posted: Nov. 15, 2005  |  Feedback

One follow-up to today's Cowbell column (featured below):

When I linked to the David Halberstam book on Amazon, I didn't realize that my book was featured on his page. Admittedly, I should have looked to make sure. Now I have e-mailers claiming that I linked to his book only because my book was also featured on his Amazon page, even though I mentioned six weeks ago how much I liked it when I read the advance copy. Terrific. Apparently I'm that conniving.

Anyway, here's a link to John Feinstein's book as well.

As you can tell, there's a link for my book on that page, too.

And just for the record, I started these sports-book recommendations as a way to write about some of the books that have meant something to me over the years. Then I started receiving a steady slew of "You're just linking to out-of-print books, you're doing this intentionally because you don't want to promote any new books that you're competing against with your book" e-mails. Whatever. So I write about a couple of new football books that I happened to read over the past month … and now it was a thinly veiled excuse to promote Halberstam's book and get people to buy mine? Clearly, I can't win either way.

Maybe it was my mistake for thinking that I could review sports books from a fan's perspective without my own book being a factor. The way our culture works now, everyone who writes a visible column on the Internet has to have some sort of hidden agenda, and everyone is in this for the wrong reasons, and everyone's a sellout, and that's just the way it is. Honestly, I just started the series because I was cleaning out boxes of sports books from my garage and forgot how much they meant to me, so I wanted to recommend some of them and explain why I liked them. In the case of the Halberstam/Feinstein books, since I recently read both of them, I thought I could discuss both of them from the same perspective established in my other book reviews. Apparently not.

Anyway, I'm only concentrating on older books for these reviews from now on. If they're out of print, so be it. That's why we have libraries.

Congratulations to Alex Rodriguez, your 2005 American League MVP. Even though I wanted Big Papi to win, it was nice to see the sheer joy on the faces of Yankee fans Monday when … oh, wait, there wasn't any joy whatsoever. Good choice, though.

I'm torn on this one. As I wrote six weeks ago, you really had to follow the 2005 Red Sox to understand Big Papi's impact on the team -- they would have won about 12 to 15 fewer games if you replaced him with a mediocre DH. On the other hand, I'm the same guy who argued last April that Steve Nash shouldn't win the NBA MVP because he couldn't guard anyone. And when you consider that A-Rod is an above-average defensive third baseman, his hitting stats and Big Papi's hitting stats were relatively equal, and most of the 28 voters didn't have the luxury of watching Papi's overall impact at the plate and in the dugout, the vote seemed like a forgone conclusion. The sad thing is that Papi isn't a bad first baseman. In fact, you could make a decent case that the Red Sox would have been better off playing him at first base, DH-ing Kevin Youkilis and benching Kevin Millar once it became apparent that Millar couldn't hit for power anymore. But whatever.

Anyway, not only am I still battling bronchitis, but now I sound like Harvey Fierstein. I know you're not gay, but if you were gay … would you find me attractive? At least I have a built-in excuse for last week's putrid NFL picks. But I did want to mention two things:

1. Sad weekend for wrestling fans with the passing of WWE star Eddie Guerrero, who became the umpteenth wrestler to mysteriously drop dead in a random hotel room in the past 10 years. Last night's "Monday Night Raw" brought back memories of the Owen Hart show six years ago -- it started off with every WWE wrestler standing on the stage as Vince McMahon said some words about Eddie. At least half of them were fighting off tears, some of them were openly sobbing … it was much more emotional than you would think. Really poignant show. With that said, I'm getting tired of seeing the headline "WWE Star Found Dead In Hotel Room," and since there have been so many similar deaths like this, I can see this story mushrooming in the mainstream media over the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

2. I read two football books in the past few weeks, one that I really liked, one that I didn't like nearly as much.

The one I didn't like that much: "Next Man Up," by John Feinstein.

Loved the idea (spending a season with the Baltimore Ravens), loved the premise, loved the reporting … but it reads like a 500-page AP article. It just didn't do much for me. My biggest problem with Feinstein's stuff is that he releases a new book every year, but it rarely feels like he spent enough time writing the book -- you never get a sense that he slaved over the pages, crafted every sentence and made sure there wasn't a word wasted. Isn't that what you should do for a book? For instance, "The Punch" (Feinstein's book on Rudy Tomjanovich and Kermit Washington) was truly a waste of time -- all over the place, lazy as hell, even had sections where he repeated stuff he had already written. It was like a 50-page magazine piece that he tried to stretch into 300 pages; at the time, I remember being furious that I wasted 25 bucks on it.

