Day 29 of new baseball book reviews in 2021: What’s the real deal, or the fix for fiction can lead to friction

“Escape from Castro’s Cuba”

The author:
Tim Wendel

The publishing info:
University of Nebraska Press
270 pages
$19.95
Released March 1, 2021

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At the author’s website
At Indiebound.org
At Bookshop.org
At Powells.com
At Vromans.com
At L.A.’s The Last Book Store
At PagesABookstore.com
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com

“Big League Life”

The author:
Chip Scarinzi

The publishing info:
Rowe Publishing
244 pages
$16.95
Released March 30, 2021

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At the author’s website
At Indiebound.org
At Bookshop.org
At Powells.com
At Vromans.com
At L.A.’s The Last Book Store
At PagesABookstore.com
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com

“This Never Happened: The Mystery Behind
the Death of Christy Mathewson”

The author:
J.B. Manheim

The publishing info:
Summer Game Books
272 pages
$18.99
Released released April 28, 2021

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At the author’s website
At Indiebound.org
At Bookshop.org
At Powells.com
At Vromans.com
At L.A.’s The Last Book Store
At PagesABookstore.com
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com

The reviews in 90 feet or less

Here’s our angle when it comes to this fixation on fiction: It’s not real, it can be really compelling, or really gnarly. The end game: Is it entertaining enough to commit the time and brain room for it? It depends on your disposition, expectations and a higher tolerance for pain. Also, your trust in someone’s recommendation.

Starting with our fiction heroes: Robert Pirsig (“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintence”), John Irving (“The World According to Garp,” “The Cider House Rules,” “A Prayer for Owen Meany”) and Harper Lee (“To Kill A Mockingbird”) would be at the top. With Francis Scott Key  Fitzgerald (“This Side of Paradise,’ “The Beautiful and Damned,” “The Great Gatsby” and “Tender Is the Night”) the best go-to author in any English Lit class for a lesson on how to get things done in a short lifespan.

The most current fiction read in our rotation is Paul Theroux’s “Under the Wave at Waimea,” which we jumped on after hearing him appear with Scott Simon on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” and then reading a profile about him in the New York Times. He has a very cool space created for himself to create sentences and paragraphs (above).

Theroux focuses on Joe Sharkey, an aging North Shore surfer who, the Times says, resembles characters Theroux has gotten to know on the beaches near his home. Sharkey has lost a connection to current-day surfers, feeling forgotten. His life as it is connected to surfing is a simple existence.

Amidst this, Sharkey is driving one stormy day and hits, and kills, a homeless man by accident. He doesn’t know how to process how all the bad karma starts to follow him.

Theroux is said to have found surfing to be a metaphor for his own life, just wanting to write without interruption or distractions. And also wonder if people still remember the writer who put “The Mosquito Coast” on the map, as well as many other best sellers.

“I was once a hot shot, I was once the punk,” Theroux says in the story. “And anyone who has once been a punk, eventually you’re older, and you see the turning of the years as it is. We all feel it, every writer. They might deny it. But they do, they all feel it.”

In another first-person piece for The New Yorker, Theroux, who turned 80 recently, admits: “This is a life that I am grateful for and could not have envisioned when I began to write seriously, about sixty years ago. All that I hoped for then was to make a modest living by writing so that I wouldn’t have to endure a real job or a boss. Writers seemed to me the ultimate free souls, answerable to no one, engaged in the act of creation, which I associated with defiance.”

He adds: “It is not the big number—eighty—that shocks me (though I sometimes gulp when I utter it), but, rather, the banal image of an implacable hourglass, most of its sand heaped at the bottom, the last negligible pinch of grains sifting down, unstoppable, a finite amount, less each time I look. I tell myself that, at this point in my life, my age has no meaning.”

Why it resonates with us on many levels: We’ve just hit the 60 year mark on the odometer, and since our last experience as full-time journalist was a few years ago and it feels getting back is more and more a lessening reality, we begin to wonder if we’re at the end. It’s a relatable predicament. That, and the fact neither we nor Theroux can actually surf, but love paddling out on a kayak and sitting on the ocean, feeling the bumps.

