Sunday, January 30, 2022

Review: Pinnacle on the Mound (2022)

By Doug Wedge

The concept is a simple one: track down 10 pitchers who have won a Cy Young Award, have a nice, long conversation with them about their careers and that special year (or two), write up the results, and turn it into a book. 

That's what Doug Wedge did in his book, "Pinnacle on the Mound." It sounds simple enough for a project, and it is. But there's a twist that pops up along the way - not a fatal one, perhaps, but one that left me a little confused. 

The first job is to pick the 10 Cy Young winners for the book. For the most part, Wedge goes back into time for his trophy-holders, as nine out of 10 are retired. But the biggest stars of the era are omitted, as only one Hall of Famer (Dennis Eckersley) is included. 

That leaves out such pitchers as Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, etc. I would guess the author at least tried to talk to those guys. But he still found some good talkers to cooperate - Jim Lonborg, Mike McCormick, Randy Jones, Ron Guidry, LaMarr Hoyt, Jack McDowell, Barry Zito, R.A. Dickey, and the still active Corey Kluber (his interview was done via email). 

In some ways, it's better to find pitchers who were good for only a while but couldn't be considered superstars. The "others" - especially now that they are retired - have a good perspective on what went right and what went wrong. Most had some adversity to overcome along the way, and most had some valuable help from others in that process. They are good talkers, although they let a few R-rated words come out in some cases if that's a problem for you. 

The stories in each pitcher are fine and professional; they remind me a bit of profiles that might be in Baseball Digest. The ones that work best are those about pitchers who you might not know much about. For example, I can recite the highlights of Lonborg's 1967 season in Boston, but didn't know too much about Randy Jones and his techniques. There's a conclusion at the end that tries to lump everything together. It's hard to say that was necessary, except maybe to get the book past 200 pages. 

So here's the odd part. Wedge - the author of a couple of other baseball books - lists the dates that the interviews were conducted in the back of the book. They start in 2014 with McCormick, and end in 2020 with Kluber. That means some of the material is seven or eight years old. Now, the memories of seasons past are going to remain the same, so that part isn't really a problem. But the stories were written shortly after that, and written as if they were going to be read immediately ... and not seven years later. 

For example, there's a sentence that reads "Dr. Lonborg recalled moments and instances nearly 50 years prior with insight and details." That was true in 2015, when the interview was done, but not in 2022, when it was first read by the public. Without the date of the interview included in the story, it all seems a little confusing and odd. It would have been easy to correct, too. 

"Pinnacle on the Mound" is a little expensive at $32 list, as it can be breezed through relatively quickly. It's not a bad book by any means, and those with an interest in the subject will enjoy it. A few more interviews, though, would have helped make it a better value. 

Three stars

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Friday, January 28, 2022

Review: All In (2021)

By Billie Jean King

How many athletes really mattered in the 20th century? Not too many. Jackie Robinson, absolutely.  Muhammad Ali, certainly. Babe Ruth, perhaps (mostly for starting the rise of spectator sports). 

And Billie Jean King, yes, no doubt about that. 

When King first came on the scene in the early 1960s, women played second fiddle to men in almost every way when it came to sports. Now, about 60 years later, conditions have changed for the better in many ways. It's not quite perfect, but women are much more able to fulfill their athletic potential than they used to be. King might the single most important person in that fight - although you probably could make a case for Senator Birch Bayh, who wrote the Title IX legislation that allowed women to be a much bigger part of  college athletic departments.

Still, King became the symbol of the rise of women in sports. It was quite a ride, and it's about time she wrote a full account of her fascinating life. That story is called "All In."

Maybe it took a pandemic for King to stay in one place long enough to write this book. It's been said that the first draft was more than 800 pages long, which isn't surprising considering what's happened to her over the years. It was trimmed down to a little over 400 pages for publication, and there's not much filler to be found anywhere. 

King has often been an outsider in many ways, particularly in tennis. She wasn't one of the country club kids who grew up playing with best equipment and fancy white clothes. No, Billie Jean learned the game in the public parks of Long Beach, California. She was taking part in regional tournaments around the country in relatively no time at all, playing in the U.S. national championship at 15 (later called the U.S. Open) and won the doubles title at Wimbledon at 17. By the time King was 19, she was a finalist in England's grand slam event. She went on to win at Wimbledon six different times. 

