By William Kenny
Times Staff Writer
Jimmy "Baba" Battista had people placed everywhere. In fact, he built a sports gambling empire on his personal contacts.
If one of his clients wanted to place a bet on a particular pro football game, Battista might call up a hometown sports reporter or team trainer to get the real story on a player's injury.
If a big basketball game were on tap, Battista might call an equipment manager - or even the towel boy - to find out the tone of the pre-game locker room chatter.
When the Chicago Cubs played an afternoon game at Wrigley Field, Battista could call a guy on the grounds crew to find out if the wind was blowing in that day or blowing out - in other words, whether a low-scoring or high-scoring game was more likely.
Battista, a bookmaker turned bet-placer and consultant to some of the world's highest rollers in sports gambling, learned how to use his contacts to exploit the Vegas lines and earn untold piles of cash for his clients.
Then in fall 2006, he crossed paths with an old schoolmate who had become a National Basketball Association referee.
Within a year, Battista, referee Tm Donaghy and Battista's right-hand man, Tommy Martino - all graduates of Cardinal O'Hara High School in Springfield, Delaware County - were chin-deep in the NBA's game-fixing scandal and bound for federal prison.
In his new book, Gaming the Game, Northeast native, former Philadelphia police officer and Penn State University criminal justice professor Sean Patrick Griffin reveals the inside scoop on those big-time sports betting insiders who rocked the pro-basketball establishment.
Released early this month by Barricade Books, the book features interviews with Battista along with information from closely guarded law enforcement case files and directly from key investigators, reconstructing the scandal born in Philadelphia's suburbs and providing rare insight into the international sports gambling culture.
"The story had been in the news, so I was afraid it already had been done. But the one thing that intrigued me was that nobody had written about big-time white-collar gamblers - a real-estate mogul or hedge-funds trader who had applied their skills to professional sports gambling," Griffin said.
Griffin is perhaps best known as the author of Black Brothers Inc., a 2005 narrative of the rise, decline and lasting influence of Philadelphia's "Black Mafia," a local criminal organization of the 1960s and '70s noted for its strong Black Muslim and political ties, along with a litany of ultra-violent crimes.
Griffin's earlier book inspired an episode of the Bio channel's American Gangster series titled Philly's Black Mafia. The network continues to air the program periodically.
But with Gaming the Game, Griffin has stepped away from the world of common street crime and into a realm so lucrative yet discreet that it operated freely even from the influence of long-established mob syndicates.
"They're not thugs or wise guys or hustlers. These are very smart, very articulate businessmen who happened to be gambling," Griffin said of Battista's clients. "They pay taxes and if you look at their tax returns, they identify themselves as professional gamblers."
Battista was technically a professional gambler, too, although his greater role was that of a "money mover," acting as a middleman between high-stakes bettors and sports books in Las Vegas and overseas.
Battista would keep track of the various betting lines for scheduled games any given day and would know which book offered the best odds or point spreads. When a client wanted to bet, he would contact someone in Vegas or elsewhere to walk up to the window and place the wager.
As the moneyman, Battista knew what bets certain gamblers placed on which games and how successful they were. In turn, he could help other clients to piggyback on more successful gamblers for a fee.
Naturally, he didn't accept $50 or $100 wagers.
"I've seen [records of] many of his bets and I never saw a bet of less than five thousand dollars," Griffin said.
"He worked for four or five of the world's most significant bettors."
The stakes didn't start out that high for Battista, who, like his co-defendants, grew up in relatively modest working-class families. In the book, Griffin chronicles how Battista started as a small-time bookie and cocaine dealer whose gambling business eventually attracted the attention of Philadelphia mobsters.
They tried to shake him down in the 1990s, but Battista split town and moved to Vegas, where he made and cultivated influential connections that ultimately would lead him to a management job at an offshore gambling house in the Caribbean.
When that venture ended, Battista retained many of his jet-setting clients and returned to the Philadelphia area.
Although Battista was never close with Donaghy in high school, their paths intersected again when Battista learned through his sources that Donaghy was losing big money betting on sports. Yet, the referee seemed to win an inordinate amount of the bets that he placed on the NBA games that he officiated.
Eventually, Martino facilitated a meeting between Donaghy and Battista, during which the referee sought Battista's help in turning around his fortunes.
Donaghy, who has written his own book on the case, ultimately pleaded guilty to defrauding the NBA and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. Martino also pleaded guilty to fraud and received a 12-month prison sentence. Battista pleaded guilty to illegal gambling and was sentenced to 15 months behind bars.
But those aren't the only prominent figures featured in Griffin's book. The account also highlights an array of characters with names as colorful as their roles are compelling.
Battista's early colleagues included men nicknamed "Bull," "Seal" and "Tiger" - collectively known as "The Animals" - along with bookmakers such as "Bluto," "Lump" and "Candyman," as well as high rollers like "The Chinaman," "The Computer" and "The Kosher Kids."
In contrast to Black Brothers Inc., a mainstream book that Griffin produced based on an earlier academic volume, the author plans to build future academic research on the information he gathered while writing Gaming the Game.
"I've already started writing two academic journals," he said.
While the immediate news coverage of the scandal and its aftermath perhaps provided the key facts of the case, a sociological analysis could yield deeper truths about gambling culture and the criminal justice system.
"I'm lucky," Griffin said. "The news media operates on timetables. Law enforcement operates on timetables. I'm fortunate to say I have years to get to know this thing inside and out.
"I was not sold [initially] on the project. For me, it was 'How credible is [Battista] and how important is he?' It became very clear early on that he was very credible and it was very important. The pro gamblers, that to me is the untold story. Nobody has reported their actions through this and how what they did impacted the NBA."
The list price for "Gaming the Game" is $24.95. It's available at bookstores and via Amazon.com. Visit www.barricadebooks.com for information.