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Behind the Plate

Behind the Plate

posted by:
June 20, 2014 - 6:00am

Cover art for ThrowbackWhat do catchers and umpires really talk about during a ballgame? Longtime Major League catcher Jason Kendall reveals the secrets of that mystery in Throwback: A Big-League Catcher Tells How the Game Is Really Played. Co-authored by Kansas City Star sportswriter Lee Judge, this is not a personal memoir with a few details about what happens on the field, but instead it is chockfull of insights that any casual or ardent baseball fan will relish.
 

Kendall spent more than half of his decade-plus career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and was known as an unusually speedy catcher with an unconventional batting stance. This resulted in him being the fifth most hit-by-pitch player in Major League history, and he divulges the methods used to reach base no matter what the cost. But for the bulk of the book, the self-described badass talks about the relationships a catcher has with the rest of his team and opponents when on the field. Kendall starts with the pitcher and discusses in great detail how statistics, while valuable, often take a back seat to keen observation. After several seasons in the big leagues, he could identify when a pitcher needed to hang it up, and when batters were simply phoning it in and when they were on fire. Most intriguing of all are the discussions between catcher and pitcher and the ever-evolving, incredibly exhaustive language of signs between the two critical players.
 

Written conversationally, but containing considerable detail, Throwback is a rare look into how contemporary baseball is won and lost. While other big leaguers are mentioned, this is all about the game and not about the personalities. And those catcher-umpire conversations? Kendall discloses how it is an all-game affair of compromise, conniving and convincing to make sure there would be a win for his team at the end of nine innings.

Todd

 
 

A True Champ

Cover art for Strength of a ChampionO.J. Brigance knows what it’s like to be a winner on and off the field. He had a remarkable career as an NFL linebacker, including as a member of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl winning team. Following that victory, Brigance joined the front office to help create more championship teams for the purple and black. But in 2007, he was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and his life was forever altered. Peter Schrager, FoxSports.com senior writer, and Brigance share his inspirational story of perseverance and hope in Strength of a Champion: Finding Faith and Fortitude Through Adversity.

 

Upon diagnosis, doctors told Brigance he would have three to five years to live, years which would be marked by the loss of speech and mobility. But Brigance, familiar with hits on the field, refused to give up.  Rather than follow a path of self-pity, Brigance viewed his diagnosis as an opportunity. With faith, determination and the love of his wife Chanda, O.J. fought back and raised awareness for this debilitating disease. No longer able to walk or speak, Brigance remained a vibrant presence in Baltimore’s front office and touched everyone in the organization as the team claimed another Super Bowl victory in 2013.

 

Brigance received motivation and energy from the team as well, and shared special bonds with players and coaches. Upon hearing of Ray Lewis’ retirement, Brigance told him to go out a champion. And when illness threatened his appearance at the Super Bowl, he recovered and delivered a moving pre-game message to the team. At the conclusion of Brigance’s powerful speech, Coach John Harbaugh had no doubt that the Super Bowl would be Baltimore’s. Brigance shares wonderful behind-the-scenes stories and humorous anecdotes which will appeal to ardent football fans, but this story of one courageous man living a life of inspiration and faith transcends the football field. Learn more about The Brigance Brigade, O.J.’s foundation dedicated to equipping, encouraging, and empowering people living with ALS.
 

Maureen

 
 

Virtual Card Sharks

Ship It Holla Ballas!Online poker was a hot phenomenon in the early 2000s, and Ship It Holla Ballas! by Jonathan Grotenstein and Storms Reback traces the trend by focusing on some of the hottest players. Ship It Holla Ballas is a name coined from a poker term, a celebratory cheer, and urban slang and was chosen as the crew name by an elite group of poker players who studied the online game and figured out how to win. This group of college dropouts met on a popular message board and soon got together in person. While the authors introduce the main players using their online handles, all of them, including, Irieguy, Raptor, and Good2cu, are real guys who got to live lifestyles of the rich and famous.

 

Most of these young men weren’t even old enough to gamble in a casino when the crew was formed, but they took advantage of the online games to win millions of dollars. Those millions helped these enterprising, if nerdy, teens transform themselves into players with fast cars, big houses, and beautiful women. They eventually took on Vegas, winning some of the biggest poker tournaments in the world, and garnering even more attention.

 

Readers will get a sense of the personalities of these players and their individual motivations behind dominating this complex card game. The authors frame the story of the crew by outlining the rapid rise and fall of online poker. At one point as many as 15 million people were betting online. But on April 15, 2011, the government shut down the three largest sites, effectively killing the games. This is a story filled with ego, dedication, success, and excess. It is also the story of how the smartest guys in the room parlayed their brains into big bucks.

