Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Review of "The Extra 2%"

Only about a month to go until pitchers and catchers report - the four magic words that all baseball fans love to hear. Until then, baseball books are the next best thing and I picked up this one on the Tampa Bay Rays and how they went from laughing stock to serious contender.  Here is my review of "The Extra 2%"


Title/Author:
“The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First” by Jonah Keri

Tags:
Baseball, professional, business, Rays, audiobook

Publish date:
June 8, 2011

Length:
272 pages

Rating: 
3 of 5 stars (okay)

Review:
One of the best accomplishments a sports team can achieve is to jump from last place one season to first place the next.  In 2008, the Tampa Bay major league baseball club not only changed its name from Devil Rays to Rays, they jumped from fifth place to first in one of the toughest divisions in baseball, and then went on to capture the American League pennant. This book by Jonah Keri attempts to describe the strategies that the front office team of Stuart Sternberg, Matt Silverman and Andrew Friedman employed to take the team from worst to first.

The strategy of trying harder by that extra 2% in the title is not clear while reading or listening to this book. There is an exhaustive description of all the poor practices of the previous ownership team led by Vince Naimoli – everything from overpaying for aging sluggers to harassing fans who brought their own food into the ballpark. When the trio of former Wall Street businessmen take over, it is almost like the cavalry came in to rescue the Devil Rays.  While their record speaks for itself – improving by 31 wins from 2007 to 2008 – the way this was done did not seem to use Wall Street strategies.

Because of this, the book fell a little flat in that aspect as I expected it to have more groundbreaking strategies for building a winning baseball team.  Instead, Keri discusses the problems that Tampa has in generating revenue with a poorly located stadium, limited media revenue and poor luck in being in the same division as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, two teams with huge revenue streams.  There is some “Moneyball” aspects, some wise drafting and investments and recognition that spending a lot of money on a bad team to gain a few more wins won’t improve long-range success.  While all of those were key reasons why Tampa Bay became a better team, none of it seemed like a breakthrough discovery that was expected.

There is one other topic that Keri discusses in depth, not only about Tampa Bay but other locations as well, and that is how baseball teams will extort cities and states to finance new ballparks with the threat to move. While this was very interesting material, what seemed a little off to me was that other teams such as the Florida/Miami Marlins and Minnesota Twins were discussed when this topic was covered instead of the Rays and what they are doing to try to get a new stadium.

Overall, this book was okay because the material is interesting and it is always good to hear success stories.  However, what was expected from the title and book description and what was actually presented were two different things which left me feeling a little disappointed when I completed the book.  This book is recommended for fans of the Rays, but if one wants to learn more about building a winning team, this isn’t the best source.

Book Format Read:
Audiobook

Buying links:




Friday, January 13, 2017

Review of "Horns Up"

While many college football fans are still buzzing about the fantastic finish to the national championship game for the FBS level of the game, there still is another big story worth reading about in college football and that is the dynasty of North Dakota State, the first school to win five consecutive championships at any level.  A book has been written about this dynasty and it is one that all fans of this team should read.  Here is my review of "Horns Up."

Title/Author:
“Horns Up: Inside the Greatest College Football Dynasty” by Jeff Kolpack

Tags:
Football (American), college, dynasty

Publish date:
March 8, 2016

Length:
236 pages

Rating: 
4 of 5 stars (Very Good)

Review:
When a college football fan talks about towns that are home to some of the best football programs, they just roll off the tongue.  Places like Columbus, Ohio…Happy Valley, Pennsylvania…Tuscaloosa, Alabama…Fargo, North Dakota.

Yes, that last city belongs in the conversation. Fargo is the home of the North Dakota State Bison, the only team to win five consecutive national titles in any level of college football.  Their march to these championships, as well as the decision by the school to join the Football Championship Series (FCS, or formerly Division 1-AA) is chronicled in this book by second-generation North Dakota sportswriter Jeff Kolpack.

The book stars off with the rise of Bison quarterback Carson Wentz, who was the second pick of the 2016 NFL draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. From there, the book will take the reader into the school administrative offices, the coaches work areas, the locker room and even on the campus when ESPN hosted its popular College Game Day show in Fargo in 2013 and 2014. Through it all, Kolpack writes with a style that shows he is not only knowledgeable about the program and the game of football, he displays that he also thoroughly enjoys covering the team as he intersperses some personal, but pertinent, stories as well.

