Up, Up, and Away (Book Review)

Up, Up, and Away (Book Review)

The history of the Montreal Expos is not a happy one.

This is pretty easy to assume, considering that they have been gone for over a decade now, leaving Montreal for Washington, DC, and now call themselves the Nationals.

expo3It can be debated as to whether Major League Baseball in Montreal was a success or a failure, in the end. Those who saw the final days of the Expos, with laughably minuscule crowds in the grotesquely expansive Big O (Olympic Stadium), perhaps the worst ballpark in the majors, may assume that the city was always neglectful of their team, and that they deserved to have them pull up camp and head for Washington.

Carter, Dawson, Rogers, Raines, OliverBut there is more to it than that.

Montreal loved the Expos. Passionately. There were the good times, when the team was consistently competitive (even getting a game away from a World Series appearance), and the Big O was packed. Players became local legends, and there was even a time where it could be argued that the Expos surpassed the legendary Canadiens as the most popular team in town.

But there were too many failings that forced the team to leave.

Following the tragedy of the players strike in 1994, which wiped out the Expos best chance at winning it all (the team was the best in the MLB at the time of the strike, and they were absolutely an incredible team, just look at that roster!), new owners decided that they needed money, and completely stripped the team in a Florida Marlins-esque fashion. It truly was the death knell for the team. Cheap owners, the abandonment from corporate Montreal, and some questionable decisions by the league made it impossible for them to stay.

expo4But there were definitely plenty of good times.

In Up, Up and Away, we are provided with the complete history of the team, from their hilariously thrown together inception in to the league, to their final days before leaving. It is a story of ups and downs, of a city falling for a bunch of underdogs, and finally rejoicing when they were good for real (that ’94 team remains possibly the greatest “what if” team in baseball history), readers are provided with a much clearer understanding of the last franchise that was forced to relocate, and the first one who had to do so in the previous four-plus decades.

There are plenty of great stories in here provided by author Jonah Keri, a die-hard fan of the team. He brings to life the characters that put on the baby blue uniforms and questionable caps of the Expos. He talks about the great players that went through, and the minor ones that are barely remembered. He discusses the fever that the city would get whipped into when the Expos would be challengers for a pennant, and we are taken to a time when they really were Canada’s team, before the Blue Jays came around and stole most of the coverage the Expos received.

While the book is not perfectly written, and often takes us into too many details of trades, it does a good job of helping us remember the scrappy team that ended up being abandoned by everybody in Montreal. The stories of the terrible ballpark and the failed attempts to get a new one. It is easy to tell that Keri writes with passion, on occasion bringing us into his personal experiences of fandom. Personally, I felt that parts of the book could have used a more personal touch, but as it stands, Up, Up and Away will stand as the most definitive history of the team that we have in book form.

expo5For fans of baseball, this is a good read. For those of us who remember the Expos, it is incredibly interesting to read about, and remember, the plethora of great players that went through that city on their way to massive, Hall of Fame careers.

And it makes us sad, because what could have been in Montreal. With only a couple of breaks here and there, either on the field or off of it, we could be looking at a completely different history of the team, one who could still possible reside in La Belle Province.

And that is what makes the Expos such a tragic team.

What could have been.

Up, Up and Away is a good read, and belongs in the pantheon of the many great baseball books out there.

“Now I Can Die in Peace” (Book Review)

“Now I Can Die in Peace” (Book Review)

Bill Simmons is my favorite sports writer.

Over the course of his career, he has produced a ton of work, and much of it is focused on the teams that he loves the most: the Patriots, the Celtics, and the Red Sox.

simmonsHis writing can be long-winded, and is always extremely biased, but it can also be very funny, and he truly does care about what he is writing about. He has managed to create a great career as a sports writer, and still manages to love the game he writes about.

Really, there is nobody better to write about the 2004 Red Sox than Bill Simmons.

