Covering the field, from players to managers to money to baseball's future

April 04, 1993|By George Grella

PLAY BALL: THE LIFE AND TROUBLED TIMES OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL. John Feinstein. Villard.

425 pages. $22.50. As all the hand-wringers tell us and even a lukewarm fan -- if there is such a being -- must know, baseball is undergoing some serious problems, most of them connected to finances. Club owners routinely extort huge amounts of money from municipalities in exchange for keeping teams in their home cities; some teams can no longer afford to pay the large salaries that some stars expect, thus turning the leagues into the haves and the have-nots; the lucrative television contracts result in World Series games being played too late for children to watch them. Too often, quarrels between the players and owners look, as the deposed commissioner, Fay Vincent, says in "Play Ball," ++ like "cheap billionaires fighting with whiny millionaires."

Yet against the background of turmoil and disarray, the game continues to excite its fans and inspire its chroniclers, providing an ongoing narrative with hundreds of characters and thousands of stories and the beauty and lyricism of great art. In "Play Ball," John Feinstein's complex narrative boldly includes just about every element of major league baseball, from the owners and executives to the managers and players, from the umpires to the mascots. While many baseball books deal with one or more of these entities, none covers the whole subject in such detail.

Mr. Feinstein, who wrote about basketball in "A Season on the Brink" and tennis in "Hard Courts," employs the 1992 season as the means by which to examine the state of the game. He begins his main narrative essentially in spring training and ends with the last game of the World Series, in which the Toronto Blue Jays prevailed over the Atlanta Braves.

In the process, he covers an astonishing amount of territory. He checks in with every major league team, for example, often presenting several stories involving particular players, along with coaches, managers and front-office people, and providing considerable inside information about trades, deals and salary decisions. He also frequently reports instructively on crucial individual games, some of which determined the season for teams.

The author deftly and unobtrusively weaves any number of individual stories about memorable characters throughout his coverage of the pennant races in each league. He hears innumerable fascinating personal histories -- some comical, many touching. He tells the inside story about such matters as the formation of the two new National League teams, the Jose Canseco trade, the Cal Ripken Jr. salary negotiations, the reasons for Gary Sheffield's marked improvement and Kevin Mitchell's marked decline.

He reveals a special admiration and affection for a number of managers, among them Tony LaRussa of the Athletics, Jim Leyland of the Pirates and Johnny Oates of the Orioles. These men apparently allowed the writer considerable access to their thoughts and feelings, even in the midst of difficult and draining pennant races. He shows not only how the game can challenge the players, but also how it can physically and emotionally punish even the most successful managers.

Throughout the history of the game the owners, given the opportunity, have invariably made the wrong decision -- for the fans, the players, the sport and, despite their consistent greed, even for themselves. Although he has kind words and obviously warm feelings for most people he encounters, Mr. Feinstein finds that group understandably hard to love. Few cover themselves with honor, from well-known buffoons like Marge Schott and George Steinbrenner to busybodies like Bud Selig, who led the move to fire Mr. Vincent.

The longest book on the subject -- next to the Baseball Encyclopedia -- to appear this year, "Play Ball" occasionally covers some well-worn areas of the field. At times the snapshots of games read like the usual stuff by the usual sportswriter; the personal stories sometimes seem like a second-rate imitation of Roger Kahn's incomparable "Boys of Summer." The detailed coverage of wheeling and dealing, surprisingly, appears no different from the sort of thing that Rotisserie League nerds do to while away the winter days.

But the author skillfully controls his immense subject, managing to re-create the intensity and immediacy of pennant races. He knows the sport and its people, most of whom spoke to him with admirable and unprecedented candor. It will gratify any genuine fan to know that even those who live with, and in, the game every day of the season speak of it with awe and reverence. Both they and the author acknowledge the magic in this most beautiful of all possible games.

Dr. Grella teaches English at the University of Rochester. He writes frequently on baseball.

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