Friday, July 3, 2020

Review of "A Season to Forget"

Just as much as historically good sports teams and accomplishments, I am just as intrigued by historically bad teams and events.  When the Baltimore Orioles started the 1988 season with 21 losses, I was morbidly following the streak like every other baseball fan.  So when I saw a book was written about the streak, I was interested, even though the reviews I read about it were not flattering.  Here is my review of that book, "A Season to Forget."


Title/Author:
“A Season to Forget: The Story of the 1988 Baltimore Orioles” by Ron Snyder

Tags:
Baseball, professional, Orioles, history

Publish date:
April 23, 2019

Length:
216 pages

Rating:
3 of 5 stars (okay)

Review:
In 1988, the Baltimore Orioles set a baseball record that a team would never want to claim – they lost 21 consecutive games to start the season.  While the Orioles had been declining since winning the World Series in 1983, no one expected a team led by Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray to perform so terribly. The streak and the state of the Orioles before and after the streak is told in this book by Ron Snyder.

There is writing about the Orioles both before and after the chapters on the streak itself.  The beginning chapters tell a brief history of the team and the success it had for nearly 20 years between 1966 and 1984 when the team won three World Series titles and appeared in two others.  Then, after the awful season of 1988, there is a nice write up about their nearly complete turnaround in 1989 when they fell one game short from winning the American League East Division. That was called the “Why Not?” season and certainly a terrific feel-good story.

However, the book’s main topic, the 21 game losing streak in 1988, was described in what is best described as haphazard fashion.  The games were not recapped in chronological order, at least not regularly as one will read about say game 9 in the streak, then a player interviewed will talk about game 15.  At least it starts with the 12-0 opening day loss to the Milwaukee Brewers and the chapters on the streak does end when the Orioles defeated the Chicago White Sox.  None of the games during the streak are analyzed in depth and there isn’t a lot of information on any player or manager written.  Not even Cal Ripken Sr., the shortstop’s father and manager of the team who was fired six games into the streak. 

While the book certainly has its flaws, it was one that was a quick read and something this reader wanted to finish to the end and see what happens, much like how the media and fans all over the world were following the Orioles streak.  It gained international attention and when the streak was over, it was a relief for everyone, not just the Orioles players and staff.  One other noteworthy occurrence that should be mentioned as it gained its own chapter.  The Orioles ended the streak in Chicago.  After losing two more games to the White Sox, they came back home to a sold-out Memorial Stadium on a Monday night where it was announced that the team would be getting a new ball park. It was quite a sight to see a packed stadium come out to watch a team with a 1-23 record.

While this book was at best only a cursory description of the historic streak, the author does mention in the foreword of the book that this was written from the viewpoint of both a journalist and a fan. Reading that and finishing the book was enough to give this book a passing grade, but for more information on the streak, players or Orioles of that 1988 season, it is best to seek that elsewhere.
                                                                             
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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Review of "Losers"

C'mon, admit it...wouldn't you be intrigued by a book titled "Losers"?  We always get to read about the winners, but this book gives some glory to those on the other side of the ledger.  It is a very good collection of stories on those who didn't quite get to the winning side. 



Title/Author:
“Losers: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scoreboard" edited by Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas

Tags:
Various sports, professional, Olympics, essays

Publish date:
August 18, 2020

Length:
304 pages

Rating: to
4 ½ of 5 stars (excellent)

Review:
The title of this book – "Losers" – makes it sound like this will be a very depressing, somber type of book.  However, the excellent collection of stories gathered and edited by Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas (who also contributed one of the stories) doesn't have that sense of dread. There are also contributions by two very famous authors, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Gay Talese.  The latter's story is his well known writing about boxer Floyd Patterson after his losses to Sonny Liston.

Yes, this is a collection of stories about athletes or fans whose teams or accomplishments didn't land them in the winner's circle and yes, some of them can be quite sad. Thomas' story about her grandmother who suffered through abuse by her husband, but she also had a mostly successful business raising championship horses, is probably the most depressing piece in the book. There are other tales of woe of varying degrees, but not all of them are of this nature.  Another one that comes to mind is the story of a cage fighter who never won a fight (before the days of MMA/UFC) who faked his own death to avoid paying debts but eventually was caught. This one was written by Pilon.

