Sunday, November 28, 2021

Review: Up and Down (2021)

By Bubba Watson with Don Yaeger

"Up & Down" gives us the chance to talk about the curious case (and accompanying autobiography) of golfer Bubba Watson. 

Here's someone who is almost tailor-made for a good book about his life. Watson came out of Bagdad, Florida (near Pensacola), and was something of a junior sensation. He won local tournaments even though he never had a lesson, and figured out a way to pick up a college scholarship although he admits he wasn't exactly a great student. Bubba eventually landed at the University of Georgia, where he was really good at times but still was demoted to sixth-man status - which is kind of like being the sixth man on a basketball team. 

Still, he turned professional and had a little success. Even so, that didn't prepare anyone for his win in the 2012 Masters. What's more, he proved the victory was no fluke by capturing the 2014 Masters. They were popular wins in some ways. That's partly because Watson wore his emotions on his sleeve, and partly because he was the classic bomber who clobbered the ball whenever it was necessary - and it usually was.

On the other hand, Watson seemed always to be carrying some baggage around. A 2015 ESPN survey of PGA pros voted Bubba as the person least likely to be rescued by their peers if they saw a fellow pro get in a fight. He's gotten into some public squabbles with those around him in golf. And his career is a bit of a puzzle, in that he seemed capable of doing more on the pro tour than he actually did. At this writing, Watson is 43 - and probably is past his prime.

In other words, Bubba seems like someone who was particularly ill-equipped to handle the spotlight that comes with being a star in American sports. Finding out what happened to him probably is the reason for giving "Up & Down" a read.

Indeed, autobiographies in which the central character is on the unpleasant side can be tough to read, and it's easy to see that Bubba's actions could make him unpopular. For example, he had a very public argument with his caddie on the course during a tournament that everyone seemed to notice. Watson writes about something of an intervention from Ben Crane, a fellow pro who essentially told him to change his behavior. But Bubba didn't quite turn things around at that point. 

Watson starts the book with a candid admission - one that has received most of the headlines from reviews and news stories - about how he hit bottom in 2017. His weight was down to about 162 (down 30 pounds from normal), and his head was such a mess that he thought about giving up golf. We're hearing more these days about athletes who have coping with the pressures of the job, and it's good that Bubba has come out as a member of that club. Watson opened up to people close to him, starting with his wife, and got his head back in order. That's worth more than a golf clap. He's also done a ton of charity work, becoming something of the PGA's face when it comes to adopted (he and his wife adopted two children). 

The biggest puzzle of the book, though, comes at the end. There isn't a great deal written about what happened to him. That starts on a personal level. It would have been nice to know if he did manage to change his ways a bit, and some examples of what he did. 

Then there's the golf side of that story. On the plus side, he made the Ryder Cup team in 2018. After devoting a chapter to service as a vice-captain when he was passed over for the 2016 American team, you'd think that might have been worth noting. On the minus side, Watson hasn't been particularly effective on the tour over the past few years. He hasn't won any events since 2018, and he's only been in one top 10 in a major championship - with 10 missed cuts - starting in 2015. I don't know if he's had physical problems in that time, but it would be interesting to know what if anything has gone wrong. Sometimes this book reads as if it was written around 2018.

There's also very little written about most of the other players on the tour. OK, it's his story, but Watson seemed quite self-absorbed in talking about his tournament years. There is a bit on how he became to be a frequent practice partner of Tiger Woods early in his career., and not much else. A little insight into others might have been nice. The book might have used one more edit, to take out a couple of redundant stories.

Watson has said his priorities in life are God, family, friends and golf - in that order, and I guess the book is something of a reflection of that. I'm not qualified to judge anything about his faith, but he does appear to be a devoted family man and a giving person toward others. Even so, the person revealed in "Up & Down" remains something of an enigma at the end of this very quick read.  

Three stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.)

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Friday, November 19, 2021

Review: Raise a Fist, Take a Knee (2021)

By John Feinstein

John Feinstein has a long list of books to his credit over the years, starting with "A Season on the Brink" - a look at Bobby Knight and Indiana basketball in the 1980s. He's written about basketball, football, baseball, tennis and golf, and it's fair to say that the books all have been of high quality.

"Raise a Fist, Take a Knee," as Feinstein is quick to point out, is different. Instead of taking one aspect of a particular sport, here Feinstein crosses the spectrum of sports to deal with one subject. And that subject is race, which probably could be called "the third rail" of journalism. 

