Hough (The Guardian, 1975; A Two-Car Funeral, 1973) hits a grand slam with his glorious, bittersweet third novel, about baseball umpiring, personal loyalties, and the confusions of love. The Malcolm kids on Cape Cod are three normal teen-age boys whose mother walked out on them and who have been raised by their quietly desperate alcoholic father (a fine portrait, this). Narrator Lee Malcolm learns about loyalty when older brother Joey douses a malicious rumor that their father is a flasher: ""We don't turn our backs on the Old Man."" Joey dies young in a freak accident, but the golden glow of his memory shapes Lee's character and steels him to resist bullies, on the field and off. The novel's first half tracks Lee through umpire school and the minor leagues in Central Florida (the time is the late 50's), sticking loyally by his buddy Eddie (a real liability as a partner) and his absent high-school sweetheart Para, though here his loyalty cracks when he meets Vicky, a waitress in a strip-joint (""I'm true-blue, and I'm not easy""). The second half focuses on Lee's season in the majors and the uneasy quartet of umpires: Lee; two hard-bitten, macho veterans; and Roy, the overweight loner who is their natural victim. The climax comes when Roy kills himself after his homosexuality is revealed, and Lee, who'd known all along but resisted front-office pressure to tell, is eased out ""for the good of the game."" He does get to keep his girl, though, the true-blue Vicky (he'd cheated on her and swung back to Pam for a while). By turns slyly comic (""The music died, and the stripper broke off in mid-squirm"") and poignant, and always tenderly alive, Hough's novel is a classy addition both to baseball novels (the ball games are models of good sportswriting) and coming-of-age stories.