Friday, June 15, 2012

Hitting the Limits: Ted and Me by Dan Gutman

"Let me get right to the point, Joseph," he said. We at the Bureau know all about your...uh,...shall we say, gift."

"We know that you can travel through time using baseball cards."

"How did you find out that Joey can travel through time?" my mother asked.

"It's our job to find things out." Agent Pluto leaned forward in the chair. He lowered his voice slightly, as if there was someone in the next room.

"Joseph, do you now what happened on December 7th, 1941?"

When the FBI comes calling and asks him to help prevent the attack on Pearl Harbor and perhaps avert World War II, Joey Stoshack pays attention, and as a baseball fan, he is more than thrilled at the prospect of recruiting the famous hitter Ted Williams to help him get to President Roosevelt and warn him of Japan's plan to launch a sneak air attack on the American Pacific fleet.

But it seems that the FBI is not infallible. The rare baseball card Agent Pluto gives Stosh is doesn't take him to 1941. It takes him to 1953, where he finds himself in the cockpit of a fighter-bomber being piloted by Ted Williams in the Korean War. A MIG manages to hit their plane, and Williams struggles to get back across the Yalu River into friendly territory before it comes down:

"Can you land it?" I asked.

"We're about to find out, now aren't we," Ted growled. "In case I can't, it's been nice knowing you, Junior."

Luckily for Stosh, Williams manages to crash-land his damaged plane in no-man's-land, but Stosh finds himself hiding in a ditch in North Korea, and is forced to use his rescue 2012 baseball cards to get himself back to the present.

Apologies are in order from the FBI, but Agent Pluto implores Stosh to try again, this time with the right card from 1941. This time Stosh finds himself in Philadelphia, just in time for the Red Sox' last game, with Williams' record-breaking season about to end, as the hitter, despite the Red Sox manager's offer to let him sit out the game to ensure his .400 average, goes four for six in a double header to end the season at .406.

Stosh finds the famous hitter a flawed hero. Williams curses like the sailor/Marine he soon will be, and his famous temper turns out to be no legend. Still, Stosh's ability to predict every hit in that last game convinces Williams of the truth of his mission, and at last the two set out in Williams' battered station wagon to drive to Washington. "I'm %*$#&$! Ted Williams!" Ted boasts, sure that Roosevelt will welcome them to the White House. Williams, however, is in no hurry to save the world. Along the way he stops off for a bit of fly fishing in a "borrowed" boat, and then near Washington, he pulls off the road as he spots a huge rally of the America First Party, headlined by hero Charles Lindbergh. Stosh has heard of "Lucky Lindy's" first solo flight across the Atlantic and goes happily along with the plan until Ted disappears into the crowd with a flirtatious girl and Stosh gets a earful of Lindbergh's personal beliefs:

So it was an antiwar rally. I had heard about the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War, but I didn't know they had them before that.

It took a minute for it to sink in that I was listening to a racist speech.

"There are three important groups who have been pressing this country toward war," said Lindbergh, "the Roosevelt administration, the British, and the Jewish. This tragedy is preventable if we can build a Western Wall of race and arms to hold back the infiltration of inferior blood."

"Judien schwein!" somebody hollered.

"Inferior blood?" I turned around and saw some people giving Nazi salutes.

"What are you talking about?" I asked the guy next to me. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground.

Stosh find himself forced to make a choice that could change history as he is battered by the angry crowd around him.

As usual, Dan Gutman's Ted & Me (Baseball Card Adventures) (Harper, 2012) is more than a light-hearted, baseball hero fantasy, as Stosh finds out that the heroes of history, and history itself, are as messy and complex as those of his own time. It's the classic time-travel dilemma that also engages our idea of what the world should be. What might have happened had America averted Japan's attack and stayed out of the war in Europe? Millions would have lived, but would the world, on balance, have been better with a Nazi-powered Europe?

Gutman knows how to write fast-paced page turners for reluctant readers and yet engage with some of the realities of history. Modern middle readers have gone back with Stosh to meet many of the realities of our history in Gutman's books about Honus Wagner, Satchel Paige, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Roberto Clemente, to name just a few. A enjoyable read for baseball lovers, but also a glimpse into past events and their influence on current times that gives fans something significant to take away with them.

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