Book Review: Up, Up, & Away

jonahkeriupup&awayJonah Keri has completed the keystone work of his young life with Up, Up, & Away: The Kid, The Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, Le Grand Orange, Youppi!, The Crazy Business of Baseball, & the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos. While Keri surely will continue to be one of the top baseball writers of this generation, he was born to write this book about his dearest baseball love.

The book tells the full story of the Expos franchise, beginning with pre-Expos baseball in Montreal, which included the minor league Montreal Royals, a team that counted Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente among its alumni, through the bitter end and the franchise’s departure to Washington, D.C. Readers learn about Montreal and the men who brought Major League Baseball to that city (and Canada) and administered it while it was there, but Up, Up, & Away really is a fan’s story of the talented characters who wore the red, white, and powder blue.

The Expos generally had two peaks in their thirty-five-year history. The first came in the early 1980s, Continue reading

Flying Tigers: Actually Mad Max

maxscherzersportsillustratedcover

Detroit starting pitcher Max Scherzer is the subject of this week’s Sports Illustrated cover story. The cover’s headline is “Mad Max’s $144 Million Bet,” and it asks whether Scherzer “Made a Dumb Wager on His Future.” Scherzer, who wanted all contract discussions to end by the time the season started regardless of whether he reached a new agreement with the Tigers, was not happy with the way SI framed the story about him, telling the Free Press he was “frustrated that they chose to put the contract stuff on the cover.” The reigning Cy Young Award winner elaborated:

When they approached us, [Tigers media relations] and I, we specifically asked not to make the story around the contract. … They assured us it wasn’t going to be like that. They chose a different route, and we felt like we were lied to and misled.

I didn’t want it to be about that. I’m a baseball player. I want to talk baseball. It’s frustrating when you get lied to about that.

The magazine responded that they knew Scherzer did not want to discuss his contract situation “in detail,” but stated that they did not make any promises about how they might present that subject in the context of the article.

The article itself (I’ll post a link once it’s available online) really does not spend much time on the contract issue at all. It’s mentioned roughly twice in the feature but never substantively analyzed. On the whole, the article actually is a nice profile of Max at an important stage of his career. It spends far more time discussing his analytical development at Missouri– the importance of the pitch following a 1-1 count, for example– and his development of a curveball with Detroit pitching coach Jeff Jones than it does his employment status and prospects.

The sensationalism of the cover’s “$144 Million Bet” language, described as a “dramatic $144 million offer” on the article’s introductory page, has the look of an editor’s efforts to boost general interest in the piece and the magazine as a whole. That introductory page asks, “What does [Scherzer] know that we don’t?” If that really was the question author Albert Chen was seeking to answer when he interviewed Max and wrote this article, he surely would have spent more time discussing broader matters of age, endurance, and pitcher decline than he did.

Those topics are there, of course, and so is the contract. It would be irresponsible not to include all of that in a Scherzer profile published this week. But Chen’s article doesn’t deliver on the sensational promises of his editor’s cover, and readers should be glad it doesn’t. They’ll learn a lot more about Scherzer in Chen’s article and have a more enjoyable time doing so than they would from a poorly sourced pot-stirring piece more suitable for ESPN First Take.     Continue reading

Socializing endurance athletics

The Wall Street Journal has a sports section, something that came along with, or at least greatly expanded following, News Corp.’s takeover of the paper in 2007. It’s sort of what you might expect: a mixed-bag of quality in writing and presentation with more emphasis on tennis and sailing than other sports pages. It features writing from some really smart, talented people like Jason Gay and, formerly, David Roth (of Classical fame and now in an expanded role at SB Nation), and we try to feature those smart articles on this site. Because the paper doesn’t have to uphold a reputation as a source for sports– the move to expand sports coverage appears to be aimed at increasing website clicks– its “sports writers” might be more likely to come to their sports articles with varying backgrounds and varying levels of commitment to the sports world. Once in a while, it even feels like the WSJ’s editorial board drops in on the sports section, and that’s the feeling I had when I read last week’s article about running.

A “generational battle is raging in endurance athletics,” the article announces. “Old-timers are suggesting that performance-related apathy [exists] among young amateur athletes,” which “helps explain why America hasn’t won an Olympic marathon medal since 2004,” among other things.

There are numbers that support the conclusion that “kids these days [are] just not very fast.” At this year’s Chicago Triathlon, for example, older runners, as a group, did better than younger runners. Younger American runners are not surpassing older ones in world competition.  Continue reading

The NHL is back. Here’s the best thing you can read about it.

