Monday, February 27, 2023

Review: Game of Edges (2023)

By Bruce Schoenfeld

Perhaps the biggest overall story about professional sports these days might be the most underreported story as well. 

Not surprisingly, it's about money. It's almost always about money in this business.

While we haven't been paying attention very often, the value of franchises in the last 20 years has skyrocketed. Think of it this way. The Buffalo Sabres were sold for $189 million in 2011. According to estimates now, the team is worth $610 million. That's a mighty nice appreciation in 11 years. Not that it's for a team that has not played in the postseason since 2011, and plays in one of the smallest markets in the NHL. In some financial areas, an operation with that sort of record for success might have to relocate or go bankrupt. They don't triple in value. The Sabres did. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Bills have been on the upswing during those years as well. Their value went from $1.4 billion in 2015 to $3.4 billion in 2022.

Indeed, an NFL executive recently said that the biggest change in the business of football in the past decade or so is the wealth of the owners. They weren't a particularly poor group  in 2010 of course. But they have gotten much wealthier since then - almost unimaginably rich. And it's a different type of "rich guy" that is buying the team for the most part. It's not someone who wants to spend the second half of his life rooting for "my team." It's someone that wants to run the team like his other business or businesses - with tons of smarts and cutting-edge decision-making. That means, naturally, that teams are trying to win on the field and off it, with the currency changing from victories to dollar signs.

That's the landscape we're looking at these days, and it can be applied all over the world - mostly in the form of soccer franchises. "The Game of Edges" is designed to be something of a primer on what this all looks like at the moment, and what might turn up down the road. 

Author Bruce Schoenfeld is a good choice for the job of looking around at sports business. He has written several for the New York Times on this subject, and done some additional work to adapt them for this book. It's somewhat episodic, but that's a good way to introduce a typical fan.

The chapters, then, become launching points for discussions on a variety of business. There's the story of John Henry, majority owner of the Boston Red Sox, who became owner of the Liverpool soccer team in England - not because he liked soccer, because he didn't. Liverpool represented an undervalued asset with a great deal of possibilities for growth. Sold.

You'd expect analytics to come up here, and they do. In hindsight, some of the decisions involving teams and their players seem almost quaint, as they sometimes relied on unquantified intangibles and personal feelings. That's not happening now. A lot of smart people are working very hard to find that statistical edge that can lead to wins and championship. But everyone is still dealing with human beings, and sometimes that can prove troublesome. A particular managerial action might be the proper moment if the percentages are to be believed - but they only represent chance. Sometimes the dice come up incorrectly in the biggest moment, which no doubt leads to a lot of indigestion.

And all of that research may have its costs. In baseball, the analysts know what works in the current system - strikeouts and home runs. But the game itself has suffered. Baseball has taken a few major steps toward adapting its product to make it more entertaining, which is the correct course. Leagues have to learn to be nimble enough to change direction when necessary. In other words, adapt or die.

The top English soccer league has become something of a test tube in one sense. It doesn't have any salary cap or luxury tax, unlike the North American leagues. The rich teams have gotten richer lately, especially considering how international the best teams are followed now. The wealthy squads tend to avoid long-term dips, which in recent years has upset the general balance of the league. 

All of these conversations come with an important catch: rooting is not a particularly rational action. In the case of the big soccer teams, they looked into the possibility of creating a Super League of the best squads in Europe. The fans rebelled quickly and loudly, to the point where the idea had to be dropped. It takes quite a sales job to convince people to spend a high proportion of their savings on something like sports tickets that won't make their day-to-day life better. Loyalty is high but not absolute, and the care and feeding of those fans is an important issue.

Schoenfeld goes into some other interesting areas as well. The sports leagues certainly have embraced gambling once it was legalized through a Supreme Court decision a few years ago. Some of the owners have been faster than others when it comes to embracing the concept, but it sure feels like it's here to stay. I'm not as convinced that the system is scandal-proof, and it's going to raise cynicism levels to higher levels. But there's little turning back now.

