Monday, June 24, 2019

Chumps to Champs by Bill Pennington

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Why I Read It:
 Morbid Curiosity. I'm a Red Sox fan.

Summary: How the Yankees rebuilt in the early 1990s while the Boss was away and achieved greatness once more.

My Thoughts: I like to get these things out of the way first. I really liked this book, but the author had me for exactly 301 pages, Then, he lost me, with one simple line.

"The franchise desperately needed a twenty-third championship."

There is no North American sports franchise, no North American city, that ever "desperately" needed a twenty-third championship. I'm sure that Yankees fans all over the world would be perfectly happy holding 22 World Series championships over the heads of all other baseball fans. Think about it. Even today, the Cardinals are a distant, poor second, with 11 championships. The Yankees were never desperate for another title.

OK. Purged. Onward.

This was a fun read, Red Sox fan or not. It reminded me a bit of Mike Shropshire's Seasons in Hell in that it covered not a championship season, but those in-between years when a plan is put in place and a million things have to go right for a team to reach the ultimate goal. Unfortunately, for Shropshire's Texas Rangers, it never happened. For the 1990s Yankees, it all worked out in the end.

This was the era of growth for the Core Four (Posada, Jeter, Williams, Rivera), who should have been the Core Five (had Brien Taylor made it). But, more importantly, it was the era of Gene Michael as general manager and Buck Showalter as manager, an they are really the stars of this story. Michael sought players with the best on-base-percentage and Showalter forged a new Yankee identity and culture.

The author pulled from a wide array of interviews and other sources, some contemporary and some recently recorded. In the end it's a rags to riches tale complete with good guys and bad guys, tragedy and comedy. And for baseball fans from any city, the list of names provide a time machine within itself, offering safe transport back to the mid-90s, mostly pre-steroid era.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Somebody to Love by Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne

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Why I Read It: I think my interest was piqued by the recent Queen movie (which I haven't yet seen).

Summary: "The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury," as stated in the subtitle.

My Thoughts: One of the first album covers I ever really examined was A Night at the Opera, back when I was a child, at a friend's house. Rock music was new to me, my parents having been born in the '40s and firmly entrenched in late '50s, early '60s safe, clean music. The giant robotic-looking creature on the cover was enough to make me want to know more. The needle hit the vinyl.

Queen was definitely part of the background soundtrack of my youth.

I bought their greatest hits 1 & 2 compilation on cassette as an early teen. I knew all the songs, and can still sing them to this day, even learned to play a few on the keyboard. I was 14 when they blazed a new star across the sky at Live Aid, and in college when Freddie died. I remember the fact that he was a Zoroastrian being delivered in a history class discussion lab as a tidbit of information I should know. For some reason, it was one of the few facts that stuck with me through the years about his life.

I didn't know the deep story. The authors of this book bring it to light. What we basically have is a confluence of three major forces. We have the arrival of a deadly virus at the moment that gay promiscuity is at its zenith in hotspots around the world, during a time when governmental leaders are slow to respond with research funding. Freddie Mercury was unfortunate to catch the disease when there was no cure, and when world leaders weren't interested in stopping the spread of "gay cancer."

It's hard to know how to react to Freddie. The authors attempt to connect the dots from his adult lifestyle - the constant search for love, the excesses of drugs, drink and sex, the need for control and power - to his boarding school upbringing, and perhaps they have something. He reveled in the power that his status as a stadium-sellout rock star afforded him, used it and abused it. He had a deeply caring side, but was quick to shun those around him he no longer wanted around.

Nobody could ever say he "had it coming to him," at least not in the specific sense of AIDS draining his lifeforce away at a young age. Aside from being a cruel thought, it's not as if he, or anyone else, ever thought sex-borne diseases could kill; Freddie was in his zone in the gay clubs of New York, Munich and elsewhere as the disease was first being passed around, yet nobody knew "it" existed. There is, though, the sense that the drugs and drinking were going to catch up with him some day. I think it's this sense of invincibility that others exhibit that rubs me the wrong way. It's made me think a little bit less of Freddie, unfortunately.

But Freddie was masterful when in the studio and on stage. If I balance out my personal feelings for his excesses - which I can see now as related to his own inner demons - with my sense of the great, wonderful years of enjoyment his music has brought me, I think there is no competition. I wish Freddie had figured it out and found that somebody to love before it was too late. So many bands of that era are still performing live today. Can anyone imagine another thirty years of original Queen music?

Legacy? He and the generation of people lost to AIDS in the 80s directly led to me sitting in an auditorium at UMASS Amherst for a mandatory "safe sex" lecture with 500 of my classmates in 1991. The world changed in those days.

