Saturday, June 6, 2015

Novelist Beard connects with 'Swing'

"[T]he man next to me seems to have grown out of the sidewalk, with only his torso having emerged so far. He is hip-deep in the concrete and looks as though he has been there forever, waiting for a young King Arthur, me perhaps, to pull him free. He is a man; there is no doubting that, even though I am looking down at him."

Thus is eleven-year-old Henry Graham introduced to three-foot-tall Korean War veteran John Kostka, sawed off just below the torso. Only he can't tell anyone about his encounter, because he should have been on his way home from school instead of waiting for the bus to pick him up outside of Three Rivers Stadium. The year is 1971, Henry's Pittsburgh Pirates are on the brink of the World Series, and with his childhood coming apart at the seams his team is his only constant.

Henry's father, who was supposed to have taken him to the game against the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series, has just left, trading in his wife for a younger model. Henry fills the sudden void in his life with his mysterious new acquaintance, who scoots down the sidewalk on his fists, swinging his truncated body forward on his powerful arms.

It's the power of his personality that wins Henry. Never for a moment does his handicap seem to diminish his zest for living. Their friendship flourishes as the Pirates battle the Baltimore Orioles for baseball's crown in the World Series and deepens over the ensuing year, leaving an imprint so indelible the boy carries it well into adulthood, long after their paths have separated.

Philip Beard's Swing opens with Henry receiving notice of John's death, a formal invitation at the direction of the deceased to what sounds more like a party than a funeral. Now grown, with a wife and two children of his own, Henry isn't optimistic he'll be able to attend. But as the novel unfolds on twin tracks, one following Henry's childhood, the other detailing a week in the present, Henry's attending John's funeral is one of the few things the reader can bank on happening.

While the Pirates are central to young Henry's life, their grip recedes long before he meets his wife, whose battle with breast cancer occupies infinitely more real estate in his adult mind. Now settled 500 miles north of Pittsburgh in upstate New York, Henry has followed in his father's footsteps as an academic, teaching English and writing at a small college. Despite his lifelong habit of doing the opposite of whatever he figures his father would in any given situation, he finds himself struggling when faced with similar temptations.

Beard does a fantastic job of weaving the storylines, building tension particularly as the present-day story climaxes. He distinguishes the two by point of view, telling young Henry's tale in the first person and adult Henry's in third person, an alternating vantage that feels awkward for a moment early on, but slips seamlessly into the background by the third or fourth chapter. In hindsight, it's a necessary device to be able to fully include Henry's wife and teen daughter in the current-day story.

It's hardly unusual for new baseball novels to boast some kind of comparison with Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, and indeed the back cover of Swing contains such language. They're such different stories, however, that the parallel doesn't extend much beyond "baseball novel with way more to it." While the sport is central to Swing, it's really a story of family, loss, love, and plumbing the depths of our own character. Would we do as Henry does? Can we even say, without having confronted the same temptations?

Monday, August 25, 2014

Watching the Game from the Miracle Mets to Red Sox Nation

Baseball seduces its fans one at a time, speaking to them in whispers and shouts, its volume and language suited to each individual. Some follow in the footsteps of parents or older siblings, inheriting a love for a team or player. Some find the game on their own, seeking brotherhood among a community of strangers. Some love to play it, some love to watch it, some love to crunch numbers and debate the merits of men long dead.

Judy Lynn Johnson first heard the game speaking to her as a girl, when she and a childhood friend whiled away summer afternoons in New Jersey flipping baseball cards across the hardwood floor of her back hallway. Her best friend Janet, like so many others in the neighborhood, pulled for the powerhouse Yankees, while Judy cherished cardboard squares featuring the new kids on the block, the Mets. Mining her bubblegum cards for facts, she learned she shared a birthday with Ed Kranepool, and fell in love with the young first baseman, 10 years her senior. As she describes her crush in her memoir, Watching The Game: Meditations from a Woman’s Heart, it’s no less reasonable than any other childhood fantasy. Other girls may have fallen for actors or singers, she fixated on a slugging infielder.

The game grabbed hold of her tight, turning Florida vacations into Grapefruit League pilgrimages and transposing her and her classmates into pretend Mets when they took the field during gym class. It ironically relaxed its grip just as her team peaked in the fall of 1969, when the boys on her baseball cards gave way to boys in her hometown as high school football and its local heroes stole her affections. Shortly after celebrating the Miracle Mets’ championship, she cast the game aside to cultivate her interest in the theater and her academics. Even a random college date to Fenway Park couldn’t rekindle the flame. In the ensuing decade she’d go years at a stretch without watching a single game.