Along the way, King noticed a couple of things about tennis that, well, annoyed her. One was that almost everyone seemed as white as the clothes that were more or less required on the court. The other was that women were playing for scraps, relatively speaking. Most of the players were amateurs (which mostly translates to keeping the money away from those who earned it), and the men at least survived by receiving under-the-table payments. The best women were barely scraping along. Some top men's players were playing professionally, but that option was not available for women.

When the top tournaments started to allow pros, King played a huge role in organizing a women's pro tour to capitalize on the new rules. She had power as one of the world's best players, and she used it. Now the top money-earners in women's sports all come from tennis, and they are taking in unimaginable sums by 1968 standards. King went on to pile up 12 Grand Slam singles titles, and 27 more in doubles play. 

That's the good start to an autobiography, but there's more ... a lot more. In hindsight, her match with Bobby Riggs in 1973 caused an uproar that must be unimaginable to those who lived through it. And then there is the personal life, which at times has been more public that she would have liked. King's stories about having an abortion and having an affair with a women while married to a man became news in awkward ways. 

It's all taken a toll, and not just a financial one - although she admits to losing millions through cancelled endorsements after news of the affair broke. King has dealt with an eating disorder among other issues. But she has gone through it all and reached the other side in a much better place. No more lies, no more deceit, much more honesty and happiness. We've made some progress in numerous areas over the past 50 or so years, and King deserves to take a bow - or at Wimbledon, a ceremonial curtsy -  in recognition of her achievement. The one bit of news in the book is that King revealed she had married long-time partner Ilana Kloss in a ceremony presided by former New York City mayor David Dinkins.  

There are a few surprises besides that social item that pop up along the way. For example, you might have expected that the fight for something approaching equality in women's tennis picked up some opponents. Two names jump out here - Arthur Ashe and Margaret Court. Ashe and King seemed to reconcile their difference later in life, while Court comes off as afraid of rocking the boat when she had a relatively good life under the old system. 

While King always has been happy to help a cause that she believes in, there are certainly times in her life when she probably took on more than she could handle. That's most obvious in the immediate aftermath of the Riggs match, when King was involved in the start of World Team Tennis, the Women's Sports Foundation, and womenSports magazine. Considering that she was still playing more or less full-time at that point, perhaps a little more selectivity in time management would have been helpful. But King probably can't be blamed for seeing an opportunity in the cultural shift of the time after years of waiting for it, and trying to do as much as she can to capitalize on it.

The elephant in the room for some regarding this book is that King is part-athlete, part-activist. She has a mind and a body, and they both work. The book is far more than a look back at victories won and titles earned, although there's plenty of details on those matters. It's all part of the same package. Some aren't going to like her politics and will dismiss this to a certain degree for that reason. 

Most, though, will realize that King by any definition has had few dull moments in her 80 years on the planet. Now through "All In," we can read about what she was thinking along the way and in hindsight. It's a keeper.

Five stars

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Monday, January 17, 2022

Review: Miracles on the Hardwood (2021)

By John Gasaway

College basketball fans probably have noticed something odd and interesting about their favorite sport. Catholic colleges and universities probably punch over their weight, as they say in boxing. In other words, they've had more great moments in basketball than in any other sport. 

Think about it. The list of Catholic schools with a long tradition is a long one. Consider such institutions as Villanova, Gonzaga, Georgetown, Loyola (Chicago), St. John's, Providence, Notre Dame, Marquette, Dayton, DePaul, Saint Joseph's and St. Bonaventure. They've all had some great moments in the sun.

If there's a common denominator there, it's that basketball is their best sport - the one that draws them national recognition. The outlier is Notre Dame. As for most of the others, they tried playing football at some point but realized they couldn't compete at the sport's highest level. But in basketball, you only need to recruit a few good players at a time. Against the odds, these schools have done this - some better than others, of course. But all have had some Glory Days over the years. 

Author John Gasaway decided to write something of a history of Catholic college basketball, entitled "Miracles on the Hardwood." Along the way, he's made an interesting discovery. The Catholic schools have about 12 percent of the nation's schools that play big-time basketball. They also have had 12 percent of the Final Four teams since 1939, and 12 percent of the national champions. 

