Monday, March 5, 2007

Heat by Mike Lupica

Here's the story of a 12 year old Cuban boy whose family fled Cuba to the USA so that this boy, blessed with "the arm" can play baseball in America, and hopefully make it to the Little League World Series and eventually "the show."

Now, I am the acknowledged baseball book reader in the children's department in the library. I like baseball, I have a baseball-crazy nine-year old who likes baseball books, and I have a tendency to be one of the people who is willing to read the "boy" books. So I've read a lot of kids playing baseball and trying to pull out the big game books. Some of the best - like "The Boy Who Saved Baseball" or Dan Gutman's "Baseball Card Adventure" books - are very good indeed. Some of the others - like Mike Christopher's baseball books - are journeyman formula books that work for their audience. But let's just say the writers struggle hard to get past the whole team in the big game, something happens to jeopardize their chances, they somehow pull it out formula.

Lupica has a twist on the story in that his main character is a preternaturally gifted boy who is dogged by a real-life scandal that could kill his Little League dreams. The book makes several references to the 2001 Danny Almonte scandal. This was when a parent, coach, and others passed a Dominican boy off as 2 years younger than he was in order to play him in Little League. The real-life boy pitcher took his team to the Little League World Series, where he posted the first perfect game pitched in the series since 1957. His records were later stripped from the record books when investigation revealed he was older than his coach and parents insisted. In Lupica's book, this scandal tars Miguel Arroyo while he and his brother work hard to hide another devastating secret.

Lupica is a sportswriter and knows his baseball, even his Little League baseball, and he pretty accurately skewers some of the more obnoxious types of kids AND coaches you find in Little League, but I wonder if he's had much contact with 12-year old boys lately, not to mention 12-year old immigrant boys who are living a supposedly hand-to-mouth existence in the Bronx. In my mind, the book has two big strikes against it - the worst is wooden and unrealistic dialogue and a main character who just doesn't feel very real. The second is repeated scenes where boys who can hardly afford the rent eat brand name foods like Coke and Oreos. Maybe it's nitpicky of me, but the details in this book bothered me immensely. So in the end I guess I'd say while the story is very good, the book itself falls short, and might not be the best pick unless you're giving it to a child who is a baseball nut.

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