La Passione by Dianne Hales

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Why I Read It: Sono Italiano...

Summary: The subtitle is "How Italy seduced the world," through the arts, architecture, food, etc.

My Thoughts: I've had the pleasure. I know the Italians. I'm related to them.

Although I'm a few generations removed from "the boat," through most of my youth I worked, ate, lived and did everything else with "real" Italians. And I've visited Italy, seen the passion in person, so I get what the author is talking about.

And she's got a great point. Italians do pour their hearts into what they do, seeking perfection in everything. She brings the point home with one simple sentiment, that whether it's a major commissioned work of art or his grandmother's sauce, an Italian will pour his soul into making it just exactly as it should be: perfect.

That pursuit of excellence comes with raw emotion. While many of the early examples in this book come with tales of debauchery, or just plain old randiness, many Italians that I know have a brashness and outspokenness that is endearing; they want what they want out of themselves, and if they don't get it, they throw emotion at it.

I remember my great uncle, a butcher, who once gave me two small steaks and told me that if they weren't the greatest steaks I'd ever tasted, well, then, I didn't deserve to call myself Italian. I told my wife the story as we prepared them, and we laughed. "Silly old fool," I said. "I'm sure we'll enjoy them anyway." Then we bit into them. As the kids say today, O.M.G.

I remember one night at a friend's house, at a going away party for him as he was returning to his olive trees back in the old country. He had my go with him to pick up the pizzas that he ordered: one large cheese, nine large anchovy. The room was raucous, in two languages. At one point, someone said to me, "Hey, America and Italy, always good friends, right?" Stupidly, I put my history degree on display, stating, "Well, not always. Remember when Socialists were blowing up bombs on Wall Street back in World War I. Even Mussolini..." That did it. The whole room fell silent as the oldest member of the group put has hand high on my wrist, looked me in the eye, paused, and said, "What you say about Mussolini?" The room erupted. Yelling and screaming came from all corners as opinions flew, my dad and I wondering whether or not we would escape alive. In the midst of the furor, our friend looked over at us, big beaming smile on his face, and winked. The very craziness of it all was making his heart explode with joy. Now this was a sendoff.

And I could go on, through aunts, uncles, grandparents, even my great-grandmother. As I read this book, I flashed back to all of them, as the author discussed all of the passions of the Italian people. I nodded my head as I went, and at one point thought to myself, "My god, she hasn't even gotten to wine yet. Or opera. Or cars!" By that point the point of the book was well taken. It's not just one or two things, it's everything. If it's worth doing, for an Italian, it's worth doing perfectly.

I tried to consider another nationality that matches this passion. I feel like the Japanese have the same pursuit of perfection, but that they are much more reserved in their emotional expressions attached t it. I'm sure there are plenty of others, but, boy, could I identify with this book. It made me want to go back "home" and see it all again.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

They Said It Couldn't Be Done by Wayne Coffey

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Why I Read It: 
A review for Amazon Vine, and I'm always in for another baseball book.

Summary: The 1969 Mets. The Amazin' Mets. The Miracle Mets.

My Thoughts: Sadly, the Mets dynasty was gone by the time I started watching baseball. I was born in '71, and the Mets had given way to the Reds as the major National League power by the time I could say "Jim Rice."

But what a team it was! It's incredible to think of having Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman at the front of the rotation with Tug McGraw and - oh, you know - Nolan Ryan, out in the bullpen. Holy cow...

The lineup was not full of Hall of Famers by any means, but it was filled with characters and B+ players who somehow came together to have the best years of their careers. And there were so many different storylines and themes to what happened that year. Woodstock. The moon landing. The Vietnam War and its many attendant protests. What a pivotal moment in American history.

There was, too, the right man for the job at the time, Manager Gil Hodges. Already a baseball hero in the city, he took the reins of the team in time to steer them to their first championship, dragging them out of the depths of...Metdom.

There is a great sadness at the end of the book, as the Mets moment is symbolic of a last burst of positivity for a city about to enter a great decline. By the middle of the 1970s, the city would be bankrupt, even on fire in places. The 1969 Mets hearken back to a simpler time - one replete with its own problems, like turbulent themes around racism and such - but a time of hope, when the impossible was possible. The author weaves in player memories with fan memories, the thoughts of kids who carried off pieces of World Series champion turf, and the children of the stars themselves. This was a World Series victory for all, and the author writes it that way.

Deer's Isle's Undefeated America's Cup Crews by Mark J. Gabrielson

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Why I Read It: 
A trade with a friend.

Summary: The tale of "Humble Heroes from a Downeast Island" who become entangled in the world of the America's Cup around the beginning of the twentieth century.

My Thoughts: I think this is a topic that could be discussed for years.

