With a couple slow sports months ahead of us here at Aaron Torres Sports, I plan on taking the website in a few different directions. Sure I’ll still be writing about the NBA playoffs, baseball, the WNBA and anything else that is relevant (Ok, that’s a lie, I’ll never, ever be writing about the WNBA). But simply put, there just isn’t enough to fill the time with the on the field stuff only. Quite frankly, that’s a big part of why I’ve been doing my college football preview podcasts all spring and summer. Because really, there isn’t all that much else to talk about.
Well it’s the same with my writing, and it’s the reason I’ve decided to something fun and different today, and give you a summer reading list of a few different books to check out. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a big reader, and always enjoyed a good book. Part of it is the relaxing nature of reading, the ability to kick up your feet, and get lost for a few hours (Even if I’m not lucky enough to own a hammock). The other reason is much simpler: I just like learning interesting things about interesting people and stories. They say knowledge is power, and while it’s a little lame, it’s true. The more knowledge you have, the better off you are.
And with the sports season slowed to a grinding halt, and the fact that I was traveling last weekend, I’ve had plenty of time to read lately. Here are four books I’ve finished within the last few weeks, and as always, I encourage anyone who may be reading this list to go ahead to comment below or e-mail in to share any books they’ve enjoyed themselves.
This probably won’t be the last book review I do this summer, but it is the first.
A huge part of why I wanted to put together this list in the first place was because of the Extra 2 %. Simply put, the book was interesting, smart, and well-researched. It featured plenty of good anecdotes, and stories about how the Tampa Bay Rays went from baseball laughingstock to AL contender. Basically, it was one of my favorite sports books I’ve read in a while.
Yet if you were simply deciding whether or not to read this book based on the reviews on Amazon, you’d never buy it. The way people describe it, you’d think Keri had written 600 pages on clubbing baby seals or skinning puppies or something. Which is why I’m here to clean things up and set them straight, because again, this is an excellent book.
Going back to the reviews for a second, the more I think about them, the more I think they come down to something simple: As much as I hate to say it, this book is a little too “smart,” for some people.
For anyone who is looking for straight baseball talk, with some juicy stories from in the clubhouse and on the road, they’re going to be disappointed. With his background in both sports and at the Wall Street Journal, Keri spends a great deal of time not only talking baseball, but also the business side of things; about the penny-pinching ways of former owner Vince Namoli, to a squabble between the city and team that will leave them playing in the the dilapidated Tropicana Field for the foreseeable future. There’s a sports base here, but with a business twist.
A couple of things on that:
For starters, it’s got to be understood that you simply can’t talk about this Rays organization without delving into the business side of things. This is a franchise that was handicapped since Day 1, Hour 1, Minute 1 by a number of factors, including the awful Namoli (there are easily 7-8 stories about the guy that’ll make you cringe), their location outside the actual city of Tampa, and the previously mentioned Tropicana Field, which is more a home-field disadvantage than anything. Again, Keri’s job was to tell the entire story about the Rays, and you can’t do that without getting heavily into the business side of everything.
Yet there is also plenty from the baseball side of things too. There’s some stuff you probably already knew, like Stu Sternberg’s ownership coup from Namoli, and how he brought in his Wall Street buddies to take over the day to day baseball operations of the team. But there’s also plenty of baseball stuff you probably didn’t know, like how the Rays had the chance to draft both Albert Pujols and Mark Teixeira, and whiffed on each. On a different note, the chapter on Joe Maddon alone is worth the price of the book in my mind. Let’s just say if I could sit down with one guy in baseball for a beer, it’d be him. Plus, there’s also that whole little thing about how the Rays went from worst to first, and from losing 100 games a year to two-time AL East champs. Which is obviously an interesting story in and of itself.
Again, if you’re just looking for a story about a bunch of guys who partied hard, got in a few bench clearing brawls and won a lot of games, this isn’t the book for you (And quite frankly, I’d recommend The Bad Guys Won, by Jeff Pearlman about the 1986 Mets).
But if you’re looking for a smart well-written book combining baseball and business in a larger context, than pick this up.
Aaron’s Grade: A-
Interestingly, when I started reading The Extra 2 %, I had a pretty good idea what I was getting into. After all, you don’t go from the worst team in baseball to American League champion without there being an interesting story in there somewhere.
But Win Forever? When a copy was sent to me, I wasn’t sure I even wanted to read it. After all, while what Pete Carroll did at USC over the last decade was incredible; I wasn’t so sure it was all that interesting. Honestly, I expected the book to read as follows: Recruit the best players. Crush the competition. Win Forever. Right?
Wrong. And that’s what surprised me most about this book. Because for all talk about Carroll’s time at USC, and his laissez faire, easy breezy, “Lean on Me,” attitude, there’s actually a damn good coach underneath all that fluff. The guy who I thought just rolled the ball out and let his kids play? Quite frankly, that man isn’t Carroll.
Cutting to the core tenant of Carroll’s philosophy, “Win Forever,” basically means to “Do everything better than it’s ever been done before.” In the classroom. On the practice field. In the meeting room. Be better today than you were yesterday. But really, “Win Forever,” goes beyond that. Because to understand Carroll, you’ve got to understand that every tiny, minute decision that was made during his time at USC was under the premise of the “Win Forever,” philosophy.
