‘The Last Stand of Payne Stewart: The Year Golf Changed Forever’ by Kevin Robbins (2019)

Payne Stewart was always memorable.  His distinctive clothes, his colourful personality and his return to major-winning form in his 40’s ensured he received plenty of attention and coverage.  When he died tragically in 1999, the golf and sporting world was shocked.

Kevin Robbins excellent book, The Last Stand of Payne Stewart, tells 3 stories. Firstly it does an incredible job as a biography of a charismatic, fascinating golfer who died before his time. Secondly, it captures brilliantly the last 12 months of his life and career as he won his third major and returned to the very pinnacle of the sport.  Finally, the book is also a meditation on the evolution of professional golf from a game of shot makers to a game of power hitters using cutting edge, scientifically designed, golf clubs.

Robbins doesn’t shy away from some of Payne’s less pleasant behaviour.  He paints a picture of a brash, talented but at times uncaring man who, with the help of his loving wife and his rediscovered faith, grew into a more rounded, loving family man.  That this maturing of Payne as both a golfer and a man comes just before his death makes it feel all the more tragic.

Robbins covers the plane crash and the reactions of those who knew Payne is significant detail. It is impossible to read without feeling intense sympathy for those who knew and loved him.

The third story, of the evolution of the game, is really fascinating.  The turn of the millennium, and the death of Payne Stewart, marked the end of the ‘shotmakers’ era as power-hitters like Tiger Woods, David Duval and Phil Mickelson began to drive the ball to previously un-imagined lengths changing the way courses could be set up and the way professional golf could be played.

Robbins clearly had great access to Payne’s family, friends and other golfers.  It is a sympathetic yet honest account of a charismatic yet flawed man who had a huge impact on those around him.  It’s a brilliant book which I highly recommend.

Payne

 

‘Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution’ by Tim Wigmore & Freddie Wilde (2019)

Long before Ireland achieved miraculous results in the Cricket World Cup and gained Test status, I was a relatively rare Irish cricket fan.  Long rainy summers stuck indoors were improved immeasurably by Channel 4’s coverage of test cricket.  I was first exposed to T20 cricket (or Twenty20 as it was then known) during the inaugural Indian Premier League (IPL) over a decade ago as I spent exam study leave watching (and gambling on) every single IPL game of that season. 

For those who aren’t familiar with it, T20 cricket is a limited duration form of the game.  Each team is bowled 120 balls (20 overs of 6 balls) to score as many runs as possible. Originally it met with some resistance as being too radical a departure for the game, but now, in large thanks to the IPL, it has become a hugely popular sport in itself.

Cricket 2.0 is an absolutely brilliant account of the first decade of T20 cricket.  But it is also so much more than that.  The level of analysis and insight into the strategies and tactics used by successful T20 teams is fascinating.  It’s also a brilliant oversight of the overall global spread of T20, how it is changing how cricketers train and prepare, and an insightful chronicle of the formats first true superstars.   The authors cover almost every conceivable angle that merits covering – the increased gambling risks of T20 domestic leagues, the struggles for any other league outside of the IPL to make the economics work, the rise of long overlooked talent from non-traditional cricket nations.

I absolutely loved this book.  It is strength is its how ambitious its scope is while also managing to give fascinating insights into the mindset of players, coaches and team owners.  The book really brings out the level of work, sophistication and talent needed to excel at T20 cricket.   I particularly enjoyed the focus and analysis on how T20 has turned bowlers from attackers to defenders and vice versa for batsmen. 

I cannot recommend this book highly enough for any cricket fan.  Even those with a limited understanding of the game should find it fascinating.  It is superbly well written and just a generally brilliant book.

Cricket 2.0

‘The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife’ by Brad Balukjian (2020)

I have a particular fondness for books involving people who feel compelled to go on arbitrary adventures.  Danny Wallace specialised in this area with his books Yes Man and Join Me amongst others.  Last year I really enjoyed Europe United by Matt Walker which involved a quest to visit a soccer match in every UEFA country.

The Wax Pack is Brad Balukjian account of tracking down all of the players whose baseball cards were in a particular pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards some 30 years later.  Balukjian travels across the USA to track down the players who range from Hall of Fame players to 10 year journeymen to players who spent only a very short time in the Major Leagues.

