Thursday, March 31, 2022

Review: 1972 (2022)

By Scott Morrison 

Authors don't often have the chance to take a second swing at a subject. It turns out that Scott Morrison is an exception.

Back in 1989, the Canadian sports writer wrote the book, "The Days Canada Stood Still." It was a look back at the famous 1972 hockey series between Canada and the Soviet Union, and it was a solid job of reporting and writing. 

Now here we are in 2022, and much has changed. The year 1989 mostly is associated with the fall of the Iron Curtain. Shortly after that, the Soviet Union essentially went out of business. Since that time some of Russia's best hockey players have come over to North America to seek fame and fortune. 

Since the 50th anniversary of the original series has arrived, more or less, it's not a bad time to revisit it. Morrison does that with "1972." 

It might be difficult for Americans to understand how this series became a landmark in Canadian history - not just hockey history or sports history, but history. Canada always had taken a lot of pride in its hockey, believing that it produced the best players in the world. 

But the Soviets after World War II slowly began building its hockey program and achieved great success. Eventually they started winning world championships and Olympic gold medals with regularity. How would they do against the Canadians? It was guesswork, since Canadian pros weren't allowed in "amateur" tournaments - even though the Soviet teams were drafted into the military and told to serve their country by playing hockey. Both sides had full-time players. 

Finally, the two sides worked out a deal for a series in the fall of 1972. Some people in Canada - and a portion of that group consisted of some players and coaches - thought Team Canada would win eight straight games with ease. Imagine their surprise, then, when the Soviets came into the opener in Montreal ... and waxed the opposition, 7-3. It took some time for the Canadians to come together, become a team, and figure out a way to win. In hindsight, the dramatics of the series reaching amazing proportions, culminating with a big comeback in the decisive eighth game (four games were played in Canada, and four were in Moscow.) By the way, the author was allowed to skip school to watch Game Eight on television - a decision that continues to pay dividends to this day.

Morrison went back and interviewed the participants about their memories of the series. Naturally, he found Ken Dryden, one of the most articulate and thoughtful people ever to be a pro athlete. Others, such as Brad Park and Phil Esposito, display their emotions almost a half-century later. It's also good to hear the reaction of the Soviet players all these years later too. It turns out they aren't the robots we thought they might be at the time. Morrison even found a few Canadian fans who made the trip to Moscow for the four games; they have some stories that definitely are worth reading. Some other sources of information are mined too to good effect.

Both sides agree that the series changed hockey for the better. The bias against Eastern European hockey players went away quickly once they started arrived on this side of the ocean. The two styles of play merged in some ways as well. As Dryden said, it was one of the few times in life where the winner of a battle actually learned something from the loser. Hockey players now have more speed and skill than ever before, and it's a much better game to play and watch than it was 50 years ago. 

The Toronto-based Morrison has been part of the hockey media for decades, and there are few in the business who have earned more respect over the years. Most of the book is devoted to the events of the series itself, as it probably should be. That might be a problem for a few on this side of the border, who either might know the basics of the series and don't need to go further, or aren't interesting in something that qualifies as "ancient history."

But in Canada, you probably can't write enough about this particular matchup, because people can't read enough about it. Its American equivalent might be the US-USSR hockey game in Lake Placid in 1980, but that understates it greatly. "1972" will stand up nicely as a good recap of this fabled series and its place in Canadian sports history. 

Four stars

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Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Review: The War (2021)

By Don Stradley

I hope you'll excuse a quick personal story about the 1985 fight between Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns, which is at the center of Don Stradley's book, "The War. It might have been the best birthday present I ever gave my parents.

Both of them grew up in Brockton, Massachusetts, where Hagler spent part of his life. So they followed Marvin's career once he became famous. When the event was scheduled to be shown on closed-circuit, I bought them tickets (and one for me) for the fight. Their birthdays were three days apart, and about a week before the bout. 

You probably remember the fight, an epic battle from the opening bell. The theater quickly turned into bedlam. My mother said after the first round, "I've never seen a round like that." I replied, "I don't think anyone has."

Hagler-Hearns is still remembered as one of the greatest two-sided fights in history. If you don't remember it or never saw it, go watch it on YouTube. It will take you less than 10 minutes. 

When you're done, you can move on to the book version. Stradley has put together the story of the fight between the two men, with those 10 minutes serving as the climax and centerpiece of the story. 

Boxing really was in its glory in those days, with great fighters such as Hagler, Hearns, Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran competing for various titles. They seem to lift each other's skills up, particularly when one met another. The public responded by opening up its wallet, making the purses of those bouts very substantial. 

