Fathers, Sons, and the Holy Ghosts of Baseball
By Tommy Murray
Beaver’s Pond Press, 405 pp.
By Jim Swearingen
Baseball or politics? If you’ve flipped past the political atrocities on cable news this summer to watch your hometown team’s pursuit of October glory, life may have retained some nostalgic sense of order and constancy. “This must be heaven,” Shoeless Joe Jackson declares to Ray Kinsella in the novel that would later become Field of Dreams. “No,” replies Kinsella, “it’s Iowa.” And the Hawkeye State is the setting once again for a captivating baseball novel by Tommy Murray. This is only Murray’s second outing as a novelist, but the story is a home run.
Murray has written the tale of one season, savory in its summer slowness, punctuated with nail-biting conflicts and rescues. The novel revolves around a small town baseball team, pacing itself like a nine inning crescendo. In a Midwestern hamlet that long ago linked its heart and identity to the parish high school team, three elderly men, who have coached at Holy Trinity High School for decades, vow to capture the elusive state final championship game that they have never been able to clinch. Win the big kahuna and retire for good is their plan.
The Cottage Park Holy Trinity team, like most baseball squads, is comprised of a motley collection of high school players variously grappling with ego, fear, ambition, delinquency, teen pregnancy, parental abuse, death, and the burning itch to dust the little provincial Iowa town off themselves forever.
Their octogenarian coaches Murphy, Ryan, and Egg—“the olds,” as their teenage players refer to them—represent a generation intolerant of excuses and euphemisms and bad manners. Success is made the old-fashioned way, in baseball as in life, by earning every hit. In Cottage Park, the old men raise these boys to approach baseball not as a game or a pastime, but as an earnestly serious expression of attentiveness, humility, and precision.
The coaches offer the remedies of hard work, duty, and discipline to treat disability and delinquency in their young players. They are not about to coach these boys with new-fangled approaches like pep-talks, timeouts, or empathetic adolescent psychology. To them, barking orders ensures attention and compliance. Before the days of student-centered learning, these curmudgeonly teachers exacted obedience to avert disaster—both in the game itself, and in the boys’ own lives.
A large part of the story is told through the eyes of T.J., a fourteen-year-old ne’er-do-well whose mother has brought him back to her hometown as a last resort escape from his probation officers and reform schools. Her tearful pleas for Egg’s help in turning T.J. straight trigger a series of carefully orchestrated tasks designed to foster the boy’s confidence and self-respect. Together, through a series of maturation rites, the old men tutor him in patience and generosity, attentiveness and loyalty. By the end of the season, in spite of his resistance, T.J. has discovered his best self.
Murray captures with economy and tension the sounds and smells, the compromises and disappointments hovering in a Midwestern kitchen. The relationship between the boys on the team and their fathers reveals all of the pride, anxiety, and jealousy that one generation can feel for the next. Whether respecting the individuality of their sons’ choices, or attempting to savagely beat it out of them, the fathers appreciate the preciousness of the moments that their sons seem impatient to have over.
Murray’s characters also turn several rural Midwestern tropes on their heads. One of the coaches frequently riffs on God’s femininity, while another—Ryan, the Catholic priest—ordains a 95-year-old woman to administer the sacraments at her nursing home to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The sacrilege lands him in the Bishop’s office.
Murray also weaves in the political maneuvering of a manipulative high school principal, eager to remove the three independent-minded coaches and replace them with a more malleable and completely unschooled rookie teacher. The conspiracy dramatizes the emerging new world order, which values compliance over integrity and experience.
As 300 pages methodically build to the State Finals, the last hundred chronicle every pitch and emotion as Holy Trinity takes their last game down to the final out. Murray deftly tells us so much about Holy Trinity’s last opponent, Davenport East High, one longs for another 100 pages to tell us their rival team’s story. He draws on years of inner-city high school experience as a teacher and administrator to tell us a perpendicular story that collides with Holy Trinity’s in the final contest.
Murray writes with the perceptiveness of one who has spent decades working with teenagers, tolerating their immaturity while refining their mettle. And he shares their precocious insight into the authenticity of the adults around them. His young characters instinctively recognize the concern behind their old coaches’ barking and the indifference embedded in the new coach’s congeniality.
“Dull only to dull minds,” Red Barber is credited with saying of baseball. The game encapsulates that precious moment between boundless, daring energy and quiet, measured wisdom. It attends to what to do, when to do it, and above all, how to react appropriately. To appreciate the drama of a game, as with this story, is to look for the extraordinary in the seemingly mundane.
Murray’s novel mixes Pete Hamill’s pacing and characters with a touch of Mitch Albom’s mysticism. It combines the down-home folksiness of W.P. Kinsella with the throw-at-their heads combativeness of Leo Durocher. Cottage Park is still a hard-drinking, quick-tempered world where men wear a sense of justice on their sleeve and never duck a fight over principle.
Such small town virtues seem a distant, nostalgic memory in these disturbing times. If literature—or baseball for that matter—has anything to teach us in this frenetic, impatient age of ours, it might be the rediscovery of restraint and humility, dedication and hard work—virtues that “the olds” instill in all the boys of Tommy Murray’s summer.