Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Book Review: Going Deep by Cris Carter and Jeffri Chadiha

Going Deep by Cris Carter with Jeffri Chadiha is a conventional player memoir with some additional analysis of the recent evolution of the receiver position. While the second half of that premise may sound appealing, Carter's NFL reflections fall firmly into the realm of David Foster Wallace's mass-market "sports-star-'with'-somebody-autobiography and the sections on the position in general contain little original insight. There were a few interesting sections and the book was a quick and rather painless read but there is little for me to recommend for the general football fan because Carter is treading on very familiar territory.

Despite being subtitled "How Wide Receivers Became the Most Compelling Figures in Pro Sports" the book is primarily focused on Carter's playing days. He begins by noting the increasing prominence of wide receivers beginning with rule changes in the late seventies but then follows the rather generic template of the athletic memoir. Carter guides us through his youth career, college career at Ohio State, and sixteen years in the NFL with the Eagles, Vikings, and Dolphins. Thee are some candid passages on his dealings with agent Norby Walters that caused him to leave Ohio State before his senior year and enter the supplemental draft and dealing with substance abuse, but unfortunately even these portions are marred by pedestrian prose and cliched athlete platitudes common to the genre.

 Carter does intersperse his life story with some analysis of the position in general.Carter did witness the transformation of the position first-hand over his sixteen seasons in the league, as players such as Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, and Randy Moss and the development of the West Coast Offense and multiple-receiver sets changed how receivers were utilized and perceived on and off the field. He looks at several players who changed the position such as Owens, Moss, and current players such as Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson. However, he doesn't go far beyond the surface level in explaining how this phenomenon came about. His sections on Moss and Fitzgerald are decent because he knew both players personally but in general he just recounts career highlights that will be familiar to the casual football fan. Going Deep feels geared towards the average fan and anyone looking into more insight into strategic developments on the gridiron should look to books such as Ron Jaworski's Games That Changed the Game and Tim Layden's Blood Sweat and Chalk. He does share a few amusing anecdotes about his teammates and a cogent overview on the increased emphasis of television promoting stars (Carter himself is an active participant given his current role on NFL Countdown) and I wish he devoted more ink to both.

In Sum

Going Deep offers a few amusing insights but in general is a pretty generic account of a career in the NFL. It does contain some additional sections on the position in general but there is nothing new in Carter's explanation of the phenomenon, which is a shame given his knowledge and experience as a receiver. It wasn't a boring read and I finished it quickly but there is very little original content (especially to fans interested in higher-level football strategy) and thus I can't recommend it very strongly.


Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Advance Book Review: A Nice Little Place on the North Side by George Will

Wrigley Field was originally built in 1914 to house the Chicago Whales baseball team of the upstart Federal League. Over the next 100 years it has been the site of the second-most regular season NFL games in the league's history (behind only the old Giants Stadium), though the stadium is best known as the home grounds of the Chicago Cubs, who have been tenants since 1915. George Will's breezy A Nice Little Place on the North Side provides a history of the stadium's first hundred years and the monumental, quirky, and oftentimes incompetent events that occurred while the Cubs have called the friendly confines of Wrigley home. Authored by a lifelong Cubs fan with a passion for the game and an eloquent and knowledgeable writer (I definitely need to finally get around to reading Men At Work now), A Nice Place on the North Side is a tribute worthy of Wrigley's stature.

A Nice Place on the North Side is loosely organized into a series of short chapters on a wide-ranging series of topics. Will explores topics such as humanity's history with alcoholic beverages and the social history of Chicago, and such passages may come off as tangential in the hands of weaker writers, Will is usually able to segue nicely back into his primary subject matter. As such segments might suggest, the book is really about far more than a particular ballpark, and is really a reflection the Cubs and being a sports fan in general. Will views the field as a frame for viewing baseball, and while he acknowledges how Wrigley's idiosyncrasies affect the game (old owner P.K. Wrigley saw investing in stadium upgrades and emphasizing the general fan experience (the Cubs were also the first team to allow fans to keep batted balls that fell into the stands) as a more economically viable than paying top dollar for talent) he devotes most of the book to on-field events and the colorful characters who worked as Wrigley employees, from Cubs stars like Ernie Banks to concessionaires such as Jacob Rubinstein, who briefly worked as a vendor in the stadium and was known to place programs into unsuspecting fans' hands and then demand payment (Rubinstein later changed his name to Jack Ruby - yes that one).

