‘Astroball: The New Way to Win It All’ by Ben Reiter (2018)

A 2014 Sports Illustrated cover which declared that the worst team in baseball, the Houston Astros, would win the World Series in 2017 has gone down in legend.  It would almost have been more believable to pick Leicester City to win the Premier League the year earlier.   Improbably, Ben Reiter’s prediction came through as the ambitious blueprint for rebuilding a baseball club set out in his SI article came to fruition on schedule.

Reiter therefore is the ideal writer to chronicle just how the Astro’s rose to success.  Astroball is the story of how a farsighted owners and executives learned from Moneyball and went on to find a new path to success.

The stars of the book are Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and his top analyst, Sig Mejdal. Both came to the Astro’s in 2011 having had some success in Arizona.  Both were determined to figure out how to combine stats with instinct and get the best results.

Reiter highlights three main improvements – better draft picks through understanding stats in a new way, coaching improvements for individual players by focusing on their form and tendencies and a recognition of the intangible role that veteran players have in bringing the team together at crucial moments.  There were some bumps along the road – such as failure to sign an injury prone first draft pick – but the faith in ‘the Process’ proved justified.

Reiter clearly had exceptional access and the trust of those he spoke with.  It’s a very well written book which captures the balance of appealing to baseball fanatics and non-fanatics alike.   It’s a fascinating account of team building in the post-Moneyball era.   A really enjoyable read.

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‘Jacobs Beach: The Mob, the Garden and the Golden Age of Boxing’ by Kevin Mitchell (2010, republished in 2019)

This is a review of the new US edition of Jacobs Beach published by Hamilcar.  The original book was published in 2010.  Some online reviews of earlier versions refer to factual errors but it appears to me that any of these have been resolved in this new US edition.    

For me, King of the World by David Remnick first illuminated the shady world of gangsters and crime that lay under the surface of professional boxing.  Since reading Remnick’s masterpiece and Nick Tosches Night Train, I’ve always been fascinated by the underbelly of professional boxing’s past and felt that a true history of the fight game can only be one which considers this underbelly in depth.

Jacob’s Beach sets out to tell the story of the behind-the-scenes powers in boxing in the USA (and effectively the world) from the 1930’s onwards.  It covers boxing’s golden era when top fighters were global figures and title fights commanded universal public attention.

The book centres around Madison Square Garden and the powers that controlled that fabled arena. Jacob’s Beach refers to a famous strip of pavement across the road from Madison Square Garden, the home of a legendary ticket tout named Mike Jacobs.  However, the real villain of the piece is Frankie Carbo, a mobster who dominated professional boxing for years.  The level of corruption is still shocking to see in black-and-white, from fixed fights to blacklisted managers and the right connections being far more important than right hooks.

If Carbo is the main villain, the book’s hero is the unlikely figure of US Senator and failed Presidential candidate Estes Kefauver.  The Senator’s attempts to shine a light on corruption through public hearings was the first serious dent on the mobs ability to operate in the shadows.  Ultimately, mob influence would fade as the spotlight on their activities grew brighter.

Mitchell holds no punches throughout the book with scathing comments on a whole range of characters. He is particularly scornful of the boxing writers who were on the take and wrote stories to suit their mob paymasters.   Mitchell also seek to skewer a few myths, in particular the Hollywood narrative of James ‘Cinderella Man’ Braddock.

Mitchell, perhaps unconsciously, appears to mimic the stylised writing of the legendary golden era boxing writers (of whom the book is sometimes scathing).  At times it reads like sections of the book were written in a previous era, with a punchy and colorful style, but they are written well and always an interesting read. The book zooms in and out on various characters and I found I naturally consumed it in bitesize chunks.

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‘Loose Balls: The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association’ by Terry Pluto (1990)

The American Basketball Association was as an upstart professional league which lasted 9 years before eventually merging with the NBA in 1976.  Well, 4 teams were absorbed into the NBA –  the other 2 teams were left to die (a well-compensated death) and 4 other ABA teams had already folded.

Loose Balls is an oral history of the ABA, the crazy stories, and the impact it ultimately had on the NBA.  It’s remarkable that the ABA survived 9 years with almost no television exposure and very scant newspaper coverage.  The lack of a strong written or video record meant that Pluto wisely chose to write an oral history detailing the often contradictory but always entertaining memories of the key characters in the ABA story.

