Baseball is a version of the pastoral without shepherds and sheep. The game has always provided a wealth of metaphor, drama, nostalgia and characters, and generations of writers have wandered ineluctably to the American version of cricket. In fiction, Ring Lardner, Bernard Malamud, Mark Harris, Philip Roth and Robert Coover, and in nonfiction Lawrence Ritter, Roger Angell and Thomas Boswell, have all dug the quarry of baseball with wondrous imagination and skill.
Perhaps the best loved of all recent baseball books is Roger Kahn's "The Boys of Summer," an ingenious and moving account of the author's affection for the late, great masters of Ebbetts Field, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Kahn's book, published 13 years ago, intertwined several stories and passions at once: the author's relationship with his brilliant, baseball-mad father; the Dodgers and their valiant assaults on the Yankees; the old Dodgers as aging heroes.
In "The Boys of Summer," Kahn's writing was driven by his feeling for the subject, and it was the subject of the book that carried the reader, that moved him so deeply. The prose was fine, but not first-division. The joke in baseball is that Kahn is the second-best Roger writing about baseball today, and that is certainly true. Kahn's skill as a writer in no way matches Angell's. But then Angell's baseball writing for The New Yorker, collected most recently in "Late Innings," is the best we have, perhaps the best anyone could hope for.
In his new book, "Good Enough to Dream," Kahn looks for another idea, another way "into" baseball. No one, not even a literary all-rounder such as John Updike, can hope to write first-rate baseball literature without a path into the sport. Updike relied on a long attachment to the Boston Red Sox to produce his shimmering story on Ted Williams' last appearance in uniform, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu."
This time Kahn has taken the George Plimpton route. Age and skill and good sense prevented Kahn from, say, batting against Dwight Gooden (that would have been an extremely short book) or joining the Yankees ("The Winds of War" has already been written). No, Kahn didn't join a baseball team. He bought one.
Kahn says the idea came to him after he was mugged in the lobby of his New York apartment. With his body and spirit still aching, he fled to the beach for contemplation.
"Sunlight broke across an oval Cape Cod pond with delicate mellow softness. Quiet was the order of the day. Two men sat in beach chairs, watching a boy fish gentle waters from a bank where stalks of dune grass stirred. They spoke, as was their wont, not of the blessings of the day, but of baseball.
" 'Did you ever want to manage a team?' asked Jay Acton. He is soft-voiced and white-haired at the age of thirty-three: lawyer, writer, editor, literary agent, friend.
" 'Not much. I just wanted to play' . . .
" 'Own?' Acton said. 'Would that appeal to you?'
" 'The Dodgers are not for sale.' "
No, the Dodgers were not for sale, but the Utica Blue Sox, a Class A "independent" team in Upstate New York, were, and with a gaggle of partners Kahn became the exalted major-domo. Kahn's players were castoffs, flawed professionals making $500 a month, half for the love of baseball, half in pursuit of the diminishing dream of being called up to a higher level team and then to "the bigs."
Kahn's attempts to portray his players are usually superficial. He does a better job with his 31-year-old manager, Jim Gattis, whose straw-colored hair and lantern jaw made him seem "a movie version of a grown-up Huckleberry Finn." As it turns out, Gattis is a man possessed, too often the "sadistic drill sergeant" obsessed with instilling his players with "intensity." Gattis' own dreams of playing big-league ball were shattered by a pitch that hit him in the head. Kahn is forever trying to put Gattis' temper in a sympathetic light, insisting that Billy Martin is no pussycat, but it seems a shame that the best-drawn character in the book is such a steely-eyed fellow.
What's an even greater shame is that Kahn seems not to approach the writing project here with as much care as he did the baseball project. Circumstances provided him with a potentially dramatic pennant race, but Kahn does little with it. Circumstances provided a diverse cast of characters and a bleak, small-town setting, but Kahn's writing lacks detail, verve, real ambition. Occasionally there are interesting vignettes -- as when Kahn must deal with his ace reliever who has to leave the team to patch up a failing marriage -- but they are rare and casually rendered.
In other words, the path into baseball was not sufficient to carry the day as it was with "The Boys of Summer." "Good Enough to Dream" is not good enough, by any stretch, to enter that most peculiar pantheon of American literature, the transcendent baseball book.