Tag Archives: baseball

Old Friends

“How terribly strange to be 70… Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” Paul Simon (“Old Friends”)

The Last Perfect Summer: A Novel by Ed Prence (Windy City Publishers, $12.99, 166 pages)

Then I paused for a minute. “Harry,” I said finally, “do you remember who you were?” “I was a baseball player?”

That passage right there from page 36 of Ed Prence’s sparse 166-page novel The Last Perfect Summer is the essence of the story.

This book is for anybody who still remembers what the term “ghost runner” means. It for those who remember “fastpitch” against the wall, overhand lob with a chain-link home run fence, and whiffle ball batting your favorite team’s line up from both sides of the plate. It is for those who’ve played it as well as those who love it.

In the story, Ted Tresh visits former Little League teammate Harry Kirkland in a care facility in which Harry is essentially condemned to die. Having lived for over a decade with other patients in similar but varying states of need and/or dementia, he’s had fewer than a handful of visitors. Harry lives in his own world of despair and confusion. When childhood friend Ted shows up for an extended visit, memories of the grand old game rekindle a semblance of life in the former cocksure Little League superstar.

Last Perfect Summer

As Ted reminisces with Harry about the good times from their banner Little League season, he detects sparks of humanity within Harry’s tortured being. Ted enjoys the afternoon, and, believing he is doing some good, stays for an extended period of time. In the end, Ted leaves the once-hopeful encounter disillusioned, and, when Harry’s fate is sealed years later, Ted legitimately cannot attend the funeral. Based on how this passage is written, while distressed on the one hand, it is likely that, deep down, Ted would not, or could have not have attended even if he were able.

The structure of the book alternates episodes from the story of their childhood and championship run and Ted and Harry’s visit. The relationship between the two characters is not only central to the story but the strength of the book. While the specific tales that bind them together are necessary, there might be a better way to get at them than alternating which disrupts the flow of the most powerful aspects of the tale. There are highlights in which certain points are made to great effect, but this is not consistently true.

When I was a kid, I visited family friend and former major leaguer and minor league home run king Joe Hauser periodically to keep him company and pass some time. Several times a year I heard the stories about Walter Johnson’s fastball and how much of a “sunuvabitch” Ty Cobb was. “Unser Choe” (Our Joe) was a local hero. He told endless stories, squinting at us through his pale blue eyes while chomping on his cigar. He came over on Christmas Day, always dapper with suit and tie and his remaining hair combed perfectly. Nobody parked near him in the retirement home after his 80th birthday passed or on our entire street in front of our house on Christmas Day. It wasn’t so easy for him to navigate the old Buick anymore, you know. And the tears over his departed wife came easily. Gradually, Joe drifted off into his own world and, then, he left us.

The Last Perfect Summer may not be a great “book,” but it’s a darn good story. Give me a good story any day. Rekindle a memory any time. Where would we be without either? Remember while you can.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was received from the author. Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

The Last Perfect Summer is available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download.

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Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)

One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and A Magical Baseball Season by Chris Ballard (Hyperion, $24.95, 254 pages)

“He loved us boys…  He loved us, and we loved him – and we still do.”   Steve Shartzer on Macon high’s former baseball coach Lynn Sweet

One Shot at Forever proves that Bad News Bears stories do happen in real life.   This is the tale of the 1971 high school baseball team from the rust belt town of Macon, Illinois.   The Macon team represented the smallest high school to ever qualify for the Illinois state championship playoff, and they did it not once, but two years in a row.   The talented team with the mismatched uniforms and an unconventional coach (he was said to look like a hung-over version of Frank Zappa) was headed to Peoria in 1970, before being disqualified on a strange technicality.   It looked like the underdog’s day was over, until the slight, long-haired players very improbably made another championship run in ’71.

The boys from Macon adopted Jesus Christ Superstar as their theme song, and they made it all the way to the state championship final game.   Did they win or lose the big game?   You’ll need to read One Shot to find out.

Chris Ballard has produced a great, small but big, book about life’s lessons and the value of competition.   This one’s especially recommended for younger readers whose wins, losses and draws are still ahead of them.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “A beautiful and unforgettable book.”   Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights.

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A review of One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and A Magical Baseball Season by Chris Ballard.

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Shine On

The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris by Mark Kurlansky (Riverhead Trade, $16.00, 352 pages)

The Eastern Stars, subtitled How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris, by Mark Kurlansky, chronicles the evolution of baseball in this town, the island in general, and – in some cases – the surrounding Caribbean islands.

At its conclusion, the book has a listing of the first 79 players from San Pedro de Macoris that made it into the U.S./Canadian major leagues.   Many readers will likely assume this book has more baseball content and less history, and from the middle toward the end, baseball plays a more prominent role in the story.   The beginning of the book is a long history lesson, which may prove to be quite frustrating for some readers.

The most interesting parts of the book are the tales of how the local men who did succeed in playing major league baseball viewed their hometown.   The decisions they made during and after their careers relating to how they supported the needs of their families and brethren had outcomes ranging from remarkable generosity to outright dismissal.

