Friday, March 31, 2023

Review of "Gibby"

You didn't think I could let Opening Day of the baseball season pass without a baseball book review, did you?  Having obtained a copy of this upcoming memoir on former Blue Jays manager John Gibbons earlier, when I was trying to decide on what baseball book to start the 2023 season with, I chose this one.  Here is my review.


“Gibby: Tales of a Baseball Lifer” by John Gibbons with Greg Oliver


4 of 5 stars (very good)


John Gibbons is exactly who he says he is in the subtitle of this memoir – a baseball lifer.  His book, co-written with Greg Oliver, is the perfect illustration of how a memoir of a baseball lifer, whose position was catcher, would read.  It fits all the stereotypes that one thinks of when they pick up a memoir by a baseball lifer.

Let’s list a few of those stereotypes that a reader may believe about this book before reading a page.  One – catchers usually make the better managers, especially marginal catchers.  This checks off nicely as Gibbons talks fondly of his playing career, which really did not have much success in the major league level, but he did show enough knowledge of the game that when he realized his time as a player was through, he was able to find scouting jobs, which led to coaching, which led to managing jobs.  Those were both in the minor leagues (Mets system) and in the majors, where he led the Toronto Blue Jays in two separate stints. 

Two – baseball men of a certain age dislike the changes in the game today.  For the most part, Gibbons shows how he is not a fan of some of the current strategies such as the early removal of starting pitchers. He will often wax nostalgic about how the game used to be.  This is something not uncommon in many baseball memoirs, but at times this felt to be a little too much.

Three – there will be certain players that the baseball lifer will go on and on with stories about that player.  There is plenty of that in this book, both for teammates while a player and also as a manager.  They can range in talent from a fellow back up catcher to a Hall of Fame pitcher such as Roy Halladay. That is not necessarily a bad thing as many of these stories make great reading.  It does show, however, that even though Gibbons had the reputation as a “player’s manager” as he refers to himself, he certainly had his favorites.

Four – self-deprecation as humor is almost always present in these types of books and that is certainly present here.  Like the stories about players, that helps the reader enjoy the book even if it seemed a bit predictable.

While this may come across as a critical review, it really isn’t – it is meant to convey that everything one may expect from a baseball memoir is present here, including fond memories for Blue Jays fans of their run in the 2015 postseason.  That is the section with the most detailed baseball talk for on-field action, but for baseball talk in general, this is a book that many fans, especially Blue Jays fans, will enjoy.

I wish to thank ECW Press for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.  The opinions expressed are strictly mine.

Link: Gibby: Tales of a Baseball Lifer: Gibbons, John, Oliver, Greg, Donaldson, Josh: 9781770417106: Books



Sunday, March 26, 2023

Two short reviews - "The Sea Lanterns" and "Sky, the Deaf Home Run Hero"

This is the third post for not only a book I completed on the train, but also a short children's book for which I received a review request.  I will share a short review on each one.

First review: 

Title/Author: "The Sea Lanterns" by Ben Nickol

Synopsis: Marooned at a backwater college and hungry for more, Athletic Director Scott Darrow plots his ascent to a better job at a better school.

He has the talent, charm and Machiavellian nerve to go far, but when he hires a famous coach to run his basketball program, the coach proves to be unstable and possibly insane.

Now, to escape professional oblivion, Darrow must maneuver and manipulate this coach, and manage the town’s intensifying suspicions. No measure is too drastic. No tactic too cruel. But complicating Darrow’s work is his own unsettled history, and in wrestling with this history, Darrow begins to understand his frail coach with jarring personal clarity.

Perhaps the two men aren’t as dissimilar as they’d seemed. And perhaps Darrow’s future—even if it’s triumphant—will mean not banishing his ghosts, but living forever in their company.

Rating: 3 stars of 5 (okay)

Review: To be completely honest, I am not sure what to make of this book. I really could not figure out the plot, not even at the very end. Was it about Dr. Darrow wanting to leave Fog Harbor for a better job in Albany? Was it about coach Leo Kelly and his eccentric personality? Was it about basketball, especially the college administrators such as the chancellor and athletic director? Or was it possibly something deeper that I just didn’t grasp? I never got the questions answered but I like the development of the characters, especially Dr. Darrow, Coach Kelly and Darrow’s girlfriend Jade. I’ll never give a bad word a bout a book I finish and while I may not have been able to completely understand the plot, I think readers will enjoy this book.

I received an advance review copy and am leaving this review voluntarily.

Second review:

Title/Author: "Sky, the Deaf Home Run Hero: by Mickey Carolan

Synopsis: Although young Sky was born deaf, it doesn’t stop him from doing what he loves most: playing baseball!
Eager and determined, he works hard on his skills until every ball he hits soars out of the ballpark like an eagle… Sky has a superpower! But when the bullies try to bring Sky down, will his new superpower give him the courage to face them?

