Thomas Boswell's new book. Why Time Begins on Opening Day (Doubleday & Co., $14.95), has some of the best reporting on baseball in years. Reading Boswell on his sport—it's apparently the only one that really interests him—is an experience in total immersion. You enter the ball park with him on page one and never leave it. True, there's a visit to Jim Palmer's house for an interview, and another, to Cooperstown for an induction ceremony, but the subject never changes. In its 300 pages there is scarcely even an allusion to anything but baseball—not a line about the weather, or punk rock, or the latest Mideast crisis. Even such baseball dilemmas as drugs and alcohol aren't discussed. The furthest the author ever strays from the game is to talk about baseball's fans.
Lending substance to Goethe's dictum that the true artist reveals himself within limits, Boswell roams widely and productively within his self-imposed boundaries. There is a chapter on the mysteries of defense—"baseball's visible poetry and its invisible virtue." Much of it never shows up in box scores or statistics, but defense has an effect on everything. A case in point: The Cardinals gave up more runs than all but one team in the NL in 1980 and finished fourth in the East; they gave up the fewest in '82 and became world champions. "The most common glue in an excellent club is pride in cohesive defense," says Boswell.
There is a chapter on the denouement of the Orioles-Brewers '82 pennant race, only the fourth time in 114 years it came down to a winner-take-all game on the last day: how the O's won 27 of 32 games late in the season; how they were finally three down with four to play—against the Brewers. It was a marvelous last act, one that Boswell re-creates superbly.
There is a chapter on managers—what they do, what they should do, all of it sharply realized, endlessly quotable. "Seldom has a man done so little with so much as Billy Martin, the best manager God never made." And, "Lasorda raises a disturbing question: Is it possible that a manager is above all a glorified cruise director...?"
Other Boswellian observations:
•"What makes Steinbrenner and the Yankees so confounding is that to reject them is to reject something so basically American that it unnerves us. The Yankees represent free enterprise...."
•"The curse of a [player's] public image is that, sooner or later, it starts showing up in the mirror."
•"A pitcher's life is one day of deliberate self-injury, followed by three days of healing, then a fresh injury."
•"Of all the positions man assumes in his games, none is so lost to dignity, so bereft of grace, so demeaning by its very name and nature, as the catcher's squat."
•"Baseball is the only game that can be disassembled, broken into its composite pieces, then put back together an hour or a century later with almost no loss of detail or drama."
The quality and the quotability are to be found in a dozen more chapters, including the one that explains the book's title. In it Boswell plumbs and analyzes the true fan's obsession, and he concludes, "Sure, opening day is baseball's bandwagon. Pundits and politicians and every prose poet on the continent [jump] on board for a few days. But they're gone soon.... Then, once more, all those long, slow months of baseball are left to us...."
It's only fair to say that two brief chapters, one on umpires and one on the United Baseball League (the 16-member group of fans' franchises that plays its games with two 10-sided dice, cards based on players' statistics and charts), seem more like afterthought fillers meant to round out the book.
One cavil I have with such a relentlessly contemporary view of a sport—even one as sound as this—comes from Boswell's apparent belief that nothing of real importance occurred in the sport before, say, 1980. New ideas, techniques and strategies are revealed truth and will stand for a hundred years. Well, nothing in life or baseball works that way, something Boswell may still be too young to grasp. One remark includes the words "...before George Herman Ruth waddled into the game...." Ruth never waddled in his life. He minced. He took the tiniest steps you ever saw for a man his size, running or walking. Take it from one who watched the 1927 Yankees live.