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Novel of `the last word' in baseball

The Conduct of the Game, by John Hough Jr. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 340 pp. $14.95 If you've ever wanted to be an umpire, and I suspect there are many more out there than will admit it, you'll find ``The Conduct of the Game'' intriguing in places. Our hero works his way up through the Class A league to the majors, showing that, by George, umpires are people, too. The best parts of this novel are his experiences in Umpire School (there are such places). There, he learns that umpires back each other up, that they have to anticipate even more than the players and that they need unfathomable reserves of patience, nerve, and, beyond everything else, conviction. There are survival rules, too: Be stationary when making a call, the head of the school tells him. If you're moving, the picture blurs. Never confer with another umpire after a close call -- it will look like you are seeking assurance. And never say to a player, ``One more word and you're out of here!'' Guaranteed, he will say one more word.

Then, of course, there's knowing the game, having the rule book as firmly in your mind as your own name. The umpire's job, his ``role,'' is to be the last word, the only word. It's not accidental in the drama of the game that umpires are dressed in black, something like hanging judges; even on the hottest day, they don't feel the heat like the rest of us humans. They are the heat.

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The book's attention to baseball is its best feature. There's a story of love and death and friendship and all those other things drifting around harmlessly between games for those of you who need a story, but we would-be umpires get enough drama on the field.

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