SUN-SENTINEL, FORT LAUDERDALE
Rookie Novelist Blasts a Homer
By Chauncey Mabe
Baseball novels are a little like power hitters. There are plenty of them around, but not many who are anything special. Bernard Malamud’s The Natural comes to mind, if you like your baseball self-consciously literary. You Know Me, Al, by Ring Lardner, is funny, brutish and knowing. W.P. Kinsella combines a Canadian’s love for the American pastime with a joyful, goofy mysticism in Shoeless Joe, which was turned into the movie Field of Dreams. The best ever, the Babe Ruth of baseball novelists, is Mark Harris, whose trilogy (The Southpaw, Bang the Drum Slowly, It Looked Like Forever) is vernacular, hilarious and as true-to-life as a hard slide into second base. His narrator/hero, Henry Wiggins, is the Huck Finn of baseball.
A novel that comes anywhere close to the standard set by Harris is something to celebrate, especially with major-league baseball soon to begin in South Florida. Kevin Baker, a phenom offering up his first novel, Sometimes You See It Coming(Crown, $ 20, 322 pp.), may not be up to that level, but he is close. Sometimes You See It Comingis the story of the greatest ballplayer of all time, the fictional John Barr, who plays for the New York Mets. He is a player who hits for power and average, plays the outfield like an antelope with a bushel basket, and whose game peaks under the pressure of championship competition. But he remains a closed-mouthed enigma with no friends.
A HAUNTED PAST
“(B)y the end he was still no more than a redoubtable shadow to the flies, the fans, even his own teammates. You could not say he was loved, except perhaps by Ricky Falls or Ellie Jay, Queen of Sportswriters, who loved him not so much for the raw talent but the dedication that she perceived. For Barr played wrapped up in himself, in the narrow devotion of hitting the ball…No visible family, friends, women or interest of any kind outside a ballpark.”
Of course, there must be a reason for a person to be so emotionally withdrawn. Ellie Jay, a character perfectly suited for Kathleen Turner should this book ever be made into a movie, figures it must be something in his past. And Barr’s past comes back to haunt him in his 13th season. His mother dies, he learns of a bizarre statement in her will-and his game goes to pieces down the pennant stretch. Fans and sportswriters assume that Barr, now in his 30s, is simply losing his touch to age. But Ricky Falls and Ellie Jay know better.
And it is the near-friend, Ricky, not Ellie Jay the potential lover, who stands the best chance of understanding Barr’s dilemma. The two players have been together since Barr showed up unannounced at a minor-league stadium in the Coal and Coke League of West Virginia and demanded a tryout. Barr is white, Falls black, which I mention only because it is an important aspect of their complex, mostly silent relationship.
Sometimes You See It Comingis almost as much Ricky’s story as it is that of John Barr. Whereas Barr is a player of mythical proportions, sort of like a baseball version of Larry Bird, Ricky is simply an excellent professional athlete, the second-best player on a team blessed with the greatest ever. A jock to the core, he is crude, willfully ignorant, with a weakness for the annies, determined not to grow up, and, despite these faults, extremely likable. Baker rounds out the cast with authentic baseball figures. For the sadistic, meddlesome manager, Charlie Stanzi, the author clearly had the late Billy Martin in mind. The book is bawdy, insightful, and the baseball scenes are both genuine and comically larger than life.
It is this last attribute that leads me to rank Sometimes You See It Cominga little below Harris’ classic trilogy. Harris writes of players who are exactly life size, and to my taste that gives it more literary and spiritual weight. But Baker turns in a remarkable performance for a rookie, and anyone who likes either baseball or good writing, will find it impressive and enjoyable.
© 1993 Sun-Sentinel Company Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale)