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Nine Innings : by Daniel Okrent (Ticknor & Fields: $16.95; 312 pp.)

May 12, 1985|Dick Roraback | Roraback is a Times staff writer. and

Like Cal McLish's inspired but ill-starred attempt to become baseball's first switch-pitcher, Daniel Okrent's book is an experiment not likely to be repeated.

The Milwaukee coach, better known for his unexpurgated name (Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma McLish) and his unerring accuracy as a tobacco spitter, tried pitching from both sides during a Venezuelan Winter League game. The stratagem was--wrongly--ruled illegal.

The Massachusetts author, better known for his best-selling "The Ultimate Baseball Book," tries to capture the essence of the sport--"the DNA of baseball," he calls it--in a book-length account of a single major league game. Not illegal, either. Just unhinged.

The game--played on June 10, 1982, between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Baltimore Orioles--is a rouser, a 9-7 affair that may well have affected the pennant race. Devoting several hundred pages to a solitary contest, though, necessitates more padding than a catcher's mask.

By and large, Okrent weaves his lore in and out of the game with the skill of a Scully ad-lib. As Al Oliver can attest, though, take your eye off the ball for just an instant and there goes the game.

To be sure, there are acceptable diversions to a baseball game--a hot dog, a beach ball, a Morganna--but with the score tied in the bottom of the eighth, would you take a stroll in the parking lot?

When Okrent, then, leads us away from the playing field for an extensive discussion of escalating salaries, the evolution of the slider or the causes and effects of the 1981 strike, the natural flow of the game--and the book--are jarred beyond reprieve.

The classic, even mystical, confrontation of batter and pitcher ("Is he thinking that I'm thinking that he's thinking . . . ?") have never been better described. However, when Earl Weaver waddles to the mound to change pitchers, a rumination on the Oriole manager's fey relationship with catcher Rick Dempsey is tantamount to a rain delay.

Withal, Okrent, a lucid, evocative writer with a passion for the game, is often entertaining, ever informative.

Along with McLish and Weaver (his teams are always "greater than the sum of their parts"), we are treated to asides on Will (Whoop-la) White, who made a career of the beanball; Moose Haas, who wore a pink armband when Peter Sellers died, and general manager Harry Dalton, who, in justifying a trade of promising David Green, explained that "not every phenom phenominates."

We learn, too, of the subtleties of each position (Gorman Thomas: "In center field, you're the driver in a grand-prix race; in right, you're a mechanic") and that a rising fastball really does defy the laws of physics ("Can a plane fly?").

As Cal McLish probably would advise Okrent: "You'd have a good delivery, son, if you worked a little on your rhythm."

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