An Innovative First Novel By A Student of Baseball
By Kerry Luft, A Tribune editor
The problem with novels about baseball is that too often they are imperfect books about the perfect game.
Some are better than others, notably Mark Harris’ “The Southpaw” and his other Henry Wiggin novels. Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural” was a terrific story before Hollywood messed it up. W.P. Kinsella’s fantasies, such as “Shoeless Joe,” have a huge following. Now comes Kevin Baker’s innovative first novel, which is like a Texas League single blooped into the outfield.
The pluperfect player in this case is John Barr, who like Malamud’s Roy Hobbs appears on a team one day and proceeds to set records one after the other. He is a perennial all-star and frequently the National League’s most valuable player; he is a right fielder nonpareil.
But like too many other fictional stars, John Barr’s life is a mystery. He doesn’t even shower in the clubhouse after the game; no one knows anything about his past, and he has no roommate on the road. He doesn’t even fool around. All he does, apparently, is play ball for the New York Mets.
His story is told by a series of narrators, most notably Rapid Ricky Falls, also known as “the Old Swizzlehead,” who plays alongside Barr in center field. Others include Barry Busby, an old-line baseball writer; manager Charlie Stanzi, who is not so affectionately known as the Little Maniac; and several teammates of Barr’s. There is also an omniscient narrator called “The Color Commentary.”
With so many voices, it would be easy to confuse a reader, but Baker’s structure works. In fact, this approach accentuates the mysteries surrounding John Barr, because it becomes clear that no one knows anything about him.
Falls is the main narrator, and he tells how the champion Mets slowly begin to unravel after Stanzi is named manager. Stanzi plants doubt in the ballplayers’ heads, and one after another they find their confidence fading. But Barr seems immune to the rantings and continues to lash out line drives like an automaton. “The key to John Barr, though, was the sheer fear factor,” Falls tells the reader early on. “A player that great, he becomes even greater because they know what he is. The other team’s pitchers, they get just that little bit more nervous, worryin’ about John Barr comin’ up. They get so intent on keepin’ the bases cleared for him that they’re more likely to walk a batter, or hang a curveball. When he’s on first, the second baseman and shortstop get that little bit more nervous. . . . Even the other team’s hitters throw themselves off tryin’ not to hit the ball to right field.”
But then, just as the Mets are about to play for the world championship, Barr falls apart after receiving a note found in his dead mother’s papers. He can no longer hit or field; he is benched for the first time in his career just when his team needs him the most. It is up to Falls and Ellie Jay, a sportswriter who secretly loves Barr, to figure out the mystery and get the hero back in the game.
Barr’s past is slowly unveiled through a series of flashbacks. Although most readers won’t be able to figure out Barr’s problem before it is revealed, a dedicated reader of baseball history and biography might.
In fact, this book is almost ideal for a student of baseball history. Baker is clearly a dedicated fan, and he has based many of the characters on real players. Falls, for example, has more than a few of the characteristics of onetime Yankee center fielder Mickey Rivers, while Stanzi, the manager, seems to have qualities of Eddie Stanky and Billy Martin. As for John Barr, he combines elements of Ted Williams, Ty Cobb and Roberto Clemente. Trying to figure out who each character is based on may be the most enjoyable part of the novel.
© Copyright 1993 Chicago Tribune Company