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The Human Side
Book Review by Andy Silberman

Garret Mathews. Swing Batta! East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2001, 208 pp., $19.95, paper.


When I was coaching my son's first- or second-grade park board basketball team, we had a girl named Jean playing for us. Once, during the apparent heat of the game, I felt a tug at my sleeve. (Coaches were allowed on the floor.) I looked down and saw Jean, who pointed to a flower pinned to her shirt. "Isn't this pretty?" she asked, as players ran up and down the floor around us. "Yes, it is," I said, "and so are you." She seemed pleased and wandered off to join the game, in her fashion.

This anecdote came to my mind as I read Swing Batta!, a memoir of one baseball season as recounted by Garret Mathews, coach of the Plaza Cubs, a team of ten-year-olds in Indiana. Coach Mathews, who, in his day job, is a columnist for the Evansville Courier & Press, doubtlessly would have felt quite comfortable having flower-child Jean on his team. He's the antithesis of a hard-core, win-at-all-cost coach—and he's a sensitive observer of kids' trials and triumphs. His book is off-beat, upbeat, funny, and fast moving.

You can sense the quirkiness of this book by glancing at the cover, which shows a picture of the team taken from a strange sideways angle, probably courtesy of a photographically challenged parent. (Puzzled readers will also note that the players are wearing Plaza Blue Jays uniforms, which are also pictured inside the book. This contradiction—are they Cubs or Blue Jays?—isn't really explained anywhere in the book, but perhaps it's just a matter of recycling old jerseys.)

In any case, if you have a kid playing baseball, you'd want him or her to be coached by someone like Garret Mathews. How does he pick his team? For one thing, he looks for kids with good-looking moms. "Hey, it's a long season and there's usually at least one pool party." How does he teach his players to get out of the way of the ball? He plays the Going Down Game, in which he threatens to bean his players unless they can answer geography-related questions. ("Where are the Pyrenees Mountains?" for the smart kid; "What's the largest city in New York?" for one of the denser team members.)

And yet, Coach Mathews's irreverence doesn't prevent him from working—quite hard, in fact—at improving the skills of his players. He likes to see kids get better, though some of them never do. But mostly, he wants them to have fun. He jokes with them. He teases them. He takes them to Dairy Queen. He takes them to McDonald's.

Still, the book isn't one long, feel-good narrative. In fact, the real world intrudes on the scene in some unhappy ways. Mathews decides to draft one player because he liked the boy's dad, who died of cancer a couple of seasons before. Another boy lives in near-poverty and has trouble even getting a ride to practice (Mathews volunteers to drive him). Still another boy has cystic fibrosis.

That's life. And life, more than baseball, is the real subject of Swing Batta! So, if you want a small dose of humanity, presented in an understated kind of way, read this book. It touches all the bases. —EFQ


ANDY SILBERMAN is a freelance business writer based in Minneapolis.

© 2002 Andy Silberman


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