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Even Catchers Have Feelings

October 09, 1988|John Schulian | Schulian, a former syndicated sports columnist, is a television writer with credits on "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story," "Hooperman," "Miami Vice" and "L.A. Law." and

THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF SLUGGER MCBATT by W.P. Kinsella (Houghton Mifflin: $15.95, cloth; $7.95, paper; 179 pp.; 0-395-47592-9)

SHORT SEASON AND OTHER STORIES by Jerry Klinkowitz (The Johns Hopkins University Press: $16.95; 188 pp.; 0-8018-2602-6) If there is anything to recommend these two short-story collections--and this isn't to praise them with a faint damn--it is that they are mercifully short on the precious twaddle that infects most baseball literature. Time and again, whether the approach is factual or fictional, those of us who cannot get a sufficient fix in the sports pages, The Sporting News or Sports Illustrated are subjected to writing that infuses a game populated by tobacco chewers and jock adjusters with qualities that would make a strumpet blush and a presidential propagandist seek honest employment. Baseball isn't a Brahms lullaby, a Ming vase or an elegy in a country churchyard. Most of all, it isn't a metaphor for life.

Bless their sweetly heretical souls, authors W. P. Kinsella and Jerry Klinkowitz get the picture. What they offer us at their best are simple tales well told, brief studies of the toehold the game has taken in the American summer. Nothing fancy, nothing bigger than life. Just a series of post cards, really, from a place we would all love to be--the ballpark.

And yet, to study the pieces included in "The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt" is to realize that Kinsella rarely focuses on baseball itself. In truth, that comes as no surprise, for his most successful novel, "Shoeless Joe," was a mystical intertwining of the stories of the infamous Black Sox's star-crossed slugger and the elusive J. D. Salinger. For Kinsella, baseball most often serves as a backdrop or a launching pad. He is infinitely more interested in having his characters learn one of life's lessons than he is in having them hit the game-winning homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

In his title story, Kinsella echoes Salinger's "The Laughing Man" as his youthful, scrawny protagonist comes face to face with betrayal for the first time. (Not to worry, lit. fans, Kinsella is paying tribute to old J. D., not stabbing him in the back.) Elsewhere, you can find a small-town boy in Iowa studying under a con man who knows exactly how far 6 inches can be; then the boy grows up to learn how deeply you can feel the death of the first girl you loved. In Kinsella's world, even a visitor from another planet, this one having stumbled into a job as the Seattle Mariners' mascot, can't help discovering man's inhumanity to man and other living creatures.

Oddly, however, the best story in the Kinsella collection is about a man who has done the bulk of his learning, a washed-up catcher and failed big-league manager named Comic Book Demarco. He's driving north from spring training and bending the ear of his lone passenger, a bewildered rookie infielder. Bitterness and despair fill Comic Book, who has lost his wife to a game that paid him peanuts when he was one of its stars. Now he fights depression and stares at the scars from his attempted suicide. "I mean, all I did was cut the backs of my wrists," he says. The only thing that gives him solace is his recollection of the Valley of the Schmoon, the creation of cartoonist Al Capp and "an absolutely perfect place" where people were never "hungry, thirsty, unhappy, tired or cold." But in the comic strip, the government kept sending mercenaries to destroy the valley, and in real life, Capp died an ex-convict. Next time Comic Book plans to do a better job of killing himself.

There is nothing as chilling or powerful as that in Klinkowitz's "Short Season," and yet it is far purer as a baseball book. In following the Class-A Mason City Royals from mid-April through August--the short season that gives this collection its title--you challenge the bad hops, feel the cold showers and taste the bubble-gum kisses of underage groupies. What a splendid companion for "Long Gone," Paul Hemphill's fine, neglected novel about life in the bushes. What a marvelous complement to "Bull Durham," the best baseball movie ever.

Klinkowitz is a logical candidate to produce such a work, for in addition to being an author, critic and teacher, he is executive director of the Waterloo Indians, a Cleveland farm team. No wonder his stories have the ring of truth when they describe a Dominican pitcher who packs a knife and a reliever from Chicago who has an uncle in the Mob and the brass to steal a Mercedes after his Lincoln Continental gets boosted. Those are the kinds of kids you can meet down on the farm.

They are in the big leagues, too, but in the Mason Cities of the world, you have a much better chance of seeing scenes like the one Klinkowitz paints of an outfielder gone long in tooth by his mid-20s: "So cool, so sophisticated, so downright smooth, Lynn makes sure no teammates have made it up the tunnel before he reaches the sprinkler (watering the ballpark) and sets himself for a graceful leap. Like a kid in a summertime back yard he clears it, then turns to run and jump again. The sprinkler turns to spray behind him and Lynn disappears in a cloud of silver droplets caught by the sun. Only his shadow shows black behind him." Savor the scene. And the book.

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