Indeed, some can be uplifting and cheerful in their tone, despite the fact that the subject of the story did not end up as the winner.  The best example of this type of story is on marathon runner Dick Beardsley, who is one of the most famous second place finishers when he was runner-up to Alberto Salazar in the Boston Marathon.

One aspect of the book that is especially pleasing is that a wide variety of sports and playing levels are featured in the book. One of the more unusual stories is one about a matador who was nearing the end of his bullfighting career.  There are stories about famous losses, such as a Boston fan's recollection of Bill Buckner's famous error in game six of the 1986 World Series.  That particular story is interesting in that the author sounds like they are longing for the bad old days when Boston teams were mediocre instead of the champions they now are.  Of course, a book on losers wouldn't be complete without a story on the most famous losers, the Washington Generals.  For those who are not familiar with them, they are the team that faces the Harlem Globetrotters in their shows.  Despite what one may believe, the story illustrates the Generals as good basketball players and talks about a game in which the Generals actually walked off the court victorious.

As is the case with any collection of essays or stories, not every one of them will appeal to every reader.  That was the case with this reviewer for a few of the selections.  But there were far many enjoyable ones than duds and they were fun to read.  One doesn't have to be a big sports fan to enjoy this collection as many of the stories touch at the heart and soul of the "losers" in various sports.

I wish to thank Penguin Books for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
                               
Book Format Read:
E-book (Kindle)

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Monday, June 29, 2020

Short review of "Wait Till Next Year:

It isn't too often I will review a book more than 20 years old, but an exception was made for this well-known memoir by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  In an online book group to which I belong, this was a buddy read selection and even though I have known about this book for a long time, I decided to participate and was glad I did.  This review is shorter than most, mainly because I would be simply repeating the same points many others have in the previous years.  Here is a short review of this book.




Title/Author:
“Wait Till Next Year" by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Tags:
Baseball, professional, memoir, Dodgers, classic

Publish date:
October 21, 1997

Length:
261 pages

Rating: to
4 of 5 stars (very good)

Review:
Most baseball fans like to tell stories of when they first became fans as children. Some stories are certainly more entertaining and told better than others.  One collection of baseball stories that fits this description is this very good memoir by Doris Kearns Goodwin that tells about her childhood when she was cheering for her beloved Brooklyn Dodgers.

Goodwin is a well-known historian and was also a sports writer when it was not filled with many opportunities for women.  Given how she writes about her memories of the Dodgers and the many memories she has of them and her family, it is easy to see why she chose and succeeded in these professions.  Her recollections of not only her fandom of the Dodgers but also those of her childhood friends, her loving family and her Catholic upbringing are excellent reading and will be enjoyed by all who love to read about family, baseball or childhood. 

So many fellow readers and reviewers have enjoyed this book and I am happy to be another one who recommends this book to nearly everyone.  It was a quick, happy read that while it wasn't long on substance, it was loaded with fun, love and the Brooklyn Dodgers.  It was very impressive to read just how much she knew about "dem Bums" back in her formative years.
                               
Book Format Read:
Hardcover

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Monday, June 22, 2020

Review of "Stars and Strikes"

This is a book that I was trying to obtain for a few years, ever since reviewing the author's other book on baseball in the 1970's.  Having been using the e-book resources of nearby library systems more frequently now, I was able to obtain a copy from our local library as an e-book and it turned out the wait was worth it.  Here is my review of "Stars and Strikes"



Title/Author:
“Stars and Strikes: Baseball and American in the Bicentennial Summer of 1976" by Dan Epstein

Tags:
Baseball, professional, history

Publish date:
April 29, 2014

Length:
401 pages

Rating: to
4 of 5 stars (very good)

Review:
1976 was a celebratory year for the United States as the nation celebrated its 200th year of declaring independence.  In baseball, many were not as in a celebratory mood, unless they were on the Cincinnati Reds, who were the championship team during that season that is chronicled in this fun book by Dan Epstein.

