Tuesday, April 1, 2008

John H. Ritter

The Boy Who Saved Baseball
by John H. Ritter
Recommended Age: 12+

I can give you no better introduction to this book than the opening words of the book itself...
People down in Dillontown don’t agree on much. Not the skateboard laws. Not the billboard laws. The economy. The ecology. There’s days when they don’t even agree on which way the wind is blowing.

But they agree on this... If there never was a boy named Cruz de la Cruz, somebody would’ve come along and invented him.
...With these charming words framing the tale at both ends, an award-winning baseball fiction author sets the tone for his entire book. Not to be confused with the late actor John Ritter, author John H. Ritter also wrote Choosing Up Sides and Over the Wall – books I started planning to read as soon as I read the opening paragraphs quoted above. And that was before finding out exactly how wonderful this book is, from cover to cover.

Welcome to Dillontown, in the remote desert of San Diego County, California, close to the Mexican border. I used to live near there, and spent a good deal of time there, so I appreciate Ritter’s evident love of that region (where he grew up and still lives). I suspect that the main character, 12-year-old Tom Gallagher, is based on the author himself at that age: bookish, clumsy, fanatically devoted to baseball and not very good at playing it, but filled with the gift of telling hilarious and inspiring stories about the game. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the pages in Tom Gallagher’s notebooks were copied straight out of the boyhood journals of John H. Ritter.

And what do we find in those pages? We find a quiet little Southwestern town in the throes of a decision whether to build a suburban development or to preserve the fragile ecology, to say nothing of the historic baseball park where generations of kids have played little league games. We find a town whose decision, whether to stay the same (and perhaps die) or to change (perhaps beyond recognition) will finally come down to the result of a single, summer league game between teams of twelve-year-old kids. A town where the local team, coached by Tom’s dad, doesn’t have a ghost of a chance – at least until a strange kid named Cruz de la Cruz rides in out of nowhere, and until a retired baseball legend comes out of his seclusion. Then something mysterious, and maybe magical, happens.

Here Ritter weaves together elements of folk tale, sports legend, personal memoir, a satire of small-town politics, and a parable on the preservation of heritage and environment, all in front of a backdrop of today’s computer technology, media blitzes, educational theories, and that wonderful “Spanglish” culture along the U.S.-Mexican border. Now it should surprise no one that this story gave me a lump in the throat; stories about sports have a tendency to make me cry. But this is also a book that brought delight and laughter, genuine sympathy for the main characters, and surprising insights into the heart of baseball.

Those who don’t know anything about the game may not be interested in this book – or it may be the very thing that gets them interested in baseball. Other readers may notice that there is nothing particularly surprising or original about the story as such; but must there be? It is the type of story that folks have always told each other, and always will tell. It is well told. And — unless it’s just me — it instills you with a longing for a part of the country that few people would call beautiful, unless they know it well. I’m eager to go back again, at least by way of John H. Ritter’s books.

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