Over the course of the book, which is now in its third edition, he has accumulated articles that not only chronicle his pained history as a Red Sox fan, but his infatuation with the team, and the ups and downs of the ’04 season that culminated in the historic World Series win for the first time in 86 years.

simmons2The articles do well to show really how painful some of the memories of the Sox are for their longtime fans, and also show their nature of loving then hating someone on the team. The overractions are constant, the idolization of athletes is continual, and it is constantly fun to read.

One of the best parts about Simmons’ writing is the endless pop cultural references, and the tons of footnotes that he adds to his work. It is hilarious, and often spot on. His consistent use of The Shawshank Redemption as a means to compare things is always right, and gives us a firm ground for comparison in many of his articles.

Simmons takes us through the hurt, and the torture, of so many Red Sox moments of infamy: from the harrowing losses over the years, to the players leaving town for greener pastures, leaving behind them a rabid fanbase that wants nothing more than to celebrate a World Series victory with their beloved team. He takes us through the panic-inducing 2004 ALCS, where the Sox fell into a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 hole against the mighty, and hated, Yankees.

And he does it so expertly that he has created a true page turner of a book, even though we already know the ending.

The connection that Simmons has with the team is incredible, and at points, it becomes a book that is more about the relationships he has with people because of the Sox, than about the Sox themselves. His father plays a major role in so many of his stories, and his article after the Sox finally won is something that can truly tug at the heartstrings. Simmons is a versatile writer, who is easily able to make us mad along with him, or vividly recount the tale of a game that we watched, or make us actually laugh out loud while reading.

The '04 Series win was kind of a big deal.
The ’04 Series win was kind of a big deal.

There are tons of books about baseball, and many of them are very well done. Now I Can Die in Peace provides us with a little something more than others, specifically others that have chronicles the championship run: it has soul to it, and that soul comes from an endless passion for the team that the author has.

For any Red Sox fan looking to relive some pain and some glory, this book is a must read. For fans of other teams, it offers a great look at how the team came to be where it is today, now a team that has won 3 championships in the last 10 years.

Ski Report: Panorama Mountain Resort

Ski Report: Panorama Mountain Resort

Panorama Mountain Resort, just outside of Invermere, British Columbia, is a favorite ski spot for its very consistent conditions, and beautiful mountain village. With a ton of condos right on the hill, or (worse case) just a short gondola ride up a hill, everything is close and within reach in the village. There are a handful of very good restaurants and the Great Lodge always makes a good place to relax after a few hard runs down the hill.

This year, the ski conditions weren’t at their best, as Panorama needs one thing right now: a massive amount of snow.

pano2Most runs were open, and generally, there was decent snow coverage, with only the occasional rock or exposed chunk of land, but it really could use a big dump to get a little bit of powder going, to cover up the icy spots and return Panorama to its normal skiing glory.

The resort does well with what it has, having the runs nicely groomed for each day on the hill, and one of the best features of the mountain is that each run is generally big enough that you are able to find a route down that is relatively untouched, or without traces of ice. Despite our concerns for the lack of snow, it provided a couple of days of very solid, if unspectacular, skiing.

A couple of things that have changed in Pano over the past year:

1. There is no longer hot breakfast being served in the Great Hall until 11 AM. This came as a bit of a surprise, since it had always been busy in there for breakfast before. In fact, the Great Hall served no more made-to-order meals, instead relying on churning out burgers and fries and having them sit under heat lamps until they are grabbed by a customer. This created a lot less traffic in the cafeteria area, since it was always a very long wait for food before, but it does create a lower quality meal.

