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As baseball literature goes, The Boys of Summer isn't threatened by the books being published this season. The main reason they don't write baseball books like they used to is that they don't write baseball books at all. Today's "authors" compile books; they compute them. Stats have elbowed stories from the bookshelves. Fear Strikes Out might not be published today. Fear Hits for Average on Artificial Surfaces probably would.
And yet, the number-crunchers have produced a few of the best baseball books never written. Again this season, most of the new tomes in the bookstores are given to the statistical sizing-up of current major league players; they are books published largely for the benefit of Rotisserie Leaguers and cable gazers.
For instance, there's Rotisserie League Baseball (Bantam, $8.95), which has a cover that reads like a detergent box: NEW! REVISED! MORE STATS THAN EVER BEFORE! This is the fourth edition of the guide that started the fantasy-league baseball craze in 1980, and it is still the best of the stat publications. "More stats than ever before," mind you, is considerably fewer than you could glean from a bubble-gum card. Refreshingly, the bulk of Rotisserie is still devoted to player evaluations, blessedly done in prose.
Best of all, Rotisserie recognizes that baseball is only a game, and that Rotisserie is only a game based on a game. Thus, along with White Sox pitcher Steve Rosenberg's vital stats, the reader gets this tangential tale concerning TV's Jeopardy!:
The category was Jews in Sports and the answer was, "This pitcher was the youngest ever inducted into the Hall of Fame." A contestant rang the buzzer and asked, "Who is Henry Aaron?"
Rotisserie's imitators are legion, and they run the gamut from good to godawful. Patton's 1990 Fantasy Baseball Price Guide (Fireside, $8.95) is composed primarily of stat-and-prose player profiles, complete with suggested draft-day prices. It is a fantasy baseball version of Machiavelli's The Prince—not many yuks, but lots of what it takes to get to the top of your fantasy league.
Among the statistical treasures buried in Baseballistics ( St. Martin's Press, $16.95), a 400-page paperback the size of a sofa cushion, is a list of baseball's "All-Time Home Run Leaders by Zodiac Sign." Bill James Introduces Stats Inc.'s 1990 Major League Handbook ( Sports Team Analysis and Tracking Systems, Inc., $17.95) is 285 pages long, but only six of those pages have complete sentences.
The textbook guide of this genre has to be The Sporting News Rotisserie & Fantasy Baseball League Guide 1990 ( The Sporting News, $12.95). The book addresses, according to its subheadings: the Learning Curve Myth, Divergent Trends, the Variability Grade and something called the TRP Computations. Like most textbooks, the 192-page TSNR&FBLG defies you to finish it.
That's the danger of statistical esoterica. Too many of these volumes give the reader the baseball equivalent of the barometric pressure, when all he or she really wants to know is whether or not to put on a sweater. With numbers as its guide, The 1990 Elias Baseball Analyst (Collier Books, $14.95) offers fascinating forecasts for the current season—and seasons to come—not to mention postmortems on seasons past. It is the single book that can not only help your Rotisserie team, but can also help you enjoy and understand the real-life game better.