Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Review: The Series (2022)

By Ken Dryden

My strongest reaction to Ken Dryden's latest book, "The Series," came from a single photo - and the accompanying coincidence it raised in my mind.

It's a shot of the stands during a practice in the hockey series between Canada and the Soviet Union in 1972. In the middle of the photo is Alan Eagleson, essentially the organizer of the eight-game matchup that changed hockey forever. He's next to Jean Beliveau, the Montreal Canadiens' classy superstar who had just retired. 

Seven reporters are surrounding them in the seats, including Red Fisher of the Montreal Star, Dick Beddoes of the Globe & Mail, and Mark Mulvoy of Sports Illustrated. The man in the top left, though, is called "unknown" in the caption.

But wait just a minute. I know that guy. It's Bill Wolcott!

Bill worked for the Niagara Gazette for several years, and he covered the series in Canada and the Soviet Union for his own newspaper and the Gannett News Service. Those games were one of the highlights of his career.

The reason I know so much about this is that it was printed in his obituary ... only a couple of weeks ago. That's quite a coincidence. I no doubt first met Bill at a Sabres' game in the late 1970s. We were friendly but not quite friends over the years, if that makes sense.

And speaking of surprises, the arrival of this book also qualifies. Dryden kept a diary of the series at the time and turned it into a book with the help of Mulvoy (speaking of coincidences) called "Face-off at the Summit." That volume isn't mentioned here at all, which is somewhat curious. 

Dryden hasn't written about the experience of playing in that series since then, and didn't plan to do so. Then the pandemic came along, and the Hall of Fame goalie needed something to do. The subtitle sums it up. "What I Remember. What It Felt Like. What It Feels Like Now."

Some of the memories have faded away, of course, after 50 years. One of the most striking aspects of his description of those days, however, is what it is like for an athlete when he or she is simply expected to win when it matters the most. In this case, an entire country was counting on Team Canada to prove that it had the best players in the world. Short answer: It's a very difficult situation, especially then things turn sour at the start. 

Dryden has a couple of other interesting points to make along the way. Since he was in the eye of the hurricane, he had no idea what was going on back home when the series was concluding in Moscow. Life in Canada stopped, to the point where about three-quarters of the country stopped what they were doing on a workday morning to watch the game. The country was united in a way that was unique, and the winning goalie of the deciding Game Eight wishes he could have felt what that was like.

Then there's the matter of the game itself. Dryden has argued in the past that this was one of the few times in sports history in which the winners learned from the losers. The Soviets played the game of hockey in an entirely different way - more east-west than north-south. That style worked just as well as Canada's approach. Some people in North America took notice - slowly, to be sure. But the series turned out to be a revolutionary moment in hockey's development, and not simply an evolutionary moment. As Dryden points out, Wayne Gretzky played like a Soviet player when he arrived in the NHL in 1979 and became the greatest scorer of all time. Alexander Ovechkin of Russia came along 30+ years after the series and became a superstar playing like a Canadian. The lines have blurred. 

You'd probably call this volume a "coffee table book" if it were a bit bigger. The photos are plentiful and unusual. However, the problem is that there isn't a great deal of text to go along with it. It can be read in a morning, which seems like it is too quick for a $24.95 purchase. Dryden always has something to say, but this left me wishing for more from him.

Even so, "The Series" captures the feelings involved in one of the great moments in hockey history. It will even help those on the other side of the border from Canada understand what the fuss was all about then, and what it's about 50 years later.

Four stars

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Sunday, September 25, 2022

Review: The Grandest Stage (2022)

By Tyler Kepner

The subtitle of "The Grandest Stage" is "A History of the World Series." That sounds rather deep and ponderous. You can almost imagine paragraphs that begin with "Then in 1922 ..." It's not easy to write about long-forgotten events in an interesting way ... and sometimes the reader never gives the author a chance to be judged.

Don't worry about that here. You are in good hands with Tyler Kepner. He's been with the New York Times for more than 20 years, and has been the national baseball writer since 2010. By all accounts, he's smart, thorough, knowledgeable and entertaining. He showed that in his first book, "K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches." That publication shed a lot of light on a subject that in an under-discussed (at least in the public) part of the game.

Kepner made the decision early on to break this into seven chapters, but the seven possible games of the World Series. (It was actually a best-of-nine at a couple of points in history, but we're sort of used to seven at this point.) You get the idea of where he's going with the subtitles of each chapter. Handling the pressure. The sidebar stories to great moments. Unlikely heroes. Managing. Building a winner. The other side of glory. The ultimate World Series lists.

Let's take the first chapter about World Series pressure. Kepner devotes sections of the chapter to some people who had to deal with such issues, with mixed results. You know about Reggie Jackson and the nickname "Mr. October." Jim Palmer had to face that pressure at the beginning (1966) and the end (1983) of his career. Mike Schmidt had some problems at World Series time, struggling at the plate when he was needed the most. David Freeze made his reputation in the Series; David Price rebuilt his storyline at the same time of the year. And it goes down various other paths from there. 

How about some overlooked facts about a particular series in Chapter Two? Kepner has nine of them, and here are the first few: The Reds were the better team in 1919; Charlie Root never got over Babe Ruth's called shot in 1934; Clem Labine blanked the Yankees right after Don Larson's perfect game in 1956; Bill Mazeroski's homer in Game Seven in 1960 wasn't the biggest hit in that game; Rick Wise was the winning pitcher of Game Six in 1975.

