May 20, 2012

Baseball Strikes Again!

Baseball is a long season, almost a prototype for the classic Survivor slogan: Outwit, Outplay, Outlast. As excited as I was on opening day, I'm sad to report that my home team BREWERS have faced a trifecta of season-ending injuries and several others that range from from "nagging" to serious. Our impressive first day line-up has been shaken and stirred, but not yet consumed by this stroke of lousy luck.

In fact, the team continues to adjust, adapt, and endure. Sometimes winning, even if not as often as they would with a healthy team. Why? Of course, because they represent a wealth of talented players who are well-paid to do so. One reason I love this team, though, is the character and heart they display, trumping the miserable hand of fate with energy and oomph just when it is needed most.

I didn't grow up loving baseball, but the Brewers wooed me and won my devotion. There's just something about baseball... and I don't seem to be alone in that opinion. Several nonfiction picture books explore the love story that is baseball.

Perhaps the best example of playing for the love of the game can be found in BROTHERS AT BAT:The True Story of An Amazing All Brother Baseball Team by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Steven Salerno. In the 1930's many families had lots of kids, and the Acerra family of New Jersey was no exception. All twelve brothers played baseball, but the four sisters didn't. In those days "sports were just for boys", although Salerno's period pictures clearly show that these sisters didn't agree with that presumption.
Each brother developed his own distinctive and impressive talent. In one game brother Alfred was blinded in one eye by a bunt gone wrong, but his brothers worked with him until he became "a pretty good one-eyed catcher". Four of the brothers went off to war, but each eventually returned to rejoin the team. It wasn't until 1997 that their unique family team was honored in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Don't miss the author's and illustrator's notes at the back for even more inspiring background information about this remarkable family of baseball fanatics.

Baseball is a truly American sport. As the author's note indicates, in 1845, the year Lipman was born, the first official set of rules were drawn up to change a child's game into a sport played by adults. LIPMAN PIKE: America's First Home Run King, by Richard Michelson and illustrated by Zachary Pullen, is the story of speedy young "Lip" and his love of the game called "Base". He eventually battled his father's resistance, anti-semitism, and government corruption to apply his unequaled speed and hitting power to the game he loved.
We've all become convinced that superior sports talent will translate to big paychecks, life-changing paychecks. It wasn't until 1871 that the first all-professional (paid) league was formed. Lipman's earliest payments were "unofficial" and just $20 a week. One inflation calculator shows that Lipman, the leading player of the day, was paid the equivalent of about $280 per week. Professional players like Pike worked full time jobs in "real" life to allow them to live out their baseball dreams, playing with the best.

Yet another look back in time can be found in PLAYERS IN PIGTAILS by Shana Corey, illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon. The lead character, Katie, is a fictional composite of the very real young women who seized the opportunity to play professional baseball when history took most of the professional players off to fight World War II. No less than President Roosevelt himself mandated that baseball remain viable for the sake of the nation's morale. Just as women moved into factories they also took on the world of sports.
Katie's story is timeless- a girl whose talent and interests focused on sports, but the world judged her on traditional expectations- cooking, dancing, knitting. Until fate offered up the opportunity to live out her own baseball dreams.
The author's note reveals a surprise about the familiar "Casey at the Bat" and adds even more intriguing details about the way the AAGPBL came to be at that time. (All American Girls' Professional Baseball League).

Now for a nod to a title set in present day that partners well with these picture books,
This story in verse speaks in the voice of Kevin, a fourteen year old boy, confined at home "resting" until given the "all clear" from mono, his tall, lean, baseball body losing its strength and instincts. The down time with his writer father involves a journal, a book on poetry forms, and plenty of time to reflect on baseball, girls, and his deceased mother, among other topics. Once he is back on the team he warms the bench, still writing, and sees people (including himself and girls) through new eyes.

Writing will do that to you.

Baseball's beauty is in offering a season long enough for overcoming adversity, gaining insights, and leading with your heart.

Not unlike the characters and story in a good book.

Cliche` or not, baseball (Life?) is a marathon, not a sprint. Reading and writing (and injuries) point out lessons along the way.

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