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Most Overpaid Yankee, Biggest Cheat in ’Who’s on Worst’

"Who's on Worst?: The Loudest Players, Biggest Cheaters, Saddest Goats and Other Antiheroes in Baseball History," by Filip Bondy. Source: Doubleday via Bloomberg

May 15 (Bloomberg) -- Who’s the worst pitcher of all time? Herm Wehmeier of the Cincinnati Reds, who compiled an earned run average of 5.25 over nine seasons.

Who’s the worst hitter (excluding pitchers)? Bill Bergen of Brooklyn, who had a zero-for-45 slump in 1909 and a career batting average of .170.

These are the sorts of baseball questions that are asked, and answered, in “Who’s on Worst’’ (Doubleday, $24.95), a beguiling little volume by Filip Bondy, a New York Daily News sports columnist with a sharp eye for the miff and the whiff produced by what he calls “major-league oafs.’’

Bondy finds some beauts: The most overpaid Yankee (pitcher Kei Igawa, who was paid $46 million, finished with a 2-4 record and an ERA of 6.66 in 2007-2008). The worst manager ever (Gene Mauch, whose 1964 collapse with the Phillies is the stuff of legend). The biggest cheater of all time (Gaylord Perry, whose pitching skills were enhanced by Vaseline). The biggest goat (that’s easy: Bill Buckner of the Red Sox, whose fumble threw away a World Series victory in 1986, breaking many hearts, especially mine).

One complaint: Bondy chooses Jimmy Piersall, known for clownish antics and antagonistic behavior, as the worst teammate ever. Not fair. Piersall suffered from bipolar disorder, and his public openness about mental illness was revolutionary for the time. The guy deserves a break if not some measure of admiration, and his autobiography, “Fear Strikes Out,’’ remains a classic.

‘On These Courts’

Wayne B. Drash’s irresistible “On These Courts’’ (Touchstone, $26) is probably the only book you’ll ever encounter about middle-school basketball. It recalls a “miracle season’’ -- for once, a subtitle that doesn’t over-promise -- at the Lester Middle School in a tough corner of Memphis, Tennessee.

The star of the story is Penny Hardaway, who grew up mostly under the sway of his grandmother, flunked algebra and floated through Memphis State University only to leave early for a career in basketball. He was drafted third and was a four-time All Star during his 15 years in the NBA.

But wait. Hardaway would tell you the stars of the story are the kids he coached, cajoled -- and convinced they could be champions.

It all began when his old friend, the coach, grew ill and Hardaway took over the team. He was tough, telling his players they were students first, then athletes. The lesson sunk in: “The kids were willing to listen to a millionaire who’d conquered basketball greatness.’’

Dream Coach

Those kids had a Dream Team coach but far from a dream life. Hardaway became a surrogate father, and more. He procured beautiful uniforms and outfitted them in new shoes -- really nice new shoes. And he took them to a state championship.

“Relentless: From Good to Great to Unstoppable’’ (Scribner, $26) is the latest in the genre of self-improvement books with a sports twist. Its author is trainer Tim S. Grover, whose clients have included Dwyane Wade, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Kobe Bryant.

The motivational formula here is not particularly complicated: “Decide. Commit. Act. Succeed. Repeat.’’

Not even Kobe Bryant’s guru is going to sell a book of only five words, so the rest of the volume is an exposition of how a true winner doesn’t stop at the finish line. Sports metaphors are unavoidable here. Please forgive.

But to employ a set of different images: In politics, it’s the permanent campaign. In romance, it’s constant courting. In sports, it’s the relentless effort. Or, as Grover puts it: “You keep pushing yourself harder when everyone else has had enough.’’

But in the end Grover is not preaching Marvin Hamlisch (“What I Did for Love’’) so much as Paul Anka (“My Way’’). And one more thing: You don’t have to love what you’re doing. You only have to love succeeding at what you’re doing.

(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on dining and James S. Russell on architecture.

To contact the writer of this column: David M. Shribman at dshribman@post-gazette.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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