A Home Run for Baseball Fans
By Linda Gebroe
Kevin Baker’s first novel is full of tales of the game that fans might have spun in Midwestern barber shops in the 1930s. Its fictional protagonist is John Barr, baseball’s greatest hero and mystery man extraordinaire.
“He could do everything on a ballfield; that was beyond dispute,” we learn. “In an era of designated hitters, platoon players, spot starters, short relievers, and middle-inning relievers, Barr could play the whole game.”
Although the novel is set in the present day, Barr is nothing like the superstars of the 1990s. He shuns fan and media attention, opting instead to dress quietly and retreat home (nobody is sure where) after each game. When there are fights on the field or controversy in the locker room, Barr is nowhere to be found.
“There was a certain quality of danger that attached to him,” the narrator tells us. “His appearance at the big moment almost always guaranteed that something would happen, and usually something that entailed a ball whacked viciously into the furthest reaches of the stadium, and his opponents sent stumbling desperately after it.”
The story is told primarily from the point of view of Barr’s teammate, Old Swizzlehead, who describes one season in which the team overpowers everyone in the league and marches into the World Series. Old Swizzlehead continually wonders about Barr but does nothing until Barr goes into a mind-boggling slump, just when the team needs him most.
As Old Swizzlehead talks of the current baseball season, Baker layers the story with flashbacks from Barr’s boyhood and adolescence. The structure becomes much like “The Prince of Tides”-a horrible and buried family story haunts the adult hero until a sudden revelation sets everything straight. The story has a sense of folklore to it, with nicknames for players like Big Bo Bigbee, Good Stuff Goodson and No-Hit Hitt.
Baker knows the game and describes it well: “(Barr) crouched on the balls of his feet, precisely balanced so that he could either dive back to third or take off for home. He kept one eye on the pitcher, the other open for the third baseman or the shortstop moving behind him for the pick-off. The pitcher eyed him back, then unwound awkwardly, making an extra, crucial motion before he whipped the ball over to third. The hitch gave him all the time he needed to throw himself back, hooking one hand around to the base.”
Of the book’s flaws, Baker spends too much time foreshadowing, and while he does, there’s no real reason to care about John Barr. It is only halfway through the book when Barr goes into his slump that the story gets really interesting. Once that happens, the book becomes a page-turner.
© 1993 The Chronicle Publishing Co.