Beating around the bushes. In the minor leagues

Short Season and Other Stories, by Jerry Klinkowitz. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press. 187 pp. $16.95. Writers like the serious silliness of baseball because it allows men to be boys well into middle age, and pays them to do so. Fans can do the same thing vicariously.

The mature reality of life is thus suspended (which is fine with me). The game can provide just about anything writers need - character flaws, plot twists, and the ever-popular irony. Even romance is conceivable, though real baseball fans will skip the mushy scenes.

But if you follow only major league ball, you're missing a vast, dark subcontinent of the game. The minor leagues feed the majors, playing in places like Dubuque and Pawtucket. They travel on buses, or if they're lucky, in the cheap seats on Ozark Airlines.

Major league ball is the best of the best. Errors are rare and infield plays work like clockwork. To play the game that well, you've got to have a good strong grip on your emotions, because there's too much money in the air. (The rare outbursts are the exceptions that prove the rule.)

But in the minors you're seeing the unedited product. The players' salaries are more hope than money. The stands are sparsely populated and the facilities are Spartan. The training table is McDonald's and a Motel 6 is home. Fewer than 1 in 20 players make it to the majors.

Klinkowitz explains why they stick with it - with a cunning, off-hand precision, just like the way the game is best played. He writes so well that you don't have to be a longtime fan to understand and enjoy it. It helps that he is the executive director of the Waterloo (Iowa) Indians, part of the Cleveland organization. He has divided the game up in the way a clubhouse conversation might drift between subjects and characters. It's all very accurate and deftly drawn.

But nothing comes through as strongly (at least to this ex-Babe Ruth league benchwarmer) as the zigzag line that baseball runs between exasperation and laughter. Here, for example, in the piece on the language of the game, the coach, Mack, takes Ansel Naboa and Manuel Moreno, two new Latino players, whose English is mas o menos, out to center field to show them how to call for a fly ball:

``Say `your ball,''' Mack yells to Ansel as the ball drifts away from him to Manuel.

``My ball,'' Ansel calls and the fly drops weakly between them.

``No, no, no!'' Mack chants as Ansel eyes him timidly. ``You say your ball to Moreno because it's his! Got it?''

Ansel nods yes and the old coach calls for another fungo. This time it's headed toward Ansel, and Mack urges him to claim it. ``It's your ball, son, so make the call!''

``Your ball,'' Ansel yells in a panic, and the liner drops untouched. Mack is livid.

Baseball's metaphors, its odd and quirky terminology, its temper and tantrums all seem to start in the minor leagues. And of course, there's a sadness in the process, since not everyone can make it to the top. Dreams die hard, even the silliest ones.

This is the best baseball writing I've read since ``Alibi Ike,'' and I'm certain even Ring Lardner would find it all just the right tone. In the off season (that is, the useless part of the year) Klinkowitz teaches at the University of Northern Iowa. Most of his writing is literary criticism, which probably accounts for the clean, effortless quality of his prose.

The Iowa-ness of his location crawls in without explanation sometimes. A coach warns a player, ``Go ahead and laugh. This time next year, you'll be detasseling!'' You have to know Iowa to realize what a vicious threat that is.

Jeff Danziger is on the Monitor staff.

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