Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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The Closer By Mariano Rivera with Wayne Coffey

September 4, 2015

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Maybe following up Andre Agassi’s Open with Mariano Rivera’s The Closer wasn’t the greatest idea because the drop off in the quality of the writing was immediately noticeable. Whereas Open was incredibly descriptive, intense, and gripping, The Closer is quite bland in comparison. It probably doesn’t help matters that Mariano Rivera’s story pretty much starts with the Yankees contacting the Panama native about signing a contract with them. As baseball fans know, Rivera quickly arrived with the Yankees and I’m very well versed in how things went from there having read Joe Torre’s The Yankee Years and Ian O’Connor’s Derek Jeter biography The Captain, so this is literally my third time reliving the Yankees’ glory years. I suppose I can only blame myself for that, but needless to say, it made The Closer relatively uninteresting for me.

Although most of the book was redundant to me, there were some things that stood out. For one, Mariano Rivera is a pretty good study of what separates naturally gifted athletes from the all-time greats: unwavering confidence and a short memory. If you are to believe Rivera’s account of things – and I do – his state of mind was pretty much always get in the game and get these guys out. He didn’t let the batter he was facing or the gravity of the situation affect his mental state – he just went out there and did his job. And when he failed, sometimes traumatically, he would completely forget about it by next time he took the mound. It’s an approach that makes a lot of sense, but is hard to execute, and it’s easy to see how he had the long and extremely successful career he did.

A big reason Rivera was able to maintain his superb confidence level was through his faith in God. By his account, there were multiple events throughout his life that could only be explained by divine interference, such as when his fastball suddenly increased by 5 mph early in his Yankees career or when it started cutting naturally, becoming the devastating out pitch Rivera was famous for. Now, I’d never be one to go out my way to knock someone’s faith, but as an agnostic myself, I really have no interest in it and I can’t stand being preached to and, honestly, there’s a good amount of that going on in The Closer. It’s one thing to share your life story and the role religion played in it; it’s quite another to tell people why they should have Jesus Christ in their lives. No thank you.

There was an interesting passage in the book where Rivera shared his thoughts on Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano. While he had plenty of good things to say about the two superstars, he was also pretty honest about their weaknesses. Concerning A-Rod, he describes Rodriguez as his own worst enemy and how he doesn’t understand why he always needs to be the center of attention. His description of Cano couldn’t echo my own feelings about my Mariners’ second baseman more accurately. He says Cano has the ability to be one of the all-time greats, but shows a frustrating lack of interest in putting in the effort and hustling. It’s something I’ve seen time and time again from Cano – the dude just doesn’t look like he cares. It’s refreshing to hear a highly regarded former teammate express the same sentiment.

While I lived through the Yankees’ long string of dominance and have read about it on multiple occasions, The Closer does offer one piece of possibly critical information that I did not know beforehand. We all know the Boston Red Sox defeated the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS after trailing 3 games to 0, the most epic comeback in sports history, before going on to win the 2004 World Series and ending one of the longest championship droughts in baseball. What most people don’t know is something that happened outside of baseball before the turning point in Game 4. There was a tragic accident in Rivera’s family during the 2004 season, when his nephew and brother-in-law were both electrocuted and drowned in a swimming pool. As Rivera was warming up in the Fenway bullpen before he came in to close out Game 4, he overheard a fan in the stands taunting him by referencing the tragic death of his family. While Mo claims that this did not affect him before he went out to the mound that night, eventually coughing up a lead that led to a Red Sox win that opened the door for them to take the series, I’m not so sure. Even a mental game champion would have a hard time not letting that kind of low blow (the lowest of low blows) enrage him. If Mariano was incensed by this fan’s comments, maybe it actually did contribute to the Red Sox comeback. Who knows.

All in all, The Closer was an okay sports biography that doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. It’s probably a must read for die hard Yanks fans or big Mariano Rivera supporters, but I enjoyed The Yankee Years and The Captain much, much more – and Jim Abbott’s Imperfect for that matter. Interestingly, I’ve long considered myself to be a staunch Yankees hater, but I have now read four separate books that spent a significant amount of time detailing the Yankees dynasty of the mid-to-late 90s. At the end of the day, I have a lot of respect for the core group of players that were there for pretty much all of the championships: Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, and Jorge Posada. Those guys were all class act players that came up through the Yankee system and played their whole careers with the organization. The Closer might not be the greatest sports bio I’ve read, but Mariano Rivera is almost certainly the best closer in the history of baseball.

