Saturday, February 26, 2022

Review: The Church of Baseball (2022)

By Ron Shelton

The 1980s were a good period for movies that used baseball as an important part of the story. "The Natural," "Field of Dreams," "Major League" and "Eight Men Out" come to mind immediately.

Then there's "Bull Durham." Writer Will Leitch once wrote a column for that called this 1988 effort the best baseball movie ever made. That's quite a call, especially since there is not a heck of a lot of actual baseball in the movie and no Hollywood ending with a big win by the home team. 

Leitch puts it this way: "The conversations on the mound. The tricks for getting out of a slump. The managerial motivational tactics. Which hand to swing with in a fight. "Bull Durham" is a movie that understands the romance and madness of baseball better than any movie ever has, and it has an all-timer cast. The only thing better than watching this movie is watching an actual baseball game. And only barely."

The romantic triangle in the center of the film drives things along, and perhaps that convinced some women who aren't necessarily baseball fans to buy into the concept. In any event, the film did quite well in the United States upon release, and is fondly remembered by many - some of whom can recite this bit of dialogue to this day and thus understand the title.

"I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. ... But bad trades are part of baseball - now who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God's sake? It's a long season and you gotta trust it. I've tried 'em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.” 

The driving force behind "Bull Durham" is Ron Shelton, a former minor-league infielder (he even played in Rochester, which offered a bobblehead in his honor at one point) who, as they say, wrote what he knew. At one point years later, Shelton met a couple that loved "Bull Durham," to the point where their sons are named Crash and Nuke. The writer/director immediately thought he needed to write a book about the experiences that went into the movie.

That book is "The Church of Baseball." It certainly comes through as a breezy look back at how everything came together to form what for many is a memorable movie. 

It opens with the story of the script. Creation stories are always interesting, and it's great fun to follow along and find out how the story evolved. That includes the little things, like the name Crash Davis. Shelton looked through a record book to find a classic baseball name, and saw that a fellow named Crash Davis was a player in the 1940s. When production started, Shelton received a call from someone claiming to be the real Crash, who wanted to talk to him. The real Mr. Davis turned out to be a charmer who was satisfied about the use of his name once he found out that the character won over the girl in the end. Shelton even used him as Wahoo Sam Crawford in a later movie, "Cobb."

Shelton had some scripts to his credit at that point, but he wanted to direct it himself. That led to the usual battles with Hollywood studios on what to do and how to do it. Shelton managed to figure out how to get the movie financed while maintaining control of the product. One of the reasons why it came together was that actor Kevin Costner, who was just breaking into stardom, was set to star. The other pieces fell into place, more or less. Movie-making is a lot like sausage-making, in that the process can be a little tough to stomach but the end result can be worth it. 

Shelton had a few more fights with executives along the way, making a few sacrifices in the process. The movie didn't test too well with audiences initially, causing some degree of panic with all concerned. But there's a happy ending, considering how well the film has held up. 

Speaking of endings, Shelton did have an idea for a sequel. He fast-forwarded more than 10 years in that proposal. Crash is a minor-league manager who is one step from the majors. He had split with Annie, as the toll of the minor league life was a heavy one. Nuke was an aging pitcher who was forced to use a knuckleball to keep his career going. And they all meet back in Durham. Sounds interesting - too bad it was never developed.

Quite obviously, your interest in the book will depend on your interest in the movie. If you've never seen "Bull Durham," well, the bookstores are full of other titles. If this book sounds interesting, then find a DVD copy of the movie and see what the fuss is. But if you enjoyed the film to the point that you can quote lines like "Candlesticks make great wedding gifts ... Let's get two" to similar-minded friends, then this is a must read. 

I'm in the latter category, so "The Church of Baseball" is like sitting down with Shelton and have a long conversation about how the movie came about. The book rarely gets bogged down in the mechanics of filmmaking, and is mostly good fun. Therefore, it's definitely worth your time if you fit that description.

Four stars

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Thursday, February 24, 2022

Review: It's Better to be Feared (2021)

By Seth Wickersham

  As someone who has spent most of the past half-century in Buffalo Bills country, it's been easy to avoid discussions about the New England Patriots during the first two decades of this century. Who wants to read about a team that comes into town on a yearly basis, beats up on the locals, and then leaves after taking another step to the divisional title?

Even so, there has to be a little respect toward what Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, among others, did during those years. If you stay in Western New York long enough, you'll hear that somehow, some way, Belichick and Brady will figure out a way to win - especially collectively. Brady won't be around any more to torment the team's fans, but Belichick is still lurking. 

Even so, it was the combination of the two, along with so many excellent players and coaches behind them, that made the Patriots one of the great dynasties in football history. That description carries with it some degree of fascination for any football fan. So how did they do it?

Therefore, it's safe to read "It's Better to be Feared" from the stand of the opposition. And what a job Seth Wickersham has done in putting together a history of that fabulous era in the sport. The word to describe it is "dense" - because there's a lot of good information jammed into it over the course of more than 450 pages.

