Anybody's Ballgame: Six Innings by James Preller
Confidence shaken, with first base open, Clemente pitches carefully. The count runs full. Branden lines the next pitch into shortstop Justin Pinkney's glove for the third out. Branden is hitless in three trips to the plate.
Even so, the Earl Grubbs dugout is pulsing with electricity. They were losing and they answered with two runs of their own. The whole season had come down to one game, and now that final game has been whittled down, out by out, to an inning and a half. Deadlocked at three.
Two Little League teams, Earl Grubbs Pool Supplies vs. Northeast Gas & Electric, meet for the town championship. It could be anywhere in America, any 24 kids. Some pray only for a walk instead of a chance to watch three strikes go by, for the ball to come to anyone but them. For some the prayer is for one more at bat, one more chance to make the play.
For one kid, Sam Reiser, the prayer is just for a chance to play the game again.
James Preller's latest, Six Innings is a bit of a tour de force of a sports story. The whole novel takes place during the six innings of a local championship game--with the exception of the first chapter in which we meet Sam Reiser, awakening before 7 A.M. on the day of the game. With few details at first, we slowly learn that Sam has recently experienced some kind of disability which keeps him from playing ball with his teammates, but allows him to call the game from the small concrete "press box" near the field. Sam is tired and depressed even as he wakes, and we learn that he both loves and dreads announcing a game he cannot join, watching his longtime friend and teammate Mike play from his spot up in the booth.
Preller's game play writing is polished and suspenseful, full of tension as errors and great plays, strikeouts and wild pitches, shape the final outcome. Two pitchers make it to the last inning, only to tire and see relievers come in to win or lose what had been their game to win. Marty Carbonoski, a big-footed, flabby klutz of a sub hits a bases-loaded homer, and little Patrick Wong, who is afraid to take a swing, forces home a run when he keeps his bat firmly on his faithful shoulder to draw the fateful walk which pushes in a score. Mike gets a solid hit, and Sam meets his eyes across the field, both happy for his friend and envious of his chance just to play the game.
Despite the suspense of the play on the field, the real story, of course, is that of each player revealed as the game plays itself out, each recognizable to every reader and yet a unique character. Clemente, the overgrown fastball pitcher and son of the coach, can't finish the game, and Max Young, who has practiced solo in his backyard, playing out famous scenarios in his head in which he faces down Ted Williams and Ty Cobb, comes in from the field to close the game. The winners celebrate; the losers turn to go home quietly.
Up in the booth Sam closes the scorebook, tucks the pencil into the spiral binding, stretches his arms, yawns.
His eyes drift from the happy revelers to the dejected Northeast team. To his surprise, Sam sympathizes most with Nick Clemente, bat still in his hands, still waiting on deck. The star player still yearning for one final chance to win the game.
Sam knows how he feels.
If only....if only.....
Writing with the skill and finesse of a Mike Lupica best-seller, Preller takes full advantage of the dramatic tension of which baseball is capable without losing a step in character development. A story which even non-fan adults will love, Six Innings is a great junior novel which will leave readers understanding more about the game and more about the human heart.
This one's out of the park.