Monday, February 19, 2024

Review: Draft Day (2023)

By Doug MacLean with Scott Morrison

It's an age-old question. How do you build a winning team in professional sports?

Ever since the free-for-all days of signing players on your own ended at various stages (it depends on the sport, but mostly it was in the 1950s or 1960s), the draft has been the key component. That's where the biggest talent influx arrives each year. If those selections work out, one way or another, a team can add to its base of good players and start moving up the ladder in wins. In hockey, for example, teams that win Stanley Cups often have about 10 of their own draft choices on their rosters. 

Some of the other picks contribute in different ways, as they are sometimes traded elsewhere to strengthen a particular spot in the lineup. If a team has some depth at defense but not much talent at center, a swap concept begins to form with a team with the opposite problem.

When watching the draft, there's always a scent that much more is going on than we know about it. Happily, veteran hockey executive Doug MacLean takes us through his career in the behind-the-scenes book, "Draft Day." 

MacLean has had a variety of hockey jobs over the years. He's best known for his work as coach of the Florida Panthers and as the president and general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets. MacLean always has come across as a smart, interesting person. Here he pulls back the curtain on what goes into the draft, which is the subject of a year's worth of work that comes down to only a couple of days of selections in the summer. No pressure, eh? There's a little wandering in the story that makes this read like an autobiography for a while, but it's not a big problem.

It's striking from the start just how close-knit the hockey family is. MacLean came out of Prince Edward Island in Canada. He played hockey there, but wasn't good enough to get a whiff of the NHL. However, he decided to work his way up the coaching ladder rather than taking what could be called "a real job." You get to meet a lot of people in the game that way, and the circles often intersect along the way. It's something of a fraternity, and friends are made for life. Those friends often turn out to be crucial in advancement. 

A book like this needs to have good stories to make it work, and MacLean comes through nicely in that department during the nearly 300 pages. One of the highlights is how MacLean as the general manager at Columbus managed to trade up to acquire the first overall pick. There he scooped up Rick Nash, who proved to be a top goal-scorer in the NHL. 

There's a skill to that, of course, but luck plays a hand in a team's fate as well. MacLean points out several cases where the lottery was particularly unkind to the Blue Jackets when he was there. A different ping-pong ball, or whatever is used in the lottery, would have made a big difference in the fortunes of the Columbus team. But when there are four particularly great prospects in a draft and you have the fifth pick, things aren't going to go well. 

MacLean devotes a chapter to what he calls "the curious case of Nikolai Zherdev." He was a top prospect in terms of talent from Russia, but there were a few character issues floating around that were tough to decipher. MacLean and Co. put plenty of effort into due diligence when it came to finding out what the full story was. Eventually the choice came down to Zherdev or Thomas Vanek. It turned out that personal issues never allowed Zherdev to realize his talent. By the way, the Buffalo Sabres "settled" for Vanek, who turned out to be a solid pro. GM Darcy Regier told MacLean at the time that the Sabres would have taken Zherdev had they had the chance.      

Speaking of the Sabres, there are a couple of little items in this book that are of interest. In 2015, MacLean tried to console Buffalo general manager Tim Murray for losing the lottery by saying that even if he couldn't get Connor McDavid, he'd at least get someone good. The reply was, "Doug, it's not even close." And back in 1991, the New York Islanders were shopping talented center Pat LaFontaine in a contract dispute. They talked to the Detroit Red Wings, and MacLean worked for the Wings at that point. He writes that the Red Wings were ready to deal Steve Yzerman to the Islanders in a package for LaFontaine. The deal eventually fell through, and LaFontaine ended up in Buffalo. If that original deal goes through with Detroit, hockey history goes in all sorts of different directions in the three cities involved.

This is all told in a down-to-earth style. Not only does MacLean comes across well, but he's in good hands in terms of assistance with Scott Morrison. The latter has been one of the most respected names in journalism for several years. 

The pages on "Draft Day" may not fly by for those who aren't good-sized hockey fans or for those looking for a more indepth look at the draft process, but those that qualify (in other words, the majority of potential readers) will find this more than satisfying. They should pick it up sooner rather than later. 

Four stars

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Thursday, February 8, 2024

Review: The Early Days of ESPN (2024)

By Peter Fox

The lives of sports fans changed drastically on September 7, 1979. That's when a new television network called ESPN signed on the air, with sportscaster Lee Leonard doing the honors. 

It hasn't signed off since that moment - with the exception of a few technical problems, no doubt - and since then it has lived up to its promise that it would show nothing but sports programming for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 (or 366) days a year.

While plenty has been written about those early days of the network's programming, ESPN didn't simply appear out of the ether one day. Several months of planning went into the debut. In fact, the first broadcast by the network took place 10 months earlier in November of 1978. The opening game was an exhibition basketball matchup between the University of Connecticut and Athletes in Action, a tourimg squad. 

