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Good Enough to Dream

October 06, 1985|Mark Harris | Harris' baseball novels include "The Southpaw," "Bang the Drum Slowly" and the recent "It Looked Like for Ever." He is professor of English at Arizona State University. and

Good Enough to Dream by Roger Kahn

(Doubleday: $16.95; 351 pp.)

At first you may say you have better things to do than to follow the Utica Blue Sox in their pursuit of the 1983 pennant in the New York-Penn League. But you may change your mind.

Roger Kahn, who has been writing mostly about baseball these 30 years, decided one day to buy the Utica team. He had several objectives. He would learn things about the system of baseball from a point of view he had never taken before. He might, for example, confront the solemn moment when he must decide whether to retain or release a young player. Or he might at another moment find himself monitoring the restrooms at Murnane Field. " 'I want someone in the men's room,' I told Rocco, 'and someone in the ladies' room. Flush every john and make sure that it works. And make certain there are enough towels and tissues.' I could barely believe what I was saying. . . . I was conducting a seminar on toilet paper."

Kahn's principal objective was to write a book, following his players, his staff, and himself through their season. Even for a writer who in the past has woven an artful tale from the fabric of actual events, this is a risk. Kahn was betting that the natural course of daily action would take the shape of mystery and suspense. He required excitement without violating truth, and he could not wantonly exploit the helpless people who were his subjects.

In the best old-fashioned sense he had good luck. The pennant race was hot. By the time the reader has arrived at the last game he/she has lived through an experience that is vivid and vital. One discovers that one had nothing better to do than to have followed the Utica Blue Sox through 1983.

Kahn had not intended to buy Utica in the first place. He had been shopping for another club when Fate took a hand, and Kahn took possession of Utica. It was special. It was the only baseball club anywhere neither owned nor subsidized as a major-league "farm"--"the only independent minor league team functioning in organized baseball." Eleven of the 12 clubs of the New York-Penn League were owned by a distant power, whose names they usually bore: the Auburn Astros, the Erie Cardinals, the Geneva Cubs, the Little Falls Mets, the Newark (N.Y.) Orioles, the Oneonta Yankees, the Watertown Pirates, and others.

But there are no big-league Blue Sox. All the Utica Blue Sox were free agents, and they were easy to sign--"but the reason you could sign them," said their manager, a fabulous wild man named Jim Gattis, "is that they're unwanted ." They were "derided as castoffs," Kahn tells us, "geriatric rejects."

Thus Nature and the baseball market presented Kahn, in the great tradition of literature, with that built-in "rooting interest" that inspires us all to attend games and to read well-plotted stories. Our Blue Sox heroes are orphans. They belong to nobody. The powerful business syndicates have declared each Blue Sox boy worthless, beneath notice.

The Blue Sox themselves carry in their imaginations a better self-image. Perhaps one or more of them, rising to heights of performance, will humble the experts. Success could create "nagging questions about the farm directors' omniscience." Given one more opportunity, these young players might yet reverse the downward directions of their careers and become "prospects" once again.

I had thought to say, reviewing this book in my mind, that it ought to have photographs. But now I recognize how profoundly print enlarges the men and women of this book, how deeply I identify with them, yearn for their winning, cheer them on, and share their suspense with them to the final moment. The race mattered because I was there. "Clinically," Kahn writes, "I knew that this was a low minor league pennant race, being played out in Jefferson County, an obscure and impoverished corner of New York State with no national media, no television cameramen paying attention. But I was stirred, as John Lardner used to put it, clear to my ganglia."

As almost every literate baseball fan is aware, Kahn has given the world at least one deservedly famous book, "The Boys of Summer" (1972). For that book, Kahn undertook, more than a decade after they had retired, to visit players of the powerful Brooklyn Dodgers of the early 1950s. He found them heavy with memories and wounds. It was a dramatic book.

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