Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Review: A Wonderful Waste of Time (2020)

By Terry Bonadonna

Terry Bonadonna had me on the first page of the introduction to this book.

The future baseball writer describes how he was the biggest baseball expert in his school years, to the point where people would ask him trivia questions about the sport just for the heck of it. Yup, that was me. 

I remember one time someone asked me out of the blue, "Who won the 1935 World Series?" The secret to coming off as Mr. Know-It-All in some cases is to give a fast answer, even if you don't know it. As I recall, I blurted out "Cincinnati Reds" in less than a second, causing Joe Frisk to shake his head in wonder. (The Detroit Tigers were the actual winners.) So we're kindred spirits.

I somehow heard that this book was worthwhile, and eventually got around to reading it. "A Wonderful Waste of Time" works quite well in spite of some small obstacles. 

This is the story of the 2017 Windy City Thunderbolts of the Frontier League, and its announcer. Right away, that's going to require some explanation for non-baseball junkies.

The Frontier League is a collection of baseball teams that are professional, but out of the formal structure of organized baseball. This Midwest-based league (there are a couple of others) feature players who weren't quite good enough to latch on to a major league organization for one reason or another, so they head to this league for another chance. They probably would be competitive with Class A teams in the minors, mostly because the players might be a little more mature that the prospects working their way up the ladder to the big leagues. Occasionally, the second chance works out. But if it doesn't, well, playing baseball beats working for a living. 

You might think that a book on a bunch of 2017 baseball refugees, playing in a league that few know about with players that no one knows, might have trouble attracting an audience. That's probably right. But the good news is that the book doesn't date at all. The reader gets to hop on the bus and go for a season-long ride with the Thunderbolts, who are located in the Chicago suburbs. You could change the names and places, and it would still ring true. This is timeless.

By this stage, Bonadonna already had been around the league for several summers as a broadcaster. So he's familiar with the league and how it works. There are stories about the team and its players and staff, but this is more of a diary about how the broadcaster's summer went. 

The author really captures the feel of baseball at this level. He's one of the few people that probably cares about the outcome of the games. The players are trying to land a contract, while the front office is more concerned with attendance than wins/losses. That leaves Bonadonna, compiling notes about the players and coming up with a complete picture during the broadcasts - which probably don't have a particularly large audience. 

The baseball life is a difficult one at this level. The bus rides can be long, the hotels can be spotty, and nutritional goals take a pounding. Seven straight ballpark cheeseburgers for dinner is the sort of record no one wants to hold. Take it from someone who has been around sports at various levels all his life - the conversations and thoughts here offered by Bonadonna are authentic and interesting.

He's not a bad writer, either. The story flows along rather nicely as the season progresses. The biggest complaint is that it's difficult to know where all of the teams are located. Some of the cities have generic names, and others use nicknames like "Windy City" (at least you can sort of guess where that one is). A little more clarification of the teams and their locations would have been nice. 

A postscript might have been nice too, since we are talking about the 2017 season. What happened to everyone after that campaign? Anyone find success?  Bonadonna does have a website (TerryBonadonna.com), and he's still working for the Thunderbolts although he apparently isn't broadcasting any more.

"A Wonderful Waste of Time" clearly isn't for every sports fan's taste. But it is a thoughtful look at a life that usually goes unexamined. It goes by quickly at a little over 200 pages. If you can find a copy of this self-published book, pick it up for your next long bus ride. 

Four stars

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Monday, June 13, 2022

Review: In Scoring Position (2022)

By Bob Ryan and Bill Chuck

Bob Ryan and I have at least one thing in common. We reflexively, and perhaps even compulsively, keep score at baseball games. 

That was a skill that many people knew back in the day, which is why teams sold scorecards at games. Now, if you go to a game, you are in a distinct minority if scribble down the lineups before the game and then follow the action by pen and pencil. Me, it adds to my enjoyment of the game and provides some context to what has happened. 

The difference between Bob (OK, I've met him a few times) and me is that he has put all of his scoring efforts into personal scorebooks. I started doing that about 15 years ago, but haven't quite seen enough games to fill up the thick book with games yet. (Don't worry, Book No. 2 is on my on-deck circle, warming up.) The books no doubt fill up a shelf in Bob's home, waiting to be reviewed.

