A few years ago, a good friend of mine coached his son's Little League team in Texas. Throughout the season, I lived vicariously through the wins and the losses, the humorous and serious moments --- and the true challenge of the game. No, I am not talking about throwing a fastball or clocking one out of the ballpark, but rather the delicate art of dealing with the parents who function as pseudo-coaches and agents on the sidelines unbalancing their children's psyches.
When JOY IN MUDVILLE crossed my desk, I was eager to see how another coach had portrayed his season in the suburban field of dreams. Let's clarify here: I am not a huge die-hard baseball fan. My older son is not interested in sports; my younger one is not old enough to be involved. I usually tune into the Major Leagues about the time the playoffs begin. But nonetheless Greg Mitchell's book captivated me.
As its "A Little League Memoir" tagline proclaims, Mitchell explores his winning season and walks readers down the path to this glorious victory in a way that they can savor the win as he does. It is also the story of Mitchell's love of the game and a commentary on youth sports of today. The author shares his own emotions about the game, the kind of thing most Little League coaches never reveal to their players as they efficiently march down the fields with their clipboards and at least outwardly project a serious plan.
MUDVILLE is also the story of Mitchell and his son, Andy, who has been raised in a world where the purity of baseball devotion has been tainted by other diversions like Nintendo and MTV --- something Mitchell regrets. The story of their pilgrimage to Cooperstown and their days at Shea are ones any parent and child can relate to.
When the father and not the coach describes Andy's moments on the pitcher's mound, every parent can feel the knot that forms in the pit of your stomach when your child is in the spotlight and the weight of the game is upon him. One note: before reading MUDVILLE I had been unaware of the unspoken rule that the manager must be tougher on his own child to ensure his fairness among the other players. Hmmmm.
In an early chapter Mitchell explores his childhood baseball recollections --- he never played Little League as a child, he played catch with his dad just once in his life. This quick, but strongly written section is one example of the emotional reality that makes the book work.
Serious moments of reflection aside, MUDVILLE is laced with humor. I liken his self-deprecating style to an intellectual Dave Barry talking about the reality of suburban life while still pounding on the game. There were moments that made me laugh. Others when I would turn to whomever was nearby and point to a passage and command --- read.
MUDVILLE is liberally sprinkled with quotes from players --- and many outside the game. Sure there are the expected Yogi-isms, but Mitchell also nails quotes from such unlikely sources as John Cheever. One aside: I think that baseball announcers have the toughest job of commentating because they have to talk endlessly while "nothing" is going on action-wise. As a result baseball lends itself to endless punchy quotes and the ones here are some of the sharper ones I have read.
Mitchell also tells tales of his time spent playing ball in Central Park, where celebrities join the common folk for the love of the game. References to Bruce Springsteen (who accompanied the author to a Mayor's Trophy game at Shea), Meat Loaf and Jodie Foster give the book some star quality. But this is balanced with stories of the Aliens, the name of Mitchell's Little League team whose kids have nicknames like Question Man and Matt the Bat. Both work and neither upstages the other.
JOY IN MUDVILLE is a joy to read --- and a perfect gift.
Reviewed by Carol Fitzgerald on January 22, 2011