The Greatest Show on Earth

Hove Life Imitates the World Series By Thomas Boswell Doubleday and Company: $14.95:296pp.

"A BASEBALL GAME, at its best," writes Thomas Boswell, "can be like an elaborate and breathlessy balanced house of cards. Tension and a sense of crisis build with each inning. Each deed of the game, each player, finds his supporting role."

A baseball book, at its best, is more like an elegant and lavishly constructed mansion. Security and a sense of once grow with each chapter. Each page of the book, each is another well-placed painting.

Boswell's New Life Imitates the World Series is no were mansion it is a palace. Creative, graceful, insightful, it is an organically conceived jewel, carefully fashioned out of the rich are that has evolved from more than 100 years of baseball. It is a must read for baseball fans of all stripes.

Boswell--whose byline now regularly appears on the sports pages of the Washington Post--is a baseball purist, weaned on stickball, bubblegum cards, and dog-earned Street and Smith's baseball yearbooks New Life....his first foray into the book world, is designed primarily, appropriately enough, for other purists, those estimable creatures who can really understand why a walk is most times as good as a hit or why the Baltimore Orioles have won more games than any other team in the past 20 years. A rambling compendium of assorted stories and analyses spaced out over a mythical season, the book invites its reader on a guided tour of the game, with an eye towards shedding light on the subtleties and intricacies that repeat themselves over the course of all seasons. A tour of the national pastime through Boswell's eyes is a joy.

WELCOME FIRST to the world of the Total Average. Boswell's ingenious statistic, which he modestly trumps as coming "closer to being the ultimate offensive yardstick than anything before it" and which shines in its utter simplicity. To figure Total Average, you add up all the bases a player has accumulated for his team. Count two bases for a double, three for a triple, four for a homer, and don't forget to add in walks, stolen bases, and hit-by-pitches. "All bases. "Boswell notes imperiously, "are created equal." Then add up all the outs a player has made, including, thank you, the number of times he was thrown out stealing and counting two for each double play he made. And Voila! Total Average--the ratio of total bases to total outs.


A look at baseball's Total Average stars in 1980. Boswell notes, illustrates the strengths of the statistic. Slash-hitter George Brett, speedster Rickey and Henderson, and sluggers Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt all topped the prodigious 1,000 mark: yet all are vastly different offensive animals from one another. Overrated stars like Omar "The Out Maker" Moreno (.682) and Steve "No Walks" Garvey are uncovered under the precise camera of Totals Average. Boswell gleefully gloats.

Enter as well the office of famous ornithologist and "certified genius" Earl Weaver, the plucky, gravelly voiced helmsman of the Orioles. Doting on every word dropped from the month of that philosopherking, we learn why indeed the Orioles win more games than anybody else: fundamentals. We learn the basic offensive strategy at the heart of the Birds' success--the Big Bang theory of Killer Innings. And we find out the truth behind Boswell's assertion that Weaver (sorry, Sparky and Billy) is the best manager there is. Please don't scream at the author's unmistakable predilection for a certain species of bird: at little partisanship is good for the soul.

Other stops on this delightful tour include gazes at what the Bay of Pigs did for the Bigs, the pleasures of stadium collecting (specifically for those who have thrown out their bubble gum cards), the difference between those who watch batting practice and those who don't, and Boswell's own youth, in which his father, who worked at the Library of Congress, smuggled him into a dingy corridor and told him. "Okay, Here is every book on baseball ever written Don't go blind." Amusing and fascinating as well are brief sketches of many of the sport's characters--the "Zen master" Red Carew, the wonderfully honest Pete Rose, and the Darth Vader of the Major Leagues, Steve Carlton, among other notables. And let's not forget Hunt Mitchell III and Pickles Smith, among the not so-notables Who?

BOSWELL EFFORTLESSLY weaves these sketches together with the rest of his analysis and anecdotes, producing a work of unusual unity. No special theme or theory, but a bounding and unquenchable thirst lot the game reverberates through out, celebrating continuously is this most sublime of as activities. The varied pace of Hoss Life at times crisp and humorous, at others, slow and reflective mirrors the different shades and nuances of baseball itself. The old and the new mix felicitously together.

"Baseball constitutes a staff, but fundamental province of the American mind, a backwater of our spirit to which we are when we want a sense of traditional appetites. Boswell announces at the beginning of the book. "In our daily cacophony, the national 'pastime' is one of those notes we periodically strike in hopes of hearing a hint of Middle C.

How true And it is sportswriters like Boswell who help us in the twisted search for that note. Innovative in mind and old fashioned in heart. Boswell in his own excellence reminds us of the consistent excellence of baseball over the years and the enormous satisfaction it has given to its legions of fans. That's kind of comforting in these days of makes and economic problems.