SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Beach Reading

Here are five recommendations for books you might want to read on your favorite beach or by your favorite pool before Labor Day. All are sports-related (mind you, I do read other types of books), and there's a sixth I'll mention even though I've only just begun it. Depending on your interests, all are worth a read.

1. The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry & the Boys of Crenshaw by Michael Sokolove. This book chronicles the 1979 Crenshaw HS baseball team in South Central Los Angeles, a team which featured not only future star Darryl Strawberry, but the talented and enigmatic future Major League third baseman Chris Brown. Many other players were drafted, and the book covers not only their senior season in HS but also what became of these men after high school. It may well be that no inter-city HS produces a squad this good again in our lifetimes. I came away from the book understanding better the problems that befell Darryl Strawberry, and I also came away with some respect for Chris Brown, a player who attracted derision during his career for some of the alleged reasons he couldn't play in a game (or two or three dozen). It's a compelling book for many reasons -- and you'll learn not only how hard it is to make it out of Crenshaw, but also how hard it is to make it past the Major League drafting into becoming a serious prospect.

2. The All Americans by Lars Anderson. Anderson, an SI writer, writes mainly about two former Army players and two former Navy players who played in the 1941 Army-Navy game and fought in World War II. His writing is insightful, and he covers these men on their paths to the service academies as well as in their lives during and after the war. You might not have grown up having heard of Robin Olds, Henry Romanek, Hal Kauffman or William Busik, but these are men worth getting to know. This is an unsung book, and while each generation creates outstanding men and women, there's something to be said for the comment that they don't make men like these anymore.

3. When The Game Stands Tall by Neil Hayes. Don't hold me to the precise numbers -- when "The Streak" started or how many games it lasted, but suffice it to say that this story is about De La Salle HS in Concord, California, the HS football team that won something like 150 games in a row -- fielding a team of roughly 48 players, including several who played both ways. The book is about the school, the team, the beginning of the streak, key games during the streak, and teams that played within the past 3-4 years (the time when Hayes was writing the book). The coach, Bob Ladoceur, is not only a gifted football strategist but an outstanding mentor to young men (and some of the young men are great kids in their own right). His coaches don't recruit (sure, parents and kids talk up the team and the free press that the school gets is amazing), and they don't dole out special favors to football players. The team excels by outworking its opponents -- they start on their strength and conditioning work in January -- by being better prepared, and by creating a unique atmosphere among the players that mandates honesty, responsibility and accountability. The coaches-and-players-only sessions in the garages of parents the night before a game form part of the foundation of this excellent program. Whether you're into football, the rituals that are HS football or even business management, this book is for you. De La Salle HS is all about team, which is why they have been so successful. Sure, they have turned out some outstanding players, but you'll believe Ladoceur when he says that isn't the goal at all. This is a "must" read for parents, coaches and fans.

4. Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. If you want to begin to understand why Brits (and, frankly, most Western Europeans) are nuts about the game we call soccer, read Hornby's book, which is basically a diary of key soccer moments in his life and how they affected him. In the U.S. we have pockets of fanaticism -- baseball in Boston and New York, football in many major cities, ice hockey in Detroit, HS football in Texas and so forth, but all of England seemingly is soccer-crazed (cricket and rugby just aren't national pastimes). I still am not sure I get all of it, but if you want to begin to get it, read the book.

5. Strat-o-Matic Fanatics: The Unlikely Success Story of a Game That Became an American Passion by Glenn Guzzo. This is the story of the great baseball dice game, Strat-o-Matic, that I and many of my friends played as kids (after the age of 10 or so). The game helped us learn the game better, helped with our applied math, and helped us decades ago to figure out that what was important wasn't what the broadcasters and writers told us (batting average, HRs and RBIs) but the numbers that the "Moneyball" and "Baseball Prospectus" folks told us are more important. Sure, we couldn't have articulated the same principles then, but deep down we knew that there were numbers churning beneath the surface that had better meaning, and we drafted our players based upon certain measurements (including on-base percentage). I suppose we missed out on some unique career opportunities, didn't we? This strikes me as more of an "in-house" book, in that Guzzo got tremendous cooperation from the founder of the game, Hal Richman, but that sense really doesn't matter because the book is a good read if you're into this game or know someone who is or was and wants to understand them better. I enjoyed reading it, and while I'm no longer the "Fanatic" I once was (a friend who ended up getting a PhD from an Ivy school and became a tenured biology professor used to refer to it as my "silly game"), I have fond memories of playing game after game on hot summer nights, and I'm introducing my kids to it.

6. Baseball Between the Numbers by the Baseball Prospectus Team of Experts. I'm not sure I buy everything they're saying (and I haven't finished the book), but these guys have done a great job of fleshing out even more statistical measurements than Bill James had in the past, and they make great points about a whole variety of topics. You should only read this if you want to totally re-shape the way you think about the National Pastime. If you're one of those people who is content to read the Sunday statistics compilation and, based upon that, determine that Player X should win the MVP of his league because he has the best combination of average, home runs and RBIs, don't read the book. I think that wouldn't be a wise decision, however, because their math will help explain the reason (or two or three) why you like a certain player or don't like another. I do wish that a) these guys could suggest a Sunday statistics compilation for the major papers to run that lists the most meaningful stats and b) that they could convince my fellow fantasy league owners that the measurements that we use today are rather silly.

Enjoy the rest of the summer, and pick up a couple of these books -- you'll be glad you did.

1 Comments:

Blogger Gus said...

I know these are books, but if you get a chance to see "This Old Cub", the documentary about Ron Santo, it'd be interesting to read your feedback.

3:34 PM  

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