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Original Issue

Books Two Tales of Baseball, About As Far from the Major Leagues As You Can Find It

Taking in a Game: A History of Baseball in Asia
by Joseph A. Reaves, University of Nebraska Press, $29.95

Play by Play: Baseball, Radio and Life in the Last Chance League
by Neal Conan, Crown, $21.95

In 1863 a group of homesick American expatriates in Shanghai
organized Asia's first baseball club. The continent has not been
the same since. For some Asian nations baseball became more than
an amusement. It became a new kind of social interaction, which
the populations took to with such energy that, Reaves says, they
made it their own.

A former Asian correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, Reaves
finds as many interpretations of baseball as there are names for
it (bangqiu in Chinese, yagoo in Korean, besuboru in Japanese).
In China propaganda from the 1970s declared "the baseball
movement" an important part of Mao Tse-tung's revolutionary
sports program, since it encouraged "diligent study of Marxism,
Leninism and Mao Tse-tung Thought." Indeed, historians say
Chinese authorities praised the game because it taught soldiers
how to throw grenades. The emergence of Japanese baseball was
equally rooted in martial tradition. In the 1920s fabled coach
Suishu Tobita became known as "the god of Japanese baseball,"
partly thanks to his military-style practices known as "death
training" but also because he introduced an approach to the game
that echoed in the Japanese character. "To hit like a shooting
star, to catch a ball beyond one's capabilities," he said, is
"not the result of technique, but the result of good deeds [and]
strong spiritual power." Reaves argues that these values persist
in today's Japanese game: It "may appear to be the same as the
U.S. version--but it isn't." In Japan umpires are respected and
managers revered, while spitting on the dugout steps is a
sacrilege. Above all, Reaves writes, the Japanese player strives
for "the greater good of the group," while the American does so
"only so long as it promotes greater rewards for each individual
through team success."

I think Reaves exaggerates, however, in respect to both American
players and their Japanese counterparts. Part of baseball's
appeal is that it offers team glory and individual success and
can't be played well without attention to both. If millions of
people from Tampa to Tokyo are attracted to the game, there may
be another reason, too simple for scholars to notice: It's just
plain fun.

That may have been what inspired Conan. When a midlife crisis
smacked him upside the head, the distinguished political
reporter for National Public Radio suddenly decided to sign up
as play-by-play man for the Aberdeen (Md.) Arsenal of the
independent Atlantic League. His book combines his struggles
behind the mike--at one point he calls a good curve ball "a
beautiful breaking bitch"--with stories about the players,
including one sex-obsessed pitcher who refuses to believe that
his nightly rounds of tomcatting are destroying his career.
Before a doubleheader the pitcher remarks that he hopes the
first game ends quickly because he needs to get to the team bus
and...well, pleasure himself.

Just about everyone loses in this rather dreary book. The team
slumps, then goes belly-up, and Conan discovers that absolutely
no one is listening to his broadcasts. The impression is that
minor league ball is akin to a sausage factory: You're better off
not knowing what goes on behind the scenes.