Inside Pitches From Some Out Of The Way Parks

STOLEN SEASON By David Lamb Random House -- 283pp -- $ 20

EXTRA INNINGS By David Whitford HarperCollins -- 255pp -- $ 19.95

THE FOREVER BOYS By Peter Golenbock Birch Lane -- 391pp -- $ 19.95

Finally, spring training is with us again, and opening day is just around the corner. About time. Football, basketball, even figure skating can help you make it through the cold-and-flu season. But for me and millions of other Americans, the sweetest of sporting pleasures is the coming of baseball in the spring, the mingling of freshness and familiarity, renewal and return.

This is also the time for a torrent of baseball books. Along with the usual haul of as-told-to autobiographies and some useful historical and statistical works, this year there's a stream of writing on the game as it's played on the outskirts of the big time.

Three books conduct lively tours through these less-traveled precincts. David Lamb's Stolen Season: A Journey Through America and Baseball's Minor Leagues, is the chronicle of an expatriate's attempt to rediscover his native land by immersing himself in the national pastime. The other two, Extra Innings: A Season in the Senior League, by David Whitford, and The Forever Boys: The Bittersweet World of Major League Baseball as Seen Through the Eyes of the Men Who Played One More Time by Peter Golenbock, detail the first and only season of the Senior Professional Baseball Assn., the league that for one winter gave the game's geezers another chance to play for a living.

Lamb's book is the most personal. A veteran foreign reporter and author of The Africans and The Arabs, Lamb resolved to write Stolen Season when he was sitting in a Beirut basement "while some maniacs were blowing away my hotel with tanks, chunk by chunk." After years of war reporting, the idea of writing about a subject as peaceful and pastoral as baseball was irresistible.

What Lamb wrote, two years after his Beirut epiphany, is an account of two thoroughly American passions: baseball and the open road. He bought a secondhand mobile home and Baseball America's 1989 Directory, the bible of minor-league aficionados. After promising his wife that he wouldn't come home chewing tobacco, he set out with no fixed itinerary, guided only by his curiosity.

Lamb starts on a high note, at the Milwaukee Brewers' minor-league spring camp in Peoria, Ariz. There he met 88-year-old Johnny Neun, roving instructor for the Brewers. You get the feeling Lamb could have listened forever while Neun dispensed such lore as Ty Cobb's advice to rookies: "You better invest in Coca-Cola. That stock's better than land." Cobb saw that investing, like baseball, is a game of fundamentals.

Down the road in El Paso, Lamb came across Jim Paul, owner of the Texas League's Diablos and promoter extraordinaire. Paul pioneered the notion of ball game as spectacle, beguiling fans with dancing girls, mascots, and rock 'n' roll. That's all pretty standard in the majors today, but in the mid-1970s, such frippery so offended Paul's fellow owners that league President Bobby Bragan had to go to El Paso to see for himself. Writes Lamb: "Bragan took one look. . . at the standing-room-only crowds and told the owners: 'Why don't you try some of this s -- -, too. Maybe you'd fill up your parks the way Paul has.' "

There's plenty more good stuff in Stolen Season, and for the most part Lamb tells his stories without straining for lofty conclusions. After all, he says, "I don't think baseball is a metaphor for anything, let alone for life. It's simply the best game." His book is a fine ramble through the part of baseball that remains closest to its rural origins.

There's one element missing from Stolen Season, but I didn't realize what it was until I read The Forever Boys and Extra Innings: anxiety. In Lamb's book, eagerness almost never turns to desperation. Neither of the Senior League chronicles makes for so soothing a read. Throughout both, team owners fret about money and attendance, while players worry about money, injuries, and playing time.

The league was the brainchild of Jim Morley, a Denver real estate broker who thought he could have fun and make some money by fielding teams of retired major league players, minimum age 35 (catchers could be 32), and having them play a winter season in Florida. Morley reasoned that the snowbirds who flock south for the winter would surely turn out to watch their old favorites take up wood and leather again. They didn't.

The Senior League's founder had a good idea, but he ignored some obvious drawbacks. The worst mistake: thinking the game would sell itself. The battle for the Florida tourist's dollar is waged by some of the smartest marketing outfits anywhere. Morley & Co. were outgunned by the likes of Disney.

So these are narratives of failure. (The league didn't fold until after the books were finished, but both authors note its passing in epilogues.) They're nonetheless a pleasure to read. Much of the enjoyment, at least for this fan, comes from running across names I didn't know I'd forgotten. Ron LeFlore! Tito Landrum! Gates Brown! Pedro Borbon! Whatever happened to those guys?

They got older, that's what. A lot of them went broke, and playing winter ball seemed a swell way to make some money. (Salaries ranged as high as $ 15,000 a month for the four-month season.) Others hoped that a good showing in Florida would earn them an invitation to a major-league training camp. Such good fortune came to only a few.

While Golenbock and Whitford both trace this arc of hope and disappointment, their books resemble each other only slightly. The difference is that Whitford is a fan and Golenbock really isn't. Rather, he's a muckraker whose target of choice is the sports world. Don't get me wrong: He does high-impact work. An earlier book of his, Personal Fouls, contributed to the downfall of North Carolina State University basketball coach Jim Valvano. But Golenbock has a point to prove, so the material he gathers for The Forever Boys gets stuffed into a thematic straitjacket.

Golenbock's thesis is that those who run major league teams are capricious, incompetent, and spiteful. I can't argue with that--I live in Steinbrenner country. But to Golenbock, nearly every player who had a so-so career was a potential Hall-of-Famer victimized by hard-hearted management. The fact is, plenty of players fizzled because their skills deteriorated, or because they partied too much, or because they rebelled for no greater reason than sheer cussedness.

Still, Golenbock captures some scenes perfectly. There's a haunting passage in which he watches Jerry Martin, who has just been traded from St. Petersburg to Orlando, getting ready for the drive to his new team: "He opened the back and dumped in his equipment with a thump and a clatter . . . . He drew out a short stack of St. Petersburg Pelicans posters with the schedule of games on them. Expressionless, he walked to the garbage can outside the players' entrance and stuffed them inside."

Whitford, a former contributing editor to Sport Magazine, also has a talent for observation, and he's unencumbered by any agenda. He just watches games and players, and tells you -- vividly -- what he sees. I marked so many memorable passages in my copy of Extra Innings that I would have been better off noting what didn't stand out. A sampling: "When he took his hat off, he showed a head that resembled an egg sitting upright in a nest of grass." Or: "Part of what made you a ballplayer was being able to put on polyester stretch pants with no belt and not have them look like pajamas." And on and on.

Oddly, while Golenbock and Whitford have plenty to say about players and management, both largely ignore the final third of the crucial baseball equation -- fans. At least a few people bought season tickets to the Senior League. Since the league died for lack of fans, wasn't there something to be learned from those who did show up?

But I don't want to make too much of my complaints. All three books are well worth reading. The way I see it, Lamb is an old pro whom I'd turn out to see anytime he comes through town. Golenbock can hit the long ball, but he strikes out pretty often, too. And Whitford, well, I want him on my team.

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