November 18, 2017

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The Only Game | Baseball!

As a new baseball season begins, the hopes of fans everywhere are flying high. This promising line-up of middle grade sports fiction includes two noteworthy rookies and one too-good-to-miss title from last season that are sure to please. In addition to providing plenty of drama and ballpark action, these compelling, coming-of-age stories incorporate themes of friendship and loyalty.

theonlygameMany readers will identify with Jack Callahan in Mike Lupica’s The Only Game (S & S, 2015; Gr 4-6), who declares, “People say there’s other games,…but baseball’s the only [one].” The middle school student lives in a town and state where baseball rules, and like him, his best friend Gus, lives and breathes the sport. Jack, a star hitter, shortstop, and pitcher, is expected to lead the team to the Little League World Series during the upcoming season.

Then, on the first day of practice, the boy stuns his teammates and his parents when he announces that he is quitting the sport. As readers learn, Jack is struggling to come to terms with his older brother’s death. The boy is keeping one last secret for Brad, a fun-loving daredevil who died in an accident the previous August. Jack knew his brother had been sneaking out and riding around without a license, but had promised not to tell their parents. The tragic “what ifs” of that decision torment him.

Jack’s struggles never feel forced or maudlin, as Lupica crafts a recognizable young athlete working through his problems in a straightforward manner. The boy is surrounded by multifaceted characters: the teammates he reluctantly abandoned, his loving parents, and his new friends, Cassie and Teddy. In a story that’s as much about friendship as it is about baseball, Jack helps Teddy stand up to bullies and assists Cassie with her softball team; each in turn supports Jack as he begins to address the secret that haunts him. At the book’s end, Jack attempts to reconcile with Gus, but their conversation stumbles until they wind up playing catch: “It was like they were back to speaking their own language, through the game they both loved….” Readers will be rooting for Lupica’s protagonist every step of the way and will cheer as he finds his way back to the sport that’s so much a part of his life.

gamesevenJulio’s father, a star pitcher for the Miami Marlins and known to millions as El Fuego, has a chance to seal a World Series victory for his team in Game Seven (Viking, 2015; Gr 6-9); “that one’s for all the marbles. Everything. With the whole world watching.” Julio has inherited his father’s passion and talent for baseball, but it’s been six years since he has seen Papi, who defected from Cuba to play professional ball in the United States. Still on their island homeland, Julio and his family struggle to get by and are viewed with suspicion because of his father’s perceived betrayal. As Julio reflects in Paul Volponi’s latest novel, “I stopped believing in a lot of things when Papi turned his back on us.”

Julio’s a shortstop, possibly the best in his age group, and at 16, he’s facing his last chance to make the Junior Nacionales team. At the tryouts, an obnoxious, cigar-chomping coach tells him he won’t be chosen unless he swears loyalty to Cuba. Later that day, the teen learns his father has sent funds and a mysterious stranger, Gabriel, to help him, his Uncle Ramon, and his cousin Luis leave Cuba. When the boy decides that he will try to reunite with his father, he begins to understand the decision his parent made years ago.

Julio and his companions attempt the 90-mile ocean crossing in a most unlikely vessel. Their journey is by turns exhilarating and tedious as they encounter storms and track their uncertain progress with just a simple compass and the nighttime stars to guide them. They listen to the World Series on Julio’s transistor radio and worry about what their reception will be—if and when they arrive in Florida. There’s time to wonder aloud about the choice they’ve made and how their lives will change. Julio grows closer to each of his companions and dreams about baseball and a reunion with his Papi. That thrilling meeting takes place, appropriately, amid the breathtaking drama of game seven.

screamingattheumpUmpires, whether stationed behind home plate or along the base paths, play a central role in every game. Throughout nine innings of play, they must maintain laserlike focus. These professionals need a thorough grounding in the rules and must be confident in their ability to make decisions and uphold them.

In Audrey Vernick’s Screaming at the Ump (Clarion, 2014; Gr 5-8 ), Casey Snowden’s father and grandpa run an umpire training school in New Jersey, Behind the Plate Academy, also known as BTP. Casey and his best friend, hyperactive reality-TV fan Zeke, love lending a hand at the academy. They check off supplies and equipment and help at the annual “You Suck, Ump! Day,” a game designed to prepare students for hecklers and hostile fans. For these two kids, BTP is a great place to work and to hang out. After all, “how often do you gather hundreds of people together to watch a fake baseball game and get everyone to scream at the umpires? What could be more American than that?”

Casey’s mom left six years ago and has since remarried. The 12-year-old has not forgiven her, though she would like to be part of his life again. Rejecting her calls and efforts to talk with him, Casey rationalizes his complex feelings in terms of what he knows best, baseball. “You could choose to leave. But then you couldn’t decide you wanted another chance. Any umpire knew that once you made the call, you had to stick with it.”

Casey loves baseball and hopes to become a sports journalist. He joins the middle school newspaper and writes an expose of a disgraced former ballplayer who has enrolled at BTP, then learns that other ballplayers were using steroids, including one of his favorite athletes.

Like an astute umpire, Casey knows he must consider all the angles before he makes his call, but clearly some calls are harder to make, and vantage point or perspective can make all the difference.  Accepting that there are often more sides to a story than the most obvious one also helps the boy sort out his relationship with his mother. As the eventful season unwinds at BTP, Casey resolves problems big and small and muses on baseball: “It was the kind of sport that let your brain drift a little, almost, to find the connections, the surprises, the stories.”

While many sports fans often seek the latest titles in their areas of interest, others may need direction. Steer fans of Mike Lupica to books by the prolific John Feinstein or Tim Green, and thoughtful readers who appreciated The Only Game may want to try Mike Cochrane’s The Girl Who Threw Butterflies (Random, 2010). Middle grade readers who enjoyed Game Seven will be interested to learn more about baseball’s universal appeal in Jonah Winter’s Beisbol! (Lee & Low, 2001; available in English and Spanish editions) and Home Is Everything: The Latino Baseball Story by Marcos Bretón (Cinco Puntos, 2002), while readers who’ve enjoyed Screaming at the Ump will relish stories by Don Calame. Those interested in a sports-related occupations can look for Joanne Mattern’s So You Want to Work in Sports? ( Aladdin, 2014) or dip into the “STEM in Sports” series published by Mason Crest.

Marilyn Taniguchi works as the Library Services Manager for Beverly Hills Public Library. She loves following, and reading about, sports of all kinds.

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Comments

  1. I’m a big fan of baseball. My father used to be a baseball player. When he got older and retired, he always loved sharing his own stories about baseball. He’s the one who has inspired me a lot.