Saturday, April 04, 2009

Gym Candy: Baseball Great by Tim Green

Tucker reached into his rain jacket pocket and removed an amber vial with a white plastic cap. A pill bottle, just like you'd get from a doctor. He twisted off the lid and shook a pill into Josh's hand. The smooth white lozenge bore an imprint that read A17.

"Gym candy," Tucker said. "You take one in the morning and one at night, before you eat."

"But what is it?" Josh asked.

"Good for you is what it is, " Tucker said. "What? You don't trust me?"

"Yeah, I do," Josh said, giving back the pill.

"You won't believe how strong you're gonna get," Tucker said. "It's a team thing, Junior."

Josh LeBlanc is a twelve-year-old phenomenon at shortstop. His dad, a first-round draft pick for the Toronto organization right out of high school, has just been cut from his AAA team after thirteen years of never quite making the big leagues, and he places all his hopes on Josh. When his dad finds a sales job selling nutritional supplements with Rocky Valentine's youth league organization, he wangles a tryout for Josh with the fourteen year old travel team. But when he makes the team, Josh is faced with overt hostility from the older players who resent the loss of the player he replaces.

Feeling that he must succeed to help his dad keep his job, Josh gives the team everything he's got. For the first time he's expected to work out in the weight room, endure brutal practices, and down a muscle-building drink called Super Stax twice a day. And when he manages to get a hit which drives home the winning run in the ninth inning of a crucial game, Josh finds himself finally accepted as one of the team.

But then he discovers that there is one more thing he must do to meet the demands of Coach Valentine and the team. Teammate Tucker secretly slips him a bottle of "gym candy," and Josh is pretty sure that what he is being told to take are steroids. To verify what the drugs are, Josh tells his new friend Jaden about the meeting. She slips her physician dad's Physician's Desk Reference out of his office and identifies the drug.

Jaden urges Josh to go straight to the police, but he knows that the revelation of illegal drug use by Valentine's teams will cause his father to lose the job he needs so badly. Instead he suggests that they try to photograph Rocky taking delivery of the drugs behind the local hospital where Josh has seen Rocky's car parked often, planning to blackmail the coach into stopping the distribution of the drug. Reluctantly, would-be journalist Jaden agrees to help stake out the loading dock that night with her cell phone camera, and the two manage to get one quick flash photo of Rocky taking a bag from a shadowy figure in a lab coat.

Splitting up, Josh and Jaden manage to elude Rocky's pursuit without being identified, but when Jaden gets home and looks at the photograph she has taken, she sees that the doctor providing the steroids is her own father, and the two seventh-graders realize that they are in the middle of a wrenching personal as well as legal problem.

Like his previous hits, Football Genius and Football Hero, Tim Green's Baseball Great offers sports-loving middle readers a baseball story with plenty of taut gameplay, believable middle school social dynamics, and a realistic moral choice faced too often by young athletes. Green writes compelling stories of talented youngsters driven to compete in team sports which hold their own with the novels of Gordon Korman, Mike Lupica, and, of course, the old master Matt Christopher. But Green's books adds elements of the suspense thriller in the up-to-the-minute moral dilemmas in which he places his young heroes, calling into question the morality of the win-at-any-cost ethos which today permeates even youth sports and deepening his theme of what achieving a personal best in life really means.

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