28 February 2010
The Batboy is Mike Lupica's latest offering for his rabid fan base of young readers. It tells the story of Brian Dudley, who gets a summer job at Comerica Park as the batboy for the Detroit Tigers. Even though he is technically too young for the job, he impresses the Tiger's manager with his persuasive letter of application. Being the son of a former big league pitcher doesn't hurt, either. However, Brian's father is working as a scout in Japan, having been unable to leave baseball behind. He left his family instead. Brian spends much of the book trying to come to terms with his dad's inability to be a father. He is also preoccupied with Hank Bishop, his all-time favorite player, who has rejoined the Tigers after having weathered a steroid scandal and wants nothing to do with the anything or anybody. He only cares about hitting his 500th home run and exorcising his own demons.
What Lupica does best is evoke the rapture that baseball fans experience when they are watching a game. In this book, beside the personal drama, there are marathon slug-fests, tense walk-off thrillers, disappointing close losses, and plenty of references to ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and Hall of Fame greats. And because it is all seen through the eyes of a fourteen year old boy, there is that ageless wonder at the sight of a green diamond and the chance to witness sporting history.
Baseball history--baseball legend--is the subject of two new picture books highlighting heroes from the days long before steroids or ESPN. All Star! Honus Wagner and the Most Famous Baseball Card Ever is by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Jim Burke. The most famous baseball card ever does not get as much coverage as the life of Honus Wagner, although I should point out that I reviewed the book from its galley, in which an empty page entitled "Author's Note" leads me to believe that the final version will include further information about the Honus Wagner baseball card. Readers of the Dan Gutman Baseball Card Adventures series will already be familiar with Honus Wagner, but for some this book about a bowl-legged coal man who set countless baseball records, will be a revelation. You can see a trailer for the book here.
No Easy Way, by Fred Bowen, with illustrations by Charles S. Pyle, has been on my reading radar for some time now. The subtitle of this one is "The Story of Ted Williams and the last .400 season," and in this case the record really is the focus of the book. In particular, Bowen (a proud member of Red Sox Nation) makes a point of explaining to his readers that Ted Williams' .400 season came at the risk of losing it on the last day; when given the option to sit out a season-ending double header with his average at . 39955, which would have been rounded up to .400, Williams said, "If I can't hit .400 all the way, I don't deserve it." He played both games, and the rest, as they say, is history.
As an aside, I for one am hoping for a follow-up book in which Bowen explores Williams' piloting career in World War II. It gets a mention, as does the fact that plenty of other big league players interrupted their careers to fight for their country. The fact that Williams' career is so distinguished emphasizes the theme of this book--there's no easy way to do something right and well. I think the discussion of star athletes who risked their lives to fight in a war would be just as much of a revelation for young readers as the discussion of their baseball records are.
So, until we can play ball, we can read ball!