For the sake of space, I’ll give you just one example. During Carroll’s time at USC, he was always famous for being one of the few coaches who kept his practices open to the public. Fair or unfair, I always chalked that up to Carroll’s “Whatever, let’s just have fun dude!,” attitude. And I was wrong. Again, it goes back to the Win Forever mantra, the ability to do things better than they’ve ever been done before. And if you can’t perform on a Tuesday in front of 500 people at practice, how are you going to be able to do the same on Saturday in front of 80,000? That’s Win Forever in a nutshell, and there are plenty of other examples of that sprinkled throughout the book.
At the same time, I can’t deny that my favorite parts of the book were football, not philosophy related. USC was probably my favorite team to watch the past decade or so, and to have the ability to an insider’s view of what went on at USC, would be like a young pianist getting an inside look at Beethoven writing one of his symphonies. It was awesome.
This is a quick, easy read, something you can kill in two days at the beach. And for the football stuff and beyond, I think it’s worth grabbing.
Aaron’s Grade: B+
I’ve got to be honest, when I picked this one up, my first instinct was, “Hmm, a book about Nolan Richardson, huh? What exactly makes this guy biography worthy?” As far as I knew, Richardson was a great coach but not a transcendent one, and most notably was fired for making race related comments back in 2002. The way I figured it was that he was an old, grumpy, agitator, and someone who had seen the game pass him by.
Of course I also had no idea about the backstory behind Richardson. It’s amazing, complex and dynamic. And it’s safe to say we’ll never see anyone quite like him again.
Richardson grew up dirt poor in the South, but did it in the most interesting of places: In El Paso, TX, where he was essentially the only black kid in a half Mexican, half white town. He dealt with a lot of racism as a young athlete, but interesting little came from his hometown. Outside the city’s borders he was limited in what hotels he could sleep in, restaurants he could eat in, or even what towns he could actually suit up and play games in. But within the borders of the diverse and somewhat progressive El Paso, he was a cult sports icon, first in high school then at Texas Western (eventually Texas-El Paso).
His coaching career was maybe even more interesting. Richardson wasn’t some guy who started as an assistant on the bench of some hot-shot head coach, but instead worked his way through the ranks, first in high school, then junior college, and finally at the Universities of Tulsa and Arkansas. He remains today (and I suspect will remain forever), the only man to win a Junior College National Championship, NIT and NCAA Tournament title.
Where the book really got interesting though was with Richardson’s stormy relationship with Arkansas Athletics Director Frank Broyles.
As a college football fan, I’d always known Broyles as maybe the most famous coach in Arkansas history, the man who won a whole lot of games, turned the school into a Southwest Conference super-power, and was part of “The Game of the Century,” when the Hogs played Texas back in 1969. What I didn’t know though was his stormy background with race relations. Interestingly enough, the man who hired Richardson to become the first black head basketball coach in the Old South, was also the same man who took painstakingly slow steps to integrate his own football back in the 1970’s. He was also the same man who had a hot temper and short leash with his coaches (including white football coaches as well), and seemed to spend more time trying to run Richardson out of town than supporting the coach.
There is one problem with the book though, and that’s that in my opinion, it spends a bit too much time talking about outside racial issues that have nothing to do with Richardson himself. While they’re an important part of the story of the state of Arkansas and the University, I really don’t know how much they have to do with Richardson. Which is a bit disappointing, since Richardson has an interesting enough back story as it is. Between his unique upbringing, meteoric coaching rise, legendary playing style and the tragic death of his daughter, there’s plenty there for a great book. Adding an extra 30-40 pages of fluff that have nothing to do with him, only slows things down.
Regardless, read the book if you want an interesting and well-researched perspective on a misunderstood coach. Just know that you’ll have to wade through a couple chapters that have nothing to do with that story.
Aaron’s Grade: B-
Dare To Dream: Connecticut Basketball’s Remarkable March To The National Championship (1999)
Jim Calhoun and Leigh Montville
Alright, so this one has been sitting on my shelf forever, and since I was going out of town this past weekend, I looked forward to diving into it, and getting a background read on my favorite coach (Jim Calhoun) and my favorite team (UConn basketball). The fact that it was written by legendary sportswriter Leigh Montville only added to the effect. But after skimming it this weekend, I’ve got to be perfectly clear: I now know why it sat on my shelf for so long.
From the best I can tell, Dare To Dream, was the one of those hastily thrown together books after a championship season, when an author calls a coach and says “Hey give me a few minutes of your time, and we can both make some quick cash.” Which is apparently what they did. After all, it was sitting on my shelf, meaning that at some point I spent my own hard-earned cash on it.
But beyond a few interesting stories (about Calhoun’s first few months on the job when he slept in a cockroach infested apartment; the recruitment of Nadav Henefield from Israel etc.) there really isn’t much here. It’s Calhoun, talking about Calhoun, in Calhoun’s voice, which is great if you’re a fan like me, but kind of bland if you’re anyone else. Even if Montville had taken a few minutes to talk with Calhoun’s wife, kids, or really anyone else to give an outside perspective on the guy, it would’ve added a layer to the book that wasn’t there. Unfortunately he didn’t.
Buy the book if you love Jim Calhoun or you love UConn. Otherwise this might be one to pass on.
Aaron’s Grade: C
As the summer goes on, I’ll be back with a few more books reviews, and as I mentioned before, I encourage you to pass along any titles that you’ve enjoyed.
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