Sunday, March 26, 2023

Review: Feherty (2023)

By John Feinstein

You might remember John Feinstein's last book. It was "Raise a Fist, Take a Knee" - a quite serious look at what he called the lack of racial progress in America in racial matters It was very well done, thanks in part to some candid interviews along the way. Naturally, Feinstein receives some of the credit for that, since he was asking the right questions to the right people.

That might have been a little draining, so Feinstein can't be criticized for moving on to a subject with a few more laughs. And who is more qualified to do that than David Feherty, at least in golf circles? He's built up a reputation as the funniest man to be connected with golf over the last few decades.

Feinstein, who has written a number of good golf books over the years, dives right in with this biography of Feherty. The catch is that while there is plenty of parts concerning fun here, it's the serious stuff that is likely to stay with you for a long time.

Feherty is about as far from a country-club kid from the suburbs as you can get. He grew up in Northern Ireland, just as the Troubles were beginning. David stayed out of trouble for the most part, but he had an other issue as well - ADD. He was clearly a bright kid but had trouble concentrating in school, which is a recipe for problems. So the young man dropped out. Feherty did have two areas in which kept his interest: music and golf. Eventually, golf was the one which won over his attention, although he can still belt out a tune with gusto when prompted.

Feherty wasn't a true natural on the course. But he was willing to work hard, and made the professional tour. In Europe, Feherty wasn't a top star - but he was good enough to play for Europe in the 1991 Ryder Cup, and he made some money. Then he crossed the pond for personal reasons, and had some success in America.

Some injuries probably brought his career to a slightly premature ending, but everyone had noticed that Feherty was funny. Stand-up comic funny. That caught the attention of the television networks, who after a short test figured out David could add a lot to a broadcast. He's been at it for about a quarter-century now. Feherty found something of a niche on television, someone who knew the game but was was willing to not take everything too seriously. Some think he's the John Madden of golf announcing, both likeable characters, but Feherty is beloved by a smaller audience.

There's no "happily ever after" ending here. The story goes on, in some ways, thanks to some demons. He suffers from depression and alcoholism. Feherty has done recreational drugs, and gone through some personal tragedies. He describes his first marriage as a train wreck, and the second one probably will be a ticket to sainthood for his patient and loving wife. Feherty takes something like 13 pills a day to keep in good enough shape to function. It sounds like every day is a battle for him, but he's dancing as fast as he can.

These days, Feherty has turned up on the broadcasts of the somewhat LIV golf tour. He admitted that like the players on the tour, he took the job for the relatively ridiculously amount of money he was offered to jump. So far the LIV has been something of a well-paid ticket to obscurity for those involved, but that's a story that remains to be told.

Feherty gave Feinstein permission to talk to just about everyone about his life, which showed a little guts under the circumstances. Not only did that include family members, but Bill Clinton even pops up for a recap of how he tried to help Feherty during difficult times. The same could be said about Tom Watson, who as Feinstein notes as a long way from Clinton politically. Maybe there's help for bipartisanship yet. You can tell that Feherty, even with his demons, has managed to keep most of his family and friends close to him because of his innate good humor. (The exception might be his first wife.)

"Feherty" feels a little on the light side, as a few asides and a little duplication fill out the pages. Even so, it continues Feinstein's long winning streak of successful and interesting books. Many will find Feherty's story surprising and interesting, and will be rooting for him to complete a successful back nine in the remaining years of his life.

Four stars

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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Review: Freedom to Win (2023)

By Ethan Scheiner

When it comes to emotion and drama in international hockey games, the standard was set in 1972 in the Super Series between Canada and the Soviet Union. There is no lack of publications about that particular matchup. But not far behind are the two games that were played between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union in the world championships in Stockholm in 1969.

You have to consider the circumstances surrounding that game. In 1968, the relatively tiny nation of Czechoslovakia had tried to institute some government reforms. The effort was known as "The Prague Spring," when hopes had bloomed that life could be a little less repressive there. The Soviets came in later that year with troops and tanks to crush those hopes - firmly and emphatically. 

There was little the Czechs could do to show their anger at the situation under the circumstances. But the following year, the teams matched up in a fair fight of sorts on a hockey rink - twice. You can imagine the emotion that went into those games from the Czechoslovakian side. As the sign at the game said, "You send tanks, we bring goals."

Actually, you don't have to imagine it any more. The entire story is brought to life vividly in Ethan Scheiner's book, "Freedom to Win." And what a fabulous story it is. 

