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‘Season’ is a true homer

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THE FINAL SEASON, by Tom Stanton; St. Martin's; 248 pages; $23.95.

The dazzling green of the turf under the lights, the city sounds and skyline looming beyond the outfield fence, and the greasy but great food you wouldn't eat anywhere else. Baseball is as much about the setting as it is about the game.

Tom Stanton knows this well. In April 1999, the sportswriter set out to attend all 81 Detroit Tigers home games during their last season at old Tiger Stadium. Sustained by his lifelong attachment to the team and its ballpark, Stanton achieved his goal. He describes it in "The Final Season."

The book is presented in journal form and organized around each game, and much of it consists of the interwoven histories of family and the Tigers. For Stanton, there is no other way to tell either story. He writes, "I could never go to Tiger Stadium without feeling the ghosts of history about me, without imagining my grandpa walking the same dank, dark concourse that ran beneath the stands."

In many ways, Stanton's season-long journey is an attempt to demystify these ghosts. His family snapshots frequently have a searching element to them, as if Stanton is hoping to figure out what makes the men in his family tick by examining them through their relationship to baseball. Perhaps because of his desire to imbue the connection with such meaning, his commentary seems too sentimental and his narrative heavy-handed.

The historical elements of "The Final Season" are juxtaposed with details about the games and the stadium. Here, Stanton is on surer footing, describing players, die-hard fans and stadium workers with the witty, deft touch of an insider. He is at his best when detailing the physical elements of Tiger Stadium:

"In Detroit, the upper deck in right juts 10 feet over the field, like a long theater balcony. It stretches from foul line to dead center and snags fly balls that might otherwise be outs."

These matter-of-fact observations, coupled with Stanton's numerous conversations, add rich layers to the book. They combine to give it a deliberate, unhurried quality that recalls the timelessness of one of the few places in modern society not ruled by the clock — the ballpark.