The ABA’s formation seemed to have been quite haphazard.  In many ways it came into existence because of one man, Dennis Murphy’s, determination to set up a sports league.  Key decisions such as the use of a red-white-and-blue ball and the introduction of a 3 point shot were made on whim rather than being part of a grand design.

The book is exceptionally funny because the characters involved and the shenanigans they got up to funny, bizarre and entertaining.  The story is a wild ride of crazy characters, marketing stunts and, importantly, some very good basketball players.  The business side of the story is also fascinating as teams scrambled to survive and to try and pressure the NBA into a merger.

All of those interviewed by Pluto share the view that the ABA fundamentally changed professional basketball.  These changes included the move to a faster paced game, the 3 point shot, the drafting of younger players and the overall focus on entertainment.   It’s also remarkable just how successful many of the ex-ABA players were after crossing over to the NBA.

There is something I find incredibly interesting about attempts to create a new sports league rivaling a well-established league.  It seems like a crazy idea doomed to fail.  Jeff Pearlman’s recent Football for a Buck brilliantly told the crazy story of the failed United States Football League. And Vince McMahon’s determination to bring back the XFL in 2020 shows there will always be dreamers willing to risk big bucks to break the monopoly of major sports leagues.

Loose Balls covers all 9 seasons, all 10 teams and most of the major players involved in the ABA.  It’s the definitive history of the ABA told by those who lived and loved it.  It is a classic sports book that deserves its place on the list of the all time greats.

As a companion piece, I’d highly recommend the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Free Spirits which interviews many of those who spoke to Pluto, as well as Pluto himself.  It focuses on the Spirit of St. Louis team who lasted only two years, had a crazy cast of characters and whose owners secured the best financial deal in sports history when being denied a place in the NBA.

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‘University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education’ by Joshua Hunt (2018)

Having read ‘Shoe Dog’ by Phil Knight and ‘Bowerman and the Men of Oregon’ by Kenny Moore, I have a good understanding of the Nike origin story. One thing that always struck me was just how comfortable Phil Knight was with taking risks and with screwing over business partners.

University of Nike shines a light on the dark side of Nike’s growth – the money it pumps into US schools and universities to ensure that the Nike brand is closely associated with collegiate sports. Hunt uses the relationship between Nike, Knight and his alma matter, the University of Oregon, to shine a light on the troubling commercialisation of public education in the US.

Hunt traces the rise of this commercialisation back to the reduction in public funding in US academic institutions. Unsurprisingly corporations began to fill the void but the money often comes with strings attached. Some of the background to corporate influence in US education is shocking. Hunt highlights, in particular, stories of school districts signing exclusive deals with Coke or Pepsi which rewarded the school district for every drink sold on their premises.

Knight made huge personal donations to the University of Oregon to build a wide range of facilities – both academic and sporting. Nike also provided huge resources in terms of PR and marketing to building the Oregon Ducks brand. It appears that the line between the University and Nike often became quite blurred.

Oregon used the money to build their sporting profile. They then used sporting success as a brand builder to encourage out of States students to apply to study there as such student pay more in tuition than Oregon native students pay.

Hunt outlines the downside of this commercial support. In a sporting sense, the aims of the University became twisted towards sport rather than learning. In non sporting situations limits can be placed on the publication of research that doesn’t align with the interests of corporate donors. This ultimately calls into question the very essence of what a public university should be. Additionally, Hunt shows how unforgivable behaviour by student athletes can be swept under the carpet to avoid embarrassment being caused lest the money tap be turned off.

University of Nike is a well researched, well written and extremely interesting read. Hunt has done an excellent job in highlighting really serious issues that go well beyond sporting concerns.   This book is an excellent case study in the need for public funding of public goods – of which education may be the most important.

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‘El Macca: Four Years with Real Madrid’ by Steve McManaman and Sarah Edworthy (2004)

Steve McManaman was a footballer who was impossible to dislike.  Talented and entertaining to watch, he also came across as a decent guy.  Off the field, he was known for wisely investing his money, his love of horseracing and marrying a lawyer.