The author, a professor at the University of California - Davis, goes down a couple of tracks here. In one way, he goes small - focusing in on one particular family. The Holik name is familiar to hockey fans from the 1990s or so, as Bobby was a big part of the 1995 New Jersey Devils' championship team. He was the son of Jaroslav and the nephew of Jiri, They were the sons of Jaroslav Sr., who picked 1942 of all times to open a butcher shop in the Czech Republic. They all lived under Nazi domination during World War II, and celebrated their liberation at the end of the war. But the Soviets soon moved in to take control, and they even took control of the family butcher shop.

The sons grew up to be hockey players, and they also learned to hate the Soviets - particularly after learning the story about how the entire national team in 1950 was pulled out of the world tournament on short notice. Then after a bar fight, many of those players ended up in prison as the authorities made an example out of them. The Holik brothers eventually were good enough to become members of the national team, although Jaroslav in particular was a little feisty and always seemed to be on the edge of trouble. 

Along the way, Scheiner gives many details about what was going on in the rest of the country by using a larger brush. The stories give an excellent picture of life at the time.  Scheiner's description of the period when the Soviets moved in to Czechoslovakia in 1968 is heart-breaking to read, even now. The Holiks had their ups and downs over the years, but their feelings for the oppressors never changed. 

Finally in the 1980s, a few cracks in Soviet domination appeared. Players like the Stastnys started to defect, and in response the Czech authorities allowed some hockey players over 30 to play in the West. Eventually, Mikhail Gorbachev loosened control over the Iron Curtain countries, and Czechoslovakia became free through "The Velvet Revolution." Scheiner does a wonderful job of showing what that time was like on a big and small scale. 

Freedom was nice, but the job wasn't completed in a hockey sense until the hockey-crazed Czechs finally finished ahead of the Russians in a world tournament. They picked a great stage to do so - the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. We can assume those players still haven't bought a drink in their homeland in the ensuing 25 years. 

There are other details along the way, of course, and some concern the Buffalo Sabres. Remember Jiri Dudacek? He was the Sabres' first-round pick in 1981, as the team hoped he might be able to come to America some day. Scheiner coldly points out that the Sabres didn't do their homework. Dudacek was the son of a top official of the Communist Party, and he wasn't going anywhere. 

Then there's the case of Dominik Hasek, who provides a couple of interesting stories that I hadn't heard before. Hasek reveals that he got into an "altercation" with a teammate shortly before the Nagano Olympics, and dislocated his thumb. He needed a special cast and new adapted glove in order to play in Nagano, and he still was the difference for the Czechs in that stretch.  

There's also a fascinating story about Hasek's early days as a goalie in Czechoslovakia. He had started his career in his native Pardubice, but when he served in the military for two years he had to play for Dukla Jihlava. Pardubice suffered, and was in danger of relegation to a lower league as the end of the season approached. Hasek didn't want to be part of pushing his former team down the ladder, and worked out a deal to take that night off. But an administrator vetoed the idea, and Hasek took to the ice. He made a save and then took himself out of the game, claiming he had been injured. Then in the game's first intermission, he yelled out an obscenity and threw his Dukla jersey into a trash bin - earning an eight-game suspension. 

The reaction of Sabres' fans to the fake injury might be along the lines of "He had done it before!?" They remember the time in the 1997 playoffs when Hasek and Buffalo coach Ted Nolan weren't getting along. In a playoff game in Ottawa, Hasek left the game early due to what he claimed was an injury - starting a locally famous string of events that as bizarre as it was ugly.

Scheiner did a fine job of tracking down many people for this book, based on the bibliography, and went through a ton of sources as well. He really makes the time and place come alive. 

While hockey certainly is the center of the book, it's difficult to imagine anyone who won't be moved about reading of the struggles of the Czech people. This small country always has been in a difficult geographic spot, surrounded by bigger nations. It's been a heroic fight at times, and it's particularly relevant at a time when a war between the Ukraine and Russia continues to rage not far to the east of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

"Freedom to Win" succeeds brilliantly in personalizing the issues surrounding one particular family and its members' country. I don't expect to read a better book for some time. 

Five stars

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Friday, March 17, 2023

Review: The Lineup (2022)

By Paul Aron

Paul Aron has given himself quite a challenge, and it's revealed in the subtitle to "The Lineup."

It reads, "Ten Books That Changed Baseball." Fans of the game probably could come up with all sorts of lists about such books - including, naturally, best baseball books, best biographies, best autobiographies, or even most important baseball book - whatever that last category might mean.  But, ten books that changed baseball? Hmm. That's quite a chore. I'm not sure Aron is up to that task, although - in fairness - I'm not convinced that anyone would be able to fulfill this assignment to keep everyone happy. 

