We fans see baseball as a mental contest as well as an athletic one: The pitcher choosing a fastball or curveball. The batter sizing up the pitcher. The fielders shading left or right. Now we can get deeper into the mind game with books that get inside the heads of a big-league pitcher, an aspiring umpire and a diehard Yankees fan. Two others spin baseball history. All are a good way to get in shape as the new season takes shape before us, and each serves up a taste of Twins players present or past.

"The Complete Game: Reflections on Baseball, Pitching and Life on the Mound," by Ron Darling (Alfred A. Knopf, 258 pages, $24.95).

In this part memoir, part training manual, All-Star pitcher Darling recalls his teachable moments with the New York Mets and the teams that rounded out his 1983-1995 career. The observations can seem surprisingly simple, as in, "You mess around until you find your pitch, or until it finds you." Or surprisingly complicated, like the "strategy" for throwing at batters.

Darling went from college phenom to disappointing rookie, who didn't start winning until he unlearned what the Texas Rangers taught him. He prospered by combining his intensity with the skills he picked up working out of trouble.

The story unfolds not in chronological order, but in the big moments that Darling lived on the mound and later observed from the press box. He draws on compelling memories from the day of his first start to the conversation with Oakland manager Tony La Russa that ended his career on his 35th birthday. It's an insightful story for anyone who loves the game, particularly for young players.

"As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires," by Bruce Weber (Scribner, 340 pages, $26).

When the manager trots out to argue a call, walk onto the infield grass. That way he can't kick dirt on your shoes. When he gets in your face, keep the bill of your cap under the bill of his. That way he can't "beak" you. When he says the magic word, toss him.

New York Times reporter Bruce Weber learned these tricks as he trained with umpires chasing the dream of calling games in the major leagues. He traveled with young men who put themselves through the motel hell of the rookie leagues, knowing that their odds of success are 100 to 1.

It's a life lived in uniform and strict conformity, where you start out perfect, then work your way down. Where you hope to not make a mistake, but stand your ground if you do. "Is there another line of work -- prison guard, maybe? -- where the workplace is so steeped in hostility? Or where being right is no defense against attack?" Weber asks.

Weber covers the 2006 and 2007 seasons, which included a disastrous strike by minor-league umpires and future Twin Del- mon Young's 50-game suspension for throwing his bat at the home-plate umpire. Weber didn't learn how to be a good umpire, but he did learn some fascinating differences between how fans and umpires watch the same game.

"Confessions of a She-Fan: The Course of True Love With the New York Yankees," by Jane Heller (Rodale Books, 253 pages, $24.95).

"Teams will have ups and downs," a friend tells Heller, "but Yankee fans don't want anything but ups."

Heller is one of those fans. She screams at the TV. She denounces Joe Torre and lousy pitchers. She's obsessed and proud of it -- until she writes an essay for the New York Times about divorcing her beloved team after their dismal start in 2007. She's surprised when other fans question her loyalty.

Heller decides to prove herself by following the Yankees cross-country and writing about the games and the players. But not all goes according to plan. Her account of the summer of 2007 is a cross between the book "Eat Pray Love" and the movie "Roger and Me." She gets tickets to the ballgames, but no access to the Yankees -- not even to the press box.

Relegated to the rafters, she finds her viewpoint changing with her sightlines. She starts to notice the fans for teams such as Kansas City, who come to cheer their Royals, not demand that they win. Something starts to rub off.

Look for former Twins Doug Mientkiewicz and David Ortiz (dissed as "Big Sloppy") to feature prominently.

"The Fifth Season: Tales of My Life in Baseball," by Donald Honig (Ivan R. Dee, 287 pages, $26.95).

Longtime baseball writer and historian Donald Honig has collected the oral histories of baseball's great players. Now he tells his own.

He traces how he became a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, how he did not become a Boston Red Sox pitcher and how instead he became a chronicler of the game he has loved all his life.

His story lacks the charm of Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Wait Till Next Year," but it should appeal to baseball history buffs. Watch for the entertaining visit in Edina with Ossie Bluege, a player from 1922-39.

"This Day in Baseball," by David Nemec and Scott Flatow (Taylor, 330 pages, $15.95).

If it's stats you want, look elsewhere. This is a collection of historical facts and odd information dating to baseball's beginnings. Some you'll know, but most you won't. For example: Feb. 12, 1898: The Sporting News reveals that Phils pitcher George Wheeler is married to one woman while supporting a second under another name.

With so many names and teams, a book like this should have an index. It doesn't, so you'll just have to hunt for Ila Borders pitching for the St. Paul Saints and Billy Martin decking the marshmallow salesman. But they're in there.

Maureen McCarthy is a team leader for the Star Tribune.