After nine years at Liverpool, during which time Liverpool had to come to terms with no longer winning Championships, he moved to Real Madrid in 1999. The transfer was one of the first high profile Bosman free transfers and McManaman one of the few English players to move to the Continent and succeed.   And succeed he did, despite at times relatively little attention being paid to his time at Madrid by the British media.  He became the first English player to win the UEFA Champions League with a non-English club in 2000, and the first English player to win the Champions League twice.

El Macca is a detailed look at the 4 years McManaman (known to all as Macca) spent at Real Madrid.   His first year was incredibly successful as he became a regular starter in a Champions League winning side and scored a spectacular volley in the final against Valencia.

Following the installment of Florentino Perez as Real President, McManaman found himself sidelined as the club looked to get him off the wage bill to pave the way for the Galactico era – the plan of Zidanes & Pavons – that was intended the club combine global superstars with youth team graduates.    McManaman refused to complain, worked hard, and eventually made himself indispensable.  As the Galactico era continued, he became a more regular substitute than starter for his last two seasons.  Despite this, he seems to have remained a key figure for his coach Del Bosque, often having a significant impact when brought off the bench.

The book provides a really interesting insight to an era of change at the biggest football club in the world.  Every player at the club was a household name and the very biggest names in the game found themselves all in the same team at Madrid.   All the players come across quite well with Figo and Hierro standing out as interesting characters who got on very well with McManaman.  After he left the club, it would take another 12 years before they managed to win another Champions League and complete La Decima.

In many ways the book reads like a book written solely by Edworthy as its mostly written in the 3rd person.  However, with McManaman’s seal of approval, its highly unlikely that other players would have spoken so openly and candidly.   The warmth the player feel towards McManaman is clearly evident as is the impact he had at the club at a personal and professional level.   The book also serves as a partial biography of McManaman who speaks openly about his disappointment about missing out on the 2002 World Cup and a look at what the England camp was like under Glenn Hoodle.

Overall, El Macca is an enjoyable read and an interesting look behind the scenes of the most fascinating club in football during its most fascinating era.

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‘Chasing Points: A Season on the Pro Tennis Circuit’ by Gregory Howe (2018)

I think we all have fantasies about our dream careers.  Something we showed a little bit of aptitude and passion for, but were never realistically going to get paid to do.   The rise of reality talent shows suggests this question – could I have made it? – sits inside an awful lot of us.

For me, I did some stand-up comedy in college alongside a few people who have gone on to make a living in the comedy/entertainment world.   I was good but I knew I’d never have enough strings to my bow to achieve much more than getting laughs from a crowd of peers who shared all of my cultural references.  But getting the opportunity to tell jokes while giving speeches at weddings over the last few years, and getting brilliant feedback stirred up the old feelings of  – could I have made it? Or at least, should I have tried?

This long-winded introduction is all to make the point that when reading Chasing Point, the story of a 34 year old man’s attempts to play professional tennis, I cannot emphasis enough how much I wanted Howe to succeed.   I wanted to stop reading after each loss – and unsurprisingly there are a hell of a lot of them – and I genuinely smiled at each moment of success.

Howe had been a very good tennis player but, by his own account, not good enough that a career in the game seemed inevitable or even likely.   He continued to play in tournaments into adulthood and used tennis as a way to see the world – combining holidays with entering some local tournament.

At 34 however, Howe decided to give the game one last shot.  The book covers a year spent mostly on the Futures tour, the third rung of professional tennis, where players fight it out for a tiny number of ATP Tour points with a view to moving on to Challenger Tour and ATP Tour tournaments.   Howe set himself the challenge of winning a solitary ATP Tour point that would give him a World Ranking and access to the ATP Tour.  To achieve this, he would need to win at least three consecutive games against typically much younger players who were trying to launch a career in the game.

Chasing Points exposes the incredibly unglamorous life of the majority of players who try to play tennis professionally.  Trailing across Continent’s, sleeping in crappy hotels, paying to enter tournaments and having to win three consecutive games to see any return (either financially or in Tour points), Howe paints a picture of young men unable to let go of a dream until they had no other choice.  It’s the dual nature of the story that makes Chasing Points so interesting – it’s not just Howe’s journey but also an insight into the struggles of thousands of others on the way up or the way down as they try and try to make it as professional tennis players.