You know where he's going with this just by reading the subtitle of the book: "Race and the Illusion of Progress in Modern Sports." Illusion? You mean, we haven't made progress in the intersection of race and sports over the years?

Yes, we have. But Feinstein's point is that we haven't gone far enough in this area to approach anyone's satisfaction. Consider stories told about a couple of African Americans, just as an example. Eric Bieniemy has been the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs since 2018, and an architect of the NFL's most explosive offense during that time. You'd think that he'd be the hottest individual candidate for a head coaching job by now; he's not, and it's easy to wonder what's going on. Bieniemy certainly has. 

Then there's Lovie Smith, who spent nine years with the Chicago Bears - with four 10-win seasons and three playoff appearances. He was fired after a 10-6 season in 2012 - the only coach ever fired after that good of a record. Smith did take over a horrible Tampa Bay team in 2014, but was fired two years into a five-year contract after improving from 2-14 to 6-10. 

This discussion could get tied up pretty quickly, but Feinstein has a secret weapon to make points. He talks to people, at length. The list is impressive: John Thompson, Doug Williams, Tony Dungy, John Carlos, Warren Moon and Dave Stewart among others. He gives them the time and space to talk about their experiences at the intersection of race and sports. A common denominator for all of them is that race always lurks in the background whenever they walk out the front door of their home, no matter what their status in life has been. They all have been taught that in order to succeed in American society, they can't afford to be simply as good as the competition for success - they have to be a little better. They also have been stopped for Driving While Black, in some cases multiple times. 

For the most part, Feinstein gets out of the way of the interview subjects. That's not to say the reader doesn't know where the author stands on the issue, because Feinstein makes his viewpoints quite clear along the way. Subtlety isn't his strong point here, but that's fine. Yes, as a white man he doesn't know what it's like to have his skin color arrive on others before any other part of his being, thus causing some to jump to conclusions. Perhaps it's better that way, in that he can ask the "what is it like? questions without knowing the answers completely already. 

One of the key points along the way is that while the playing field has become relatively equal in many cases (if nothing else, discrimination by definition prevents a team from having the best possible roster on the field or court of play), opportunities in management are still limited to African Americans. It's frustrating to someone like Willie Randolph, who had a pretty good record as the manager of the Mets but who was fired in the middle of his fourth season. He's never had another shot at a managing job - in fact, he's supposedly only had one interview. 

"Raise a Fist, Take a Knee" no doubt will be ignored by those who want to ignore it. But it serves as a good wake-up call and a down-to-earn discussion for those who we've come along way without realizing that we've still got a long way to go. If you are interested in a rational discussion of a subject that often turns people irrational, this is a good place to start.

Five stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.)

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Review: The Master (2021)

By Christopher Clarey

The number of people that hate Roger Federer must be close to absolute zero.

Yes, there might be a couple of tennis fans in Spain or Serbia who don't like the way that Federer has gotten in the way of their favorite players in big tournaments. But even fans of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic probably have plenty of respect for Federer. 

What's not to like?

Roger has been on top of his game for around two decades, a ridiculous run. He set the record for grand-slam wins, and he's been gallant even in his defeats. 

And has anyone been nicer along the way? Is there an athlete who could make you feel more comfortable in a chance meeting? Is there anyone who has been more of a class act while in the blinding spotlight of fame?

The answers are no, no, and no. Federer appears to be close to the age where he should be thinking about retirement, but he's not shutting any doors yet.

Still, his amazing career certainly is much closer to the end than the beginning. It's a good time, then, for a full biography to be written about the most famous athlete from Switzerland in history. Christopher Clarey, who works for the New York Times, has answered that call with his deep dive into All Things Federer with "The Master."

Federer first started to attract attention with his game as a teen, as he played in his first junior tournament at the age of 14. Eventually, Roger climbed up the ladder and attracted attention with his talent. About the only blemish in a lifetime of behavior came up then, when he developed a reputation as someone who could not control his temper and be a sore loser. How un-Swiss like! But that's hardly uncommon for that age, and eventually faded.

Clarey then moves into Federer's pro career. Roger turned pro in 1998, cracked the top 100 in 1999, and won a tournament in 2001. That was the year that the 19-year-old Federer caught everyone's attention by surprising Pete Sampras, the world's best player, at Wimbledon. Roger won that tournament in England a couple of years later, the first of 20. 