Teams also are becoming more open to the idea of allowing their players to express their opinions on non-sports issues, such as social matters. Atlanta's WNBA team members received a great deal of publicity when they went public on the statements of their own owner, who eventually sold the franchise. The Jazz' ownership in Utah has been quick to embraces certain stances which would seem to be a contrast to the usual "fans of all types watch basketball, so let's not annoy them " theory. Jazz owner Ryan Smith sent $4 million on safe haven homes for LGBTQ kids. That might not be a popular idea in conservative Utah, but he thinks it's the right thing to do ... and he no doubt knows that he might win friends and fans throughout the rest of the world.

You probably have gotten the idea that there's a lot to chew on here. The good news is that most of it is quite readable, and it's not that long of a book. Admittedly, some soccer analytics may not be of particular interest to a typical American fan. But for the most part, Schoenfeld's real-life examples illustrates larger points quite nicely.

"Game of Edges" shows that the revolution is here. It will force its readers to pay closer attention to what's going on in pro sports, mostly but not exclusively off the playing field. And, inevitably, it might convince fans to look at their own favorite teams and ask, "Are we keeping up?" There are many ways to be a fan, and this won't be for every taste - but those who dive in will be rewarded.

Five stars

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

Be notified of new posts via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Friday, February 17, 2023

Review: Baseball at the Abyss (2023)

By Dan Taylor

Let's go back in time almost a century, to the baseball offseason of 1926-27. It was almost a bad news/good news time when it came to the health of the sport. 

The bad news was that two of the greatest players in baseball, Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, had become involved in something of a gambling scandal. This was not exactly welcome, since baseball still was recovering from the stain of the fixed World Series of 1919 featuring the Chicago "Black Sox." On the other hand, Babe Ruth was enjoying his full rebound from a mediocre 1925 season, as he put up his usual astronomical numbers in 1926 for the New York Yankees. He was the game's biggest star.

That's the setting for "Baseball at the Abyss," Dan Taylor's book on a somewhat peculiar time in the sport's history - the fall of 1926 to the fall of 1927.

The premise of the book is that major league baseball was poised to take another body shot to its reputation. Luckily, the gambling situation was overshadowed by the exploits of Ruth, who would go on to have one of his greatest seasons and who would lead his Yankees to one of the most dominating years in history. 

The Cobb/Speaker situation probably is the most interesting one, even though it probably ranks as something of a subplot here. The story is relatively unknown. The pair had gotten together with Dutch Leonard and Joe Wood to wager money on a 1919 series in the regular series. The four men later wrote letters to each other about the circumstances of the bet after the fact. The letters proved handy after Leonard thought he received a raw deal from player/manager Cobb with the Detroit Tigers several years later. Leonard handed the letters to the baseball authorities, and Judge Kenesaw Landis, the commissioner, launched an investigation. 

It's interesting to note that Landis, who became famous for cleaning up after the Black Sox scandal, opted to do very little this time around. Cobb and Speaker left their respective teams (Detroit and Cleveland), and finished out their careers in new locations.

Meanwhile, Ruth was watching all of this from Los Angeles - or more to the point, Hollywood. He was the star of a movie in production. It was one of the business ideas from Christy Walsh, who had become Ruth's manager. The Bambino had all sorts of business opportunities come his way during the 1920s, and needed help sorting out the legitimate ones. Walsh did that - the first pro athlete to go that route. The manager also had another idea - offseason training. Considering Ruth was past the age of 30 and was a man of many large appetites, this was a good idea. 

Ruth and the '27 Yankees had a record-setting year. Ruth hit 60 home runs to break his own standard for a single season, and the team - with a lineup nicknamed "Murderers' Row" - swept through the American League and the World Series like Sherman went through Georgia. Ruth's chase received plenty of publicity along the way, in part because another slugger in the Yankees' lineup, Lou Gehrig, kept up with Ruth in homers for much of the season. The race captured the public's attention.

That's the setting. But does it turn into a worthwhile book? That's a more difficult judgment. Author Dan Taylor certainly put in the hours to go through reference material, particularly newspapers from those days. His writing is fine. But there are a couple of good-sized problems here.

