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It All Begins On Opening Day : Millionaire Boys Club : PLAY BALL: The Life and Troubled Times of Major League Baseball: By John Feinstein : (Villard Books: $22.50; 427 pp.)

April 04, 1993|Dick Roraback | Roraback is a member of the Book Review Staff

I'm a Giant fan. Have been all my life. Which is more than somewhat. The Polo Grounds. Chinese home runs. Parking on the old Speedway for free (except for a quarter for the kid who offered to watch your car--"so you don't get your tires slashed." Nice kid.)

There were fans then. You grew up with your team. They weren't going anywhere. Neither were you.

King Carl Hubbell and Prince Hal Schumacher. Mel Ott in right field digging "victory gardens" with his spikes, one for left-handed batters, one for righties. Clint Hartung, the Hondo Hurricane, who made the cover of Life but couldn't solve the slider.

You were loyal then, and you felt that the players were loyal too. (Not many were, of course, but you thought they were, which was what counted.) Crazy Danny Gardella who knocked himself out chinning on the dugout roof. Toothpick Jones, Giddyap Napoleon Reyes. And for one shining hour, Clyde Kluttz (!).

It was a symbiotic coupling. A homey thing. Our guys. Bobby Thomson, who dated my sister (so did Ralph Branca; go figure). Monte Irvin, Rube Gomez, Daddy Wags, the all-Alou outfield. Johnny Rucker. Dusty Rhodes, who seasonally knocked 'em back in a tavern in my suburban hometown and belched his mantra: "What I like best is hittin' the bejesus outta that ball."

And Willie Mays, the best there ever was, who spanned the chasm between Coogan's Bluff and Candlestick; and Bobby Bonds, a superb athlete (ath-a-leet) who couldn't quite fill Willie's shoes. (Who could?).

And now they're asking me to root for Barry Bonds.

On the surface, it's a natural. Not only is Barry the son of Bobby, he's also Willie's godson. Twice MVP at 28. And a Big Bopper in the best Giant tradition. So what's wrong with Barry? With the Grand Old Game itself? Let John Feinstein tell it.

In the off season, Bonds left the Pirates for the Giants, for $43,750,000 over six years. Nobody cried. "He didn't have a close friend among them," Feinstein reports. The author, putting together a book on the 1992 season, naturally wanted--needed--to talk with baseball's richest (and possibly best) player.

Beat writers had told sports author Feinstein to be prepared to deal with "a group of selfish, spoiled, arrogant athletes." Bonds, he discovered, was their avatar: "Bobby Bonds, he of the aforementioned $43.75-million contract, told me he wouldn't talk to me unless he was paid for the interview. When I told him that reporters don't pay to talk to news sources, he said, 'I'm not talking, and if you use my name in the book I'll sue you.'

"See you in court, Barry."

For the first time since the Black Sox, then, a pall hangs over a baseball book. To be sure, the individual games retain their charm, their timeless rhythm. Feinstein's pitch-by-pitch passion play--batter Dave Winfield versus pitcher Charlie Liebrandt, Grizzle versus Guile, in the sixth game of the World Series--rekindles the cockles. Even a peripatetic old mercenary like Winfield is stirred: "It was one little hit, that's all, but it was the one little hit I've waited for all my life."

The real suspense, though, has shifted beyond the playing field. Who will Liebrandt be pitching for next year, and for how much? (Texas; a lot.) Will Winfield hang 'em up, or, more likely, switch his allegiance too? (Yes; to Minnesota). What about David Cone? Picked up by Toronto from the Mets on the last day of August, Cone pitched the Blue Jays to a world championship, then signed with Kansas City for even more money. These days they call it a "rental."

Like moths to a pheromone, the players chase the green. "You want to get excited about your team's prospects for 1993," Feinstein writes, "but with all the free agents and switches, you don't even know who the hell is on your team."

Cone, "who wanted so much to return to New York, will not--he couldn't resist a $9-million signing bonus (that's right, $9 million on the spot for signing his name) offered by the (Kansas City) Royals." Toronto had to replace him, so for another barrel of money they went for Dave Stewart, born and raised in Oakland, "who resurrected his career (there) and helped resurrect the city after the earthquake of 1989." This year, Stewart will be pitching against Oakland.

The villains of Feinstein's piece are nailed early--in the introduction. Fay Vincent, deposed as commissioner for loving the game too much, is at home, watching the '92 Series. After four innings he switches off the TV. "I tried to watch the game," he says, "but I couldn't. Everything seemed to remind me of the owners."

Increasingly, says Feinstein, fans "do not just see Cal Ripken or Kirby Puckett, they see men making $6 million a year." Obviously one can't blame a Barry Bonds, no matter how petulant, for carting off a king's ransom. One can, however, blame the king for putting a barrel of gold in harm's way, and the hand of the princess in marriage, too, if that's what it takes.

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