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Spinning Webs of Baseball Strategy

NEW BOOKS

By Eric R. Columbus

Baseball Inside Out

By Bruce Shain

Viking Penguin Books

When criticized once for making a move not strictly "by the book," erstwhile manager Don Zimmer responded indignantly: "What friggin' book?" Bruce Shlain's Baseball Inside Out is a collection of entertaining anecdotes that try to capture the triumphs and travails of an uncertain game with "no friggin' book" to serve as final arbiter. Shlain is fascinated by the "games within the games," the complex web of decisions and strategies, both on the field and off, that help give baseball its lofty place in the American sports pantheon.

Shlain's book is a series of fifteen anecdotal essays looking at these "games within the games," each focusing on a different element of the national pastime. Like Amos Otis, the Royals centerfielder whom the Mets lost in one of Shlain's "Ten Terrible Trades" of the past 30 years, the author covers a lot of ground. Separate essays discuss beanballs, pitchers ruined by choking in the clutch, team dissension as a motivating factor and revolving-door general managers. In addition, Shlain devotes six chapter to "The Manager's Game," surely a vital aspect but by no means 40 percent of baseball.

Shlain's own thoughts shed little light on the inner workings of the game. He makes the obligatory comparison of baseball to life itself (both are "at once so simple and again so hopelessly complex"), throws in an incomprehensible reference to Graham Greene, and reveals unexciting insights such as "There is a basic primal element in the confrontation of the pitcher and the hitter that connects us with our earliest past" and "Almost everyone agrees that the hardest record to break will be Joe DiMaggio's 56 game hitting streak."

While Shlain is no more than a competent writer, he is an excellent listener. Shlain interviewed dozens of players, managers, umpires, reporters and general managers for his book, which is at its best when the author simply lets them speak. Shlain's range is impressive: he talked with ballplayers from Ted Williams and Al Kaline (his boyhood hero) to Willie Randolph and Dennis Eckersley. Nothing in Homer (except his name) matches tales told by baseball players, and Baseball Inside Out is chock-full of such gems.

Darrell Evans explains here how Hank Aaron used to try to fool pitchers into thinking he couldn't hit their worst pitch, thus increasing the chances of the hapless hurler eventually lobbing a fat one his way. There's good story about Billy Martin's verbal jousting with a New York Post reporter, as well as an uproarious account of ace hurler Jim Bunning's excellent adventure as a minor league skipper.

Shlain's collection of anecdotes covers all the bases. It's just like that tomato sauce commercial: Stories about Charlie Finley's A's? It's in there. A funny Tommy Lasorda tale? It's in there. Goose Gossage's thoughts before getting Carl Yastrzemski to pop out to Graig Nettles, sealing the Red Sox's fate in 1978 (and thrilling this seven-year-old Yankee fan)? You guessed it.

Sparky Anderson is quoted here as saying that "You don't have to be a Harvard professor to manage baseball." If you've ever wished that Sparky's fabled discourses counted for Core credit, this book's for you.

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