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Sunday, April 18, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Patter In The Outfield -- Diamond Prose -- Baseball Authors Step Up To The Plate

Baseball's back, and with it some more reading for hard-core and soft-core fans. This year's offerings range from examinations of the business side of baseball to the autobiography of one of the game's greatest players.

Leading off the season's lineup with a solid single up the middle is "It's Gone! . . . No, Wait a Minute" (Random House, $19.50), the journal of Mariner announcer Ken Levine's first season in the big leagues, with the Baltimore Orioles in 1991.

Levine takes us through the ups and downs of the Orioles' season, and his own. If you like his broadcasting style, you'll like this book: It's full of the snappy one-liners that brought him success earlier as a writer for television's "Cheers" and "M # A # S # H," and reflects his ability to see zaniness wherever he goes.

But it's more, too. Beneath the surface of name-dropping, anecdotes and shameless, incessant restaurant plugs, is a human story of a talented man undecided between two careers, and the loneliness of a husband and father on the road. And anyone who cares about baseball tradition is guaranteed a lump in the throat while reading Levine's description of the Orioles' final home game at Memorial Stadium. That's a fine piece of writing which should be in some anthology someday.

Also stepping up to the plate this season are two highly touted "what's wrong with baseball" books, "Coming Apart at the Seams," by Jack Sands and Peter Gammons (Macmillan, $24), and "Play Ball: The Life and Troubled Times of Major League Baseball," by John Feinstein (Villard, $22.50). For the first, a two-run homer; for the second, a high fly to the warning track.

Not since Marvin Miller's 1991 memoir, "A Whole Different Ball Game," has a book explained the business end of baseball as well as "Coming Apart at the Seams." Read why the owners loved former commissioner Peter "No Flies on Me" Ueberroth (he saved them a whole heap of money on free agents; never mind that they had to pay it out later in collusion settlements). They loved the late Bart Giamatti (he had broken the unions at Yale), but they fired Fay Vincent (he dared to tell them what Marvin Miller had proved - that they couldn't win a labor showdown with the players).

We learn about big markets and small markets, TV contracts, free agents and expensive agents. We study the structure and long-range plans of the National Football League and the National Basketball Association and compare them with baseball, which has little structure and no plan, just a bunch of greedheads running the show.

Gammons, longtime Boston Globe columnist and ESPN ana-lyst, and Sands, a sports lawyer who has represented players in salary negotiations, offer their solutions to baseball's ever-increasing financial spiral. It is not free agency, they say, but arbitration that is ratcheting the salaries of average players into the "fit for life" category. Retaining free agency would let market forces come into play and reward excellence without rewarding mediocrity.

Gammons' and Sands' scenario of interleague play and international expansion might not sit well with traditionalists, but like the rest of this terrific book, should provide plenty of discussion.

In comparison, Feinstein's "Play Ball: The Life and Troubled Times of Major League Baseball" promises the same but delivers instead a more between-the-lines formula approach by following selected players, managers and general managers through the 1992 season.

There's some good stuff here, to be sure: excellent profiles of Oakland A's manager Tony La- Russa, Pittsburgh Pirates manager Jim Leyland, and a good inside look at the Jose Canseco trade and how it came about.

But Feinstein tries to do too much. He spreads himself too thin and stays mostly on the surface, and thus misses altogether the depth that Gammons and Sands achieve. Some of the looks at individual teams are cursory at best, or irrelevant - like an entire chapter on the Phillie Phanatic. Give us a break, John!

Another eagerly anticipated book that falls short is "The Lip: A Biography of Leo Durocher," by Gerald Eskenazi (Morrow, $23). Durocher, perhaps the most controversial baseball figure of the mid-century, certainly deserves a few bios, and Eskenazi, a veteran New York Times reporter, deserves commendation for being first.

But doing Durocher's life is a vast project, and Eskenazi has done a halfvast job. There are factual errors, butchered quotes, and his sources are not cited precisely. He supplies a bibliography, but he must not have used it much, because his account differs from some of his sources - and Eskenazi does not explain why. There's much more to Leo than we get here.

Baseball historians such as Jules Tygiel, Charles C. Alexander and Robert Creamer have shown that this can be done successfully. Wait till next year. A one-hopper to the shortstop.

A real scream (but keep it from your 10-year-olds; it's strictly R-rated) is "Baseball's Even Greater Insults," by Kevin Nelson (Fireside, $9), a followup to his zany "Baseball's Greatest Insults." Among those more fit to print are Lou Piniella's famous rejoinder to George Steinbrenner, when George told his players he had seen longshoremen do real work down on the docks. Lou replied: "Aw, George, the only time you've been down on the docks was to put gas in your father's yacht." Double into the gap.

A good chronicle of the formation of this season's two expansion franchises is "Playing Hardball: The High-Stakes Battle for Baseball's New Franchises," by David Whitford (Doubleday, $22.50). All the background, the politics, the money decisions and the player selections that led to creation of the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins are here. A fine piece of journalism. Time will tell if Whitford has lionized Marlin GM David Dombrowski a bit too much. Another double, high off the wall.

A thoughtful study of major league managers is Leonard Koppett's "The Man in the Dugout: Baseball's Top Managers and How They Got That Way" (Crown, $22.50). Koppett, for decades one of baseball's best journalists, traces his "genealogy" of managerial techniques - who learned what from whom - to determine how managerial styles have evolved. It's well done, but this trail has been well-trodden. Very little original here. Infield hit.

In the reminiscence category, we have "Baseball in the Afternoon" by Robert Smith (Simon & Schuster, $21). Anthologies include "Baseball Tales: Major League Writers on the National Pastime," with photos by Terry Heffernan (Viking, $14.95), and "Birth of a Fan," edited by Ron Fimrite, (Macmillan, $22).

For the statistically minded - and what would baseball be without statistics? - there is the revised, and massive, ninth edition of "The Baseball Encyclopedia: The Complete and Definitive Record of Major League Baseball" (Macmillan, $55). Fans will get lost in it for hours.

And finally, a player autobiography, "I Love This Game," by Kirby Puckett (HarperCollins, $20): three-run homer. There are no dark secrets here, no club scandals, no grudges laid out in print. The stellar Minnesota Twins center fielder simply loves his teammates, loves his manager, loves his contract, loves his city and loves his family. Day in and day out, he gives all he has to give.

The reviewer abandons any pretense to objectivity here. Kirby Puckett is an idol. He represents everything that is right with baseball. Keep swinging, Puck, you've earned every nickel and every good thing coming to you. See you at the Dome. Ivan Weiss is a copy editor for The Seattle Times.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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