04/03/2008 11:00PM

Two new books worth reading


There is a sneaking suspicion that ESPN's resident dry wit Kenny Mayne is more than a little familiar with the 18th century English writer William Godwin, who once flatly stated that "nothing is more uncertain, more contradictory, more unsatisfactory than the evidence of facts."

In that spirit, Mayne has descended from his electronic pedestal in order to present unsuspecting readers with his first book, "An Incomplete & Inaccurate History of Sport," complete with an asterisk that leads to the explanatory subtitle, "With random thoughts from childhood. And with random thoughts from times other than childhood . . ."

(As wordy titles go, this rivals, but does not surpass, "The Life and strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver'd by Pyrates. Written by Himself.")

But I digress. So what. Digression is the mother's milk of Mayne's stream-of-consciousness journey through his robust sporting life, which began as a middle-class kid with football fantasies living in suburban Seattle and led inevitably to eye shadow and glitter as host of "DanceCenter," featured on "Dancing With the Stars."

There is a chapter about Mayne's experience on "DWTS" as a contestant (he lasted one dance), but the book mostly sticks to more traditional forms of fun and games, including jai alai, snowball fighting, and tetherball. Horse racing gets three chapters, giving it the same relative weight in the Kenny Mayne universe as golf, tackle football, and wiffle ball.

"Horse racing is the second-greatest sport next to tackle football and everyone knows this" is the way Mayne put it. But don't be misled. For Mayne, the second-greatest sport is not simply horse racing. It is betting on horses who just happen to be racing that afternoon that stirs his competitive soul. He blames it all on Uncle Gordy, the man who introduced him to Longacres and "taught me lessons about risk and reward long before I heard trainer Nick Zito say, 'You can't even lose if you don't enter.' "

If you skip right to the horse racing chapters (guilty), you have to go back to get Mayne's twisted takes on badminton (". . .not as cool as tackle football but you usually don't break your femur as often"), carnival games ("It takes just as much skill to land a dime on a greasy plate as it does to land a four-foot putt, yet no one is questioning whether Tiger is an athlete"), and dodgeball ("The game is known chiefly for the devastating effect it had on underdeveloped seventh-graders").

There is also a Foreward, a Backwords, and a Forward, written by Larry Bird, as well as psycho-therapeutic ramblings about tipping, Starbucks, and how he landed the gig at ESPN, which eventually led to this book. And because Mayne does not take himself seriously - nor sports, for that matter, except for their undeniable impact on the culture and his ankle - it comes as somewhat of a relief when he drops the act long enough to write from the heart about his father, his daughters, and the death of his twin sons.

Kurt Vonnegut never wrote a book about sports. This one will do just fine.

Joe Hernandez, man behind the voice

Meanwhile, on Sunday at Santa Anita Park, Rudolph Alvarado will be signing copies of his biography, "The Untold Story of Joe Hernandez: The Voice of Santa Anita."

Alvarado's journey from inspiration to print is worth a separate sidebar (the Jesuits were involved as enablers). But in the end, the work must stand on its own, and tackling the saga of Joe Hernandez, the Joe DiMaggio of race callers, was daunting enough, given the fact that Hernandez himself was secretive about his own early years.

Hernandez called 15,587 consecutive Santa Anita races from the track's opening day on Christmas of 1934, to the afternoon of Jan. 27, 1972, when he collapsed at the microphone halfway through the first race of the day and died from a heart attack five days later.

Although Joe Hernandez exists primarily in the mists of racing history as the voice who described Seabiscuit's three Santa Anita Handicaps, the epic duels of Noor and Citation, and Johnny Longden's last, spectacular ride, Alvarado's extensive research offers an expanded image of Hernandez as a flamboyant sports reporter, a Hollywood demi-celebrity, radio personality, and successful bloodstock agent, while providing any number of tasty vignettes along the way. Among them is the lethal daylight robbery in 1929 of the Caliente money shipment after the races, witnessed by Hernandez, who was heading home to San Diego after calling the card. And while Hernandez was undoubtedly a star, he was not infallible, and the current generation of race callers can take comfort in the fact that Joe once called an entire race incorrectly. He was on the wrong program page.

It is too bad that Alvarado's work had to be so heavily annotated, in the manner of a textbook. There's nothing worse than tiny numbers - 597 of them, to be precise - sprinkled like dandruff to break the reading flow. But this drawback is countered by the inclusion of a CD, courtesy of Santa Anita Park, containing a rich selection of Hernandez calls, including the fateful last.