Stepping Up to the Plate With 'Diamond' : Books: Mark Harris loves baseball. But the author who's well-known for his novels about the sport would rather write about it than watch it.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the evening after a 116-degree day, pipes from the grandstand roof spray a cool mist over the fans. Mark Harris sits behind the third base dugout at Scottsdale Stadium. Harris--who wrote what many consider two of the finest baseball novels ever, "Bang the Drum Slowly" and "The Southpaw"--doesn't know the names of any players on the home team Phoenix Firebirds. He doesn't know how the team is doing this season.

He talks little about the game until a great play gets his attention. "Oh, good stop!" he exclaims when a second baseman races behind the base to snare a bouncing ball and nip a runner at first.

In the middle of a conversation, he pauses again to watch. "Nice play," he says when a charging outfielder scoops up a ball and holds a lead runner at second base after a batter bloops a single.

Harris never reads sports statistics or watches a full game on television and can name only about 20 major league players. But he loves baseball and seeing it played well.

"People ask me, 'Are you a fan? How many games do you go to every year? Of course you have season tickets,' " Harris writes in "Diamond" (Donald I. Fine), a new collection of his baseball essays.

"I understand how disappointing I become when I say I see only a game or two a year. . . . I admire the game of baseball, but I am not necessarily a fan of any of the people who play it or of the cities they pretend to represent. . . .

"If I have something illuminating to say, I go home and write it."

Keeping up with baseball minutiae would take time from his writing, he says. The 71-year-old author works in a spare office at the rear of a white-on-white Southwestern-style home filled with art. His wife, Josephine, a devoted baseball fan, calls him for important moments in televised games.

At home before the Firebirds game, Harris sits behind his desk, a hand folded behind his head, a foot propped on a stool. He wears glasses with two sets of lenses, one of which he flips down for distance.

"If I don't work a couple of hours in the evening, I've missed a session," he says. "And if you miss too many, you fall out of the habit."

When he needs details or statistics, he looks them up. Otherwise he relies on knowledge developed growing up on playgrounds and reading between the lines of newspaper stories about his beloved New York Giants of the 1930s.

"When I look back, I can see so many scenes that arise out of memory," he says. He's maintained these memories by writing in a journal about his daily activities for five minutes every evening since 1934.

Harris prefers writing about baseball because it's the sport he knows best, he says, not because the players outshine other athletes. He discusses the part baseball has played in his life and the creation of his four baseball novels in "Diamond," a series of essays written between 1946 and 1993. The work is half of a literary doubleheader with "The Tale Maker," a novel published simultaneously by Fine, in which Harris traces the careers of an aspiring writer and a would-be literary critic at a large university.

It is Harris' 13th novel. He has also written four works of autobiographical nonfiction, four screenplays, a play and numerous essays and reviews. Although he would like to be recognized for all his works, he realizes that he is best known for the baseball novels: "It's sort of inevitable that many writers get identified as one thing or another."

Harris is famed most for four novels based on the career of left-handed pitcher Henry Wiggen: "The Southpaw" (1953), "Bang the Drum Slowly" (1956), "A Ticket for Seamstitch" (1957) and "It Looked Like For Ever" (1979). "Bang the Drum Slowly" became a 1973 motion picture starring Robert DeNiro and Michael Moriarity.

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Cordelia Candelaria, a professor with Harris at Arizona State University and author of "Seeking the Perfect Game: Baseball in American Literature," rates "The Southpaw" and "Bang the Drum Slowly" among the top five baseball novels ever written, along with Bernard Malamud's "The Natural," Philip Roth's "The Great American Novel" and Robert Coover's "The Universal Baseball Association Inc."

Candelaria says Harris' contribution to American literature is not limited to his baseball writing, but his major influence is through the character of Wiggen.

"He's every bit as permanent and important as Huckleberry Finn, as Ishmael and Ahab in 'Moby Dick' and as Nick Adams in Hemingway's short stories," Candelaria says. "Henry Wiggen struggles with his individuality, his place in society and the moral dilemmas he faces. All of those struggles are as much about him as an American character as they are about baseball."

"The other impressive thing is that Harris has written four novels about baseball," says Prof. Harley Henry, who has taught courses on baseball fiction since the 1970s at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. "That shows that he knows how to use this material in a consistent way. Most people who write baseball fiction do it once and do with it what they want and then they go on."

