April 08, 2010


High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time. By Tim Wendel. Da Capo. $25.

Roy Morelli Steps Up to the Plate. By Thatcher Heldring. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

The Fast and the Furriest. By Andy Behrens. Knopf. $15.99.

     Whether they are adults or preteens, readers enamored of oddities in baseball and other sports will find something to enjoy in these for-fans-only books. High Heat is nonfiction containing plenty of fiction, as USA Today Baseball Weekly founding editor Tim Wendel marches through baseball myth and legend as well as its verifiable records to track down everything about the fastball from how it developed to how it is even possible. (Think about it: a human being throwing an object at a speed of more than 100 miles per hour seems inherently absurd.) Muscle mass vs. torque, sheer arm strength vs. control – these and other factors that go into fastball pitching are only some of the things that Wendel explores. Certainly his research is extensive, and it is primary research whenever possible: he spends a lot of time talking with scouts as well as with Hall of Fame pitchers and some also-rans and almost-theres. One of the most fascinating people in the book is Steve Dalkowski, who was supposedly able to throw a ball more than 105 miles per hour but who, because of an injury, never played in the major leagues – and who became homeless in California before recovering from alcoholism and becoming the basis of the pitcher in the movie Bull Durham. There are plenty of other highly interesting characters here as well, and the emphasis on the importance of scouts is a welcome change from the celebrity orientation of so many sports books. Still, this is very much a book for fanatical fans only, filled with specifics of long-ago games and with names and dates that only a chronicler could love: “In 1973, his second season with the Angels, [Nolan] Ryan quickly served notice that those sideline sessions would lead to an even bigger payoff. On May 15, against the Royals in Kansas City, he took a no-hitter into the eighth inning. An over-the-shoulder grab by shortstop Rudi Meoli kept the Royals hitless. In the ninth, it came down to Ryan against Kansas City’s centerfielder, Amos Otis.” Lovers of this sort of detail will find the book irresistible, but those looking to find out who was the fastest pitcher of all time will be disappointed, since Wendel concludes that there are too many variables (of time and measurement technique) to know for sure.

     Roy Morelli Steps Up to the Plate is fiction, not fact, and is about baseball at levels far below the major leagues, but it too is aimed strictly at the game’s most devoted fans. This is Thatcher Heldring’s second book, and it is a follow-up to his first, Toby Wheeler: Eighth-Grade Benchwarmer. As such, it covers much of the same emotional territory with a different protagonist. Here the central character is eighth-grader Roy Morelli, who is determined to play shortstop for the local all-stars and then move on to the high-school varsity. But he is failing history in school, and his divorced parents make him quit the team – which means he ends up on a losing team in a very minor minor league, and is stuck spending afternoons with a history tutor (who, to complicate matters further, is his father’s girlfriend). Roy’s attitude deteriorates, his playing does likewise, his teammates turn against him, he can’t get the cute girl who is the only likable thing about history to pay attention to him, and any young reader can probably see where this is going. And that is just where it goes, as Roy learns that causing disturbances in class isn’t cool, and as for his teammates, “I was ready to make peace, but I wasn’t sure how to do it.” Eventually, Roy apologizes to his coach, who in turn tells Roy that the guys on the team “make you look bad because they don’t trust you. Because you don’t trust them.” So Roy learns both history and trust, and his successes set him on the road toward what he has wanted all along, and although there is nothing even slightly surprising about the book’s outcome, baseball-oriented preteen readers will cheer along with it.

     Devotion to sports is not quite as necessary to enjoy The Fast and the Furriest, but a love of football will certainly help. The 12-year-old protagonist here is Kevin Pugh, who is the son of a Chicago Bears player but whose own football skills show up only in video-game form. This is yet another novel of finding oneself and gaining self-esteem, but what sets Andy Behrens’ book apart from most others is that Kevin’s accomplishments come not through what he does for himself but through what he does for – his dog. Yes, the real central character here is a part-beagle named Cromwell, who watches TV with Kevin and has as little interest in physical activity as Kevin does. But then Cromwell, a more perceptive TV observer than most humans (let alone dogs), sees a dog agility show and decides that that is what he wants to do, too. This gets Kevin interested – but unfortunately, he is heading to football camp, since that is where his father wants him. So Kevin has to a) get thrown out of camp; b) find a way to train with Cromwell in secret; c) get into dog-agility competitions; d) win them; and e) have everyone and everydog live happily ever after. That is pretty much the way the novel goes, although things do not progress quite as smoothly as all that. Kevin’s best friend, Zach, proves to be a big help, and so does an oddball agility trainer named Elka Brandt. But Zach proves a liability as well, and Kevin’s reactions to some of Elka’s ideas – about music, for instance – are less than charitable. Some elements of the book are fun, and some are funny, but some are rather unpleasant. For example, Kevin gets thrown out of camp because he is responsible for breaking another boy’s nose and tooth – but his father likes his aggressiveness, so he is not punished beyond being expelled from camp (which is what he wanted). This violence-in-sports-is-a-good-thing attitude is distinctly unappealing, even when played for laughs. On the other hand, Cromwell’s adventures and misadventures are a lot of fun, as when, early in his training, “Cromwell lost to everyone, including a deaf terrier with benign tumors on its rear paws.” Kevin’s eventual success is inevitable, and the family problems he has to negotiate on the way are inevitable, and the complications involving his friends are inevitable. But thanks to the presence of Cromwell – in many ways the book’s most interesting character – The Fast and the Furriest is enjoyable even when it is at its most obvious. Well, much of the time, anyway.

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