First, there is simply the basic optics of the thing. Need a good crew? Rather than piece one together through trials and tryouts and the associated tribulations, just go to a great sailing center and find a group of strong seasoned sailors. It makes sense, right?

But, there is a deeper layer to this whole discussion. The fact that the same thing was happening in England at the same time should be the tip off. There were major class distinctions between the haves and have-nots in the Victorian Age, between the monied class and the working class. There is a certain feeling of noblesse oblige involved in this story, of the gentlemen of higher society championing the laborers of the day, and it feels somewhat...dirty.

As for the sailing story itself, it's a good one. It's certainly true that the Deer Isle men knew their stuff. One wonders how well they knew it, though. Allegations of cheating flew back and forth between the competitors, and it would have been easy to pin the blame on the working men without much chance of loss on the part of the boat owners. But were the crews privy to the design elements that made the allegations come to light? At the time, it seemed, no. A half century later, the last surviving sailors seemed to indicate they knew exactly what was going on.

In the end we don't know much about the crews, simply due to a lack of historic documentation. We know they played an interesting role in the history of the oldest sporting trophy in North America, though, and that makes enough for a fun read into a specific moment in that history.

Indianapolis: A Circle City History by Jeffrey Tenuth

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Why I Read It: I've visited Indianapolis twice in a year, after never having been there for the balance of my life. Figured I had to do it.

Summary: A brief overview of two centuries of the history of the city.

My Thoughts: It's an odd thing, when you grow up on the ocean, to consider landlocked life. And by that I don't mean like a few miles inland. I mean hundreds of miles from the ocean. In a strange way, such a history is fascinating to me.

With 148 or so pages to work, in the Arcadia "Making of America" series, the author does a good job of capturing the basics. It's a harder job than one would think, as there is much more left out of the book than can be put into it. what gets excluded? It's not an easy task.

In the end, its a hovering view, a drone's-eye explanation of the life of the city. It's a focus on the economic engines that have driven the city's growth through time, the transportation, the industry, and now the tourism. And it's enjoyable, from the first house (you decide who it belonged to, as the city's historians can't figure it out) to about 2004. That's when the book was published, so there could be a nice addendum capturing the last decade and a half.

I've walked around the city's center, on breaks during conferences, and have had a soaring view of the White River State Park, from high in one of the hotels now capturing the tourists. I've enjoyed getting to know the city, and feel I know it a little better now that I've read this book.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

108 Stitches by Ron Darling

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Why I Read It: I'm a sucker for any baseball bio...even one by a Met.

Summary: A deep dive on the author's teammates.

My Thoughts: All kidding aside about the Mets, I always respected Ron Darling for his accomplishments on the field. I had never looked deeply, though, at his pre-pro ball life. Thankfully, this book cleared up a lot of that for me.

I never connected him to Massachusetts. Broadcasters were always quick to point out that he was born in Hawaii when he played, as that made him seem exotic. But he grew up in the Worcester area, in a little town I've visited on a few occasions. His youthful memories of sports heroes are the same as mine. No matter what story he tells, he has a parallel story that relates back to the Red Sox. And so, it was odd that to get his World Series ring, he had to beat the team of his childhood heroes.

But that, he explains, is baseball. Coddled and nurtured on the way up, all the way through Yale, he had no idea what to expect when he hit the minors, and was rudely awakened to the fact that baseball is at its heart a business, where players are commodities that drive wins and losses, and ultimately gate receipts and other sources of revenue for billionaires. Hometown allegiances mean nothing in the end.

He took a fun approach to this book. He wanted it to be about his teammates, so he sought out a complete database of all of them. He wanted it to show interconnection, like the never-ending seam of 108 stitches that cover a baseball. He links players to stories from different eras, showing how some come around again through time. He tries to show us how transient and, quite frankly, crazy, the life of a ball player can be. There are so many moving parts, from players who get signed, traded and released, to coaches who pop from organization to organization and played with players from the previous generation, and were coached by the one before that.

There are a lot of laughs in this book, as well as some contrition. Darling is a good man, and regrets the way he treated certain teammates in certain moments. He chalks it up to the idiocy of youth, but doesn't use it an excuse.

My one regret about the book is that there is an "in my day" moment at the end of the book, something I just wish he'd avoided altogether. Yes, the game is changing; every American sports fan knows that. But that, too, is baseball. I'll betcha Ty Cobb hated watching Babe Ruth smash all his home runs, But evolution is evolution. It happens everywhere, all the time. Baseball will continue to change, sometimes in an accelerated fashion, sometimes slowly. Let it ride, Ron.

So, think '80s Mets, '90s A's, New York City, broadcasting and growing up a Red Sox fan, and you have the basis for a great book.