If you have been following the Patriots over that time even from a distance, you know the outline of the story already. New England won six Super Bowls between 2003 and 2019, and Belichick and Brady certainly rank as at worst one of the best ever at their respective positions of coach and quarterback. But what went on along the way? 

That's where Wickersham really shines in his reporting. It sure sounds like he saved a lot of interesting notes that he filed away during New England's long, magicial run. This is the time, as journalists say, to empty the notebooks. The result is a book that is always fascinating and never boring. 

There's certainly plenty of reason to admire the cornerstones of the franchise, and the author - who works for ESPN - supplies them. Belichick always seemed to be a step or two ahead of the opposition, thanks in part to a combination of smarts and hard work ... plus some more hard work. Brady used the same qualities in a different way, working on improving his game throughout his career and figuring out how to solve opponents' defenses. That's particularly true in the final minutes, when Tom always figured out a way to win.

Are they completely admirable characters? It doesn't sound like here. Certainly Belichick deserves some criticism for the so-called Spygate scandal, when the team was caught videotaping the other team's signals from the sidelines in an attempt to gain an edge. He's always come across as an odd personality, and his relationships with assistant coaches, staff members and players frequently has been complicated. It's probably odder than you think, based on this book. Sometimes Belichick will help his coaches and staff receive better jobs with other teams; other times he'll consider such departures as an act of treason - see Eric Mangini, apparently - and cut them off.

As for Brady, he might fall into the classification of "be careful what you wish for." He relentlessly pursued excellence and achieved it, and then some. The catch was that as he became the biggest star in the football universe, he became the biggest celebrity in the football universe. Marrying a super-model didn't exactly lower his profile either. By the end of his run with New England, he couldn't wait to leave the place to sign as a free agent with Tampa Bay. The three-cornered relationship with Brady, Belichick and owner Robert Kraft seems difficult to manage. 

Along the way, Wickersham takes you to places where usually we're not allowed to visit. One-on-one conversations. Meetings. Parties. Labor talks. Trade negotiations. 

There are a few nuggets that come up along the way, even for Bills' fans. For example, the Patriots lost faith in Drew Bledsoe because of an apparent inability to take what was given to him. The quarterback usually thought deep ball instead of short pass. Bledsoe also was immobile, relatively speaking, so the Patriots had no trouble encircling the pocket to create pressure and potential sacks.

"It's Better to be Feared" may cover some of the same territory that other books on the Patriots' Years did, and some duplication of stories is hard to avoid. But it seems as if this is the book to read on the subject, particularly since it does such a nice job of putting a bow on the end with Brady's departure for Tampa Bay. This was the sports book of the year according to Sports Illustrated, and definitely is a necessary addition to a football fan's library. 

Five stars

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Thursday, February 10, 2022

Review: The Saga of Sudden Sam (2022)

By Sam McDowell with Martin Gitlin

It's time for another look at the tragedy and triumph of unfulfilled potential in the sports world. 

Sam McDowell seemed as if he was one of those people who was handed a powerful arm by the gods. "Go forth and conquer opposing batters" came the command, and McDowell set about doing just that. He was considered the top high school prospect in the country, with all 16 existing major league teams pursuing him in 1960. McDowell announced his signing with the Cleveland Indians on the TV game show, "To Tell the Truth." 

The Indians pushed him up the ladder quickly. He was pitching in Cleveland a year later around the time he turned 19, and by 1964 "Sudden Sam" (because his fastball arrived "all of a sudden") was an established starter. He was one of the Indians' few bright spots for the rest of the decade. There was no questioning his talent; batters only hit .215 against him in his career, and he was named to five All-Star teams.

But McDowell was traded to San Francisco before the 1972 season, and it was straight downhill from there. The former king of strikeouts and earned-run average in the American League never led the league in anything after that, and went 19-26 through 1975. Sam was out of baseball after that at the age of 32. 

What went wrong? That's the crux of the book, "The Saga of Sudden Sam." McDowell teams up with co-author Martin Gitlin to tell the story of a sometimes fascinating if erratic career. Telling that story has some definite highs and lows to go along with them. 

McDowell seems to have arrived in baseball quite unprepared emotionally for the demands of the business. He could throw like a man, but that doesn't mean the rest of his personality had caught up to his talented left arm. Sam arrived on the scene with plenty of baggage that no one really bothered to examine. He had all sorts of self-image problems left over from childhood. McDowell also had two alcoholic parents, and he was carrying that disease in him without knowing it was waiting to be released.

The problem was that the baseball lifestyle often led to alcohol use - it was almost necessary to drink to rank as "one of the boys." Soon McDowell became a serious problem drinker, somehow managing at first to restrict it to days before pitching before that idea collapsed. The stories he tells are quite harrowing, and the pain he causes family and friends was quite real. By the way, the Sam Malone character in the television series "Cheers" is said to be based on McDowell's story.