“So, we are all surfers,” he says in another interview with Discover Silversea. “We’re negotiating these waves and trying to figure out how to get across and get to shore safely.”

Reader relatability and an empathic connection is one key entrance point to buying what fiction is selling, to see what might happen if we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes (or flipflops). Are we similar in how we deal with thing, wriggle out of messes we’ve created, and can we make ourselves better for it all going forward? What did they learn and what do they commit to changing?

Others want a totally different experience – a fantasy disconnect. Take me somewhere I’d never thing of going and let’s have fun.

Baseball as the foundation for works of fiction can be moments of common connection as well. We understand how it starts with baseball as somewhat a metaphor for life, and what we take away from it, how we embrace it, what we discard.

In Ron Kaplan’s “501 Baseball Books Fans Must Read Before They Die,” less than two dozen fiction titles made it in. It’s a tough crowd. “It’s such a subjective area,” Kaplan admits. “Some readers love W.P. Kinsella (author of ‘Shoeless Joe,’) while others find him too sentimental and overrated. The same could be said for Mark Harris, author of the Southpaw Trilogy, or Barnard Malamud, author of “The Natural.” To reinforce this point, Kaplan somewhat reluctantly includes ‘The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbaugh in 2011 on this list, mostly because he wants to ask: “Does it live up to the hype? Should it be mentioned in the same breath of the other classics of baseball fiction? Opinions may differ, but (it) is a must-read, if only to lay these questions to rest.”

Philip Roth’s 1973 “The Great American Novel,” is on Kaplan’s radar for his project, as well as Mark Bishop’s 1994 “Brittle Innings,” Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s 1983 “The Celebrant,”  and Troy Soos’ 1994 “Murder at Fenway Park” (a year before he wrote as part of the Mickey Rawlings mysteries that include “Murder at Ebbets Field” followed by “Murder at Wrigley Field,” “Hunting a Detroit Tiger” and “The Cincinnati Red Stalkings.”) And say it ain’t so-so: John Grisham’s “Calico Joe” (2012) didn’t make the cut.

A few of those are also in Andy McCue’s “Baseball by the Books: A History and Complete Bibliography of Baseball Fiction,” (Wm. C. Brown Publishers), produced in 1991 but has yet to update. Kaplan references it in his credits. McCue has a chronicle list of baseball fiction going back to 1868 and ending at 1990. It is somewhat easy to track down through online book stores. Also see this scan from the LA84 Foundation digital library to discover more on how McCue picked and choose his candidate.

Now that you’ve got through this rambling pre-amble, we attempt to move forward to the concept and with less of a review and more of an overview, we’ve got:

With “Escape from Castro’s Cuba,” Tim Wendel has let 20 years pass before carving out a sequel to his popular 1999 fiction work, “Castro’s Curveball,” which the late Frank Deford so eloquently wrote in a review: “A Cuba libre mixed with baseball, revolution and moonlight, wonderfully evocative of a time that was and a pitcher that might have been.”

In this one, Wendel brings back Billy Bryan, a one-time minor-league catcher, retired high school teacher, and widower, who once ventured to Cuba to play winter ball and suddenly was thrust into a storyline involving receiving a pitch thrown by an up-and-coming revolutionary named Fidel Castro. That takes place in 1947.

In “Escape,” Bryan returns as an 89 year old, with his two daughters, coaxed back to be part of making a movie, and ending up being dazzled by a young Cuban player who wants to defect to the U.S., which crosses lines with (who else) Fidel Castro in his final days of dictatorship.

With Chip Scarinzi’s “Big League Life,” the author who previously did the 2015 non-fiction piece, “Diehards,” which is his dive into the impact of sports fandom, examines the highs and lows of the infrastructure of more than three dozen players, coaches, scouts, wives, agents, beat writers and many others who care for and maintain a fictionalized version of the Philadelphia Phillies.

In some of the ways that Emily Nemens uses the quirks of the employees of an MLB spring training camp to push her 2020 novel, “The Cactus League,” Scarinzi goes heavy on dialogue to convey the basic intersecting lives of those who work in the big leagues, what they’ve been through, what they still hope to accomplish, and what redeeming qualities they still may have, individually and as a team.

