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Between the Lines: Batter Up!
(August 2002)
By David Pitt

Picture this: it's a beautiful day, you're in the world's most comfortable chair, you've got potato chips and an ice-cold drink, you turn on the television to catch the baseball game -- and the groundskeepers are rolling a tarp out on the field, the words 'rain delay' flashing on the screen.

You want to scream. Fair enough. But you could, if you like, crack open a book, instead. Here's one: Slouching Toward Fargo (Spike), by Neal Karlen. It chronicles two seasons in the life of the St. Paul Saints, a bush-league team in Minnesota co-owned by Bill Murray, the movie star. Karlen was hired by Rolling Stone magazine to do a hatchet job on Murray, to destroy him in print, but Karlen soon fell in love with the baseball team that's more about 'weirdness and taking chances' than it is about actually winning games, and the Rolling Stone article turned into a book about the kind of baseball you thought only existed in the movies.

This is a team that hired disgraced major league star Darryl Strawberry; that fielded pitcher Ila Borders, 'the first woman to ever win a professional men's baseball game;' that plays the theme from the movie Shaft to rally the fans in the late innings; that uses a pig as a batboy. Slouching Toward Fargo will give you all the thrills of bush-league baseball without the inconvenience of actually have to watch a bush-league game.

If, while you're sitting in your comfy chair waiting for the rain to stop, you're remembering your own glory days on the diamond -- how many of us played little league ball, how many of us made that one great play we'll always remember? -- then pick up Pat Jordan's A Nice Tuesday (Griffin). Jordan, the former minor-league pitcher who made a name for himself as a writer (most notably of the classic baseball book A False Spring), was hired in 1996 to profile -- here's a coincidence for you -- the St. Paul Saints. It was supposed to be a simple assignment; it became a life-changer. When he learned that actor Charlie Sheen had signed a contract to pitch for the Saints, Jordan, fifty-six years old, decided it was about time, after three and a half decades, to get back on the mound himself.

ANice Tuesday is the story of Jordan's comeback -- not only to the mound, but to baseball itself, the game that had sent him packing in 1962, when it became quite clear that Jordan could not strike people out often enough. It's the kind of story somebody would have made a movie about, back in the 1940s, perhaps starring Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper: the story of a man who falls in love, all over again, with the game he'd thought he'd left behind forever.

Now that you're in a 1940s kind of mood, check out Last Days of Summer (Bard), an utterly charming novel by Steve Kluger. Set just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, it's the story of the friendship between 12-year-old Joey Margolis and Charlie Banks, the third baseman for the New York Giants.

This is a very unusual novel: the story is told almost entirely through correspondence between Joey and Charlie. It makes for fascinating reading, too: Joey the precocious, sharp-as-a-tack conniver (all he wanted was to trick a ballplayer into hitting a home run for him) and Charlie the semi-literate, heart-of-gold baseball player, trading insults and wisdom, both of them teaching and learning from the other. Kluger, a die-hard baseball fan, recreates vividly a time when baseball was an antidote for the world's ills, when the players were, in a very real sense, heroes. These days, it's good to be reminded of those days.

Oh, look! They're unrolling the tarp. The game's about the start. But, of course, you still have to deal with between-innings breaks and those long periods during the game when nothing much seems to happen. Here's just the thing to keep you occupied: George F. Will's Bunts (Touchstone), a collection of more than 70 essays spanning nearly 25 years. Will is, of course, best known as an outspoken, Pulitzer Prize-winning political pundit, but he's also written extensively about baseball -- he calls the game 'the stream that irrigates my life' -- and he's got a lot to say.

Take the designated-hitter rule, for instance: Will says it's a reflection of 'the American League's sinister Bolshevism,' although, in a later essays, he admits the rule might not be quite so terrible. Or take the Chicago Cubs, whom he loves dearly, despite their stunning 4,193 losses between 1949 and 1999, because they symbolize 'mediocrity under pressure.' Chock-full of statistics and profiles of little-remembered once-popular players -- like pitcher Christy Mathewson, who said in 1914 that umpires are 'a sort of necessary evil to the luxury of baseball, like the odor that follows an automobile,' demonstrating that Will isn't the only guy who isn't afraid of offending people -- Bunts is an absolutely essential book for any baseball fan.

Oh, good grief: the game's just got going and already here's a commercial. How much are the advertisers are paying the networks for their thirty seconds of airtime, do you think? 'Baseball,' Len Sherman writes in Big League, Big Time (Pocket Books, paperback, 335 pp., $21.00), 'is changing' -- becoming 'but one cog ... of the great conglomerate that is the sports industry.' It cost about half a billion dollars, for example, to bring major league baseball to Phoenix, where the Arizona Diamondbacks make their home. The stadium alone cost $355 million, and the team's owners also had pony up a $130 million 'entrance fee,' payable to the corporate entity that is Major League Baseball.

Big League, Big Time chronicles the construction of a big-league ball team from the ground up: the designing of uniforms, the selection of a name for the team, the drafting of the players, the publicity, the merchandising -- all the stuff that's in the back of your mind when the crowd's roaring and the outfielder's throwing, trying to cut off the runner, who's lunging forward, sliding, sliding, just barely brushing the bag with the tip of his finger, and you think: yeah, it's a business, but, boy, it's an exciting one.

Play ball.
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