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Ever since the early days of baseball, there have been those who seek to gain a competitive advantage through various forms of chicanery. And while there are certainly rules regarding the way in which the game is played and the conduct maintained while playing it, players have always pushed the envelope, seeking to come as close to the line as possible … and sometimes crossing it.

The largest cheating scandal of the past few years involved the Houston Astros, who put together an elaborate scheme combining high- and low-tech techniques to steal the signs of their opponents and gain an advantage – an advantage that took them all the way to a World Series championship before later revelations brought the whole thing tumbling down.

Andy Martino’s new book “Cheated: The Inside Story of the Astros Scandal and a Colorful History of Sign Stealing” (Doubleday, $28) takes the reader inside that scheme, introduces us to the primary figures in its execution and discusses its aftermath. It also takes a trip through the history of sign stealing, a form of gamesmanship that has always been a part of the sport even as it has invited controversy along the way.

It’s a well-reported and well-written book, one that details the extent of the Astros’ sins while also showing that while this recent scandal might be the one most prominent in our memories, it is far from the only time that a team has crossed a line in its efforts to gain a better understanding of (and advantage over) their opponents.

Published in Sports
Wednesday, 19 May 2021 11:01

‘Total Olympics’ goes for the gold

I love the Olympics.

There’s something so captivating about watching someone at the peak of their performance do what it is that they do best. This notion of being recognized as the literal best in the world at something – fascinating.

And that’s what the Olympics do. They celebrate the glory of athletic achievement (as well as nationalistic jingoism and bureaucratic graft, but still).

There’s more to the Olympics than the winners, however. For every famous gold medalist’s face gracing a Wheaties box, there are scores of stories of those who were just as excellent, yet now linter in obscurity. Not to mention those who, for whatever reason, never quite reached the same iconic pinnacle. And just like anything that has been around for more than a century (or centuries, if you start counting from its Greek origins), a lot has changed – both good and bad.

These are the sorts of stories that you’ll find in Jeremy Fuchs’s new book “Total Olympics: Every Obscure, Hilarious, Dramatic and Inspiring Tale Worth Knowing” (Workman Publishing, $22.95). Yes, you’ll get stories of the giants of various eras – Jim Thorpe, Jesse Owens, Mark Spitz, Mary Lou Retton, Michael Phelps – but you’ll also be reminded of (or learn for the first time) names of exceptional athletes with less longstanding cultural resonance.

In addition, Fuchs has brought forward numerous tales of Olympic history, digging into some of the behind-the-scenes chicanery that came with hosting the event and revisiting some of the wild and weird competitions that were once part of the proceedings.

It’s a compact and fun trip through the history of the Games, a catch-all of trivia, biographical sketches and fascinating forgotten moments. Anyone with affection for the Olympics will find plenty to enjoy in these pages.

Published in Sports

Of all American professional sports, baseball is the one that is most enamored of its own history. Celebrating the past is a big part of the game, looking back at the legends and comparing the players of today with those from previous generations.

The thing with history, however, is that it isn’t always good. And baseball isn’t immune from that reality; there are plenty of unfortunate truths scattered throughout the misty fictions of the game’s rose-colored retrospect.

Among the most scandalous of the pastime’s past times is the throwing of the 1919 World Series by the Chicago White Sox. Dubbed the Black Sox scandal, this was the story of eight players from the White Sox conspiring with gamblers to fix the Series in favor of the Cincinnati Reds. But despite rumors and whispers about the fix that began before that Series even reached a conclusion, it wasn’t until the fall of 1920 that the wheels of justice truly began to turn.

Eight players – first baseman Chick Gandil, third baseman Buck Weaver, shortstop Swede Risberg, utility infielder Fred McMullin, pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams and outfielders Happy Felsch and Joe Jackson – would ultimately be banned from the game for life for their actions, though they took varying degrees of responsibility; some confessed, some recanted and some professed their innocence until their dying day.

