Tag Archives: Jesse Katz

Talkin’ Baseball

Parents Behaving Badly: A Novel by Scott Gummer (Touchstone, $23.00, 224 pages)

You can observe a lot by just watching.   – Yogi Berra

Parents Behaving Badly is a solid, if not spectacular, offering by Scott Gummer.   Gummer has likely drawn from some of his experiences as a participant, parent, and youth sports coach to craft a story familiar to most people with sons – the saga of a summer spent on the diamonds of Little League baseball.

The main character, Ben Holden, is the son of a local coaching legend known to everyone simply as, you guessed it, Coach.   Though the entire town reveres the man, as is often the case, the emotions of his own children are a bit more complicated.   Ben’s older brother, Fred, is the talented screw up, while Ben – the moderately talented overachiever – quits baseball to run track.   Sister Nancy spends  most of  her life moving from man to man with speculation that her hang-ups somehow trace back to her relationship with her father.   Ben is clearly the most centered and focused of the three children.

When Ben and his wife Jili return to their hometown in California from a stint out East, their two boys express an interest in playing Little League ball.   About two-thirds of the way into the season, their oldest son Andrew’s coach gets suspended by the league for inappropriate behavior, and Ben is thrust into the role of being the team’s coach.   His players and parents are forced to adjust to a new philosophy – going from “win at all costs” to “have fun playing the game.”   The shift is far from an easy one, and you can guess for yourself whether the “good guys” win at the end.

Along the way, past relationships and high school memories are revisited (Ben and Jili went to the same high school and started dating in college), and many local characters resurface throughout the story.   Middle age adult behaviors, lifestyle adjustments, and sexual obsessions are as much or more of the story as is our country’s troubled evolution of youth participation in sports (and the often  misguided parental attitudes associated with it).

The author appears to rush through the plot’s action in order to get at the complicated themes that line the story.   The reader nevertheless is interested in turning the page to find out what happens next.   Characters are introduced in rapid succession in the initial two chapters, making it a bit difficult to truly get to know them.   They’re a bit stereotypical but, in fairness, easy to relate to.  

Anyone who has spent as little as five minutes at a Little League game has seen these people:  the coach who has to prove his self-worth by winning baseball games featuring 12-year-olds; the parents who drive their children to the point of quitting; the mom-slut who thinks that everywhere she goes, someone is dying to look at her scantily clad body; the daughter who spends every waking moment texting and Twittering; the middle-aged male who spends much of the day daydreaming about having a sex life, etc., etc., etc.

When Ben first takes over as the team’s coach, he comes across as completely clueless, which is hard to believe considering his father’s history.   The fact that he quickly develops a reasonable degree of competence is not the most believable portion of the tale, although it may be a logical outcome.   As one who has experienced the shenanigans of Little League draft rooms and the frequently politically motivated – and arguably unethical selection – selection of post-season All-Star teams, these sections are quite strong.   Also, they are either hilarious or sadly pathetic depending on your perspective.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Mr. Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only, a novel of baseball and Bob Dylan.   A recommended memoir that covers much of the same territory is The Opposite Field by Jesse Katz (Three Rivers Press, $15.00, 352 pages).

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For What It’s Worth

This is a link to a handy listing of 61 book reviews that we’ve written for this site and the New York Journal of Books:

http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/reviewer/joseph-arellano/

The listing may be useful as a quick reference guide when you’re considering whether or not to purchase a particular book.   Thank you to author Therese Fowler for discovering this link!  

Joseph Arellano

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The Barricades of Heaven

The Opposite Field: A Memoir by Jesse Katz (Three Rivers Press)

“Better bring your own redemption when you come/ To the barricades of Heaven where I’m from…”   Jackson Browne

“Some nights I think, just maybe, I have found the place I belong.”   Jesse Katz

There are probably just three groups of people who will be attracted to this memoir by Jesse Katz – parents, baseball fans and those who love the greater city of Los Angeles.   No, make it four groups, as nomads must be included.   Nomads in this case being defined to include those who were born and grew up in one part of the United States but found their true, instinctual home in another part of the country.

Jesse Katz is one of those nomads but in his case it was genetic.   His parents met and were married in Brooklyn, but felt the need to move a million miles west to Portland, Oregon.   This was the pre-hip Portland, a city of mostly white persons before it became the ultra-cool city that attracted Californians – a city with a bookstore so big that it requires a map to get around inside of it.

Author Katz grew up in a humble apartment complex near downtown Portland’s Chinatown, his father a suffering artist and later a professor at Portland State.   Katz’ mother was a late bloomer, a Robert F. Kennedy inspired feminist-activist who eventually was elected to the State Legislature, then became the first woman elected as Speaker of the Assembly before becoming a two-term Mayor of the Rose City.

But this is Katz’ story which describes his escape from Portland as a teen, moving to the wilds of Los Angeles, a city that he so accurately describes as the anti-Portland.   In L.A. Katz – “a white boy” – found that, “I had become a minority, the exception…  I was a curiosity even.   God how I loved it!   Los Angeles…  Where had you been all  my life?”

Katz first lives north of downtown before he moves to the multicultural community of Monterey Park.   Monterey Park, a city of taco stands, noodle shops and Mexican restaurants, bereft of national retailers, where the local 7-Eleven sells the Chinese Daily News.   There he burrows into the Hispanic-Asian suburb (yet an independent city) just 7 miles east of downtown L.A.’s skyscrapers.   And he finds a new life that centers around the seemingly minor sport of Little League baseball.

Katz, a reporter by profession, becomes the Little League coach of a team that plays at the La Loma fields in Monterey Park; coaching a team that includes his son Max.   Max, unlike his father, is himself multicultural, the product of his Jewish father and Nicaraguan mother.   The game of baseball as played by children may not seem to offer great lessons, but Katz comes to find the truth as expressed by writer John Tunis:  “Courage is all baseball.   And baseball is life; that’s why it gets under your skin.”

The game gets under Katz’ skin to the point where he agrees to serve as the Commissioner of Baseball for the multi-age league centered at La Loma.   This means that every waking moment for several years, not devoted to reporting on gangs for the Los Angeles Times or writing about the city for Los Angeles magazine, is reserved to keeping the league afloat.   It is, in many respects, serious business but also fun…  “I could not escape the feeling that Little League was like summer camp for adults, a reprieve from whatever drudgery or disorder was besetting our regular lives, a license to care about things, about events and people, that otherwise would have passed us by.”

Katz wisely chooses to omit little of the successes and failures that he encountered, both as “The Commish” and as the single father of a teenage son.   This is a look back at a life lived both large and small, and a look at a city, Los Angeles, that embraces the people who make up its communities.   Yes, the city and its suburbs embrace its citizens in a fashion that is far more real than the media’s myths of L.A.’s violence and tawdriness.

This reader, who lived in L.A. and learned to love it (and was embraced by it), would love to raise a toast to Jesse Katz (AKA Chuy Gato).   Perhaps one day he will let me buy him a beer at the Venice Room in Monterey Park (“the seamy cocktail lounge that sooner or later everyone ended up at…”).   A toast to greater L.A., the barricades of Heaven; a place to which we were not born, a place we discovered before it was too late.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from The Crown Publishing Company.   The Opposite Field was released in trade paperback form by Three Rivers Press on July 13, 2010.

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