A Driving Man
Right off the tee, Bill Chastain's Payne at Pinehurst: The Greatest U.S. Open Ever (Thomas Dunne, $24.95) suffers credibility problems. Was Payne Stewart's 1999 victory at North Carolina's Pinehurst No. 2 truly the greatest ever? No way. Better choices abound. How about Johnny Miller roaring home with a final round 63 in 1973? Greg Norman's epic choke in '84? Or Tom Watson chipping in on the 17th hole to beat Jack Nicklaus at Pebble Beach in '82?
Also dubious is Chastain's affectionate portrayal of Stewart -- best known for his trademark knickers, knee socks and tam -- who was generally considered a jerk around the PGA Tour. To his credit, Chastain, a Florida sportswriter, doesn't grant Stewart any mulligans for arrogant behavior. He painstakingly makes the case that following a devastating loss to Lee Janzen after leading by four strokes in the '98 Open, Stewart underwent a spiritual awakening that transformed him into a mensch. Perhaps. But without the pathos of Stewart's death in a bizarre plane crash just five months after his '99 Open victory, Chastain would have had a tougher time moving the dial on the sympathy meter.
Chastain pieces together the observations of dozens of Stewart watchers to form a mosaic of the golfer's final year. He recounts the '99 Open in such sharp focus, down to the fact that Pinehurst groundskeepers twice mowed the 18th green on the tournament's final day, affecting Stewart's winning putt, that fans of the sport may well experience a golf-gasm. Under Chastain's microscope, Stewart ultimately emerges a fulfilled man, a winner in life as well as on the links. A remarkable photo of a triumphant Stewart happily clutching the Open trophy seems to confirm Chastain's assertion that the golfer made it to the top of the world before he left it.
The Color of Money
Dick Pound was an Olympic fixer for four decades. As an International Olympic Committee member from Canada, he negotiated the Olympics' historic first corporate sponsorships, drawing both scorn (for tainting the Games with -- yuck -- money) and praise (for injecting the Games with -- hooray -- money). After his third-place finish in the 2001 election for IOC president, you'd think this is one guy who would be eager to dish.
So why does Pound begin Inside the Olympics: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Politics, the Scandals, and the Glory of the Games (Wiley, $24.95) with a chapter speculating on how the Athens Olympics might turn out? His skeptical guesstimates are instantly as passe as the four-minute mile.
Aside from that, Pound, as gymnasts might say, sticks the dismount. His style is mostly playful, and though he places himself in the thick of every Olympic controversy since Munich, the book's aftertaste is not oily self-aggrandizement but a light and tasty, we-can-do-better idealism. He takes on corrupt judges, the Olympic site selection process, the Salt Lake City bribery scandal and the often absurd political jockeying needed to mollify, for example, both Taiwan and the People's Republic of China. Naming names seems almost therapeutic to Pound; he gleefully lambastes colleagues he feels have acted with stupidity or cupidity, and he's not too much of an angel to offer juicy tidbits on the network bidding wars for TV rights to the Games.
It's when he writes about sport's higher calling that Pound turns earnest. "If properly nurtured, supported and directed," he writes, "sport can be an expression of goodwill unmatched by any other social initiative." Now chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, he warns that performance-enhancing drugs remain "the single most important problem facing sport today." Whether or not you're persuaded -- Pound is likely to confirm your opinion that either (a) he's right, (b) he's obsessed to an Ahabian degree or (c) both -- pragmatic romantics like him may yet save the sports world from chemical imbalance.
Outraged by steroid use? Save some indignation for rape, domestic battery and an attitude typified by Bonzi Wells of the Portland Trail Blazers. When a police officer approached him during an altercation outside a Portland bar, Wells swore at the cop and added, "You don't just walk over here and tell me what to do. You even know who you're talking to?" Soon, the Trail Blazers had a nickname: "Jailblazers." And that's the least of the infamy, according to lawyer and investigative journalist Jeff Benedict in Out of Bounds: Inside the NBA's Culture of Rape, Violence, and Crime (HarperCollins, $24.95), a sequel of sorts to the author's Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL.
The problems of the National Basketball Association dwarf those of the National Football League, Benedict says. He started with background checks on 177 NBA players -- 42 percent of the league -- and discovered that 40 percent had a police record, double what he found among football players. Among the charges were 22 felony rape complaints and 33 criminal complaints of domestic violence.
