- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 20, 2007

Although more books have been written about baseball than any other team sport, relatively few are memorable. Among those I cherish are Roger Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer,” Joshua Prager’s recent “The Echoing Green,” Jonathan Eig’s “Luckiest Man,” Henry W. Thomas’ “Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train” and two marvelous novels, W.P. Kinsella’s “Shoeless Joe” and Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s “The Celebrant.”

Now I’ll have to make room on my list for a new entrant — and you should, too. ESPN baseball commentator Tim Kurkjian’s “Is This A Great Game Or What?” ($24.95, St. Martin’s Press, 258 pages) is an informative and entertaining joy from start to finish. In fact, I wish it were twice as long.

Full disclosure: Kurkjian and I have been friends since we worked together for the Washington Star in the 1970s. And if you believe in portents, you won’t be surprised to learn the author is a native and resident of the Washington area who played baseball at — where else? — Walter Johnson High in Bethesda, the only school in the nation named for a ballplayer.

As he does regularly on “Baseball Tonight” and other ESPN programs, Kurkjian perceives and explains aspects of rounders that you and I would never think of. He knows all about what used to be called the national pastime from both technical and historical viewpoints, as well he should. Before leaving the newspaper racket, he spent years covering the Rangers for the Dallas Morning News and the faltering Orioles for the Baltimore Sun. Perhaps the only thing he didn’t learn during that period in horsehide Hades was how to deal with a winning team.

But as either Willie Shakespeare or Yogi Berra once said, you can’t have everything.

Kurkjian’s passion for the game is so consuming you wonder how he had time to get married and have a family. He says he has 6,000 baseball books, and for the last 17 years he has dutifully clipped and filed every major league box score. I’d be tempted to tell him, “Get a life!” except that the one he has now is so rewarding for him and us. It’s easy to believe him when he says on his first page, “Baseball is the best game because once it grabs you, it never lets go.” Of course, he then lists a bunch of other reasons; one of them is that it’s the hardest game to play.

“My wish is for everyone in America to get at least one at-bat in a major league game against Randy Johnson and to stand even with third base when Albert Pujols hits a rocket down the line,” Kurkjian writes. “Then everyone would appreciate … the speed of the game and the danger involved.”

That danger, he tells us, produces fear in all players, even the best. The baseball is hard; batters fear getting beaned, pitchers and infielders fear getting hit by a line drive with calamitous results.

Says former major league infielder Jeff Huson, comparing the game to basketball: “What’s the worst thing Michael Jordan could do to you … dunk on you? So what? What’s the worst thing Randy Johnson can do to you? He can kill you.”

Not all of Kurkjian’s book is this grim; he also relates about a million anecdotes, many surprising and all interesting. Basically, however, this is a serious book about a serious game from which even the most avid fan can learn countless things. For instance that:

• Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell grabbed a urinal from the visiting clubhouse when Tiger Stadium in Detroit was vacated in 2001.

• Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley went four years between pickoffs, then victimized the same guy in 1982 that he had in 1978, Kenny Williams (now general manager of the White Sox).

• Orioles icon Cal Ripken was so competitive that he used to risk life and limb (not to mention The Streak) by recklessly sprinting up stairs in the Metrodome to cover the distance in fewer steps than his teammates.

• Playing pickup basketball against the foot-shorter Kurkjian, Ripken harassed him mercilessly. Kurkjian: “Can’t you stop trying for one second?” Ripken: “No.”

Then there was the time Kurkjian, as a young beat writer, told Rangers manager Don Zimmer that the team’s constant losing was affecting his zest for the game. Zimmer’s memorable reply: “Look at you … you have your whole life in front of you. Look at me. I’m old, I’m fat, I’m bald, I’m ugly, I have a plate in my head [from being beaned as a player], and I have this team to manage. I’m the one with the worries.”

Toward the end, the author offers candid portraits of commissioner Bud Selig and slugger Barry Bonds and notes 25 things about the game that bother him. Yet his overall take is upbeat.

“By my unofficial count, the 2006 season featured 17 active players who, if they never played another game, would be Hall of Famers … and another 20 who are headed to Cooperstown with a few more good years. We are watching one of the three greatest hitters in baseball history [Bonds], three of the 10 greatest pitchers [Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson], the greatest closer [Mariano Rivera], the greatest hitting catcher [Mike Piazza] and Alex Rodriguez, who is well on his way to becoming the greatest something. … [But] I’m not sure we appreciate what we’re watching.”

One thing is for sure — read Tim Kurkjian’s book and you will appreciate baseball more than you did before.

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