Brian Dudley has every baseball kid’s summer dream job: he is batboy for his hometown’s major league team, the Detroit Tigers. Even more exciting, his hero, Hank Bishop, is returning to the sport after a 50-game suspension to play for the Tigers. This could be the year Bishop hits his 500th home run --- the elusive goal for all hitters that almost guarantees a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame --- and Brian will be on the field to see it. But Bishop seems to dislike Brian from the very start. Will Bishop be able to make a comeback after the steroids scandal that nearly ended his career?
THE BATBOY deals with one of the most difficult subjects to hit major league baseball in recent years: whether it is possible to redeem a player both suspected of and suspended for steroid use. What connects a contemporary hitter like Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez to Hank Aaron, one of baseball’s all-time home run champions? The statistic --- or, as author Mike Lupica puts it, “the numbers that not only held the sport together, but connected one season to another, one era to another.” Many fans feel that the recent drug scandals have forever marred those statistics, making for comparisons that measure not the players’ talent but the substances they used to assist it. Lupica slyly slips in trivia about the use of tobacco and amphetamines in the past; one of Brian’s duties as batboy is to make highly caffeinated coffee, which many of the players use to give themselves focus and speed on the field.
But Lupica’s question here goes far beyond the ethics of performance-enhancing drugs. In a recent interview about the book on “Good Morning America,” he said, “It takes no talent to get knocked down, it’s how you get back up that’s a measure of your character, your spirit and your heart.” Brian is a competent baseball player --- he plays on his league’s summer all-star team --- but he isn’t a major league talent. His true mark of character is his passion for baseball, his willingness to work hard, and his unwavering belief in Hank Bishop, even when Bishop is mean or in a long hitting slump.
Brian has troubles of his own, including a father who previously pitched in the majors but could never seem to love his family as much as he did baseball. Brian’s loyalty to the game is in part an attempt to remain connected with his father, who blazes through town as a talent scout, but doesn’t take the time to stay or watch him play. Brian describes his father as someone who “still seemed to think that a high-five was the same as a hug, no matter how long it had been since you’d seen your son.” He is desperately in need of a hero, and though he doesn’t know it yet, Bishop is desperately in need of someone who still thinks he can be one.
With its insider lingo and the ultimate dream of every young fan --- getting to work alongside one’s favorite team --- THE BATBOY is sure to appeal to any reader who loves baseball. Lupica describes all the scuttle work batboys are supposed to do --- keeping the equipment ready, stocking snacks, shining shoes, cleaning up after the team, even running errands for some of the players --- reminding us that this is an actual job. It is these kinds of details, along with his careful pacing and the slow, almost painful way the two main characters come to respect and understand one another, that make THE BATBOY more than just a sports fantasy.
This is what they mean when they say that a sport builds character: it can provide us with the playing field upon which people can relate to one another, a place to explore the redemptive and restorative aspects of the human heart.
Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on March 9, 2010
- Publication Date: February 22, 2011
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 256 pages
- Publisher: Puffin
- ISBN-10: 0142417823
- ISBN-13: 9780142417829