2. Employees tend to be very confused on the locations of things that probably should be a part of their job. It took me asking three different employees where the Ski Patrol station was, so that I could check on an injured student. None of them knew where it was, and I had to rely on some good wandering in order to find the place. I had just assumed that people who worked there would know where certain things were located. I was incorrect.

pano53. The condos at Panorama are always very nice. They all have nice, large balconies, and are quite spacious, and have rooms available for various sizes of groups. This year, a couple of the rooms were not as prepared as they could have been, or have been in the past. Missing bedding for pull-out couches became hard to come by, and there was more than one instance where there was a lovely stash of smelly garbage in a room. These are small things that can be easily remedied by housekeeping and guest services. We were happy to be in the perfectly located Panorama Springs building.

4. This year, Panorama has changed their ideas around for storage, insisting that no skis or boards enter the rooms. They now provide lockers on the first floor of the building where you can store your stuff. But this raises a few issues, with one locker being assigned per room. The lockers are the size of your typical high school locker, meaning there is little chance of fitting a snowboard in there, let alone six. At best, you could get two pairs of skis in there, but nothing more, and even that requires a degree in engineering to figure out. Locks are provided by the front desk, with a $20 deposit if they are not returned. Somehow, this new locker usage feels like a money grab, since it provides far more inconvenience that needed. I see no issue with leaving skis and boards on the balconies of the rooms, as it has always been done before. Another issue is that the locks have the combinations attached to them on a small, easy-to-lose card, which of course could lead to a whole other whack of issues.

Panorama is a definite favorite spot for skiing. This year, it was not perfect, but perhaps that is more to blame on mother nature and her refusal to snow much this year. The weather was absolutely perfect, hovering near the freezing mark for much of the time. It offered a perfect day outside, and warm enough to sit outside on the large patio at the Great Hall, to enjoy the spectacular views, some good times, and some good skiing.

I will always recommend Panorama to others as an optimal place to ski. Despite the little foibles that we found this year, it is still a great place to go. Maybe wait, and be sure to check those snow reports, before heading out.

Twenty Twelve: Season 1-2 (TV Review)

Twenty Twelve: Season 1-2 (TV Review)

Twenty Twelve is another pseudo-documentary from Britain’s BBC, that is, of course, pretty solid. It seems like every TV show out of Britain is at least pretty good, going all the way up to excellent. They are simply different from what we are used to, and there is generally always success.

The story of Twenty Twelve is quite simple: a group of people are in charge of organizing the 2012 Olympic Games in London, and they are being filmed while trying to get things done, while avoiding humorous crisis after humorous crisis. The gang in charge, all with their own level of British silliness and foibles, are generally enjoyable, as they do their best not to muck up what is to be the largest sports spectacle in the world. The characters range from the head of the whole thing, the PR lady, the head of legacy and sustainability, the traffic guy, the doting assistant, and the poor former athlete, who is generally confused with what is happening the whole time, while delivering some of the worst motivational speeches you will ever see. The actors here, as with many British shows, have been seen before: there are people from the gamut of UK television and film, like Downton AbbeyShaun of the Dead, and the hilarious Peep Show. It provides the show with an instant sense of familiarity, and allows us to instantly like the characters, even if they are annoying at times.

2012Twenty Twelve is typically British, in that it really does use the typically sedate and dry sense of humour in order to push the show forward. There are some spectacular scenes, including the discussion on the bathroom situations in the athlete’s village, and the double-entendre discussion of how plumbing works for men and women. Something lovable about British TV shows, is that we can honestly ask ourselves if something was meant to be funny, or just was, or that’s just the way they are. As usual, as with most TV series from across the pond, it feasts on our ability to watch awkwardness, and Twenty Twelve is another solid producer in this. Not to the extent of the original The Office, but there are still scenes that are able to make our skin crawl, because it is just painfully awkward.

As usual, I stumbled across this show on Netflix, and it is a decent watch. The two seasons are short, only a few episodes each, so there are not significant demands on your time to pour through the two seasons of the whole thing. The stories themselves are pretty engaging, and manage to provide some decent entertainment. The leadership group getting lost in London due to the miserable traffic and construction delays is excellent watching.