The NHL freezeout finally thawed a few days ago, and like the slow, first drips of a spring melt, hockey writers’ earnest material is starting to trickle out. Breakdowns of the new CBA. Recommendations for how the league can bring back the fans. Wonderings about whether the league is better off as a lesser sports entity. Psychoanalyses of players who might not want to come back to the NHL. Discoveries of a beauty pageant winner’s role in the 2011 Vancouver hockey riots. Something about junior hockey championships. Remembrances of the Great One. I’ve read it all.

I’ve read it all, and it’s all fine, but none of it really satisfies. Just textual workouts over the same old themes. Nothing revelatory or even thought-provoking. None of it, at least, until the last hockey article I read, which might be the last stretch of hockey writing I read until I can get my hands on a commemorative magazine retrospective of my team’s Stanley Cup-winning run.

I don’t care if you call me biased. (Our phone lines are down anyway.) But if you dismiss this piece because I’ve declared my position on the author’s merits and you assume I prejudged the article and was going to like it and highlight it regardless, you’ll miss out on the best bit of post-most-recent-lockout hockey writing and the best swatch of sports writing in recent memory.

Norm Macdonald’s latest article is a short story in two parts– two short stories, really– with some light humor, of course, but more compellingly, real, emotional, suspenseful, rising action conveyed in absolutely compelling fashion with two lovely turns of phrase, one for each part.

I hope I haven’t over-hyped it for you the way that one girl over-hyped Shanghai Knights back in high school. Bring your expectations back to norm(al) levels and click here.

Ring tones: Two raconteurs battle to tell the tale of Boom Boom Mancini

Boxing is and remains at the nexus of raw athleticism and raw celebrity, and its literary and musical ties are no less strong today for the decrease in volume of evidence of those ties that reasonably tracks the decrease in the sport’s popularity. I don’t feel any special need to perpetuate the sport except that I would hate to see it go, which is why I try to keep an eye on it here. (Click the “boxing” tag at the bottom of this post for past coverage.)

I was looking forward to reading this interview with Boom Boom Mancini’s latest biographer, and although I did learn some interesting details about the fighter’s life, the interview wasn’t anything special. It did recall an earlier Mancini biographer, though, who gives a crisp, thundering delivery:

(I also think more boxing matches should take place outside.)

ALDLAND Pen Pal Project: Floyd Mayweather

Floyd Mayweather is in jail. He doesn’t want to be in jail, and he especially doesn’t want to be in solitary confinement. And even though his confinement hasn’t prevented him from winning a fourth ESPY as fighter of the year or becoming the highest paid athlete in the world (and interestingly, the only member of the top 25 on that list to get there with $0.00 in endorsements).

For Floyd, though, everything, including the money, really is all about the attention, which brings us to the tweet that showed up on his account this week:

Perhaps we, the writers and readers of ALDLAND, should collaborate to send Floyd a letter. Please add your contribution in the comment section, below.

Think you understand the new college football playoff system?

Today, USA Today makes sure you don’t:

Endorsement is expected Tuesday for an historic four-team major college football playoff – only there’ll be more to the new system than that.

It likely will entail a total of seven games each year, including four top-tier bowls apart from the playoff, according to two officials involved in the discussions. They spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because those details haven’t been publicly released.

All told, the system would incorporate six bowls. Two would rotate each year as playoff semifinal sites, and the other four would serve as attractive landing spots for the best non-playoff teams.

The playoff final – the national championship game – would be put up for bid.

Conference commissioners endorsed the concept of a four-team playoff last week, and will meet Tuesday in Washington, D.C., with an oversight committee of university presidents and chancellors. Those CEOs have final say.

Coming out of meetings in Chicago last week, many of the details of the playoff and bowl plan remained to be worked out.

The “most likely” overall format, one of the officials told USA TODAY, would complement the three-game playoff with four bowls. Among other things, those bowls would accommodate teams that win conference championships but don’t make the playoff or can’t play in their affiliated bowl – for instance, the Rose in the case of a Big Ten champion – because the bowl is serving as a semifinal.

The system would allow the top-tier bowls and conferences to maintain their ties and continue to give marquee-league champions access to high-profile, high-paying postseason games.

This all is separate from the national championship game. An existing bowl could bid for it separately.

The full story online is here.

Scrutiny of the Bounty: An Epilogue

The prequel and pretension past, along with the run-of-the-mill fodder, we found ourselves– thanks to a reader tip– staring down the barrel of epiloguist Jen Floyd Engel’s perspective-granting long lens in the form of her piece for Fox Sports, “Blaming Saints is height of hypocrisy.” Looking back on the NFL bounty story, Engel seeks to contextualize the thematic strands of that story with those of another and mix in a bit of stern-faced judgment for total effect. Standard-issue English 110.

