Jane Leavy's Squeeze Play is the best baseball novel ever written by a woman. Actually, I can say a lot more for it than that. It's the best novel ever written about baseball. Well, that might be overstating the case: Lots of people like W. P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe (from which the film Field of Dreams was made) more than I do; Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al is the best of all baseball fiction, but it's not really a novel; Bernard Malamud's The Natural is a great novel, but it's more about the failure of the American Dream than baseball; Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association Inc. was about a man's obsession with a board game; and James Joyce's Ulysses has some writing as terrific as Leavy's but almost nothing about baseball.
Maybe Squeeze Play isn't the best baseball novel ever written; maybe such judgments should be left to the ages, or at least until American literature produces a cross between Edmund Wilson and Bill James. It is the funniest, raunchiest, and most compassionate baseball novel I've ever read and is sure to offend some people who cried during Field of Dreams and that's good enough for me.
I could prove much of this to you if I could quote Squeeze Play's opening sentence, but my editor won't let me. Let's just say that the opening sentence is about what a female sportswriter sees a lot of in locker rooms, and that it beats the heck out of ''Call me Ishmael.''
The female sportswriter in this case is one A.B. Berkowitz (the A is for Ariadne), who writes for the mythical Washington Tribune and covers the team that would, if it existed, be the third incarnation of the Washington Senators. Imagine A.B. as a combination of Rosalind Russell's Hildy Parks in His Girl Friday and Bull Durham's Annie Savoy. Those two and, perhaps, a part of Leavy herself, who used to write about sports for The Washington Post.
A.B. starts out with illusions abbut ballplayers as heroes. By the end of Squeeze Play she has abandoned hero worship and rediscovered her love for the game itself, which makes her twice as wise as most male sportswriters. In addition to her struggle with the perils of hero worship, A.B. has to get past the problem of what to wear ''to the locker room when everyone is naked and thinks you ought to be'' and get down to the job of covering the Senators, a team so bad it's chasing the record of the '62 Mets.
(''What about shaking up the lineup,'' someone asks, ''bringing some kids up from Triple A?'' ''They're already here,'' someone else replies.)
The reborn Senators are owned, appropriately enough, by the born-again evangelist Jimy Boy Collins, founder of the Christian Fellowship Entertainment Nettork (slogan: ''Jesus rocks 24 hours a day!''), who wears something called ''Clubhouse cologne'' (''It smelled as if somebody had poured a bottle of Chanel No. 5 on a pair of sweat socks after a doubleheader and then boiled them with onions and cloves''). The players are a collection of misfits and rejects who, if they don't play like big leaguers, certainly manage to talk like them (sample player-interview quotes: ''There's no doubt about it, but you can never be sure'' and ''Baseballically, that was perfectionistic'').
The Senators, as a team and as individuals, curse, fornicate, fight, take intelligence tests (sample question: ''I know a few athletes who are a little weird even though they don't know it. A. True. B. False. C. Can't Remember.''), and tell jokes so tasteless they make Lenny Dykstra sound like Noël Coward.
They're men of few words but then, most of them know only a few. And the writers who cover them don't know a great many more. Leavy is nonjudgmental but unsparing about everyone involved in baseball, including Berkowitz herself, who ends up taking her revenge on the male supremacists who rule baseball but not before compromising her own code of ethics. In the end, she discovers that ''big guys tell small girls things they do not tell other guys. I look harmless and it works.''
Not all of Squeeze Play works: Leavy has a lamentable habit of describing her characters by referring to actors, as if she is already casting the movie, and the names she gives them Rump Doubleday, Boo Bailey, Mug Shot Hackett, Rawley Pentacost, and so forth are far too cute. But while Squeeze Play does get too broad, it never lapses into the boozy sentimentality of male sportswriters who go slumming and get sloppy. ''They are old before they are forty,'' A.B. writes of her fallen idols, ''washed up before they begin to be adults. And everybody wants to know why they are such f---ing ---holes.
You can't grow up if you spend your whole life perfecting the rhythms of childhood.'' There's almost enough truth in those words to make me sympathetic to Pete Rose.