IF you have ever written sports for a living, I probably don't have to remind you that ``great'' is often used for ``mediocre,'' ``outstanding'' for ``competent.'' It isn't so much that honesty takes a day off as it is that most readers prefer their heroes and events larger than life. Now it is possible to look up your favorite heroes and events in The Dickson Baseball Dictionary, by Paul Dickson (Avon, 438 pp., $14.95), with pedestals intact, halos undisturbed, and miracles numbered like the days on a calendar.
This is a book (not without an occasional error) that defines everything you ever wanted to know about America's national pastime. Maybe ``explains'' is an even better word.
And I do mean everything: from the baseball definition of a ``can of corn'' to Arthur (Bugs) Bear's description of Walter Johnson's fastball. It was Bugs who wrote of Johnson: ``He can throw a lamb chop past a wolf.''
To fully appreciate the ``can of corn'' bit you must have lived at least as far back as the 1930s. This was a time when every corner grocery store stocked its canned goods on the uppermost shelf, just below ceiling level. Grocers used a long stick with a rubber-coated grabber on the end to tip cans off the shelf. The grocer would either catch the can with his free hand or let it drop into his apron.
The whole thing looked so simple that it became baseball lingo for a lazy fly ball hit directly to an outfielder, landing in his glove with no more force than a marshmallow.
I jumped around a lot in this book because there were certain names and events that I couldn't wait to explore, like ``The Green Monster.'' That's the famous and imposing left-field wall in Boston's cozy Fenway Park, which is only 315 feet from home plate. Rookie Red Sox right-handed hitters learn to teethe on it. What Dickson fails to mention is the wall's height (37 feet) and the 23-foot screen that rises at an angle above it, the last barrier between home runs and the Massachusetts Turnpike.
The Miracle of Coogan's Bluff, however, is precisely described as ``the 1951 New York Giants pennant drive, which ended with Bobby Thomson's pennant-clinching `shot heard round the world' - arguably the most famous home run in the history of the game. The home run won a best-of-three playoff series for the National League championship after the regular-season had ended in a tie between the Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers.''
For the baseball fan who also reads poetry, there is ``Casey at the Bat.'' As recorded here it reads: ``Poem by Ernest L. Thayer that gives epic quality to a single strikeout. More than 100 years old, the work has established itself as baseball's most enduring literary adjunct.... Though the poem first appeared in the June 3, 1888 issue of the San Francisco Examiner, it attracted little attention until it was recited by a Shakespearean actor named DeWolf Hopper later the same year. Hopper went on to rec ite the poem more than 10,000 times during his lifetime.''
Sure to grab the reader is the book's definition of the knuckleball: ``The pitch's quirky flight remains a mystery even to those who've had the most success throwing it.''
Stengelese, a language spoken and understood only by the late Casey Stengel, who for many years managed the Yankees, gets almost eight inches of type in Dickson's dictionary. This is partly due to the reprint of a speech Stengel made in 1958 before a congressional committee investigating baseball.
Dickson's work clearly is a labor of love, although I'm not sure that the research department at Sports Illustrated couldn't have done it much better.