I suppose you could argue that the success is something of a carryover to the founding of the nation's universities. Many of them started as small, private schools in the Northeast and Midwest. That tradition didn't carry over to much of the South and the West (say, west of the Mississippi River). So it's a two-tiered system in a sense, and it's kind of nice that the basketball tradition has carried over. Maybe the perfect moment for these schools came in 1985, when three of them - Georgetown, Villanova and St. John's - all made the Final Four from the Big East Conference.

Gasaway could have written a ponderous book with all sorts of religious angles and implications. Instead, he mostly sticks to basketball - and that was a great decision. This reads like a book of selected highlights in college basketball history - that just happened to involve players and teams from Catholic schools. What's more, the book is so well researched that any reader is sure to learn something about basketball and its history. And I do mean any reader.

For example, Bill Russell's college career comes across as something close to underrated - in spite of two national championships at San Francisco. He essentially revolutionized the game while playing the Dons, with his remarkable skills above the rim. Yes, Russell eventually became the greatest winner in NBA history (11 titles in 13 seasons), but his contributions become even greater when outlined here. There's a great story about how an official waved off a spectacular dunk by Russell ... because he had never seen such a player before, and he didn't think it could possibly be legal.

Then there's the case of the NIT and the NCAA tournament. Sometimes it is mentioned that the NIT was equal in stature to its big brother, but Gasaway shows how it happened. The Catholic schools of the 1950s felt more comfortable traveling to New York City for the NIT if they had a choice - fewer classes missed, etc. It was a tradition that continued through 1970, when Marquette opted out of an NCAA big because of a disagreement about seeding. It's easy to look back now and talk about the history of teams that won NCAA titles in the 1940s and 1950s, but the best teams didn't always compete in those events. 

Gasaway goes all the way back to players like George Mikan and Bob Cousy. He finds new stories about them and others, including personalities like Al McGuire. Heck, Loyola Marymount's moment in the sun even gets a chapter. The book also has some interesting if now forgotten anecdotes about the slow path of integration into the sport. The author not only has taught basketball analytics at Columbia (where were those classes when I was in college?), but he has a PhD from the University of Illinois. There are a few words that I needed to look up, so you'll feel smarter after reading this.

This is a book that feels like it has a rather narrow audience. Some younger readers might not care too much about the early days of college basketball. Along those same lines, the stories of the teams in the 2000s aren't quite as interesting - partly because there haven't been as many success stories, and partly because we're familiar with the rise of Villanova and Gonzaga.

Overall, though, "Miracles on the Hardwood" fits a niche nicely. It is better and more readable than I expected it to be - a delightful trip showing how - in part - we got to where we are today.

Four stars

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Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Review: Bracketology (2021)

By Joe Lunardi with David Smale

Basketball fans have learned a new word over the past several years: bracketology.

If you were trying to define it, you'd say it is the study of the placement and seedings of the 68 teams in the NCAA basketball tournament - although it's usually associated with the men's event and not the women's. 

ESPN popularized the word. After all, it always has plenty of time to fill during games and shows involving college basketball in season. It found the right guy to follow such things in Joe Lunardi, America's leading bracketologist. That sounds like he should be examining fossils in the Middle East instead of basketball records in his Philadelphia-area office, but the latter actually is correct.

Lunardi takes his work quite seriously while having a laugh at his own expense. He's helped popularize the run-up to Selection Sunday, as fans of teams across the country can't wait to see if their favorites will be going to the Big Dance, who they might play, and where the game will be.

That's all well and good. That leads to another question. Is there a book in this story? Lunardi and co-author David Smale gave it the old college try (what else?) in "Bracketology."  

As you might have guessed, this is not a particularly long book. There are 268 pages, and there's plenty of white space between lines of type. In other words, if you don't get through this in a few days, you probably are a busy person. And it should be noted that one of the chapters consists mostly of testimonials from those in the basketball business (coaches, administrators, broadcasters, etc.) about what a good job Lunardi does and how he increases interest in the game. That's almost 30 pages that you probably don't need to read. 

Otherwise, Lunardi's story meanders along like something of a winding river. Chapters are devoted to the tournament itself, the history of the brackets (shorter than you might think), ESPN's role in popularizing the game, and his story of how he filled a niche that no one really knew existed. But the titles of said chapters are mere guides to launching points of areas of discussion. It's not particularly organized, but this isn't rocket science - it's bracketology.

