There are lots of novels about what happens on the baseball diamond, and lots more with baseball as the background to drama off the field. Mike Lupica's particular genius, though, is for getting on the page how sports are not just the games guys play, but the air they breathe and the blood in their veins. A newspaper and magazine sports columnist with a devoted following, Lupica has written successful children's (and adult) books about various sports, but as a Chicago Cubs family, we've found his books set in the world of youth baseball most compelling.
His latest novel, "The Big Field" (Philomel/Penguin Young Readers Group: $17.99, ages 9 and up), is all about being a guy, and all the unspoken and apparently unspeakable difficulties that guys have to learn to negotiate. Keith Hutchinson, known inevitably as "Hutch," plays on an American Legion 17-and-under team in Florida. After teaching him the essentials of being a shortstop, his father--who was once a rising local star headed for the Major Leagues--has mysteriously withdrawn. Hutch will find him in the evenings slumped in front of the television, beer in hand, watching a game with the sound off. There's an invisible force field around him; Hutch knows not to enter where he is not invited. The father rarely comes to his son's games, and even the prospect of Hutch leading his team to the championship fails to rouse him.
Meanwhile, Hutch has problems on his team. Their new shortstop, the guy who took Hutch's position due to his unquestionably superior ability, has a star's attitude. Darryl Williams doesn't have the work ethic good players need. Baseball seems to bore him sometimes, especially when it's practicing routine plays. Darryl notices and resents Hutch's position as leader of the team, sarcastically calling him "Captain" and putting him in harm's way during the coach's special workout known as "Extreme Infield." However, it's when Hutch's father seems to take an interest in the team's new star that Darryl really gets under Hutch's skin.
Lupica develops his characters with great subtlety while remaining true to the casual dugout manner. You'll never hear his guys having heart-to-hearts, but you will hear the trash talk that relaxes, the jokes only intimate friends share, the oblique remark that says "I was wrong" and the grunt that says "I accept your apology."
Things come to a head as the championship game approaches. Local media attention aggravates the rivalry between Hutch and Darryl, who has figured out Hutch's weak spot: Hutch is ashamed that his father, once headed for stardom, can barely hold down a job and is content to carry rich men's bags as a golf caddy and limo driver. Understanding begins to dawn when Hutch's mother tries to explain her husband to her son: "What he's doing is good, honest work. He's with good players most of the time, and when he helps them play better, it's a way for him to compete. He takes pride in it. And he's outdoors, not stuck behind some desk in an office, which always drove him crazy." This is not a vision of adulthood that most boys dreaming of Major League glory will see as noble, but Darryl, who has grown up without a father, makes Hutch see that he can be proud of a dad who cares enough to live with heartbreak and still take care of his family.
Baseball novels about girls tend to cast them as fans, but this is not second-class-citizen status, for in baseball, unique among sports, devoted fandom has at least as powerful an aura as spectacular playing. Linda Sue Park's novel, "Keeping Score" (Clarion Books/Houghton Mifflin: $16, ages 10 and up), set in the years before the Brooklyn Dodgers defected to Los Angeles and celebrating the almost lost art of scorekeeping, will warm the heart of the baseball historian as well as the nostalgic fan.
It's a great novel to share with grandparents. Listening to the radio is central to this story, and anyone who loves Vin Scully -- although Maggie, the novel's main character, regrets the departure of Red Barber -- must lament the days when most fans experienced the games through the announcer's voice: "[Maggie] would walk past the row of houses that looked just like hers, all built of dull brownish yellow brick, one window downstairs two windows up . . . Everyone would have their radios on, the sound of the game trailing in and out of each doorway like a long thread that tied the whole neighborhood together."
The Chicago Cubs have provided ample material for storytelling -- mostly of the tragic kind -- and it would be just wrong to enter their 100th season since winning a World Series title without a novel projecting a win. "The Comeback Season" by Jennifer E. Smith (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, $15.99. Ages 13 and up) is not a happy story, though, so it's best to save it for adolescent girls who adore fiction that gives them a good cry -- which is not as small a market as you might think. It's a novel about the complex deal-making that has become part of the lore of Cubs devotion. "If the Cubbies can just get out of this jam," a true believer will say, "I'll give up desserts for a month."
Ryan, daughter of an eternally optimistic Cubs supporter who died in a river-rafting accident, has finally found a kindred spirit in the new boy at school. It's a typically inarticulate first love, and when she finally learns Nick's secret trouble, she finds herself making the ultimate deal: "It's okay if the Cubs never win again," she thinks, "if only he would just be okay."
Then Ryan has to find a way to live with that bargain -- a piece of magical thinking that any baseball fan will recognize as eternally binding.
Sonja Bolle's Word Play column appears monthly.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times