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Open By Andre Agassi – an absolute must read

August 14, 2015

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Somewhere in my memory banks I feel like I remember hearing that Andre Agassi’s Open was an extraordinary autobiography. I’m glad for the recall, because by the end of the vivid, brutal prologue in which Agassi describes one of his last tennis matches, I could tell that I was in for something special. It was an incredibly detailed and powerful introduction to the book and I was immediately hooked. There is no co-author listed, so Agassi seems to have written this book mostly on his own and the quality of the writing is stunning for a star athlete – and high school dropout.

I was surprised by this book. Not just by how engrossing and well written it was, but by how wrong my impression of Andre Agassi was. I’m no tennis fan, so as one of the most notable stars of the sport during my lifetime, I just assumed that a) Agassi was a confident athlete and b) that he dominated the sport for his entire life. Open tells quite a different story. In fact, two of the biggest themes in the book are overcoming constant failure and battling a severe lack of self-confidence. We’re talking about a man that was so insecure that when his hair started thinning, he wore this catastrophe on his head:

Agassi says that one of his brother’s was nicknamed “born loser,” but after reading this book, it’s a pretty fitting description for Agassi himself throughout much of his life. Though Agassi clearly reached the pinnacle of his sport, it was a roller coaster of a ride with plenty of ups and downs and his biggest obstacle throughout his career was frequently himself. Throughout his book, he states that he “hates tennis” and never once wavers from this stance. From his days as a child when his father forced him to return tennis balls in their backyard in scorching Las Vegas heat against a serving contraption Agassi coldly refers to as “The Dragon,” for hours upon hours day after day, to his days at #1 in the tennis rankings, he consistently expresses contempt for a profession he never really chose for himself. It’s a life his father chooses for him, unrelenting pressuring Andre, until the day his son’s body physically can’t take it anymore. My favorite moment in the book involving Agassi’s father is when NFL legend Jim Brown is looking to play someone for money and Agassi’s father gets Brown to agree to play a 9 year old Andre heads up for $10,000. Unfortunately for Team Agassi, someone warns Jim that he’s going to get smoked and they wind up playing for a measly $500 and Andre destroys him.

While Agassi’s relationship with his father was hard and single-sighted, he develops plenty of father-like relationships throughout his career. In fact, if one is to believe Agassi’s description of his psyche, I’d say the team of men he surrounds himself with is highly responsible for most of his success. Without this incredibly strong foundation, Agassi seems like the kind of individual that would have eventually crumbled under his own self-doubt, rendering himself irrelevant in the tennis world. The team consists of Gil, Agassi’s strength and conditioning coach, sometimes bodyguard, and frequent rock; JP, a pastor with a unique approach that helps guide Agassi spiritually and mentally; Perry, Agassi’s lifelong best friend; and Brad Gilbert, his tennis coach and the final piece of the puzzle to get the struggling star to the top of the tennis world. There’s little doubt that without these men in his life, helping him along, Andre Agassi would have been remembered for his ridiculous hair and little else.

The women in Andre’s life don’t seem to have quite as profound an affect on his career, but were still very notable due to his high profile relationships. He spent a significant amount of time with Barbra Streisand and Andre leaves things quite a bit vague as to how intimate things actually were with the famed singer/actress, who had a whopping 28 years on him. While it’s pretty clear that they dated, he never goes into detail about their sex life and their relationship seemed platonic enough that maybe they didn’t even have one. Though Agassi winds up marrying and staying with Stephie Graf, his Holy Grail, that he declares an infatuation with from a young age, it’s his troubled marriage with Brooke Shields that takes center stage in Open. From the beginning, if one is to believe Agassi’s depiction of things, the Shields-Agassi union seems to come to fruition more so because it can than because Andre actually wants it to. So when they eventually become married, things quickly unravel because they just don’t seem to have any real chemistry together. Perhaps the most interesting moment of his time with Shields is when she gets a guest appearance on the hit show “Friends” and Agassi steams off stage after watching Brooke lick Matt LeBlanc’s hand. It’s a moment I’ve seen a number of times on the show that now carries a little extra weight to it.

Open is a great piece of writing. Agassi makes a sport that I’ve never found particularly interesting to watch on T.V., incredibly riveting just by listening to his descriptions of his matches. It’s an incredibly thorough and brutally honest book. I’ve read some borderline scathing biographies before (I’m thinking Mickey Mantle), but Andre Agassi gets so personal and self-deprecating in this book that readers have little reason to doubt anything he says. He admits to using crystal meth while he was bottoming out in his career and there are very few moments in the book that are undeniably happy. It’s a dark book from a man that doesn’t seem to understand himself until after his legendary sports career has come to an end. I couldn’t possibly recommend this book more – it’s easily one of the best sports biographies I’ve ever read and this is coming from someone who is in no way, shape, or form, a fan of tennis.

