cover image The Veracruz Blues: 9

The Veracruz Blues: 9

Mark Winegardner / Author Viking Books $22.95 (272p) ISBN 978-

Using real names and events, Winegardner playfully recounts how in 1946 one quixotic man nearly established a third, fully integrated major baseball league in Mexico. In 1994, the year without a World Series, aging baseball reporter Frank Bullinger Jr. sets out to write about la temporada de oro-the Season of Gold of 1946. Although Bullinger shapes the story, he frequently steps aside for chapters told by others: Theolic ``Fireball'' Smith, an acerbic black pitcher; Roberto Ortiz, a Cuban power hitter; and the Bronx's own Danny Gardella, a first-baseman who claims to have ``caught'' manic depression from a neighborhood kid named Rocco. Together, this Babel of voices tells how wealthy Mexican industrialist Jorge Pasquel offered ridiculous sums of money to American ballplayers willing to jump to the Mexican league. Whether Pasquel was ``(a) Mephistopheles, (b) Gatsby, (c) Barnum, (d) an egomaniacal war-profiteer'' or a few other possibilities, including ``philandering murderer'' and ``civil rights pioneer,'' Bullinger leaves to the reader. As a milieu, baseball begs writers to indulge in the pleasures of tall tales and broad characterization, and Winegardner-whose only previous book is the nonfiction Prophet of the Sandlot: Journeys of a Major League Scout-excels at it. The brand of baseball played south of the border is equal to that of American ball, but sometimes the umps pack pistols-and the train tracks that cut through right field in Tampico are fully functional. In Bullinger, a frustrated novelist who hung out with Hemingway, he's created a narrator who sounds like Damon Runyon or Ring Lardner at their bourbon-soaked best. The novel invites comparisons to other baseball books, but Winegardner does something special here: he writes about both baseball and the past with a nostalgia that isn't cloying, always aware of how the ridiculous cohabits with the sublime. (Feb.)