Baseball historian Don Zminda’s “Double Plays and Double Crosses: The Black Sox and Baseball in 1920” (Rowman & Littlefield, $36) offers an in-depth look at the White Sox during that 1920 season, digging into the details in an effort to illustrate how the looming shadow of the scandal may have impacted the team – both on the field and off – all while also addressing the other historic happenings of that season, from the cultural explosion of Babe Ruth’s record-breaking bat to the tragic death of Ray Chapman, the last MLB player to die from being struck by a pitched ball.

It’s also a look into the convoluted path that justice took, with backbiting and infighting among the game’s supposed guardians leading to sham investigations and other CYA behaviors that would ultimately result in the powers that be deciding that baseball needed an arbiter, thus leading to the creation of the office of the Commissioner, first occupied by Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, whose lengthy tenure would create ripple effects of its own.

Published in Sports

Quarterback is king in the NFL.

Strong quarterback play has always been an important part of success on the football field. But in today’s pass-prominent game, a high level of performance from the QB has become even more vital. One could make the argument – and plenty do – that the quarterback is the most important single player in professional team sports. You need a good one, if not a great one.

But how do you find one?

Brian Billick is a former NFL head coach with a Super Bowl ring and a current gig as an analyst for the NFL Network – certainly someone with some insight into the importance of having a great QB and what goes into developing such greatness. His new book – co-authored with James Dale – is “The Q Factor: The Elusive Search for the Next Great NFL Quarterback” (Twelve Books, $28), an in-depth exploration of what goes into finding and developing QB excellence.

Using the QB-heavy draft of 2018 as a jumping-off point – five passers were selected in the first round – Billick delves into the specifics of quarterback greatness and some of the tools evaluators can use to determine if the guy they see now can become what they need him to be later. With plenty of attention to detail and some great macro and micro perspectives, Billick deconstructs the path to greatness and how a little improvement in determining that path can go a long way.

Published in Sports

They say that history is written by the victors. But so too are the victors most often the ones written into history.

That fact is even truer in the sporting realm than it is elsewhere. By its very nature, sport is concerned with winners and losers. And while those who win are celebrated and lauded in the years that follow, their victory burnished by the sheer volume of memory – what of those who fall short? What of those who reach the pinnacle, only to be stopped just short.

“Losers: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scorecard” (Penguin, $17) is a collection of pieces devoted to looking at those who never quite reached the top of the mountain. Edited by Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas – both of whom also have work included within – this assemblage of essays spans more than a century of athletic near-misses.

All told, there are 22 pieces here, 14 of which are previously unpublished. Every one of them is devoted to exploring what it means to lose, to be beaten. The reasons behind their shortfalls vary – some are faced with legendary opposition, while others simply deal with a bad day or bad luck – but all of them find ways to reflect the impact of almost. Some of these stories are funny, while others are sad and still others inspire, but all of them together paint a portrait of the truth behind loss. It’s a compelling journey through the competitive landscape, with all manner of sport and athlete represented.

Published in Sports

Few institutions are as reverent of their own history as sport. And few sports achieve the level of self-reverence of golf, thanks to the game’s lengthy history and cultural reputation. Tradition is important, whether we’re talking about the larger picture or the specifics of the game itself.

And yet, technological evolution is inevitable. If there is an element of competition involved, there will always be those seeking ways in which to give themselves an advantage. There will always be someone pushing the envelope in ways that clash with the conventional wisdom.

That clash is at the center of “Golf’s Holy War: The Battle for the Soul of a Game in an Age of Science” (Avid Reader Press, $28) by Brett Cyrgalis. It’s a look at the rapidly diverging worlds of golf instruction, one rooted firmly in the ways of the past and one seeking out the bleeding edge, one that explores the perceived pros and cons of both approaches while also spending considerable time with those who would espouse a particular school of thought.

It’s a book about golf, yes, but one that also seeks to be about more than golf, using the sport as a way into a discussion about our relationship with technology writ large and what that means not just for the future, but for our engagement with the past.