First, it's a short book by any standard. It checks in at less than 180 pages of text (lots of footnotes), which isn't much for something that costs $36. Some of those pages are devoted to Ruth's movie-making time, which really has little to do with baseball's rebounding from the Cobb/Speaker scandal. (The movie, by the way, didn't do too well, in part because of sound issues.) And it's not easy to make Ruth's bid for 60 homers be too interesting almost a century later, as the outcome is so well known.

Second, outside perspective on this story is missing. It's most obvious during the portions on the gambling scandal, where experts are needed to put matters into context. Should the players have been banned from baseball on the spot? Would the outcome been different if the letters had become public earlier in the 1920s? Would lesser players have been treated differently? Was Cobb's vigorous public defense of his actions justified, and did it make him look less than honest from today's viewpoint?

But the lack of perspective also applies to coverage of the Yankee team, which was considered the best team of all time through the 1960s at least. Certainly others weighed in on Ruth and the rest of the team over the years in hindsight - including the principals themselves - but there's none of that here. It would have filled out the book and given it more scope.

Taylor weighs in with the concept that the Yankee team was about the only reason fans went to the ballpark in 1927, because Ruth and Company were such attractions. I'd argue that such a noncompetitive pennant race meant the Yankees were one of the few compelling stories out there in '27, as there wasn't an important game played all year. A balanced league might have led to a pennant race with two or more teams in which the suspense built up during the course of 154 games, which would have led to bigger crowds in other cities. 

Therefore, "Baseball at the Abyss" probably doesn't work as well as it could have. Those interested in that part of baseball history will find it reasonably entertaining, but it's more of a missed opportunity.

Two stars

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

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Review: Coach K (2022)

By Ian O'Connor

In the spring of 2022, it was relatively easy to be tired of Mike Krzyzewski. 

The longtime Duke basketball coach had announced in the summer of 2021 that he would be guiding the Blue Devils for one more season - to make it 42 years, if you're counting - and then step out of the spotlight.

It had been quite a ride. After a bit of slow start (taking over a college basketball program usually requires some time), Duke qualified for the NCAA tournament in 1984. From there, the Blue Devils probably were the number one program in the nation - perhaps not in the argument as a title contender every year, but usually a threat to be in that classification. How about five national championships and 13 Final Fours? Along the way, Coach K won more 1,000 games to set the record for most coaching wins in NCAA Division I. 

Naturally, any "one last season" of such a personality will quickly turn into a celebration. Krzyzewski made the party last quite a while, as he led the Blue Devils to one last Final Four before exiting. Along the way, every major media outlet in the country seemed to do a long story about Coach K. So by the end of the 2021-22 season, there was a little burnout for everyone - no doubt including the Coach himself. 

After all that, it was difficult to grasp the idea of reading a full-fledged biography of Krzyzewski, and that made it easy to wait a little while picking it up. But now in 2023, "Coach K" by Ian O'Connor can be read and enjoyed by all.

It's not particularly easy to turn a biography of a basketball coach into a compelling story. The games and the players involved are familiar to many of the readers, so the story can feel a bit like old news. O'Connor, who has written for a variety of outlets, solves that issue nicely. He throws details at the reader. And then more details. The author talked to about 200 people, and went through a ton of source material as well. It's difficult to believe he missed much, and it is delivered in a very readable way.

Coach K's basic story is familiar to most basketball fans. He grew up in Chicago, a spunky point guard who was good enough to earn a basketball scholarship to West Point. There he encountered a brilliant coach named Bobby Knight, and the two enjoyed an up and down relationship over the years that is something of a subplot to the book. Coach K eventually finished his Army commitment playing and coaching basketball for the most part - tough duty, I know - and then was a surprise choice to coach the Army team at West Point. 

