Tuesday, April 27, 1999

Was 1998 baseball's greatest season?

Two writers revel in extraordinary summer, while two others take exception

Enquirer contributor

        Last summer was a baseball season for the ages. Fans were thrilled by an unearthly number of special achievements and record-setting performances.

        There was bad boy David Wells' perfect game (the 15th in history), rookie Kerry Woods' sensational 20-strikeoutgame, and the dramatic, implausible Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home-run competition that resulted in not one, but two, lovable sluggers demolishing Roger Maris' record. Not to mention the New York Yankees' dominating regular season wins and World Championship cakewalk.

        All of this inspired commentators on the game to declare 1998 “The Greatest Baseball Season Ever Played.” A sentiment that has been seized upon as a compelling theme for spring's most interesting baseball books.

        The two books that unabashedly sound the theme are The Perfect Season: Why 1998 Was Baseball's Greatest Year by Tim McCarver with Danny Peary (Villard; $19.95) and Summer of '98: When Homers Flew, Records Fell, and Baseball Reclaimed America by Mike Lupica (Putnam; $23.95).

Re-established the bond
        Judging by the subtitle, one would expect The Perfect Season to be a book-length analysis. It is not. It is a series of interesting vignettes about the players and people who performed the deeds we found wondrous.

        Announcer and former Major League catcher McCarver does most of his straightforward explaining in the introduction; for him the events of 1998 alone didn't save baseball. But they did re-establish, game by game, the bond between fans and players that is so crucial to the game's thriving.

        The way that happened is that the events of 1998, especially the home-run race, made fans feel appreciated again by players — and even made them feel as if they had an impact on players' performances. That's not a bad assessment, for someone who formerly wore the tools of ignorance.

        Summer of '98 is not an analysis either but a month-by-month memoir, an account of the season written by a veteran New York sportswriter from a personal standpoint.

        In recent years there has been a reaction against the “baseball and the meaning of life” school of writing, which critics find cloyingly sentimental. In Summer of '98, Mr. Lupica writes squarely in the related “Fathers Playing Catch With Sons” tradition articulated so eloquently by Donald Hall and others.

        Mr. Lupica presents moments that depict his youngest son, Alex, being molded by events of the summer into a lifelong baseball fan. He connects these moments to similar ones during the summer of 1961, his own baseball fan incubation period.

        Just as Mr. Lupica's dad made him go to bed before Yankee games concluded when Maris passed Babe Ruth with 61 home runs, so Mr. Lupica often made Alex retire before the Yankees finished playing ; and just as Mr. Lupica's dad left notes on the bedroom floor about the outcome of the game and the Maris-Mantle home run chase of Babe Ruth, so Mr. Lupica left notes for Alex about the outcome of the game and the chase of Mr. Maris.

        Mr. Lupica handles such moments deftly; only the completely jaded should be turned off. Besides, the book also contains well-drawn scenes in which the Lupica family plays no part. One is the account of Kerry Wood's high school baseball coach in Grand Praire, Texas, trying to follow, during a routine school, day his former pupil's pitching gem in Chicago.

An opposing view
        Not everyone has jumped on the home-run bandwagon. In You're Missing a Good Game by Whitey Herzog (Simon & Schuster; $25), the ex-Royals and Cardinals manager tells us why he didn't.

        First, Mr. Herzog was best buddies with Mr. Maris and did not enjoy seeing the record fall; second, and more important, Mr. Herzog feels that the infatuation with the home run banishes a more exciting brand of baseball: the aggressive base-stealing and running game employed successfully by Mr. Herzog's own teams.

        In his eyes, this home-run gluttony is a part of the more serious problems facing baseball: mainly (but not limited to) spiraling salaries and the ever-widening competitive gap between baseball's haves and have-nots.

        Thankfully, Mr. Herzog doesn't just whine. He offers common-sense solutions (although many fans will boo his suggestion to hold the World Series in a neutral ballpark designed to give no team an advantage.)

        You're Missing a Good Game is a very opinioned book, but because Mr. Herzog knows what he's talking about, he comes across more like a seer than a grumpy old man.

        Mr. Herzog's mentor and hero was Casey Stengel. Whitey is our Casey, without the Stengelese.

Damn Yankees
        Another writer who declined an invitation to celebrate 1998 as the apex of sports grandeur is Dean Chadwin, author of Those Damn Yankees: The Secret Life of America's Greatest Franchise (Verso; $25). This book is too intelligently written to dismiss as another sophomoric polemic by a card-carrying “Yankee Hater,” yet Mr. Chadwin clearly finds the Yankees and their success nothing to cheer about.

        He effectively skewers the Bleacher Creatures of Yankee Stadium for their boorishness,the New York media for its sycophancy and the Yankees organization for its lingering racism and attempts to extort a new stadium from the taxpayers.

        The iconoclastic Mr. Chadwin also disagrees with the sudden assumption of Joe Torre's managerial genius; challenges the oft-repeated notion that the '98 Yankees were a team of no stars (he says it was nothing but stars); and, most outrageously, has the nerve to say that the great performances of 1998 were predictable and caused by competitive imbalance as much as anything else.

        Those Damn Yankees is highly analytical; it also is literate and consistently engaging, even when one wants to disagree with it.

Back to the Babe
        While the home-run extravaganza focused some well-deserved attention on Mr. Maris, not much was said about Babe Ruth, the man many fans consider the greatest home-run hitter, as well as baseball's greatest all-around player.

        Leave it to McFarland & Company, a small North Carolina publisher of scholarly studies on wide-ranging academic and popular topics, to bring Ruth back into the discussion with John G. Robertson's The Babe Chases 60 ($24.50).

        Mr. Robertson's book is a home run-by-home run account of the Babe's 1927 season, during which he set the single-season home run record that Mr. Maris went through hell to break in 1961. According to Mr. Robertson, Ruth was intent on reaching the nice, round number of 60 and was ecstatic after he did so. “Sixty! Count 'em, 60!” Let's see some other (player) do that!” Mr. Ruth said.

        Ruth's gargantuan image and flamboyant personality contrast starkly with the image and personality of the quiet, dignified Henry Aaron, the man who shattered his other home-run record.

        Accompanied by less fanfare but much racial hatred, Mr. Aaron became the career home-run leader in 1974 when he hit his 715th home run. Total sports celebrates the 25th anniversary of Mr. Aaron's long-ball achievement with the stunning Home Run: My Life in Pictures by Hank Aaron with Dick Schaap ($39.95).

        While the wonderful photos and exciting design dazzle the eyes, commments and essays from Mr. Aaron's admirers add substance. Throughout, readers get the sense that the purpose is as much compensatory as celebratory; indeed, essayist Bob Costas directly asks “Has Hank gotten enough credit these 25 years later?”

        The book reveals the depth of Mr. Aaron's character, not merely his status as a sports hero. In an eloquent afterward, Mr. Aaron's biographer Lonnie Wheeler, of New Richmond, explains why Mr. Aaron, a determined civil-rights supporter, was the perfect man to break Mr. Ruth's record:

        “If it was Ruth who invented the home run, it was Aaron who found a use for it — a use not his, but society's. In Aaron's possession, the home run record was a public address system that gave volume to a voice nobody had ever listened to.

        “It was an instrument of the people. It was Jesse Owens' feet, Joe Louis's fists, and Jackie Robinson's forbearance.”

        Cincinnatian Mike Shannon is editor-in-chief of Spitball: The Literary Baseball Magazine and the author of seven baseball books. He will discuss and sign his new book, Tales from the Ballpark: More of the Greatest True Baseball Stories Ever Told (NTC/Contemporary), Saturday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. See Book Marks for details.


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