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Three Swings At Baseball


Books

THREE SWINGS AT BASEBALL

PLAYING HARDBALL

By David Whitford

Doubleday -- 271pp $22.50

COMING APART AT THE SEAMS

By Jack Sands

and Peter Gammons

Macmillan -- 266pp -- $24

PLAY BALL

By John Feinstein

Villard -- 425pp -- $22.50

Ah, spring. Time for green grass, fast pitches, aching muscles--and a slew of baseball books. Like any roster of fresh-faced rookies, the shelves include prospects, suspects, and potential stars. In the lineup are several accounts of the sometimes exciting, sometimes depressing boardroom games behind the game on the field.

Like highly touted players, certain high-profile authors seem destined to get lots of ink. Among them are sports lawyer Jack Sands and journalist Peter Gammons of ESPN, who describe baseball's economic woes in Coming Apart at the Seams, and bestselling author John Feinstein, who weaves a touch of business into his travelogue, Play Ball. But the most interesting glimpse of the big leagues today comes from a long-shot hopeful, David Whitford, in Playing Hardball: The High-Stakes Battle for Baseball's New Franchises.

Whitford, author of two previous sports books, recounts the successful bids mounted by Denver and Miami in the last baseball expansion derby. With hard-nosed reporting, he chronicles the boardroom intrigue, political calculation, financial legerdemain, and public manipulation that enabled the winning owners' groups to triumph. He then details the talent-sleuthing that went into building the Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies. Whitford's narrative is strong enough to overcome his frequent misadventures with verb tenses, which will have his high school English teachers wringing their hands. Woven throughout are all the components of the sport's malaise: poorly capitalized, greedy owners; political opportunism; the troubled relations between owners and players.

At the heart of Hardball is the contrast between the winning owners' groups. In Florida, we meet Wayne A. Huizenga, the supremely confident founder of Blockbuster Video, who built his first fortune in the 1970s in garbage collection. The Rockies' owners, on the other hand, were a ragtag group that overcame periods of virtual panic to make their bid. They were so strapped for cash that after convincing local voters to fund a stadium, they reneged on a promise to pay rent. And even after winning the franchise, they lost their lead partner when Phar-Mor Chief Executive Mickey Monus was implicated in a financial scandal.

Even so, Denver suited Major League Baseball well--in part because former Senator Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.) took a sudden, critical interest in baseball's unique antitrust status just at the moment the expansion hunt began. The moral of Playing Hardball: In establishing its expansion franchises, baseball has perpetuated the rich-team, poor-team dichotomy that plagues its established teams.

In Coming Apart at the Seams: How Baseball Owners, Players and Television Executives Have Led Our National Pastime to the Brink of Disaster, such financial disparities are but part of baseball's problems. Beginning their chronology with Peter Ueberroth's ascension to the commissioner's office in 1984, Sands and Gammons examine the entire catalog of calamities: greedy owners, mercenary players, the clouded outlook for broadcast revenues, and the evisceration of the commissioner's office that occurred when the owners canned Fay Vincent last Labor Day. If the authors want to leave readers incredulous at the sorry state of the game, they succeed.

But Sands and Gammons make an unfortunate editorial decision. They begin and end with a fanciful prophecy about the game in the year 2000. Their forecast has Commissioner Mario M. Cuomo presiding over the World Series as baseball Chief Executive Michael D. Eisner, "former" Walt Disney Co. chairman, gives a glowing report on the U.S.-Japan Summit Series. Some of this could come to pass, but the crystal-ball antics undercut the theme of inevitable decline. And, even within the main narrative, frequent flashbacks and fast-forwards leave the reader with a severe case of time-travel whiplash.

By contrast, Feinstein's Play Ball is practically enslaved to the clock's tick as it traces a season from spring training to the fall classic. Included are brief profiles of all the sport's dramatis personae: the athletes, the owners, the media. While some of his stories touch on--yes, again--the greed of owners and players, Feinstein doesn't deliver the analysis of The Life and Troubled Times of Major League Baseball that his subtitle promises. Indeed, he can't seem to focus. Feinstein uses the fly-on-the-wall approach that served him so well in Season on the Brink and Hard Courts, but the sprawl of a baseball season seems to overwhelm him. The result is a smorgasbord of anecdotes that leaves the reader more teased than satisfied.

That, in a way, is how modern baseball leaves you. As Sands and Gammons lament, "the simple confrontation between a pitcher and a batter is today far less significant than confrontations over huge sums of money." There's enough left of the grand old game to keep us interested, but rarely do owners, players, or fans find real satisfaction.DAVID GREISING


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