Hope, of course, is not only Emily Dickinson’s “thing with feathers”; it can be the corniest of bywords, the endlessly repeated emblem of every social reformer and even the occasional presidential candidate. Our fatigue with the word is almost as great as our fatigue with the urban ills of violence and despair that hope is meant to do battle with. Yet the word could have been the title to this remarkable journal of a year with a Little League baseball team in a Chicago project. Could have been, that is, if author Daniel Coyle weren’t so resolutely, resourcefully, unsentimental.
“In the spring of 1991,” writes Coyle, a sometime editor at Outside Magazine, “I volunteered to coach in a new Little League being established at the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago.” It’s the following season, the summer of 1992, that Coyle chronicles “from first practice to last pitch.”
You’re probably thinking just what this reviewer was: Here comes the well-meaning procession of cliches showing do-gooders at work with good-hearted kids stuck in the inner city, finally ennobled by the great American game. Well, this story’s small flock of young urban professional coaches are essentially do-gooders, the kids essentially good-hearted, and yes, redemption of a sort tags a ride on baseball. But Coyle’s vital strategy here is to make use of his very acute ear, and what sticks with us are the angrily comic, street-burnished voices of the 9- to 12-year-olds the coaches just barely control. “Man!” yells the rebellious Jalen to head coach Bill during infield practice, “This phony ! When you gonna let us hit?” When he gets to the plate later, he’s carrying a 34-inch wooden monster he’s inscribed “Rude Dude”; it’s two-thirds his height. “Those bats is buster bats,” Jalen says, using a pejorative we’ll often hear dismissing the team’s equipment. As he finally swings late at a pitch, Coach Brad mutters to a colleague, “Is he batting or tossing the caber?”
Much of the book consists of canny eavesdropping on this sort of dialogue--an anecdotal history of the coaches’ long campaign to keep their charges in line and learning the game. Flare-ups and truces alternate in quick succession, and Coyle frequently traces the personality traits various players reveal in the (just a tad overlong) game sequences back to their home and family environments. These sections, employing the author’s reliable knack for noting telling details, are brief but seldom simplistic.
Three of the team’s dozen-plus regulars lose their fathers in the course of the season. These street-talking, often sarcastic, cynical or cruel players are in fact still children, and Coyle seldom shows their bravado without some insight revealing the pain underneath. The remote Maurice “sometimes imagined that his father was not a skinny junkie, but someone else, a famous athlete, maybe, someone who would, when Maurice was a famous athlete himself, come forward and reveal the truth.”
Life promises little to these boys. When the author describes a neighborhood group of old men who drink wine outside the stable where the tourist-hauling carriage horses dwell, he is at his most effectively deadpan: “For a nickel and a bottle of Wild Irish, they said, they’d trade places. Three squares a day, afternoons hauling folks around the Gold Coast (a nearby wealthy enclave). Hispanic boys combing your back. It wouldn’t be half-bad.”
If the kids often rebuke their leaders, then scam them for free pizza as a reward for home runs, the coaches know it’s partly due to their own temporary investment in the youngsters’ lives. Coaches Bill and Brad and Cort and Kevin can (Eds: A federal judge today agreed to set $350,000 bail for a Valencia bodyguard, who was arrested last week with a cache of unregistered machine guns and explosives. Story coming.) drive off in their Jeeps and red Saabs one day, but the kids will remain on these streets where their friends “could imitate the reports of different guns like birdcalls.” The team names neatly capture the societal gulf between the coaches and the players: the Morgan Stanley & Co. Mau Mau, the Merrill Lynch Watusi. We follow the First Chicago Near North Kikuyus and we get to know them well (no mention is made that the African tribe of that name were central to Isak Dinesen’s “Out of Africa”).
There’s been a good deal of chin-pulling over the years regarding what’s called Black English, and if its constant use here doesn’t offend the PC police, the view of the league’s neighborhood organizer Al Carter threatens to. The compellingly passionate league spearhead, Bob Muzikowski, vies with Carter sporadically through the book’s middle passages. At one stage he accuses him of misusing grant funds. We have just about cast Carter as the villain when Coyle, stepping in with typically thorough reportage, shows the man’s history of encountering racism, and lets us see where his anger and sullenness almost certainly came from. He’s not exonerated, but we at least understand him.
Coyle, interestingly, hides himself among the pseudonymous coaches. The book’s story recounts a struggle, but not one man’s struggle. It almost shouldn’t matter that these Kikuyus emerge from incompetence to vie for the championship, and yet that ascent may be why Paramount Pictures has bought rights to “Hardball.” After appreciating this book for its sharp observation, its unostentatious but neatly descriptive prose, its steady track past or even through all the possible cliches, one would hate to see it “punched up.” The final game ends as a novelist, not a producer, would have things. We witness the team’s actual triumph in the microcosm of Jalen and Coach Bill eyeing each other as the group chooses partners, pupil matching with tutor for a local youth center program. “Jalen hadn’t been considered eagerly by anyone,” Bill reflects. “Too much of a headache, one coach said. . . .”
Better to discover the rest on one’s own. Suffice it to say that Coyle’s vision of hope has been raised, by subtle accretion of incident and insight, into a very useful parable for urban America’s would-be rescuers. One small group’s patient, faltering trip toward real brotherhood has been shown, without tears or puffery. Eventually we see the coaches’ cars, loaded with players after a post-game party, “heading south, back to the projects, and as they accelerated into the dark streets, a dozen small hands could be seen sticking out of the windows, trying to capture the air.”
Nothing phony about that, or about this book, which deserves recognition as a landmark for its times, in the place called urban America.