In “This Never Happened: The Mystery Behind the Death of Christy Mathewson,” which pretty much screams out fiction, JB Manheim, a member of SABR and the Historical Novel Society, takes the accurate story around how the Hall of Fame pitcher came in contact with poisonous gas while serving in the U.S. Army during World War I and eventually died at age 45 with tuberculosis.

What if that narrative isn’t real? What if there were documents that showed not only Mathewson but Ty Cobb, Big Ed Walsh and Honus Wagner were at a military training camp in the summer of 1918 and … This is based on Manheim finding two authentic WWI military documents that challenge the current narrative of Mathewson’s health issues.

How they go in the scorebook

Essentially, those who judge fiction with greater flair and elegance than non-fiction should be the ultimate arbitrators of whether a reader should invest time and money into this.

In “Escape,” the storyline works. The descriptions are easy to envision. Wendel returns with his fastball, something we were first introduced to in 2012 with “Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball – And America – Forever.” He has more than a dozen books on his resume and is a writer-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University and has had his work appeared in Esquire, GQ, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Psychology Today.

We trust this assessment from Jane Leavy, who has done her own trusted bios on Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth, but also has a piece of fiction worth checking out, “Squeeze Play.” She writes: “In Billy Bryan, Tim Wendel has created the perfect baseball man. And in this novelistic return to the world of Cuban baseball and intrigue, Wendel has given Billy a perfect second act. It is an exquisite portrait of an aging baseball man of conscience and character who refuses to quit on the people and the game he loves. Thank you, Tim Wendel, for the loveliness of Escape from Castro’s Cuba.”

And if the Amazon.com five-star reviews help, Wendel’s “Escape” is “an Indiana Jones’-type adventure, and the adventure is filled with nostalgia for what Cuba once had been to the romantic Billy and his friends.” Also there’s the suggestion of “buy the original first, and then get this one.” And there’s: “I did not expect to get schooled on the international economics of baseball in a book that is based on an old romance. If you want your reading to conform to your expectations, this is not a book for you. But if you enjoy having your expectations challenged on every level, from plot structure on up to international intrigue, then dig right in. interesting characters, great action, and vivid depictions of the worlds beyond our horizons.” One reviewer also penned: “I always worry that the second book in any series won’t live up to the first. Thank goodness my fears were unfounded.”

In “Big League Life,” Scarinzi keeps things simple and direct, without a lot of flair, but giving the reader a chance to pick apart how the season actually unfolds and all the personalities that must be dealt with. Including the media.

In his acknowledgements, he writes: “The events of Big League Life did not happen. This is a work of fiction; the people are figments of my imagination and their stories flowed from some well of creativity in the part of my brain shaped like a baseball diamond. That said, my aim with this novel was to create a world so authentic – so genuine and realistic – that you could almost imagine that the events in this book did happen, that the people are real and they are indeed living the big league life. To create this world without input from many others would have been impossible. He credits, among others, Oakland A’s broadcaster Ken Korach and baseball writers Josh Pahigian and Susan Slusser with helping sand the edges.

Pahigian also endorses it with how the book “immerses readers in the life of a Major League team, starting in the preseason and continuing all the way to the postseason. As the story of his fictional club unfurls, Scarinzi taps into the hope, frustration, redemption, joy, and heartbreak that the game’s most magical seasons evoke. His characters and their team bring to life those qualities that led so many of us to fall in love with the game in the first place.”

Manheim recently said in a Q&A with the Author’s Guild: “I recently made the transition from scholarly and academic writing to fiction. Making stuff up is a lot more fun than figuring stuff out.”

In “This Never Happened: The Mystery Behind the Death of Christy Mathewson,” one Amazon review notes: “One of the more interesting books I’ve read in awhile, although technically fiction, it carries a lot of facts. It definitely opens one’s mind up to what actually happened. Not much of one for conspiracy theories but this one is actually quite interesting. I will have to look more into this!”

More to cover

https://twitter.com/lissa_warren/status/1392929881697173504?s=20



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