The game found her again far, far from her roots, in Palo Alto, Calif., where her Mets landed on her television one afternoon—and stayed there, thanks to a cable package that included Channel 9 WOR-TV and broadcaster Ralph Kiner. Now grown, an English professor married to a doctor, she reclaimed her team just in time for another title run, this time over the hard-luck Boston Red Sox, coincidentally, the team of her future.

Johnson and her growing family returned to the East Coast, this time to Cape Cod, deep in the heart of Red Sox Nation. A special night out was a trip to Fenway with one of her three children, several of which she recaps in great detail, including the game she fretted away, distraught about losing her wallet. A night salvaged when two young strangers provided dinner for her and her famished eight-year-old son. A night that slid back into the good memories column when a Fenway employee flagged her down on her way out of the stadium to share the happy news: Her wallet was found, contents intact.

“Our night at Fenway wasn’t about the money,” she writes. “It was never about money. It was about loss and surprises, kindness and grace, hot dogs in the media room, and being alive again after feeling like death. It was running across Yawkey Way after a Red Sox victory, feeling happy on a school night, and saying to my boy, ‘Let’s go get that Johnny Damon shirt!’ I remember how happily we walked along Lansdowne Street one beautiful evening in May, my baseball boy still glad to hold my hand under the Citgo sign, and the ballpark shining to light our way.”

Johnson writes lyrically, recapping memories of evenings watching major leaguer stars as well as less formal affairs featuring collegiate heroes summering in the Cape Cod League. Diamonds are her best friend, wherever they are laid out. Daughter of an ordained Dutch Reformed minister, baseball rivals only her love of her family and her religion, both of which are woven throughout. Most chapters open with a snippet of scripture (though Shakespeare and Ken Burns, among others, work their way into these leadoff spots as well). It’s a personal blend that makes Johnson’s story her own, unique to her, while also touching upon themes that entice so many other fans coming from so many other backgrounds.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A change in focus

As regular visitors will no doubt have noticed, this site has not been kept up much lately. Over the past year I've shifted my focus to my own writing, particularly my new novel, Nine Bucks a Pound, which I released this week. With a finite number of hours available to me each week, it grew harder and harder to devote them to reading and writing about other people's books. I'm also less comfortable reviewing other writers' babies, now that I have two of my own to focus on.

And I can't deny there was something of a burnout factor over the past year. I saw a lot of books that reminded me of books I had reviewed a year or two earlier. I found myself spending more and more of my reading time on *gasp* non-baseball books. As a fiction writer I actually prefer reading fiction as well, as it helps me improve my own writing.

For now, this site will remain, as a reference for readers (and a target for Russian and Chinese spybots, who seem to make up a disproportionately large chunk of my audience). I may post an occasional update from time to time, but for the most part I'll be working on new projects. Right now I have a short story I need to finish drafting and a third novel to develop.

If you enjoy baseball novels, by the way, please give my new one a look. Here's the description from Amazon:

For every A-Rod or Manny Ramirez seeking to boost his game to elite levels via illegal means, there have been scores of unheralded players toiling in the minor leagues, desperate to impress the brass enough to simply survive and advance. Young men who have dreamed of playing in the big leagues since they were old enough to swing a bat. When their natural ability alone isn't enough, the black and white blurs to gray, their fear of getting caught using banned substances outweighed by a more consuming fear of failure.

Three seasons into his professional career, Del Tanner can read the writing on the wall. A contact hitter at a power position, he recognizes his days in the Twins organization are numbered if he can't match the production of the other first basemen in the system. When his aspiring agent suggests he try steroids, Del makes a choice that will shadow him for the rest of his career.

In his second novel, James Bailey (The Greatest Show on Dirt, 2012) humanizes the players fans are so often quick to demonize. Nine Bucks a Pound ponders life on baseball's fringe and the dreams that tempt a young man to heed the devil on his shoulder.'s Jayson Stark says, "Bailey hasn't just given us a great read. He's given us an important window into a topic we can't seem to stop talking about." Adds Russell Rowland, author of High and Inside, "Bailey expertly explores how the desire to succeed at any price can lead to unexpected consequences, mostly involving a man's relationships with others, not to mention with his own conscience. This is a powerful story about the perils of success at any price."