Written in much the same manner as his other book on 1970's baseball, "Big Hair and Plastic Grass", this one uses the tried and true formula that has worked for many books about singular baseball teams or seasons. Specifically, Epstein mixes many pop culture, music and political references in with the baseball when recapping the 1976 season.  Some of them are pretty funny, such as his comparison of Dodgers player Bill Buckner to a pornography actor.  Each chapter has a song that was a hit in 1976 as a title.  One of the most popular movies to hit the big screen in 1976, "The Bad News Bears" got a nice write-up in Chapter 6, "More, More, More."  Epstein even manages to show some of his political leanings in the book, especially when writing about President Gerald Ford and the man who defeated him in the 1976 presidential election Jimmy Carter.

However, the book is mostly about baseball and here, Epstein does a very good job of making the 1976 season sound very exciting despite the fact that three of the four divisional races were not close (only the AL West had any excitement) and the World Series ended with a four game sweep by the Reds over the New York Yankees.  However, there was plenty of news in baseball that kept things interesting throughout the year and Epstein covers them well. 

These included the elimination of the reserve clause and subsequent first class of free agents at the end of the year, new owners who were mavericks such as Ted Turner and Bill Veeck (although Veeck technically wasn't a "new" owner as he previous owned several teams and came back into the game when he bought the Chicago White Sox that year), and the controversial manner in which George Brett of Kansas City won the American League battle title when his teammate and closest competitor, Hal McRae, accused the Minnesota Twins of allowing Brett's fly balls to drop for hits to ensure a white player would win the title.  But the biggest story in baseball in 1976 was a rookie pitcher for the Detroit Tigers named Mark Fidrych, nicknamed "The Bird" and was electrifying baseball fans in Detroit and across the country with his quirky antics on the mound – and oh, yes, his excellent pitching as well.

This is just a small sample of the plentiful baseball material that fans of that era of all will enjoy reliving.  Most teams get at least a mention in the book, even the teams that didn't fare so well in 1976.  Of course, like all books about a specific season, the best teams get most of the ink and that is the case here as well for the Reds, Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Dodgers.  But no matter the level of fandom for 1970's baseball, a reader will enjoy this look back at America's bicentennial year in baseball.
                               
Book Format Read:
E-book (Kindle)

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Saturday, June 20, 2020

Review of "The Role I Played"

While I have learned a lot about women's hockey and come to appreciate how good the game is played by women, I had never heard of Sami Jo Small before obtaining this book.  Yes, I knew about the stars of women's hockey such as Cammi Granato and Hayley Wickenheiser, but not Sami Jo Small.  Therefore, I was very curious to see what her role was on three Canadian teams and this book is a very good look at that very topic.  Here is my review of "The Role I Played"


Title/Author:
“The Role I Played: Canada’s Greatest Olympic Hockey Team” by Sami Jo Small

Tags:
Ice Hockey, memoir, women, Winter Olympics

Publish date:
September 29, 2020

Length:
260 pages

Rating:
4 ½ of 5 stars (very good)

Review:
Women’s hockey has grown exponentially in the past 25 years, thanks in no small part to the sport being part of the Winter Olympics in that time frame. The two most dominant teams during that time have been the United States and Canada.  One player who was part of the first three Canadian teams, goaltender Sami Jo Small, has written a memoir sharing her experiences at those three Olympics and brings the reader inside the life of a hockey player.

The format of the book is not the typical memoir in that Small will often take the reader back to her youth when a moment during practice with Team Canada or a break in one of the games at the Olympics will connect with something that happened during her formative years. One such occurrence was when she was handling her goalie equipment while on the bench.  The next chapter starts when she mentions her equipment when playing hockey with the boys as a young girl.  The transition there is fine but the reading of the book seems to be interrupted in these parts, especially when the flashback is done and the narrative returns to the game or practice with Team Canada.  There are also some sentences thrown into a paragraph that don’t feel like they belong. One example – when talking about teammate Sari Fisk during a game against Finland, Sari takes a pass from the defense. The next sentence talks about her young daughter running around the rink waiting for Mommy to finish practice.  Then in the next sentence Fisk makes a pass to a teammate.  How does the sentence about the daughter fit into a nice hockey play?  This was the only quibble I had with this book that is otherwise filled with great stories.