Kepner sought out some of the people involved to review those moments. They provide a sense of perspective about the events from the past. The author also goes back and reviews what was said at the time about those crucial moments. That's obviously the correct combination in such cases. You'll hear some stories you don't know, and you'll gain some perspective on some events you do know. 

Maybe this won't be completely entertaining to those who don't follow baseball too closely. Then again, they aren't likely to be interested in it anyway. "The Grandest Stage" serves its natural audience well, and it's a worthwhile read for those with an interest in baseball history. 

Four stars

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

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Monday, September 19, 2022

Review: Boston Red Sox (2022)

By Sean McAdam

Sometimes I think I've been reading a little too much lately - at least on a particular subject. I can blame retirement, at least in part, of course, although there's probably something else at work.

Case in point: "Boston Red Sox," by Sean McAdam. It seems like the first in a series of books about sports teams, based on "The Franchise" going on the cover in good-sized letters. The subtitle is more interesting: "A Curated History of the Sox."

The use of curated jumped out at me. It means "selected, organized, and presented using professional or expert knowledge." McAdam certainly qualifies. I've been reading his material for years, and he's been a fine reporter about all things Boston Red Sox for many years. McAdam used to write for the Providence Journal; now he's with BostonSportsJournal.com.

It's a history of the team in a sense, but it is presented in an unusual manner. The book is not particularly interested in a complete history. It simply gives some broad categories - History, The Media, The Rivalry, the Icons, The Aces, Just Missed, The Golden Age, and Transformative Figures - and then has a few essays for each category. If you've been paying attention to Boston's baseball history, you can guess how it might work. Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski aand David Ortiz re considered Icons, Just Missed covers the 1967, 1978 and 1986 seasons, The Aces are Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez. Each championship season in this century gets a chapter too.

If you getting the idea that there's not a heck of a lot of information about life before, say, 1960, you'd be right. The creation of the team and its early champions and stars are pretty much ignored. I'm OK with that, since there are plenty of other sources for such material. But the point that this is selective and comprehensive history. 

The story of the championship seasons and the near-misses probably can be recited by rote by many of those in Sox Nation. The accounts are in here, and it's easy to wonder if a fresh audience can be found there. I'd also guess that  the story of the Icons and the Aces are familiar to most. 

That essentially leaves only a couple of the eight sections that feel quite fresh. Three media members receive profiles: Ned Martin, Peter Gammons and Jerry Remy. The Transformative Figures are Dick O'Connell, Theo Epstein and Terry Francona. There are no complaints with any of those names and their inclusion here, and McAdam does a good job of explaining who they are and why they matter in the story of the Red Sox. 

This checks in at under 300 pages, and the stories flow quite well. We're obviously in skilled hands here - a good curator of the information, if you will.

"Boston Red Sox," then serves its intended purpose nicely; it gives an overview of the franchise's history with an emphasis on recent times. It might not be filled with new information about the team's background, but don't blame the author for that. Blame your own reading habits. 

Four stars

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

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Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Review: Majesty and Mayhem (2022)

By Tom Danyluk

One of the best parts of reviewing books is that sometimes you receive a nice surprise after opening the book.

That's what happened with Tom Danyluk's book, "Majesty and Mayhem."

It's never easy to predict what you might be picking up when a self-published book arrives in your lap. Sometimes it's a "this one's for the kids" project; sometimes it's a serious effort. It was particularly difficult in this case, because there was no biographical facts about Danyluk included in the volume. 

There were a few clues about his background in the book - including some articles that were reprinted from Pro Football Weekly - but that was about it. An on-line check showed that he's a sales manager for a steel company out of Chicago, but managed to make some money on the side writing about pro football. Good for him. 

It was a little difficult to guess where Danyluk was going, basic on the rather non-descriptive title. But his goal comes across rather quickly. He has written a look back at several aspects of the NFL in the 1980s, with the additional knowledge that only time can provide. There's little rhyme or reason about the subject matter in a sense. It's just one good story after another.

Want some examples? Sure. The freezing Bengals-Chargers playoff game of 1982. The Frig. The after-effects of "The Play" in Cleveland. The Fog Bowl in Chicago. Dan Marino's great but unfinished career. What was wrong with Herschel Walker. What was right with Troy Aikman. The strange case of Chuck Muncie. The rebirth of John Riggins. The Eighties' top draft picks and top championship teams. 

There are 45 chapters here, so that list merely touches on some highlights. I found them all to be worth reading, and that's rather rare in anthologies. 

Danyluk sent me a copy of this for review, and he also included a book on how the AFL and NFL champs might have matched up in mythical games from 1960 to 1966. I'm always backed up on books, it seems, but it sure sounds like he might have had a lot of fun with it. I'll get to it someday.

There usually is a ceiling for self-published books. That is a limiting factor. There are a few more typos than in the professional published efforts. The size can be awkward for reading. Some of the photos don't have any purpose except to add a little variety.

It's not a big deal. If you read "Majesty and Mayhem," you expect to learn something. That goal is reached nicely here. Those of a certain age - 50 and up? - in particular certainly will enjoy this.

Four stars

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