by Michael Lewis
Norton, 288 pages, $24.95
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 mat 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 Bin-ion (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.