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Summer Reading for the Sports-Minded

Without noticeably working at being different, here are some sports books that are. They may not fit the mainstream fan to a T, but they bait the hook nicely for those with even a modicum of interest in their subject matter.

THE WORTH BOOK OF SOFTBALL: A CELEBRATION OF AMERICA'S TRUE NATIONAL PASTIME, by Paul Dickson, photographs by Russell Mott (Facts on File, 276 pp., $22.95). Two years before softball makes its Olympic debut (as a women's event) in Atlanta, a well-researched and timely overview of the sport has marched to the plate.

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``The Worth Book of Softball'' seeks to escape baseball's shadow with its title. Paul Dickson has written the book for Facts on File, so naturally there is no shortage of information, including an inviting records section compiled by the Amateur Softball Association. There are plenty of photos, but none in color, a disappointment.

A grant from Worth Inc., a Tullahoma, Tenn., company that is the leading manufacturer of softball equipment in the United States, helped underwrite this project. The book, however, is no ad.

Softball's status as a quintessential participant sport owes partly to the fact that it is so adaptable. To accommodate different tastes, it has developed two major branches - fast-pitch and slow-pitch. Fast-pitch, which is what the women will play in the Olympics, is characterized by lightning-fast deliveries and low-scoring games. Slow-pitch, which has grown tremendously in the last 25 years and now boasts a 90 percent share of the US adult softball-playing population, is a hitter's paradise. Twenty or more home runs are not unusual in a single game of high-caliber slow-pitch.

THE COACH'S WIFE: A NOTRE DAME MEMOIR, by Teresa Godwin Phelps (W.W. Norton & Co., 255 pp., $23). The wives of male college coaches are often invisible. Not Teresa Godwin Phelps, a Hillary Rodham Clinton-type partner to her husband Richard (Digger) Phelps, who coached the University of Notre Dame's men's basketball team for 20 years until resigning in 1991. Teresa continues to have her own career on campus as a tenured professor in the law school. She was able to observe her husband's career and university life from a special vantage point, while at times participating directly in his activities.

In ``The Coach's Wife,'' she tells how heartbreaking athlete recruitment can be for one who assisted in this area, expounding on the school's academic reputation to recruits. Once, she vowed she was finished with recruiting. ``It hurts too much to be rejected'' by potential students, she said at the time. A year later, however, she was helping again.

The ``auction mentality'' at a summer basketball camp she visited for top high school players was particularly disturbing to Phelps. The camp bore the name of a major sneaker manufacturer, one of several that pay coaches to be their ``representatives.'' Income from this source, she reports, allowed the Phelpses to buy a summer cottage on Lake Michigan - a fact of life in major college coaching circles.

Despite her husband's success at Notre Dame, the couple became disillusioned with a new athletic administration at the school. Since leaving Notre Dame, Digger Phelps has worked as a basketball analyst for CBS and ESPN.

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GOLF BY DESIGN: HOW TO LOWER YOUR SCORE BY READING THE FEATURES OF A COURSE, by Robert Trent Jones Jr. (Little, Brown and Co., 276 pp., $35). Golf-course architects are the phantoms of the fairways, the unseen framers of the field of play. Robert Trent Jones Jr., the designer of more than 150 courses around the world, says the golfer's challenge is to decipher what the architect's intention was and to proceed accordingly. By formulating an intelligent playing strategy, Jones claims, golfers pave the way to having more fun and lowering their scores.

The discussion of design styles (strategic, penal, and heroic), the selection of fairway configurations, and the choice of grasses and sands obviously is meant to appeal to those with a deep and abiding interest in shotmaking.

Weekend flailers might find the detailed explanations a bit much. Readers who complete this ``course,'' however, will head to the first tee knowing about bunkers, mowing patterns, and some favorite optical illusions used by designers.

SPORTSWRITER: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GRANTLAND RICE, by Charles Fountain (Oxford University Press, 327 pp., $25). In today's world, sports media stars are recognizable for their voices and their faces. In Grantland Rice's day, the written word was everything, and Rice was the chief purveyor of word pictures and commentary on the American sports scene. During a 53-year career, Rice worked for newspapers in Atlanta, New York, and Nashville, and was an eyewitness to many of the major events that shaped the rise of America's sports culture during the first half of the 20th century.

Charles Fountain devotes an entire chapter to the ``most famous `lead' in sports journalism history,'' Rice's 1924 description of a football game that immortalized Notre Dame's backfield: ``Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again.'' Rice, who singlehandedly named the All-American college football team for many years, also penned the famous lines of poetry, ``For when the one Great Scorer comes to write against your name,/ He marks - not that you won or lost - but how you played the Game.''

Fountain meticulously chronicles Rice's career, sometimes to a degree that casual readers may find excessive. But the account provides a useful and often fascinating window on a simpler, more poetic era in sports. Fountain shows how Rice elevated his craft, yet bluntly concludes that Rice's ``florid style and unfailingly upbeat assessment of all that he witnessed would doom him to deserved obscurity'' among today's generation of sports journalists.

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