Finally, kudos to Erik Davies, who reads the book for its audio format. Davies gives quite easily the best non-fiction reading I’ve heard to date.

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Ball Four by Jim Bouton

July 24, 2015

Ball Four has long been considered a highly controversial book – Bouton says it was banned in some places – and essential reading for any baseball fan. It’s also been included on some prominent lists, such as the New York Public Library’s 1996 list of Books Of The Century and Time Magazine’s 100 greatest non-fiction books of all-time. I was kind of expecting the book to blow my mind, but reading it for the first time in 2015 probably doesn’t have nearly the same affect it would have reading it in the late 1960s and early 70s. We live in an age saturated with media exposure where practically nothing is sacred. In a decade where Jose Canseco released his tell-all book Juiced, steroid use amongst MLB players has been exposed, and candid athlete biographies are commonplace – including Jane Leavy’s excellent biography of Mickey Mantle The Last BoyBall Four feels tame by comparison.

But in the late 1960s, things were quite a bit different and Bouton’s book detailing his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros, as well as his past career with the New York Yankees, shocked the world. Ball Four is notorious for talking about players use of “greenies,” or amphetimines, as a performance-enhancing drug and for “beaver-shooting,” a specific reference to players trying to look up women’s skirts and womanizing in general. Bouton’s description of the rampant PED use is evidence enough that players of past generations probably shouldn’t be looking down upon the steroid use of recent MLB players and the current Hall Of Fame shuns are bordering on hypocritical. Perhaps the biggest backlash from Ball Four was Bouton’s chronicling of Mickey Mantle’s drinking, something most baseball fans recognize as common knowledge these days. After the publishing of Ball Four, Bouton was shunned by the baseball world for some time and by the Yankees, in particular, for decades.

Listening to Jim Bouton read his own book on Audible was a pretty fun experience. It was definitely the least professional performance I’ve heard so far, but that’s to be expected from a former baseball player. You can hear Bouton swallowing and making all sorts of mouth noises throughout the reading, something you almost never hear from the professional dictators. On the other hand, Bouton gets to relive his stories and you can hear the emotion in his retelling, often accompanied by fits of laughter mid sentence.

My version of Ball Four was accompanied by several additions to the original text, including the tragic death of Bouton’s daughter, a truly heartbreaking and almost unbearable sequence to listen to, Bouton’s post-MLB baseball career, and finally his return to Yankee Stadium for Old Timer’s Day after his son publishes a letter in the newspaper on Father’s Day pleading for the Yankees to lift their ban on Bouton. I powered through these sections even though part of me felt they were mostly unnecessary additions to the original text. Bouton’s personal life certainly wasn’t what made Ball Four so compelling. Regardless, I can confirm Ball Four as essential baseball reading, although in 2015 it’s not quite the shocker it was back when it was originally published.

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The Stand by Stephen King

April 30, 2015

Note: I’m no book reviewer so I’m not going to dig too deep into this, but since I posted my thoughts on a separate website, I figured I might as well post them on my blog.

Just finished listening to The Stand. For what it is commonly considered the best Stephen King book ever, I have to say, I was a bit disappointed. Maybe it was the format – I do feel like I lose some the experience by listening to a book instead of reading it myself. Maybe I space out for a period. Maybe I have a more difficult time creating a picture in my head through the audio format. Maybe it just isn’t as good as people have made it out to be. I’m not sure.

lots of spoilers

I think my main concern is that it is supposed to be this epic battle of good versus evil and there is all this build up, but then the confrontation with Flagg is over before you even realize it. They show up in Vegas, briefly interact with Flagg, and then Trash Can Man nukes everybody. Game over. End of story. I didn’t think that could possibly be the end of it – but then it was. Also, when Nick Andros died, I felt like I was getting duped. Up to that point, I had viewed him as the main character and then I felt like he died before doing anything super important. In fact, after his death, I posted on Facebook: “If Nick Andros really just died in The Stand then I know nothing about writing.” Was his main purpose to send Tom Cullen out to be a spy? What exactly did Tom Cullen uncover anyway? I feel like the only critical thing that happened out of all that spy stuff was that Tom found Stu on his way back.

Obviously, at 48 hours of listening time, I had to enjoy the experience overall. I liked the characters and I was intrigued by the story, but in the end, I just felt incredibly let down. This would be a whole lot less surprising if The Stand wasn’t so highly lauded. In the Stephen King catalog alone, It is far, far superior.

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The Yankee Years by Joe Torre & Tom Verducci

March 1, 2009

Started: February 15th, 2009
Finished: March 1st, 2009

First off, let me state the fact that I’ve never reviewed a book in my life, but considering that I’m a writing major and have some professional writing experience under my belt, I don’t feel that I’m unqualified to express an educated opinion.