The game coverage is very good, especially the chapter that has excellent summaries of each of the five championship games in which the Bison became the FCS champions. This was a chapter near the middle of the book, which seemed to be a strange placement for a summary chapter. That was the biggest drawback encountered while reading the book as it did not have a good flow by jumping around from topic to topic without a sense of order. 

However, the stories of key persons in the Bison program, everyone from Wentz to coach Craig Bohl and athletic director Gene Taylor, are what make the book fun to read. Kolpack’s knowledge about the school and the football team will educate the reader about the team, the enthusiastic fan base and the dedication of the players. The stories about the fans making trips to Minneapolis when the Bison would play the Gophers, a Big Ten team, were very interesting, outnumbering the fans from the much bigger school and even winning two of the three games played by the two teams.

For any football fan who wants to read either about a true football dynasty or about the rise of a smaller program, this is the book to pick up.  Of course, Bison fans will want to read this as well, even if they have probably soaked up all this information on their team from other sources. 

Book Format Read:
E-Book (Kindle)

Buying links:



Saturday, January 7, 2017

Review of "Long Before the Miracle"

On a snowy day in New York state, what better sport to read about than baseball?  When instead of thoughts of shoveling and scraping ice off the car, a better thought is about the green grass and crack of the bat that takes place in a beautiful ball park?  That is how I spent the day, and my book of choice was this one about the early days of the New York Mets.  Here is my review of "Long Before the Miracle."


Title/Author:
“Long Before the Miracle: The Making of the New York Mets” by Bill Sullivan

Tags:
Baseball, professional, history, Mets

Publish date:
July 29, 2016

Length:
436 pages

Rating: 
2 ½ of 5 stars (Fair) -  rounded up to 3 stars for Goodreads and Amazon ratings

Review:
While the New York Mets lost a lot of games in the early years of the franchise, they had a colorful history during that time and the city fell in love with the team despite the losing.  The people who were responsible for making the team lovable during that time have their stories told in this book written by a self-proclaimed Mets fan, Bill Sullivan.

This book has a “quantity over quality” feel as nearly every person who adorned a Mets uniform between 1962 and 1968 gets mentioned.  Whether through research, interviews with the players, family members or teams, bench players as well as the stars have their stories told.  It also doesn’t matter whether a player was with the team for six games or six seasons – if he wore the orange and blue of the Mets, he was mentioned in the book. 

Many of the stories are funny and poignant, but all are fairly short.  Also, while their anecdotes are organized alphabetically, the reading felt choppy and repetitive. Many of the same points are repeated in the discussions on different players.  This isn’t to say that it is hard to read, just that there will be times when the reader will think, “Wait, didn’t I see this before?”

There are also discussions on why the Dodgers and Giants left the city, paving the way for the Mets to replace them for National League baseball in New York.  That made for some good reading, as well as the stories on the building of the team through the expansion draft and the building of Shea Stadium. I felt the best writing in the book came at this time when the story of the Mets’ original owner, Joan Payson, was described in a very good manner.

For the most part, this book was okay and Mets fans will enjoy learning about the lean years of their team.  The electronic version of the book did need some minor editing, problems that may not appear in the printed version.  I would recommend this to Mets fans who want to learn a little more information on the players of the early days. 


Book Format Read:
E-Book (Kindle)

Buying links:




Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Review of "The Murder of Sonny Liston"

This week marks the 46th anniversary of the death of former heavyweight champion Charles "Sonny" Liston.  The man's death still makes people talk today - one person was even moved by this event to write a book that raises questions about the circumstances of his demise.  Here is my review of "The Murder of Sonny Liston."


Title/Author:
“The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin and Heavyweights” by Shawn Assael

Tags:
Boxing, murder, crime

Publish date:
October 4, 2016

Length:
352 pages

Rating: 
4 of 5 stars (Very Good)

Review:
Charles “Sonny” Liston lived a mysterious life, whether it was when he was born but could not produce a birth certificate, his young adulthood when he was imprisoned, when he was rising through the ranks of boxing to become the heavyweight champion, when he lost to Muhammad Ali twice (with the second fight ending by some accounts due to a phantom punch) and later in his post-boxing life in Las Vegas. When he was found dead in his apartment by his wife Geraldine on January 5, 1971 the medical examiner declared Liston’s death to be due to “natural causes.”