Hearns was something of a physical freak at first, fighting at a mere 147 pounds despite a 6-foot-1 frame that left him all arms, legs and fists. Hagler was a true middleweight, and was one of the all-time greats at 160 pounds. It took a variety of wrong turns and detours before they finally agreed to be in the same spot for a fight. That was followed by a long publicity tour across the country, and it's still tough to tell how much true animosity the men had for each other, and how much they simply wanted to sell the fight. In particular, Hagler was always a difficult personality to sort out - and that went on for the rest of his life. 

As fight time approaches in the book, Stradley writes the story well enough so that the reader is anticipating what might happen, and what he might learn about it. I don't know if the phrase "spoiler alert" applies to an event that was held more than 35 years ago. But the author reveals that Hearns' legs felt quite dead even before the bout started, perhaps because of an ill-timed message. Stradley also says Hagler broke his hand, probably early in the first round. His performance becomes even more heroic under those circumstances, although his ultimate fate had been determined at that point. 

That night was the highlight of Hagler's career. He lost a close decision to Leonard a few years later, and walked out of the business with his faculties intact but with a chip still on his shoulder. Hearns' career did have a second act, although he is still best remembered for his fights with Hagler and Leonard. 

Stradley didn't talk to Hagler, Hearns or promoter Bob Arum for the book, which leaves this a little bit of an outside-looking-in book. Even so, this supplies enough to details to satisfy anyone looking for a recap of the fight. "The War" checks in at 250 pages or so, which may seem like a lot about 10 minutes of action - at least for some. Still, for those who remember the fight or who want to learn more about it, this is a book that should leave everyone satisfied. Too bad my parents around around to read it.

Four stars

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Friday, March 25, 2022

Review: So Help Me Golf (2022)

By Rick Reilly

There's always an argument brewing when the subject of "America's best sportswriter" comes up. There are plenty of names that could be tossed around. 

Such a list narrows when the phrase becomes "America's funniest sportswriter." There aren't many people who can make sports funny on a consistent basis. The gold standard was Jim Murray, the Los Angeles Times columnist who was downright beloved by those who read him.

Murray has passed on, so the title has been passed down. Perhaps the person closest to that style and approach is Rick Reilly. He is best known for writing a column on the back page of Sports Illustrated, in the day when SI was a weekly and was much more influential than it is now. Reilly's work usually brought forth a laugh or six, but he could stir other emotions as well. The good ones do that, you know.

Reilly moved over to ESPN to do some work for its magazine and television networks. The broadcast work always seemed a little out of character. He retired from ESPN in 2014. Reilly has written a few books since then, and "So Help Me Golf" is the latest one.

This is essentially a collection of stories about the game of golf as Reilly has seen it over the years. Since he's not been producing content on a regular basis, it would be easy to guess that some of the stories might be reprints of previous work. However, that would be wrong. While there may be some updating going on, it's all fresh material and up to date. 

The lengths of the stories vary greatly. The longest is an essay where he describes playing the best 18 holes in the world by number - in other words, the best No. 1, the best No. 2, best No. 3, etc. Reilly has been collecting those stories for more than 30 years, and some of the descriptions sure sound like they could use a accompanying photo. But they give the author to use some funny phrases and analogies, so it still works pretty well. 

Mostly, though, these are essays that are more or less column length. What it's like to play golf with Bill Clinton and Dan Quayle. What Phil Mickelson said about Tiger Woods when they were finally on the same team. The man who faced a $600,000 bet. Golf in strange places, like a German POW camp. "The Red Shoe Bandit." The woman with Down syndrome who earned a golf scholarship. America's busiest golfer. And so on.

Golf isn't the only thread that runs through the book. Reilly gets personal in reviewing the relationship with his father, an alcoholic who made life rather miserable for his family over the years. It's a personal story and interesting in a much different way than the rest of the book. There's a semi-happy ending to that thread, which probably is the best that any of us can expect in such situation. 

Humor writing is a rather subjective area, and I assume this applies to Reilly. However, most people who read his material come away with at least a smile. The exception probably is his book, "Commander in Cheat," which outlined Donald Trump's shenanigans when it came to the game of golf. That certainly drew some hate mail, probably along the lines of this review on "I would not use the pages from this book to wipe dog crap off the sidewalk."

Reilly is on safer territory here. "So Help Me Golf" is a quick, easy enough effort that can be read in less than a day. It ought to work as a gift for just about anyone likes golf and who likes to laugh. 

Four stars

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Thursday, March 24, 2022

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2022

Foreword by Doug Glanville

It can be easy to produce the biggest annual book regarding an upcoming baseball season every year. You'd think at Year 27 they'd get used to the twists and turns. But no, the people at Baseball Prospectus had another slightly bad break this time.

