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Spring, and an Old Fan's Fancy Lightly Turns : SEASON TICKET A Baseball Companion by Roger Angell (Houghton Mifflin: $18.95; 406 pp. )

April 03, 1988|Gary Dretzka | Dretzka is deputy sports editor of the Chicago Tribune. . . and a Brewers fan

Face it, unless you're a die-hard fan, the mere thought of going to a baseball game these days is enough to inspire dread. Getting good seats is next to impossible, waiting in long lines for expensive food isn't much fun, and the traffic jams are too painful to contemplate.

Well, here's Roger Angell to remind us once again that what goes on between the foul lines is what really counts in baseball, and even a mediocre game can provide enough psychic rewards to justify a trip--however difficult--to the local playing field. Angell seemingly hasn't been to a game he hasn't enjoyed, and his positive attitude is contagious.

Unlike most denizens of the press box, Angell works at a leisurely pace. The New Yorker magazine's comparatively loose deadlines allow him to write for the ages, not just the next morning's box score scanners. He covers months' worth of games and issues, instead of innings and pitches--although he leaves room in his dispatches for these, too.

"Baseball is not life itself, although the resemblance keeps coming up," Angell writes, as if defending the decision to break up his chapters according to seasons. "Old fans, if they're anything like me, can't help noticing how cunningly our game replicates the larger schedule, with its beguiling April optimism; the cheerful roughhouse of June . . . and then the abrupt running-down of autumn, when we wish for--almost demand--a prolonged and glittering final adventure just before the curtain."

Each richly layered section is filled with large, meaty chunks of statistical information, baseball lore and observations. In some, however, the focus is on a single key aspect of the game--relief pitching, playing second base, catching--which corresponds to the titular theme of the book: "Don't you know how hard this all is?" The quote comes from the great Ted Williams, who made hitting well look easy.

In his preface, Angell writes, "I care a lot about the games and the moments and the men on the field--the 1986 Mets-Red Sox World Series still seems a cruelly unfair test of my deepest loyalties--but in recent years I have become equally engrossed in the craft and techniques of the game: not just how the runs were scored, but why."

In dissecting the catcher's art, Angell shows how Johnny Bench revolutionized his craft and, like Williams, made the task look deceptively simple:

"(Catching's) first and perhaps still its greatest artist, its Michelangelo, was Johnny Bench, whose extraordinary balance and quickness, coupled with (hinged) glove, allowed him to take everything one-handed and, moreover, to make every kind of catch back there look as effortless and natural as the gestures of a dancer."

What follows is a fascinating professional seminar, with catchers who have followed in Bench's wake. He asks Bob Boone and Carlton Fisk, among others, how they do their job and about the challenges they face every day, especially since so many fine base stealers have come into the game. This inside-baseball material is written and discussed in a manner that effectively puts the reader in the dugout next to the athletes and journalist.

He succeeds wonderfully on this count. The reader will learn much about the game we all love and be entertained by its great players and thinkers--including an executive or two (Oakland's Roy Eisenhardt specifically)--whose jobs are the stuff of our dreams.

Because this is a collection of previously published work, much time is spent going over the campaigns since Angell's last book, "Late Innings" (1982), an occasionally bulky task--especially for those whose teams have been courting the cellar of late. These recapitulations are easily skipped over, though, and relief comes in the form of such gems as a hilarious series of interviews with Royals pitcher Dan Quisenberry ("I have seen the future and it is much like the present, only longer") and a delightful first trip to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

As welcome as the publication of "Season Ticket" is, however, it would be nice if the release dates of all baseball books--and there's a dugout full of new ones again this year--were timed to correspond to the hot-stove-league debates that precede spring training.

Winter's the time for reflections on the season just past and anticipating future glory, which is what this book really is all about. Spring is when the cry of "Play ball" can be heard across the land, and all fans' eyes should be where Roger Angell's probably are right now: on the playing field.

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