The Yankee Years first caught my attention because it was making headlines on ESPN due to stirring up some dirt in the Yankees organization. I don’t even remember what the headline was, but it probably had something to do with Alex Rodriguez, since that guy attracts controversy like he gets a bonus for it in his contract. I wasn’t particularly intrigued by the fact that Joe Torre had written a book about his time with the Yankees, but when I saw that Tom Verducci, a reputed baseball writer for Sports Illustrated, was the co-author I figured it was worth my time.

Make no mistake, this book is Verducci’s baby. Despite first billing and an authoring credit, Torre’s involvement is limited to extensive interviewing and vocal contributions, but has nothing to do with the writing as far as I was able to tell. Though this book wouldn’t have been possible without Torre’s involvement, I think his name on it is mostly a sales strategy. Verducci puts together a well-structured and chronological book with sharp prose that keeps the reader interested. Some of the writing does get repetitive at times and some of the quotes used don’t contribute much, but overall, I found the book to be a quick and interesting read.

I consider myself to be somewhat of a baseball fanatic, but The Yankee Years made me realize that I completely lose touch with the game come playoff time. I’m sure this is due to the fact that baseball, despite being a great sport, is kind of boring to watch and also because I don’t have a vested interest when the Mariners miss the playoffs or get knocked out. This has caused me to miss out on some incredible games. Think what you want to about the Yankees, but over the past 15 years or so, they’ve been involved in some of the best postseason series and games of all-time. If there weren’t box scores and footage to prove the results, you’d think that some of these accounts were fictitiously written for the movies. From Aaron Boone’s game-winning homerun in extra innings, to Curt Schilling’s bloody sock, to the Yankees coming back from a sub-.500 record as late as July to make the playoffs in 2007, there definitely was a story to be told here.

The thing that surprised me the most about the book is how it made me feel about the Yankees. Without a doubt, in my lifetime, the Yankees are my most hated team in any sport. I’ve always felt like they’ve been able to buy their way into the playoffs due to a ridiculous revenue stream and payroll flexibility, and with 12 straight postseason appearances, six league championships and four World Series Rings, that might be hard to argue. However, after reading this book, I feel like I may have been a bit ignorant. The most amazing thing happened as I was reading the first half of this book: I found myself liking the Yankees for the first time in my life. No, not the Yankees as we know them now, but the team that won four World Series titles in five years from 1996-2000. It’s easy to learn to hate a team that constantly wins, but I think a lot of my hatred was misguided. I’ve always despised the Yankees because of their huge payroll and ability to buy their roster rather than develop it, but those teams that won the championships were built of gritty, hard-nosed and reasonably priced veterans that had a will to win (Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, Scott Brosius, David Cone) and young, upcoming future superstars produced from the Yankees own farm system (Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte). When Joe Torre was hired before the 1996 season, the Yankees had a modest (in comparison to now) payroll and their attendance was merely average compared to the rest of the league. It was due to this run of championships and success that the Yankees have become the colossal revenue-building monster that it is now. It wasn’t until the 2000s (after the Yankees last championship) that they seemingly started signing every big free agent that went on the market. Don’t get me wrong, I still hate the Yankees, but I think you have to respect what they accomplished in the late 90s. Those championships were earned, not bought, and they put together an incredible run that deserves all the accolades it receives.

With that said, the last half of the book made me hate the Yankees even more than I did before. Not only has revenue sharing and an increased ability by other teams to exploit inefficiencies cut into the Yankees advantage, but the Yankees front office hasn’t been able to make intelligent decisions (especially regarding starting pitching) and has wasted a staggering amount of money on the free agent market. The list of failures is vast: Carl Pavano, Javier Vasquez, Jaret Wright, Jeff Weaver and Randy Johnson are just the beginning. On top of that, it took the Yankees 11 years (from Andy Pettitte in 1996 to Joba Chamberlain in 2007) to develop a quality starting pitcher out of their own minor league system. The book describes all these misguided decisions in detail and explores how the Yankees bought a team of superstars that lacked the will to win that the late 90s Yankees possessed. Also, these superstars didn’t mesh as a team and there were often clashes of personality in the dugout and on the field.

After reading this book, I realized that the Yankee championships were legitimate and hard-earned, Joe Torre is a remarkable manager (he got them to 12 straight postseasons, including six years when the team was clearly in decline despite an increasing payroll), and that my current hatred of the team is valid. Alex Rodriguez is still a piece of shit and may arguably be the most unlikable player in all of sports. This book didn’t help his image any; his own manager thought of him as a self-centered, whiny, attention-whore.

Without a doubt, this is an absolute must read for any fan of baseball.