Thursday, December 30, 2021

Review: Tom Seaver (2020)

By Bill Madden

I waited about 10 years for someone to get this right.

Back around 2011, I read a biography of Tom Seaver called "The Last Icon." It was that rare book that I panned here, as I try to avoid books that aren't worth my time. The problem with that literary effort was that it was simply too fawning. In short - don't tell me why he's great; show me why he's great.

Now I've gotten around to another biography of Tom Seaver, and I'm pleased to report that Bill Madden gets it right. "Tom Seaver" is a solid piece of reporting and writing. 

If you need much of an explanation about Seaver's contributions to baseball, you either are too young or don't care about history. "Tom Terrific" certainly is a candidate to be rank as the greatest pitcher in baseball history, depending on your standards for such matters. As it is, Madden - the veteran baseball writer for the New York Daily News - points out that he finished his career with 300+ wins, 3,000+ strikeouts, and an earned-run average of under 3.00. There's only one other player in baseball history to do that, Walter Johnson. In other words, Seaver isn't in a class by himself, but it sure doesn't take very long to call roll. 

Seaver grew up in Fresno, California, and wasn't much of a prospect in high school. But his body soon filled out, earning Tom a scholarship at Southern California. He soon became a member of the New York Mets, a franchise closely associated with losing and losers at that point. Seaver changed everything, demanding excellence from himself and his teammates. Tom was the focal point of one of the great sports stories of the century, the Mets' World Series victory in 1969. Everyone loved those underdog Mets, and everyone loved their leader.

Seaver continued his success throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. He bounced around a bit in circumstances that need a book, this book, to explain. But he traveled to Cincinnati, bounced back to New York, landed in Chicago, and finished in Boston in 1986. It took as little time as possible for him to reach Cooperstown, receiving one of the highest percentage of votes from the baseball writers in history. 

Madden has some advantages when it comes to the story. He covered baseball in New York for much of that era, to the point where he personally told Seaver that the pitcher was headed to the White Sox in a bizarre combination of events. Madden has plenty of sources on what happened behind the scenes with Seaver. He also obtained some quotes about the pitcher from some of his famous teammates.

It's interesting to note that not all the words about Seaver are praise. It sure sounds like he didn't suffer fools easily, and could be a big testy in certain circumstances. For example, Tom apparently didn't think Yogi Berra was a managerial genius. On the other hand, Seaver comes off as extremely thoughtful on and off the mound, and as very loyal to the friends he gained along the way. This all goes by relatively quickly, checking in at under 300 pages. 

The book ends with some poignancy on a couple of levels. He suffered from dementia in his later years, and died on September 3, 2020. My guess is that the last paragraph was included at virtually the last second before its publication later in 2020. It's also appropriate to read this book in late 2021, after the news that Gil Hodges had been elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Seaver and Hodges are forever linked as star and manager of the '69 Mets, and they also are two of the most beloved figures in New York's National League history. Now they'll be together in Cooperstown.

It's tough to call this sort of book groundbreaking or revealing. There are also a few typos along the way that probably should have been caught; baseball fans can be amazingly intolerant about such things. It's simply nice to have "Tom Seaver" on the shelf of the library, so that others down the road can learn about him. Just make sure you get this particular biography.

Four stars

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Friday, December 24, 2021

Review: How to Beat a Broken Game (2022)

By Pedro Moura

Something has gone wrong in baseball in the past few years.

The symptoms are quite obvious. Games take too long to play, and there's less ball-in-play action than there has ever been. Too often baseball becomes tied up in home runs, strikeouts and walks - the so-called "Three True Outcomes" that don't require fielders. 

Millions of people are still watching major league games in one form or another, and that means millions of dollars can ride on a single pitch in the proper circumstance. But the warning signs of trouble are there, and baseball is looking at some ideas to put the game itself back in balance.

