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Take Me Out to the Small Game : LITTLE LEAGUE CONFIDENTIAL: One Coach's Completely Unauthorized Tale of Survival, By Bill Geist (Macmillan: $17; 217 pp.) : MY SEASON ON THE BRINK: A Father's Summer as a Little League Manager, By Paul B. Brown (St. Martin's Press: $16.95; 180 pp.)

June 21, 1992|Larry Wallberg | Wallberg writes frequently on the arts for the Wall Street Journal

As a kid, I was a baseball quintuple threat: couldn't hit, couldn't catch, couldn't throw, couldn't run, couldn't spit. Some sissyboys managed to gain acceptance by being able to spout statistics, but I had trouble just remembering the players' names, much less the number of times they hit safely against a chubby pitcher. The ultimate weenie, I didn't even root for a professional team, even though the glorious '50s Yankees were busy creating dreams for he-lads only a couple of subway stops from my house.

But I grew up anyway. And considering the hundreds of useful things I'm still not able to do, my old ineptitude around the bases has hardly seemed to matter.

Until now. My son, Edward, is almost a year old. So far he has a marked preference for playing with pots and pans over bats and balls. But I've sworn to the Iron John Gods of Victimized Virility that he will not be a sports stupido like me. It's a father's job, after all, to try to change the course of history for his nitwit progeny. Therefore, on sunny spring afternoons--the kinds that used to make me long to come down with the chicken pox so I wouldn't have to go outside and play--I've started thinking about the threat of Little League looming over both our heads.

What luck, therefore, that two semi-jocks, Bill Geist and Paul B. Brown--notice the monosyllabic machismo of their names--should both choose this year to write, as if for my personal edification, about their experiences in the world of small-fry baseball. Each man has a son; each man was determined to make his kid's first experiences on the diamond positive. As Geist says, "I recall how disappointing baseball is so much of the time."

Yogi Berra once remarked, "Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets." What got Brown out of the gutters and onto the playing fields of Holmdel, N.J., was his desire to keep his son from being subjected to coaches who were trying either to "a. recapture some faded glory" or "b. get even for always being the last one picked in gym." Elsewhere in the same state, Geist wanted to soften his child's "first encounter with real adversaries. A whole team out there in the field, trying to make our little boy fail, trying to destroy his self-esteem, trying to make him cry!" Besides, he adds, "being a coach is really the only way to insure the grotesquely preferential treatment you want for your child."

Essentially, these two thin volumes tell the same story, recycled from an old "Leave It to Beaver" script. You can recite it yourself: the opposing manager who cheats, the child of immigrants who plays better than anybody, the vain attempts to remember that "winning is not important," the inexorable progress toward the inevitable BIG GAME. Along the way, there are infuriating parents to contend with: Geist has to mollify an overly safety-conscious mother who has a subscription to Our Threatening World magazine; Brown has to "fire" an assistant "coach from hell" who begins by having the team do 100 jumping jacks, 25 push-ups, 50 sit-ups and three minutes of running in place. "I have never met," Brown says, "a six-, seven-, or eight-year-old who was in need of limbering up."

Each book contains a series of anecdotal rambles organized in the narrative of a predictable Little League season. Geist is funnier; Brown less contrived, and warmer. The former has been coaching juvenile ball for nine years, first for his son and then for his daughter; his characters are composites and his situations are archetypal. The latter, apparently feeling that he had enough material after a mere two terms, tosses off his sports memoir with a bit more specificity. They both take the trouble to tell us that "everything in this book happened," "what you are about to read is true," as if they'd like us to think we'd stumbled into some half-pint episode of "Dragnet." But the actual incidents--many of which are recounted, not so miraculously, in both books--are too tame not to be real.

Still, there are a number of chuckles and amusing observations. The writers digress whenever they like, to take potshots at pet bugbears. Geist on sporting goods: "Excuse me, but aren't all shoes walking shoes?" Brown on the modern family: "The idea of quality time--which was created by overworked parents who were looking for a way to assuage their guilt--assumes that during the fifteen, twenty, or thirty minutes they have during a day to spend with their kids, the kids will want to spend those same fifteen, twenty, or thirty minutes with them." Geist on language: "With my kids, everything in the world is either 'awesome' or it 'sucks.' " Brown on metaphysics: "Kids are God's way of ensuring that their parents die off--it's His plan for population control."

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