Last year the editors and writers had to deal with the effects of a pandemic and a shortened season. For a group that tries to chart year to year progress and then make some conclusions about players, this was tough to swallow. Plenty of players are hot for two months, but it's tougher to do for six. So thoughts were a little on the incomplete side. 

Baseball went back to something resembling normal in 2021, at least in terms of a 162-game schedule. However, work in the baseball industry came to a screeching halt back in December, when the owners locked out the players. It took until March to reach a collective bargaining agreement, and the book already had been out for a couple of weeks. 

Therefore, this book has to be considered a little less complete than in most seasons. There is a good-sized section at the end of profiles of free agents who hadn't signed contracts yet. Usually, that's not much of a problem. Then there are the team essays, which can't take advantage of the signings. For example, Carlos Correa is going to be a big part of the story of the Twins' season in 2022. But you'd wouldn't know that here. As they used to say in Brooklyn, wait until next year. 

With that out of the way, the book is back and in good form once again. Here's the annual description: Baseball Prospectus' staff takes a look at just about anyone who matters in the baseball business, from recent draft choices to veteran stars. They use a variety of advanced metrics in that analysis, which can be a little scary if you aren't used to them. But eventually they get the point across about how they see a particular player progressing. The writers know their stuff; several have gone on to good jobs with individual teams.

Disclaimer: I mostly read the descriptions of fairly established players and top prospects. If I need to learn about someone else or have forgotten the particulars, well, it's on the bookshelf waiting for me. A couple of things jumped out at me in going through this edition. 

First off, there sure are a lot of relief pitchers in major league baseball. Every team seems to have a bunchy on the roster, and a few more stashed in the minors. The problem is that it is a tough job to do effectively and consistently. You can have a good game, a good week, a good month, or a good year, but everything can change overnight. Just ask Matt Barnes, the Red Sox closer who was in the All-Star Game but wasn't on the Boston roster for a playoff series. It's a tough business. 

The players essays occasionally have been quite snarky and funny over the years here. The amount of it seems to come and go depending on who might be doing the writing in a given year. The number is down a bit this time for no apparent reason. The conclusions, though, seem on target. Meanwhile, the team essays are done in a variety of approaches. This year's collection ranked particularly well.

No, I wouldn't buy this for my fantasy league draft in all probability - not that I'm in one. But it's a useful tool for those who like the idea of following baseball on a deeper level than most. 

Five stars

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Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Review: Tiger & Phil (2022)

By Bob Harig

We love our rivalries in sports. The concept probably started in the 19th century, when the team in my town challenged the team from the town next door. Since then we've seen Yankees-Red Sox, Duke-North Carolina, and Celtics-Lakers - among many others. 

The same principle exists in individual sports, but sometimes it's a slightly more difficult fit. For example, tennis has had plenty of good rivalries over the years - perhaps because the best players often play each other for championships. There's no better example of that than Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. Lately we've had the three-cornered rivalry of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. 

Golf is a little trickier. The nature of the game makes individual rivalries a little more difficult, since there is a thin margin for error between a champion and a fifth-place finisher. Head-to-head confrontations between "rivals" are quite unusual. 

Golf's best rivalry might have been Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Palmer was on top of the sport in the early 1960s, with his personal charisma dragging fans along with him for the sometimes unusual ride. Nicklaus came along in that era, and knocked Palmer ("The King") off his throne. The rivalry turned one-sided pretty quickly, as Nicklaus because by most standards the greatest player of all time - at least in terms of a career. Palmer was merely the most popular player ever. As has been said, what made their relationship interesting is that one many had what the other wanted. While both men were fierce competitors, eventually they seemed to realize that what united them was much stronger that what divided them.

That brings us to something of the equivalent of Arnie and Jack. It's the title of Bob Harig's book, "Tiger and Phil."

Phil is Phil Mickelson, who won a professional tournament as a amateur and seemed immediately destined for greatness. He had a swashbuckling style that proved popular with the fans, and he never saw a sheet of paper or photo that he couldn't autograph. Then came Tiger Woods, who immediately showed that he was going to be a great player - it was just a question of how great. The answer soon became obvious - very great. Draw the line from Arnie to Phil and from Jack to Tiger, and you get the idea.

At his peak in a particular year, Tiger probably was the greatest player in history. You knew he was better than you, and he knew he was better. Just when we got done thinking that the growth of golf had led to the formation of so many great players that it would be difficult to dominate, Tiger took that theory and threw it in the trash. His winning percentage was simply unbelievable. 

Woods went past Mickelson into a class by himself. But Tiger had plenty of bumps on the road, some due to injuries and a few others through self-inflicted wounds. And Phil, who was forced to up his game in other to try to stay close, capitalized to the tune of six major championships over the years. So he won the on the PGA Tour for about 50 years, and no one - not even Woods - does that. 

