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Turning Up The Volumes At the end of a solid year for sports books, SI picks a top 21

Dec. 22, 2003
Dec. 22, 2003

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Dec. 22, 2003

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Turning Up The Volumes At the end of a solid year for sports books, SI picks a top 21

MONEYBALL
by Michael Lewis
Norton, 288 pages, $24.95

This is an article from the Dec. 22, 2003 issue

A story of the wheeling-dealing A's general manager Billy Beane,
who, despite a pauper's purse, each year manages to field a
playoff team (SI, May 12, 2003). Lewis, a former junk-bond
hustler who found fame in 1989 by confessing his sins in Liar's
Poker, got unprecedented access in his quest to find out how
Beane did it. The unromantic answer: numbers. Beane and his staff
build statistical models to measure achievements others
overlook--most notably, they value on-base percentage far above
batting average. The approach gives new life to players like
Scott Hatteberg, an ugly duckling Red Sox catcher who turned into
a swan first baseman for the A's. But Beane admits number
crunching can only take him so far. "My job is to get us into the
playoffs," he says in a moment of frustration, "what happens
after that is f------ luck."

POSITIVELY FIFTH STREET
by James McManus
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 422 pages, $26

McManus had to be the ultimate sucker. Arriving at Binions
Horseshoe casino in Vegas to write a Harper's magazine article on
the World Series of Poker, he lost all reason, got hold of
$10,000 and entered the tournament. Professional poker players
have a word for such greenhorns: dead money. But Luck was in a
Ladylike mood. McManus, who'd been playing poker since he was a
kid in the Bronx, finished fifth in a field of 500, winning
$247,760. More important, he produced a remarkable book. His
insightful rendering of the poker culture is compelling enough to
make Fifth Street a winner. But the murder of Ted Binion (son of
series founder Benny Binion) draws a new character into the
drama: Las Vegas itself, which fulfills fantasies in one hotel
room while ruining lives in the one next door.

THE TEAMMATES
by David Halberstam
Hyperion, 217 pages, $22.95

Halberstam's little masterpiece tells the story of three old Red
Sox--Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr and Dom DiMaggio--and their road
trip to say goodbye to Ted Williams as he was dying in Florida in
the fall of 2001. Williams was an egomaniac, shaped in part by a
hellish childhood; and he, in turn, often wounded the people who
mattered most to him. Yet he was also the greatest teammate a man
could ever hope to have, and this book shows why.

CUT TIME
by Carlo Rotella
Houghton Mifflin Company, 222 pages, $24

In forceful unadorned prose, Rotella tells true boxing stories
about struggling amateurs, fading pros and the people who train,
mentor and exploit them. The book--which avoids moralizing on the
brutal but fascinating business--takes you inside the minds of
boxers as they circle in the ring. After we meet Larry Holmes and
Prince Naseem Hamed, Cut Time's larger theme emerges when we meet
Rotella's grandmother: It's about how people combat different
kinds of pain.

FIRST OFF THE TEE
by Don Van Natta Jr.
Perseus Publishing, 288 pages, $26

Ever since Ulysses S. Grant tried golf in 1877 (despite several
swings, he failed to hit the ball), the game's challenges have
helped us get to know our commanders in chief. Van Natta Jr., an
investigative reporter for The New York Times, has the goods on
all of 'em, including the corpulent William Howard Taft, who
played like "a sumo wrestler trying to swat a gnat," and Bill
Clinton (SI, March 24), who cheated so brazenly, his mulligans
were known as "Billigans." Then there's this anecdote of George
W. Bush as he prepared to tee up at Cape Arundel in 2002. "I call
upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these
terrorist killers," he told reporters. "Thank you. Now watch this
drive."

EVERY SECOND COUNTS
by Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins
Broadway Books, 246 pages, $24.95

THE NOBLEST INVENTION
The Editors of Bicycling
Rodale Press, 320 pages, $27.95

In his second memoir in three years (It's Not about the Bike was
a huge bestseller), Armstrong says a lot in few words, most
poignantly on the mystery of his recovery from cancer, which
still haunts him. He disdains any "neat religious" explanations
for it, writing that "God didn't do it." At the same time he
lovingly restores a church in Girona, Spain, because he considers
faith a valuable "balance to logic." He's also eloquent in his
forward to Invention. "A body borne through space freely, with
the aid of nothing but a crank, two wheels, and arms and legs,
remains poetically unchallenged," he writes. And the book's rare
photographs, including one of John Lennon on his bike, bear him
out.

TRAIN
by Pete Dexter
Doubleday, 255 pages, $26

Ah, the sanctuary of the golf course, where worldly cares are set
aside and it's only the game that matters to all those who walk
the manicured grounds. But in this searing novel, which was
excerpted in the Sept. 15 issue of SI, Dexter, the author of
Paris Trout, suggests the golf course may look a bit less ideal
from the perspective of the people who must carry the bags and
cut the greens. Dexter's tale of murder and mayhem, which
revolves around Lionel (Train) Walk Jr., a teenage
African-American caddie at an L.A. country club, is no dreamy
Bagger Vance. It is a relentless chain of cruelties, often
hilarious and ironic, with tragic consequences.

FACING ALI
by Stephen Brunt
The Lyons Press, 321 pages, $22.95

The 15 opponents of Muhammad Ali that Brunt profiles are brothers
in a diverse fraternity. At one end are the champions, whose
memories tend to be complicated; no one seems as scarred by
losing to Ali as Joe Frazier was by beating him in the first of
their three epic encounters. At the other end are the
palookas--including a German butcher and an English
plasterer--whose greatest claim to fame lies in the whuppin' Ali
gave them; their memories are vivid, dreamlike and often damn
funny. Before his 1975 bout, Chuck (the Bayonne Bleeder) Wepner
told his wife to buy some expensive lingerie because soon she'd
be sleeping with the heavyweight champ. After Ali beat Wepner,
the bloodied fighter's wife asked him, "Do I go to Ali's room, or
does he come to mine?"

WE OWN THIS GAME
by Robert Andrew Powell
Atlantic Monthly Press, 191 pages, $23

Powell explores the Pop Warner football program in Miami, where
the intense coach of the Palmetto Raiders (ages 11 to 13) is
known as "the Darth Vader of youth football." In this
hair-raising account the world of kids' sports is rendered
joyless as parents and coaches preach that winning is the only
thing, and the demons of race, politics and money haunt every
practice field. You finish the book furious that so much of the
joy of sports has been snatched from so many kids who never get
the childhood they deserve.

THE LAST GOOD SEASON
by Michael Shapiro
Doubleday, 368 pages, $24.95

Shapiro's deft retelling of Brooklyn's last pennant chase in '56
covers two entrancing stories. One involves a gutty Dodgers
lineup featuring Snider, Reese, Robinson, Hodges and Campanella.
The second is the fight over the team's future, a battle that
pitted owner Walter O'Malley against the man who rebuilt New
York, Robert Moses. Brooklyn has never been the same.

ELEVEN COLOR PHOTOS