This book by investigative journalist Shawn Assael casts doubts on this diagnosis and raises the question of whether the former champion was forced to overdose on heroin that led to his death.  In order to ask this question (Assael does not come to a definite conclusion that Liston was murdered), he writes a significant backstory about Las Vegas and the culture of the town at that time – mainly the drug, entertainment and criminal elements.  Even if the reader doesn’t care at all about Liston, boxing or sports, he or she will be fascinated with the detailed description of “Sin City” in that time period.

If one wants to read this to find out just who would want a former heavyweight champion dead, there is plenty of candidates for that as well.  The theories floated about in the book include thoughts that Liston knew too much about a) the drug dealers in Las Vegas, b) crooked police officers, or c) fixed fights, including his own in the second loss to Ali.  The list of suspects the author offers up is extensive as well, as he names these possibilities: An ex-girlfriend, a gaming player in Las Vegas named Ash Resnick, a rogue cop from the Las Vegas Police department, an informant and accomplice of said cop and even someone from the Nation of Islam.  There is even a “secret percent theory” told in which Liston would receive a portion of the receipts from all of Ali’s future bouts.  While the evidence that Assael has on each one makes for great reading, not one of these theories convince readers or even the author himself that they are definitive proof that Liston was murdered.

So while this may generate as many questions as it answers, this book is one of the more entertaining books about the time and the sport of boxing that I have read.  There is a decent amount of text about Liston’s fights as well.  The quality of that writing shows that Assael not only can write about 1960’s Las Vegas and the culture, but can also cover the action inside a boxing ring quite well. This book is recommended for readers who want to learn more about Liston or Las Vegas in that era. 

I wish to thank Blue Rider Press for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Format Read:
E-book (Kindle)

Buying links:




Monday, January 2, 2017

First review of 2017: "Clearing the Bases:

To start off the new year, I am continuing one trend that I started in 2016 - that is, to review a baseball book.  While baseball is the sport that I have read and reviewed the most books on, it is the game in which by far the most books can be found.  Including this one which is a collection of previously published stories in various publications written by a long-time writer for Sports Illustrated.  Here is my review of "Clearing the Bases."


Title/Author:
“Clearing the Bases: A Veteran Sportswriter on the National Pastime” by Jim Kaplan

Tags:
Baseball, professional, history, essays, collection

Publish date:
October 6, 2016

Length:
211 pages

Rating: 
4 of 5 stars (Very Good)

Review:
In the introduction to this collection of essays on baseball, author Jim Kaplan states even though his own baseball career was less than successful – he writes that “In the 10th grade, I was a substitute for the ninth-grade team. Not only that, I was so slow that my teammates called me Snowshoes.” – he states that he still loves the game in part because of its “unpredictability.” 

That is an applicable description of this book as it isn’t a predictable collection – the topics of the stories, the timelines and setting and the tone of the stories all vary and cover a lot of ground.  He has stories about major league players - Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, All-Star catcher and esteemed broadcaster Tim McCarver and a relief pitcher turned physician Ron Taylor, who pitched for two championship teams, the 1964 Cardinals and 1969 Mets.  There are stories about a season (1983), about a league (The Futures Collegiate Baseball League [FCBL] and the team in Martha’s Vineyard) and about the adventures in on position (right field). 

The stories vary in mood as well, from upbeat and hopeful to slightly melancholy as the 1983 season chapter seemed to be a call for “the good old days.”  It’s interesting to read something like this many years later, when some may consider the year in question “the good old days.”  Another line in that chapter cracked me up when Kaplan wrote about Ron Kittle, the slugger who at the time was an all-star for the Chicago White Sox.  He wrote at the time that “…Kittle is already a bigger hero than Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, ever was.  Banks says so himself.”  Ask any Chicago baseball fan now who was the bigger hero and you might get a different answer.

As a fan of a minor-league team in the lower level of the system, I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the FCBL as the living and working conditions for these young men are very similar to the players I watch at the local ballpark. Hearing their enthusiasm and youthfulness through Kaplan’s words was very inspiring.

The only knock I have on the book was the very long chapter on Ron Taylor.  Not so much because it was much longer than the other chapters, as Taylor did live a somewhat interesting life, but I would have liked to have read more about his time as the team physician for the Toronto Blue Jays.  It is rare to find any material on what life is like working in baseball in an occupation other than a player, manager or owner, so I would have been very interesting in any stories he may have been able to share as a team physician.

