The greatest baseball novel ever written has just been written. Or, rather, re-released. "Sometimes You See It Coming" was first published in 1993, before Kevin Baker reinvented the American historical novel with "Dreamland" and "Paradise Alley." Those who pick up this book without checking the original pub date might take it for the work of a fully formed talent rather than a first-time novelist.
To steal a line from Borges about westerns, baseball fiction is a tardy and subordinate genre, most of it written by frustrated sportswriters -- or, even worse, former ballplayers -- who think that revealing the private sex lives of famous athletes is somehow liberating. Then there are the academics who, God help us, see life as a metaphor for baseball -- they know the history, statistics and lore of the game, everything about baseball except how to enjoy it. Bad baseball novels are easy to spot: They always look for the meaning of the game rather than the meaning in the game.
You can count the number of great works of baseball fiction on the fingers of Ozzie Smith's glove: Philip Roth's "The Great American Novel," Robert Coover's "Universal Baseball Association, Inc.: J. Henry Waugh, Prop," Bernard Malamud's "The Natural" (not to be confused with the feel-good movie bearing its name), Jane Leavy's sadly neglected 1991 novel "Squeeze Play" (though soon, like Baker's book, to be re-released as a follow-up to Leavy's bestselling Sandy Koufax biography), and, of course, Ring Lardner's "You Know Me Al."
It seems that almost all great baseball fiction is doomed to be ignored or at least underrated on its initial release. The biggest rap against Ring Lardner in his lifetime was that he wasn't able to expand his dazzling little baseball miniatures into novels. Baker's sensibility is remarkably similar to Lardner's, but his vision is wider and his ambition greater. "Sometimes You See It Coming" has the self-contained mythical power of W.P. Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe," with a sense of humor.
Baker's fictional memoir concerns one John Barr of the Mets, "tall and lean, hawk-faced and loose-footed, looking every inch the ideal, baggy-uniformed ball-player of the thirties that still bedeviled their writers' and fans' psyches." Barr is the greatest player of his time, possibly of all time (though it stretches credulity to give even a fictional Met seven batting titles, which is seven more than the Mets have won in the three decades of their existence). A taciturn, backwoods New Englander, he makes no attempt to explain himself. The task, then, is left to those around him who know him best: Rapid Ricky Falls, the leadoff man who owes about half his runs scored to Barr's custom-made black bats, and Ellie Jay, graying a bit at the temples but still "the Queen of sportswriters."
When Baker needs more of an objective voice, he switches to "The Color Commentary," a third person, all-seeing voice about halfway between God and a really good baseball announcer. Virginia Woolf, who didn't know a declaration of ball four from the Balfour Declaration but who admired Lardner, might have found it in her to smile.
John Barr is a man of few words -- but then, he only knows a few. He moves through his own story like a ghost, living a life that seems almost too legendary to be true -- which it is. Fans who pay attention will find references to a couple dozen baseball myths, from the murder of Ty Cobb's father to the Milwaukee Braves' "shoe polish" victory over the Yankees in the '57 series, to the final plane ride of Roberto Clemente.
"Sometimes You See It Coming" has more layers than "The Name of the Rose," and it's a lot funnier: "When you hear somebody talk about a complete ballplayer, what they mean is a white boy who slaps singles into the opposite field and keeps his mouth shut." And: "Other people thought Stillwater was on drugs, but we assured 'em he was just stupid." And: "I love just comin' to the ballpark, Swiz. I love to run in the outfield. Hell, I love to go out there an' smell the grass sometimes." "Yeah, it smells nice. Even when it's real." One player is loved by the beat reporters because "he was the only guy in the clubhouse who could make 'em think they asked a tough question."
He's also got the rhythms of the press box right, particularly Barry Busby, a Dick Youngish hack for whom the players have an obscene nickname, and who keeps muttering about how the game has gone to hell. "S the union," he slurs, identifying one of the culprits, "the goddamned players union."
"Sometimes You See It Coming" is a novel only a curmudgeon or a sportswriter could dislike. That should leave plenty of room for the rest of us.