Review of Corked

Love, Brian J., and Michael L. Burns. Corked: Tales of Advantage in Competitive Sports.  Ann Arbor, Michigan: Fifth Avenue Press. 2019. Pp. 253. Endnotes, preface, and index. $14.99 paperback.

Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo.

Gaining an edge in competitive sports could be as old as the games, although probably not. It was difficult during the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C. to bend the rules since all the competitors were naked and corporal punishment awaited those who were guilty of false starts in track events. But in modern times, with money increasingly thrown into the equation, gaining an edge significantly could alter the amount of money in an athletes’ pocket. Using corked bats, sign stealing, scuffing up baseballs, and deflating footballs — all have been done in the name of winning.

Fifth Avenue Press, 2019.

Does anyone remember the National Football League’s infamous December 1982 snowplow game in New England? Mark Henderson, a convicted burglar on work release from prison, drove a John Deere 314 tractor onto the field at Schaefer Stadium to clear the 20-yard line, then veered off three yards to clear a spot for the Patriots’ John Smith to kick a field goal — the only points in New England’s 3-0 victory against the Miami Dolphins. Interviewed years later, Henderson joked, “What are they gonna do, throw me in jail?” He had a point.

Of course, the Dolphins exercised their own chicanery several weeks later when they left the tarp off the turf of the Orange Bowl before the American Football Conference title game against the New York Jets. The resulting sloppy field after an overnight rain resulted in a mudder of a game, neutralizing the Jets’ defensive speed and allowing Miami to advance to Super Bowl XVII.

Those rogue-like qualities are what University of Michigan scholars Brian J. Love and Michael L. Burns bring out in their short, punchy book, Corked: Tales of Advantage in Competitive Sports. This 26-chapter anthology is not necessarily about cheating; it does, however, show how factors besides a player’s talent can affect a team’s performance. “We wanted to identify some things that were not necessarily well known,” Love said. Love said he takes the “20,000-feet view” about sports. Meanwhile, Burns is more of a hands-on, fantasy league kind of sports fan. Love is a professor of biomedical engineering at Michigan, while Burns is a clinical lecturer and anesthesiologist at the Ann Arbor school.

Love had just finished writing a textbook and was scouting around for a new project. He said he had written a story about the Chicago Cubs and how they manipulated the field at Wrigley Field, but the “editor shot it down.” Undaunted, Love jotted down an outline and was chatting one day with Burns when he asked what his colleague enjoyed on the side. “I follow a lot of sports,” Burns told him. Love “floated him a few ideas” about his proposed project. “The next day he said, ‘I’m all in,’” Love said. The book is not meant to be all-inclusive, although the authors encourage dialogue and even invite readers to submit instances of one team or player taking advantage of another, perhaps for a second edition. The authors address mainstream sports like baseball and football, but they really shine when examining less traditional 3sports like jai alai, cricket, curling, cycling, speedskating, and sailing.

Corked is loaded with wit. Jai alai, Love and Burns write, is more than just a clue in The New York Times crossword puzzle “seemingly every third Sunday.” (p. 113). On a more serious note, every pelota is unique, and players’ knowledge of the dead spots on the fronton walls can give them an advantage. Because there are few frontons remaining, players who move from one locale to another are at a disadvantage against players who use the home fronton’s pelotas (each is produced differently at each fronton) and are not as versed in the quirks of the front, back, and side walls.

Love and Burns aptly call curling “shuffleboard on ice,” (p. 130) and even delve into a scandal that was dubbed Broomgate. It is an episode that only scratched the surface among mainstream sports fans, but was a big deal among throwers, sweepers, and skips. The bristles of some brooms were fitted with more abrasive materials, which allowed teams more control in getting the stone to glide to the proper spot. “You run out there with your Swiffer,” the authors puckishly note, and then alter the number and depth of grooves on the ice, which in turn allows the curling team a “larger degree of control on the amount of curl achieved.” (p. 133). The authors open the chapter about cricket with a subhead that mentions the “Case for Banning Zippers.” They note that like its American cousin, baseball, tampering with the ball is illegal in cricket. However, “enhancing the shine on one side of the ball by rubbing it against one’s pants is legal, but using dirt to scuff the other side of the ball is illegal.” (p. 63).

Corked’s chapters may be short, but they do advance some interesting theories. The authors wonder whether past winners at the Masters golf tournament have more of an advantage over the rest of the field because the event is held each year at Augusta National Golf Course. Contrast that with the British Open, which follows a rotation of several courses through the years. A player who excels at Carnoustie one year might flop the following year at Troon.  Is there an advantage? Could that be why Tiger Woods was able to win his fifth Masters title this year? It’s an intriguing thought. Golf also comes to the fore in a chapter about the Ryder Cup, where the home crowd “relishes the thought of giving an opponent the yips.” (p. 165). Even then, golf’s gentlemanly tradition comes through. An American fan heckling European team member Henrik Stenson during a 2016 practice round was challenged by the golfer to make a putt of his own. When the heckler, David Johnson, drained the 10-footer, golfers from the U.S. and European teams both joined in celebrating the feat (p. 166).

Another chapter follows the idea of fans becoming more involved in sporting events, including whether instant replay and home-field advantage were tied together. That home-field advantage is also explored in the Corked’s opening chapter, which examines various types of turf and groundskeeping tactics at major league baseball stadiums (and yes, the story about the Cubs groundskeepers made the cut). Chapter 2, which examines the San Francisco Giants’ attempts to slow down Maury Wills’ base-stealing threat during the 1962 season, is a fascinating read. The same can be said for competitive yachting, including the America’s Cup. “If you win, you get to set the rules for the next competition,” Love said. Some of the more obvious instances of taking advantage are addressed, like the “Deflategate” scandal that followed the New England Patriots. So is the increase in shifts employed by baseball managers — “all sorts of crazy schemes” to position the defense (p. 211).

As scholars, Love and Burns write formally, although at times they veer into more informal language. It’s a scholarly work, and they do a nice job with explanatory prose and break down technical terms easily for the reader. But as sports fans, the authors are only too happy to have some fun. That impishness can be found in some of the chapter titles and subheads, lifting movie and song titles like “Romancing the Stone” (p. 136), “Slip Sliding Away” (p. 136), and having some wordplay fun like “Rosin Bran” (p. 141). There are a few glitches. The Tampa Bay Rays are called the “Tampa Rays” (p. 4), former third baseman Graig Nettles is called “Craig” (p. 101) and that Maury Wills “would break Ty Cobb’s record of 104 stolen bases” in 1962 (p. 14). Cobb stole 96 bases; Wills did break the record in 1962, finishing with 104. These are minor glitches that do not detract from the overall premise of the book. Certainly, they can be fixed in a future printing.

While there is no formal bibliography, Love and Burns make up for it with extensive endnotes. It is a sign of the times that the majority of the sources are not from books, but websites. It’s the same information, but it sure makes for a long set of endnotes. And perhaps I am going to sound like a contemptuous professor looking down my nose, but using Wikipedia as a source (p. 228) should be avoided. Off the soapbox. The only other complaint is the book ends too abruptly. The final chapter “Arranging the Field Differently,” ends and then the endnotes begin. A summarizing final chapter, even a page or two, would have been a nice way to end the book.

Overall, though, Love and Burns do a nice job pointing out the ways teams and players try to get that extra edge to win. There is plenty of good information, and it is not necessarily geared toward die-hard sports fans. Even readers with a casual interest should find Corked interesting.

Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.

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