“The Fireballer: A Novel”
The publishing info:
Lake Union Publishing/Amazon
415 pages, $16.99
Released January 1, 2023
The publishers website
The authors website
The review in 90 feet or less
Vulture.com once pushed out a mind-blowing list called “All 340 Bruce Springsteen Songs, Ranked from Worst to Best.” It was updated in 2020 and, for our purposes, is still quite up to date.
Because coming in at No. 43, we’ve found “Glory Days,” from the 1984 “Born In the USA” album. Writer Caryn Rose’s assessment:
So there’s that nagging question: Why would Springsteen, who seems to know his baseball terminology, use the term “speedball” instead of “fastball”? It’s not a syllable thing that fits better in the lyrics, like Paul Simon admits he did with using “Joe DiMaggio” versus “Mickey Mantle” in his classic song “Mrs. Robinson,” right?
Baseball writer Joe Posnanski dove into this in a 2012 column, taking issue with “speedball” reference, and then throwing out: “I will say I have had numerous Springsteen experts explain why ‘speedball’ works better than ‘fastball’ in that particular case. I don’t really remember the reasons, which probably gets at the heart of how I feel about that argument, but I do remember they were adamant.”
Update: Posnanski wrote a piece on May 9 for his Substack home, “Shaking off the Speedball,” which is pleased to hear “speedball” has been updated to “spitball” in live 2023 concerts. We can all rejoice as much as we can while our dresses sway.
Posnanski circled back to that in 2021 during a discussion about another Springsteen lyric debate and added:
“I know there are extreme Boss fans who will try to defend the indefensible ‘He could throw that speedball by ya,’ by citing historical references of fastballs being called speedballs or by pointing out the musical superiority of the word ‘speedball’ to ‘fastball.’ But I cannot and will not go out on that creaky ledge with them. Speedball is wrong. Speedball is bad. Speedball is a lyrical catastrophe.”
To that point, Craig Calcaterra did a piece once for NBC Sports that defended Springsteen’s “speedball” because there’s a listing (or two) about it in Paul Dickson’s incredible “Baseball Dictionary,” spotting a reference to it used in 1918.
Some can do a deeper dive in newspaper websites and find things that back it up – this one about Bob Feller re-signing with the Cleveland Indians after he was discharged from the Navy. The headline above the story reads: “The Indians’ Speed-Ball Artist Returns.”
And for what it’s worth, the song, and its lyrics, are known well enough in baseball circles to have its own Baseball-Almanac.com post on the site’s poetry section.
If you’re wondering not, what, but who, the speedball pitcher was being referenced, we read how Springsteen was inspired to base the song on a friend of his who pitched during his time at St. Rose of Lima High baseball team. Springsteen ran into him in a Jersey shore bar. They talked. A song emerged.
Maybe to that point, Seattle songwriter Mike Votava once presented a very sweet explanation to all this: Springsteen was annoyed with his friend talking baseball and wanted to mock him. That seems reasonable.
In the first four chapters of his new novel, Colorado-based mystery/non-fiction writer Mark Stevens tries a few different ways to emphasize why his book is called “The Fireballer,” trying to frame the abilities of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Frank Ryder and his own 110-miles-per-hour fastball/speedball/fireball:
“With each Ryder pitch, there is almost a need to laugh, partly at the spectacle of it all and partly at his own weird luck. On TV it’s like you’re watching a joke. It’s like every single pitch is a coked-up hologram video, the ball a subatomic particle, an unhittable blink of white nothing … If Frank Ryder’s pitching motion is double speed, the ball is triple speed and everything else moves to the beat of a regular world.”
In other words, Stevens adds in various spots, whether they’re his words of that of the media covering him, that Ryder is a “certified freak … a one hundred percent bona fide fuckin’ mutant” … Ryder has the clubhouse nickname “CSI: Can’t See It” … His pitches “aren’t just game-changing, they are game-ruining. They are the blink within the blink … They are mini meteors of mind-blowing mayhem.” He likes to ride the team bus because his teammates are “about the only ones who don’t make him feel like he belongs in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Odditorium.”
Is “fireball” an acceptable term for a pitcher with an accomplished fastball? We’ve seen “fireballer” as an adjective enough times, mostly a cliché these days by lazy broadcasters or writers.
That’s the first quasi-red flag that comes up in Stevens’ baseball word-salad non-fiction attempt, which we’d be willing to give him a pass on if it didn’t keep, at least for us, tripping up the flow of the narrative.
Maybe we’re just too sensitive to it all. Perhaps other readers won’t be. That’s what fiction does – works for some, not for others.
Stevens, better known for his series, The Alison Coil Mysteries, isn’t just doing a “baseball novel” here but presenting the struggles of a man whose fastball doesn’t just make hitters look like a fool. It is what we may call a fatal flaw without giving up too much of what this story is about.