And reviewed they were at the start of the pandemic. After all, what else was there to do? Bill Chuck, a veteran baseball researcher, heard about Ryan's hobby and wondered if there might be a book floating around somewhere in those old scorebooks. 

It turned out Chuck was right. The resulting book was called "In Scoring Position," a nice play on words right off the bat.

We start with a May 7, 1977 game in Fenway Park in Boston, as Bob Stanley blanks the Angels. We end on April 19, 2021, as the Red Sox allowed some fans back in the building for the first time since the height of the pandemic. The book is produced with a similar format for each game. After a reproduction of one of the pages from the original scorebook, Ryan writes about the game itself - sometimes quoting his own game story, and at other times telling about how he came to be at that particular game. 

Chuck then follows along with pieces of information that are either directly or indirectly connected to the game. He's really good at this stuff, and it shows with every page. I enjoy such material, particularly to drop into my print stories. (Confession: I keep track of a variety of things for my lacrosse stories, so that I can ask questions such as "Your team hasn't opened a game with a 6-0 lead since at least 2005. What did that do for you during the rest of the game?" That drew a double-take and a "How did you know that?" from the coach.)

Put these qualities, and these two people who are really good at their jobs, together, and you should come up with a good book. And for some people, this publication will meet that description perfectly. But it's unlikely that some readers will be as enthusiastic as the natural base.

The first catch comes with the fact that this book is filled with Red Sox games. That is no surprise, since Ryan has lived in the Boston area for all his professional life. So most of the names and some of the trivia are centered around the Red Sox. If you follow this particular New England team, this is fine. But if you are sitting in Minnesota trying to keep up with the Twins, well, this might leave you a little, um, cold. 

The image of one page of the scorebook (in other words, only one team's batting order) leads off each game, but it is small. I suppose you could get really close to the page or use a magnifying glass (do they still have those?) to read the plays of a particular game, but that's quite a bit of work. I'm not sure if a slightly bigger image might have helped enough to make it useful, but its current size is going to make it more of a decoration than a tool for the reader. 

In addition, this book goes for almost 450 pages. That's a lot of games. In fact, it's probably too many. Cutting the volume down to 350 pages might have helped. After all, since all of the games are bite-sized individual stories, there's not much to push you along through the book. 

"In Scoring Position" is a fun read, but maybe it could have been better. Maybe someone will try this format in a more generic way. In other words, "Baseball's Greatest Games" - complete with a readable scorecard and related facts - or "World Series Games of 2000s" might do pretty well. 

Three stars

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Friday, June 10, 2022

Review: Alive and Kicking (2021)

By Michael Lewis

The Buffalo History Museum used to sponsor an authors' gathering on the Saturday afternoon after Thanksgiving.  A local group would gather in an attempt to sell books to the public in the Holiday season. 

The subjects of those books were all over the place, and sometimes the same people would be back, year after year. I can't say I paid much attention to the writers of fiction, since I never read that category (I will add quickly that I can appreciate the efforts of someone who made up a good story; I could never do that.)

As for the nonfiction writers, their dedication certainly was on display. They sometimes take a narrow subject and expound on it for a few hundred pages - even though it might not be of great interest to many people besides themselves. You've got to love it to do it.

That brings the conversation to Michael Lewis. He's a writer who worked in the Rochester area for a while and almost stumbled on the world of soccer through an assignment. And ... he learned to like it. Michael not only followed Rochester's voyage through the stormy seas of American soccer history, but he even popped up in Buffalo a few times to cover that city's indoor soccer developments. Those seas were pretty stormy too at times, and the cast of characters sometimes overlapped. Lewis went on to other positions, and he's stuck with soccer along the way.

That makes him the perfect candidate to write a history of the Rochester Lancers. The book is called "Alive and Kicking," and its depth is a little overwhelming.

That team was its city's only entry into the big time in sports, surviving by accident over the years with its finances hanging by a shoestring. Soccer in this country sort of bubbled up from a collection of local teams, often involving immigrants. The nation's leagues started to become more organized in the 1960s, and Rochester's team sort of hung around when national leagues were being formed. 