Harig is a veteran writer for who has written about golf for other sources as well. He has done a bunch of interviews with Woods and Mickelson over the years, although they didn't do interviews for this book specifically. However, the author did talk to a variety of people about the two men, their careers, and their relationship. 

The resulting book is professional and thorough, and offers some insight into the relationship of the two golfers. Is it fascinating? Maybe not. While there are some interesting anecdotes that are new which come up along the way, this is a rather standard recap of the golf careers of the two men. I would think those who have been paying attention along the way are familiar with the story. So 368 pages seems a bit long. 

"Tiger & Phil" certainly will work for those who wish to relive some of the great golf moments in the past 25 years, starting with Woods' first Masters win in 1997 and ending with Mickelson's dramatic victory in the PGA championship in 2021. It won't be boring for those golf fans who don't fit into that sweet spot. But it's not a must-read, either. 

Three stars

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Thursday, March 10, 2022

Review: Thunder Snow of Buffalo (2021)

By Don Purdy and Billy Klum

Let's start with a personal story about the regionally famous snowstorm that hit the Buffalo area on October 12-13, 2006 - known in most places as "The October Surprise." That makes sense, since there are many such stories in the book, "Thunder Snow of Buffalo." Then we'll get to question number one, which is: What is a book on a snowstorm doing here?

I was working the night shift at The Buffalo News that night, and was aware that a lake effect storm had blossomed in certain parts of the region. I got out of work sometime after midnight, and took considerable time going home. I can still picture the trees bending over both sides of Parkside Avenue, thanks to the snow piling up on the leaves and branches. 

When I finally got home, I pulled into my driveway ... and was greeted by the sight of the neighbor's tree, which had fallen across my driveway parallel to the road. In other words, I wasn't parking anything in my garage that night. I drove down the street, found a place that wasn't near a tree, and walked back home. 

But before entering, I paused for a few minutes on my front lawn. Every few seconds, I could hear the crack of another tree breaking somewhere in the neighborhood. Think of popcorn near the end of the popping process. It was unforgettable. 

All right, that's out of the way. This is reviewed in an area usually devoted to sports because co-author Don Purdy was working for the Buffalo Bills at the time. In fact, he spent 27 years there, including the Golden Era of four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s. So it actually turned up on a list of new pro football books compiled by the Pro Football Researchers Association. 

He and friend Billy Klum got together to work on a book about the entire experience ... as well as a few stories. But it's really the Bills' portion of the book that is of most interest here.

The football team was scheduled to go to Detroit for a road game, and Purdy - who does almost all of the writing here - was one of those faceless (to the public) guys who helped them get there. He also did such things as file workman's compensation claims when someone on the Bills' roster was hurt. Who knew? Let's just say that everyone concerned is busy when the team loses more than a couple of players on a given day. Purdy tells his own story about having a tree fall through his roof, the troubles in getting to work, etc. He also receives testimonials from others in the organization about their experiences, which are equally harrowing. The Bills managed to find some generators to get enough light to practice and keep the operation - or at least part of it.

The authors also talk to some others about the storm. The local weathermen get a chapter, as they discuss what happened to cause such a freak storm in the middle of fall. Purdy and Klun sum up the damage well enough, and devote a couple of chapters to the groups that helped the area get back to normal in terms of repairs. There also is a review as the efforts of a couple of nonprofits that tried to turn the whole event into something slightly positive, from the replacement of fallen trees to selling wood carvings.

That's the making of a good enough book, at least for those who lived through it all and might like a printed reminder of the experience. The catch comes with the fact that such a publication might run 200 or so pages, and this goes 300 pages. It certainly sounds like this was a project that was started, dropped for a while, and then resumed. It also was self-published. 

So you might have guessed at this point that the book probably needed some professional editing, and you'd be right. There is a little too much detail and some repetition along the way that make this a little difficult to read after a while. More organization would have been nice, as well as a few fewer tangents and movie references.

Then there's the matter of Marv Levy, which is a little curious. The cover points out that Levy wrote the foreward. In reality, he sent Purdy a two-paragraph note that is a small part of the foreward. The former Bills coach also gets a 20-page chapter. No one deserves more respect than Marv, and the stories about him are fine, but they feel like they are from a different book.

Let's be fair about this. You have to give the authors a break or two when evaluating this. They obviously liked the idea of writing a book, and they come off as pleasant enough men who had a lot of fun doing so. And good for them. 

"Thunder Snow of Buffalo" certainly will work well for family and friends, and others will relate to some of the storm stories told here. No one expects literature in this situation, but you'll at least get the idea about what that miserable storm was like. 

Three stars

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