In the meantime, teams are devoting a large percentage of resources into trying to play the current game "better" in order to win. Exhibit A might be the Los Angeles Dodgers, who really leave no proverbial stone unturned in their quest for success. 

Pedro Moura, a national writer for Fox Sports and former Dodgers' beat writer for The Athletic, decided to take a long look at what's going on with baseball through the eyes of the Dodgers. The result is "How to Beat a Broken Game."

After a brief introduction outlining the situation, Moura gets to work with a series of chapters that would work if they were self-contained. So we get to meet such players as Mookie Betts, Trea Turner, Walker Buehler, and Clayton Kershaw - success stories all in a variety of ways. Andrew Friedman comes up a lot too. He's the head of baseball operations of the Dodgers. Friedman managed to put together a winning team on a shoestring in Tampa Bay, and his reward was to go to work armed with the Dodgers' deep pockets. Dave Roberts gets a chapter, and you'd expect the manager to be picked. The reader learns about some obscure people too - at least by a fan's standards.

There's plenty of information in here that is relatively fresh and interesting. Kershaw, for example, had to figure out how to change his pitching mechanics in midstream, in part because his slider no longer looked like a fastball when thrown and batters had learned to capitalize. Max Muncy went from journeyman to feared power hitter almost overnight, completing a difficult transformation that probably left everyone surprised if pleased. Roberts talks about how his communication skills - something he places great importance on - failed at a key time during a pitching change in the World Series. Then there's the story about how the Dodgers value versatility in their roster. Not only does that mean they usually aren't short-handed if injuries come, but it also depresses statistical totals of the players a bit because they aren't in the lineup every day. That in turn saves them millions at contract time, and probably keeps the entire roster happier if a little on edge.

On the other hand, the world of baseball today is a complicated place, and sometimes it just isn't that interesting. There are some stories about players who use outside coaching when necessary, and who study the latest analytics to make improvements. You've probably seen the numbers on spin rates from pitchers and launch angles from hitters during television broadcasts. The figures are helpful, I guess, in helping players survive and thrive because of the way the game is played, but reading about some of it is rather tough sledding. 

The Dodgers clearly are putting a lot of time, effort and money to explore every possible avenue toward success. They have won at least 90 games in every season but one since 2013. The exception was 2020, when Los Angeles was 43-17 in the Covid-shortened 60-game season. That was the year the Dodgers won the World Series. But LA also had won eight straight division titles before that streak was snapped in 2021. Still, the Dodgers are always in the hunt for a championship, and that's all you can ask of a franchise and its staff.

There's an audience for "How to Beat a Broken Game." Those who consume knowledge about baseball no doubt will soak a lot of it up. But I'm a big fan, and my eyes started to skip over some of the technical parts along the way. I'm sure I won't be alone in that, so consider that a warning while thinking about a purchase.

Three stars

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Friday, December 17, 2021

Review: Valentine's Way (2021)

By Bobby Valentine and Peter Golenbock

Ah, Bobby Valentine. No matter what you think of him, you have to admit it's difficult to ignore him.

That means the baseball lifer has a story to tell about his various exploits. You can read all about it in "Valentine's Way" - which is an actual street in Japan that was renamed in his honor after he managed a team to a championship.

Valentine has been in the public eye for most of his life through athletics. It started in high school, when he was one of the greatest all-around athletes to ever come out of Stamford, Connecticut. There wasn't much he couldn't do on an athletic field or court, and he ended up going to the Los Angeles Dodgers as a first-round draft choice. 

Stardom with the Dodgers seemed right around the corner, but injuries - bad ones - got in his way. First he blew out his knee, and then he broke his leg chasing a fly ball. So Bobby never did live up to his potential as a player, even though he spent 11 years in the major leagues. The subject of going from superstar in waiting to scrub isn't one covered in most sports books, so it's interesting to get his perspective on it.