"Next Man Up" wasn't nearly as bad; I just didn't really understand the point. You could almost imagine Feinstein staring at a list of sports subjects and thinking, "Let's see, I've written about baseball, college hoops, golf, tennis … what's left? I know, pro football!" For one thing, he chose the Ravens and Brian Billick … who already received enough exposure with "Hard Knocks" a few years ago on HBO. Why choose the Ravens when we already know some of the characters on a semi-intimate scale? And I'm sorry, but the 2004 Ravens just weren't that interesting; they certainly didn't warrant 300 pages, much less 500-plus. Plus, didn't "Hard Knocks" and some of those other behind-the-scenes shows and TV features tackle this behind-the-scenes NFL stuff already? I already knew about "The Turk." I already knew how Billick handled cutting guys. I already knew about NFL draft rooms, big boards, the free-agent process and everything else. So you can't just trot this stuff out and pretend that I never knew about it.

Although Feinstein's access was great, some of the reporting that was truly absorbing (like Chris McAlister's bizarre season, the tension between coordinators, the religious tension on the team, even how the Terrell Owens saga played out) was buried in all the formulaic stuff that Feinstein feels like he has to throw in every book -- nitty-gritty details from games we don't care about, background information about inconsequential coaches and players, petty little vendettas that he always feels obligated to carry out. (In this book, he goes after Daniel Snyder and ESPN, among others.) And there was no attempt to put anything in perspective. That's what really bothered me. After 500 pages, I still wasn't sure about Feinstein's true opinion of Billick (or anyone else with the Ravens). Did he think Billick was full of crap, to a degree? Was Billick just plain lucky to walk into a Baltimore situation that had much of the '00 Super Bowl team in place when he arrived? Is it possible that he's overrated? Why do so many NFL people believe that he's an arrogant jerk? Why does he seem so happy to let reporters and TV crews in his locker rooms? Is he just feeding his ego? Feinstein doesn't even touch this stuff.

Anyway, I hate criticizing sports books, because the fact remains it's an achievement just to write any book. I just wish Feinstein had either spent more time on this one or chosen a different team. If you're a Ravens fan, you should get it. If you're just a football fan, wait until "Next Man Up" ends up on a bargain rack for $4.99 or something, then skim through it for the interesting stuff. That's my advice.

But here's a football book I will recommend: "The Education of a Coach," by David Halberstam.

I hate when people compliment me on a column with something like, "That was the best thing you've written in awhile!" Because the implication is, "You've been terrible lately, and it's about time you wrote something good again." So I always take that personally. But this was my favorite Halberstam book since "Playing for Keeps" (the one about the MJ era and his impact on the NBA), and I would have loved it whether it was about the Patriots' coach or not. The thing I have always loved about Halberstam's stuff -- he's a reporter, but he never relies on quotes that much. In other words, he gathers as much information as possible, then attempts to put that information in some sort of larger perspective. With this book, he's not telling us that Bill Belichick is a great football coach, he's telling us how Belichick became a great football coach -- the lessons he learned, which people impacted him, what he learned from everyone who passed through his life -- and after awhile, everything begins to make sense.

I loved three things about this book. First, the access Halberstam gets from Belichick is extraordinary, but there's a reason for that -- not only are they neighbors in Nantucket, but Belichick is a huge history buff and apparently counts Halberstam among his favorite writers. So it's a perfect match in a way (I just don't think Belichick would have been this forthcoming with any other writer). Second, the insight into Belichick's thought process -- particularly with stuff like "planning for the Super Bowl against the Rams" and "Brady vs. Bledsoe" -- was truly spectacular. And third, the book was surprisingly candid about Belichick's complicated relationship with Bill Parcells (who comes off like a callous jerk in some parts), to the point that it now makes sense why Belichick chose to walk away from the Jets job a few years ago.

(In fact, reading that section, you can see the parallels between Belichick-Parcells and Theo Epstein-Larry Lucchino -- both Belichick and Theo reached a point in their careers where they needed to leave the shadow of their mentors, for a variety of reasons that couldn't be easily explained, and eventually we learned that Parcells and Lucchino were more domineering and difficult than we initially realized. In Lucchino's case, the stories are still trickling out and the Dick Cheney parallels are officially jarring. But that's a whole different column.)

Anyway, if you're a Patriots fan, you absolutely have to get this book. If you're a Halberstam fan, you absolutely have to get this book. If you love football and want to understand how a coach becomes a coach as well as all the difficult decisions that could sidetrack him along the way, you have to get this book. And while we're on the subject, I have always felt like there are two kinds of sports books:

Group A: The ones that simply tell you what happened.

Group B: The ones that attempt to put what happened in some sort of perspective.

After his brilliant "Season on the Brink," Feinstein settled into a safe (and lucrative) career of pumping out those Group A books -- the writing isn't challenging, you can skim around to the juicy parts, there's just enough to keep your interest, and then you finish the book and never think about it again. Which is fine. But I would much rather spend $20-$25 on Group B sports books that challenge me, enlighten me and make me think. So I'm recommending the Halberstam one.

Here's the link.

November 2005