Bloomberg News

Bob Knight Goes Negative; Baseball Betting: Sports Books

March 06, 2013

So what’s a Stanford MBA who spent years as a Wall Street trader and had a seven-figure compensation guarantee doing noodling around with sports statistics?

Joe Peta was plowed down by a New York ambulance at the corner of West Broadway and Park Place. The accident re-arranged his body (12 screws and a huge plate in his leg) and upended his career. Sitting in a wheelchair, weakened, discouraged -- and soon fired -- he returned to his childhood passion and pastime. He fell in love with baseball again.

His new book, “Trading Bases” (Dutton, $27.95), is a pretty good read. It’s like “Moneyball” on steroids, produced by a stock-trader-turned-stats-geek rather than “Moneyball’s” stats-geeks-turned-baseball-traders.

“When trades with a positive expected value present themselves on the trading floor, you jump in with both feet,” he writes. “Betting on baseball futures (i.e. total season wins) was no different.”

Speaking of betting -- Peta once worked for Lehman Brothers, for goodness’ sake -- don’t forget Peta’s great insight:

“No matter what the endeavor, if you have an edge, a competitive advantage or a carefully constructed model with a positive expected return, you must avoid wiping yourself out with a single bet. Never make a bet on one day that imperils your ability to exist the next day.”

Economy Saver

Wall Street, take notice. Peta’s theory applied to the economy rather than the diamond might have saved the country from the economic disaster of 2008.

He deploys statistics like beanballs, emphasizing home- field advantage, lineup changes and pitching, adapting the formula as the season progresses. The reader learns things like this: “A visiting team down by two runs during the top of the eighth inning with runners on first and second and nobody out has a 31 percent chance of winning the game.” Talk about news you can use.

Bob Knight, the iconic basketball coach (3 NCAA championships, 11 Big Ten crowns, ESPN big mouth), is muscling his familiar frame onto the shelves of the nation’s airport newsstands with “The Power of Negative Thinking” (New Harvest, $25), a treatise on performance which takes the conveniently iconoclastic view that negative thinking will bring positive reviews.

No Carnegie

Knight’s marketers must be betting that turning Dale Carnegie on his head will be an irresistible draw for the seemingly endless line of people who believe lessons from the sports arena are easily applied to life’s other arenas, especially business.

The Knight ethos: Prepare for the worst. “Being alert to the possible negatives in any situation,” the bishop of Bloomington preaches, “is the very best way to bring about positive results.”

Knight argues that harnessing the power of negativism is consistent with one of the great principles of coaching, which is to focus on fundamentals. “Fundamentals eliminate ways to fail, ways to lose,” he writes. “The greatest fundamentalists -- in coaching, in warfare, in theology, in business -- were and always have been more concerned about losing than about winning.”

Maybe it’s OK to play not to lose rather than to win. Knight’s 902 college-basketball wins suggest he may be on to something.

‘Game Over’

Dave Zirin’s “Game Over” (New Press, $18.95) traces the influence of athletes in the political arena, including such figures as Bill Russell (outspoken over Boston racism) and Muhammad Ali (against the Vietnam War). He details how a soccer riot fueled the Arab Spring and how the World Cup and the Olympics have become political events, or at least spawned political protests.

Zirin’s view of politics sprawls across the culture. He criticizes Penn State University for harboring a sexual abuser in Jerry Sandusky but also takes on the NCAA for its draconian punishment, which he calls “an extra-legal imposition into the affairs of a publicly funded campus.”

He attacks sports-mad universities, arguing that they “treat football like a prize pig to be protected at all costs.” And he issues a bill of complaints against Big Sports -- he employs the phrase “athletic-industrial complex” -- for turning a blind eye to racism, sexism, homophobia and the dangers of concussions.

“The NFL is the biggest game in town,” he says of the concussions issue, “and it’s been a political story in itself to watch the media and many former players fall over themselves to ‘defend the shield.’”

Zirin’s book is an illuminating indictment -- and a reminder that, to adapt a phrase from the feminist world, performance is political.

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

Muse highlights include Patrick Cole on music and Ryan Sutton on dining.

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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