COMING.Kevin Baker.Crown Books. 326...

SOMETIMES YOU SEE IT

April 04, 1993|By BOB BAYLUS OK! THE STORY OF 'OKLAHOMA!' Max Wilk. Grove Press. 276 pages. $24.95. | BOB BAYLUS OK! THE STORY OF 'OKLAHOMA!' Max Wilk. Grove Press. 276 pages. $24.95.,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SOMETIMES YOU SEE IT COMING.

Kevin Baker.

Crown Books. 326 pages. $20. In his 12 years with the Mets, John Barr has led them to a myriad of pennants and championships. He has won three Triple Crowns, seven MVPs, 12 Gold Gloves and a host of other awards. But Mets' owner Ellsworth Pippin still doesn't like Barr: He simply plays ball and does not defer to anyone, particularly the owner.

Not comfortable with the team's easy success, Pippin brings in Charlie Stanzi, a manager in the Billy Martin tradition. Stanzi's well-earned nickname is the Little Maniac. Stanzi begins remaking a terrific baseball team into a bunch of neurotic players -- even John Barr -- who doubt themselves.

Kevin Baker's first novel, "Sometimes You See It Coming," may very well become an instant baseball classic. With humor and humanity, it manages to cover much of what is going on in the game today: generational conflicts, money, baseball groupies, clubhouse high jinks, bench-clearing brawls, bittersweet romance, and the thin line between success and chaos. Mr. Baker brings together a cast of unforgettable characters and wraps everything up in an ending that makes the denouement in "The Natural's" film version look like a pop fly to third. Treat yourself -- or anyone who loves the sport -- to the best baseball novel in decades. One of the best testaments to the durability and significance of "Oklahoma!" is that today it is almost impossible to think of American musical theater without this Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. Yet, as Max Wilk recounts in this anniversary tribute, before the show's debut -- on March 31, 1943 -- its chances were considered so slim it was described as "folly."

This easy-to-read, amply illustrated volume overflows with fascinating primary documents. There's the letter that accompanied the script Rodgers sent to lure director Joshua Logan (who went off to fight in World War II instead). Five months later, there's director Elia Kazan's response to the script: "I just don't click with it. I'm afraid I'd do a very mediocre job."

The show was greeted by a snowstorm on opening night, and the producers brought soldiers in off the street to fill the seats. That didn't happen again; "Oklahoma!" was sold out for the next four years. For the half-century since the show's opening, musicals have had to meet the play's standard -- one in which, as Alan Jay Lerner wrote in admiration, "libretto, music and lyrics and dancing were all fused together into one living experience."

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J. WYNN ROUSUCK

THE FIVE MYTHS OF TELEVISION POWER. Douglas Davis. Simon & Schuster. 237 pages. $20.

The mere fact that television is so pervasive, argues journalist Douglas Davis in this lively polemic, does not mean that it is all-powerfully persuasive. Marshall McLuhan's notion that "the mere reception of a transmitted image means acceptance" was misguided, Mr. Davis argues, pointing out that the encroachment of CNN and HBO into all corners of the globe has hardly spawned a rash of American flag-waving: "In certain parts of the globe, indeed, most of all the Middle East, televised access to other cultures has intensified religious fundamentalism and a vigorous retreat from globalism."

Unfortunately, like a guest on a TV talk show, Mr. Davis prefers to assert questionable beliefs rather than to substantiate and develop arguments. He states, rather than explains, for example, that "our memory of the Gulf conflict is primarily aural, not visual." And he reasons that because he bought a Pirandello play after seeing one on television, TV must encourage reading.

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