Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Review: The Opposite Field by Jesse Katz

By The Common Man

As he has mentioned a couple of times on Twitter, The Common Man took a weekend to rest up for the stretch drive up at the cabin this weekend. He cleared brush (hey, that does work as something more than a euphemism), pulled the pontoon up on the shore for the winter, and took The Boy and The Uncommon Wife to see Lake Superior for the first time. All in all, it was a successful mini-vacation, made all the more successful because TCM got to finish Jesse Katz’s memoir The Opposite Field.

Katz is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles magazine, and who made his bones on the gang beat in the 1990s. His credentials don’t really figure much into the story, except that they speak to how skillful he is as a writer and how much he put on hold as he took over and restored his son’s Little League as the organization’s commissioner.

According to Katz, the Monterey Park Sports Club baseball program was rife with corruption and mismanagement, to the point where the league was planning to “take a year off” to reorganize. Katz stepped into a largely Latino-run organization and nurtured it back to health.

You might ask why race needs to be included in a memoir about a Little League, and why TCM is even bringing it up in this review. In Katz’s book, race is everywhere. He is a Jew living in a part of Los Angeles that is rapidly changing from a white and Hispanic suburb to an Asian-American community with a Latino-run government. Katz covers the African-American gangs beat in Watts. Katz’s son Max, who a friend of his dubs the only Nicaraguan Jew, has a mixed ethnicity. Max and his best friend call each other coffee and cream. Each ethnicity, in Katz’s narrative, clings to their identities and to what little power and control they have managed to amass, and many of the book’s players do not take kindly to Katz charging in.

That said, Katz is careful (in most cases) not to paint himself as a white knight (pun intended) riding in to save the league. He’s incredibly concerned for his son, after trouble at home with his step-son and friction with his wife leave him concerned that his son will grow up idolizing the gang culture his father chronicles and drifting aimlessly like his half-brother. Indeed, Katz’s motives are selfish, as he quickly volunteers to take over the league (and ropes in a friend as a deputy), and gets in over his head.

Katz is also careful to document his own faults and failings, as a commissioner, as a father, as a husband, as a journalist, and as a man. He falls for grifters and con men at the ball park. He ignores his wife (and step-son) to devote his entire attention to Max. He ignores Max and his job when the business of running the league gets too involved and he is unwilling to sacrifice control. And he ignores basic morality when he strikes up an affair with the wife of one of his coaches.

But it’s hard to fault Katz, in part because he is so self-aware of his faults, in part because he is a wonderful writer, and because he goes into this adventure with the best intention, providing the best for his son. That Katz has chosen baseball as a vehicle to bond with his boy is rooted in his own upbringing, as his father regaled him with stories of the Brooklyn Dodgers while they played catch. And baseball provides ample opportunity for Katz and Max to bond, as Katz also serves as his son’s coach.

It would be tempting to chalk all of this up to the “powers of baseball to unite us,” but that’s not really what Katz’s story is about. Indeed, Katz’s success as a commissioner helps a community unite around baseball, there are still power struggles and pettiness and in-fighting within that community over players, facilities, and games. Rather, it’s the story of a father and son, and how that father uses baseball to help guide his son and keep him close. And, as a baseball fan, that’s just fine with The Common Man. Would that we all have that opportunity.

TCM recommends this book to dads, sons, baseball enthusiasts, and anyone dumb enough to think running a baseball league is an easy job.  It's available in paperback or Kindle and probably on other digital readers that TCM doesn't know about and won't spend time linking to.  You're resourceful people; have at it.

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