Valentine adjusted nicely to life after playing baseball by coaching and managing in it. He guided the Texas Rangers for a while, jumped to Japan for a year, and then returned to the United States to work for the Mets. The highlight came in 2000, when New York reached the World Series against the Yankees. The Mets lost that matchup, but if you look at that team's roster for that season, you'd have to admit that getting that far was a simply remarkable achievement. 

Valentine eventually wore out his welcome in New York, went back to Japan for a few years (which is covered in a section that contains the names of a lot of players that you've never heard about), returned to America to work for ESPN, and eventually managed the Boston Red Sox for one difficult season. Bobby V went to work as a college athletic director from there, and even ran for mayor of Stamford in 2021. That campaign took place too late for inclusion in the book; he lost the election by a few thousand votes.

The text of the publication certainly comes off as genuine. It's easy to guess that a conversation with Valentine would need only a few minutes for Stamford to come up. He apparently knew everyone in that city, and still keeps in touch with them. It's fair to say that you have to give Valentine credit for loyalty. Once someone was his friend, he or she stayed that way by most accounts.

Valentine has never come off as a particularly humble man, and that's certainly the case here. I don't know if he was as much of an innovator in baseball operations as he claims here, but he certainly was a smart guy who was always open to new ideas. During his broadcasting days, Bobby knew the game cold - to the point where his analysis frequently brought up unique viewpoints. 

We want to know about some of the more controversial moments of his baseball life, and he doesn't shy away from them. In other words, some people encountered along the way don't come off too well - from Walt Alston to Josh Beckett. Admittedly, this is his side of the story - it had better be, naturally - but there are even a few moments that he admits he'd like to have back and/or didn't handle particularly well. 

By the way, co-author Peter Golenbock deserves a little credit for making this book read quite smoothly. Golenbock was on my radio talk show a couple of times about 40 years ago, and it's nice to see he's still working. 

"Valentine's Way" isn't going to change many minds about the life and times of Bobby V. If you think of him as an innovative, interesting person, this will back you up. If he's a little too full of himself for your tastes, there's supporting evidence there too. Just don't call him or his book boring, because there's plenty here to keep you entertained. 

Four stars

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Saturday, December 11, 2021

Review: Super Bowl Blueprints (2021)

By Bill Polian and Vic Carucci

Oh, to be Bill Polian and Vic Carucci as they were compiling this book.

They came up with the idea of doing an oral history of some of the best teams in the National Football League over the last few decades. Then they actually talked to the people that made it possible about what happened in those glory years and why - at considerable length.

It doesn't get much better than that. At its best moments, "Super Bowl Blueprints" is an absolutely fascinating look back into the past. 

Polian and Carucci picked eight teams, more or less, to study for this book. They went with the Raiders of the 1970s and early 1980s, the Steelers of the 1970s, the 49ers of the 1980s (Green Bay's good teams of the 1990s goes along for the ride there because of a shared offensive philosophy), the Redskins of the 1980s and early 1990s, the Giants of the 1980s and early 1990s, the Cowboys of the early 1990s, the Bills of the early 1990s, and the Colts of the 2000s. 

The coaches probably are the stars of the show, and they are well represented here. We hear from Bill Parcells, Tony Dungy, Marv Levy, Mike Holmgren, Tom Flores, Jimmy Johnson and several others. But the Hall of Fame's player section isn't left out either, what with Peyton Manning, Steve Young, Terry Bradshaw, Jim Kelly, Joe Greene and Troy Aikman coming up. That's a pretty good starting point for discussions. 

We've lost a few of the key people from those teams, of course. Al Davis and Bill Walsh have died, but they are well represented. The Raiders have plenty of good stories about what Al was like, and Walsh left behind an interview and a book. Walsh might be the most interesting character in the book, simply because he was so willing to explore every possible avenue - include some that were made up on the fly - in his pursuit of excellence. As most know, Walsh's rate of success was quite good. 

