March 10, 2003

Review:  “Wild Pitch”
by Steve Lombardi

At first, Wild Pitch by Mike Lupica was a book that I had little interest in reading.  Then, it became a book that I read when I had the time.  Eventually, it became a book that I made the time to read.

A review copy of Wild Pitch was presented to me six months ago.  Personally, from witnessing his conduct on ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters,” I have always thought Mike Lupica to be someone who always seemed to believe that the person who yelled the loudest was the person who was always right.  Not being a huge fan of the schoolyard intimidation tactics used by Mike on ESPN’s show, I felt this was an author with whom I might not connect.  Because of this personal opinion, when Wild Pitch came into review queue, it sometimes stalled or was bypassed as other works rose to the top of the pile.  There was little sense of urgency on my part, albeit driven by my own arbitrary and subjective roots, to see what Mr. Lupica had written.

Then, a medical situation intervened.  I had an appointment with a doctor about eight weeks ago.  This was one of those doctors famous for triple booking and taking longer with patients than his schedule allowed for handling.  Past history had proven that regardless of your appointment time and individual punctual compliance, you were going to get stuck in his waiting room for an hour or more.

Faced with the forlorn notion of thumbing through tattered copies of Sports Illustrated from 1997, The Ladies Home Journal, or Highlights “magazine” for an ostensible eternity in the appropriately named waiting room, I thought “Why not? Let me grab that Lupica book.  It’s probably not interesting and there would be then little lost when I never bother finishing it.”  And, off to the doctor went I with a copy of Wild Pitch.

Settling in at the doctor, I started reading.  To be quite candid and frank, at the onset, I found Wild Pitch to be somewhat jejune and ribald in both voice and style.  As a 13 year- old boy reading Joe Pepitone’s Joe, You Coulda Make Us Proud, this type of approach was literary pollen to an adolescent reader bee.  However, to a now 40 year-old baseball wannbe intellectual enthusiast, this tactic was less than effective in terms of inciting interest.  Further, in the early passages of Wild Pitch, there was evidence that perhaps one of the main themes of the book would be that of a love triangle.  Again, as a baseball fan, this was not something that would lend towards keeping the peepers peeled and pointed on the pages.

In any event, for that moment, Wild Pitch served its impermanent purpose.  It exterminated the downtime I had to spend in the waiting room. 

As far as me, it was a successful doctor visit.  There were no follow up appointment required.  I went home and continued with my normal course of life.

And, Wild Pitch was tossed back into the review queue. 

However, deep down inside, I felt poorly about not attending to the review of Wild Pitch since I had agreed to evaluate it for  Having started it, the more time that now passed - as the book now embarked on its second tour of duty in the queue - my self-reproach grew.  Finally, a few weeks later, my guilt reached a crescendo and I decided I was going to continuing reading Wild Pitch, strictly as time and mood allowed.  There was no agenda or rush.  I would finish it whenever it happened – even if it took a year. 

Sporadically, I continued reading Wild Pitch.  It was during this time that my appreciation for the book began. 

At a very high level, Wild Pitch now commenced unfolding as a comeback story slightly akin to Jim Morris’ The Rookie.  Just slightly, for in this case, the pitcher was not a minor leaguer making a comeback reaching the majors.  Rather, it was a star making a comeback after being thought fork worthy by all.  (Fork worthy as in “Stick a fork in him, he’s done.”)  And, whereas Jim Morris was a “nice guy” story, in the case of Wild Pitch, the principle character is more of a lounge lizard skirt chaser type of guy.  Still, it is a comeback story and those are always nice.

Moving forward, Wild Pitch turns out to be just not a comeback story.  As is the case with most baseball themed books these days, Wild Pitch had built in plots about a down to the wire race for first place and using baseball as a bridge to address father-son relationships.  While (to some extent) these lines are a “been there, done that” modern day baseball story staple, they were nonetheless credible and apposite to the overall story of Wild Pitch.

Further, as I read more and entered deeper into the story, the voice of the characters became secondary in my attention as a result of the total saga emerging in Wild Pitch.  This completely eliminated my initial displeasure centered on the tone chosen for the book. 

Additionally, Mike Lupica decided to take this fictional story and interlace both facts and real people/places (where allowable).  As a reviewer, I had a tremendous respect for the accuracy given towards the insertions of reality.  For example, when describing a game at Yogi Berra Stadium, in Montclair, New Jersey, Wild Pitch reads: 

“Yogi had even shown up to throw the first pitch, then sat with his wife, Carmen, both of them up there watching him from the back porch of the museum that served as Yogi’s private luxury box when he felt like taking in a game.”

Having personally been to a game at Berra Stadium, when Yogi was there, and seeing him sit on that porch during a game, I have great appreciation for the attention to detail which Lupica used.  Even the small applications were dead on.  At one point in the book, a reference is made to “the big CNBC complex just off Route 46.”  Again, as someone who once drove past that complex everyday on his way to work, these factual references were intriguing.  (It is significant to note that not every “fact” was correct.  Towards the end of the book, a very quick reference – a mere blip on the radar and an inconsequential mention – of former “Texas Rangers” Aurelio Rodriguez was made in Wild Pitch.  And, he never played for Texas.  Still, as per my findings, any possible missed “real life” facts were the rare exception.)

Other places in Wild Pitch, Lupica used real stories in fictional places with fictional characters. Towards the end of the book, there is a retrospective story told about a mound offering once made by (the present fictional) pitching coach for the Boston Red Sox that is almost word-for-word a reported infamous uttering by Art Fowler when he was Billy Martin’s pitching coach in New York.  Spotting and recognizing these usages in Wild Pitch was entertaining.

Perhaps the biggest hook of them all was a plot twist occurring about a third of the way into Wild Pitch.  Not wanting to take anything away from those who decide to read Wild Pitch, all I will share is that it was a moment, for me, reminiscent to the scene in The Sixth Sense where Dr. Malcolm Crowe’s wife drops the wedding ring. Literally, when I read this twist in Wild Pitch, in a reflex reaction, I said to myself out loud (even though I was alone in the room) “Oh, <bleep>!”

It was at that point while reading Wild Pitch that it became a book that I would make the time to read as opposed to reading it when I had the time.

Lastly, in the review of Wild Pitch, I would be remiss if I did not address the characters of the story.  Granted, some were unappealing perpetuations of various baseball stereotypes – of both players and peripheral baseball folk (managers, owners, coaches, wives, ex-wives, girlfriends, etc.).  However, others were quite charismatic. In particular, at least to me, most compelling two were the therapist who enables the main character’s comeback and the Red Sox catcher.

In summary, while it took this reviewer a while to reach this conclusion, in the end, I found Wild Pitch to be enjoyable, stimulating and gripping.  A one point, I was actually tempted to “cheat” and read the ending before I naturally reached it.  To most, that is the sign of a good book.  (For the record, willpower won out and I did not cheat.) does recommend Wild Pitch to anyone who enjoys baseball fiction.  But, please keep in mind, if Wild Pitch were a movie, it would be rated PG-13.  This is not a book for children under the age of 13 without parental supervision.

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