At the Bottom of Baseball's Ladder

THE BOYS WHO WOULD BE CUBS By Joseph Bosco New York: Morrow 351 pp., $21.95 THINK back to high school. Remember the stud from a couple of towns over, who homered - not once, but twice - out to where the javelin throwers were practicing some 400 feet from home plate? Or the pitcher from your town who threw it so hard that the smack of the ball in the catcher's mitt would roll out across the lush spring grass and resonate off the distant bricks of the school building, stilling conversation, turning heads, and stripping waiting hitters of their adolescent swagger? Remember the major-league scouts who would turn out for these rare athletes - the past-middle-aged men, their skin creased and swarthy from the sun of three-score summers, sitting on lawn chairs behind the backstop, pencil tucked behind the ear, tiny notebook in the shirt pocket, cigar (why is a cigar always a part of this picture?) waggling in the fist, more a prop than a vice?

Remember? Probably, for as writer Joseph Bosco (and what a writer he is) points out, almost every town has had one of these ``phenoms'' who lit up the town's springs and summers before taking his inordinate promise into the minor leagues to begin his journey to Yankee Stadium or Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. They are, each of them, oblivious to the odds that say that only four or five out of every hundred will ever make it to the ``show''; the rest will be right back home after three or four years, carrying the mail or teaching school.

``Just how good are those 624 ballplayers who at any fleeting, dizzying moment find themselves on the active rosters of one of the 26 major league clubs,'' is the question Bosco asked himself time and time again as he saw phenom after phenom return home to New Orleans. ``And why wasn't Hoss, Augie, Tommy or Brian ever in their number.'' At first Bosco sought to answer those questions in a novel, but after talking with a scout for the Chicago Cubs, and refining his questions away from the metaphysical, he ended up instead in Peoria, Ill., and spent the 1988 season with the Peoria Chiefs, the Class A (lowest level), Midwest League affiliate of the Chicago Cubs.

The 1988 Peoria Chiefs had three or four ``prospects,'' a dozen or more ``suspects,'' and another dozen or so ``roster fillers'' wear their uniform that summer. None has yet made the big leagues, more than a third have already been released. This was an ordinary team careening in fits and starts through an ordinary summer. But this is no ordinary story; Bosco sees to that.

There is rich fodder for a good story here - the petulance of the talented young catcher; the goblins in the mind of the two young pitchers. The catcher seems the surest bet to make the ``show,'' though he still has a lot of growing up to do before he's ready. One of the tortured young pitchers wonders after each failure if the same horrors that befell his father - he suffered a nervous breakdown after his baseball career disintegrated - await him. The other is convinced that each poor outing is going to be followed by his outright release, and the dashing of dreams weighs more heavily on him than it does on most. He dreams of making the money to one day get his family out of Panama - the last time he'd called home he'd heard machine-gun fire in the background.

To balance this drama there is a life-imitates-art romance right out of the movie ``Bull Durham'' - the season-long affair between the fresh-out-of North Carolina pitcher and the 35-year-old Peoria divorc'ee - and the general ribaldry of a couple of dozen brash young men unloosed upon the ballparks and willing women of the American heartland.

The final element to the making of a great story here is the passage of the season itself. Seventeen games below .500 after 91 games, manager Jim Tracy improbably dares the team to win 33 of their last 49 and finish the season at .500. Even more improbably, the theretofore moribund Chiefs go on a tear that brings them to the last series of the year with a chance to do it.

Bosco is a positively radiant writer. He has a keen eye for the backdrop and a keen ear for the argot of the minor leagues. And there is a freshness, an energy to his prose.

This is Bosco's first book, and in the language of the game he writes of, he is definitely a prospect. You want to see more of this guy, just as you want another look at the kid who threw the three-hit, 12-strikeout shutout in his first big-league start. You wanna' know. Is this a brilliant but ephemeral explosion across the firmament? Or are we looking at the next Roger Angell here? The next Tom Boswell? The next Roger Kahn? You'll watch his guy. You wanna' know. 'Cause with this debut performance it sure does look like this guy's got the tools to be a star.

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