Inspired by his late father who was deaf, author Mickey Carolan masterfully brings an authentic story of resilience and friendship for families and early educators of young children.

Rating: 5 of 5 stars (excellent)

Review: This is an excellent book for children who are either deaf or are victims of bullies. It shows that no matter what obstacles one might face, when a child discovers a "super power" they have, they can use it and show that they are someone who can blend in with just about any group they choose. I really enjoyed not only reading about Sky's super power but the illustrations were excellent as well. While I don't read or review many children's books with a sports theme, I decided to try this and I am glad that I did.

I received an advance review copy and am leaving this review voluntarily.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Review of "The Arena"

For the second review of books I completed while riding Amtrak this past week, we turn to a very good look at facilities where people enjoy their sports live.  Here is my review of "The Arena".


Title/Author: The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport” by Rafi Kohan

Rating: 4 of 5 stars (very good)

Review: While most books on sports concentrate on the games, the athletes, or the owners, there are not many that concentrate on the structures where these games take place.  This book by Rafi Kohan explores just about every aspect of a stadium or an arena that one can think of – and then some.

The last three words were added because some of the chapters in the book address other issues, such as the recent celebration of the military in American sports. Kohan highlights the San Diego Padres here, only appropriate because of the city’s many military bases. Other chapters that are about other aspects that are part of or take place in an arena is one on halftime entertainers and what for me was the most compelling chapter in the book, the role that the Superdome in New Orleans played during Hurricane Katrina.

The bulk of the book, however, is on the various aspects of what it takes to run a stadium and most of this material is quite good.  I really enjoyed the chapter on concessions – disclaimer: I worked in concessions as a vendor for many years at games in Minnesota.  There is also good material on how a facility is transformed from one type of event to another. The example used is on the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ after a Devils hockey game to get it ready for a concert.  The chapters on some other items such as turf and its maintenance are good, but I didn’t find reading about this as riveting as the concessions.

There are also chapters on the structure of a stadium (such as the bowl of Lambeau Field in Green Bay), ticket scalpers, the public funding and building of a new stadium (AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX) and the abandoned stadium and how it decays (the Silverdome in Pontiac, MI – another chapter I really enjoyed).  There are photos to accompany each chapter that are very good – just like the text, I really enjoyed the one of the Silverdome. 

While some books cover some of these topics more in-depth, this book is a very good one to get a complete picture (maybe more than “complete) of all aspects of a facility where people go to enjoy their sports.



Review of "Game of Edges"

This is the first of three reviews I am posting in the next three days as after a lull in my reading time, I had plenty of time to read on a recent trip for a conference in Washington DC.  As one who prefers train travel when possible, this meant extra reading time.  For the first review, I am posting this one on a book on the use of data analysis in professional sports.  Here is my review of "Game of Edges." 


Title/Author: “Game of Edges: The Analytics Revolution and the Future of Professional Sportsby Bruce Schoenfeld


Rating: 4 of 5 stars (very good)

Review: Fans of professional sports are certainly aware that analytics are now an important part of their favorite sports, no matter which one(s) they prefer.  While many do see the change in the games on the field due to the use of data, they may not be aware that the same type of analysis is used by many team owner for the business side as well.  This book by Bruce Schoenfeld does a good job of explaining this use of data both on and off the field.

I found the discussions on the business aspect of analytics most fascinating. Items that are mentioned cover mainly Major League Baseball and the English Premier League but they are certainly applicable to most professional sports franchises.  It is especially interesting to read about the Premier League franchises who used data to determine how they may be able to sell more merchandise, for one example.  Another excellent example of this was how John Henry, the owner of baseball’s Boston Red Sox, arrived at the decision to buy the Liverpool Premier League team. 

For teams in the United States, one of the more interesting concepts on the business side of analytics was something that anyone who has attended a professional sports event in the past few years can see – the many options outside of the game itself to bring fans (and their money) to the area.  The Red Sox are one example given – Henry was looking to open Red-Sox themed pubs around Boston but was discouraged from doing so by then-Commissioner Bud Selig.  The reason was that this might also be something the rival of the Red Sox would do, the New York Yankees, and help them bring in more money and therefore more wins.  The other interesting business analytics example was also in baseball.  The owner of the Chicago Cubs looked to partner with Draft Kings to open a gambling parlor at Wrigley Field to bring that aspect (growing in leaps and bounds) to their business model as well.  Both of these stories made for great reading.

