For better or worse, any "serious" baseball novel will be measured against the late Bernard Malamud's The Natural. Happily, Tony Ardizzone's new baseball-drenched allegory, Heart of the Order ( Henry Holt and Co., $16.95), belongs in the same league.
As the coming-of-age story of Danny Bacigalupo, a third baseman from working-class Chicago, Heart juggles several major themes. Danny has to cope with a stern, uncommunicative father, the classic conditioning of a Catholic education and the psychological trauma of having killed a playmate, Mickey Meenan, during a game of pickup ball. Baseball becomes Danny's salvation, providing a set of standards and rituals to follow.
As Danny moves up through the minor leagues toward a starting role for the Denver Dynos, a major league team, he becomes convinced the spirit of his childhood victim has moved into his body. (And Yankee managers think that they're in for second-guessing.) The ghost of Mickey Meenan retains the personality of an 11-year-old who wants to swing for the fences on every pitch, yet lacks the nerve to man the hot corner, baseball's most infernal assignment.
Helping Danny keep both of his tops screwed down tight is Booker (Book) Johnson, a black shortstop also on his way to the big time. Book is an exemplar of player behavior both on and off the field, introducing Danny to wine, women and song as well as the fine points of the cutoff position.
Major fireworks are in store before the end of Bacigalupo's playing days and the start of his second career as a scout. Suffice it to say that guilt, grace, freedom and redemption all take their place in Heart's sometimes dizzying but frequently dazzling narrative.
Ardizzone's nonstop stream of comic but revealing baseball metaphors elevates dugout chatter to something approaching poetry. This is one of the rare books that can make you laugh out loud, all the while scoring some serious points about the games that really matter.