Each player gets a chapter as Balukjian managed to spend time with almost all of them. Even where Balukjian doesn’t get to meet the player, he recounts his odyssey to find them  One refuses to talk despite Balukjian showing up at the ballpark where he was working as third base coach.  The other, Carlton Fisk the most famous player in the The Wax Pack, is in the midst of descending back into addiction.

The Wax Pack becomes a unique and fascinating insight into what happens players when they retire.  The random nature of the players he follows ensures an interesting diversity.  It also becomes a reflection on father-son relationships as each of the players recounts their own, often troubled, relationships with their fathers and also with their own children.

The book and trip are deeply personal for Balukjian.  At times there is definitely some oversharing and unnecessary details about the minutiae of the trip.  However there are a couple of very funny stories from Balukjian’s own adolescence which had me laughing out loud. As the trip progresses the book becomes more and more a soul-searching journey for the author.  Along the way he meets his ex, reconnects with his father, visits his childhood hero and tries to find love.  Ultimately, the book feels more authentic for how personal it is.

I really enjoyed the book which exceed all of my expectations.  Balukjian is an interesting character and he has done a great job to get such fascinating insight from the players he meets.

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‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You: Growing Up as a Football Addict’ by Greg Whitaker (2019)

I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You is a personal account of Greg Whitaker’s relationship with football fandom.  A die hard fan of Hull City and England, Whitaker recounts the highs and lows of his 20 years as a football fan.

The years covered were quite the roller-coaster ride for Hull with multiple promotions and relegations mixed with managerial changes and star signings.

Whitaker uses his experiences as a fan to reflect more broadly on the modern game.  Ultimately he finds himself impossibly drawn to the game even when he isn’t enjoying the experience.  He describes himself during this phase as a football addict, because why else would you spend time and money engaging in a hobby you aren’t enjoying?

The book works best when it captures the excitement, the glee, the sheer wonder of football when your a kid.  Whitaker vividly recalls the sensations of that time in your life when sport means so so much and the adult world is yet to intrude with its boring non-football concerns. As a coming-of-age memoir of life as a football fan it’s a very enjoyable read.

At times the ‘football addict’ theme is stretched a little too far.   I suspect Whitaker may underestimate how much his apparent falling out of love with the game is related to simply growing up and finding more (objectively) important things in life to take up his time. Perhaps the book tries to be too many things at once and may have been better served with a tighter edit.

I must admit that on realising how young Whitaker is (mid to late 20’s) I found myself being a bit cynical. Sure what does anyone know at that age! This obviously is my own  failing rather than any issue with the content of the book!  Subjectively it did influence my opinion though.  Ultimately the quality of the writing and the passion and conviction of the author overcame my (mid 30’s) cynicism.

Overall it’s a welcome addition to the library of football fan memoirs following in the footsteps of Nick Hornby’s masterpiece Fever Pitch.  I look forward to reading whatever Whitaker does next.

‘LeBron, Inc.: The Making of a Billion-Dollar Athlete’ by by Brian Windhorst (2019)

LeBron, Inc is a behind-the-scenes look at the business that is LeBron James. The book assumes a fairly detailed knowledge of LeBron’s basketball career and successes and provides a reasonably deep dive into the commercial decisions that have shaped LeBron’s brand and his wealth.

What makes LeBron’s story unique is his decision to trust his friends and inner circle with important business decisions.  His friend, Maverick Carter, emerges as the dominant influence in LeBron’s commercial ventures and a hugely impressive businessman who demonstrated strong commercial acumen and proved his doubters wrong. Surprisingly, there is much less coverage in the book about LeBron’s other close friend and adviser Rich Paul whose sports agency business is having a huge impact on basketball.

One of the most significant decisions LeBron and his team made was not to sign typical sponsorship deals and instead seek an ownership stake for any products he backed.  The book details his involvement with Beats by Dre headphones and the brilliant marketing results achieved by LeBron simply gifting the headphones to friends and other famous athletes.  Another major feature in LeBron’s success has been his ability to wisely pick his professional advisers and choose people who could open up significant doors for him.  He has ended up getting involved in an incredibly wide array of ventures including a share in Liverpool FC and his own mulitmedia platform.