Lunardi does make one very good point along the way about his process. He does not issue his opinions reach the field of 68. He issues his beliefs on what the selection committee will do with the data at hand. There is a difference there. Lunardi has kept up with the changes in how teams are considered over the years, and it's certainly helped him be more accurate. It's a little surprising that he doesn't spend a great deal of time on particular seasons, when a team was a surprise choice or stunning omission.

Some of  Lunardi's best points come in the final chapter, when he offers some ideas on how to improve the process. For example, Joe thinks a mid-major team that has had a very successful season (20+ wins) deserves the chance to play in the NCAA tournament over a power conference team that couldn't even climb over the .500 mark in conference play. It's a good argument - if your team goes 7-9 in the conference, does it really deserve to play for the national championship? He also would add four more teams to make it a 72-team field, and add a couple of more double-headers on Tuesday and Wednesday at the start of the event. It's a reaction to an increase in the number of schools that play Division I college basketball now. He's got a case, although personally I think the NCAA should hold the line at 64.

Lunardi also believes that the big schools at some point will want to figure out a way to cut out the really small schools from such conferences as the Patriot League or SWAC. We both agree that such a move would take away some of the charm of the tournament.

"Bracketology" figures to have a limited audience because of the subject matter. But at least Lunardi comes across as good company, so getting to know him a bit in a literary way makes this fun enough to be worth a look.

Three stars

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Friday, January 7, 2022

Review: The Big Three (2021)

By Michael Holley

One of the first times that the phrase "Big Three" came up in sports was in the late 1970s. It was used to describe the top defensemen of the Montreal Canadiens. Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe were three great blueliners, and they could play indefinitely. The trio was a huge part of four straight championships in that era.

Fast forward a while, and "The Big Three" came up again - this time in basketball. The Boston Celtics collected three Hall of Famers on the same roster, and it helped them win a championship in 2008 and come close two years later.

How did they collect that talent, and what was that era like? Those are the basic questions involved in the book, "The Big Three." Author Michael Holley does a good job of answering them, too.

The Celtics are one of the most historic franchises in the NBA, mostly because of their success in the past. Boston had an amazing run of 11 championships in 13 years in the 1950s and 1960s, and they added to that total in the 1970s and 1980s. But hard times, and perhaps the law of averages (it's easier to win in a 10-team league than a 30-team league) eventually caught up with Boston after that. 

The Celtics handed the keys to the car to Danny Ainge, part of the good times of the 1980s. His goal was to collect pieces that would help the team improve down the road. Mostly that was in the form of draft choices and useful contracts. Sometimes the guys with the MBAs are as important as the players in the NBA. Still, the team won only 24 games in 2006-07, and star player Paul Pierce was getting sick of losing. 

At that point, Ainge was ready to strike. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were around 30, and had never won anything. They were anxious to change that last part. Ainge swung two trades to acquire them, and Boston was in business. The Celtics added The Big Three to Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins for their starting lineup, and the team went on to win 66 games and a championship.

As you might guess, that started some copycat transactions in the rest of the NBA. The Miami Heat added LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Dwayne Wade to form their own Big Three. James had a similar experience when he returned to Cleveland, playing with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. You can fit three stars under the salary cap with some creative accounting, filling out the roster with bargain players and youngsters.

It's not easy to do that on court, though. The stars are used to taking the big shots and playing the big minutes. Someone - in the Celtics' case, Allen - has to get used to the idea that he won't be a top option at crunch time. Holley does really good work in showing how everyone on the Celtics' roster bought into the idea, because they wanted a championship on their resume. The good feelings lasted through 2010. An injury to Garnett essentially ruined the chance at a repeat in 2009, and the team fell just short in losing to the NBA Finals to the Lakers in 2010. The group hung on for a couple of years. Then Allen left as a free agent for Miami in 2012, and Garnett and Pierce were traded to the Nets in 2014. Boston has been OK since then, but has not returned to the finals.

It's an interesting story of how to build a winner in the modern NBA, and Holley talked to everyone to find out how everything came together. The book has a ton of little details about how the team operated. There are stories from owners, executives, coaches and players along the way, and the pages go by quite quickly - a good sign. 

About the only drawback to the book is that it took some time to be written. We're coming up on 14 years since the Celtics' last championship. Most of the players - including the Big Three, of course - are retired, and the executives have moved on to other things. The building of a winner also is a more interesting process than how that championship team slowly unraveled after the celebration. In other words, the book peaks when the team does. 