Published in Sports

Baseball is a game of decisions, both on the field and off it. And when we talk about Major League Baseball, well – there are A LOT of choices that need to be made. Whether we’re talking about in-game strategy or front office maneuvering, the sport is rife with opportunities to make decisions.

But how do we know if they’re the right ones? How do we know if we’re truly making optimal choices or if we’re being guided (or misguided) by subconscious belief systems and biases of which we may not even be fully aware?

Answers to those questions are among the many things that Keith Law is delving into with his new book “The Inside Game: Bad Calls, Strange Moves, and What Baseball Behavior Teaches Us About Ourselves” (William Morrow, $28.99). It’s an effort to make accessible the behavioral science behind the inherent biases that can impact our decisions, baseball or otherwise.

By walking us through the conscious and unconscious influences that impact how baseball works, Law gives us a new perspective on the intricacies of the sport – a perspective that matches the more data-driven and analytically-inclined model followed by 21st century practitioners of the game.

Published in Sports

When I first heard about “The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball's Afterlife” (University of Nebraska Press, $27.95) by Brad Balukjian, my reaction was pure and basic: “God, that’s a f---ing good idea.”

Even after a decade-plus of literary reviews, I can count on one hand the times that I was legitimately envious of the idea behind a book. Not necessarily the best books or the most interesting books, but the ones with an underlying premise that spoke directly to me.

“The Wax Pack” is one of those.

Balukjian, a lifelong baseball fan, undertook a simple, yet deeply fascinating adventure. He bought a pack of Topps baseball cards from 1986, the year he got into collecting. He popped the decades-old gum into his mouth and flipped through the 15 cards, regaling himself with ghosts of seasons past. And then, he packed up his life and embarked on an epic road trip, a cross-country voyage in which he hoped to make contact with the players he found when he peeled the paper from the titular wax pack.

The result is something unexpected, a thoughtful exploration of fandom that also serves as a glimpse of the different directions a faded athlete might go. And in the process of delving into this sports-loving memory hole, Balukjian himself becomes more present, undertaking an effort to look back at his own history.

Published in Sports

It might be tough to fathom, considering we’re still in the deep freeze of winter, but baseball season is just around the corner. Spring training begins in just a matter of weeks; before you know it, there will be meaningful action on the diamond once again.

But maybe you’re looking for something to tide you over, to remind you of just why we love the game as much as we do. If that sounds like you – and you’re a Red Sox fan – I might have something for you.

Martin Gitlin’s “The Ultimate Boston Red Sox Time Machine Book” (Lyons Press, $18.95) is a lovely quick-hit journey through Red Sox history, from those early days of success at the dawning of the World Series era to the incredible success of recent days, as well as the long, long, LONG stretch of championship futility that dogged the team through most of the 20th century.

This book offers a condensed timeline of the team’s illustrious history, featuring a number of classic photos to go along with the tales of tribulation and triumph. And while many of these stories will ring familiar to longtime followers of the team, there’s something here for every level of fandom, from the neophytes to the diehards.

Published in Sports
Tuesday, 18 June 2019 19:34

Roger Dodger – ‘They Bled Blue’

Perhaps more than any other sport, baseball is entangled with its history. Even as we witness magnificent feats in the present, our eyes turn ever toward the past. Whether it is through statistics or stories, baseball fans love to look back.

Author Jason Turbow has a knack for transporting us to times gone by and thoroughly revisiting players and teams from the game’s history. We’re not talking about grainy black-and-white history, however – these are teams whose memories are still vivid in the minds of fans of a certain age.

His latest is “They Bled Blue: Fernandomania, Strike-Season Mayhem, and the Weirdest Championship Baseball Had Ever Seen: The 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26). That mouthful of a title looks back nearly 40 years, digging into the particulars of an iconic franchise during one of the strangest seasons baseball had ever seen.

Seriously – the sport had never seen anything quite like the 1981 Dodgers. From the full-on phenomenon that was Fernando Valenzuela to the era-ending turn from one of the game’s longest-serving infields, from a season split in two by labor strife to the strangest postseason set-up ever, it was a time of turmoil and triumph.

Published in Sports
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