Aron probably is a logical person to try. He's a former book editor for Simon & Schuster, and worked on some sports books during his career. Aron has done his homework here thoroughly, and come up with a list of winners as well as more than 60 pages of those receiving "honorable mention" status. But it's a book designed to start friendly arguments. So let's see what we've got here for the nine chapters:

* "America's National Game" by A.G. Spaulding (1911) - This is a publication that gives an early version of baseball history. Aron makes that the point that in an era of immigration, baseball helps put everyone across the country on common ground with its universal pleasures. It might be a little stretch to credit the book for a lot of that.

* "You Know Me Al: A Busher's Letters" by Ring Lardner (1916): Some stories written by the talented Lardner from magazines were combined and put into a book. Lardner's work was extremely popular, and it did bring attention to the game at the time. 

* "Pitchin' Man" by Satchel Paige as told to Hal Lebovitz (1948): Paige had just signed with the Cleveland Indians when he came out with this book. It certainly gave people a chance to read some stories about Paige's life, which was a good introduction to those who were curious. 

* "The Natural" by Bernard Malamud (1952): Aron writes that this allowed baseball to become a subject for literary fiction. Did that cause the ground to shake around baseball? I'm still not convinced. Then again, I rarely read much fiction dealing with sports. I did like the movie though.

* "Ball Four" by Jim Bouton (1970): Now we're talking. Bouton opened up a whole new world to readers with his diary of his 1969 season, warts and all - making a ton of new fans along the way. This book needed to be on here. 

* "The Boys of Summer" by Roger Kahn (1972). This raised the bar for writing standards in sports books, as this could genuinely be called literature. Aron tries to tie this in with the decline of American cities in a particular era. To me this turned baseball nostalgia into something of an industry. Either way, it's an important, wonderful book.

* "The Bill James Baseball Abstract" by Bill James (1982): The revolution started here. James was the first to look at data seriously in an effort to find out truth in evaluation of the game, and you can draw a line from this to the analytics of today.  

* "Rotisserie League Baseball" by Glen Waggoner (1982): I'm not a big fan of fantasy sports, but I'm not going to be critical of a group that allowed people to enjoy baseball in a completely new way.  

* "Pete Rose: My Story" by Pete Rose and Roger Kahn (1989), and "My Prison Without Bars," by Pete Rose with Rick Hill (2004):  Aron has a theory that the actions and popularity of Pete Rose led to the actions and popularity of Donald Trump. I didn't read either book, but it sounded like the first book was something like "I didn't bet on baseball" and the second book was "OK, maybe I did, but ..." As boxing promoter Bob Arum once said, "I was lying then; I'm telling you the truth now." I didn't come close to buying the theory here. 

If I were asked to substitute some books here, I've got a few ideas. I hadn't heard of Henry Chadwick's "Beadles's Dime Base-Ball Player" (1860), which introduced some statistics into the sport and thus made comparisons possible. Christy Mathewson's "Pitching in a Pinch" showed that players with serious intellectual power (he was a college grad) could be thoughtful about the game, thus opening it up to something more than a lower-class diversion. "Veeck As In Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck" (1962), by Bill Veeck with Ed Linn, pulled back the curtain on what baseball was like on the front office, and was so hilarious that he created a generation of followers - which resulted in a sport that learned to embrace marketing. "The Glory of Their Times" (1966), by Lawrence S. Ritter, was an oral history that brought the early days of baseball back to life. "The Baseball Encyclopedia" (1969) was a thick volume that took baseball statistics very seriously, and thus influenced many in and out of the game. "Moneyball" (2003) by Michael Lewis was another look behind the curtain, and was quickly devoured by baseball people in and out of the game itself - and changed managerial standards.

This all goes by pretty quickly, and "The Lineup" can be consumed in a couple of days. You don't get much for your $29.95, even if it's targeted for a rather narrow niche. It's a book that probably could point you in a few new directions when it comes to some worthwhile if relatively old baseball books. But this needs to make its points convincingly in order to convince the reader that his or her own viewpoints should be reconsidered. The success of "The Lineup" in that area is decidedly mixed.

Three stars

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Monday, March 13, 2023

Review: In the Inner Sanctum (2022)

By Thomas Hauser

There probably isn't a better boxing writer out there than Thomas Hauser. 

He's been out there forever, it seems, writing about the Sweet Science. Much of Hauser's work has been summations of a year's worth of watching the sport, but he's also gone into other formats as well. Hauser obviously knows the game, and loves it. Maybe that's why he has maintained his enthusiasm for boxing for so long, even if the sport has done a bit of a fadeout in the last couple of decades in terms of public interest.