Maureen

 
 

The Final Season

PaternoJoe Paterno long identified with Virgil’s reluctant Trojan hero Aeneas, who eschewed individual glory on his way to founding Rome. Aeneas fulfilled his destiny in a way that the late Penn State coach admired. Aeneas, like Paterno, was a team player.  In his new biography, Paterno, author Joe Posnanski paints a complicated picture of the consummate team player and his rise and fall as a coaching legend.

 

Posnanski cleverly organized Paterno’s story into five operatic acts, beginning with his success-driven upbringing in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, and concluding with the tragic repercussions of the 2011 Penn State sexual abuse scandal.  By the end, and in a span of about three months, the winningest coach in college history had been consumed by scandal, cancer, and ultimately death.

 

Excellence and success meant different things to Joe Paterno. Examples of both are in plentiful supply in Posnanski’s book. There are anecdotes and testimonials but also contradictions. A former writer for Sports Illustrated, Posnanski visualized a different book when he was granted full access to Paterno last year. Then the Jerry Sandusky case erupted.   A chapter entitled “Sandusky” explores the emotional armor of these powerful men.  Apparently there was no love lost between the two. There are some interesting sidebars about Paterno’s impressions of the second most popular coach in Happy Valley.  

 

Although the author’s tone is generally sympathetic, it is still a white-hot topic as to why Paterno, a lifelong rule follower who valued his young men, did not step up for those most vulnerable. "One of Paterno's great strengths, and perhaps one of his great flaws was his fierce loyalty and absolute trust in the people closest to him," according to Posnanski. That observation remains the crux in evaluating the aggregate of a remarkable 46-year career that reached the pinnacle of heights before plunging to the depths of misery.

Cynthia

 
 

Let's Get Ready to Rumble

GooseTony Siragusa, one of the most beloved former Ravens, writes about football and life in Goose: the Outrageous Life and Times of a Football Guy. Siragusa’s path to the Super Bowl wasn’t easy, and his was a career which almost didn’t happen. Readers meet Goose as a child in New Jersey and learn that athletics did not always come easy. In fact, he used his failure to make the Little League All Star team at age twelve as future motivation to prove his prowess. He had a successful career as a college athlete at the University of Pittsburgh and also enjoyed the extra-curricular fun associated with college days. Unfortunately, he injured both knees while playing and lost a season to rehabilitation.

 

During the 1990 NFL draft, Siragusa was not picked through twelve rounds, but was selected by the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent. The team doctor thought he would be lucky to survive a few years in the NFL. But what do doctors know? Siragusa played for twelve seasons, signing with the Ravens in 1997. He will forever be remembered in Baltimore as a critical member of the 2000 Ravens’ defense which allowed the fewest points in NFL regular season history, and which went on to bring the Lombardi Trophy to Charm City by claiming victory in Super Bowl XXXV. Today, Siragusa is a popular sideline reporter on the Fox network and cohost of DIY Network’s Man Caves. Football falls will appreciate the insider details, but this is more than a tale of the gridiron. Siragusa shares life lessons, stories about small town living, and the importance of perseverance in this breezy, humorous read which will appeal even to those readers who don’t claim citizenship in Ravens Nation.  

Maureen

 
 

Hoop Dreams

Hoop Dreams

posted by:
August 2, 2012 - 8:01am

Dream TeamIn 1992, the United States assembled an Olympic basketball team of NBA stars and created what was arguably the greatest team ever in any sport. On the twentieth anniversary of the Barcelona Olympics, and just in time for the London Games, Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum examines this legendary team and their place in history in Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever

 

McCallum had a front-row seat for the spectacle and covered the team from selection to medal ceremony. He was close to the players, and he hit the links, played cards, and drank with this disparate group of superstars. The personalities were huge, but the team put aside ego and worked together to create magic. The anecdotes from ’92 are illuminated by the contemporary interviews with each of the players. One of the most riveting stories is the play-by-play narration of the legendary intra-squad scrimmage that pitted the Dream Teamers against one another. This pre-Olympics’ contest was perhaps the most competitive game played, remembered as the greatest pickup game ever with the best display of trash talk in history.   

 

This amazing team was responsible for creating a cultural phenomenon that helped make basketball a global sport and the NBA an international brand.  Today international stars are plentiful in the NBA and many of them were inspired to play because of the Dream Team’s spirit and competiveness. This fast-paced narrative captures a remarkable sporting time and vividly describes a group of athletes who joined forces on an international stage, outperformed the hype, and changed the future of their sport.  

Maureen

 
 

And DOWN the Stretch They Come

EclipseKentucky Derby DreamsDrive around Maryland’s thoroughbred horse country, and it’s hard to imagine a more picturesque scene than the mare and her foal romping in a shamrock green field. It is equally hard to imagine the carefully orchestrated breeding and the trials of their short lived careers. Just in time for this year's Triple Crown campaign, two new books take an in-depth look at these storied animals whose equine feats define the sport of kings.    