What's more, McDowell appeared to be surrounded by "old school" baseball men who weren't exactly enlightened.  Trying to cope with emotional and addictions were way out of the job descriptions back then, and manager Birdie Tebbetts and general Gabe Paul seemed particularly unequipped for that responsibility at the time. They also knew little about injuries, and when McDowell developed shoulder problems they had no clue about what to do.

Sam's story certainly contains plenty of drama. However, there are a few problems in the telling that spoil it a bit. McDowell appeared to have a problem with someone on the bench calling his pitches, to the point where he refused a major-league promotion for a brief period. He wanted - no, demanded - the right to decide what to throw. McDowell still seems upset about it, to the point where the discussion dominates a couple of chapters. Sam never mentions his catcher in all of this, the player who is assigned to work with pitchers on pitch selection. It's easy to guess that a manager might want to have a say in what a very young pitcher might throw on the mound, to take that part of the game off the player's mind and let him concentrate on the immediate task at hand. It sounds as if this those discussions never took place.

There are also some moments of exaggeration and difficult-to-prove claims that pop up along the way. The 1968 Indians are called one of the greatest pitching rotations in history. Obviously, they were pretty good; the top four starters all had ERAs under 3.00. But you wouldn't trade McDowell, Luis Tiant, Sonny Siebert and Stan Williams for Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz/Avery (the first three were Hall of Famers with the Atlanta Braves in their glory years). Sam can talk about outings of close to 200 pitches or ranking as the fastest pitcher ever, but such claims are tough to proof without the evidence we have today. There's a little repetition of information along the way too.

Addiction stories can make for difficult reading, but McDowell doesn't dwell on the subject too much in a book that is less than 200 pages of reading. He stopped drinking soon after retirement, and became a counselor to others in organized baseball with personal problems. The chapters on that era of his life is more general by necessity, since the particulars are confidential. A rare exception is when Sam writes about his involvement with 1970s outfielder Bernie Carbo, who was on the verge of trying to commit suicide after retiring from the game. McDowell seems have had plenty of success stories, as he worked for teams and organizations. 

If you are getting the idea that "The Saga of Sudden Sam" offers a portrait of a somewhat complicated personality, you're right. It may not be easy to slot McDowell as a likeable personality after reading this, but it is easy to congratulate him on turning his life around .... and helping to change the lives of others for the better. For that, a hearty "well done" is in order.

Three stars

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Sunday, February 6, 2022

Review: No One Wins Alone (2021)

By Mark Messier with Jimmy Roberts

An unusual book, "No One Wins Alone."

There are all sorts of biographies, sports-related or not, out there. This one is simply different in some ways. 

Mark Messier's memoir was anxiously awaited by many. He's all over the NHL record book, a personification of the term "power forward" in pro hockey. Messier was big, strong and fast - a matchup nightmare for most players and teams. 

The center has two giant checkmarks on his resume that make it difficult to tell the story of hockey history without him. Messier was a big part of the Edmonton Oilers' dynasty of the 1980s. Wayne Gretzky was so good, of course, that it was difficult to get a fair share of attention. But players like Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, etc. were good enough to skate into the Hockey Hall of Fame without a checker in sight. 

Messier also was part of one of the most memorable Stanley Cups in history. He was acquired by the New York Rangers to lead the team to a championship. Mark did that in 1994, ending a fabled 54-year drought. He'll never be forgotten in New York for that. Messier is the only player to captain two teams to the Stanley Cup, and his uniform number (#11) has been retired by both teams - and rightfully so.

Messier picked up the reputation as hockey's greatest leader along the way, and there's little doubt it is well-deserved. One look was probably enough to get teammates to try to skate through the boards when necessary. A leadership award in the NHL was named after him around 2007.

Messier and helper Jimmy Roberts have taken the highlights of Mark's hockey career, and used that as the foundation of the book. But there are tips along the way about leadership, giving examples that came up during the course of the career. So it's not a straight autobiography, but it's not one of those books that coaches write for business audiences after they've won a title or two. 

Does it work? That's a tough question to answer.

Certainly hearing stories about those great teams is interesting. The tales can lead to some good points along the way. For example, Messier writes about how he used to go out of his way to make new players feel welcome. He knew how things worked when teams thrive, and he tried to duplicate that atmosphere in future stops on the NHL trail.

Still, there's something missing along the way. Messier almost completely avoids his non-hockey life here. His wife and their children pop up at the end, as does a child born out of a different relationship that lives with his mother. There are references to less-than-admirable moments in his life, but not many details about them. It's surprising that no one gets called out for poor behavior, even if it is anonymously. All of his teammates are his "brothers," as he puts it, although there must have been some bad apples along the way. 

On some level, "No One Wins Alone" meets its goal of discussing his life as a hockey leader. Still, it feels like there's a bit of a hole in the middle. Messier's fans will enjoy it a lot, of course, but the book might have been better with a touch more personal information. 

Three stars

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