Krzyzewski spent five years at West Point, and then Duke called. Some coaches might not have survived a third year that featured an 11-17 season, but this one received a new contract ... and went about the business of proving that he deserved it. The top seasons and games are thoroughly reviewed; the 1992 NCAA Regional Final against Kentucky - maybe the best college game ever played - goes nicely under the microscope here. Along the way, Coach K also tried his luck at coaching the American Olympic basketball team ... and led it to three straight gold medals. 

There's a great story here about all of the success, and it starts with Mike's mother, Emily. "Why is it you?" she asked her son. "How are you the coach of the national championship team?" As Mike said in explanation, for her "there was always a limit on your dreams."

Krzyzewski changed the argument about the greatest college basketball coach of all time. John Wooden had wrapped up that title, or so it seemed, by winning 10 NCAA crowns in 12 years. But that was a different era, with different rules. Coach K's record 13 Final Four trips might be even more impressive, considering the current environment with more competition and balance.

About the only criticism I've seen of the book is that the information contained in the covers mostly has been discussed along the way. I supposed that might be true for someone who has followed Coach K's career closely - rooting either for him or against him - for more than 40 years. For the rest of us, though, "Coach K" the book will provide context and perspective on the life of one of the best coaches ever.

Five stars

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

Be notified of new posts on this page via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Review: A Damn Near Perfect Game (2023)

By Joe Kelly with Rob Bradford

There probably is a good book floating around in Joe Kelly's head. "A Damn Near Perfect Game" isn't it.

The hard-throwing right-hander has had an unusual career in baseball. He arrived in the majors with an overpowering fastball and an excellent breaking ball. The St. Louis Cardinals put him in the starting rotation, only to discover that sometimes he didn't know exactly where the ball was going. The Cardinals traded him to the Boston Red Sox, who noticed the same issue and decided to try Kelly in the bullpen. That was a better idea. He turned out to be a key member of the bullpen for the 2018 World Champions. Kelly left as a free agent after that season and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he helped them win another title in 2020. It was on to the bullpen of the Chicago White Sox in 2022, where he had a poor season in his return to the American League.

Along the way, Kelly has shown himself to be a good-sized character. He has plenty of emotions in that head, and they rarely are far from from the surface. When they come out, they are unfiltered ... which might be why he might be best-known by some for literally battling with opponents. 

That should add up to be a good mix in terms of a book. Instead, this feels like a bunch of material stuffed into a bag in the hopes that something good will come out of it. The description is of a book that supposed to show why baseball is hardly boring and should be more popular than it is, particularly with the kiddies. There's some of that here, but it's scattered around the publication.

Kelly opens with an incident in a 2020 game between the Dodgers and Houston Astros in Los Angeles. You might remember that in 2017, the Astros beat the Dodgers in the World Series ... and then were discovered to be stealing signs in something of a big scandal. Let's just say the Dodgers hadn't forgotten that matter, and emotions were at a boil almost three years later. That includes Kelly, who was in the Boston bullpen in 2017. Kelly struck out Carlos Correa of Houston, and during some trash talk by both sides Kelly unveiling his pouty face as if to say "poor baby" to Correa. The benches cleared but little happened - except Kelly's expression became a bit famous through various outlets. 

From that point we're off on a journey that goes through a lot of different places - the baseball life on the field, in the clubhouse, in the bullpen. There are even some stories about his early days in baseball, time that certainly influenced by the alcoholism of his father. Kelly comes back to the matter of baseball's status along the way.

There is a surprise buried in all of that. Kelly had at first been angry with Commissioner Rob Manfred about a suspension, but Manfred visited the Dodgers clubhouse in training camp for some frank, friendly conversations - and Kelly discovered he actually liked the guy. The two men even got together after that to talk about baseball, and it is a very interesting chat - particularly on Manfred's side. 

After that comes something unexpected. The book checks in at about 230 pages, and at Page 163 we have a series of essays/statements from a variety of people from all sorts of professions addressing on their affection for the game. That lasts 64 pages, which is a lot. Since the stories begin to sound alike after a while, this becomes a matter of "we get the point" pretty quickly. Do the math, and we're only getting 167 pages out of Kelly - which is on the thin side.