2012-3This show does not belong among the cream of the crop of British TV. It is consistently good, but never really great. As with these mockumentary-type shows, it is partially about the humour, and a little bit about the drama. There is that blend here as well. Neither are exceptional in Twenty Twelve, but neither are bad, either.

I wouldn’t rush out to watch the show, but if you have nothing else going on in your Netflix queue, there are worse things you could be viewing than Twenty Twelve.

The Other Dream Team (Film Review)

The Other Dream Team (Film Review)

Most North Americans know the story of the use of professional athletes in the basketball tournament of the 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain. The United States basketball team, known as the “Dream Team,” consisted of the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson, all together on the same team for the first time. They demolished the competition on their way to the Gold medal, to the surprise of nobody on Earth.

dream2But there was another story going on at the same time, and one that was more important for the political state of the world, and for basketball itself. It was the other dream team. The group of men from the new sovereign state of Lithuania, who had taken an unprecedented route to make it not just to the Olympics, but to that point in their lives altogether.

The Other Dream Team is a documentary that tells the story of what eventually becomes the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic basketball team, and the journey that they, and their country, took to get there.

This film seamlessly blends the political story of Lithuania and its quest for independence from the Soviet Union with the stories of the players, who went through lives that cannot be imagined by most Westerners, just to play the game that they love.

dream4During the heyday of the Soviet Union, the majority of its “national” basketball team hailed from Lithuania, the small Baltic nation that had been annexed by the USSR during the Second World War. They had grown up under the harsh foot of communism, and they weren’t allowed to play for their own country, because essentially, their own country did not exist. But they felt that it did. Basketball gave some of the players the opportunity to travel to different parts of the world, enabling to see how Western life compared to their dreary Soviet existences. And it provided them with dreams, not just for themselves, but for the freedom of their country.

Lithuania was the first nation to try and break away from the Soviet Union, declaring their independence before anybody else. They were a tiny nation, just hoping for the freedom that had been taken from them against their wills. This led to revolutions on the streets, and the world rallying around the case of this little country that most people had never even heard of before. Lithuania was making a stand on the international stage, and people understood their plight, and rallied for their cause.

This also led to the decision that Lithuania needed to have a basketball team at the Olympics, to announce their presence to the world, as a unified, and free country. With all of the political upheaval at home, there was no money for this, but the team found an unlikely source to help them out: The Grateful Dead.

dream3The Other Dream Team is an incredible story, about how this team took the world by storm. They were beloved at the Olympics, for their fun attitudes, and for their crazy tie-dyed shirts they wore, which had been given to them by the Dead, and had become their uniform off the court. The team embraced their new personalities, and the world ate it up. They were not underdogs because of their skill, but because of where the political landscape had placed them.

This documentary takes us from the childhoods of the team, where they would build their own nets in dreary playgrounds, and the importance of the game in their lives. We see them grow, playing for the Soviet national squad and being tremendously successful there. The Soviet pro leagues are also shown, including the heated rivalry between the Lithuanian team and the menacing Red Army team, and the intense battles on the court they would face. The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the independence of Lithuania is woven perfectly into the storyline, as the battles on the court were always representative of the political battles being fought for the small nation. There was a feverish national pride in the country, and an intense love for the sport at the same time. We are also taken to the NBA, where some of the Lithuanian talent was being recognized by the biggest pro league in the world, and players were getting drafted, and slowly trickling over to America.

The story crescendos to the Olympics, where the Lithuanians roll through the tournament, only to get wiped out by the American team. But that game did not really matter to them. Nobody thought that they were going to beat the US, including the Lithuanian team. That was not their goal. As usual, they had fun with it, even taking pictures of the famous American basketball players while the game was still going on. The Lithuanians were free, and they were representing their brand new country, and the millions of people back home, who had just had their hope restored.

It was not the game against the US that mattered, it was the Bronze medal game against the Soviet Union (playing as the Unified Team, due to the collapse of the USSR), that would make all the difference. This was it. The small child playing against its imposing father, the one who had controlled it for so many years.