I can’t specifically recall reading anything of Engel’s before, although I surely have, but the first stumbling point for me came before I even made it to the text. Maybe I still am crotchety after Charles P. Pierce’s bit on this matter, but as someone slightly out of the mold in the nomenclature realm, I have to wonder why Engel goes (presumably) nickname, middle name, last name. If she wants distinction, isn’t Jennifer Floyd Engel the way to do it? For example, Pierce doesn’t use Chuck P. Pierce (although Google suggests he sometimes uses Charlie, but where he does, he drops the middle initial (Google doesn’t know Pierce’s full middle name)). But ok, enough.

After “soak[ing] in all of the moral outrage and denunciations” of NOLA football, Engel shares with us her “first thought”: “Who will play Barry Bonds in this ‘sports tragedy’”?

Huh? Hopefully no one! Why would anyone bring Barry Bonds into this? Watch out sophomore seminar in comparative literature, here comes one now.

Continue reading

Scrutiny of the Bounty: Chapter 2 – The Pretension

The prequel to this story solidly in the rearview mirror, we’ve moved past the command performances of the shock and the horror, and it’s time for the heavy-hitters to weigh in. They haven’t necessarily taken more time to consider the issues presented, even though they usually write for publications that facilitate such pondering through less-frequent publication schedules, but they are Voices, and so they must speak. Why look, here comes Charles P. Pierce right now!

I like Pierce’s writing a lot– he’s Grantland’s best writer– but his last couple articles have fallen off a bit for me. His previous one, about Ryan Braun, definitely felt rushed and awkwardly framed. What bothers me about politics coming through in sportswriting isn’t that I might not agree with the writer’s policy preferences or that I think politics and sports have no overlap (Congress and baseball excepted). It’s that a political lens often seems simultaneously inapplicable and overemphasized. In other words, it’s very unlikely that you are Hunter Thompson and that Richard Nixon is living in the White House phoning in plays for the Redskins. (Quite unlikely, since they’re both dead.) Sometimes it’s best to keep your separate worlds separate. (That’s my experience, anyway.) The point is that Ryan Braun’s situation doesn’t really have much to tell us about our overlord oppressors and the historical War on Drugs.

Follow that up with Pierce’s swing at Gregg Williams’ bounty program, which oozes pretension from the get-go. First-sentence Harvard name drop? Check. First paragraph West Wing reference? Check. We’ve got a mini-thesis on the Mesoamerican ball game before we even scrape the surface of the illusory NFL, with its “silly pretensions” (as opposed to the serious ones that he employs), “preposterous prayer circles,” and “the  dime-store Americanism that’s draped on anything that moves.” Oh, and how could we forget the “suffocating corporate miasma,” whatever that means. The word “Queegish” soon follows, and I realize it’s past my bedtime here in flyover country.

The crux of Pierce’s high-minded caterwauling is a more hushed, but apparently equally urgent Denny Green moment: The Saints’ crime was showing us in daylight that the NFL is what we thought, in the darkness of our willfully ignorant minds, it was. That’s fine. Loss of innocence isn’t not an angle of approach here. It does seem like, though, if football still had its shroud of innocence, it would’ve gone with more of a bang. The head injury issue probably fits the bill a little better, if we’re looking for a recent example, but nobody asked me, and I think we’ve known the real deal about football for awhile.

Next to drummed up (not to say inauthentic) outrage, an apparently necessary exercise in which the horribles are trotted out and reacted to as if witnessed for the first time, and now we’re nearly into a mad libs piece adapted from a reflection on McGwire and Sosa’s home run chase after the word was out on steroids.

This is getting boring to write, which may say something about your experience in reading it. The point is that I am disappointed in Pierce’s article because it seems so unoriginal, overreactionary, and unessential. I never did get into Gregg Easterbrook, but based on what Drew Magary tells me, I think Pierce could be his liberal brother. Pretension is what happens when the stuff that you get to do when you’re a really good writer outpaces and overburdens the thing that made you a good writer in the first place. That’s one way to get to it anyway.

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Related:
Scrutiny of the Bounty: A prequel

Sports Book Hall of Fame: Days of Grace (via Grantland)

Many athletes have been referred to as being bigger than their sport. Michael Jordan was larger than basketball because kids in every corner of the Earth wanted to be “Like Mike” and had the no. 23 Bulls jersey to prove it, even if it was one of their few pieces of clothing. Muhammad Ali transcended boxing because his mouth and his beliefs made him as much of a cultural icon as his powerful fists and quick feet. Ashe was a brilliant athlete, but he was so much more. For him, tennis seemed more like a means to an end, and that final end was the completion of Days of Grace. Ashe wanted to be great, but he was far more concerned with his true greatness coming off the court than between the chalk. … Read More

(via Grantland)