Even so, Holley's book serves as a supplier of good memories about a championship team as well as a course on NBA management. In other words, even non-Celtics fans ought to find this worth their time.

Four stars

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Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Review: Paradise Found (2021)

By Bill Plaschke

The first and last time that many of us knew anything about Paradise, California, was on November 8, 2018. An enormous wildfire ran through the town that was located in the hills north of Sacramento. Not only did it kill 86 people, but the fire wiped out the possessions of almost everyone in town. 

The video of television reports was quite memorable, as much of Paradise was gone. The stories lasted a few days, and then the reporters went home. That happens, naturally, but the departure can still leave a long-term curiosity about how the residents of such a disaster site did in the weeks and months ahead. 

One reporter, who hadn't been on the scene at the time, did show up later on. He's Bill Plaschke, the brilliant columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Plaschke received a tip that there might be a good story in attempts to revive the football program the following year - no small task considered players can scattered like and due to the wind because of the fire.  The writer went back a few times too in the months after that. 

That led to a series of stories about the Bobcats' rebirth, and that in turn led to a book. "Paradise Found" is its title, and it - as you might guess - quite a story.

Start with coach Rick Prinz. On November 7, 2018, he was planning for his team's appearance in the sectional football tournament later in the week. A day later, he - like everyone else - was trying to put his own life back together after the fire. The game was cancelled, and eventually his thoughts turned to the 2019 season. But how could he do it? The facilities were in terrible shape; the team didn't even have a football left. The players were forced to scatter to available housing, mostly in other towns. Some of those who stayed literally didn't know where they might be sleeping on a given night, or where their next meal was coming from. Paradise's population went from about 26,000 to about 2,000 almost overnight.

Still, it's fair to say that everyone in the entire town needed a diversion from the on-going horrors involved in rebuilding - particularly the players. Prinz thought he could provide one, and called his first spring practice near the Chico (the biggest city in the area) Airport. It was on a field that was hardly smooth, and the players didn't have uniforms. But that's OK - Prinz didn't even have a football. His roster, which was 76 the previous year, was down to 22 - in other words, one for every position, period. 

Many of the players' stories on the day of the fire are similar. Most of the kids had to check in with family members to decide a course of action , which mostly consisted of how to evacuate out of town as quickly as possible. Mostly, they had to get on the roads out of town, which for the most part were jammed with cars and often surrounded by fire. Then the stories diverge, since every young man has different circumstances in his life. Most of them, though, craved the normalcy that playing football might offer. 

Slowly - very slowly - things got better for the team and its members. The squad found some footballs. Some players moved back to Paradise. Everyone settled into something of a routine that was anything but routine. The start of the 2019 season arrived, and the Bobcats were ready to go - more than that, actually. They won their first game in a contest that was more about healing than touchdowns for all concerned, including the fans, and the year went on from there. 

There's enough drama here to fill a dozen Hollywood productions, and Plaschke's writing stays out of the way and lets the story play out on its own merits. It's easy to get caught up in the team and its run to daylight. 

There is one little nagging item here that came up while reading the book. High school football seems rather important to Paradise. Is it "too" important? That's hard to tell from a distance. There were a couple of troubling comments about the school on Google reviews that I found by accident - "So many things happen with the football players that the school and principle just let slip under its nose" and "At least Ridgeview (H.S.) did what they could with what little budget they had to increase the learning quality instead of pumping it all to football and Leadership."

I didn't go to a high school that centered the social calendar on football games, but I have learned to wonder about the priorities of such places. The book "Friday Night Lights" took a long look at such schools and towns with a critical eye, and it wasn't too pretty at times.  The team members in Paradise received some breaks and benefits of the doubt on such areas as grades and attendance, and that seemed appropriate under the circumstances. A little more troubling is the ease in which the players managed to hide injuries, including concussions, from authority figures along the way. It might have been nice to have seen more views of the big picture of what was going on from above.

Those are big issues, of course, but Plaschke made the long trip from Los Angeles several times mostly to find out about the football team and not the sociology involved. He hoped he had found a good story before that first trip, and he was right. "Paradise Found" works nicely as a tribute to the healing powers of sport when the world has crumbled around its participants. Let's hope all aspects of the efforts to rebuild lives in that town continues in the future.

Four stars

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