Heroic hyperboles are o.k. in sportswriting, and Merchant knows enough to stay away from heavy moralizing. He is among the new--well, relatively new--breed that is eager to tackle formerly untouchable subjects: rude money squabbles, Superdomes that dwarf the Roman Coliseum and fleece the taxpayers; athletes like Dick Allen whose heads are screwed up or screwed on wrong; athletes like Cleon Jones who just plain get screwed by paternalistic management. This is Merchant's third book, a collection of his columns from the New York Post spanning a ten-year period. He's generally on the side of the bad boys--Namath, Ali, Jim Bouton, Wilt Chamberlain--the ones who won't toe the line, who get in trouble by offending America's lingering yearning for heroes ""all good and no bad."" ""Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you,"" sang Paul Simon, summing it up about as well as anyone. Merchant, a New York urchin and lifelong Yankee fan, gets a piece of his own here, as does monologist and White Sox lover Jean Shepherd: ""Being a White Sox fan meant measuring victory in terms of defeat. A 6-5 defeat was a good day."" Most affecting is 80-year-old Marianne Moore who named her pet alligator Elston Howard and once threw out the first ball of a new season at Yankee Stadium. More frivolous--Ch. Breac O'Shawn McDown, Irish wolfhound and ambulatory rug. None of this was written for the ages; the best sportswriting never is. But Merchant's prose is sharp like an Ali jab, agile like a Celtics' rush.