Stealing Signs 

A fine new book pitches the inner life of baseball.

click to enlarge art28_book_baseball_1_300.jpg

There is a world beneath this one, and I'm sometimes made aware of it in quick glimpses. Few things do this for me on a regular basis. One is baseball and another is a good book. Rarely have the two occurred simultaneously.
As a rule I don't go easy on books in the sporting g
enre. They fail, almost always, because of self-aggrandizement and sentimentality that stir the sporting elegy into such “pink tea,” as Ty Cobb would have said, that the author's every word should be held suspect.

But “The Baseball Codes” (Pantheon, $25), by Jason Turbow with Michael Duca, is a breakthrough. It makes me think differently about literature and baseball, and not just the sport or even the experience of baseball, but the idea of baseball.

As described by Turbow, the code is “the ultimate measure used to shape ballplayers' attitudes toward themselves, each other, and the game they play.”

The code itself is unwritten, of course, privately tended and fostered between the players until there are spillovers into the public world.

When public displays happen, these events provide the tip of an iceberg that research must detail. Turbow distills a mixture of archival material that comes all the way up to contemporary events with brief commentary by players and people close to the game. Ultimately, all of this points out that there's a ton of things happening below the surface of our national pastime. And maybe that's why it is our national pastime.

There are so many details to the code — see the glove on the book cover — that young players can sometimes get confused. This was the case with Roger Cedeno, who in 1996, while playing for the Dodgers, up by nine runs in the last inning, decided to steal second base. He wasn't even being held on first. None of the opposing Giants could believe it. They had to restrain the third baseman, Matt Williams, from fighting Cedeno on the field. After the game, the Dodgers handled things internally, but it was a clear breach, clearly disrespectful, and yet without a doubt, many in the crowd that night went home clueless as to what transpired.

The Code is about respect for one's team, respect for the opponent, and above all, respect for the game. Break the code, and “the instructional tool of choice [becomes] a fastball to the rib cage,” but it will also be meted out by a fist or a verbal assault or by an angry teammate who might incur the aforementioned as retribution for the blunder. All for one and one for all.

The public has rarely enjoyed such pointed insight into the true nature of some of the game's most quixotic events, but with this book we finally have full explanation of how Robin Ventura was put in a headlock by Nolan Ryan and why Gil Hodges replaced his left fielder in the middle of an inning, just because he forgot to stop at the pitching mound.

“The Baseball Codes” provides an excellent read and field guide for your next baseball game. It will get your imagination going. But at its best, a central analogy emerges between enjoying books and baseball. Both demand that the participant make sense of reality by reading between the lines. It isn't ultimately what's taught, but how it's taught, that it is a game performed in layers, in hidden signs, hidden rules, and requires interpretations, judgments, analysis, locker room dustups and bench-clearing brawls.

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