It should be noted that while Small was a part of the first three Canadian teams at the Olympics in 1998, 2002, and 2006, she saw playing time in only 2002 as she was listed as the third goalie the other two times and therefore was not officially on the roster for playing nor were third goalies allowed to be on the medal stand should the team win a medal.  Canada did win a medal in all three years – silver in 1998 with a heartbreaking loss to the United States in the gold medal game, and gold in 2002 and 2006.  Despite the relatively little playing time, Small writes about her time with the national teams with an upbeat, positive vibe and the reader will learn much about the inner workings of a hockey locker room and the routines of a backup goaltender.

Playing with goaltenders such as Kim St. Pierre, Manon Rheaume and Charlene Lebonte, Small writes with a roller coaster of emotions as she works hard to compete for playing time against her teammates but at the same time will support them when they are playing.  The two Olympics in which Small doesn’t play shows the gamut of emotions.  As a rookie with the 1998 team, Small is thrilled to simply be a part of history as the first women’s Olympic tournament is played.  After seeing playing time and having a gold medal draped around her neck in 2002, she is devastated to learn that she had to serve as the third goaltender once again in 2006.  Credit should be given to her for fulfilling that role admirably and being the biggest cheerleader for Team Canada as they defended their gold medal.

However, this book is not just about Small’s experiences with the Olympic teams. Small played hockey with men in both Canada and at Stanford University where she graduated with an engineering degree.  She also played in the women’s professional leagues that were operating in Canada and even helped ensure the survival of one by doing administrative work for one as well after her Olympic career was finished.  Small also talks about her personal life in just the right amount of text and emotion.  The reader will feel like he or she knows about Small, but without getting too much information to make it feel intrusive.

While many hockey fans will recognize the contributions to the women’s game by American and Canadian stars such as Cammi Granato, Katie King, Haley Wickenheiser and Danielle Goyette, the contributions of players like Sami Jo Small should be recognized as well and this book will bring a lot of information and enjoyment to hockey fans everywhere.

I wish to thank ECW Press for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
                                                                             
Book Format Read:
E-book (Kindle)                                                                                                                               

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Friday, June 19, 2020

Review of "Championship Rounds"

Having read some of Bernard Fernandez's writing on boxing previously, I was very interested in this collection of his best columns.  While compilations like this usually are good but have a few duds in the mix, this one didn't - every single article was one in which I either learned something new, was very entertained or both.  Here is my review of "Championship Rounds."


Title/Author:
“Championship Rounds” by Bernard Fernandez

Tags:
Boxing, professional, collection, history

Publish date:
April 29, 2020

Length:
220 pages

Rating:
5 of 5 stars (excellent)

Review:
The sport of boxing has had a very colorful history and depending on what one reads or who he speaks with, the sport is either dying or has never been better.  One writer who has seen it all in a 35 year career writing about the sweet science, Bernard Fernandez, has published a compilation of his more memorial columns and articles in his career.

His writing is especially worthy of this type of consideration as Fernandez is one of the latest inductees into the International Boxing Hall of Fame as a writer. This book covers just about anything one can consider about the sport. If a reader wants to read about legendary fighters, there are articles on Muhammad Ali, Archie Moore and George Foreman, for starters.  If it is managers or promoters, there’s an excellent article on Lou Duva for his obituary by Fernandez.  Of course, one can’t avoid Don King when talking about promoters and his story on “His Hairness” is one of the better selections in this collection.