That led to a problem, particularly as some major financial players moved into the game in the 1970s. Rochester's team was still in Rochester, a region without that many people compared to the opposing cities. Add to the fact that it used a high school football stadium as its home, and the Lancers were always playing from behind economically. The franchise finally perished after the 1980 season. 

Still, it was quite a ride. Part of that was due to the financial problems, which always leads to odd events such as player and coach turnover and bizarre road trips. Soccer also attracted some interesting personalities. It probably took a special type of person to try to plant the seeds of soccer in a new land, and those who came to America certainly qualified. 

The games are included there, of course, in the loving detail that only a true fanatic would appreciate. But the stories are here too - of unexpected heroes, villains and rivalries; of ownership fights; and of coaches charging onto the field to personally complain about officiating. 

I am willing to admit that I'm not the target audience for this book. I saw a few Lancers games in person, including the famous contest that the teams allegedly at least talked about fixing the score to ensure that both teams would qualify for the playoffs. Mostly, though, I wanted to learn a little about some of the Rochester names who turned up in Buffalo in the Major Indoor Soccer League. I have to admit I skimmed through good-sized sections of the game stories presented here within the 454 (!) pages.

But I can appreciate the effort that went into "Alive and Kicking." It's a self-published book without any frills - just pure information. So if you followed Rochester soccer during the 1960s and 1970s, this exercise in nostalgia ought to bring you several days' worth of delightful memories as you plow through it. 

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

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Sunday, June 5, 2022

Review: Game (2022)

By Grant Hill

It didn't take long at all for basketball fans to fall in love with Grant Hill's game.

He arrived at Duke in the fall of 1990, adding his talents to a roster that already had such stars as Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley. Hill was 6-foot-9, and he immediately showed why he was so extraordinary. It was once said about Grant's father, football player Calvin Hill, that he could have played any position on the field when he suited up for Yale University. His son was just like that too. Need someone to guard a point guard? Jump center? Rebound? Grant was your guy. 

And he all made it look so darn easy - which, of course, discounted the hours of work that made it all possible. 

No one, then, should be surprised that some of those same qualities are on display in Hill's autobiography, "Game." His writing is as smooth as a steal and a layup on the court. 

Hill's story for the most part is as smooth as his game, as he seemed destined for success. Calvin - a former NFL star who later worked with teams to help troubled playes - and wife Janet were not only great role models for their only child but for others as well. Janet picked up the nickname "The General" from Grant's friends over the years, as she was a special assistant to the Secretary of the Army for a period. 

Eventually Grant arrived at Duke, where he fit in with one of the great teams in college basketball. There were some strong personalities on those squads, and maybe it's not surprising that the people on the roster aren't particularly close years later. It might be giving Hill too much credit to say he was one of the "glue guys" that kept everyone together in that era. Then again, maybe it's not.

Then it was on to the pros for Hill, where there were unexpected bumps in the road. He was drafted third overall in 1994 by the Detroit Pistons, where he played at a high level on some mediocre teams. When his first chance at free agency arrived in 2000, Grant jumped to the Orlando Magic - where he immediately developed ankle problems. He spent more time on the sidelines than on the court in those seven years, and implies here that the medical treatment was less than appropriate. He came close to dying because of an infection in 2003. Even the storybook tales have some bumps in the road. Unless you followed the Magic in that era, you probably aren't aware of how difficult those years were for him.

Hill finally returned to health (relatively speaking) around the time he left Orlando in 2007, signing with Phoenix. He wasn't a star any more, but settled nicely into the job of role player for several years. Hill ended up playing 18 years in the NBA. Grant was back on the right track, and he has apparently stayed there. Hill married Tamia, a world-class singer from Canada, and they have had two children who we can only assume are going to be overachievers too. Grant eventually made the transition to basketball broadcasting, working the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. And, oh by the way, Hill owns a share of the Atlanta Hawks. The Basketball Hall of Fame called him along the way.

That's a very interesting life, of course, especially for someone who hadn't reached 50 years old when he wrote it. But the best part is that the story is so well told. The story flows together quite seemlessly, and Hill is even willing to admit his (few) mistakes that he made along the way. 

The result is a biography that is just like listening to an intelligent, thoughtful over a series of long dinners - and what could be much better than that? "Game" is a top-flight effort that even non-basketball fans will appreciate.

Five stars

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