Importantly the book also shines a light on LeBron’s philanthropic endeavours, and his I Promise schools which are an incredible initiative. Much like Andre Agassi has done, LeBron has put a focus on improving education and opportunity for under privileged kids.

The book is pretty short but at times a little repetitive and could maybe have used a tighter edit.  The author, Brian Windhorst, clearly has significant access and contacts with LeBron’s team which gives an inside track on the reasons and motivations for different decisions.  I do wonder if the book might be a bit too positive and lauding of LeBron.  While it does recount some mistakes, the tone is undoubtedly very pro-LeBron and perhaps it could have been a little more objective.  That said, I’m not aware of anything negative that has been left out that should have been included.

Overall however this is a short, fascinating read and a relatively rare insight to the commercial life of a global superstar.

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‘Running with Sherman: The Donkey with the Heart of a Hero’ by Christopher McDougall (2019)

Christopher McDougall’s first book, Born to Run, became a huge bestseller and sent the barefoot running movement into the mainstream.  He used the story of the Tahamara runners to explain how humans were born to run (and run barefoot).

His second book ‘Natural Born Heroes’ used the story of Greek resistance fighters on Crete to explain how humans have vast unused athletic potential and to take a deeper look at the parkour movement.

I loved both these books.  Despite this, on seeing that McDougall’s new book, Running with Sherman, was about a rescue donkey named Sherman, I hesitated, thinking this wouldn’t be for me.  I was wrong.  Running with Sherman fully lives up to McDougall’s incredibly high standards.

McDougall beautifully tells the story of how, together with friends and family, he rehabilitated a neglected injured donkey. The narrative builds around a unique adventure race where participants team up donkeys to cross miles of difficult terrain.  It is an uplifting, inspiring and heart-warming tale of triumph over adversity.

It’s a beautiful story told exceptionally well.  McDougall sucks you in as your come to passionately care for this poor donkey and become invested in the outcome of the adventure race.  All the while, in his trademark style, McDougall uses Sherman’s story to explore a much deeper truth – how the relationship between animals and humans is fundamental to the human condition.  Animals make us happier, healthier, fitter, and all round better off.  The bond between Sherman and some of the team working with McDougall made a huge difference in improving their mental health and general well-being.

I’ve always found McDougall’s books incredibly inspiring.  While getting and caring for a rescue animal is beyond my capabilities sadly, I am going to be in Pennsylvania in September 2020 when the Bird-in-Hand half marathon that features at one point in the book is on so…. I’ve signed up for it as motivation – 7 months to build up to 13 miles!

Thanks for the inspiration Chris!

Sherman

 

 

‘Boot Sale: Inside the Strange and Secret World of Football’s Transfer Window’ by Nige Tassell (2019)

Watching sport (or reading sports books!) is really just one small part of the package of being a sports fan.  For many, the gossip, the rumours, the transfer news, is almost as much a part of the fun as the games.

For soccer fans, the off the pitch drama heightens twice a year – over the Summer and again in January when the transfer window is open.   Boot Sale is a behind the scenes look at the football transfer window to examine both how it works and why fans are so drawn to what is essentially 24 hour slow-moving recruitment news.

The book works really well because of the breath of people Tassell interviews.   He talks to a vast range of people whose working lives are heavily impacted by the transfer window – lawyers, players, managers, chairmen, agents, scouts, analysts, journalists, broadcasters, and bookie as well as to fans who get caught up in the drama of it all.

Tassell is a very good  interviewer who gets real insights from those working behind the scenes on transfers.   A lot of the stories he tells are quite familiar to me as someone who watches a disturbing amount of sky sports news on deadline day.  However, Tassell has made excellent choices in who he interviews for the book ensuring each section contains loads of fascinating detail and insight for any reader.

A few sections on the book particularly stand out.  The interview with Benik Afobe, a player who has made multiple deadline day moves, is insightful about the ups and downs of life for a player always maybe just one move away from realising his potential.  The section with a bookie discussing how the odds for betting on transfers are set and fluctuate is really interesting.

Overall this a very entertaining and enjoyable read for any football fan.  It’s definitely got me looking forward to this Friday’s transfer deadline day.

boot sale