Analytics that affect the games also are included in this book, but it wasn’t as compelling as the sections on the business side.  The best of this writing was actually about an “anti-analytics” manager, Ned Yost of the Kansas City Royals.  Schoenfeld does a nice job of explaining how he had success with the team during the 2014 and 2015 seasons (in the latter, the Royals were champions). There is also some good discussion of the 2020 World Series between two teams who do embrace analytics, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays. The most compelling discussion here was about the Rays’ decision to pull their starting pitcher, Blake Snell, early in the decisive sixth game.  But overall, while good, this isn’t quite as good as the business side of this discussion on the use of data analytics in sports.  It is a book recommended for any fan of any professional sport.

I wish to thank W. W. Norton & Company for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The views expressed are strictly mine.



Thursday, March 16, 2023

Review of "The Search for the Next Mickey Mantle"

 This book was unexpectedly offered to me for a review, although having read a book by this author previously, I wanted to see how he would write on a different sport.  It turned out to be a good choice.  Here is my review of Barry Sparks' book "The Search for the Next Mickey Mantle." 


“The Search for the Next Mickey Mantle: From Tom Tresh to Bryce Harper” by Barry Sparks


4 of 5 stars (very good)


Mickey Mantle is a transcendent figure in the history of baseball. Despite injuries and a lifestyle that included plenty of nightlife and drinking, he was one of the best and most beloved players on the most successful franchise, the New York Yankees.  When his skills started diminishing, even before his retirement in 1968, the search was on for finding the next player that could captivate fans and the media.  This search, which is still going on today, is chronicled in this book by Barry Sparks.

In the book, Sparks portrays 16 players who all shared one thing in common: they were tagged by someone as the next Mickey Mantle. This could have been by managers or coaches who saw the player at any level of baseball, from high school to the Major Leagues.  The label may have been started by the media.  Or the praise from another player may have included a comparison to Mantle.  No matter how that happened, Sparks portrays the player in an honest manner, not judgmental. If there are opinions expressed, it is by the person quoted by Sparks.

Many times, those quotes come from the players themselves and that is one of the aspects that make the book very interesting to read.  A player did not have to be signed by the Yankees or start his professional career when or just after Mantle retired in order to be portrayed in the book.  The player also does not necessarily need to have a poor or average career to be considered for the book. The last two players Sparks writes about, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, are two of the best players in the game today and may eventually end up in the Hall of Fame like Mantle did.  But as Sparks explains in the beginning of the book, one didn’t have to struggle to be included in the book.

Each portrait contains details on the player’s baseball career, including when he was touted to be the next Mantle due to observations of either his performance on the field or projections from scouting reports.  No matter how the player was tagged, this book is a very good telling of what happens to players who are burdened with a heavy weight of expectations.

I wish to thank Mr. Sparks for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.  The opinions expressed are strictly mine.

Link: The Search for the Next Mickey Mantle: From Tom Tresh to Bryce Harper: Sparks, Barry: 9781620069554: Books


Saturday, March 11, 2023

Review of "Dark Goals"

For a different type of book, I chose this one in a challenge for reading a book with a grey cover.  There is much more to this book than I expected - at times a bit too much but still one that I really enjoyed as it was an eye-opener.  Here is my review of "Dark Goals"

Title/Author: “Dark Goals: How History’s Worst Tyrants Have Used and Abused the Game of Soccerby Luciano Wernicke

Rating: 4 of 5 stars (very good)

Review: I usually chuckle when I hear people say, whether verbally or on social media, that “sports and politics don’t mix.”  That is flat-out wrong and this book by Luciano Wernicke proves that for just one sport – soccer.

Starting with Benito Mussolini. Wernicke discusses how many of the world’s most vicious tyrants used soccer to either promote their form of ruling, to make threats to players and coaches if they did not honor the country or even order some killed simply due to the results of a soccer.

Most of the matches that are used for reference are from the World Cup tournament or the Olympics, but there are some other means of using the sport for political power as well.  The Spanish dictator Francisco Franco used soccer to “depoliticize” the people of the country and therefore distract them from the terrible conditions.  Mussolini did not want Italy to enter the first World Cup tourney in 1930 because he did not want to risk having the team do poorly.  But then he lobbied for and hosted the next one in 1934.  That was to show off how well his country was doing while hiding the brutal reality, much like Adolf Hitler did for the 1936 Olympics (which are also covered in the book).

Other world leaders portrayed that used soccer as part of their iron-clad ruling included Josef Stalin, Juan Peron (through his wife Eva) and Pablo Escobar, the notorious Columbian drug lord. The writing in all chapters on these people can be dense and hard to follow at times, especially the chapter on Escobar.  Nonetheless, it is a very good look at not only soccer, but also the time period in the 20th century when these dictators ruled both their countries and the game of football.

I wish to thank Sutherland House books for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The views expressed are strictly mine.



Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Review of "Major League Debuts 2023"

 It isn't often I will be asked to review a book that is more reference than reading, but the author of this book about players who made their first MLB appearance in 2022 reached out to me and I am glad I took him up on the offer.  This is an excellent source for information on those players. 


