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It All Begins On Opening Day : View From the Dugout: THE LIP: A Biography of Leo Durocher. By Gerald Eskenazi (Morrow: $23; 336 pp.) : THE MAN IN THE DUGOUT: Baseball's Top Managers and How They Got That Way: By Leonard Koppett (Crown: $22.50; 404 pp.) : THE TOUGHEST JOB IN BASEBALL: What Managers Do, How They Do It, and Why It Gives Them Ulcers: By Peter Pascarelli (Simon & Schuster: $21; 252 pp.)

April 04, 1993|Allen Barra | Barra writes for the Village Voice and contributes frequently to The Times

Every fan secretly wants to manage. Not everyone can work up a believable fantasy in which they "call" a World Series home run like Babe Ruth or pitch a Nolan Ryan-style no-hitter, but we can imagine ourselves ordering these guys around, offering them solace, using our expertise to bring them out of their slumps, putting them in their place when they get out of line. . . . What the heck, we do manage our teams, from the stands, from our car seat, from our living room, and we seem to do it a hell of a lot better than the guys who get paid to do it.

How difficult could it be to do it from a dugout?

Just listen--you could wind up like Leo Durocher: 86, smarting from failed marriages, blistered by reputations as an anti-Semite and a union buster, with no natural children to leave an inheritance to, save one born out of wedlock, and so angry at the Hall of Fame voters for their continued snub that he told a friend before he died to refuse the Hall of Fame vote for him should it ever come in.

On the other hand, he got to be Leo Durocher for the better part of a century, so maybe that's a trade-off. Amazingly, Gerald Eskenazi's "The Lip" is the first full-length biography of the man who put the phrase "Nice guys finish last" into Bartlett's. (Even if he didn't actually say it, he made everyone think he did by using the phrase for the title of his self-serving autobiography.) There really doesn't need to be another: Eskenazi has covered all the bases, as it were, in giving us all sides of a man who could put down one of his own players as "Super Jew" and yet show compassion and patience for a raw 20-year-old named Willie Mays.

Eskenazi uses an interesting non-linear technique, jumping back and forth in time so we never feel we're bogged down in any one area of Durocher's colorful, combative life. And while he's fascinated by his subject, Eskenazi is far from being enamored of him: By the time you finish the account of Durocher's temper tantrums, quarrels and just plain rudeness toward his teammates, players and employers, you're no longer asking why each new team sent him packing. Nice guys sometimes finish last, and sometimes SOBs do too.

On the other hand, no one really wants a nice guy to manage his baseball team, which probably accounts for the fact that by the time of his retirement, 10 of Durocher's disciples were managing in the bigs. Durocher was a classic strategist, as Eskenazi points out in a nod to Leonard Koppett's "The Man in the Dugout." Koppett writes that Durocher's 1954 winners played "counter-clockwise baseball--hit to the right, move the runners, manufacture one run at a time, get tight pitching and make plays in the field." If you enjoyed Eskenazi's book, you'll want to read Koppett's to find out how Durocher developed his style from the great Orioles and later Giants manager John McGraw.

Koppett's book really isn't, as Eskenazi claims, seminal--certainly Koppett isn't the first one to write in detail about McGraw or the Philadelphia A's Connie Mack--but "The Man in the Dugout" is the first book to follow the bloodlines of baseball strategy over a century. For that reason, it's the first book to really show how the manager's job has changed from dead ball to integration to coping with rabid owners and millionaire players in the era of free agency. That's the part of the game we don't manage from our living rooms, and it appears to be the biggest part of what a manager does. It's enough to make you stop fantasizing about being a manager.

After reading about the numerous headaches of Pittsburgh's Jim Leyland in Peter Pascarelli's "The Toughest Job in Baseball," you'll wonder why anyone ever had any fantasies about managing. Pascarelli's volume might be more accurately titled "A Year in the Life of Jim Leyland," and in fact it would have more logic if Pascarelli had stuck with Leyland through all the 250-plus pages and dropped the much less substantial side looks at managers like the Dodger's Tommy Lasorda. As it is, "The Toughest Job in Baseball" is both more ambitious and far less pretentious than George Will's coffee-table tome, "Men At Work."

Unfortunately, it's almost as dull. Pascarelli has done a lot of fine baseball writing over the years, but some of this book seems rushed--no real fan needs to be told that "the parameters of a home ballpark can also dictate a manager's strategy," or that "Earl Weaver was a master at extorting maximum performances from his bit players."

Still, Jim Leyland is considered the best manager in the game today, and "The Toughest Job in Baseball" is a comprehensive look at his strategy, tactics and mind- set. Read Eskenazi, Koppett and Pascarelli and you might actually be more qualified than the man in the dugout you'll be second-guessing this year.

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