The book is very well-researched and contains some fascinating trivia tidbits. While famous for its leisurely introduction of lights and night games, lights were originally supposed to be installed in 1942, but the already-purchased materials were donated to the war effort. In the twenties the Cubs used to let fans stand in the outfield grass behind ropes held by ushers. Fans would move back and pull the rope out (and thus the de facto outfield fence) when opponents hit long fly balls and pull the fence in when Cubs hitters would do the same. I don't know how novel many of the book's factoids will be to die-hard Cubs fans but as a casual baseball fan I found many of them compelling and they my favorite parts of the book. My only real quibble with A Nice Little Place on the North Side is that it is weaker on some of the ballpark's more recent history. Will always draws heavily from primary and secondary sources, but there are times when he leans especially strongly on mainstream (at least to sports fans) works like the 30 for 30 documentary Catching Hell when discussing the Steve Bartman incident and the excellent book Scorecasting in trying to explain the Cubs' overall ineptitude. Both sources offered plenty of insight into their subjects, but Will doesn't provide much additional analysis after summarizing them. Still, the book combs through some obscure and old materials and even major baseball historians should get quite a bit from A Nice Little Place on the North Side.

In Sum

As Will elegantly states late in the book "baseball fans are disposed to live with cricks in their necks from looking backward." I have noticed that more than any other American sport, hardball fans are particularly interested in the history of the game and learning about the legendary players (and stadiums) of yesteryear. Any baseball fan interested in the game's past, regardless of rooting interest, should check out A Nice Little Place on the North Side. It is a quick and light read and Will is able to pack a good bit of history and interesting anecdotes into the book even with its brevity.


Saturday, 14 December 2013

Advance Book Review: Showtime by Jeff Pearlman

Jeff Pearlman has carved out a nice little niche for himself chronicling the more sordid off-the-field aspects of some of the most beloved teams and athletes of yesterday. From Sweetness, a very complicated portrait of Walter Payton that pulled no punches, to books such as Boys Will Be Boys (covering the athletic, litigious, and criminal exploits of the 1990s Cowboys and their staff) and The Bad Guys Won (doing much of the same for the 1986 Mets) the former writer for Sports Illustrated sticks to this rather sound formula for his latest book Showtime, a comprehensive look at the Los Angeles Lakers of the eighties. It is a solid effort that will appeal to basketball fans and readers interested in the glitz, glamor, and excessive amounts of sexual escapades and cocaine in the NBA of the 1980s. 

Pearlman's books are generally longer than the average sports book (for what that's worth) and thus finding engaging subjects is especially crucial. The 1980s Lakers certainly deliver on that front. 
The team was full of enigmatic and idiosyncratic players and leaders such as the womanizing owner Jerry Buss, the egomaniac head coach Pat Riley, the aloof and curmudgeonly Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the preternaturally charismatic Magic Johnson. I could go on but my sentences run on enough as it is. The book is filled with insights and anecdotes from almost everyone associated with the organization over the period and the first-hand accounts are really where the book shines. Chronicles of past seasons can often devolve into re-hashings of the major events of a few seasons without any real additional material provided. To fans of the franchises in question (presumably the bulk of the target audience for something like this) the entire book can feel like a tired recap of events that are already very familiar to them. Showtime is able to mostly avoid this pitfall by featuring constant commentary from individuals such as Magic Johnson and Jeanie Buss among many others. Some of the subjects are incredibly open with the author, especially Spencer Haywood, who admits to a strong cocaine addiction and attempting to have head coach Paul Westhead killed. So while there were certainly times where the season summaries blended into each other and I lost some of my interest, these instances were usually quickly ended by a truly entertaining story or trivia tidbit and the book would then get back on its rails.

Showtime is structured as a chronological history of the Lakers during the period ranging from 1979 (when Jack McKinney took over as head coach) to Magic Johnson's 1991 retirement announcement. It is equally interested in the team's on-field performance as it is with its extracurriculars, of which there were plenty. In addition to winning several championships and introducing "three-peat" into the sports lexicon (and US Patent office) the team engaged in heaping quantities of marital infidelity and featured a seemingly revolving door of truly strange characters (and I'm showing some restraint here by avoiding steering clear of an obvious central casting reference). The team once employed players such as Mark Landsberger who upon joining the team asked Pat Riley "do you guys have any rebounding plays?" and Earl Jones, a two time high-school All-American who decided to attend the Division II University of District of Columbia. Recollections such as how Jones decided to skip a practice and take a $100 fine rather than pay $50 for a taxi to the arena (interesting cost-benefit analysis there) were some of my favorite sections of the book. Pearlman also predictably devotes significant quantities of ink to stars such as Kareem and Magic and he is so meticulous with his research and approach that he is able to share quality material about them as well. 

Overall, while Showtime lacks the shock value of a book like Sweetness (its not like there was ever a Spencer Haywood Man of the Year Award), it is a worthwhile read for basketball fans. Pearlman is a strong writer who diligently mined the media of the era to fill in any gaps from his plethora of interviews. I found some of his on-court descriptions to be generic at times which made the book drag during some portions but on the whole the book was an enjoyable read. There is also definitely enough new information here to appeal to even the most die-hard Laker fans.  

In Sum

Readers familiar with Pearlman's other books will know what to expect here. Showtime is a readable, informative, and entertaining look at the 1980s' greatest NBA team and their associated exploits. There may not be enough interesting material to propel a general sports fan through all 450+ pages but basketball fans will get a lot out of Showtime.