Splendor in the Grass: Writers Celebrate the Game of Baseball

Baseball and the Game of Life Edited by Peter Bjarkman Vintage Books $10.00

Maybe it's hearing the crack of a bat, or watching a runner round third and slide into home. Maybe it's the doffing of the hat at the solemn strains of our national anthem, or the mystiques of the seventh-inning stretch.

Or it could just be the beer and hot dogs that explain that phenomenon unique to America's national pasttime: the sportsman-philosopher.

Denizen of sports bars and bleacher seats, failed Little Leaguer and aspiring poet, the sportsman-philosopher has risen from the empty locker room of our collective consciousness to create such classic odysseys as The Natural, Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy.

Roger Angell, baseball commentator for The New Yorker and author of numerous odes to the men of the bat and glove, once observed that "baseball seems to have been invented solely for the purpose of explaining all other things in life."

One has only to read the newly-released Baseball and the Game of Life: Stories for the Thinking Fan, edited by Peter Bjarkman, to believe it. A collection of 15 baseball stories ranging from the mystical to the spiritual with only brief forays into the realm of the possible, Baseball and the Game of Life is enough to make any honest fan drool chewing tobacco juice.

The list of contributing authors includes renowed commentators like novelists W.P. Kinsella, Robert Coover and "Baseball for Peace" mastermind Jay Feldman, as well as many talented rookies. As for the stories themselves...you can almost feel the press of the fans and smell the seat on a broken-in mitt.

Just ask John "Lumpy" Drobot, the short and squat hero of "Lumpy Drobot, Designated Hitter," by W.P. Kinsella. The day Lumpy joins his minor-league ball club, he hears the team's manager tell reporters that "baseball kind of gets under your skin." In Lumpy's case, this saying proves literally true.

Lumpy's claim to fame is his ability to get hit by the pitcher every time he is up to bat, and he's determinded to block every pitch that comes his way if that's what it takes to get to the majors.

But it turns out that Lumpy bruises easily, and before too long every pitch he takes leaves its mark: a glowing, white lumpy right under his skin. And when he tries squeezing one of the lumps, a full-grown baseball pops out. Every true baseball lover's fantasy, captured in print.

This tale f baseball birth is one of the more ludricous of the bunch. On a more spiritual note is James Kissane's coming-of-age mini-epic "Frankie's Home Run." Kissane tells the story of the summer when he was 12 years old, just breaking in his first pair of cleats and idolizing the older boys who got to play ball for his town's American Legion team. Unexpectedly, "Little Kissane" himself becomes the team's pitcher, and for the first time experiences "the glory of actually playing serious baseball."

With his scenes of back-lot baseball played in the summer twilight, Kissane captures the camaraderie and nostalgia of what has been called a "boy's game played by grown men." He writes, "the spell baseball had cast during my summers of playing catch and daydreaming could be matched by its reality, by the rhythm of its slow and complex unfolding through nine innings."

Like all of the stories in Baseball and the Game of Life, Kissane's account of his childhood enchantment with ballplaying paints the picture of a time when America was young and innocent, a time when familial, small-town existence was the way of life. This utopian vision certainly does not hold true today,if it ever did. Where some of the stories strike out is in over-playing baseball's part in the national identity.

In "The Day God Invented Baseball," for example, Leslie Hedley elevates the sport to the status of an organized religion, albeit an unusually corny one. Hedley tells the bittersweet tale of a young man who is thrown off his ball team for refusing to participate in his coach's prayer sessions. Unfortunately, the author employs a nauseating stream-of-consciousness style--the entire story takes, place in the mind of a pitcher during one at-bat. In addition, the language used in this story is pretentious and unlikely--would a pitcher really refer to those "whose crayon mouths masticate rubbery soft and juices boil over like sour jam"?

But if Baseball and the Game of Life occasionally takes itself too seriously, well, that's no sin. Maybe the message is one we all need to hear.

Play Ball.