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Baseball by the Books

New Life
Book Review by Andy Silberman

Rick Wilber. Where Garagiola Waits and Other Baseball Stories. Tampa: University of Tampa Press, 1999, 167 pp., $24.95, cloth.

Few fantasies have as much staying power as The Second Chance (which could also be called The Alternate Life). If we could just rewrite time and do This, we would be There instead of Here. If we had been nicer to Sally, we would have ended up with her instead of Joan. Just a little jog in the road here, or a slight change in attitude there, and our lives would be radically different.

In Where Garagiola Waits, just about everybody gets that second chance. A disillusioned businessman, returning home for his father's funeral, reenacts a game of "rundown" that, decades earlier, led to an injury to his brother and tragic consequences for the family. This time, the game ends with a new connection being made. A minor league ballplayer can't save his girlfriend from being assaulted; at her funeral, years later, he rescues her daughter from a similar fate. A man and his Alzheimer's-afflicted wife drive, literally, into the past, giving him another shot at resurrecting his aborted major league career and the chance to wipe out his history of callousness and infidelities.

Of course, the danger with Second Chance-type stories is that, like novice boxers, they can sometimes "telegraph" their punches, letting the reader in on the secret way too early. Fortunately, Wilber, an experienced and accomplished fiction writer, manages to avoid this problem. Even though we may initially suspect what is coming, we become absorbed in the details, so that, when the Second Chance arrives, it still has the capacity to surprise.

Wilber's father had a long career in professional baseball, including several seasons with the Cardinals, Red Sox, and Phillies. Having grown up around baseball, and having played it with some success himself, Wilber knows the ins and outs of the game, both on a professional and a recreational level. His knowledge is evident in the stories and essays that make up Where Garagiola Waits.

Although connected thematically, each of the stories in this collection stands on its own. And they reveal a writer who's not afraid to take a few chances-and who likes to have some fun along the way. In "The Babe, The Iron Horse, and Mr. McGillicuddy," an otherwordly baseball game is played out between a team of all-time nastys-including Ty Cobb, Pete Rose, Leo Durocher, and Fidel Castro-and a group of nice guys, featuring Lou Gehrig, Charlie Gehringer, Willie Mays, and the author's father, Del Wilber. At stake, possibly, is the soul of Babe Ruth, who ends up taking charge of the game in a most un-Ruthian way.

In "Stephen to Cora to Joe," the narrator, a writing instructor and pitcher in an over-thirty league (one of several possible stand-ins for Wilber himself in this book) is helped over his writer's block by the appearance of a mysterious stranger who may or may not be Stephen Crane, nineteenth-century author of The Red Badge of Courage and onetime "base-ball" player for Syracuse University. It's a good story, even if you weren't an English major.

The only "complaint" I had about this book is that the father-son-baseball triad, which appears repeatedly, reminded me too much of a certain movie, popular a few years back. Still, that's a rather petty squabble, especially when placed in the overall context of an imaginative, well-written collection-which is a pretty good description of Where Garagiola Waits.

-EFQ

ANDY SILBERMAN is a freelance business writer in Minneapolis.

© 2000 Andy Silberman

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