Extreme poverty is the one common denominator affecting all.   The subjects of steroids, scouts, and how MLB organizations handled their affairs in Latin America also permeate throughout.

The book dances between trying to satisfy the history buffs and the baseball fans and, thus, falls short in both areas.   However, it does add up to a satisfying story, especially after it manages to leave the ground.   Recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Mark Kurlansky is also the author of the nonfiction books Cod and Salt. 

Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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A review of The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris by Mark Kurlansky.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Trading Manny: How a Father and a Son Learned to Love Baseball Again by Jim Gullo.

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Summer of ’68

Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball – and America – Forever by Tim Wendel (Da Capo, $25.00, 288 pages)

“…in 1968, we of the pitching profession came as close to perfect as we’ve ever come in modern times.”   Bob Gibson

There’s a reason the phrase “inside baseball” has come to be used.   And the phrase represents the problems with trying to determine who will want to read the rather awkwardly titled Summer of ’68: The Season that Changed Baseball – and America – Forever by Tim Wendel.   If you’re a baseball fanatic, you probably already know about every detail, every fact in this account of the 1968 World Series.   If you’re not, you won’t be able to relate to the names that pop up on every page – many of the details seem to pile on without context.

And then there’s the problem with the sub-title.   Yes, there were assassinations and riots that year that horribly marred the country’s history, but this reader felt that Wendel never adequately made the connection between the socio-political events and the sport covered here.   The story of Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals will spark an interest for some – but, again, if you’re not already a deep-in-the-weeds baseball fan, this retelling will not mean much.

Wendel also tries a bit too hard to make the case that Bob Gibson may have been the best pitcher ever – a case that won’t convince fans of Sandy Koufax and others.   Summer of ’68 is sometimes interesting, but more often it’s just passable reading.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Right Field

Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit by Chris Van Dusen (Candlewick Press, $15.99, 32 pages)

Author and illustrator Chris Van Dusen has fashioned a children’s book that should be quite popular with male children, ages 4 and above.   It will especially appeal to those kids – male or female – who are just being exposed to the game of baseball, either Pee Wee League style or softball.

Randy Riley is a boy who would love more than anything to be the Ted Williams of his Little League team.   But while he’s a very smart whiz-kid when it comes to science and space, he’s not able to hit a baseball no matter how hard he tries.   In this story set in the 1950s, Randy uses his powerful telescope to determine that a meteor fireball is on its way toward earth, and it will destroy the town where he  lives.

Randy is unable to convince anyone – including his absolutely clueless parents, that the meteor is on its way.   So he has just 19 days to find a solution; a way of destroying the fireball before it touches down.   Our hero Randy winds up getting the greatest hit of them all, in a tale that tells children that their own, unique personal strengths are priceless.

Beautifully illustrated and highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit will also appeal to boys who are fascinated with robots.   It is available as a Nook Book download.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Randy Riley’s Really Big Hit by Chris Van Dusen, an illustrated children’s book.

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Dreams

Talk about a dream.   Try to make it real.   You wake up in the night with a fear so real.   Bruce Springsteen, “Badlands”

Diamond Ruby: A Novel by Joseph Wallace (Touchstone, $16.00, 480 pages)

Ruby Thomas can throw a baseball hard – harder than most major league pitchers.   But, in the 1920s, the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, popularized in the film A League of Their Own, did not yet exist, and the legal protections for female athletes afforded by 1972’s Title IX legislation were a very long way off.

In Joseph Wallace’s Diamond Ruby, an outbreak of the Spanish Influenza virus devastates Ruby’s family, and – as a very young girl – she must assume responsibility for the care of her two young nieces.   Needing to make money, she becomes a sideshow performer at an amusement park.   News of Ruby’s remarkable prowess travels quickly, but under the iron fist of her abusive boss, Ruby is essentially enslaved with no ready escape.

Two great athletes, Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey, check out Ruby’s show and befriend her.   Gamblers and booze smugglers have their own designs on how to use her for their own means.   Eventually, the owner of a professional start-up league spots her.   His plan is to sign her for her promotional value to help the league become profitable.   Nearly everyone wants to control Ruby and make money off of her, except a friend who takes her in during her time of greatest need, a law enforcement official who looks out for her, and, ironically, many of the athletes in the story whose respect she comes to earn.

Throughout the book, Ruby is frazzled by trying to devise ways to break free from the powerful men who want to use her for their own gain, coping with threats of the Ku Klux Klan who torment her because she is half Jewish, and experiencing the prejudice of the men who run organized baseball.   She does all this while dutifully supporting and protecting her nieces.   All she really wants to have is the joy of doing what she loves most – the opportunity to pitch on her own terms.

The story starts out a bit slowly as the tale of Ruby’s impoverished childhood and series of misfortunes unfolds.   For a while it is difficult to discern exactly what to make of the story beyond the fact that the only luck for Ruby is bad luck.   However, when things get going in the second half of the book, the reader will be glad they stuck with it.   Things move rapidly and the pages turn easily.  

The improbable convergences of events that bring the story to a close are cleverly constructed.   The ending is both heartwarming and hilarious.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

This book was purchased.   Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel, which happens to be about baseball.

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