Unlike most books of this format, there wasn’t a bad story in the entire collection. This book was an entertaining and enjoyable read, one that baseball fans of all ages and interests would enjoy.

I wish to thank Mr. Kaplan for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Format Read:
Paperback

Buying links:






Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year!

2016 was a terrific year in sports - the Chicago Cubs won their first championship in 108 years, the Cleveland Cavaliers brought their city a championship team in any sport for the first time in 52 years, and two American swimmers (Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky) became the most decorated Olympic athletes at the Rio games.  It was also a year of sadness, as we lost many in the sports world, including Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, and Arnold Palmer, three of the greatest at their games.

Also, on a personal note, 2016 was a terrific year for this blog and myself, with more and more of you coming over to take a look at the reviews, offer books and other kind words.  I thank each and every person who has visited this site - we shared the same love of sports and through books, that passion can be shared and passed down through the generations.

Here's wishing everyone a safe, happy and prosperous 2017.


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Review of "Dynamic, Bombastic, Fantastic" - the Oakland A's of the 1970's

Whenever I can find anything new on the baseball team that I consider to be the best that I have seen in my lifetime, the Oakland A's from 1971-75, I eagerly pick it up and devour it.  That was the case with this book when I saw it was available on NetGalley, and it did not disappoint.  It covered nearly everything important that happened to that team on and off the field.  Here is my review of "Dynamic, Bombastic, Fantastic."


Title/Author:
“Dynastic, Bombastic and Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish and Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s” by Jason Turbow

Tags:
Baseball, professional, history, Athletics, championships 

Publish date:
March 7, 2017

Length:
432 pages

Rating: 
4 of 5 stars (Very Good)

Review:
The Oakland Athletics, or as their owner liked to call them, the “Swingin’ A’s”, were the best baseball team in the early and mid-1970’s. They won five straight division titles between 1971 and 1975, including three consecutive World Series titles from 1972 to 1974.  With this type of success, one would think that the team would be a big draw, the players would want to continue their success in Oakland and the owner was very popular.

Those assumptions would be incorrect and the adventures of this team and its owner, Charles O. Finley (referred to throughout the book as the “Owner”) are chronicled in this entertaining book by Jason Turbow. The A’s of that time were not only talented with baseball skills on the field, but many were talented with their fists in the clubhouse, team plane or hotel as they were just as competitive in their fights in those locales as well as on the diamond. Turbow writes about both of these aspects of the team with equal parts knowledge and amazement as the fights kept on coming.

Whether the player was Reggie Jackson (fight with Billy North), Rollie Fingers (fight with John “Blue Moon” Odom) or Bert “Campy” Campanaris (threw a bat at a Detroit pitcher in the 1972 postseason), the stars of the team are covered in a manner that the reader will learn what made him a great player and a complex person. None of the stories outside of the diamond are written in great detail, but the reader will learn more about each of these players who all shared one thing in common: a strong dislike of the Owner.

The Owner draws much of the wrath of the author throughout the book as no matter what transpires on or off the field with the club, Turbow will find a negative connection to Finley in which the Owner’s action or inaction, depending on the type of transgression, ended up having negative consequences for the A’s. While none of this information is incorrect and the conclusions are backed with solid evidence, the reader will be left with the conclusion that the team won DESPITE Finley, not because of anything positive he did.  To be fair, the book isn’t a completely critical account of his tenure as owner - and it bears repeating that all criticism of the Owner is backed up by solid research - but the question is raised about just how good this team would have been for a long time had Finley not made some questionable decisions. This consistent negativity toward Finley was the only blemish in the joy I had in reading about those A’s teams and the dominance they displayed on the field. 

For fans of baseball in the 1970’s, this is a book that is highly recommended as it is one of the most complete books written about the best team of that decade.

I wish to thank Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Format Read:
E-book (PDF)

Buying links (pre-order at time of posting):


http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/dynastic-bombastic-fantastic-jason-turbow/1124079662;jsessionid=BDD99606162768BD46A41777DACB8E4E.prodny_store02-atgap01?ean=9780544303171&st=AFF&2sid=Goodreads,%20Inc_2227948_NA&sourceId=AFFGoodreads,%20IncM000004