Fernandez doesn’t just write about the well-known boxing figures, he also writes about some more obscure ones as well.  One great example of this is Craig Bodzianowski.  While he may not be a household name, a reader will become a fan after reading about his success as a one-legged fighter, as he fought with a prosthesis after losing one leg in an accident.  Fallen heroes such as Tony Ayala, Jr are also featured with stories about more than just their actions inside the ring.  Even a superfan is covered as Fernandez also writes a moving obituary on Jack Obermayer, who attended (by an unofficial count) “3514 fight cards in 400-plus cities spread across 49 states.  Somehow, he never made it to Alaska.” 

Fernandez also wrote several selections on women’s boxing. While he was one of hundreds who wrote about the fight between Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde (daughters of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier respectively), Fernandez also introduces the reader to several outstanding female boxers who should be recognized for their contributions to the sport. These include Jackie Tonawanda (a women’s boxing pioneer often dubbed “The Female Ali”), Claressa Shields (first American woman to win a boxing Olympic gold medal) and Rochelle Gilkin.

This is just a small sample of the material in this short book that fight fans will want to read in one sitting as this reviewer did.  No matter what level of interest or what era of boxing a reader wants to read about, the person is sure to find something of interest in this book. Every selection in this book is one that is well written, entertaining and educational for even the most knowledgeable of boxing readers.
                                                                             
Book Format Read:
E-book (Kindle)                                                                                                                               

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Saturday, June 13, 2020

Review of "Owen Hart: King of Pranks"

One of more tragic deaths in professional wrestling was that of Owen Hart, who fell to his death in the ring when a stunt went horribly wrong.  It came as a shock to many, especially those who knew him as a jokester and a gentle soul.  This book is a good portrayal of that part of Hart.  Here is my review of "Owen Hart: King of Pranks"

Title/Author:
“Owen Hart: King of Pranks: The Ultimate Anthology of Owen's Greatest Ribs, Pranks and Stories” by James Romero

Tags:
Wrestling, professional, biography, history

Publish date:
November 25, 2019

Length:
453 pages

Rating:
4 of 5 stars (very good)

Review:
Owen Hart was a long-time performer in professional wrestling and had two reputations.  One was that he was loyal, hard-working and would take part in nearly any role, whether it was as a babyface or a heel.  The other reputation he had was as a prankster, playing jokes and tricks on practically anyone involved in the business.  This book by James Romero has much material on the pranks, but it is also a serious biography on Hart’s life.

If a reader is looking for just light, funny reading about Hart’s jokes and pranks, there is plenty of them, but that won’t be clear from the start.  Hart died when a stunt for a World Wrestling Federation (then-WWF) went horribly wrong and he fell to his death when he was supposed to make a dramatic entrance inside the ring from above. While that seems like it would detract from the book, I give the author much credit for writing about that horrible event with objectivity and with much knowledge.  It certainly is an attention-grabber and will get the reader hooked into reading more about Hart.

While each chapter contains plenty of jokes played on others by Hart, there is also serious material as each chapter starts out with descriptions of Hart’s early life and his subsequent wrestling career, much of it side by side with his brother Brett.  There are many ups and downs in Owen’s career and they are all covered completely in these segments.

However, the book concentrates on the pranks Owen played on nearly anyone and everyone. These accounts came from many different sources – fellow wrestlers, friends, and even his widow Martha. Like any other collection of stories, there are good ones, not-so-good ones and everything in between.  There are some that Owen would do repeatedly and a few are described in the book, such as messing with the driver of a car by giving wrong directions or other similar pranks.  If I had to pick a favorite story, it would be the one in which a new announcer was parched before having to do an interview and Owen was right there to help with a soft drink.  But instead of giving it to him to drink, the announcer had it run down his body and had to conduct the interview in wet, sticky pants.  That was one of the stories that had me laughing out loud.

Overall, this book is a very good tribute to Owen Hart, who not only was a prankster but also a kind man outside of the ring, giving advice to new wrestlers as well as helping others in any way he could.  While his death was tragic and was easily preventable, this book helps to ensure his legacy will live on.

I wish to thank Mr. Romero for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
                       
Book Format Read:
E-book (Kindle)                                                                                                                               

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