If one wanted to draw from real-life comparisons, the best could be a one-time Orioles flamethrower Steve Dalkowski. But we’re not sure Stevens would even know about that reference.
Stevens admits in the acknowledgement that he “consumed many books about baseball while researching and writing” this, noting 15 of them that included “The Phenomenon” by Rick Ankiel, “Sandy Koufax” by Jane Leavy, “Ninety Percent Mental” by Bob Tewksbury and “For the Love of the Game,” by Michael Shaara, which, as many do, is listed by its incorrect title (there is no first “the” in “For Love of the Game.”
Stevens could have added the fascinating bio “Dalko: The Untold Story of Baseball’s Fastest Pitcher,” by Bill Dembski, Alex Thomas and Brian Vikander from 2020, to his reading list, which we enjoyed reviewing.
But ingesting all too so many baseball non-fiction books as the prep work to writing fiction about the game as the foundation to a story may be the issue. In many cases, it doesn’t always come off as natural as, say, “The Natural.” (It’s the 1952 classic book by Bernard Malamud that became a movie with … never mind).
Baseball terms can’t be funneled into a software system and be expected to produce a baseball novel. It’s the same reason why many “baseball movies” don’t come off as realistic – the actors can’t pull off the authentic nature of the game, or the cameras and script don’t do it justice.
There are enough nitpicking examples we could bring up during our surveying of this novel that expose a process that isn’t quite in fine tune with how baseball fans might really experience, talk or write about the game. One might find it believable that the Baltimore Orioles and Chicago Cubs can meet in a World Series and have Ryder do some above-and-beyond human things (think of how Madison Bumgarner carried the San Francisco Giants to the 2014 World Series title, or Orel Hershiser and the Dodgers of 1988, and then ramp it up times 10).
It touches on the nature of today’s media microscopic coverage, the advanced abilities of today’s athletes, and how “unwritten rules” of the game can be twisted. It sprinkles in a bevy of real-life modern media people – Jessica Mendoza, Buster Olney, Matt Vasgersian, Bryant Gumbel, plus Orioles broadcasters Gary Thorne and Jim Palmer – to give it some context. Even a Trevor Bauer reference or two to spice it up.
Also, is it just stretching our imagination too far to believe there is someone who could actually throw 110 miles per hour in today’s game? The reader has to decide if they can’t get around on this fireballer, or are willing to wait it out and see if they can get on base by a walk or hit-by-pitch before finally reaching home.
(Suggestion: Don’t wait for the later. It could be too painful).
How it goes in the scorebook
Is “trying too hard” a thing in literature? Or is this premise just too hard to believe?
If the goal here is to have this picked up by a screenwriter to turn into a movie, that’s noble. We see it as something like “For Love of the Game,” with Kevin Costner battling demons as he’s in the middle of a World Series perfect game, with some “Bull Durham” threads woven into the tapestry (because of how the Nuke LaLoosh character is somewhat based on Dalkowski).
This can be done.
But we’re also cringing a bit at the marketing sales pitch it includes on the back, if someone were to pick it up and consider investing time with it:
“Frank Ryder is unstoppable on the baseball field – his pitches arrive faster than a batter can swing, giving his opponents no chance. … but within the maelstrom of press, adulation and wild speculation, Frank is a man alone … ‘The Fireballer’ is a lyrical, moving story of undeniable talent and the life-changing power of forgiveness and a subtly romantic ode to America’s favorite pastime.”
We’re not even sure what that means. Is “romantic ode” code for “this is bigger than just baseball?” It probably means something to some subset of readers of this genre.
One other quirk of this book: It somehow had more than 1,000 global ratings on Amazon.com just a week after its launch, a 4.3 out of 5 consensus. Perhaps that the benefit of having Amazon Publishing as the owner of the Lake Union Publishing imprint (among many others).
You can look it up: More to ponder
== More new baseball fiction: “Leave The Night To God,” by R.L. “Pete” Peterson (Regal House Publishing, 149 pages, released in Oct., 2022). The blurb: “Twelve-year-old Frankie Walker’s whole world is baseball, Daddy, and foxhunting. Daddy’s stroke forces Frankie to learn to survive on his own — or become a permanent resident of the Missouri Orphan’s School and Residence. With the help of a fellow orphan, Frankie bolts the orphanage and hooks up with a Black barnstorming baseball team and their young, female pitcher, Linda. But nothing good can last. When Linda drops him at the bus station so he can join Daddy in Kansas, he’s mistaken as Linda’s child and abducted by the Ku Klux Klan. Facing death by torture, Frankie is saved by Paul. When Frankie and Daddy finally reunite, Daddy’s stroke has left him stiff and silent as a tombstone. There’ll be no more nights chasing their foxhounds, but Frankie has learned on his long and harrowing journey that he’s a survivor. Set in America’s Midwest of the 1950s, where racial injustice still has a tight grip, “Leave the Night to God” proves that kindness may be found in unexpected places. More on Peterson at his website is here.