Sunday, July 26, 2009

Book review: "For Love of the Game"

I thought it would be good to take a break from all these depressing Royals posts and finally sit down to write my review of Michael Shaara's brief novel "For Love of the Game."

Seems like a recurring theme of this book review series is comparing the novels to the movies based on them. I'll get to that in a minute. The thing that struck me first about this book is that the main character, Billy Chapel, plays for a fictional baseball team called the Hawks.

I guess I don't understand why baseball authors can't just use real team names, but it seems like lots of them do this. Malamud's Roy Hobbs played for the Knights. Henry Wiggen for the Mammoths. And Billy Chapel for the Hawks. Sounds like a high-school mascot. Shaara uses real MLB team names in the book, including the Yankees, Giants and Reds, which makes it even more ususual that he would use a fictional team for the main character (unless he wanted to avoid direct comparisons to a real-life player...)

"For Love of the Game" is the story of 19-year veteran pitcher Billy Chapel, a lifelong Hawk (I can't even write it without laughing) who is destined for the Hall of Fame (alongside Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice, who were just inducted today. Rice, of course, played for the Boston Bulldogs, and Henderson was a prolific base-stealer for the Oakland Eagles).

But on the eve of his last start of the season, Billy learns he's going to be traded to a team on the West Coast. See, the longtime owner of the Hawks (ha) died a few years earlier, leaving his sons to run the team. With him died his promise to never trade Chapel. Billy must decide whether to accept the trade and head West or just hang 'em up for good.

Shortly after the news of the trade, Billy's long-time occasional girlfriend, says she's getting married to someone else, and delivers the unkindest cut of all: "You don't need me, Billy."

So Chapel has a lot on his plate. He goes to the ballpark to pitch against the Yankees, and the book takes an interesting (if not overdone) structure: he pitches an inning, then sits in the dugout and thinks about Carol and the trade, then back to the mound, then back to thinking. The formula works in the way that good thrillers work: when he's pitching, you just want Shaara to get back to the Carol-trade backstory; when he's in the dugout, you just want him to head back to the mound.

Unbeknownst to Billy, whose mind is elsewhere, he's pitching a gem, and he realizes later than everyone else in the park that he's working on a perfect game.

It's not a bad read, although I don't think it's in the same class as "The Natural," "The Celebrant," the Wiggen books and the other baseball fiction classics. But this is maybe the shortest book I've reviewed yet except for the short story-turned-novella "A Ticket for a Seamstitch." A fast reader could finish it in an afternoon; I'm a pretty slow reader, and it only took me three or four days.

Now, back to that movie. Sam Raimi had the foresight to place Billy Chapel on a real team (the Detroit Tigers). But that wasn't the only change. In the movie, the female lead is not getting married, she's leaving to take a job in London. She also has a daughter (not in the book), and there's some weird plotline about her car breaking down on the highway and Billy helping her out. Oh, yeah, and in the movie she's not named Carol Grey. It's Jane Aubrey (who knows why they would make that change).

All in all, the movie is about as good as the book.

What the movie did give us is a good visual in the much superior Kevin Costner movie, "The Upside of Anger," in which Costner plays an ex-ballplayer. In one scene a poster of Costner wearing a Tigers uniform can be seen in the background; it's a still photo from "For Love of the Game."

--Matt Kelsey

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