Catching voices from Wrigley

Bleachers: A Summer in Wrigley Field, by Lonnie Wheeler. Chicago: Contemporary Books. 238 pp. $16.95. Baseball is many things. It's an education in numbers, a motive for verbal abuse, a way to get a tan, the athletic equivalent of bird watching, a fever in the night, insomnia in the afternoon, a form of oblivion. It's a school for stoics and therapy for incurable romantics, a mirror up to character, winter's reverie, summer's passion, a crucible of faith.

The mystery of baseball - and the Chicago Cubs, that much-loved club - shines through the prism of Lonnie Wheeler's new book. It's no surprise that baseball attracts good writers. It's also no surprise that there are so few good books - real books - about the national pastime, which seems far too complex for a single book. Columnists and magazine writers sometimes collect their articles into a book, and baseball players ``write'' as-told-to books. But ``Bleachers'' is that rare thing: a book with a beginning, middle, and end; with characters and suspense, highs and lows; with an integrity greater than the sum of its parts - a real book about baseball.

Last summer Wheeler left his home in Cincinnati for a summer in the bleachers at Wrigley Field. He must have sensed that change was in the air, irreversible change. It was inevitable that Wrigley would soon get lights, and games would be played at night, and the cheap seats in the sun would become just cheap seats. It was inevitable that the continuing influence of TV journalism would turn the bleachers, once a place for fans who cared about the game and liked to show it in unorthodox ways, into a singles bar for out-of-town yuppies, exhibitionists, and other extroverts. From being just a concentration of baseball mind and energy (expressed in unpredictable, sometimes unacceptable ways), the bleachers have become a cross section of the behavior, social and antisocial, that makes America so fascinating.

Wheeler was right: This season the lights are up, 18 games are being played at night, and you can't buy beer in the bleachers.

So ``Bleachers'' is more than a baseball book. But it's first of all a baseball book, though one with a difference. Whereas most writers concentrate on the game and its players, Wheeler adds to that the voices of the fans.

It's been said, among the other guesses, that the essence of baseball is talk. Talk between the fans and the players, between players, the broadcasters, the endless discussion of players' statistics that goes on all winter. Because it is a game in which hope, experience, fate, or character seem at any point about to dominate the other three, baseball is summed up best in words, not in pictures. Those words can last. Over 30 years ago, Vin Scully, broadcasting from Dodgers' Stadium, described an ill-fated long ball as a ``dying sea gull.'' That lovely phrase summons up the tapering, lucid evening taking shape far to the southwest of my radio post in Bakersfield.

Wheeler preserves the voices of the bleachers of '87. Tolerant, sharp-eyed, he preserves the abuse along with the ecstasy, the small talk of statistics, the betting, the sociological theories. We meet a cast of unforgettable characters: homeless Wickers, ``a snaggletoothed, perambulating black man'' a faithful fan for 20 years; Ronnie ``Woo Woo'' and his ear-piercing howl; the Deadheads, equally committed to the Cubs and the Grateful Dead; the girl in the bathing suit who keeps going to the concession booth; and so on. There is stupidity, kindness, passion, and intelligence expressed in about equal proportion.

The book necessarily follows the curve of the season. ``A typical ball game is primarily dead time begging to be condensed,'' wrote Thomas Boswell in ``How Life Imitates the World Series'' (Penguin). But, as Wheeler shows through his faithful rendering of a myriad of voices, the dead time is condensed by the fans - and for the fans - into moments as hard as diamond. In June, after six homers for the Cubs and a final score of 22 to 7 against Houston, ``one chubby fan said he hoped he would die on the way home.'' In July, as Lee Smith was saving another game, Mike Flaherty of Minneapolis ``watched Smith get the last three outs in the shadows, gazed winsomely at the playing field, and said, `This game will never die. This game will never die.''' In August, Wheeler asked a die-hard who lived in Indiana why he wasn't a White Sox fan. ``The first time I walked into this place, I just loved it,'' he said. ``This is me.''

Wheeler calls these ``metaphysical moments.'' Over a season, even a losing one, the game provides many such, when time takes hold of eternity, and the spectator becomes a part of the scheme of things while remaining himself. Wrigley Field is part of a complex grid of ethnic neighborhoods - it's surrounded by streets, stores, bars, and apartment houses - and the bleachers tend to be a melting pot. Wheeler walks the streets after the games; ``Bleachers'' does not limit itself to the bleachers in its search for the magic of the place.

In September, even the most devoted fan may wonder why he has spent so much of his summer on baseball. A losing season - and the Cubs always seem to end up losing - and the question becomes more urgent. Talk becomes narcotic, not ecstatic - a sometimes-desperate attempt to fill the void.

Mike Bojanowski is a commercial artist attending his 34thgame of the season and the 645th of his life. He keeps a meticulous scorecard. He's a treasury of trivia. Wheeler met him only on the last day of the season. He asked Mike about his passion for baseball. ``It's how you pass the long, boring winter,'' he said.

``Bleachers'' will provide welcome distraction this summer when there is no game. This winter it should prove essential. In winter, as an anonymous baseball poet says, ``All our nights are filled with talk of baseball. It is all one day. The nights are long, the games always away, and our voices echo, coast to coast.''

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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