television. It was, of course, a unique time.

As for the games, you know how things turned out if you were paying attention. Golliver's focus shifts a bit as the playoffs build toward a climax in the Finals. It's a little difficult for a writer to build suspense in games that were played a year ago. Still, Golliver obviously knows his stuff, and he has some insights for those of us who weren't paying close attention to the league as a whole. 

With luck, we'll never have to go through anything like this again. Put this in the time capsule, then. "Bubbleball" will stand up well as a first-person account of the experience.

Four stars

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