Sunday, September 29, 2013

Kaplan's 501 a bucket list for baseball bibliophiles

Baseball fans love to generate bucket lists of places they'll go and things they'll do before they pass on. Visit the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., catch a game in Fenway Park, experience the College World Series in Omaha, or even go back in time in Birmingham, Ala., at one of historic Rickwood Field's annual Rickwood Classics.

Ron Kaplan has compiled a bucket list for bibliophiles, 501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die. You can journey to anywhere in the baseball universe from the comfort of your favorite armchair and experience the game from the perspective of a player, manager, scout, beat reporter, umpire, or photographer.

Baseball book enthusiasts may be familiar with Kaplan from his website, Ron Kaplan's Baseball Bookshelf (, where he has been blogging about the sport's literature and other related topics since 2006. With thousands of posts on countless hundreds of books (he also writes about movies and baseball paraphernalia on occasion), he has established himself as the go-to resource for reviews on books new and old alike.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Return from war was challenging both on field and off

After four long years of war, America was ready to heal in 1946. Baseball figured to be a central player in the return to normalcy as people flocked to ballparks to welcome back their heroes, most of whom had swapped their flannels for fatigues.

The action on the field proved worth the wait, with a dramatic pennant race in the National League en route to a classic seven-game World Series that was settled by Enos Slaughter's legendary race around the bases. But the sport proved to be just as susceptible to the turmoil as every other aspect of American life, as Robert Weintraub captures in The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball's Golden Age.

With nearly a million and a half soldiers being discharged every month, communities were unable to reabsorb all the young men returning home. Housing shortages left hundreds of thousands homeless. Production of food and goods failed to keep up with demand. And workers in virtually every field struck for better pay and improved working conditions.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Q&A with "High and Inside" author Russell Rowland

High and Inside, Russell Rowland's third novel, and first on baseball, is new out this month from Bangtail Press. It's the story of Pete Hurley, a relief pitcher whose career comes to an abrupt halt after an errant fastball nearly kills an opposing hitter. Already inclined to drink, Hurley's alcohol problems escalate and his erratic behavior undercuts his relationships with those who love him. Desperate for a fresh start, he follows his older sister to Montana, where he finally confronts the issues that have forced his life off the tracks. It's an interesting and well-told story, by a veteran author and Montana native, who paints a vivid picture of life in Big Sky Country.

I caught up with Russell Rowland for a Q&A session, via e-mail. Here is our conversation: 

JB: High and Inside was more than 20 years in the making. Can you tell me a little of the history there?
RR: This started as a short story that was based on a story a friend of mine told me. When she was a kid, she had a crush on one of her brother's friends, who was a big guy that drank a lot. One day he was at their house, and he was so drunk he started to pass out, and she ran over to try and catch him, even though he was huge and she was a skinny little twelve-year-old. I thought it was an amazing show of how much she loved this guy, so I wrote a story about it. I sent it to the Atlantic Monthly, where I had done an internship when I was in grad school, and Mike Curtis, the fiction editor, told me he thought it felt more like a novel than a short story. So I expanded it into a novel, and spent the next twenty years refining and changing it. Three different agents tried to sell it, but none of them could find a publisher that would take it on. I always thought that was pretty interesting, that three well-known agents thought it was good enough to get published, but no editors. It says a lot about how unpredictable this business is. Finally, I pitched it to Bangtail Press, which seemed like a perfect fit because they're located in Bozeman, where the novel takes place. Thankfully, Allen Jones liked it enough to publish it.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Fidrych's love of game, life bursts through in The Bird

I was only seven years old when Mark Fidrych broke into the major leagues, setting baseball on its collective ear with his zany antics and darting fastball. I hadn't yet been caught up by the baseball bug, and even living in western Michigan, I wasn't in the loop on the Bird. In fact, I have a distinct memory of talking baseball cards with a couple of kids on the school bus in second or third grade. One of them asked if I had the Bird. I thought he meant Doug Bird. He thought I was an idiot.

By the time I fell absolutely head over heels for the game, Fidrych was on his way out, victim of what years later proved to be a torn rotator cuff though at the time was chalked up to shoulder tendinitis. He battled for several more seasons, spending the last three years of his career pitching in Triple-A before finally hanging it up in 1983. Even in the minors he drew crowds, though it was nothing like the packed houses he played as a rookie, when he won 19 games for a bad Tigers squad and led the American League in ERA.