Season Ticket, by Roger Angell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 406 pp. $18.95. For Roger Angell, and most of his readers, baseball is nothing less than an element of life - no less essential than oxygen or nourishment. ``Season Ticket'' continues the chronicle of contemporary baseball that Angell began in the early 1960s, and, like its three predecessor volumes - all of which originally appeared in The New Yorker - it is hardy sustenance, indeed.
This is not comprehensive history; in fact, Angell insists it is not history at all, but autobiography. ``The story of myself as fan,'' he says. However you label it, Angell's prose is like a sunny afternoon in the bleachers at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park: filled with wonder and good cheer and the warm-all-over-feeling of baseball's - and we're talking the game of baseball, not the industry - of baseball's simple pleasure.
Angell may know this game better than any other civilian in America, yet he remains the perennial eight-year-old at the big-leaguer's knee, trying ``to learn more about how the game is really played.'' His annual essays from spring training have become expeditions into those parts of the game that are at once most obvious and most elusive: pitching, playing the infield, hanging on for 20 seasons or more. ``Spring is the best time'' for these expeditions, he explains, ``before we get involved in scores and standings, or are distracted by hope.''
He brings to his writing an ability to see something fresh in the dreadfully obvious - to appreciate anew what has been played and replayed and highlighted and anthologized and chronicled in a dozen other journals. His sensitivity for the game is exceeded only by his feel for the language. Consider the beginning of the essay in which Angell asks us to ``consider the catcher.''
``Bulky, thought-burdened, unclean, he retrieves his cap and mask from the ground (where he has flung them, moments ago, in mid-crisis) and moves slowly again to his workplace. He whacks the cap against his leg, producing a puff of dust, and settles it in place, its bill astern, with an oddly feminine gesture and then, reversing the movement, pulls on the mask and firms it with a soldierly downward tug.''
Complementing his struggle to understand the game is an equally eloquent, and affectionate, struggle to understand the men who play it. ``All the players know that at any moment things can go horribly wrong for them in their line of work - they'll stop hitting, or if they're pitchers, suddenly find that for some reason they can no longer fling the ball through that invisible sliver of air where it will do its best work for them - and they will have to live with that diminishment, that failure, for a time or even for good. It's part of the game. They are prepared to lose out there in plain sight, while the rest of us do it in private and then pretend it hasn't happened.''
Angell starts each season with an essay from spring training and ends with another from the league championships and World Series. Here, too, are his charming Everyman's visit to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and profiles of Kansas City reliever Dan Quisenberry and Oakland Athletics owner Roy Eisenhardt.
He resisted addressing the matter of drugs in the game until it was unavoidable. The resulting essay is less satisfying than the others in the book. Angell is uncomfortable with this task, though perhaps not so uncomfortable as the reader. For the piece breaks the mood; one does not read Angell to dwell on the game's sobering netherworld. One reads Angell to reinforce the conviction that, despite all the distractions, there is still much to celebrate in baseball. There is no one better at articulating that celebration than Roger Angell.
Charles Fountain teaches journalism at Northeastern University.