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Stepping Up to the Plate With 'Diamond' : Books: Mark Harris loves baseball. But the author who's well-known for his novels about the sport would rather write about it than watch it.

July 19, 1994|GARY LIBMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — In the evening after a 116-degree day, pipes from the grandstand roof spray a cool mist over the fans. Mark Harris sits behind the third base dugout at Scottsdale Stadium. Harris--who wrote what many consider two of the finest baseball novels ever, "Bang the Drum Slowly" and "The Southpaw"--doesn't know the names of any players on the home team Phoenix Firebirds. He doesn't know how the team is doing this season.

He talks little about the game until a great play gets his attention. "Oh, good stop!" he exclaims when a second baseman races behind the base to snare a bouncing ball and nip a runner at first.

In the middle of a conversation, he pauses again to watch. "Nice play," he says when a charging outfielder scoops up a ball and holds a lead runner at second base after a batter bloops a single.

Harris never reads sports statistics or watches a full game on television and can name only about 20 major league players. But he loves baseball and seeing it played well.

"People ask me, 'Are you a fan? How many games do you go to every year? Of course you have season tickets,' " Harris writes in "Diamond" (Donald I. Fine), a new collection of his baseball essays.

"I understand how disappointing I become when I say I see only a game or two a year. . . . I admire the game of baseball, but I am not necessarily a fan of any of the people who play it or of the cities they pretend to represent. . . .

"If I have something illuminating to say, I go home and write it."

Keeping up with baseball minutiae would take time from his writing, he says. The 71-year-old author works in a spare office at the rear of a white-on-white Southwestern-style home filled with art. His wife, Josephine, a devoted baseball fan, calls him for important moments in televised games.

At home before the Firebirds game, Harris sits behind his desk, a hand folded behind his head, a foot propped on a stool. He wears glasses with two sets of lenses, one of which he flips down for distance.

"If I don't work a couple of hours in the evening, I've missed a session," he says. "And if you miss too many, you fall out of the habit."

When he needs details or statistics, he looks them up. Otherwise he relies on knowledge developed growing up on playgrounds and reading between the lines of newspaper stories about his beloved New York Giants of the 1930s.

"When I look back, I can see so many scenes that arise out of memory," he says. He's maintained these memories by writing in a journal about his daily activities for five minutes every evening since 1934.

Harris prefers writing about baseball because it's the sport he knows best, he says, not because the players outshine other athletes. He discusses the part baseball has played in his life and the creation of his four baseball novels in "Diamond," a series of essays written between 1946 and 1993. The work is half of a literary doubleheader with "The Tale Maker," a novel published simultaneously by Fine, in which Harris traces the careers of an aspiring writer and a would-be literary critic at a large university.

It is Harris' 13th novel. He has also written four works of autobiographical nonfiction, four screenplays, a play and numerous essays and reviews. Although he would like to be recognized for all his works, he realizes that he is best known for the baseball novels: "It's sort of inevitable that many writers get identified as one thing or another."

Harris is famed most for four novels based on the career of left-handed pitcher Henry Wiggen: "The Southpaw" (1953), "Bang the Drum Slowly" (1956), "A Ticket for Seamstitch" (1957) and "It Looked Like For Ever" (1979). "Bang the Drum Slowly" became a 1973 motion picture starring Robert DeNiro and Michael Moriarity.

*

Cordelia Candelaria, a professor with Harris at Arizona State University and author of "Seeking the Perfect Game: Baseball in American Literature," rates "The Southpaw" and "Bang the Drum Slowly" among the top five baseball novels ever written, along with Bernard Malamud's "The Natural," Philip Roth's "The Great American Novel" and Robert Coover's "The Universal Baseball Association Inc."

Candelaria says Harris' contribution to American literature is not limited to his baseball writing, but his major influence is through the character of Wiggen.

"He's every bit as permanent and important as Huckleberry Finn, as Ishmael and Ahab in 'Moby Dick' and as Nick Adams in Hemingway's short stories," Candelaria says. "Henry Wiggen struggles with his individuality, his place in society and the moral dilemmas he faces. All of those struggles are as much about him as an American character as they are about baseball."

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