The book provides some original stories (told in raw language) about life in the big leagues, and that's fine. But there's not a great deal of context to go with it, and there is some duplication. It's surprising that relatively little about those two championship seasons went into this. 

Kelly's inconsistency as a pitcher always has been a little maddening; there are great tools in play but the strike zone sometimes is tough to find. Such is the case with "A Damn Near Perfect Game," which for the most part is high and outside. 

Two stars

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

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Review: The Cap (2020)

By Joshua Mendelsohn

It might be the most important day in American sports history that no one notices, let alone celebrates.

The day is October 8, 1982. The National Basketball Association and its Players Association hadn't been able to come to any sort of agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement. The owners were claiming that they were under great financial hardship, while the players thought that some of those wounds were self-inflected - meaning that they shouldn't bear the burden of solving those problems alone.

The players previously had rejected a revolutionary concept that ownership had brought up earlier in the negotiations. The concept was to limit player expenses to a particular percentage of league revenues - in other words, a "cap." The players association had rejected the idea out of hand. But now, Players Association president Larry Fleisher told the ownership committee, including future NBA Commissioner David Stern, that he was open to discussing the concept. 

The idea had come up during negotiations involving the National Football League that fall. But the players' concept was closer to a pay scale bordering on what might be called socialism, with fewer incentives for individual achievement. The NFLPA struck early in the '82 season, but the job action soon fell apart.

Fleisher saw something that few others did at that moment. The NBA had good-sized problems at that point, as many teams were losing money and there was talk of franchises folding. If the players could make some small compromises, they could officially latch on to a guaranteed percentage of revenues when/if the league started growing. With cable television promising to give all of pro sports a major boost in the future, that wasn't a bad idea.  It was time to explore the idea. 

Naturally, revolutions don't take place quickly, especially in labor negotiations. The right number - something around 53 percent - had to be determined. Fleisher was quick enough to figure out that some players were in special situations, and that any salary cap needed to accommodate them. What should be done about the salaries of superstar rookies like Ralph Sampson? How would the retirement of "expensive" veterans like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar do to the cap? Should teams have a way to give economic incentives to players such as Larry Bird in order to improve their chances of re-signing them? Those were the correct questions at the time, and no one was too sure about the answers. 

It took considerable negotiating before everything came together. Finally, in April of the following year, the Players Association and the league was close enough to a deal where the players called off their strike threat. Once that was all figured out, other leagues followed the NBA's example. Each sport had its own slight differences; baseball is using a luxury tax rather than a firm cap to try to hold down player expenditures. But the outcomes have been more or less the same, at least eventually - player salaries are up, and franchise values are up as well. 

Mendelsohn is a good choice for someone to guide us through this process. He has been involved in labor law for some time, and has worked on sports and entertainment cases. Mendelsohn takes his time covering the whole story, going back to the early days of a players' association through the eventual breakthrough settlement. Luckily, there are plenty of good stories and personalities to cover along the way.

The book probably is more concerned with the players' side of the history of the issue. Mendelsohn has some admiration for how Fleisher operated, keeping the players united during some difficult struggles. But there don't seem to be many villains here either, although Cleveland Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien doesn't come off too well at all (nor should he). Stern was smart enough to lead his side into uncharted waters. One surprise is that NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien is shown to be quite involved in the process, even if he isn't a part of the main negotiating team. I've read other accounts that show O'Brien to be relatively disengaged during much of his time as the NBA's boss, and this also gives him credit for settling the famous Oscar Robertson lawsuit in 1976 that cleared a major roadblock that was in the league's way toward eventual prosperity. 

I'm not about to tell you that "The Cap" qualifies as beach reading. Mendelsohn does a good job of explaining what was going on in a given period of time in clear language. There is some repetition along the way, and maybe we could have lost 20 or so pages of text that were devoted to lengthy statements. But I'm never going to argue with someone who wants to tell the full story. Those who are seeding answers to the question "How did we get here?" when it comes to the sports business should find this to be an important book in that quest. 

Four stars

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

Be notified of new posts on this site via Twitter @WDX2BB.