 

In his well-researched biography, Eclipse: the Horse that Changed Racing History Forever,  journalist  Nicholas Clee brings to life the greatest horse of all time and his roguish owner, Dennis O'Kelly. Clee vividly describes mid-18th century Georgian England as a gambler's paradise. In this milieu, the Irishman wheels and deals, until he has purchased the undefeated Eclipse, the freakishly fast chestnut thoroughbred whose astounding number of progeny includes this year's Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another.  How O'Kelly and his brothel-owning companion, Charlotte,  manage to reap the benefits from their chosen activities and turn a racehorse into a breeding stallion for the ages is what makes this historical narrative fun to read.  

 

Fast forward 250 years to Susan Nusser's Kentucky Derby Dreams: The Making of Thoroughbred Champions.  Nusser deftly records the behind-the-scenes pulse of one of Kentucky's elite horse breeding operations as it readies for a new crop of foals. It is an exhausting schedule of barn rounds, meetings, crises, x-rays, and runway-like parading, all in the hope of getting to the yearling sales. Nusser's prose is fast paced and heartfelt. A prime example is when she describes a mare's anguish over the death of a foal: "her wail is steady, coming in waves, one right after the other."  Making it to the finish line is never taken for granted.

 

Horse lovers and historians, including fans of Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit and Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven, will appreciate these revealing glimpses inside the racing world and the fragile four-legged athletes who run their hearts out.

Cynthia

 
 

Baseball's Odd Couple

Driving Mr. YogiFor Yogi Berra and Ron Guidry spring training is a renewal of their friendship. Every spring former Yankees’ pitching superstar Guidry drives to the Tampa airport and picks up former Yankees’ catcher and Hall of Famer Berra. The two go the ballpark, watch games, eat dinner together, and trade stories.  Every day for the next month follows the same pattern. Driving Mr. Yogi is the story of the bond between two men who on the surface appear to share only baseball in common.   The catcher from a poor Italian neighborhood in St. Louis and the pitcher from Cajun swamp country were born a quarter of a century apart, and yet today Guidry calls Berra his best friend.  New York Times reporter Harvey Araton first shared this story last year in an article in the paper and expands on it in this humorous and thoughtful narrative. 

 

It all began in 1999, when Berra was reunited with the Yankees following a 14 year self-exile that began when he was fired by George Steinbrenner.  The rift between the two men led Berra to cut all ties with the Bronx Bombers. The Boss finally offered an apology and Berra went back to spring training where Guidry befriended him. Berra had been a clubhouse mentor during Guidry’s playing days and Ron knew the young players would benefit from Berra’s impressive knowledge of the game and its history. Sure enough, Berra’s casual batting tip changed Nick Swisher's season, and the new ballplayers savored the anecdotes about famous old-timers such as Ted Williams and Don Larsen.    

This is a story of baseball and the rituals of spring training, but it is also a funny and affectionate story of friendship that transcends generations. And yes, it is the Yankees, but even the most ardent Orioles fan will appreciate this engaging story of two likeable sportsmen!

Maureen

 
 

The Mark Cuban of China

Brave DragonsFormer New York Times Beijing bureau chief and Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Yardley uses basketball as a vehicle to illuminate the global story of the Americanization of China.  In Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing, Yardley follows the Shanxi Brave Dragons for the 2008 season.  He is initially drawn to the team because of the fish-out-of-water hiring of Bob Weiss, a former NBA coach and player.  But the players, officials, and owner also draw him in and all have strong roles in this excellent narrative. 

 

The Shanxi Brave Dragons were and remain one of China’s worst professional teams and owner Wang Xingjiang (“Boss Wang”), a peasant turned steel tycoon, was desperate for improvement.  He promised Weiss autonomy with the players to infuse the NBA way into this team.  Once Weiss landed in China, Wang went back on that promise and refused the players any freedom or individual expression, necessary to truly change their games.  Wang, referred to as the Mark Cuban of China, interfered in nearly every aspect of the game, including sitting on the team bench with his mistress, criticizing performances, and in one case physically assaulting one of his players.

 

This is a fascinating history of basketball in China told with humor and a strong sense of the culture clash between these two countries and people.  Readers meet the players, some from around the world, but most from China. These athletes were recruited in elementary school because x-rays of their skeletal structure led to projections of tallness.   Training and practice took place in a depressing warehouse in Taiyuan, once ranked as the most polluted city in the world.  Coach Weiss had to use an interpreter to communicate with the players and with his assistant Chinese coach, Liu Tie, with whom he faced a constant power struggle.  In addition, there was rampant corruption among game officials and a multitude of cultural obstacles.  All of these elements combined with excellent research and a clear writing style add up to an engaging narrative that will appeal to sports fans and readers who enjoy well-written contemporary nonfiction. 

Maureen