The subject matter is rather wide-ranging, which is great to read. Sure there are stories about big games and important moments. But there are plenty of insights into the behavior of individuals and teams as a group, as well as some good laughs to be had. One of them ends the Bills' chapter, with the story of a chance meeting between Marv Levy and Leon Lett. 

Are there any complaints to be had? A few minor ones. There are certain fans from the northeastern part of the country who looked over the list of great teams in the Super Bowl era and said, "Ahem. Aren't we missing someone like the Patriots?" Yes, they aren't on the list. I would guess that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are not interested in doing this type of interview at the moment, so that may have excused them from the project. Not much the authors could do about that.

A couple of other issues come up too. The players and coaches can't help but use football jargon to describe moments and plays. It's a little easy to get lost in that stuff, at least if you approach football literature with even the slightest bit of casual interest. It also could be argued that some of the chapters feel as if they could be trimmed a little - particularly the 74-page chapter on the West Coast offense teams (San Francisco and Green Bay). On the other hand, the Raiders' and Bills' sections check in at around 35 pages - and feel a little short. It's a tough balancing act.

Not to worry. "Super Bowl Blueprints" succeeds on the goal that it set out to do - listen on on how the great teams of the past few decades got that way. If football is your passion, then the book is worth your time ... and then some.

Four stars

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Friday, December 3, 2021

Review: Playmakers (2022)

By Mike Florio

Mike Florio has some opinions about the state of the National Football League, and he'd like to share them.

No, that's not right. That statement doesn't go far enough.

Mike Florio has a lot of opinions about the state of the National Football League, and he'd like to share them. 

That's the premise for his book, "Playmakers." It is sort of named after the ESPN's fictional series that was an attempt to show some of the underside of football. That plan went over rather badly with the National Football League, who just happened to be one of a broadcasting partner of ESPN. The show died a relatively sudden death. 

The difference is that this version of "Playmakers" is real. It's written by Florio, who is the point man of the website of Pro Football Talk (if you prefer, It is done in association with NBC Sports. If you've ever seen a Sunday night broadcast, you might notice that PFT ranks every starter in the league by position ... and puts the rankings under a photo of those starters as they are quickly introduce at the start of the game. 

Florio started his work life as a lawyer but moved into sports reporting. He held a job with ESPN before jumping to this venture. The question became - how could he turn the information he's collection and the opinions he's gathered into a coherent book?

It must have started with a list. Florio came up with 10 different sections of the book: the drank, free agency, quarterbacks, coaches, owners, health and safety, off-field player misconduct, major scandals, officiating, and the future. So far, so good. Then he listed at least 10 topics under each category. For example, the quarterbacks mentioned including everyone from Johnny Unitas to Tim Tebow. Each essay doesn't get a great deal of space, so think of them as quick snacks rather than large meals. It keeps the size down to a manageable 288 pages or so, based on prepublication information.

The good news is that Florio does a good job with this. It's not easy to come up with great information or opinions on this many items. For the most part, though, he comes up with some interesting, fresh thoughts that can carry the reader along. In some cases, it's a chance to revisit some old news items, while in others it's an opportunity to discuss news items of the present and possible ramifications of the future. 

Is it all interesting? All is a big word. Some of the stories about player misconduct and scandals don't work overly well, at least from my viewpoint. It's more of a case of recapping a story without a whole lot of analysis. Implied in the question at the beginning of the paragraph are the words "to me." Anyone who reads a book like this is going to be a big fan of the sport. This is not the place for impassive passengers. Therefore, everything should get a spark of recognition from the contents when a book like this comes out. 

And the size helps too. If something isn't too interesting to you, well, it doesn't last long. Another subject will come up along, just like the next bus. It might work better. The usual way of praising such work is along the lines of "it's good to bring into the bathroom." That's a little crude but true.

"Playmakers" comes off as a casual discussion with someone who spends his life around football and is happy to chat in an informal way. That makes it good fun without being life-changing. It should have little trouble luring in readers who will find the book worth their time.

Four stars

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