See the ball, hit the ball

Jim Kaplan’s latest book gives a clear view of the grand old game.


Thank God for Jim Kaplan. The veteran sports journalist and author of 14 books on baseball has shown up in these fretful times with “Clearing the Bases,” a book about baseball that reminds us that some eternal verities are still in place.

This book will work for you whether you’re a baseball fan lifer or a pink-hatter recently engaged to the game after falling in love with the teams of players like Big Papi or Anthony Rizzo, first-sacker for the 2016 World Series champion Cubbies.

“Clearing the Bases” also tells us that the nature of baseball is transcendent, more than a game. For example, following the 2011 Boston Marathon bombing, Boston Red Sox player David Ortiz became the voice for healing, with an improvised but authentic expression of the communal grief and anger that stunned New England and the nation.

The reaction to Mr. Ortiz’s words was unrelated to his baseball achievements, and will likely make him the most beloved Red Sox ever, surpassing even the Kid and Yaz. Leaders do show up when we need them, often in unexpected places, like the infield grass at Boston’s Fenway Park.

Mr. Kaplan resides in Oak Bluffs with his wife, Brooks Robards. Both are contributors to The Times. Mr. Kaplan learned his craft as a reporter at Sports Illustrated at the time when SI was doing real sports journalism during the turmoil of baseball’s transition from a group of owner-controlled fiefdoms to a more democratic landscape of free agent players. This book reflects his training.

Mr. Kaplan, 72, has reached that blessed time in life at which one who has seen it all can be be an unashamed curmudgeon. He is a fan of the game but not a fanboy, a perspective too often absent in the reporting/tweeting/blogging of sports now.

For example, Mr. Kaplan suggests the game would be better if headhunting pitchers were arrested for assault, and brawl-provoking players suspended; if protective netting surrounded the playing field; World Series games were played in the afternoon; and the roving videocamera “kiss cam” were banned from major league ballparks.

The book is presented around life profiles of three players, including a Hall of Famer (Paul Molitor), an above-average relief pitcher (Ron Taylor) who became an excellent engineer and physician, and a player turned broadcaster (Tim McCarver) who was actually good at the reporting craft.

“Clearing the bases” is a baseball term that describes a hit that scores multiple baserunners. Mr. Kaplan touches all the bases, weaving the stories of these three men as players and people with researched, inside-baseball stories of what really happened. For example, while Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was lionized for changes he did not create or support in the game during his reign, Mr. Kaplan presents the true story.

Most important, Mr. Kaplan presents baseball players as the people they are. Citing the writer and baseball lyricist Roger Angell, who remarked that ballplayers “are what they do,” Mr. Kaplan gives us a clear picture of gifted athletes and the complete lives that they live.