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Book News

A take on baseball from out of left field

'Slouching Toward Fargo'
by Neil Karlen

Avon Books, $23

Review by L.D. Meagher

July 20, 1999
Web posted at: 4:40 p.m. EDT (2040 GMT)

(CNN) -- Take a cynical, burned-out, flat-broke former celebrity reporter. Add an oddball collection of baseball has-beens and never-weres. Season with an offbeat movie star and a major league pariah. Mix them together and bake under the heat of a Minnesota summer. The resulting confection is "Slouching Toward Fargo."

Writer Neil Karlen has cashed in whatever chips he had amassed as a contributor to "Rolling Stone" and moved home to St. Paul. A failed marriage has soured him on life in general and baseball in particular. So why on earth has he accepted an assignment to cover the local minor league team? Because he needs the money. As Karlen tells it, the magazine wants a particular kind of story. It would focus not on the team itself, but on one of its owners, actor Bill Murray. "Rolling Stone" has been sharpening its hatchet for Murray ever since he portrayed the magazine's iconoclastic icon Hunter S. Thompson in the movie "Where the Buffalo Roam." The editors make it clear to Karlen they want a piece that portrays Murray "as some sort of Hollywood-style Howard Hughes, cut off from his own world, able to find peace only in the middle of nowhere."

That's not the Murray Karlen finds in St. Paul. If anything, the movie star seems deeply connected to his world. It's just that his world also encompasses cozy little Midway Stadium, home of the St. Paul Saints, a team in the bushest of bush leagues. And Murray is not even the most colorful of the characters attached to the team. There's also Darryl Strawberry, the troubled slugger who has been banished from the bigs. And Mike Veeck, who still carries the stigma of his infamous promotion, "Disco Demolition Night," which cast a shadow over his father's Chicago White Sox that almost rivals the stain of the 1919 World Series scandal.

Through much of the book, Karlen recounts how he is struggling with the decision about whether he will write an article trashing Murray, Strawberry and company. Somehow, it seems an empty exercise. Almost from the moment he first arrives at Midway Stadium, Karlen is caught up in the happy-go-lucky spirit of the Saints. How can one not love a team with the motto "Fun is Good"?

His posturing to the contrary, the writer is really looking for redemption -- for those and for himself. Along the way, he collects enough wacky anecdotes, chronicles enough rowdy behavior and meets enough comely Midwestern women to fill a made-for-cable comedy.

From pseudo-sumo wrestling to Eleanor Mondale dancing the macarena to the nun who gives fans massages during the games, "Slouching Toward Fargo" offers a take on baseball from out of left field. Sometimes self-loathing, sometimes self-mocking, Karlen conducts the reader on a tour of the Northern League that's one part Roger Kahn, one part Jim Bouton, and one part Jack Kerouac. For anyone who has spent a summer evening swilling brews and swatting insects in a minor league park, there's a lot to like in this book. Perhaps it won't bring you redemption. But, like the minor league game itself, it will provide a refreshing brand of entertainment.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for 30 years.

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