Friday, June 10, 2011

Clear a spot on the scrapheap of ludicrous baseball fiction for new Little League satire

Youth sports, in all flavors, are frequently not the bastion of innocence we typically wish they were. Coaches and parents entrusted with molding young men and women too often prove unworthy role models, making Little League Baseball fertile ground for a good lampooning.

Scott Gummer, who has coached kids at a variety of levels, trained his sights on these out-of-control adults in Parents Behaving Badly, a novel that takes ludicrous behavior to the extreme. Gummer zings everyone and everything connected to youth baseball in a story that reads as something of a cross between "Desperate Housewives" and The Bad News Bears.

Ben Holden, the hero of the tale, has just moved back to Palace Valley, California, with his wife and three kids after a long stint on the East Coast. Most of his old classmates never left. When his boys, ages 12 and 6, turn out for Little League, Ben is reunited with old friend and foe alike, each measuring their self-worth vicariously through their children's sports. After the bully in charge of his older son's team is suspended for kicking his own son following a loss, Ben volunteers to take over as coach, with the devious motive of making the sport fun for the kids again. The team loses nearly every game, causing a near riot among the parents, who finally all see the light after a close loss in the season finale.

There's certainly a laudable message in there. Unfortunately, it's not enough to save the book. The story is stocked with clich├ęd characters straight out of mediocre sitcom central casting, from Ben's hard-nosed father "Coach," who skippered the local high school squad for 50 years until dying of a heart attack shortly after his son's return, to his immature and somewhat idiotic older brother Fred, to the MILF ultrasound technician whose attempts to seduce Ben briefly threaten his marriage.

Del Mann, the coach of the 12-year-olds' team, is so over the top in his win-or-else mentality that he's essentially a caricature of the worst that youth sports could ever offer-at least until his miraculous and instantaneous late-season transformation after Ben threatens to out him for crapping on the principal's desk as a high school prank, one of greatest scandals and unsolved mysteries in Palace Valley history. On the flip side, we have the too-good-to-be-true major league superstar Homer King (his real name!), the highest paid player in baseball, who was taken in by Coach as a 16-year-old after his loser father killed his mom. Not just a great ballplayer, Homer is also People magazine's sexiest man alive. Much later in the story, for no apparent reason, he comes out of the closet as a homosexual and is never referenced again.

Too many characters, and too much of the action, seem to have been introduced for the sole purpose of setting up a punch line. In the first chapter alone (11 pages), we meet 23 named characters (24 including the family dog), some of whom we never see again after chapter two. Most splash onto the scene with a one para intro, which concludes in a joke of some sort. Typical is Ben's pansy brother-in-law, Paul Aycock, who somehow grew up without learning the proper way to hold a football. His main function seems to be setting up a potential side-splitter of a hyphenated last name, Holden-Aycock. (Thank God he was able to talk his wife into reversing that one. Whew.) The audio version should come with a drummer, banging out a rimshot on every third sentence. Some of the lines are humorous, but too many are familiar, and on the whole the flow is disrupted by this pattern.

In stretching too far for a cheap laugh, Gummer reminds us too frequently that this isn't a real universe inhabited by real people. Yes, it's possible a kid could tweet "This party blows, but Tommy's mommy's a hottie!" Less likely that he would be six years old (and spell every word correctly). Still less likely that Tommy's sister Kate, 14, would happen to be following him on Twitter and see it, especially given she has no idea who he is.

Of course, the six-year-olds may be a little more advanced in Palace Valley than in other towns. Ben's son Tommy writes and reads a touching speech at his grandfather's funeral. Later, during baseball tryouts, he catches all three fly balls hit to him in center field, including one Willie Mays style, and cleanly picks all three ground balls he takes at short-though he did throw one away. He also rakes line drives in his tryout at-bats. Given he's something of a speech-writing and baseball savant, perhaps we shouldn't discount the possibility that his kindergarten pals might have a large Twitter following.

Several other baseball details simply don't add up. Ben's son Andrew, who was eager to go out for Little League despite displaying little acumen for the game, is set up as bottom-of-the-order, rally-killing fodder. In the first game of the season, he outrages his coach by failing to drop a bunt, instead grounding weakly to first for the second out of the inning. The only problem, there had already been a double play on a drive to center that was caught and fired home to gun down a runner at the plate. (Not only did the coach, who tolerates no mistakes from his players, lose track of how many were out, so did the author.) So in love are they with the bunt play that they try again with the next hitter, the team's token girl, with two (actually three) outs. Andrew is entrusted to pitch late in a subsequent game because the "bottom half" of the opposing team's order is due up. The first batter walks, the next two make outs, then he gives up a single, bringing up the No. 8 hitter. For those doing the math, the bottom half of that order started with the cleanup hitter.

Another inconsistency that should have been caught by an editor somewhere along the line: Ben's barfing on a kid's face when he was 12, "before the advent of camcorders," yet having been humiliated by a clip of him getting kicked in the mouth and knocked unconscious by his future wife during an elementary school play that wound up on "America's Funniest Home Videos," a cruel turn that "made brilliant video for early adopter parents with toaster-sized camcorders." Which is it? Did they exist yet or not?

As long as I'm piling on, there are numerous places throughout the book where Gummer switches point of view from one paragraph to the next. The general rule for fiction: one POV per scene. We typically view a scene from one person's eyes. They can't know what's inside the mind of the guy across the room (or diamond). Within one three-paragraph span in the ninth chapter we move through no less than five POVs, a most egregious-and dizzying-case of "head-hopping."

Apologies if I've gotten too picayune here for some, but I had hopes for this one, which was released by an imprint of Simon & Schuster and touted on the cover by the likes of Tom Perrotta. It feels like Gummer is trying to emulate writers like Perrotta or Jonathan Tropper at times, but he just doesn't pull it off. The "youth sports should be fun" message is too deeply buried in sophomoric humor and sexual angst (from the parents, not the kids) to work. Stripped to its core there's a story here that could resonate. Like the blundered two-out bunt attempt, it's just not executed.

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