By Jeff Merron
Page 2

Need a last-minute gift? Got some spare time during your winter holidays? Pick up one of these books -- or two -- and enjoy. These are the favorite books of 2004, as selected by Page 2 staffers, and presented in particular order.

"The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It" by Neal Bascomb
On the 50th anniversary of Roger Bannister's sub-4-minute mile, Bascomb puts the individual achievement in context -- and (surprise!) Roger's race against the clock was not the perfect mile referred to in the title. This is brilliant cliffhanger history, a page-turner even if you think you know what's coming next. It's a saga that shows how three athletes living literally continents apart -- Bannister, Australian John Landy and American Wes Santee -- went up against an "unbreakable" barrier, and each other, to create a remarkable summer in sports history. (Jeff Merron)

"The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination with Statistics" by Alan Schwarz
The consensus choice for Page 2's best baseball book of the year, contributor Schwarz wrote a book that isn't so much about the numbers, but the people behind the numbers and their obsessions to better understand the game and its players. From Henry Chadwick, who invented the box score in the 19th century, to Bill James and the current band of sabermetricians, we discover baseball history as it's never before been presented. (David Schoenfield)

"America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation" by Michael MacCambridge
This is an amazingly meticulous history of the NFL. Baseball has this obsession with the past that you just don't have in the NFL, but the story of how the league developed is fascinating. Not only because of the personalities involved, but because of the business involved. Seriously, Pete Rozelle is probably one of the top 10 economic geniuses in American history, building the NFL from the ugly stepbrother of college football into the biggest sport in the country. (Aaron Schatz)

"Ted Williams" by Leigh Montville
Williams was clearly a hero to Montville but the former Boston Globe columnist and Sports Illustrated staffer doesn't ignore or excuse Teddy Ballgame's excesses in this impeccably researched and splendidly written biography. Instead, he appreciates that the excesses and contradictions were what made Williams such a fascinating person.

As Montville writes, the normal "necessities of life" (a job, a house, a spouse, a boss) force social conformity on most of us, confining us into standard boxes. But not Ted. Because of his ability to hit a baseball, there was "no pot to confine growth to a prescribed area. You grow - or you don't grow - exactly in the ways you want." Ted not only lived exactly the way he wanted, he lived only the way he wanted (military service aside), with all the freedom and limitations that allowed, and Montville captures him superbly. (Jim Caple)

"The Baseball Encyclopedia" by Pete Palmer and Gary Gillette
"Get black on white," that's Guy de Maupassant's famous advice to writers. Palmer, Gillette and their crack team do just that. The pages are jammed from top to bottom and out to the margins with data for junkies and casual fans alike. No wasted space, and lots of extra goodies, including whether players were later coaches or umpires, whether they are in the Hall, and whether they had family in the majors.

Run-support numbers, intentional walk numbers, cool fold-out ballclub history charts on the front and back covers -- it's all in there. And best of all, the book's a paperback steal at under 25 bones. Like my old friend Artie once said to me about the potatoes au gratin at the Golden Corrall buffet in Ottumwa, "This stuff here is good. You got to get you some of this." (Eric Neel)

"Total Baseball" ed. John Thorn, et al
Call this a dual entry. And, yes, we like encyclopedias here at Page 2. "Total Baseball" returned after missing a few years -- a massive, beautiful beast of a book (weighing in at roughly the same weight as Cecil Fielder circa 1990). The pages are smooth, like a good Bible; there are terrific color photos, including a poignant one of Roy Campenella in the crouch and a wacky one of Tom Seaver in a beret; every year since 1871 is encapsulated with a tight little essay of highs and lows, and every year since 1901 has an essay and a page full of standings, leaderboards, and notable moments; and all that is before you get around to reading the master John Thorn on the enduring appeal of baseball or our own Rob Neyer on the greatness of the 1939 Yanks. (Eric Neel)

"How Soccer Explains the World" by Franklin Foer
It's rare that sports can be used as a lens for the geo-political landscape (and even rarer that a sports-minded writer can pull it off smartly). Foer does both, making good on the book cover's promise of "an unlikely theory of globalization." (Dan Shanoff)

"The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty" by Buster Olney
The best inside look at the most dominant team in sports over the last decade, from an ESPN staffer who covered the Yankees for the New York Times. (Dan Shanoff)

"The Meaning of Ichiro" by Robert Whiting
No American ever provided a better look into the culture of Japanese baseball than Whiting did 15 years ago in "You Gotta Have Wa." His latest offering follows up that classic work by showing the impact Hideo Nomo, Ichiro and Hideki Matsui have had in Japan and the U.S. His account of Ichiro's childhood under his relentlessly demanding father is worth the price of the book alone. (Jim Caple)

"Let Me Tell You a Story" by Red Auerbach and John Feinstein
A departure from Feinstein's "season inside" writing style, a delightful fly-on-the-wall look at the story-swapping patrons who frequent Auerbach's weekly lunch meetings at the China Doll restaurant in Washington, D.C. (Chris Raymond)

"Yao: A Life in Two Worlds" by Yao Ming and Ric Bucher
One of the year's most overlooked books. Yao is far more perceptive than you would expect from an athlete his age. He truly understands his role in history, minimalizing his many sports accomplishments, while expertly handicapping the strengths and weaknesses of American culture and Chinese culture. His account of the wheeling and dealing surrounding his leap to the NBA is fascinating, one of the year's most revealing sports stories. Co-author Bucher is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. (Chris Raymond)

"The Caddy was a Reindeer" by Steve Rushin
The best sportswriter in the business, Rushin turns phrases better than Jeter turns double plays. This collection of his eclectic Sports Illustrated writings includes a heavy selection of his travel pieces, plus the insightful "How We Got Here," the longest story ever printed in SI (and one of the best). (Jim Caple)

"I Am Charlotte Simmons" by Tom Wolfe
No, it isn't nearly as good as "Bonfire of the Vanities." Heck, it's not even as good as "A Man in Full." But it is a Tom Wolfe novel and that's still pretty damn good. And while critics have focused on Wolfe's obsession with collegiate sex (if kids really hook up this easily on campuses today, then I went to school 20 years too early), a major plotline concerns the basketball team, which appears to be a realistic blend of the University of Minnesota (tutors writing papers) and Duke (the team is a religion at a prestigious private school) as coached by Bob Knight. (Jim Caple)

And three more ...

"23 Days in July: Inside Lance Armstrong's Record-Breaking Tour de France Victory" by John Wilcockson
Filled with expert detail and rich with history, Wilcockson knows the Tour as well as any journalist alive.

"The Baseball Rookies Encyclopedia" by David Nemec and Dave Zeman
Hey, we said we like encyclopedias. This one's a new take on the traditional baseball encyclopedia, and is as much about the stories and highlights as the numbers. But there are plenty of those as well in this fun, fact-filled book. (David Schoenfield)

"The Wisdom of Crowds" by James Surowiecki
It's not entirely sports-specific, but its premise about how the many make better decisions than the few has huge implications for the sports world -- from the BCS debacle to All-Star fan voting to gambling lines (which are talked about in the book). (Dan Shanoff)

Don't buy at any price:

"My Prison Without Bars" by Pete Rose

A 336-page rationalization in which Rose blames his problems on Bart Giamatti, Fay Vincent, Bud Selig, his friends, his mother, his dead father, something called Oppositional-Defiant Behavior Disorder (and, no kidding) the wreck of the Titanic and Lincoln's assassination. (Jim Caple)