“Major League Debuts: 2023 Edition” by James Bailey


5 of 5 stars (excellent)

Review: If it seemed like that there were an extraordinary number of rookies or first-time players in Major League Baseball (MLB) last year, it’s because there was. 303 players made their MLB during the 2022 season and this book by James Bailey covers every one of them.

The best aspect of this book is that every player who made their first MLB appearance gets the same treatment – a description of his performance in his first game, a short biography, a recap of their 2022 season in both MLB and the minor leagues, if applicable, and the outlook for the player based on past performance. This is true whether the player was Julio Rodriguez, who was the American League Rookie of the Year for the Seattle Mariners, or Bowden Francis, a pitcher who appeared in one game and threw two innings for the Toronto Blue Jays.  It didn’t matter, Bailey gave each player a good write up and his complete statistics were included, both major and minor leagues.

Another interesting aspect of the book are the statistics in the front, where Bailey compiles varies graphs and charts detailing average ages of the players, which teams had the most players make their debut (19 for the Athletics, 17 each for the Cubs and Guardians), and who had the best and worst debuts. For just about any question one might have about players who started their MLB journey in 2022, this is place to go.  It is not a book that one would read for pleasure, but instead it is one for reference or to settle an argument about who would be better among 2022 debut players.  It is one that I will be keeping on my shelf and referring to during the upcoming 2023 season when the announcer talks about one of these young players.

I wish to thank Mr. Bailey for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.  The opinions expressed are strictly mine.

Link: Major League Debuts: 2023 Edition: Bailey, James: 9798374805659: Books

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Review of "Hard Driving"

While I didn't finish this book in time to post my review for Black History Month, it's still a very good one and I am glad that I finished it cover to cover as the story of Wendell Scott as NASCAR's first Black driver is very compelling. Here is my review of "Hard Driving."


“Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story” by Brian Donovan


5 of 5 stars (excellent)

Review: Most Black athletes who broke the color barrier in their respective sports are celebrated for their achievements, such as Jackie Robinson (baseball), Charlie Sifford (golf) or Althea Gibson (tennis).  Some are even well-known by people who are not sports fans.  However, the first Black driver in the history of NASCAR, Wendell Scott, does not have that same celebrity and his story should be told to more.  This excellent biography by Brian Donovan is a good place for that to start.

Something that makes Scott’s story a little different than those of other Black pioneers is that Scott’s sport of choice had its origins in the Deep South of the United States, where racism and discrimination was deeply rooted in the culture.  One ironic twist is that those roots of the sport, which came from moonshine running during Prohibition, was something that Scott did before deciding to become a racer. Like many other white drivers, he wanted to take the skills needed to transport illegal liquor into something that was legal and could be used to build a career.

Here, the Danville, Virginia native started to learn the deep-seated racism in the area and the sport.  He went in expecting issues, but the people and politics in the sport had deep pockets and hardline feelings. He had success in some of the lower levels of the sport on dirt tracks in Virginia and North Carolina, but when he moved up to the NASCAR Grand National series (today’s Cup Series), it was there that he found that he not only had inferior equipment, he had to encounter so many racial issues.

Just a small sampling of these include re-inspections that resulted in disqualifying his car so that he could not enter the race, barring from certain tracks like Darlington that would bolster his name so that he could gain rides from manufacturers like Ford or Dodge, and even promises that were not kept.  The best example of this, which is frequently mentioned through the chapters on Scott’s racing, is the promise made by Bill France Sr., the founder of NASCAR, that he would make sure that Scott would be treated like any other racer.  However, that fell short when France would believe it would interfere with his business or political interests.  It would be safe to say that France only believed in one color – green (money) – and he would not help a Black driver if he believed it would hurt business.

The book describes the character of Scott quite well, depicting him as a hard working man who would spend most of his life doing the one thing he loved – racing.  He and his sons were the ones who not only drove but put up the money needed (Scott mortgaged his house too many times to count), did all the work of building and repairing engines, chassis and car bodies and the long travel to tracks towing the race car.  While this was Scott’s life, it would not be that way for his sons, especially Wendell Jr. who ended up in prison for a stretch because of drug addiction and the crimes committed to feed that habit.  All is not lost for him, as by the end of the book, when his dad passes away, Wendell Jr has cleaned up his life and speaks to many about the dangers of that habit.

This review just scratches the surface of not only Scott’s life in racing, but the racial and political atmosphere of that time in the southern United States.  It is not a pretty picture and Donovan does a great job of accurately portraying that time and place without finger pointing or acrimony.  That doesn’t mean it is soft on the harsh reality of the racism in that period of NASCAR or American history – it’s a much-needed tribute to the determination of Wendell Scott to integrate that sport.


Link: Hard Driving: The Wendell Scott Story: Donovan, Brian: 9781586421441: Books