It was absolutely more than just a game for a medal. For Lithuania, it was everything.

And The Other Dream Team manages to chronicle that struggle, both on and off the court, perfectly. A great sports documentary.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (Film Review)

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (Film Review)

This documentary had been sitting in my Netflix queue for quite some time, and I finally got around to watching the film made about a Class-A baseball team that started playing in Portland, Oregon, during the 1970’s.

And boy, was I glad I did finally watch it.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball is an exceptional documentary about baseball, about the minor leagues, about one man’s baseball dreams, a city embracing the ultimate underdogs, taking on the system, and having fun playing a game. It is definitely worth watching.

Bing Russell managing the Portland Mavericks in the Battered Bastards of Baseball documentaryWhen the Portland Beavers left for Spokane, the city had lost its AAA baseball team, and the sport was essentially dead in the Oregon town. But one man, actor Bing Russell (father of Kurt), decided that he wanted to bring baseball back to Oregon, in the form of an independent Single-A team, which he named the Portland Mavericks.

Russell was obsessed with baseball, and had spent his youth around the famous New York Yankee teams of Lefty Grove and Joe DiMaggio, and had spent some time playing in the minor leagues himself. He was a true student of the game, analyzing it to death, and going to far as to make baseball documentaries that would teach others how to play the game the right way. He wrote about how to play in every possible situation.

This was not some actor trying to recapture his youth, it was an actor with a baseball dream, and one that he understood incredibly well.

Buying an expansion franchise for a miniscule price, he held open tryouts for the Mavericks, which led to the team being stocked with a bunch of no-names and men whose dreams of baseball had seemingly died when they were never drafted or signed by a big-league club and allowed to play in their massive farm systems.

By being an independent team, meaning there was no affiliation with a major league club, meant that the Mavericks were going to be playing against developing major league players, and the bonus babies that the big teams had down in the minors, to learn the game. They would always play with a chip on their shoulder.

And the Mavericks made the big league teams look bad. Because they were good. Russell assembled a team that would win, playing their hearts out to prove that teams made mistakes in not drafting them at some point during their careers. They weren’t all pimply-faced college kids, as many A teams are, but a mixture of youth and veterans. But they all held one thing in common: they all loved baseball, and they just wanted to play.

Since there was no MLB affiliation, Russell had to foot the bill for everything himself. And it took some time to build up a fan base in Portland, but when they did, they set records. The city began to truly embrace their gang of miscreants, the team that would go out on the field, play the game the right way, and have a ton of fun doing it.

battered3The Mavericks didn’t play for long in Portland, because the Pacific Coast League, the largest AAA league in baseball, eventually decided that they wanted back into Portland after seeing the massive crowds that were attending the Mav games. Due to baseball legislation, they were allowed to do this, and they simply had to buy back the territory owned by the Mavericks. This lead to a court battle based on the price they needed to pay, and here we see Russell standing up to the PCL, because he had built up something incredible for the low minors, and they just wanted to take it away from him.

The return of the PCL signaled the end of the Mavericks, but their legend can now be seen by everyone. They set attendance records for A ball, the team had winning records that were unmatched, and some of the players from the team went on to do big things (including an Oscar-nominated bat boy, and of course actor Kurt Russell, who was a player on the team, the inventor of Big League Chew, and a pitcher who made it back to the majors). The Mavericks proved that even as the only non-affiliated minor league team in the country at the time, they could make it work, and they could play the game that they loved.

The story is told through interviews with some former players, the commissioner of the league, the bat boy, and others, and they all look back fondly at their time with the Mavericks. Their individual stories are great and compelling, as are the results of some of their lives.

This is an excellent documentary, and a definite must-see for any baseball fan. It shows the possibility of the love of the game, and has a great us-versus-everyone storyline that is undeniable. The Battered Bastards of Baseball is well worth the time to check out.