Hitting a Slump: The Batboy by Mike Lupica
When he was at the ballpark, Brian was always where he wanted to be. Sometimes he felt more at home at Comerica than he did at his own home.
He still couldn't believe he'd gotten the job, over all the other kids in the Detroit area who wanted to spend the summer getting paid to be at Comerica for Tigers home games.
Even when he learns that he'll be sweeping up trash in the dugout and shining players' shoes until midnight, Brian Dudley knows that every time he puts on the Tiger's batboy uniform, he's living his own personal dream.
Brian knows that his hard-won ball skills which made him the last one picked for his summer travel team will never get him into the big leagues like his dad, Cole Dudley, whose junkball smarts earned him a few years in the majors. Now his dad has left the family, is thousands of miles away physically, coaching pitching in Japan, and millions of miles removed emotionally. Brian understands why his mom professes to hate baseball, the game itself, but even more the baseball dream which she blames for ending her marriage. "For most of my marriage," Brian's mom said to him one time, "I looked at baseball as the other woman." Still, Brian almost unconsciously hopes that his job with the Tigers will earn his father's attention and even bring back the closeness they use to share when they cheered from the stands together.
And then Brian's summer gets even better. His idol Hank Bishop is back as a designated hitter with the Tigers after a suspension for a failed steroid test. With Hank only a few homers short of the big 500, Brian just knows that this summer will be his hero Hank's comeback season and his chance to win his long-time hero's approval.
But Hank turns away all of Brian's attempts to make friends, even on his first day with the club:
"I just wanted you to know how happy I am you're back," Brian said.
"I get that," Hank said. "What I don't get is...was I talking to anybody?"
"Were you....?" Brian said. Not getting this. "No, sir."
"Then don't talk to me." Hank Bishop said.
Somehow his father's ignoring his emails and Hank Bishop's flat rejection of all overtures are all mixed up in Brian's mind, and his play with his own team, The Sting, usually his escape into another world, goes into a prolonged slump. Then, one night, when Brian decides to do some BP in the Tiger's batting cage after the game, Hank suddenly offers to give him some coaching, and Brian's hitting immediately improves. Even more inexplicable is the sudden attraction between his baseball-adverse mom and the laconic Hank.
Despite the disappointment of his distant father's overnight visit to scout players at Tiger stadium, things begin to look up for Brian's dream summer, and it looks like the race is on to see which one of them achieves his big goal first--for Brian hitting his first homerun and for Hank hitting number 500 for his career.
Mike Lupica, author of such best-sellers as The Big Field and Travel Team, fails to hit his personal best in his latest, The Batboy (Philomel, 2010). Although Lupica works some of his well-written game play action into this novel, putting his main character in the role of batboy rather than player puts most of the weight of the story on the psychological struggle within Brian, his efforts to win the approval of his dad and his boyhood baseball hero through his job with the Tigers. Lupica delineates Brian's emotional situation well enough, but then arranges an out-of-nowhere happy ending which manages to solve all his problems--his mom falls hard for Hank at first sight and becomes a red-hot, geared-up fan overnight; Brian finally gets his long ball with two down in the ninth to win his playoffs; and Hank accepts Brian's batting advice to pull out of his slump and looks to be in line for a return to stardom and a new role as Brian's step-dad. It's all a bit too much of a happy ending, a bit too easy a solution to life's problems, like a big fat slow pitch right over the plate in a clutch. Lupica has proven he can write upbeat but believable sport stories, and despite some really good moments, this new one is at best a scratch single.