The sweet signs of spring: The weather gets warm, the flowers bloom, and normally rational adults are reduced to gibbering idiots, prattling dreamily about Elysian fields, batting averages, and ”having a catch” with Dad.
Baseball lit pretty much reflects the problems of its fans, tending toward either unreadable stat-fests or misty memoirs about musty stuff like Christy Mathewson’s ”fadeaway” pitch for the aught-eight New York Giants. But with each season comes a new batch of hardball tomes and new hope for finding the next Boys of Summer or Ball Four.
Leading off this year is Fair Ball: A Fan’s Case for Baseball, by Emmy award-winning announcer Bob Costas. Less an appreciation than a prescriptive screed, Fair Ball is Costas’ chance to play know-it-all, revealing the game’s ugly flaws and demanding the revenue sharing, rule changes, and salary caps necessary to repair the pastime. I’ll leave it to learned ballpark illuminati like Bill James or Peter Gammons to punch holes in his Mr. Fixit theorizing, but the trouble isn’t Costas’ ideas, it’s his prose — which twists into a sinewy mass of bullet points, lists, and detail. Even hardcore fans will have difficulty plowing through certain sections (”If in 2001 the breakdown is East vs. East, Central vs. Central and West vs. West, then a year later it ought to be East vs. Central…” AIEEEEEEE!!) and the book can never shake the feel of an unabridged pamphlet, with little insight into what fans actually care about — the game.
If Costas is the first-row, hand-straining-for-the-ceiling smarty-pants, Richard ”Goose” Gossage is the guy who kicked the living crap out of him in grade school. So it was a warped pleasure to tuck into The Goose Is Loose, a down-and-dirty autobiography (written with Russ Pate) of the all-star reliever and one of the meanest ballplayers, well, ever. (Full disclosure: I heckled Goose at Fenway Park about six years ago and he responded with hand gestures and helpful suggestions unprintable in most family magazines.) Delightedly recounting everything from spitting tobacco on rookies to the time Yankee pitcher Sparky Lyle deliberately played a prank on a few rows of ”physically challenged youngsters,” Goose is like having a couple of beers with an old ballplayer at a bar. It’s rambling, rude — even offensive — but also a lot of nasty fun. And heck, there’s even a cracking Yogi Berra story.
If you want to know the stats behind Gossage’s blustery self-aggrandizing, just pick up The Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball 20th Edition. Billed as ”the all-time baseball argument settler,” the massive tome is pretty much exactly that, recording every piece of baseball minutiae, right down to which players’ careers were interrupted due to alcohol problems and whose career ended due to an amputated leg. What the almost-three-pound volume loses in readability it makes up for in sheer scope, making it a must-have for serious baseball fans.
To be sure you can settle any baseball bar bet, it’s also worth grabbing Official Baseball Rules: 2000 Edition as a complement. Wanna understand the infield fly rule? Section 2.00. How about save situations? Section 10.20. It’s interesting stereo-instruction reading — as long as you can get past the ridiculous sections about the designated-hitter rule and the strike zone (and I know Costas would agree with me on that).
For the kiddies, there’s Benjamin Eli Smith’s Batter Up! The Ultimate Baseball Scorekeeper, which teaches budding aficionados the delicate and highly personalized art of baseball scorekeeping.There’s no doubt that the elegant scoresheets will save bucks over pricey ballpark programs, but it’s just not as much fun.
New in paperback, Fenway: A Biography in Words and Pictures rounds out the order. Anchored by Stan Grossfeld’s dreamy photos and Dan Shaughnessy’s salty prose, the wide-form book features commentary by everyone from George Steinbrenner to Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s a loving tribute to the oldest standing ballpark in the majors: that Calvinist cathedral, that torture chamber, that lush castle — cursed by the ghost of an unforgiving legend and ruled by a benevolent Green Monster — that home to the star-crossed Boston Red Sox.
C’mon, did you really think you’d get through this without a little dreamy prattle? Fair Ball: C Goose: B+ Sports Encyclopedia: A Rules: B Batter Up!: B- Fenway: B