Peter Fox was there at the beginning, as ESPN's founding executive producer. He's finally gotten around to putting some of his (and others') memories on those start-up days on paper, and the result is "The Early Days of ESPN."

The idea for the network came almost accidentally. Bill Rasmussen was interested in transmitting Connecticut basketball games around the state by satellite, and discovered that he couldn't just rent the time for a few hours a week. No, he had to agree to use it 24/7. A family member half-jokingly suggested to fill the time with other sports, and they plunged into it. 

After setting the scene a bit, Fox mostly relies on the memories of those who worked there in those early days. Some came from Hartford television, while others were from the immediate area of the Northeast. As you'd expect, the start-up was rather chaotic, with rented offices and potential clients (cable companies and advertisers) wondering how ESPN would fill all that time. Come to think of it, the employees wondered that too.

But eventually, it all came together. The big steps in personnel came when Chet Simmons and Scotty Connal - two big names in television production - were hired. Then the Getty Oil Company, which was sitting on piles of cash at the time, decided a television network would be more fun to own than drilling a dry hole in the ground.  

As you'd expect, the new employees mostly were young people who really didn't have much to lose professionally and loved sports. So there are stories of long hours, equipment breaking down, visits to local watering holes, office romances, more visits to local watering holes (hey, work hard, play hard), etc.

That all sounds like it has the elements of a reasonable book. However, the finished product has a couple of good-sized flaws attached.

For starters, this is part oral history and part personal narrative. The problem is that the material is not presented particularly well. It's rather disorganized, and sometimes it's tough to figure out where on the timeline of ESPN's story we might be at a given page. That's a good-sized drawback in a book like this. There are a few sections along the way that are simply tough to read for that reason. It's also a short book, checking in at under 200 pages with some filler along the way. Readers may not feel they will get their $29.95's worth of information from this.   

Fox comes off as a good and interesting guy, and he probably would be good company for lunch and diet colas. But "The Early Days of ESPN" comes across as something that might appeal to a very small piece of the audience. There are other books out there that might be more satisfying to someone looking for a quick overview of the start of the popular broadcasting outlet.

Two stars

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Monday, February 5, 2024

Review: The Bill James Handbook: Walk-Off Edition (2023)

By Sports Info Solutions

All good things must come to an end ... particularly in publishing, where the landscape seems to change by the hour. 

Such is the case for "The Bill James Handbook," which has concluded a nice run that has lasted for more than three decades. The story of the book's history needs a little explanation first.

Back around 1990, baseball statistics had started to blossom as a subject for study. Bill James, the patron saint of baseball analysis, had started the idea (more or less) with his Abstracts in the late 1970s. That led to an advancement of the subject, through the work of a small but devoted group of individuals who have pushed the research along. 

By 1990, there was a demand for information that just wasn't out there for most of the public. So James and his friends started a book that contained all of those numbers - and not just the ones that were in the Baseball Register by The Sporting News every year. Even better, the book was available by Christmas, which was a good holiday gift for those who couldn't wait until the spring or so when the Register came out. The book not only had those numbers, but also some essays on the game. 

Fast forward to today, and all of those numbers are available almost instantly through other sources on the Internet. So it was easy to guess that the days of the Handbook had to be numbered, and here we are. But the people behind the publication decided to go out with a bang of sorts. So they came out with one last book filled mostly with essays, and called it the "Walk-Off Edition." 

I hadn't bought the book before, as I didn't have a great deal of need for the extra numbers in my life. But as a reader of James' abstracts, I found the concept of an anthology with contributions by and about James to be tough to resist. Sold. 

Sure enough, there are a bunch of articles here, and James has five bylines and is the subject of a question-and-answer story. My favorite story of the bunch was one by James, in which he talks about how the changes in the way baseball is played these days (more relief pitchers, emphasis on home runs by hitters and strikeouts for pitchers, etc.). One of the unexpected aspects of those changes is that statistical standards have been more or less broken. That means the 300-game winner has become extinct, and that a certain type of player who doesn't hit for power has been left behind. There aren't many guys like Wade Boggs out there any more, and perhaps that hasn't helped the game's popularity with the public. Food for thought, at the very least. 

The people behind this book have done a lot of work on fielding statistics over the years, and have picked the year's best again. Fielding probably gets more coverage here than anything else. It's obviously well-researched material, written by smart people.

There's a catch here, though, and it's worth noting. This is a rather short book, and technical in spots. So it's not going to take long to read this, particular if you find yourself skimming over some stories because they are a little hard to follow. 

Is "The Bill James Handbook: Walk-Off Edition" worth $24.95 to you? Each reader will have to make that determination. If baseball is one of the biggest parts of your life, then you might enjoy this. Less rabid readers who prefer information on current teams and seasons might be willing to waiting for the Baseball Prospectus annual, which is always a favorite in this space.

Three stars

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