Federer had a few years where he was unquestionably on top of the mountain; it just seemed like longer. Eventually, Nadal and Djokovic came along, and they developed one of the great three-sided rivalries in sports history. In 2008, Federer and Nadal played one of the great matches in tennis history at the Wimbledon final; it's odd that we remember Roger for a couple of his epic losses as well as his many wins. Djokovic won his first Grand Slam title in 2008 in Australia. And we were all off for a ride in which those three dominated the sport of men's tennis for more than a decade. If one of the three didn't win a major title, it was an upset. By the end of 2021, all three had 20 career titles. Part of me wishes that the numbers would stay that way, so they would be forever linked in history.

There's plenty of tennis in the book, of course. But Clarey certainly takes the time to explore other tangents on the subjects, with short biographies of the major influencers in Federer's life. That includes coaches, business associates, family, etc. What's striking is how well Federer has done to strike a balance in life, making sure he doesn't get overscheduled along the way. Yes, it helps to have a billion dollars stashed away, but his longevity doesn't seem to be an accident.

Clarey comes off here as a classic international reporter, vaulting around the world to cover the sport. I didn't know his name before reading this, but certainly he knows his stuff. Clarey has collected a ton of information here, even taking the time to fly to the town in South Africa where Federer's parents met. 

There's only one drawback to this story, and it's a fairly big one. Federer can't be criticized for not having any drama in his life. He's succeeded by any standard on almost every level of his life. However, that lack of conflict or troubles that were overcome may not help the readability of the book for some. I'm not sure if someone who is less than a casual fan in the sport will want to go through this. 

But those that do pick up "The Master" will find it rewarding. Federer wasn't much of a factor in 2021, mostly because knee problems and the pandemic. But, like Phil Mickelson on the golf tour, it's easy to think that Roger had one more great run left in him if his body will cooperate. If that happens, we'll all get to see the depth of the affection earned over these many years on display.

Four stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.)

(Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB).

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Review: The Year's Best Sports Writing 2021

Edited by Glenn Stout

The idea of having an anthology of a given year's best sports stories has proved to be resilient to the point of being pesky. It just won't go away.

The first such book appeared in 1945 and ran for almost a half-century. If you have a good-sized library in your town, you probably can find them on some slightly dusty shelves. That lasted annually (one exception, due to illness for decades); I believe the Sporting News picked up the series at some point late in its run. Then it was reborn as The Best American Sports Writing, where it lasted 30 years. Readers of this blog know that the series was a staple of my annual reading.

That version died a year ago, and the chances of a rebirth at least from the outside seemed small. But Triumph Books came along and offered to revive, if that's the right word, the series under a slightly different management structure. Glenn Stout, who was something of a caretaker of the series before, moved up to be the editor on a one-time basis. He'll be giving up that role next year, and an editorial board has been picked to oversee the contributions. Let's hope for another 30-year run.

As we know, there's a lot of good writing out there every year, and it's tough to weed it down to the best of the best. We all carry our individual biases into such a book. In my case, the stories that deal with sports on a tangential basis have to work a little harder to draw me in. The book has articles on two bicyclists who happen to meet as they pedal in opposite directions while crossing the Eastern Hemisphere, and of two basketball-playing poets. They were a little outside my comfort zone.

But then came "The Inheritance of Archie Manning" by Wright Thompson of ESPN, and life was more than good again. This profile of a great athlete in his 70s who remains tied his glory days in college is one of those stories that you just don't want to end. And that was quickly followed by the amazing tale of pitcher Richard Dotson and his father, and "Hook Shot Charlie," and life in the NBA's bubble, and Kobe Bryant from two different perspectives, and ... well, you get the idea.

After almost 350 pages, the batting average for success stayed up to the series' usual standards. There were well-researched stories on the pandemic, Ivy Leaguers in baseball management and Andrew Giuliani. A piece from Runner's World on the death of an African American jogger hit home, in part because the trial of the case started when I was reading it. A story on the first inter-racial boxing match in Texas history was a favorite. And even some of those barely-sports stories lured me in - a burglar who stole Super Bowl rings, a hiker who disappeared, and a heart transplant recipient who bicycled across the country to see the grave of the donor. 

I thought I had lost an old friend a year ago, but "The Year's Best Sports Writing" perhaps shows that you can't keep a good concept down. Welcome back. 

Five stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.)

(Be notified of new books on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB).