Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Making the Call: Screaming at the Ump by Audrey Vernick

People always assumed I was going to be an umpire, like my dad and his dad. Or teach at their umpire school, Behind The Plate. But the thing about umpires is, if they do their job well, they aren't part of the story at all.

Not that I wanted to be part of the story. I never wanted to be a player.

I wanted to write about baseball, to report on it, to show how every game is unique.

And now I could finally get started.

It would all begin today.

For eleven-year-old Casey Snowden, starting middle school means one thing--the chance to write about sports for a newspaper. For years he's been writing up Little League games and games on television just for the fun of it, but now Casey runs up against a set of rules he didn't anticipate. On his school newspaper, sixth graders don't get to write. Period. They sell ads and do the scut work for the seventh and eighth graders who do the stories, and if they follow directions, they may get to learn to do copy editing by the year's end. For the first time in his life, Casey finds himself bucking a system of rules, arguing with the umpire, in this case, Mr. Donovan, the faculty adviser, that he should get to submit a story, any story, one that Casey has yet to come up with.

At home things are seemingly the same. His best friend Zeke is still obsessed with being a part of TV reality shows but still loyally helps him out with the jobs associated with getting the family business, Behind The Plate, the third-best of three umpire schools in the country, up and running for the month of October. Casey picks up on his father's moodiness, crediting it to the reduced numbers of this year's enrollment, and volunteers to take over the popular You Suck, Ump Day, a popular local event in which people are invited to come and harass the umpires-in-training, Zeke pitches in to help, and Casey tries to push away worries about Behind the Plate to concentrate on coming up with a sports story good enough to convince Mr. Donovan that he's a real writer.

Then Casey notices that one of their would-be umpires, who calls himself Patrick MacSophal, looks amazingly like a clean-cut version of J-Mac, baseball superstar who dropped off the sports radar when faced with clear evidence that he had taken steroids to accomplish his stats. What if this MacSophal is that J-Mac, incognito and trying to get back into baseball? That would be a sports story any magazine or newspaper would want to print, not to mention the Clay Coves Middle School paper. And then Casey overhears a muted conversation between his father and MacSophal that validates his suspicions. Casey can't understand why his dad would have anything to do with this guy, a guy who broke the big rules, the rules of fairness, but clearly Casey has a real scoop, and the article almost writes itself. Mr. Donovan can't help but be impressed by his work when he reads that story.

Donovan may be surprised by Casey's investigative reporting, but he is not impressed with his journalism.

"It's not a bad article, Casey. I'm not sure where to start. As we go through more meetings, you'll have a chance to learn a lot--about objectivity, the ethics of journalism, invasion of privacy, interviews. That's a good starting point. Given your access to this guy, I couldn't help but wonder where you got your information and why you didn't include an interview."

I was stunned.

"I recommend you interview this character. I think that would strengthen your piece considerably. You have to work hard to keep your own feelings out of the article."

Fairness and objectivity, getting into position to see the whole play, Casey thinks. Just what his dad tries to teach his student umpires every day. Maybe he's missing part of the play here. It seems he broke some of the rules of journalism because he thought they didn't apply to him, just because he wanted the result so much. But wasn't that just why J-Mac broke his rules?

Audrey Vernick's Screaming at the Ump (Houghton Mifflin Clarion, 2014) deals with that coming-of-age experience when a maturing character becomes aware that there is a wider point of view than he has been able to see before. In a middle-school setting with all its conflicts and humor, with a framework of struggling umpire school in New Jersey, author Verneck blends her setting and theme seamlessly to tell the story of an appealing character struggling to tell his own story in a familiar landscape that he sees changing under his own feet. What are the rules, the real Rules, and how do we apply them fairly, how do we make the right call when we're the ones who have to make it? That's the big story everyone has to write, and Casey Snowden is on his way in this absorbing baseball story told from the other side of the plate.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home