Out of the ballpark: bats and stats Perhaps no baseball season has been as closely monitored and analyzed as 1998. Balls were rocketing out of the parks at an amazing rate, and the Yankees were leaving the competition in the dust. There were formidable pitching performances and the usual smattering of high-profile players changing addresses. Cal Ripken ended his streak, and the Florida Marlins ended their short-lived chance at dominance.

These are some of the subjects captured in the new roster of baseball books.

In his excellent Summer of '98: When Homers Fell, Records Flew and Baseball Reclaimed America (Putnam, $23.95, 0399145141), esteemed sports columnist Mike Lupica eloquently reminds us what last season meant, not just to a nation of fans, but to a nation. The sensational race for the home run crown between the Cardinals' Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, of the perennial rival Chicago Cubs (as Lupica says, you can't make this stuff up), deservedly takes center stage here, but he reminds us of the other highlights and personalities that helped make the Summer of '98 so special. To a large extent, the book also revolves around the relationship with his sons as they have come to the age when baseball takes its unrelenting grip on them. The fact that Lupica's enthusiasm is so unguarded just makes the reading more enjoyable.

No sooner had the dust settled from McGwire v. Sosa than the publishers got busy. Perhaps the best of the lot on the subject is Celebrating 70: Mark McGwire's Historic Season ($29.95, 089204621X), a joint effort by the St. Louis Post Dispatch and the Sporting News. This painstaking chronicle captures all the drama and excitement of each homer with photos, quotes, and historical context. Surely Big Mac can now be considered among the all-time greats.

In fact, he's already included in the next selections, not one but two new books which designate the top hundred players in the history of the game. It's a David and Goliath author's competition between the Bible of Baseball and a professor of philosophy.

The Sporting News Selects Baseball's Greatest Players: A Celebration of the 20th Century's Best by Ron Smith (The Sporting News, $29.95, 0892046082) has tradition going for it, calling on its vast archives for photos and narrative. Baseball's Greatest Players does an even-handed job incorporating players from the Negro Leagues but exhibits some bias in picking players primarily from the pre-expansion era (prior to the 1960s).

On the other hand, Ken Shouler's The Real 100 Best Baseball Players of All Time . . . and Why! (Addax Publishing Group, $22.95, 1886110468) claims to be devoid of sentiment, relying solely on the numbers as qualifications for membership into such an elite group. While Shouler excludes members of the Negro Leagues, he does include more players from the '60s and later, perhaps to attract a younger readership. Sure, there are differences of opinions between the two books, and you might question the methodology used in the selection process, but part of the fun of being a fan derives from the kind of arguments that these volumes will undoubtedly generate.

The Autobiography of Baseball by Joseph Wallace (Abrams, $35, 0810919257) is a different sort of best book and takes the concept of oral history to a new level. Previously all the players in such books would share a common bond, like a team or a time frame. But Wallace wonders how it might be to sit down old-timers with contemporary players for a discussion of their craft. Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds . . . Bob Feller and Greg Maddux . . . brothers of the diamond shooting the breeze. Using excerpts from old interviews, Wallace seamlessly blends the generations as they regale us in tales about the pressures a rookie faces, the joy of the cheers, and the heartbreak of realizing it's time to hang 'em up. The choice of illustrations works extremely well in enhancing the stories.

The game's visual beauty is also well represented in coffee-table books by two of the most recognizable sports photojournalists. Mickey Mantle, the Yankee Years: The Photographs of Ozzie Sweet (Tuff Stuff Books, $39.95, 0930625218) is an ode to the baseball hero of the boomer generation. The cameraman's distinctive style, shooting at an upward angle against a solid background, emphasizes the slugger's mythic strength and grace. Sweet's yarns about the photo sessions offer a candid look at Mantle and his teammates.

Reflections of the Game Lives in Baseball: The Photographs of Ronald C. Modra represents some of the best of this veteran lensman. The anecdotal reflections come from the artist and his subjects. Pat Jordan, ballplayer-cum-writer, provides a running essay on how he was instilled with a love for the game, from his days as a little leaguer through his abbreviated professional career.

For those of us who can never get enough of a good thing, there's a new heavyweight (literally) for the reference section. It's the All-Time Baseball Sourcebook (STATS, Inc., $79.95, 1884064531). What sets this massive volume (over 2,600 pages) apart from other such tomes is the breadth and breakdown of data previously unavailable to the average fan. Rather than listing the individual records of every player, which can be found elsewhere, the Sourcebook offers batting and pitching averages listed by decade, age, and time-span (as in best five-year stretch, seven-year, etc.), just to mention a few of the many sections. There is also an extensive franchise section where you can find out all manner of statistical information about your favorite team, along with almanac-like capsules presenting interesting factoids.

The Sourcebook also contains box scores from every All-Star and post-season game, along with summaries and registers of all the participants. The editors also give you their takes on 90 of the greatest games ever played and a fresh look at the history of baseball's amateur draft.

Well, I don't know about you, but all this baseball talk has made me hungry. Let's see what's in the Home Plate Cookbook: Recipes from Baseball Greats Just Great for Your Home Plate by Gary Saunders (Crane Hill Publishers, $14.95, 157587072X), a collection of recipes from players and others connected with the game. Hmmm, there's Bob Feller's fruitcake, Mickey Mantle's Yankee Garlic Bread, and Willie Mays's Say Hey Bran Muffins, among dozens of other delectables. There are also food-facts about the links and lore of ball park food. But be warned: Most of the dishes are definitely not politically correct in this era of healthy eating. Still, this fun book provides a heaping helping of lighthearted glimpses into the players which we seldom see.

Ron Kaplan is currently working on a book about baseball during the Korean War years.

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