Stories galore on baseball's glories

For those who love the game, a new collection pulls together a deep lineup of good writing about baseball

Baseball, more than any other sport, inspires reams of articles, columns, and books on a seemingly infinite basis (or bases).

Yet of these ever-multiplying accounts, precious few rise above excessive encomium, pining for yesteryear's pine tar or statistic-obsessed wonkishness.

The exception to this rule would be the sprawling collection included in "Sports Illustrated: Great Baseball Writing," which includes gems like the following pitch-perfect paragraph penned by SI's Daniel Okrent in 1981.

Of baseball statistician and current Boston Red Sox consultant Bill James, Okrent writes: "Unfortunately a statistician's mythology is not like that of a fastball pitcher; we have no mental picture of young Bill hurling stats at the side of a barn, sharpening his nominal curve."

This is but one of many dugout delights to be found in this volume, which examines the game from the broadcast booth (Robert Creamer on Vin Scully), the pitcher's mound (George Plimpton's futile bid to complete an inning against big-league batters), and the owner's box (Rick Reilly's devastating portrait of former Cincinnati Reds principal Marge Schott).

For those who have followed Sports Illustrated through any portion of its 51-year history, it will come as little surprise that the writing here holds up so well. After all, the sports weekly has never suffered a shortage of talent: Frank Deford, Gary Smith, and Herbert Warren Wind serve as but a few examples of a very deep roster.

Talent demands many things to flourish, including, not incidentally, inspiration.

Faulkner, for example, had the Reconstructed South and small-town venality. Tarantino has martial-arts slugfests and Uma Thurman. As for the best sports writers? Great expectorations and pristine diamonds set the table.

"Moneyball" author Michael Lewis provides a delightful pregame show with an introduction combining concise assessments of the material with astute observations on the impossible, multifarious demands many fans place on the game itself. Or, as he puts it, "... the difference between what baseball is, and what many of its customers want it to be, is still vast."

To be sure, the stories and accounts filling this volume demonstrate the eternal evolution of baseball, from day games to night games, indentured servitude to free agency, radio broadcasts to 24-hour cable TV coverage, and so forth. For those prone to lapsing into good-ol'-days lamentations filled with players and owners singing around the campfire and not minding the money, the collection serves as a good reminder that baseball is, and has always been, as much about collective bargaining as it is about card-collecting.

In its literature, baseball shines when tapping its fans' deep wellsprings of regret. Witness Jonathan Schwartz's reclaimed 1979 classic, an account of the Red Sox's staggering 14-game collapse the previous season.

Recalling the inevitable one-game playoff loss to the New York Yankees and the infamous Bucky Dent, Mr. Schwartz, then 40, describes a loss of self-control during the September denouement: "In fact, I had wept and raged. Had participated in two fistfights, had terminated a close friendship and had gone out in search of a neighborhood 15-year-old who had written RED SOX STINK in orange crayon on the back window of my car."

Futility inspires Jimmy Breslin's error-happy diary of life with Casey Stengel and the 1962 New York Mets as well as Rick Telander's paean to the pitiful performances of Chicago's baseball franchises. "Hope springs eternal in Chicago," Mr. Telander writes. "It springs insane." Well said, as any Cubs or White Sox fan can attest.

Mr. Reilly, the familiar back-page columnist, reminds longtime readers he was a pretty fair reporter, as well. His sharp eye captures the rhythms of the late Ms. Schott, the notorious Cincinnati owner. "Finally, she rises," Mr. Reilly notes, "fresh from a good night's nicotining, ready to seize the day."

The magazine's current lead baseball writer, Tom Verducci, spins several strong stories here, including a horrifying account of the game's steroid problem, embodied by 1996 National League MVP Ken Caminiti. On a brighter note, Mr. Verducci offers a sparkling thumbnail sketch of 300-game winner and relentless strategist Greg Maddux: "A beautiful mind, but with a killer changeup."

Although this wonderful writing collection contains a few more typos and botched punctuation marks than it should - much like the contrast between Manny Ramirez's hitting and fielding skills - its range and depth are superb. Short of meeting Jack Buck and Harry Caray in baseball heaven (that's Iowa to you and me), this collection is a solid outing indeed.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.

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