Boxing's decline has meant that it can be a little difficult to even find Hauser's books out there without a bit of looking. When the chance to read "In the Inner Sanctum" came along, I jumped at it - sort of like catching up with an old friend. 

The concept is an interesting one. Hauser has had the chance to hang out with boxers in the dressing room leading up to several big fights - more than 30 in fact - in the years between 1997 and 2019. There are familiar names here - George Foreman, Lennox Lewis, Roy Jones, Evander Holyfield, Antonio Tarver, Bernard Hopkins, Jermain Taylor, Ricky Hatton, Kelly Pavlik, Manny Pacquiao, Miguel Cotto, and Canelo Alvarez. 

Hauser has written essays about the experiences about what it's like to hang out with boxers in the hours leading up to the biggest moments of their lives. Now he's compiled an anthology of those relatively bite-sized stories that fit into one book. The information is good, the summations of the circumstances of each fight are well done, and the reader never gets bogged down in one particular chapter. 

But there are a few problems here, and they aren't completely the fault of the author. After reading three dozen of these essays, it seems that most boxers follow more or less the same routine. They arrive early, keep an eye on the undercard while waiting for showtime, warm up a bit, get taped up, talk to the referee, receive some last-minute instructions, and head for the ring.  Different personalities are involved, so some fighters are mostly quiet while others gab to relax. But there aren't many big secrets to be found. In addition, some fighters pop up as combatants more than once, which means their careers to that point are reviewed - so there's a little redundancy along the way.

But the bigger problem is with boxing itself. The names are familiar to those who still read the sports page, but I would guess there are fewer casual fans than there were 25 to 50 years ago. There are more titles for the taking than ever before, but the price has been fewer big matches. The heavyweight division hasn't featured much pizzazz over the past several years, and those are the guys who usually serve as lightning rods for attention for the entire sport. 

What's more, boxing has more or less disappeared from television. You can find bouts on pay-per-view at times, as the many powers that be in the sport seem to have traded exposure for dollars. That's not surprising, but you'd have to think it has done some damage to the sport's overall popularity. The relative lack of top-notch American fighters probably hasn't done boxing many favors either. 

Therefore, "In the Inner Sanctum" comes off as less than compelling at times. For those who know the personalities involved, this probably won't add much to the conversation. Meanwhile, it will be tough for the rest of us to care too much about the included fighters and their fights. Hauser gave it a good shot here, but he's done more interesting work in his other books. 

Three stars

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Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Review: Baseball Prospectus 2023

Edited by Ben Crasley, Robert O'Connell, and Ginny Searle

There have been baseball seasons without the Baseball Prospectus, of course. We're only in the 28th edition of the annual publication. But we certainly weren't as smart back then before BP as are now, and we probably didn't have as many laughs along the way.

Data and fun have been a good combination over the years for this book, and it's back as the thinking man's (or thinking woman's) preview to the baseball season. Having reviewed this publication for several of those years, it's rather tough to come up with observations. But let's try anyway.

There has been a revolution in baseball in terms of analytics during those 28 years, as experts have been coming up with new ways to rate and judge players and teams. If you aren't suffering from information overload yet, you probably either work in the industry or haven't been paying that much attention. There are a few new ways of looking at the stats this year, and they no doubt are well thought out and helpful. Just don't ask me to explain the changes. 

All of the data has become a bit of a problem in this book, which has a paragraph on just about everyone who figures to play a role during the course of the baseball season. Baseball Prospectus uses a bunch of numbers on its own, which take a bit of effort to learn. They are listed in a table that goes with each biography. I've tried to pick up the ones that seem relevant as I skim through the listings, leaving out some of the promising minor leaguers who probably won't be worth following for the time being (except on a favorite team).

If you taken the Prospectus' numbers, and add in the advanced figures that are now out there thanks to major league baseball, you have the possibility of overwhelming the reader. Some of the writers are a little guilty of that, which makes it slightly tough going at times. 

Speaking of the writers, they come from a good-sized tradition of coming up with odd analogies and funny lines. It's a good way to bring some levity to a subject that can be a little dry. This year the humor is somewhat hit or miss in terms of presentation. Some are good at it, some aren't.

While the individual comments are the meat and potatoes of the book, the team summaries always have been a favorite. The analysts do a fine job of breaking down the big picture on all 30 teams.

Maybe there have been better, more accessible editions of Baseball Prospectus in the past. But it's still more than worth your time if you are willing to wade into the waters. The book, as usual, figures to be pulled off the shelf quite frequently as the baseball season continues.

Four stars

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