The book has been published 10 years after the season it chronicles.  It’s therefore really interesting to be able to know what eventually happened the various characters Howe meets along the way.   The majority end up drifting into obscurity with some never playing another professional game after Howe beats them.

Howe’s ambitions were relatively modest and highly personal in nature – there’s almost no reward for being ranked the 1,200th best player in the world.  But it’s this personal satisfaction that makes the challenge worthwhile – Howe set his sights on something and commits to trying whatever he can to achieve it.  It’s not a tale of extreme sacrifice – Howe spends a bit of money on the quest but he isn’t poor. It’s not a tale of extreme obsession – Howe doesn’t destroy relationships or his health (in a major way) to achieve his goal.  It’s not a tale of life changing moments or triumph against all the odds.  Instead it’s the story of what success means to each of us and the satisfaction of the journey.  It speaks to that desire to never give up on our dreams and never stop doing what you love.

Chasing Points is a really enjoyable read.  Howe tells an interesting story and he tells it well.  There is a real risk of repetition as each tournament blends into another but Howe gets the balance right – sometimes telling a game in lots of details, sometimes simply mentioning that he lost 6-2 6-2.  Overall I’d highly recommend it for any sports fan or anybody who asks themselves am ‘I too old to try and live my dream?’.

As a 34 year old man who is writing this review in Brussels Airport on the way home from a work trip, in the breaks between taking work related phone calls, I can’t help but reflect on those long-ago dreams of stand-up comedy.  If I end up attempting an open-mic night anytime in the next few months, Greg Howe is getting the blame.

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‘Steroid Nation: Juiced Home Run Totals, Anti-aging Miracles, and a Hercules in Every High School: The Secret History of America’s True Drug Addiction’ by Shaun Assael (2007)

Steroid Nation sets out to tell the story of how steroids and steroid use became a significant part of sporting life in the USA.  Assael paints a broad canvas that stretches from the mavericks that started an underground steroid movement to the very highest levels of professional sport.  The book follows a chronological timeline from Gold’s gym in LA in the 80’s right up to the BALCO case in 2007.

This is the second of Assael’s books I have read, and like ‘The Murder of Sonny Liston’ it contains a cast of characters that at times seem too unbelievable to be true.   The book is at it’s best when it tells the untold story of the likes of Dan Duchaine and the underground bodybuilding scene of the 1970’s and 80’s.  At times these chapters reminded me of movies like Blow that focus on the emergence of a drug empire from a largely unexpected source.   Assael paints an intoxicating picture of excess, greed, muscles and risk – young men embarking on a journey with a self-righteousness that left them blind to the inevitable tragedies that would befall them.

Some of the other material deserves (and has received) full length books of their own and Assael can understandably only scratch the surface of Ben Johnson, Mark McGwire and BALCO for example.  What it does do brilliantly is tie the various streams together and paint the wider cultural issue of steroids-  it’s a problem at every level of sport – from gym users, to high school to the major leagues and Olympics. The political background of how supplements/steroids became (badly) regulated in the US is also really interesting.    Overall, the book is a brilliant introduction to the world of sports doping and would send a curious reader towards other really good books like The Dirtiest Race in History or League of Denial 

Assael also shines a light on the crusading drug enforcement officials – if anything the focus on the likes of Travis Taggart has gotten even brighter since this book was published. The book paints the origins of the USDA’s move to start to ban people on the basis of documentary evidence rather than relying on a failed test – the approach that ultimately led to Lance Armstrong confessing.  These parts of the book flow less smoothly or quickly than the rest – I found them very interesting though and it’s clear that Assael has enormous respect for those law enforcement officers who dedicated their careers to this fight. It’s slightly depressing reading about these guys at a time when WADA is being discredited for its favourable treatment of Russia and an apparent lack of objectivity.

I really enjoyed Steroid Nation. I’m conscious that I’ve just read this book 10 years after it first came out.  It feels like a sequel (or a revised and updated edition) would be a similarly fascinating read with Lance Armstrong now exposed, the Russian doping scandal and plenty of additional material available.  If anything, I would suspect that the term Steroid Nation remains as apt and relevant to describe sporting culture as it did a decade ago.

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