Henry says Ring Lardner's "You Know Me Al" stories in 1914 made baseball the subject of serious fiction. Malamud's mythological "The Natural" in 1952 and Harris' realistic "The Southpaw" a year later created the serious baseball novel and unleashed a torrent of baseball fiction, including "The Great American Novel," "The Universal Baseball Association Inc." and W.P. Kinsella's "Shoeless Joe."

Harris differs from many later novelists in that he writes about baseball realistically, "without trying to connect it to all kinds of mythological systems and illusions," Henry says.

He contrasts the realism of "Bang the Drum Slowly," describing a major league team in a pennant race, with the 1982 "Shoeless Joe" (which became the movie "Field of Dreams" in 1989), a story of an Iowa farmer who builds a baseball diamond in his cornfield and magically brings back a legendary old-time star.

"I can't stand fantasy, especially in baseball," Harris says. "It has to be real for me. I think people make fantasy of it who don't know how it works realistically. That is a demand I made when I was a kid--that baseball has to be done right."

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Harris developed this creed growing up on the playgrounds of Mt. Vernon, N.Y., near New York City, where he played baseball every spare moment, and where playing felt wonderful. "I knew . . . the wondrous physical feel of the movements of the game--a ball well fielded, cleanly played, perfectly thrown; best of all, solidly hit," he says.

Beyond that was unity with teammates and the possession of their confidence. "Somewhere, some years in the past, I am playing my position. I think I am playing shortstop. Two men are out. The batter hits a pop fly," he writes in "Diamond."

"Even before I gather it in I feel around me my teammates begin to jog toward the bench. They know that I am going to catch that ball. . . . They know my skills side by side with my limitations. And I know theirs. We are bonded. Baseball was bonding."

"Diamond" contains touching profiles of Dick Stuart, whose only polished baseball skill in his minor league days in the mid-1950s was hitting home runs, and of Japanese-American outfielder Fibber Hirayama of the Hiroshima Carp.

There is a portrait of the "fluent and brilliant and honest" late baseball commissioner and Yale President Bart Giamatti, and a defense of Pete Rose, whom Giamatti suspended from baseball for gambling.

In a sympathetic vignette, Harris recalls the ovation after Rose's 4,192nd hit, breaking Ty Cobb's record. Rose became "a lonely, confused figure as the ovation swelled. 'I didn't know what to do,' he said later. 'I've never been on a ball field and not known what to do.' "

Humor is never far below the surface. In one piece Harris recalls that as a youth, he objected to "Casey at the Bat" on strategic grounds: With first base open, the pitcher should have walked Casey.

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Harris began writing essays and novels early and later pursued scholarly expertise on literature.

He was born Mark Harris Finkelstein. When he graduated from high school in 1940, he believed it would be hard for a Jew to get a job and dropped his surname, without protest from his father.

Drafted into the Army in 1943, Harris was sent to Camp Wheeler in Georgia. He was upset by a friend's death in battle overseas and outraged by segregation in the armed forces. He deserted his company, was hospitalized for psychoneurosis and given an honorable discharge.

He worked as a reporter and, in 1946, married Josephine, who persuaded him to try college at age 26. By the time he completed his doctorate degree in American studies at the University of Minnesota in 1956, he had published four books, including "The Southpaw" and "Bang the Drum Slowly."

The seed for "Bang the Drum Slowly" was planted when a graduate school classmate died. "I was 30," he says. "I hadn't encountered many deaths. It was shocking. In World War II many boys had died, but it wasn't like someone I'd seen a week or two before."

Harris transplanted the event to a major league clubhouse and wrote about a quarreling team that unifies and wins the pennant when it discovers a marginally talented catcher is dying of Hodgkin's Disease.

Harris has used teaching as a base for his writing career since 1954 at universities including San Francisco State College, California Institute of the Arts, Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, the University of Southern California and the University of Pittsburgh. He and his wife moved West in 1980 to be closer to their three grown children.

Although he watches few games, Harris plays softball on a team with colleagues at Arizona State.

"Baseball as amateurs play it is seldom exciting to watch," he says in "Diamond," "but it is exciting to play, as anyone can tell you who has whacked the ball well or caught a fly ball on the run. One understands the game by playing it. It is good exercise for the body and the head and the spirit and the outlook."

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