In just-the-facts-ma'am prose, Benedict reconstructs police accounts of, among other sordid incidents, Ruben Patterson raping his children's nanny; Glenn Robinson dragging his girlfriend by the hair and threatening her with a gun; and Jason Richardson shoving the mother of his children through a wall, then kicking her.
Most violent episodes are kept hush-hush by squadrons of lawyers hired by the millionaire athletes, Benedict explains, and the players' off-court misconduct doesn't impair their ability to command eye-popping salaries. In fact, Out of Bounds delivers the nauseating news that criminal hoopsters almost never have to pay for their transgressions. So why should they stop?
Benedict spreads the blame, but after reading this, any honest fan would find it difficult to muster the same rah-rah for a league so cavalier about its players' misdeeds.
The Game of Crunchers
Amid so much scandal, it's no wonder fans take refuge in the candy store of numbers. As every Strat-O-Matic-playing schoolkid knows, baseball without statistics is like dinner without dessert. Besides, Joe DiMaggio's 56, Hank Aaron's 755 and Bob Gibson's 1.12 never slapped their girlfriends or gulped androstendione.
The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics (Thomas Dunne, $24.95) is a romp. The author, ESPN.com columnist Alan Schwarz, merrily charts progressive refinements in statistics, starting in the 1850s, when box scores mimicked cricket by offering only batters' runs and the outs made. Who knew, for instance, that numbers we take for granted, like runs batted in and earned run average, didn't spring fully formed from the head of Abner Doubleday? Schwarz tells us that ERA wasn't introduced till 1912, and RBIs weren't officially calculated until 1920. Record-keeping was slipshod anyway, Schwarz says. When Babe Ruth first set the mark for most homers in a season (29 in 1919), confusion reigned over whose record he'd broken.
Schwarz keeps ratcheting up the book's wows-per-page average. He tells us that the first edition of baseball's Who's Who in 1912 listed only games played, batting average and fielding average -- and nothing for pitchers. It took four years for researchers to puzzle together the first Baseball Encyclopedia in 1969, and some of baseball's hallowed numbers -- Christy Mathewson's career victories, for one -- were found to be wrong and had to be corrected.
Every yarn needs a villain, and Schwarz furnishes one: stubborn old-school scouts who believe they can judge ballplayers' talent "with their eyes," without the help of New Age calculations like on-base percentage. Stat-geek general managers like Oakland's Billy Beane, Boston's Theo Epstein, L.A.'s Paul DePodesta and Toronto's J.P. Ricciardi have slain that dragon, ushering in a golden era for numbers crunchers. Just as when they were kids, they're playing Strat-O-Matic. Only now it's with real players.
Soul on Ice
In The Second Mark: Courage, Corruption, and the Battle for Olympic Gold (Simon & Schuster, $25), Joy Goodwin uses the 2002 Olympic judging scandal in pairs figure skating to open a window into the sports cultures of Salt Lake City's three medalist nations: Russia, Canada and China. Goodwin, who covers the sport for ABC, has written a sprawling drama that vividly describes the obsessive dedication of the skaters, their families and their coaches.
The Russians were led by the legendary coach Tamara Moskvina, who had to adapt to the death of the hugely successful Soviet system. She united the self-assured Anton Sikharulidze with Yelena Berezhnaya, a waif physically abused by her former skating partner and recovering from a life-threatening injury.
Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier battled each other on their way to the top, their personal relationship adding another turn of the screw to their already pressurized drive to succeed.
Chinese coach Yao Bin had to build a figure skating program from scratch, without the help of foreigners, who, in any case, were forbidden to travel to China. As the male half of China's first figure skating pair, he finished last in the 1984 Olympics, and in 2002 this still stung. His skaters, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, were taken from their families at an early age to be immersed in rigorous daily training. Together, the three struggled to establish a reputation for China. They were polishing a risky maneuver to unveil at the Olympics: the first quadruple throw in history.
Even though you might know how the competition ended (with the unprecedented award of two gold medals), you'll bite your fingernails anyway. Goodwin allows you to get to know these folks so well that you don't want to see any of them fail. The story's generous humanity suggests the true Olympic spirit: We root for every team to do its best. We want them all to win. *
Bob Ivry has written for Esquire, Popular Science, Maxim and Spin.